When I began writing my novel The Tutor (Riverhead, Feb. 5), I searched for a piece of writing for my protagonist and Shakespeare to work on. I was familiar with his plays and his Sonnets, but not his long poems, and when I read Venus and Adonis for the first time, I nearly swooned. It was racy, it was juicy, it was perfect.
The tradition of erotic poetry goes way back to the ancients -- Sappho, Catullus, Ovid. Poetry is the language of the heart, the soul, and that fiery place of desire, and many poets throughout the ages have penned some very sexy verse. Shakespeare is on that list, most often for his sonnets. But years before they were published, when the theaters were closed in 1593 because of the plague, the relatively unknown 29-year-old actor, poet and playwright published Venus and Adonis in an elegantly printed volume. This narrative poem was his first published work -- several of his early plays had been staged but not published -- and it was dedicated to his wealthy, influential patron the Earl of Southampton.
The poem, a rendering of the classical myth of the Goddess of Love's lust for a beautiful mortal, brims with sensuality, wit, genius imagery and dazzling language. Not surprisingly, it was a huge and immediate hit and was reprinted in at least ten editions in Shakespeare's lifetime. Here's why:
Always the innovator, Shakespeare turns Venus into a lusty huntress.
Shakespeare is known for inventing hundreds of words, creating sympathetic characters out of villains, replacing the idealized women of traditional sonnets with a beautiful young man and a not so beautiful dark lady. Other writers had dabbled in the ancient myth of Venus and Adonis, but it was Shakespeare who turned up the heat. In his verse, Venus assumes the masculine role of a suitor, and when her wooing fails, she becomes a huntress on a steamy, bodice-ripping hunt. She's obsessed, on a crusade of passion: Adonis becomes her prey. The more he rejects her the more she craves him. When Adonis accuses her of immodesty, "she murders" the rest of his rant about her misbehavior "with a kiss."
She's a hot huntress, too. And he's not so bad looking himself -- after all that's where the phrase, "he's such an Adonis" came from.
Well, Venus is a goddess, and thus naturally fine with "soft lips" and golden hair. She is in her own words sans defects: "Thou canst not see one wrinkle in my brow,/Mine eyes are grey and bright and quick in turning." She's immortal, which means her beauty never fades and her flesh is eternally "soft and plump." And Adonis is "rose-cheek'd," with "fair lips," "crystal" eyes, a "sweet coral mouth," and a "pretty dimple" in each cheek. He is "full perfection" and "amazes all the world."
Their cat and mouse game is great foreplay.
Before they actually kiss, Adonis pretends he's ready for a kiss, then turns coyly away. Venus often locks him in her arms and he breaks free. "And when from thence he struggles to be gone,/She locks her lily fingers one in one." There's sexual tension galore as this couple seems always on the verge of coupling.
There's a ton of kissing.
If my tally is correct the word lips appears 21 times and kisses and kissing 30 times. "Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty." Lips are sexy as are kisses, and Shakespeare knew that: "She kiss'd his brow, his cheek, his chin,/And where she ends she doth anew begin." If eyes are the windows to the soul, then surely lips and kissing, are the doors to sex: "Her lips are conquerors, his lips obey..."
You'll never think of a deer or a forest in the same way again.
At one point, Venus clasping Adonis in her arms, instructs him on how after kissing her on the lips, he should move lower:
"I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
"Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom grass and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain:
Then be my deer, since I am such a park,
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark."
Learn from the Goddess of Love.
Don't just sit there, go after that hunky Adonis, throw your arms around him:
"She sinketh down, still hanging by his neck;
He on her belly falls, she on her back.
"Now is she in the very lists of love,
Her champion mounted for the hot encounter."
Yet, beware. If your Adonis tries to leave you on Valentine's Day, after you've had your champagne, your dinner, your rolling around, to go hang out with the guys, don't let him. After Adonis leaves Venus to go hunting with his friends -- spoiler alert -- he gets gored by a boar.