Venus and Adonis and Lucrece: The Eyes Have It

Abstract

Venus and Adonis Painting

‘The size and scope of the First Folio and the failure of its compilers even to allude to the fact that Shakespeare had also written poems and sonnets led later generations of readers to see him as a playwright only, his early Ovidian poems apparently both forgettable and forgotten.’ Thus concluded orthodox scholars Katherine Duncan-Jones and H.R. Woudhuysen in their Arden guide over four centuries after the publication of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.1

This essay updates and expands three pages on those narrative poems from my article ‘What Role Did the Herbert Family Play in the Shakespeare Cover-Up?’ in The Oxfordian Vol. 21, 2019, p.71–3.2 As stated above, those two narrative poems by their content and absence, were pivotal in fixing the Shakespeare brand launched by the 1623 First Folio. That play collection: banished Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true canon author; mis-attributed his plays to William Shakspere of Stratford; and pushed de Vere’s poetry into centuries of comparative neglect. De Vere’s masterful blends of classicism, verse, allusions and ambiguous topicalities in his narrative poems merit revisit as a First Folio preface. ‘Time’s glory is … /To unmask falsehood and to bring truth to light’ (Lucrece, lines 939–40).

Introduction

Venus and Adonis (V&A) was published in 1593, The Rape of Lucrece in 1594. Lord Oxford expressly linked those two poems. Both were: i) dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton; ii) written with dense, granular Euphuist rhetoric; and iii) packed with references to ‘eyes’ and the theme of ‘honour’. Those poems also were: Oxford’s first published works citing his ‘William Shakespeare’ pseudonym, perhaps his only works published with such meticulous editing and Oxford’s intent, expanded with huge changes from their Ovid text sources, and were his most popular and re-printed quarto texts. Importantly, V&A was granted publication by Canterbury Archbishop John Whitgift, thereby signalling likely foreknowledge and sanction by Queen Elizabeth and William Cecil.3

V&A and Lucrece each incorporate Aristotle’s classic unities of location, time, characters and plot, as Sir Philip Sidney endorsed in his Defence of Poesy.4 But the pious, near-Puritanical Sidney also wanted poetry to inspire, delight, elevate its readers. Neither poem complied. With graphic bursts of lust, eroticism, assault, poor decisions and behaviour, tragic deaths and curses: both poems were admonitory. For the Earl of Southampton these two poems showed him what not to do, and whom not to emulate, in order to guard his honour, to act princely and to procreate wisely.

Internal and external evidence suggest that Oxford allegorically imprinted his Adonis character with Philip Sidney and the rapist Tarquin with Robert Dudley, Sidney’s uncle. In another instance of topical overlap, the Tarquin ‘Superbus’ (super ego) persona also applied to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the stepson of Dudley. Essex was becoming a dangerous mentor and role model for Southampton that Oxford surely wanted him to avoid. Fully contextualized, these two poems thus soiled the Dudley-Sidney lineages: i.e., Philip Sidney’s two ‘Incomparable’ Herbert nephews – the later dedicatees and likely financiers of the 1623 First Folio. That play collection pre-emptively (a) de-contextualized Oxford’s plays and defined the ‘William Shakespeare’ brand; (b) buffered the revelations and injuries otherwise facing the Herbert brothers, the Crown, the Tudor legacy and an array of noble families; and (c) advanced the Herbert family’s political and religious aims.5

Venus and Adonis

This mostly comical tragedy involved the failed seduction and fatal mauling of a narcissist boy. With thousands of rhetorical Euphuisms, V&A shredded the poetry dictates set forth by Philip Sidney in his Defence of Poesy. It begins with witty Elizabethan pornography as the vixen Venus, Goddess of Love, pursues affection and consummation with a pre-pubescent Adonis. The unwilling Adonis escapes her captivity but then is gored and killed by the wild boar that he prefers to hunt. Sidney disdained mixed genre (‘mongrel’) works that combined comedy and tragedy; he also dismissed Euphuist texts as ‘absurd’ and ‘tedious prattling’.6

Shakespeare’s Adonis is described as blushing, chaffing, chiding, flinty, fondling, fool, frosty, froward, frowning, fretting, green, louring, souring, pouting, testy, unripe and wayward. Similar traits were given to Sidney by contemporaries (e.g., Queen Elizabeth and his uncle Dudley) and later by Sidney biographers.7

Venus delights that Adonis has a ‘mermaid voice’ and is ‘thrice fairer than’ herself. Adonis rides not a war horse but a ‘palfrey’, a horse more suited to females. A humiliated Adonis loses his horse – as did Sir Philip on the Netherlands battlefield after armouring himself vainly and before suffering his fatal flank wound. Marrying and breeding were Elizabethan duties for Sidney but likely reluctant ones.8 Sidney biographer Katherine Duncan-Jones opined that Astrophel and Stella, Philip’s sonnet cycle and his main enduring work, might be a ‘literary charade’.9 Except for his sister Mary and uncle Dudley, Sir Philip’s closest relationships were with lifelong unmarried males: e.g., Fulke Greville, Hubert Languet, Edward Dyer, Edmund Spenser, Gabriel Harvey.10

V&A exudes Euphuist rhetoric – the flowery, erudite style of writing and rhetoric that Sidney attacked in his Poesy. Typical Euphuist conceits included: ironic oppositions or paradoxes; similes; aphorisms; repeated words, phrases, imagery or themes; alliteration; classical references; and intra-line rhymes. For example:

V&A (Stanza 60, Arden line number 355)

O, what a war of looks was then between them!
Her eyes petitioners to his eyes suing,
His eyes saw her eyes as they had not seen them;
Her eyes wooed still, his eyes disdained the wooing;
And all this dumb play had his acts made plain
With tears which chorus-like her eyes did rain

In that stanza Oxford penned these bolded Euphuisms:

  1. Nine allusions to ‘eyes’ or ‘sight’ (Elizabeth gave Dudley the pet name of ‘eyes’; V&A thus links to the ‘graver labour’ (Lucrece);
  2. An erudite legal simile/metaphor in line 2;
  3. Three lines with male/female oppositions;
  4. Three classical stage-play references in lines 5 and 6;
  5. Intra-line rhyme in line 1 (‘then’ and ‘them’);
  6. Twenty-seven alliterating words; and
  7. Lines 1–4 join the androgynous Adonis and Venus with unstressed (‘feminine’) line endings.

This intricate imagery and language pervade V&A. In its 199 stanzas there are over 150 references to ‘eyes’ or sight derivatives. The crisp V&A epistle has seven ‘honour’ derivatives. These text emphases did not result from hundreds of consecutive coincidences from Oxford’s pen. Such stylistics continued in Lucrece.

The Rape of Lucrece In every stanza, Lucrece directly or indirectly illuminates its overarching theme of honour violations – the dishonouring of Lucrece and her husband; and the evil vices and soul of Tarquin. Euphemisms abound. For example:

Lucrece (Stanza 84, Arden line number 582)

My husband is thy friend: for his sake spare me;
Thyself are mighty: for thine own sake leave me;
Myself a weakling: do not then ensnare me;
Thy look’st not like deceit: do not deceive me.
My sighs like whirlwinds labor hence to heave thee.
If ever man were moved with woman’s moans,
Be moved with my tears, my sighs, my groans

In this Lucrece stanza Oxford put these bolded Euphuisms:

  1. Line 1 rhymes: two possessive pronouns; a verb and possessive pronoun;
  2. Lines 1–4 have nearly parallel punctuations and end with ‘me’ repetitions;
  3. Lines 1–5: rhyme their first syllables; end with unstressed rhymed syllables;
  4. Line 3 uses a hunting metaphor and entreaty;
  5. Line 4 begs deceit incarnate not to deceive;
  6. Lines 1–7 have 41 alliterating words; and
  7. Lines 4 and 7 contain derivative ‘eye’ references.

This dense Euphuist text, packed with dishonour and vice, cannot be coincidental; nor are the 200+ derivative references to ‘eyes’ (i.e., allusions to Dudley) merely happenstance. Many evils of Tarquin (e.g., lying, plotting, plunder, murder, poison expertise) echo sins attributed to Dudley in Leicester’s Commonwealth.11 Pitiful similes of stalked, tormented prey before they are shredded by predators are metaphors of Tarquin’s stalking and violation of Lucrece’s body and mind. Her aphorisms on ‘Time’ (line 925–1001) and curse upon Tarquin are profound. The light-hearted eroticism of the deer-park feast that Venus offers to Adonis gives way to the hot shame of Lucrece that: ‘She bears the load of lust he left behind’ (line 785) and her lament that ‘Tarquin rifled me’ (line 1050). Philip Sidney in his Poesy tome revered pure tragedy. But de Vere’s unrelenting tragedy of Lucrece alluded to Sidney’s uncle Dudley as its agent of vice, villainy and dishonour.

Recent Scholarship

Two recent scholarly additions, both bold and audacious, should renew our Oxfordian focus on V&A and Lucrece.

First, Robert Prechter in his 3200+ page Oxford’s Voices research compilation concludes that Euphuists Thomas Lodge and Thomas Nashe were likely allonym or pseudonym masks for texts written all or in part by Edward de Vere.12 Mr. Prechter’s authorship conclusions and data points meld here as follows.

Prechter concludes that Oxford’s pen was behind A Defence of Poetry, Musick and Stage Plays – a work published in 1580 with Thomas Lodge named as its author. This text was a quick, direct response to Stephen Gosson’s 1579 School of Abuse – a Puritanical pamphlet that disparaged most Elizabethan poetry and theater. Lodge/de Vere opposed Gosson’s views but extended to him a friendly farewell. In contrast, Sidney’s manuscript Poesy response to Gosson (aside from his priggish poetry guidelines and rigid Elizabethan theater rules) contained sharp, gratuitous attacks on the stagecraft, plays, prose and poetry of Edward de Vere and his secretary and colleague John Lyly.4,6

Orthodox scholars (e.g., The Riverside Shakespeare and the Arden and Cambridge guides’ editors to V&A) recognize that Thomas Lodge’s Scillaes Metamorphoses was the progenitor of Venus & Adonis.13 Scillaes is a comically ironic, doomed Ovidian romance (with Euphuist text and ‘ababcc’ rhyming) that was published in 1589 but then quickly suppressed. Perhaps it veered too closely to a rumoured youthful tryst between Oxford and Queen Elizabeth.14

Lady Mary Sidney Herbert withheld publication of her brother Philip’s Poesy manuscript until 1595. But text evidence suggests that Oxford knew of Sidney’s forthcoming personal attacks. Moreover, by 1593–4 Sidney’s Poesy barbs aimed at de Vere’s comedies, histories, Euphuism and visceral stagecraft now extended to more than a decade of subsequent Elizabethan literature, including works by Marlowe and texts attributed to Lyly, Greene, Lodge, Peele and Nashe.15

A second 2022 Oxfordian research presentation, also edgy and controversial, avers that Lucrece may be a vengeful allegory that suggests the rape and feared impregnation of Oxford’s first wife, Anne Cecil, by Sir Robert Dudley. See the video of Dorothea Dickerman at the 2022 Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship conference.16 The Lucrece text (e.g., Stanza 152, Arden lines 1062–3) renders this thesis worthy of Oxfordian examination, vetting and debate.

Conclusions

Recent Oxfordian scholarship invites us to revisit Edward de Vere’s brilliant narrative poems to seek vital context for the 400th First Folio anniversary.

Edward de Vere’s personal tilts with Philip Sidney and Robert Dudley affected the presence, content and forms of de Vere’s published canon. By his V&A tragicomedy, by his otherwise rare use of Aristotle’s play/poetry unities, by Lucrece’s rape and suicide, by using rhymed poetry about majestic courting horses to exceed Nature: Oxford appears purposely to duel Sidney with the same unbated literary rapiers that Sir Philip, in his Defence of Poesy, aimed at de Vere.

Both narrative poems are riveting page turners that blossom dramatically in readings with human voices, i.e., with modulations of speech volumes, speeds, meters, inflections, emotions, caesuras, pitch, etc. An unabridged, spoken-text compact disc set costs a mere fraction of one live-theater ticket but will fundamentally reframe how we Oxfordians process the entire de Vere canon.17

Essay readers are urged to: (i) read the complete texts of these two brilliant narrative poems; (ii) listen to the unabridged dramatic audio reading just cited; (iii) read Robert Prechter’s Oxford’s Voices chapters on de Vere and ‘University Wits’ Lodge, Nashe and Greene; and (iv) watch the 2022 Ashland Conference Lucrece talk (The Roar of the Mouse) by Dorothea Dickerman.

End Notes

  1. Shakespeare’s Poems Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the Shorter Poems (Arden Shakespeare, 2007, p.9. Line citations herein are from this Arden guide.
  2. Bruce Johnston, The Oxfordian Vol. 21, 2019, p.71–3 on V&A and Lucrece; and 65–94 on why and how the Herberts rebranded de Vere’s canon. The research underlying that article was inspired by Gerit Quealy’s Oxford-Sidney conference talks (2011–2014) and her article in the DVS Newsletter, Vol. 28. No. 4, p.7.
  3. Katherine Chiljan, Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth about Shakespeare and his Works, 2016, pp.31–34. See also Bonner Cutting, ‘Shakespeare and Southampton: Blest Be the Tie That Unbinds’, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 37, No. 2, Summer 2023.
  4. Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy, written circa 1580–2, circulated thereafter in manuscript, published 1595. See A Critical Edition of Major Works, 1989, Katherine Duncan-Jones, editor.
  5. The First Folio roles of poet and playwright Ben Jonson were fortuitous. The prideful Jonson surely was galled at his tasks of masking the polymath and literary genius of Edward de Vere while naming Stratford’s litigious, money lending, grain hoarding, mustardized ‘poet-ape’ as the literary ‘Soule of the Age!’ Yet that huge conflict sired many Jonson ambiguities and hints in the First Folio paratext. Those cover-up clues were mined centuries later by J. Thomas Looney, Ruth Lloyd Miller, the Ogburn family, Diana Price, Charles Beauclerk, Roger Stritmatter, Katherine Chiljan, Kevin Gilvary, Alexander Waugh and others.
  6. Ramon Jiménez, Shakespeare’s Apprenticeship, 2018, pp 90–104.
  7. See Katherine Duncan-Jones, Courtier Poet, 1991, its ‘Index’ re Philip Sidney, p. 348–9: irascibility, quarrels, impulsiveness, melancholy, social and political gaffes.
  8. See V&A, line 525: ‘Before I know myself, seek not to know me.’ Might this plea be Oxford’s savage, role-reversed, parody of Sidney’s Astrophel & Stella sonnets in which ‘Stella’ was Penelope Devereux Rich? Or is this Southampton addressing Edward de Vere, Elizabeth deVere or Lord William Cecil? Or could this entreaty be the young Edward de Vere addressing his Queen? In Truth there are no wrong answers here. As Professor Roger Stritmatter concludes ‘…the [V&A] text is defensible only because it can be construed in all kinds of creative ways other than the interpretation offered here. Poets themselves take refuge from censorious authorities in such creative misconstruction.’ See Case in Verse, published most recently in Shakespeare and the Law, How the Bard’s Legal Knowledge Affects the Authorship Question, 2022, Ed. Dr. Roger A. Stritmatter.
  9. Courtier Poet, p. 246. Oxford ridiculed posturing, insincere sonneteers in Love’s Labours Lost, his most Euphuistic play. Soon after Oxford’s 1604 death, King James’ court staged LLL and Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour – a comedy with Sogliardo, a character that satirized Shakspere of Stratford. These Christmas season court plays were likely attended by the two advancing ‘Incomparable’ Herbert brothers and by Penelope Rich (Sidney’s real-life Stella).
  10. Courtier Poet, Index.
  11. C.V. Berney, ‘Leicester’s Commonwealth: Portrait of a serial killer?’ Shakespeare Matters, Summer 2004, Vol. 3: No.4; p. 22. See also Earnest Moncrieff, ‘Falstaff Unmasked’, Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Newsletter, Winter 2021, p. 1.
  12. Robert Prechter builds out authorship connections between Oxford and Thomas Nashe that were previously advanced by Nina Green (http://www.oxford-shakespeare.com/nashe.html) and Stephanie Hopkins Hughes (https://politicworm.com/2017/11/05/hide-fox-and-all-after/). Prechter also views Thomas Lodge as an Oxford allonym.
  13. Oxford’s narrative poems thusly followed (i) an apprenticeship to his uncle Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and matured through (ii) two later tomes attributed to Oxford’s allonym Thomas Lodge – the 1580 The Defence of Poetry Musick and Stage Plays and the 1589 Scillaes Metamorphoses.
  14. Charles Beauclerk, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, 2010.
  15. The pamphlet war (1592–99) between Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey fed partially on Oxford-Sidney animus: e.g., Katherine Duncan-Jones (Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life, 2001, p. 80) saw in Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller a ‘grotesque and comic’ burlesque of the ‘high style’ of Philip Sidney from his Arcadia. If Oxford or his ‘Voices’ made earlier truces with Sidney, then de Vere’s many jabs at the Sidney/Dudley circle (see 2 above) suggest that such truces had expired.
  16. See: https://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/conference-videos/
  17. Venus and Adonis; Rape of Lucrece, 2006, NAXOS AudioBooks Ltd.

 

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