MUCH has been written on the sources of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. Besides Ovid’s Metamorphoses—with particular but not exclusive reference to the episodes of Venus and Adonis and Salamacis and Hermaphroditus—many works, both classical and Renaissance, have been suggested as possible sources of inspiration for the poem as a whole or for single passages of it. Only one critic, however, has noticed the influence that the biblical Song of Songs, a book that played an important role in shaping the Renaissance language of love and whose poetic potential was far from ignored by the poets of the period, exercised over Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. In his study The Song of Songs in English Renaissance Literature, Noam Flinker dedicates one chapter to the analysis of the ‘Canticles as erased conventions in Venus and Adonis’.1 Reading Shakespeare’s poem ‘as a response to the convention of Elizabethan love lyric and the traditions established by the various sixteenth-century Bibles’,2 Flinker reveals the presence of Solomon’s Song behind some Shakespearean motives, such as the unconventional declaration of feminine desire, some ways in which Venus addresses Adonis, the reference to the youth’s horse and to the goddess’s warlike aspect, the idea of the kiss as a seal of love and that of desire as fiery coals. There is, however, a very famous and highly sensual passage that may very plausibly be related to the Song of Songs, although such a reference, as far as I am aware, has never been suggested before. The passage is the one in which Venus, continuously attempting to arouse the reluctant Adonis, turns her body into a much eroticized park and invites him to be a deer and feed on it: ‘Fondling,’ she saith, ‘since I have hemmed thee here Within the circuit of this ivory pale, 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.’3 (lines 229–240) This passage, which does not appear in Ovid nor in any of the many works indicated as possible sources for the poem, and for which no specific antecedent has been located, presents many elements that speak in favour of a possible connection with the Song of Songs. In particular, Shakespeare combines here the motif of the beloved as a deer with that of the woman as a closed garden: two topoi crucial in the Song of Songs, in which the beloved is frequently compared to a deer, and the Shulamite to a ‘garden inclosed’4 (4:12). True, these topoi could also be ascribed to the classical tradition, which abounds in loci amoeni and stories of men metamorphosed into stags, and in which, as Roger Thompson affirms, some elegists had attempted comparisons of women’s bodies to landscapes.5 Moreover, one could argue that these same topoi, although originating in the Song of Songs, had been somehow synthesized by the Petrarchan tradition and that Shakespeare’s use of them is therefore no proof of a direct biblical reference. However, the specific way in which the poet articulates these motives supports such a hypothesis. On the one hand, if it is true that the motif of the locus amoenus is proper to the classical tradition, it is only in the Song of Songs that, as Avalle writes, we find the identification of the magnificent interior of the closed garden, hortus conclusus, with the woman herself, her physical attributes turned into hills and fields, flowers and fruits.6 Moreover, as Antony Mortimer7 and Will Fisher8 note, Shakespeare’s Venus transforms the Renaissance tradition of ‘landscape pornography’ in the moment in which she ‘surveys her own corporeal terrain rather than having it surveyed by the narrator or a male character . . . and imagines herself as a “park” that beckons and nurtures her deer’.9 In distancing himself from Renaissance and classical tradition, Shakespeare appears to follow another model, that of the Song of Songs, where it is the passionate female lover who, in her own voice, presents herself as a landscape, a fruitful garden, and a field of grass and flowers, offering herself as a place for the beloved to come and feed on. On the other hand, Shakespeare also overturns the motif of the beloved as a deer as found in the Petrarchan tradition, in which it was the male voice who usually compared and identified the female beloved with a hind—an image intended as a sign of her unattainability and chastity—and either admired it (as Petrarch) or hunted it (as Wyatt). Conversely, in the Song of Songs, exactly as in Shakespeare’s passage, it is the woman who repeatedly compares and identifies the male beloved with a deer (2:9, 2:17, 8:14) and, instead of hunting him, sensually invites him to be a roe—‘and be like a roe, or a yong hart’ (2:17, see also 8:14), with a tone quite close to that of Venus’s ‘then be my deer‘ (line 239)10—and feed on a beautiful and flower-full garden which clearly stands for her own body—‘My welbeloued is gone downe into his garden to the beds of spices, to fede in the gardens, and to gather lilies. I am my welbeloueds, and my welbeloued is mine, who fedeth among the lilies’; ‘let my welbeloued come to his garden, and eate his pleasant frute’ (6:1–2 and 4:16, but see also 2:16, 5:1, 16:10). It is then in accordance with the original eroticism of the biblical metaphor of hortus conclusus—‘my spouse is as a garden inclosed’ (4:12)—that, anticipated by the image of her cheeks as ‘gardens full of flowers’ (line 65), Venus’s body becomes a garden to feed on, described through a Salomonic kind of imagery. Encircled by lilies (‘she locks her lily fingers’, line 228) like the biblical garden/woman and as her belly, ‘compassed about with lilies’ (7:2), this garden counts delightful plains covered in sweet grass like the many fields of the Song; mountains and hills, obviously a metaphor for the woman’s lips and breasts as we find them in Song 2:17, 4:5–6, and 8:14—‘be like a roe, or a yong hart vpon the mountaines’; ‘Thy two breastes are as two yong roes that are twinnes. . . . I wil go into the mountaine of myrrhe and to the mountaine of incense’; ‘be like vnto the roe, or to the yong heart upon the mountaines of spices’—and ‘pleasant fountains’ (line 234), reminiscent of the ‘fountaine of the gardens’, ‘well of liuing waters’ (4:15) that enrich the biblical garden and become, like the garden itself, metaphors for the woman’s body (4:12). Footnotes 1 N. Flinker, ‘Canticles as Erased Convention in Venus and Adonis’, in The Song of Songs in English Renaissance Literature. Kisses of Their Mouths (Cambridge, 2000), 88–99. 2 Ibid., 92. 3 W. Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis, in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (eds), The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works (Oxford, 2005). 4 I quote from the Geneva Bible, as this was the version most often used by Shakespeare. Cf. N. Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark, 2011), 38–9. 5 R. Thompson, Unfit for Modest Ears: A Study of Pornographic, Obscene and Bawdy Works Written or Published in England in the Second Half of the Seventeenth-Century (London, 1979), 190–1. 6 D’Arco S. Avalle, Ai luoghi di delizia pieni: Saggio sulla lirica del XIII secolo (Milan-Naples, 1977), 107–11. 7 A. Mortimer, Variable Passions. A Reading of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (New York, 2000), 71–2. 8 W. Fisher, ‘Stray[ing] lower where the pleasant fountains lie’, in Valerie Traub (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Embodiment: Gender, Sexuality, and Race (Oxford, 2016), 333–46. 9 Ibid., 336. 10 We can suppose that one of the reasons why Shakespeare choose the term ‘deer’ instead of ‘roe’ or ‘hart’ is because of the pun ‘deer/dear’. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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