chapter  1
26 Pages

‘To captivate the eye’: Venus and Adonis

Around the same time that Elizabethan theatregoers might have heard the Lord and his servingmen tantalising Christopher Sly with a vivid description of ‘Adonis painted by a running brook, / And Cytherea all in sedges hid’, Shakespeare’s reading public were also offered a vivid narration of the same tale.1 Shakespeare’s narrative poem Venus and Adonis (1593) – his first printed work – is highly concerned with seeing: it both represents its central characters engaging in various acts of looking, and explores the capacity of metaphorical language to make the reader ‘see’ things. The poem’s sequel, The Rape of Lucrece (1594), is perhaps even more explicit in its exploration of the ut pictura poesis debate, and concludes with an extended description of a painting of the fall of Troy.2 This emphasis on the visual has, for some critics, been taken as evidence of Shakespeare’s anxiety about having to write non-dramatic verse, and of his need to compensate for the fact that poetry can never be as visually immediate as drama, his ‘natural’ medium. Coleridge, in his Biographia Literaria, claims that Shakespeare’s narrative poems reveal ‘the highest effort of the picturesque in words, of which words are capable, higher perhaps than was ever realized by any other poet, even Dante not excepted’.3