Narrative and the Forms of Desire in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis
Early Modern Literary Studies 5.2 (September, 1999)
Recent articles by Catherine Belsey, Richard Halpern, and James Schiffer have shifted the critical focus of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis from questions of what the poem means, to how it means, from its moral allegory to its erotic and literary effects. Although these recent readings have deepened our understanding of how the poem “prompts in the reader a desire for action it fails to gratify” (Belsey), I do not think adequate attention has been paid to the rhetorical and intertextual elements that give rise to the reader’s experience of “frustration.” This paper aims, then, to demonstrate that the poem’s frustrating effects are largely a product of its rhetorical design, the fact that a substantial portion of the narrative’s comic-tragic trajectory is constructed through patterns of opposition, resolution, and subsequent disunion. Through a close examination of the poem’s imagery, gender reversals, rhetoric, and its variations on Ovidian myth, I demonstrate that Shakespeare’s poem undermines a reader’s expectation for closure, choosing instead to tease the reader’s desire for resolution by sustaining, rather than dissolving, the oppositions upon which it is constructed.