Symbols of Lust in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adoni
Shakespeare’s Ovidian erotic poem Venus and Adonis tells the tale of a goddess, Venus, who lusts fruitlessly after a human boy, Adonis. Although Venus relentlessly professes her love for the mortal youth, in reality she experiences only sexual desire. The Bard utilizes scenes of consumption and eating to illustrate Venus’ intense passion and desire to control Adonis sexually. Likewise, Shakespeare describes her sexual arousal with images of water and heat. In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare uses images of predation, water, and heat to illustrate the dominance of Lust over Love in Venus’ mind.
Shakespeare’s frequent passages containing images of one character literally consuming the other indicate the craving for control associated with Venus’ lust. Shortly after Venus and Adonis’ first sight of each other, Shakespeare compares her to “an empty eagle, sharp by fast” (55), which “tires with her beak on feathers, flesh, and bone… Till either gorge be stuffed or prey be gone” (56-58). The weak, helpless prey symbolizes Adonis, whom Venus feeds upon with her incessant kisses. Her figurative consumption of Adonis reveals the intense physical desire she experiences. Later, Venus tries to incite the same passions in Adonis.
After her failure to satisfy her longing by controlling the situation, Venus tries to force control on him. She compares her body to a lush “park” and casts Adonis as a “deer” (231) within her confining arms. Venus then commands him to “feed where thou wilt, on mountains or in dale; / Graze on my lips,” (232-233) an invitation with obvious sexual overtones. The mountains and dale Venus refers to represent erogenous zones on her body that she wants him to “graze” upon. Such a clear double entendre would have been considered extremely forward during Shakespeare’s time, and plainly demonstrates Venus’ lust for Adonis.
Upon realizing that she cannot win Adonis’ affection by allowing him to have power over her, Venus goes back on the offensive. After convincing Adonis to capitulate to a single kiss, she becomes “the yielding prey” of “swift desire” (547) and kisses him again and again. Shakespeare again employs the metaphor of eating to describe how “gluttonlike she feeds, yet never filleth” (548) – she simply cannot satiate her sexual appetite. By immediately comparing Venus’ lips to “conquerors” who force Adonis’ lips to “obey,” (549) the author links consumption to the theme of physical control.
Shakespeare demonstrates Venus’ lust and desire to possess Adonis sexually through numerous images of eating and consumption. The Bard also demonstrates the goddess’ sexual hunger with the motif of water. For example, Adonis’ “awed resistance” (69) lends him increased beauty in Venus’ eyes. This “rain” added to an already swollen “river” (71) causes it to “overflow [its] bank” (72). This passage describes how Adonis’ self-conscious unwillingness to cooperate turns Venus on all the more, so much so that her libido and accompanying biological responses run rampant.
Shakespeare reiterates this point as Adonis continues to shy away from her kiss. This coyness “bathes” her in “water” (94) while the fires of her passion burn on. The obvious interpretation of water in this instance is again Venus’ intense state of sexual arousal, which indicates lust more than the love she claims to feel for him. Further references to water as a symbol of sexual excitement have roots in the passage describing Adonis as a deer grazing within Venus’ park. The goddess invites her paramour to “stray lower” on her body to the “pleasant fountains” (234), an obvious allusion to either her breasts or genital regions.
This lewd request goes quite beyond the typical bounds for a pair of lovers’ first meeting, and provides further evidence of Venus’ overwhelming lust. Shakespeare undoubtedly intends for his readers to recognize the transparent representation of Venus’ sexual arousal by images of water. Another manner of illustrating Venus’ lust for her human prey lies within Shakespeare’s use of symbols of fire. The forceful goddess describes her body as “soft and plump, [her] marrow burning” (142) to the coy Adonis. In the nomenclature of Elizabethan Europe marrow translates as any “vital or essential part” (ft. 42), so by describing it as “burning” (142) Venus makes an overt reference to her heated lust. After Adonis tries and fails to flee on his horse, Shakespeare employs fire as a symbol for lust again. Venus speaks of Adonis’ horse, who As he should, Welcomes the warm approach of sweet desire. Affection is a coal that must be cooled, Else, suffered, it will set the heart on fire. (385-388) She implies that Adonis should follow his horses’ example, accept her passion and cool the “coal” (386) of her affection by surrendering to her physical yearning.
Even though “she bathes in water  her fire must burn” (94) until quenched by Adonis’ touch. Shakespeare applies two motifs to add extra emphasis to the connection between Venus’ sexual ardor and symbols of fire and water. Shakespeare represents her passion with fire yet again after Venus convinces Adonis to grant her a single kiss. Her face begins to “reek and smoke, her blood doth boil” (555) as the achievement of her goal sets her heart afire. Rather than contentment with the single kiss she agreed upon with Adonis, the goddess surrenders completely to the newly-fanned flame of her lust.
However, fire consumes whatever fuel feeds it, in this case Venus’ senses, in keeping with the motif of consumption. Shakespeare utilizes fire imagery to communicate the total elimination of Venus’ normal restraints in the face of her all-consuming lust for the human boy. Shakespeare’s symbols of consumption, water, and fire together serve to illustrate the complete loss of self-control Venus experiences due to her acute lust for Adonis. The passages which contain symbolic eating of the main characters demonstrate that the relationship between the goddess and a mortal will always remain an unequal sharing of power.
Lust drives them together, not the ideal of love, despite Venus frequent protestations to the contrary. Both water and fire, typically thought of as polar opposites, serve Shakespeare’s single purpose in exemplifying the same point: lust entirely overpowers love in Venus and Adonis’ dealings. The profuse variation of symbols which Shakespeare employs to communicate the lusty nature of Venus’ pursuit of her human affection show that the Bard fully intends the connection between his various symbols and sexual lust.