Venus & Adonis


Venus & Adonis was published around May 1593. The title of this lengthy poem was followed prominently by a quotation from Ovid:

Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo

     Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.

The Latin translates along the following lines: “Let the common man admire trash or vile things; may golden Apollo serve me full cups of Castalian waters [referring to the mythic fountain created by Apollo, which provided poetic inspiration]”.

Shakespeare's first public dedication proceeded (presented below in the spellings of current-day England) :

To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley,

Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield.

Right Honourable,

I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden, only if your Honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather: and never after ear [plough] so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your Honourable survey, and your Honour to your heart’s content, which I wish may always answer your own wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.

Your Honour’s in all duty,

William Shakespeare.

Orthodoxy construes this dedication solely as a humble, self-deprecatory appeal for patronage of its addressee, the third Earl of Southampton. Some analysts suggest that the latter may not even have known the poet at this stage. A much more affectionate and familiarly worded dedication of Lucrece to the same young aristocrat, a year later, is generally taken as evidence that the appeal was successful. The introductory quotation from Ovid is taken at its face value of an intention to provide the reader with poetry of an Ovidian stamp and class - apt, despite a discordant air of pomposity (suggested by denigration of the "vulgus" from one of their own), since the theme of the ensuing poem was based loosely on Ovid's Metamorphoses. And the “first heir of my invention” is regarded as a metaphor for the poem - this being the first offspring of his creativity to be formally acknowledged and published in print by Shakespeare.

Authorship Sceptics see these matters differently. The “first heir of my invention” is regarded by some as an indication by the author that he was newly writing under a pseudonym (though why he would thereby risk blowing his cover so quickly is not credibly explained). Marlovians make much of the timing of the dedication, coming as it did around the date that Marlowe was reported killed. They point out that the Ovidian quotation could be associated with Marlowe, since he had produced an acclaimed translation of the original Latin verse into lines of rhyming English pentameter. Moreover, the lines quoted form part of a longer passage which has references to the speaker surviving death - more evidence, they suggest, of a cover-up.

The evidence points to a truth which is more delicious than either interpretation, though each contributes.

As shown throughout his works, Shakespeare was a master of the pun. With this in mind, consider the following interpretation of the above dedication - which applies meanings to the original words no less valid than those of convention:

Right Honourable,

I know not how you will perceive offense, as I address my frank and truthful lines to your Lordship. Nor do I know how people will censure me for choosing so substantial a work to uphold such a lightweight. If only you seem pleased I shall congratulate myself and vow to work as hard as I can to honour you with a more serious labour. But, if the first dedicatee of my art proves twisted from how he was, I shall be sorry its promoter was so noble: and I will never again try to cultivate so fruitless a patronage for fear of the same miserable return. I leave it for your honourable scrutiny. I leave your honour to the one who most warms your heart, who I hope will be the constant slave of your selfishness, as all do eagerly expect.

Astonishingly, as the above rendition shows, the overtly humble dedication carries a parallel, derogatory theme - albeit one obscured by a reader's natural expectations that the author will show respect to his dedicatee. Are the many puns (and their cohesion in the hidden theme) just flukes of language? Shakespeare must have worked long and hard to compose Venus & Adonis. His poem's hero was a projection of Southampton - his dedicatee and the first heir of his invention. And the dedication suggests that the young Adonis had been a champion of Shakespeare, reciprocally admired. According to its parallel messages, however, he had turned unsupportive, transferring his favours to another, and thereby falling from grace in the eyes of the embittered poet. Such bitterness provides a credible motive for the inclusion of the insults, albeit that these would require careful disguise.

This interpretation harmonizes with, and explains, the oddly self-important Ovidian extract. Seen in this new light, Shakespeare appears to have selected the quotation primarily for its ability to provide the subtle parallel implications that his dedicatee, Southampton, had become “common” (in the sense used in the insult of Sonnet 69) for his admiration of base things, which, given the associations of the lines with Christopher Marlowe, were perhaps linked with the latter.

The pervasive ambiguity of the dedicatory address is examined more fully in Double Dealing. Here, features of vocabulary are shown to point to a high probability of intentional punning. Supplementary analysis shows that the odds against the above phenomenon occurring by accident are in the order of one in many millions. The resultant inferences are identical to those readily perceptible from the content of Shakespeare's Sonnets. The peculiar congruence of content from two such radically different sources, reinforced by other evidence, gives substance to the poetic and sexual competition for the young earl's favours, which Shakespeare was losing immediately prior to Marlowe's death. Read the full account  here.