Venus & Adonis


of an extraordinary dedication

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, Henry Wriothesley, 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 published 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 an invented name. 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 situation which is more delicious than any of the above interpretations, though each appears to contain an element or two of truth.

As shown throughout his works, Shakespeare was a master of verbal ambiguity. With this in mind, consider the following rendition of the messages of the dedication - which presents its language in meanings which are at least as valid linguistically as those of reasonable conventional interpretation:

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, and whether intentional or not, 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 Wriothesley - 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 secondary messages, however, Wriothesley had turned unsupportive, transferring his favours to another. He had fallen from grace in the eyes of the embittered poet. Forced to kowtow (by way of a respectful public dedication), the resentful wordsmith was thus credibly motivated to make an accompanying gesture of defiance, suitably masked. Such reaction is common human behaviour when one is obliged to defer to someone dominant, but undeserving. Shakespeare’s sleights of verbal expression then resemble (in far more elegant and lasting fashion) indistinguishable, muttered imprecations under cover of apparent obedience or the raising of a middle finger behind the back of an unworthy superior. Critically, the content and deniability of the secondary theme thus accord perfectly with the authorial motives necessary for the form of its creation

The discovery offers an explanation for the discordant self-importance suggested by the 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, Wriothesley, 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. Incidentally, the content of the dedication's disguised theme, if intentional, contradicts any theory which has the Shakespeare of Venus & Adonis acting as stooge for the real author or being the pen-name of an anonymous aristocrat. And the style of the name, "Shakespeare", which made its first published appearance with Venus & Adonis may also represent the reinforcement of a pun, as suggested in Why Shakespeare? 

Was the secondary theme intentional? The pervasive ambiguity of the dedicatory address is examined more fully in Double Dealing. This shows that the articulation of the address in its disguised theme is superior to that in its overt. It points out that if punning were unintentional, then each of at least nine independent alternative meanings occurred randomly and by chance. It takes account of their frequency, pervasiveness and superior coherence, to show that the odds against fluke appearance of a hostile, self-explanatory second theme are astronomical - mathematically comparable to those against fluke DNA matches in humans. In all probability, then, the content and disguise of the hidden messages were deliberate and the phenomenon provides the basis for reliable conclusions as to the nature of Shakespeare's character and relationship with his patron. 

In an extraordinary coincidence, the resultant inferences are identical to those readily perceptible from substantial content of Shakespeare's sonnets, read as sequential autobiography. The peculiar congruence of abnormal information from two such radically different sources, reinforced by other evidence, gives substance to the autobiographic nature of most of the sonnets - including periods of composition and details of a poetic and sexual competition for the young earl's favours, which Shakespeare was losing immediately prior to Marlowe's death. Read more here.