Venus and Adonis by Titian Credit: Wikimedia commons

Shakespeare’s answer to the plague? More sex and comedy

Rather than the nihilistic King Lear, we should turn to the playful Venus and Adonis during lockdown
April 23, 2020

It says something about the apocalyptic tone of lockdown that the go-to literary text has been King Lear. Tweets admonishing us to be more like Shakespeare and use this unexpected time productively—the playwright possibly wrote Lear during quarantine in 1606—expanded into numerous articles about the relation between plague and creativity. That Shakespeare’s bleakest play seemed to be born of disaster corroborated our implicit sense that tragedy is the inevitable aesthetic response to human mortality. But another look at Shakespeare’s career might suggest otherwise.

When the London theatres closed due to plague in 1592, Shakespeare needed to diversify. He turned away from his fledgling career as a playwright, and under these apparently unpropitious circumstances wrote his bestselling work Venus and Adonis, dedicated to the young Earl of Southampton. First published in 1593, and reprinted a dozen times over the next three decades, the poem’s language and imagery as well as its narrative arc record the pressure of the epidemic. They also refashion it in surprising ways.

Venus and Adonis dramatises the goddess’s desire for a beautiful young boy who prefers hunting to sex. It develops a short episode in Shakespeare’s favourite classical source, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, into a poem of almost 1,200 lines. Along with works by Christopher Marlowe and John Marston, it is one of the fashionable contemporary genre known as epyllion, or mini-epic. Epyllia were high-end soft-porn poems aimed at young men in the London Inns of Court. We might see their intensely erotic narratives as a kind of urge to carpe diem encouraged by contemporary plague deaths. The epidemiology of the bubonic plague suggests that young people in their teens and twenties were most susceptible to its ravages.

Venus praises her unwilling young lover’s lips in terms that cannot suppress the presence of the plague:


Long may they kiss each other, for this cure!

Oh, never let their crimson liveries wear!

And as they last, their verdure still endure,

To drive infection from the dangerous year,

That the stargazers, having writ on death,

May say the plague is banished by thy breath.


Cure, infection, dangerous, death, plague: this poem cannot forget disease. The posies of sweet-smelling herbs and flowers carried as a prophylactic from the plague—proverbially memorialised in the children’s rhyme “Ring-a-ring o' roses”—are the crimson and verdure of Adonis’s protective sweet breath.

This context gives Venus’s desires real urgency. She tries to persuade her unwilling lover that the “fruitless chastity” he practices “on the earth would breed a scarcity/ And barren dearth of daughters and of sons,” calling his virginal body “a swallowing grave.” She proposes, that’s to say, sex as an alternative to infection, and the comedy of human relationships as a corrective to tragic isolation. New Yorkers after 9/11 called this drive “end-of-the-world-sex.” In a recent poll, sex was one of the top two post-lockdown priorities (the other was going out to a restaurant). For Venus, the proper response to plague is not tragedy and death, but creation and comedy. Venus is a figure of comedy not because she is funny or inconsequential, but because she looks for fulfilment through connection.

Adonis, by contrast, describes Venus’s unwelcome lust in terms of the plague itself. Desire shares its fearful symptoms as her “sweating lust” is “blotting” his “fresh beauty.”  Adonis’s final transfiguration in death into a “purple flower… chequered with white” may well be the first literary reference to the newly-introduced snake’s-head fritillary; but it also transforms the blotched skin of the plague victim into the beautiful pigmentation of the flower. Heading towards his own glorious death, Adonis is marked for tragedy. He is, quite literally, in a different plot from Venus.

The poem has tended to be interpreted as depicting Venus’s fatally assertive sexuality, but the context of the plague helps us see that it is actually Adonis who is truly contagious. At the end of the poem, Venus “hies” away in her chariot to her own plagued quarantine: the poem’s final lines tell us that the amorous “queen/ Means to immure herself, and not be seen.” Adonis’s rejection is more than a snub to Venus: it is a rebuff to the regenerative possibilities of sex, procreation and comedy. But Venus will sit out her self-isolation, and emerge to live and love again.

The plague-generated Venus and Adonis drew the coordinates for the romantic comedies Shakespeare would write for the stage during the 1590s. A woman’s active desire for an apparently younger or less worldly-wise lover, as in the relationship between Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It, is the keynote of Shakespearean comedy. These plots head towards marriage and, implicitly, the renewal of human society exemplified in the crowded celebratory stages of their final scenes. Again and again, comedies juxtapose desire and plague. In Much Ado About Nothing,Beatrice mocks man-about-town Benedick, as “sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad.” In Twelfth Night Olivia, awakening from her grief for her dead brother, muses: “How now?/ Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”

Looking to Shakespeare’s depiction of desire and sex as a response to the epidemics of his own lifetime is both more optimistic, and more accurate, than focusing on his most nihilistic tragedy. In tragedy, the sense of a future is the most significant casualty; comedy’s great insight is that life goes on. As we begin to think about the exit from lockdown, the desolate King Lear doesn’t help. Venus and Adonis just might.