Rather than the nihilistic King Lear, we should turn to the playful Venus and Adonis during lockdownby Emma Smith / April 23, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…