Venus & Adonis (1592)
Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton was under pressure by Lord Burghley, Lord High Treasurer of England and his mother to marry, sire an heir and thereby pass on the estates as was the custom in Shakespeare’s time. His grandfather Lord Montague was also concerned that he was as yet unattached. This is the underlying theme that spurred these early Shakespearean sonnets entitled Venus & Adonis. They feature a young man in his prime resisting the sexual advances of a presumptuous woman, a similar theme is found in Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They were not intended for publication yet they were entered in the stationer’s office on the 18th April 1593 and then printed by a close associate Richard Field who came from Stratford. References to these sexual archetypes (Gr: Narcissus) are also found in Edmund Spenser‘s “Faerie Queene” (Book III), Christopher Marlowe‘s “Hero & Leander” and Thomas Lodge‘s “Scilla’s Metamorphosis” (1589). As in the case of “The Rape of Lucrece”, these sonnets were an embryonic attempt by a parvenu Shakespeare to turn his hand to poetry when the London theatres had been closed due to the spread of bubonic plague. The subliminal eroticism found within this edition was well received by young men and women who understood its sophistication and wit. We might take note of the bestial parallels of Adonis’s stallion escaping into the forest to mate with a mare, leaving Adonis at the mercy of Venus. In Ovid’s version Adonis actually returns Venus’s amours and supplications but Shakespeare transforms Adonis into an untutored, idealist, adolescent, and naïve who shies away from the Goddess’s advances. When Venus has eventually exhausted herself in her various attempts to seduce the youth, he promptly departs to the hunt of wild boar. The tragedy is that Adonis is then found gored, his hounds tired and exhausted by the chase. Adonis’ body then dissolves and becomes a celestial purple-white flower. Some botanists have suggested the drooping white anemone, others the butterfly orchid as a possible symbolic reference. Venus plucks the “blood-stained” flower, places it in her bosom and flies off in her dove-drawn chariot to seek solitude at her birthplace in Paphos, Cyprus. In this respect elements of Venus & Adonis reflect themes found in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost.
‘Vilia miretur vulgus; mihi flavus Apollo
Pocula Castalia plena ministret aqua.’
To the Right Honourable Henry Wríothestly,
EARL OF SOUTHAMPTON, AND BARON OF TICHFIELD.
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 so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honour. able 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,
The Rape of Lucrece (1593-94)
These illuminating and imaginative sonnets were written some 13 months after Venus & Adonis and originally entitled “The Ravyshment of Lucrece” although the first quarto displays only the word “Lucrece” on its title page. Around this time the plague was raging about the streets of London and Shakespeare was able to avoid this miasma because he was safely ensconced in the comfortable cordon sanitaire of the Earl of Southampton’s House in Holborn. Evidence suggests he might also have produced some elements of Lucrece in Lord Titchfield’s country seat in Hampshire. It was entered into the stationers register on 9th May 1594, printed by Richard Field and published by John Harrison. In contrast to earlier poetic attempts, it seems that Shakespeare took the time on this occasion to examine and correct the proofs, a task that he rarely undertook for any of his plays, however, it seems his motive may have been that this was intended as a labour of love to his patron, The Earl of Southampton. It seems there may have been some rivalry at the time with another renowned poet, Christopher (Kit) Marlowe, (Robert Greene?) who unlike Shakespeare had undergone a University education. It is quite likely that Shakespeare may have feared or suspected the imminent loss of his patronage to his good friend and rival. These sonnets were an advance on previous efforts of Shakespeare’s to establish himself in the contemporary literary genre as a poet par excellence. It exceeded Venus and Adonis in length containing some 1,855 lines as opposed to the former which had just 1,194 lines. It was executed in the so-called 7-line rhyme-royal or troilus stanza employed by Samuel Daniel in his poem “The Complaint of Rosamund” (15920) but was drawn largely from Ovid’s Fasti and Pliny’s “History of Rome”.
The last 28 stanzas are addressed to the iconic “Dark Lady”, a dark-skinned woman whose identity has intrigued many a Shakespearean scholar for centuries. It seems this woman was skilled in the arts of seduction, love and although she won Shakespeare’s affections was prone to adulterous activities elsewhere. She is described by Shakespeare as having dark, wiry hair, black eyes, and black brows and some scholars have speculated that she may have been a woman of lowly station, namely Lucy Negro, a Clerkenwell prostitute. However, other candidates have been proposed, for example Rowse suggests a woman of superior social standing, namely Penelope Rich (nee Deveraux), the sister of the Earl of Essex, the original muse of Sir Phillip Sydney’s Astrophel & Stella. Another possible candidate for this temptress was Mary (Mall) Fitton, a maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth who was impregnated by the Earl of Pembroke and lusted after by her father’s lecherous cohort, Sir William Knollys. The latter was probably an inspiration for Shakespeare’s Malvolio. Anthony Burgess suggests that the Dark Lady is purely iconic, a composite of several of Shakespeare’s tragic loves and the contemporary poet Ted Hughes thinks she is possibly a manifestation of the Queen of Hell, ie every man’s nightmare. There is no doubt that Shakespeare was agonised and given over to intense bouts of jealousy by numerous shrewish women he encountered while on his promiscuous revelries in London’s bohemian scene. The result of which he contracted a bout or two of the clap (gonorrhoea) while his arch enemy Richard Greene himself died of the pox (syphilis). Jonathan Bate suggests the true inspiration for the Dark Lady was Mrs John Florio (aka Jeanette Daniel), supposedly the illegitimate daughter and sister of the poet Samuel Daniel or John Florio. Other possible suggestions are Emilia Lanier, an Italian lady born Bassano who was the Lord Chamberlain’s mistress and related to one of the Queen’s musicians. She was described by the astrologer Simon Forman as an incuba – ie a vampire witch or virago, but she herself was given over to literary endeavours, especially aimed at condemning men for their defilement of women (Salve Deux Rex Judaeorum) published in 1610, just 12 months after that of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. George Bernard Shaw suggests the true inspiration for the Dark Lady was Jane Davenant, a model for Desdemona in Othello, and mother of his presumed illegitimate son William Davenant, who later turned out to be a playwright and poet, although the much respected Shakespeare failed to acknowledge his true lineage in his last will and testaments. Jeanette Davenant was the wife of an Oxford inn-keeper, The Bull, where Shakespeare was a frequent visitor while touring the country with his plays. It has been said that the Earl of Southampton also got a dose of the clap pursuing the Queen’s maid of honour, Elizabeth Vernon, while continuing to reject the advances of Lady Elizabeth de Vere. In effect therefore this is the subject of the previous sonnets, Venus & Adonis, while the Rape of Lucrece certainly suggests that having reached an hiatus, Shakespeare’s patron saw fit to disengage himself from associating with lesser mortals in whose company he had developed an irritating contagion.
To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesly,
EARL OF SOUTHAMPTON AND BARON OF TICHFIELD.
THE love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with happiness.
Your lordship’s in all duty,
LUCIUS TARQUINIUS,—for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus,—after he had
caused his own father-in-law, Servius Tullius, to be cruelly murdered, and contrary to
the Roman laws and customs, not requiring or staying for the people’s suffrages, had
possessed himself of the kingdom, went, accompanied with his sons and other
noblemen of Rome, to besiege Ardea. During which siege the principal men of the
army meeting one evening at the tent of Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son, in their
discourses after supper, every one commended the virtues of his own wife: among
whom Collatinus extolled the incomparable chastity of his wife Lucretia. In that
pleasant humour they all posted to Rome; and intending, by their secret and sudden
arrival, to make trial of that which every one had before avouched, only Collatinus
finds his wife—though it were late in the night—spinning amongst her maids: the other
ladies were all found dancing and revelling, or in several disports. Whereupon the
noblemen yielded Collatinus the victory, and his wife the fame. At that time Sextus
Tarquinius, being inflamed with Lucrece’ beauty, yet smothering his passions for the
present, departed with the rest back to the camp; from whence he shortly after privily
withdrew himself, and was, according to his estate, royally entertained and lodged by
Lucrece at Collatium. The same night he treacherously stealeth into her chamber,
violently ravished her, and early in the morning speedeth away. Lucrece, in this
lamentable plight, hastily dispatcheth messengers, one to Rome for her father, and
another to the camp for Collatine. They came, the one accompanied with Junius
Brutus, the other with Publius Valerius; and finding Lucrece attired in mourning
habit, demanded the cause of her sorrow. She, first taking an oath of them for her
revenge, revealed the actor, and the whole manner of his dealing, and withal suddenly
stabbed herself. Which done, with one consent they all vowed to root out the whole
hated family of the Tarquins; and, bearing the dead body to Rome, Brutus acquainted
the people with the doer and manner of the vile deed, with a bitter invective against
the tyranny of the king: wherewith the people were so moved, that with one consent
and a general acclamation the Tarquins were all exiled, and the state government
changed from kings to consuls.
A Lover’s Complaint
A volume printed in 1609 included this sonnet as an accompaniment, a traditional literary theme composed as a lamentation of a forsaken lover, particularly in contradistinction to any foregoing works. It was probably written around the same time as the play “All’s Well That Ends Well” because the male character in the poem resembles Bertram in that play. However, the style is very archaic, conventional and obliquely structured in contrast to Shakespeare’s much later experimental poetic styles found in for example Venus & Adonis, or The Rape of Lucrece. It takes the form of an hysterical maid describing her heart-felt grief at being abandoned by a lover to a shepherd, who leaves off grazing his flock, to listen to her confession. It employs the rhyme royal (ABABBC) to communicate her perplexity at her lover’s cruelty and faithlessness. 47x 7 line verses.
The Passionate Pilgrim
A collection of poems (138 & 144) that first appeared in print (Thomas Thorpe) around 1599 was entitled The Passionate Pilgrim and then criticised by Francis Meres as “sugared sonnets” in his book Palladis Tamia. This edition contains extracts from Act IV of “Love’s Labours Lost” as well as several renderings by other poets. Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood had not given their permission for one of these privately circulated editions, containing five of the sonnets along with the latter’s Trois Britannica, (printed by William Jaggard) and evidently voiced their displeasure (viz: Apology for Actors). In later editions the printer saw fit to remove Shakespeare’s name from the title page.
The Phoenix & the Turtle:
First published in 1601 alongside several other sonnets (eg: A Lover’s Complaint), this was an allegorical elegy for a couple of birds that first appeared as appended leitmotifs alongside Robert Chester‘s enigmatic Love’s Martyr or Rosalind’s Complaint, (“allegorically shadowing the truth of love”) with several additions from other poets of the period such as Marston, Chapman, and Ben Johnson. The ancillary authors included Ben Johnson, Marston, Chapman and an unknown poet and in 1807 Shakespeare’s contribution adopted the title of The Phoenix & the Turtle. It was printed by Richard Field who also composited Venus & Adonis and Lucrece and it was dedicated to Sir John Salisbury. Love’s Martyr was an attempt by the obscure poet Chester at Ovidian verse coupled with chorographic, narrative and encyclopaedic material, such as the numerous plants, trees and birds which were listed that inhabited the isle of Paphos where the Phoenix eventually retires. Paphos is the birthplace of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and in this sense it is perceived by modern commentators as an allegory of royal succession, and by others as an allegory or belated tribute to the marriage of John Salisbury (the turtle) to Ursula Stanley (the phoenix) in 1586. Although the poem in its abstract symbolism may shadow allegorically more than one particular incident and aristocratic pairing from the period of its appearance. Incidentally, Lord Salisbury was in dispute at the time with the supporters of the Babington plot in his native Denbighshire. Shakespeare’s contribution seems to have enlarged on the symbolism of birds as omens in prophecy throughout this piece for several reasons.
The Phœnix is a mythical creature who, as many people know, rose out of the ashes, it remains an image of resurrection and indestructibility while the cooing Turtle Dove is an emblem of the Roman goddess Venus (Gr: Aphrodite) and represents concupiscence in matters of love and loyalty. The sole Arabian Tree mentioned in the second line is considered by some analysts to be the cedar from Lebanon although I think personally it is the date palm (phoenix dactylifera), although the real phoenix of the desert is the acacia tree. The question being; is cedar a funerary tree, are coffins made of it, is it mentioned in the bible or is it found in graveyards? The poem is so abstracted grammatically vague or simply confusing in parts that it has puzzled some literary and historical commentators on what its exact meaning and significance. Some say it suggests Shakespeare’s attempts in the latter part of his career at some type of modern poetic form with reference to some particular event which had a more universal theme or appeal. While others say that Shakespeare was simply suffering from syphilis and his mental functioning had been impaired and that this gave the poem its distinct vagueness and grammatical eccentricities. For example in reading the piece the gender of the birds, the Phoenix and the dove is somewhat vague. Clearly, the poem has some moral and political implications or veiled allegorical statements within it despite the disparities of grammar or symbolism it contains and one is therefore tempted to speculate which individuals the birds actually represent in Shakespeare’s circle? Incidentally, the title of the poem did not come into use until the 17th century and the opening line “Let the bird of loudest lay” was simply employed as its original title. Some critics have suggested that the Phoenix, a bird of resurrection, represents Queen Elizabeth Ist, and the Turtle-dove her principal secret lover and much later a traitorous agent of insurrection in the London riot of 1601, the 2nd Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux. Its sad, somewhat resigned tone, almost to the point of bitter irony and melancholic despair may reflect Elizabeth’s feelings at signing Essex’s warrant of execution. It may be more than just mere coincidence that the date of publishing is the same as the insurrection in London.
The general message of the Phoenix and the Turtle seems to be “Oh, how are the mighty fallen in their mismatched loyalties and personal incongruities?” A statement that could of course apply to the Babington plot (1561-86) devised by Anthony Babington and John Ballard where they were discovered and with Mary Queen of Scots were summarily executed. The organiser of the plot, Roberto Ridolfi (See “rrr-that’s the dog’s name”-Romeo & Juliet) managed to escape to Spain unharmed but his Catholic cohort Sir William Throckmorton was executed along with Queen Mary. The threnos (sad song) at the end of this extraordinary poem may be an anonymous epitaph to just such a rather distressing event. So much so that some critics have argued that the poem was authored and attributed to Queen Elizabeth herself.
Death is now the phœnix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
However, a similar impropriety and inevitable failure in allegiances occurred with the Earl of Essex and later when the Duke of Buckingham attempted to negotiate the marriage of Prince Charles to the daughter of the Spanish King in 1623. So, are we to speculate that the Phoenix represents the new age of Protestant England and the dove its loyal “matched” and often disloyal “mismatched” subjects? Could it even make reference to the disparity that existed politically between Protestant and Catholic subjects to their Protestant Virgin Queen?
Although the whole of the poem is suffused with double-meanings and ambiguity, the opening line gives us an interesting clue to extrapolate further; “Let the bird of loudest lay, on the sole Arabian tree!”. Well, the sole Arabian tree must surely be the palm-tree (as it derives from Alchemy and Hermeticism being equivalent to the Cabalists’ Tree of Life), the palm was sacred to Venus and the Sun (Apollo). This seems to concur symbolically, as the image of a bird sitting in the palm of one’s hand and attempting to lay an egg is quite amusing! The palm of the hand (Gr: cheiro) is an image of human fate or destiny – that is what is given and what is received in human affairs and of course the Hand of God, that which intervenes in man’s affairs. The initial image of a call for the loudest of birds to rest on a sole Arabian tree (palm) conjures up singing birds (poets?) vying with each other to be in that “sacred palm” in order to “lay their eggs” or hatch their plots? In the second verse another bird is mentioned ie; shrieking harbinger which must be the owl, a nocturnal bird of prey sacred to Minerva, an ancient pagan goddess of war, witchcraft and foreboding. The third verse then mentions the eagle, an extraordinary feathered raptor that dominates the high altitudes and mountain slopes, this being sacred to Zeus, king of Mt. Olympus. The 4th verse introduces the loyal swan (Leda & the swan?) coupled with a priest in surplice white. This might be a veiled reference to the strict Catholic Cistercian Order instituted by Bernard of Clairvaux of France who vehemently opposed rational theology and he later instituted the controversial order of Knight Templars which then morphed into the Trappist Order. He went on to further the accession of Pope Innocent II and set about zealously with the Second Crusade which failed and also wrote numerous hymns. Similarly, Zeus, Jove or Jupiter disguised himself as a swan in order to seduce the nymph Leda which denotes religious and filial impropriety. Then the 5th verse makes reference to the treble-dated crow, sacred to the Teutonic Odin equivalent to the Roman Saturn or Greek Chronos, lawmaker and god of time. The crow, like the raven is a scavenger and was often seen metaphorically as a bird of parliamentary discourse and synonymous with vehement interjection, heckling or incisive rhetoric. There seems to be an indirect reference in the first 5 verses that is synonymous with the five Dactyls of Greek antiquity and of Druidic lore, each finger of the hand sacred to a particular god. The thumb sacred to Mars (Minerva as a war goddess), the index to Saturn (Time & Repose), the middle finger to Jupiter (Excess & Good Fortune), the next to Apollo or Venus (Love Poetry) and the little finger to Mercury (Wit & Invention).
So, having set the scene within the first 6 verses the poem goes onto describe a series of events or consequences that allegorically might apply to several displaced personages from the court of Queen Elizabeth, not just one incongruous partnership that was arranged purely for convenience sake to usurp or support the crown. The tone is somewhat indifferent and often borders on sardonic and, in such ironic philosophical mood perhaps even resigned euphemistically to accept the follies and cupidity of that time in aristocratic circles and in the wider political sense. Some researchers have also suggested that this abstract set of events even mirrors the relationship Shakespeare may have had with his own patron Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton and the “dark lady” Emilia Lanier or even that undisclosed but well-known affair between Queen Elizabeth and her paramour Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester who had a nose like an eagle incidentally. Shakespeare’s patron the Earl of Southampton (Phoenix?) was also implicated in the Essex rebellion (1600) by persuading the players of the Globe theatre to perform Shakespeare’s controversial play Richard III (about a deposition) in order to substantiate the insubordination being planned towards royal rule. Although Queen Elizabeth sentenced him to death, following pleas from his family his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment but after the death of Queen Elizabeth he was later pardoned and released by King James Ist in 1603.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609):
The main interest for me is the extraordinary complex use and extemporisation of the English language that emerged during Shakespeare’s time. Symbolism, visual imagery, verbal image, concepts, paradoxes, contradictions and double-entendre are so expertly intertwined that it is often very difficult to unravel and understand them. It is a language so rich that at times it borders on the incomprehensible, although it appears as simple English and can still be appreciated by the layman even without this deeper comprehension. Indeed, Shakespeare’s era experienced a great flowering of expression in the English language.
In many ways Shakespeare is still big, in academic circles, in contemporary theatre and for the layman, as there are many things in the Sonnets that are still being re-discovered. While the Open University have been exploring the magic of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, it seems that some “egghead” has discovered that the pattern of words and phrases employed in Shakespeare’s sonnets have a definite or more correctly unique neural network which can be analysed by today’s computers. This has allowed literary experts to identify whether certain contentious works were actually Shakespeare’s or belonged to other authors. One evident case in point is the “The Two Noble Kinsmen”, by John Fletcher which it seems contains two sections (first and last) which are quite likely the literary inspiration or collaboration of William Shakespeare. However, one should not overlook numerous esoteric symbols embedded in the iconography of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. For example, 14 and 15 make reference to astrology; 44 and 45, the elements. I have seen speculations that the Dark Lady mentioned in the second section of the Sonnets was a negress, and it may indeed be true, although it may refer in an abstract sense to the mythological Black Annis – The pagan British counterpart of the Phoenician Queen of Heaven (Astarte). Indeed perhaps even to the Black Madonna of Catholic Spain, but all these analogies are part and parcel of Shakespeare’s literary technique to allow the audience or the reader to superimpose their own interpretation and correlation onto the ideas and symbols he has presented to them.
There are great number of astrological and alchemical allusions in the Sonnets. For example, using a helpful gloss, we might make some sense of Sonnet 59 which contains an allusion to the ‘Great Year’, the cycle of time in which all the heavenly bodies return to their original positions and the cycle of astral influences and the paralleling of events on earth reoccur. This is another example of how it is impossible to understand Elizabethan literature without understanding a little about the astrological systems of the time.
Sonnet 59 and paraphrase:
“If there be nothing new, but that which is
Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled,
Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss
The second burden of a former child!”
If there is nothing new and if this present time is merely a repetition of the past, then we are deceiving ourselves when we think we invent something new. This is a mistake since we only reinvent or discover what has already been done during some previous period in history.
“O, that record could with a backward look,
Even of five hundred courses of the sun,
Show me your image in some antique book,
Since mind at first in character was done!”
I wish that memory (precise history), could extend back five hundred years and show me your description in an ancient book when (that) thought was first written down.
That I might see what the old world could say
To this composed wonder of your frame;
Whether we are mended, or whether better they,
Or whether revolution be the same.
This would enable me to see what the old world said about the wonderful composition of your personage and whether we have improved, or whether they were better, or whether things always turn out the same.
O, sure I am, the wits of former days
To subjects worse have given admiring praise.
But I am sure that the literati of the past have praised persons inferior to you. The second quatrain is difficult, but a gloss in “The Sonnets” by G. Blackmore Evans is helpful. The ‘hundred’ may be a great hundred, that is, six score or 120. The period referred to is the Great Year of astrology when all the heavenly bodies return to their original positions and the cycle of astrological influences and their parallels on Earth reoccur.
At a corresponding time in the prior Great Year, someone was under astral influence to do as the Poet is doing now, so if we could look back in time we would see the same archetypal event being re-enacted time and time again. The third quatrain considers the evidence for history such a retrospective outlook would give, whether there is real progress in the world, some process of decline, say as from some golden age, or just eternal sameness. The “Old World” is the “world” of the previous Great Year. The Poet seems to be saying to his beloved: “You are as you have always been eternally, the same.” This, however, is ironic praise – in effect declaring that she hasn’t changed at all, since we know from the other sonnets that the beloved is fickle, unfaithful, vain and unappreciative. Evans points out that the final line may be read as “To subjects (even) worse….”. The “Great Year” was variously estimated at from 500+ to 600+ years, but it is not the Great Year of precession known to modern astrology. It may be the aeons defined by the conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter in the same degree of elemental signs. According to this idea the conjunctions initiate a series of cataclysmic events on Earth. The Great Fire of London occurred during a fire sign conjunction, the Great Plague or oceanic disasters are usually attributed to air or water sign conjunctions, famines to earth sign conjunctions and so forth. Of course the nature of these events was mitigated by other horary factors in Elizabethan astrology.
This viewpoint of Shakespeare’s about the world system and events repeating is extraordinary, although clearly he had been influenced by Roman and Greek writers who shared similar views, for example Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”. It was impossible to make the above reading without the aid of a gloss that goes back to a scholar named Pooler in l918. There is a reference in Sonnet 107 to the Spiritus Mundi and of Shakespeare’s unique relation to Giordano Bruno, which suggests that Shakespeare was probably the most successful of the Renaissance Magi in England, the practitioners of Hermeticism. Perhaps the character of Prospero in “The Tempest” is a veiled description of himself and not to Dr. John Dee as has been suggested by other researchers. This interpretation of Shakespeare’s and his involvement or interest in occultism may explain many other things about his life and the absence of any biographical evidence. For example, It is rather puzzling that there is an absence of any religious bias, although this may have been a symptom of the times in which he lived. One explanation is that the philosophy of Hermetism was secretly considered as a third way which transcended the ideological difference between Protestant and Catholic prejudices. In the Catholic and Protestant view, God was divorced from the world, and thus the world was a place of God’s absence, a place of sin, suffering and death.
In Hermeticism however, the world itself possessed a “soul” and was considered holy. The divine archetypes, angelic or god-like were part of a complex cosmic order. Aspects of the cosmos were reflected as human qualities (macrocosm = microcosm), so man was not considered to exist in an alien or chaotic environment. What is also evident is a distorted view in religion of earthly and divine love and the ignominious role of Venus or Aphrodite in a repressed, puritanical society. The ancient Greeks, like the Romans were especially wary of women and this attitude through literature, in priestly power and politics permeated the European world well into Shakespeare’s generation. However, the rural perspective was slightly different from that in urban or cosmopolitan regions. It was generally accepted that the rural communities were closer to some pagan traditions, customs and practices abandoned by “city folk”, who in their getting and spending had “laid waste their lives”. A return to ideas pertaining to the pre-existence of some original state, where there was an absence of “sin”, a garden of paradise, was brought back by the explorers of the new world where attitudes towards sex were less repressive or fraught with guilt and anxiety. It seems clear however that a certain element of hypocrisy was also evident at the time and no clear solutions to this eternal riddle of sexual indulgence has ever been fully consolidated or openly accommodated in the world of monotheistic religion.
Many of these conflicting ideas about human sexuality and its accommodation into spirituality go back to the early establishment of the Christian Church. The diatribes and conflicts between Valentinus and St. Francis for example and their opponents. Perhaps, given the present circumstances where old worlds meet new worlds, they never will. Even in the later Victorian era when emissaries from the orient allowed representatives from England free access to their courtesans, it was still considered improper for either men or women to engage in a bout of “unrestrained sexual indulgence”. The ancient Phoenicians (Venetians), who having travelled far and wide, were noted for their high-spirited and broad-minded views towards sexuality, they worshipped and elevated the goddess Aphrodite to a much higher level than other land-based civilisations. Therefore Shakespeare’s image of the Adonis – a perfect unspoilt youth pursued by a passionate lusty goddess, is perhaps an extraordinary image to convey to the Elizabethan mindset. In verse III of The Passionate Pilgrim Shakespeare’s excuses his misogynistic condemnations and reflections in verse of a physical loved one, as she was mistakenly taken for the goddess herself.
“Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore; but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee:
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;
Thy grace being gain’d cures all disgrace in me.
However, this criticism of the goddess in human form is acceptable in some sense since the same is true of women poets chastising men for their negative masculine traits and sexual indulgences. In Greek the word Adonai, means literally the anointed one, the man chosen for initiation with the high priestess, a representative of the Great Mother Goddess in earlier pagan cults and religions. The Greeks thought the only mitigating circumstance or reason to account for the presence of lustful desire in human beings was simply the need to sire an heir, to stake one’s genetic claim, thereby offsetting any notion of human mortality. That is why Eros, the winged god with his bow and arrows and the personification of physical desire or blind infatuation, became the son and mischievous companion of Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. For since history records, sexual scandals and intrigues in the aristocratic court and within the church were widespread. Indeed they were certainly present in the crude mythology of the Greeks and Romans, many of the gods and goddesses, barring a few exceptions, were regularly subject to the odd infidelity and sexual indulgence.
Could this explain in part Shakespeare’s skill and obsession in using a variety of mythical, autoerotic images and rather bawdy and blatant sexual innuendoes particularly throughout Venus and Adonis. This must have been perceived or taken as controversial for the time. He had after all been in a profession, the Elizabethan theatre, noted by many of the puritanical clergy for its alliance with Lucifer. In many ways it was not unlike the contemporary author Salman Rushdie in our time criticising and condemning the prophet Mohammed and the Islamic tradition for their inherent hypocrisy, radical views and fundamentalist approaches to religion. God made a world of images, and the Renaissance Magus was also a maker of images either directly in art, talismans, or as images of the imagination or indirectly from the subconscious. However, by creating a harmony within himself, the Magus brought harmony and meaning into the world, this being a beneficent spiritual influence. Images were therefore employed as a means of spiritual access, and to the degree that art captures the divine archetype, it participates in eternity. Shakespeare’s magic is the magic he captured in images through his plays and poetry.
Please note: I am indebted to my mentor Thomas Hood, who sadly died of covid-19 in March 2021 but whose personal contribution and support enabled the composition of this article.