Friday, September 3, 2010

Fickle, false and full of fraud

I just misquoted Venus’s last words to my girlfriend:

“Fickle, false and full of fraud.”

“What’s that?”


“And what about men? Good, gullible and goofy?”

Venus and Adonis

“Venus and Adonis” is real work to read. It’s one long string of love clichés without anything really happening and on top of that there’s something unpleasant about it: I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was reading a love poem written by a frustrated female high school teacher to one of her boy students with peach fuzz on his lip.

It’s a long poem that largely consists of the goddess Venus knocking a boy hunter off a horse, trapping him in the grass and dousing him in love poetry. In the end he escapes and is killed by a boar and Venus is sad. That’s the story, but it’s really just an excuse to go endlessly on and on about love. In the first three quarters, the rhetoric doesn’t end, it’s a love poetry marathon, Venus can’t stop whispering sweet moaning things into his poor disinterested ears and drooling over him like a dirty old man over a sleeping teenager. It’s kind of embarrassing for Venus.

Rhetorically, everything Shakespeare does well later is already here, but flat: The metaphors, etc. But they are somehow loveless and pedestrian. In some sections, he just strings one love metaphor after the other as if he’s going through that thesaurus of his he had in his brain, filling space. Probably he really was filling space, too. It’s a published poem – he never published his plays – and presumably had to fit a certain amount of pages:

Even as the wind is hush’d before it raineth,
Or as the wolf doth grin before he barketh,
Or as the berry breaks before it staineth,
Or like the deadly bullet of a gun…

You want to keep going with the list:

Or as the foot is kicked before the teeth are broken,
Or as the crap is crapped before the foot steppeth in it,
Or as the thesaurus opens before the word is spoken…

Still, there are some interesting things about it.

First of all, Shakespeare picks a duality again. Right at the beginning he states the conflict: She wants love, he wants to hunt. He doesn’t bother to set it up or show why he loves the hunt and she hunts for love – he just states it so he can skip all preliminaries and get right into the thick of it.

Then there’s the comparison to the other famous version of the story, from Ovid. But that version is flat and unambitious. In Ovid, goddess and pretty boy are lovers. Shakespeare turned it into a story of unrequited love, and there is a lot of drama in this heavy-breathing goddess trying to seduce a young boy that has a lot in common with a wet noodle.

But the really interesting thing is the inner monologue, because that’s really what Venus’ rhetoric is. The kind of thing that modernists and post-modernists would do later, right down to Harold Brodkey, who could extrapolate whole pages of gush from a single motion, Shakespeare was already doing: Turning a few moments of action into a bottomless pit of feelings spewed out in endless monologue.

The action seems to go on and on, but really they’re just grappling with each other for a few moments: She grabs him, he gets away, that’s pretty much it. But every moment, every attempted kiss, is argued endlessly out with dialogue that is really inner monologue pushed to the surface, then layered again, examined and reexamined and spun around, going around in circles searching for a way into some kind of center but never finding it. Which is, come to think of it, much like what a lover does in his mind.

As far as the poetry itself goes, there are some good parts. But they are not in the gushing first section. It gets good when the woods get dark and Venus’ soul with it, and she wanders about filled with dread for no particular reason, foreseeing his death, for example, or toward the very end, when Venus gets her final monologue about the horrors of love, which I really like:

Venus speaking:

“Since thou art dead, lo here I prophesy,
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend:
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning, but unsavory end;
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low,
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe.

It shall be fickle, false und full of fraud,
Bud, and be blasted, in a breathing while;
The bottom poison, and the top o’erstraw’d
With sweets that shall the truest sight beguile;
The strongest body shall it make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak.

It shall be sparing, and too full of riot,
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures;
The staring ruffian shall it keep quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures;
It shall be raging mad, and silly mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.

It shall suspect where is no cause to fear,
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust;
It shall be merciful, and too severe,
And most deceiving when it seems most just;
Perverse it shall be, where it shows most toward;
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward.

It shall be cause of war and dire events,
And set dissension ‘twixt the son and sire;
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustions matter is to fire.
Sith in his prime death doth my love destroy,
They that love best, their loves shall not enjoy.”