Guide To Shakespear

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Isaac Asimov

Asimov’s Guide To Shakespear

Isaac Asimov


Volume One

The Greek, Roman, and Italian Plays


Those of us who speak English as our native tongue can count a number of blessings. It is a widespread language that is understood by more people in more parts of the world than any other [Chinese has more speakers than English, but it is understood on a large scale only in eastern and southeastern Asia] and it is therefore the language that is most nearly an open door to all peoples.

Its enormous vocabulary and its relatively simple grammar give it un-equaled richness and flexibility and more than make up for its backward spelling. Its hospitality to idiomatic phrases and to foreign words gives it a colorful and dramatic quality that is without peer.

But most of all, we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived-in any language.

Indeed, so important are Shakespeare's works that only the Bible can compare with them in their influence upon our language and thought. Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms. (There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first tune and said, "I don't see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.")

I have a feeling that Shakespeare has even acted as a brake on the development of English. Before his time, English was developing so rapidly that the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, written shortly before 1400, had become unreadably archaic, two centuries later, to the Englishmen of Shakespeare's time. Yet now, after three and a half centuries, Shakespeare's plays can be read quite easily and with only an occasional archaic word or phrase requiring translation. It is almost as though the English language dare not change so much as to render Shakespeare incomprehensible. That would be an unacceptable price to pay for change.

In this respect, Shakespeare is even more important than the Bible. The King James version of the Bible is, of course, only a translation, although a supremely great one. If it becomes archaic there is nothing to prevent newer translations into more modern English. Indeed, such newer translations exist.

How, though, can anyone ever dream of "translating" Shakespeare into "modern English"? That would do, perhaps, if one were merely interested in the contents of Shakespeare. (It is, by analogy, in the contents of the Bible that we are interested, not in its exact syllables.)

But who can bear to have nothing more than the contents of Shakespeare's plays? What translation, even merely from one form of English into another form, could possibly reproduce the exact music and thunder of Shakespeare's syllables, and without that-

Yet in one respect Shakespeare recedes from us no matter how faithfully we follow the very syllables he uses. He wrote for all time, yes (whether he knew it or not), but he also wrote for a specific audience, that of Elizabethan Englishmen and -women. He gave its less educated individuals the horseplay and slapstick they enjoyed, and he gave its more educated individuals a wealth of allusion.

He assumed the educated portion of the audience were thoroughly grounded in Greek and Roman mythology and history, since that was part (and, indeed, almost the whole) of the classical education of the upper classes of the time. He assumed, also, that they were well acquainted with England's own history and with the geography of sixteenth-century Europe.

Modern Americans, however, are for the most part only vaguely aware of Greek mythology or Roman history. If anything, they are even less aware of those parts of English history with which Shakespeare deals.

This is not to say that one cannot enjoy Shakespeare without knowing the historical, legendary, or mythological background to the events in his plays. There is still the great poetry and the deathless swing of his writing. -And yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?

This is what it is in my mind to do in this book.

It is not my intention to discuss the literary values of the plays, or to analyze them from a theatrical, philosophical, or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in that direction.

What I can do, however, is to go over each of the thirty-eight plays and two narrative poems written by Shakespeare in his quarter century of literary life, and explain, as I go along, the historical, legendary, and mythological background.

In the process, I will, in some places, spend many pages on a single short speech which requires a great deal of background knowledge for its proper total appreciation. I may, in other places, skip quickly through whole acts which require nothing more than an understanding of a few archaic words to be crystal clear. (On the whole, I shall make no attempt to translate simple archaisms. This is done, quite adequately, in any briefly annotated edition of Shakespeare.)

In dealing with the plays, I will quote whatever passage inspires an explanation, but I will quote very little else. If the reader is reasonably familiar with a particular play, he will be able to read through the chapter devoted to it without needing to refer to the play itself. If he is not familiar with a particular play, it would probably help to keep it at hand for possible reference.

One matter over which I hesitated for a considerable length of time was the question of the order of presentation of the plays. The traditional order, as found in most editions of Shakespeare's collected works, groups the comedies first, then the histories, then the tragedies. This traditional order is very far removed from the order in which the plays were written. Thus, The Tempest, which is the first play in the ordinary editions, is the last play that Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is next, is one of the earliest.

It is possible to prepare an edition in which the plays are presented roughly in the order of their writing, something of value to those who study Shakespeare's developing techniques and ideas. This order can only be rough because it is not always certain in exactly which year a particular play was written. Worse yet, placing the plays in the chronological order of writing disrupts the histories and places them out of order as far as the historical events they deal with are concerned.

Since I am chiefly interested in this book in the historical, legendary, and mythological background of the events described in the various plays, I have decided to place the plays in the chronological order of those historical events as far as possible.

To begin with, I divide the plays into four broad groups: Greek, Roman, Italian, and English.

The Greek plays will include those that have their basis in Greek legend, as for instance, Troilus and Cressida; or in Greek history (however faintly), as Timon of Athens. It will also, however, include pure romances, with no claim whatever to any historical value, except that the background is arbitrarily set in a time we recognize as Greek-as The Winter's Tale.

The Roman plays include those that are based on actual history, as Julius Caesar, or on utterly non-historical, but Rome-based, inventiveness, as Titus Andronicus. (As it happens, even historical fiction such as The Winter's Tale and Titus Andronicus can be faintly related to actual historical events. No fiction writer is an island and no matter how he tries to draw on his imagination alone, the real world will intrude.)

The Italian plays are those set in a Renaissance Italian setting (or in nearby places such as France, Austria, or Illyria) which cannot be pinned down to any specific period of time. I will present the plays in this section in the order in which Shakespeare (as best we can tell) wrote them.

The English plays include not only the sober historical plays such as Richard II or Henry V, but also those which deal with the legendary period of English history before the Norman conquest or even, in the case of King Lear and Cymbeline, before the Roman conquest.

There is some overlapping. The Greek plays set latest in time are later than the earliest Roman plays; and the latest Roman plays are later than the earliest English plays. The radical difference in scene, however, makes it convenient to ignore this slight chronological inconsistency. With that out of the way, the order of plays and narrative poems in this volume will carry us through some twenty-eight centuries of history, from the time of legendary Greece before the Trojan War, to Shakespeare's own time.

To make a reasonably even division of the book into two volumes, the Greek, Roman, and Italian plays-in that order-will be grouped into Volume One. This will leave the English plays, to which I have devoted a little more than half the book, to form Volume Two.

In preparing this book, I have made as much use as I could of all sorts of general reference books: encyclopedias, atlases, mythologies, biographical dictionaries, histories-whatever came to hand.

To one set of books, however, I owe an especial debt. These are the many volumes of "The Signet Classic Shakespeare" (General Editor, Sylvan Barnet, published by New American Library, New York). It was, as a matter of fact, while reading my pleasurable way through these volumes that the notion of Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare occurred to me.

Part I. Greek

1. Venus And Adonis

Of all Shakespeare's writings, Venus and Adonis is the most straightforwardly mythological and traces farthest backward (if only dimly so) in history. For that reason, I will begin with it.

Earl of Southampton

"Venus and Adonis" bears a dedication:

To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of South ampton, and Baron of Tichfield.


Southampton was a well-educated youth of considerable wealth, who was presented at the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 1590, while he was still a boy in his teens. He quickly became a generous patron of poets, Shakespeare among them.

It is suggested that one of Shakespeare's early plays, Love's Labor's Lost (see page I-421) was written for a premiere performance at Southampton's house before an assemblage of his friends and guests. If so, the play must have pleased Southampton tremendously; his patronage to Shakespeare extended (so at least one report goes) to the gift of a thousand pounds-an enormous sum in those days-for the completion of some purchase. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare made his dedication to Venus and Adonis florid, indeed.

Nevertheless, considering that we know Shakespeare as a transcendent genius, and that Southampton was merely a rich young man who was no more than twenty years old when Venus and Adonis was published, there is something unpleasantly sycophantic about the dedication. Shakespeare pretends to worry, for instance-

— how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burthen;


Can he really doubt his own power so, or overestimate the young man so egregiously? Surely not. Can he be indulging in sarcasm? That would be foolishly risky and nothing in Shakespeare's career would lead us to suppose him a devil-may-care. He was rather the reverse.

Well then, is he merely buttering up a patron with a fat money belt? Perhaps so. It is easy to believe that this is the ordinary language of poets to patrons but it would still hurt us to suppose that Shakespeare would conform to so degrading a custom.

But, to be complete, it is also possible that there was a homosexual attachment and Shakespeare was writing out of love. This is possible. Some think most of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were written in this period of his life; most of them seem addressed to a young man, possibly (but not certainly) to Southampton [Shakespeare's sonnets, and a handful of other short poems attributed to him, are not taken up in this book. They are primarily emotional and personal, with little or none of the type of background I am dealing with here.]. The twentieth sonnet seems to have the frankest homosexual content. It begins:

A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted, Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;

—lines 1-2

But it denies overt homosexuality, ending:

And for a woman wert thou first created,

Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting

And by addition me of thee defeated

By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.

But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,

Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.

—lines 9-14

In addition, there are a number of events in Shakespeare's plays that can be interpreted from a homosexual point of view, yet which Shakespeare presents most sympathetically. There are the close male friendships, even to threatened death, as is Antonio's for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (see page I-501). There is Lucius' passion for Fidele in Cymbe-line (see page II-72) and the scene in which Orlando woos Ganymede in As You Like It (see page I-571).

But too little is known of Shakespeare's life to go any further than this. Any speculations as to his homosexual urges and to the extent to which he gave in to them, if they existed, can never be anything more than speculations. 

… the first heir of my invention …


Shakespeare goes on to say, in his dedication,

… if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather…


Venus and Adonis was published about April 1593, at which time Shakespeare was just twenty-nine. He had already established himself as a competent actor and had probably done considerable patching of old plays; notably Henry VI, Part One (see page II-640). Henry VI, Part Two and Henry VI, Part Three were mostly or entirely his and it is possible he had already written two comedies: The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost. It is even possible that two more plays, Titus Andronicus and Richard III were in the process of production.

These works, however, were meant to be played, not read, and it was to be years before they were actually published. Venus and Adonis was the first piece of Shakespeare's writings that actually appeared in print, and it was in that sense only "the first heir of my invention."

Shakespeare seems, by the way, to have turned to narrative poetry only because of a siege of enforced idleness. The London theaters were closed between mid-1592 and mid-1594 as a result of a heightened incidence of plagues, and Shakespeare used the additional time on his hands to write Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Rose-cheek'd Adonis...

The poem begins early in the day, with Adonis making ready to hunt:

Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,

Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase. Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn.


—lines 1-4

Adonis is the Greek version of a Semitic vegetation god. From the beginnings of agriculture, there must have been a kind of relief each year among the farmers that, after the death of vegetation in the fall, there was a rebirth in the spring. Rituals personifying this death-and-rebirth were invented and they must have been looked upon as a kind of flattering homage to Nature (or even as a hint to a possibly forgetful Nature), inducing her to continue. The feeling would surely arise at last that only a thorough-going carrying through of the ritual each year would bring about a fertile growing season and a good harvest, and upon that, life through the barren winter would depend.

In that sense, the type of myth of which the tale of Venus and Adonis is representative (though prettied-up from its straightforward origins by the sophisticated imaginations of the later classical poets), reflects the historic birth of agriculture. It can be tied to the great event, some seven thousand years before the Trojan War, that saw the first deliberate cultivation and harvest of wild grain in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in what is now western Iran.

The Sumerians, about 2000 b.c., represented the agricultural cycle with a god, Dumu-zi, who died and was resurrected; a death-and-resurrection which was celebrated each year by the people of the land. The myth and the ritual were adopted by the later Babylonians and Assyrians-the Semitic peoples who succeeded the Sumerians in the land of the Tigris and Euphrates. In the Semitic language of Babylonia, the name of the vegetation god became Tammuz.

In the Tammuz myth, the god descends into the underworld after his death and all vegetation dies with him. A wailing goddess (variously described as his sister, mother, or wife) manages to rescue him. In the most familiar form of the myth, the rescuer is Ishtar, his wife or love.

The passionate rites for Tammuz were exceedingly attractive to women in particular. They found emotional relief in the wailing and utter grief that symbolized Tammuz' death and in the almost orgiastic joy that came when the priests raised the cry that he was reborn.

The stern prophets of Israel had a hard job keeping the Israelite women from joining in this pagan rite. The tale of Jephthah's daughter was possibly an attempt to solve the problem by converting the rite into a patriotic commemoration. The Israelite general Jephthah had beaten the enemy, after making a rash vow to sacrifice the first living thing that came to greet him on his return. It turned out to be his daughter, whom he sacrificed. The Bible goes on to explain: "And it was a custom in Israel, That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year" (Judges 11:39-40).

If so, this pious wile did not work. Ezekiel, at the time of the Judean exile in Babylon, enumerated the sins of the Jews of the time and said that in the very Temple in Jerusalem "there sat women weeping for Tammuz" (Ezekiel 8:14).

And in one way, Tammuz has remained in Jewish consciousness ever since. The Babylonians named a month in honor of the god and the exiled Jews, in adopting the Babylonian calendar, adopted the month too. Even today, one of the months of the Jewish calendar (falling in the latter half of June and the earlier half of July) is called Tammuz.

The rites of a dead-and-resurrected God occur in the Greek myths too.

There is the case of Demeter (the grain goddess), whose daughter, Persephone, is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. While Persephone is gone, all grain withers, but finally Demeter manages to rescue her daughter under conditions that allow herself and Hades to share her, each for part of the year. The Eleusinian Mysteries, secret religious rites among the Greeks, seem to have involved the celebration of this death-and-resurrection, expanding it to include the resurrection of the human soul after the death of the human body.

As the Greeks and the Semites of the East gained more and more in the way of cultural interchange, the Tammuz version entered Greek mythology directly. Tammuz became Adonis.

The name shift is no mystery. Names of gods are always a little difficult to handle in any culture that considers the name of an object to be almost the equivalent of the object itself. To touch the name with one's own tongue and breath is a form of blasphemy and so circumlocutions are used. Instead of saying Tammuz, one says Lord (just as, in the Bible, Lord is used in place of Yahveh).

The Semitic term for "Lord" is "Adonai" and it was "Adonai," rather than "Tammuz," that was adopted by the Greeks. They added the final s, which is an almost invariable ending on Greek proper names, making it "Adonis."

Since Ishtar was the lover of Tammuz in the Babylonian myth, the equivalent of Ishtar would have to be the lover of Adonis in the Greek myth. The Greek equivalent of Ishtar was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.

The Greek myth had Adonis born the son of King Theias of Assyria. No such king existed in actual history, to be sure, but this is a hint of the Babylonian origin of the myth. We might suppose, therefore, that the scene of the poem is Babylonia, though Shakespeare never indicates any particular place-and perhaps gave the matter no thought at all.

Adonis' mother was Myrrha, who was herself the daughter of Theias. Myrrha had conceived an incestuous passion for her father and managed to sneak into his bed, with the result that she became pregnant by him. When the shocked father discovered the truth, he would have killed her, but the pitying gods changed her into the myrrh tree.

The myrrh tree yields a bitter resinous sap (myrrh), which oozes out when the bark is split. (The word "myrrh" is from an Arabic word meaning "bitter.") The sap is valued for its uses as incense and in cosmetics and embalming. (It was one of the three gifts brought to the infant Jesus by the wise men-"they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh," Matthew 2:11.)

The sap on being exposed to air hardens into resinous drops called "tears," and these are supposed to represent the tears of Myrrha over the terrible thing she had done. (Working backward, we can suppose that this part of the myth arose over the attempt to explain why a tree should seem to weep.)

In the Greek myth, the myrrh tree into which Myrrha had been changed split after nine months, and the infant Adonis emerged. Aphrodite (who had inspired Myrrha's fatal love in the first place) felt remorse at the event and rescued Adonis. She placed him in a box and gave him to Persephone, goddess of the underworld, for temporary safekeeping. Persephone, noting the beauty of the child, refused to give him back and there was a quarrel that ended with each having him part of the time.

Here again is the tale of whiter (Adonis with Persephone) and summer (Adonis with Aphrodite), enlivened, in the Greek way, by a story of forbidden love.

This, at least, is the myth as told by Apollodorus, an Athenian poet who lived in the second century b.c. Shakespeare does not follow this. He begins with Adonis as a grown man, says nothing of his origins, and concerns himself only with the final stage of the myth, following a version given by Ovid.

Ovid, who seems to have been Shakespeare's favorite classical author, is the Roman poet whose name in full was Publius Ovidius Naso. About a.d. 1 he was writing his most famous work-a version, in Latin verse, of those Greek myths that involved the transformation ("metamorphosis") of one living thing into another.

Ovid's book is therefore called Metamorphoses, and the myth of Adonis is included, since his mother had been turned into a myrrh tree.

Sick-tkoughted Venus…


In the final couplet of the first stanza, Shakespeare introduces the other member of the mythical duo:

Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him And like a bold-fac'd suitor gins to woo him.


—lines 5-6

This is not Aphrodite, notice, as it would be if Shakespeare were following the work of the Greek poet Apollodorus. Shakespeare is using the name of a Roman goddess instead, the name used by Ovid.

The Romans in the early centuries of their history had a primitive religion, with numerous gods and goddesses of a rather arid nature who were not to be compared with the sophisticated deities of the much more cultivated Greeks. From the third century b.c. onward, the Romans fell more and more under the spell of Greek culture and were impelled to adopt the beautiful and intricate Greek mythology. They could not very well drop their own deities; instead they compromised by identifying their own gods with the roughly corresponding gods of the Greeks and retold the Greek myths using the Roman names.

Here is a list of the chief gods and goddesses in their Roman and Greek versions:

Roman Greek

Jupiter Zeus  chief of the gods

Juno  Hera  his wife

Minerva  Athena  goddess of wisdom and practical arts

Diana  Artemis goddess of the moon and the hunt

Mercury Hermes  messenger of the gods

Mars  Ares  god of war

Vulcan  Hephaestus god of fire and the forge

Venus  Aphrodite goddess of love and beauty

Neptune  Poseidon  god of the sea

Vesta  Hestia  goddess of the hearth and home

Dis  Hades  god of the underworld

Ceres  Demeter goddess of grain and agriculture

Proserpina  Persephone  goddess of the underworld

One major god had, apparently, no Roman equivalent at all, which is not strange, for he was the most Greek of all the Greek gods. He was Apollo, the god of youth and the fine arts (and in later poetry, of the sun as well). The Romans used the Greek name, therefore. They also used Hades or, its equivalent, Pluto, in preference to their own Dis, since Dis (a fearsome underground deity) was not popular with them and they avoided naming him.

Two of the mortal heroes that people the Greek legends, and who play a prominent part in Shakespearean allusions, have altered names given them by the Romans. Thus, the greatest and strongest of all the Greek heroes was Heracles, but the Romans called him Hercules. Again, the wiliest of the Greeks at the siege of Troy was Odysseus, whom the Romans called Ulysses.

In medieval Europe the Greek myths reached the west only through such Roman filters as Ovid and therefore the names used were all Roman. Shakespeare uses the Roman names of the gods invariably.

I will conform to Shakespearean usage, though it goes against the grain to do so, since it is far more appropriate to use the Greek names in dealing with Greek myths. I will ease my conscience, therefore, by occasionally placing the Greek name in parentheses, just to remind the reader of its existence.

Shakespeare departs from his source material in one important way. He makes Adonis reluctant to respond to Venus. "Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn" and Venus, out of sheer necessity, must reverse the role of the sexes and "like a bold-fac'd suitor" be the aggressor.

There is precedent for this in Greek mythology. There was, for instance, Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. He was beloved by a fountain nymph, Salmacis, but he repulsed her coldly. Once, however, when he was bathing in her spring, she was able to unite with bun hi love, and fearing that she might never be able to repeat the act, prayed the gods that she might remain united with him physically forever.

Her prayer was granted and thereafter Hermaphroditus had the genital equipment of both sexes. The word "hermaphrodite" has, in consequence, entered the English language to represent that pathological bisexual condition.

A much better known example is mentioned by Venus herself in this poem. She complains of Adonis' coldness and accuses him of loving only himself. She warns him he runs risks in consequence, saying:

Narcissus so himself himself forsook, And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.


—lines 161-62

The tale of Narcissus begins with a nymph, Echo, who had, at Jupiter's orders, kept Juno busy with prolonged and idle gossip while Jupiter busied himself with various nymphs. When Juno found out, she punished Echo by depriving her of her voice-except that she was permitted to repeat the last words of anything said to her.

Unhappy Echo fell in love, thereafter, with Narcissus, a handsome youth who would love no one. She tried to woo him, but could only repeat his last words, and he fled from her impatiently, so that Echo pined away until only her voice was left.

And then one day Narcissus came across a clear spring in which he saw his own face. He had never seen his face before and, staring at it now, fell in love with it. He attempted to woo it, but the shadow could not respond and, in effect, rejected him, so that "himself himself forsook." Attempting, finally, to kiss his shadow, Narcissus drowned, and he too added a word to our language-"narcissism," the morbid love of one's self.

This trick of having Adonis cold to Venus gives Shakespeare a chance to turn his poetic powers to a less hackneyed motif than that of a man's praise of womanly beauty. He can turn to the harder and less familiar task of a woman's praise of manly beauty.

Then too, if we go along with the homosexual component of Shakespeare, it may be significant that a poem dedicated to young Southampton features the prolonged praise of manly beauty and a prolonged pleading for a love that is not, and cannot, be given.

… god of war

Venus points out that she is rarely refused when she asks for love:

"I have been wooed, as I entreat thee now, Even by the stern and direful god of war,


—lines 97-98

One of the most famous tales of Venus/Aphrodite is her love affair with Mars/Ares. The tale is told in the Odyssey (Homer's epic poem concerning the voyages of Odysseus), in which Venus is pictured as married to Vulcan/Hephaestus, the ugly and lame smith god. Venus is, under these conditions, quite ready to respond to the wooing of Mars.

Vulcan, suspecting that Venus is being unfaithful, rigged up a device whereby an unbreakable net could fall upon the bed and catch Venus and Mars in the position of love. This was done; Mars and Venus were helplessly bound together while the angry Vulcan called in the other gods to witness his wife's criminal behavior. Unfortunately for himself, the reaction of the gods was not one of sympathy for Vulcan, but rather of envy for Mars.

And Titan …

By now, the sun was high in the sky:

And Titan, tired in the midday heat,

With burning eye did hotly overlook them,

Wishing Adonis had his team to guide,

So he were like him, and by Venus' side.


—lines 177-80

In the Greek myths, Jupiter/Zeus and his fellow deities had not always ruled the universe. Before them had been a race of older gods whom they supplanted. (Perhaps this is a reflection in myth of the supercession of the pre-Greeks of the Balkan peninsula by the invading Greek tribes.)

These older gods were called Titans, and their chief was Cronus, whom the Romans called Saturn.

The Titan who served as the god of the sun was Hyperion. One way of saying this, mythologically, was to make him the father of Helios (the Greek word for "sun"). Both "Hyperion" and "Helios" are thus used in classic-minded literature to represent the sun. Since both are considered Titans, the sun can be called, as here, "Titan."

The sun was always pictured as a blazing, golden chariot, driven by a team of wild, fiery horses. It is with this in mind that Shakespeare pictures the "Titan" as wishing Adonis held the reins and he himself were lying by Venus.

In later Greek poetry, Apollo was made the god of the sun, and Shakespeare, in the course of his writing, uses "Apollo" to symbolize the sun too. The Titaness Phoebe, a sister of Hyperion, was the goddess of the moon, and the myths make Apollo a grandson (on his mother's side) of Phoebe. He inherits the ancient name in its masculine form, then, and is called Phoebus or Phoebus Apollo, "Phoebus" too is used by Shakespeare to represent the sun.

Thy mermaid's voice …

Adonis is only irritated by Venus' pleadings. While she keeps him back from the hunt with her attempted love-making, his stallion spies a mare and breaks loose. Adonis fails to recapture him and petulantly scolds Venus, blaming her for the loss.

Venus laments that she suffers twice, first because he will not speak to her, and second because when at last he does, it is to scold her. She says:

Thy mermaid's voice hath done me double wrong;


—line 429

The Greeks had, in their myths, tales of beautiful young women, called sirens, who rested on the rocks of a seashore and sang in heavenly voices. Sailors passing by would be attracted by them and, steering their boats nearer, would meet death upon the rocks.

Originally sirens may have been wind spirits carrying off the souls of the dead, and were sometimes pictured with birds' bodies. However, the wind was more deadly on sea than on land, and the sirens became more and more closely associated with the sea until they were pictured as creatures who were women down to the waist and fish below that.

These are the "mermaids" ("sea-maids"), who bewitch sailors to their doom on the rocks, as they sit combing their long hair and singing. The famous German poem "Die Lorelei" is of such a creature.

So when Venus speaks of Adonis' "mermaid voice" she means a beautiful voice that is luring her to doom. 

… worse than Tantalus'.. .

 The day is drawing to a close and Adonis finally manages to get Venus to promise to leave him alone if he kisses her. He proceeds to do so but she returns the embrace in such full measure that he has all he can do to disengage himself. He then reveals that the next day he intends to hunt boar.

At this Venus is sent into a paroxysm of fear, lest he be killed in so dangerous a pursuit. She seizes him and they fall to the ground in the very position of love. Yet even so, to Venus' frustration, he will do nothing.

That worse than Tantalus' is her annoy To clip Elysium and to lack her joy.


—lines 599-600

Tantalus was a Peloponnesian king who was an intimate friend of Jupiter and the other gods. He was admitted to their feasts and in return he invited them to his house. For some reason, perhaps to test their divine knowledge, he served them the flesh of his own son when they were feasting at his house. The gods were horrified. They restored the son to life, and, for his detestable crime, Tantalus was killed by Jupiter's lightning bolt. What's more, Tantalus was sent to Tartarus, the region beneath Hades where particularly wicked people were specially punished.

Tantalus' punishment was to stand in water up to his neck in eternal frustration. He was consumed by thirst, but every time he stooped to drink, the water swirled downward. Fruit-laden branches hovered temptingly near and he was famished, but every time he reached to snatch a fruit, it whisked away. It is from this that the word "tantalize" is derived.

For Venus, to have Adonis exactly where he ought to be and yet have him make no use of the fact seems a frustration worse than that of Tantalus. She was in Tartarus, even though she was "clipping" (holding) Elysium, which was the Greek version of Paradise.

In the Homeric writings, Elysium or "the Elysian plain" existed in the far west, the dimly explored (and therefore wonder-filled) western regions of the Mediterranean Sea, where heroes were taken after death to live in eternal bliss. By later writers this had to be transported beyond the ocean rim, for explorers reached the westernmost point of the Mediterranean shores without finding Elysium. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing a century after Homer, speaks of "the Islands of the Blest" lying out in the Atlantic.

As geographic knowledge continued to broaden, the Roman poet Vergil, writing six centuries after Hesiod, was forced to move Elysium underground, making it a portion of Hades devoted to delight. It was suffused with an eternal spring. Its flowers, groves, and fountains were lit by soft sunshine during the day and by the familiar constellations at night. Then the righteous, resting on banks of resilient and perfumed flowers, lived in never-ending felicity.

… modest Dian ...

Venus urges Adonis to hunt foxes or hares, anything that is not dangerous, rather than boars. Adonis, having paid his kiss, finds that he still cannot disengage himself from her wild grasp. It is night already and he is annoyed at this, for it will be hard to find his way. Venus turns this too into praise of Adonis' beauty.

So do thy lips

Make modest Dian cloudy and forlorn,

Lest she should steal a kiss and die forsworn.

Now of this dark night I perceive the reason:

Cynthia for shame obscures her silver shine,


—lines 724-28

The Titaness who served as goddess of the moon was Phoebe. However, Hyperion, the Titan god of the sun, had not only Helios as a son but Selene as a daughter. "Selene" is the Greek word for "moon" and that name was the most common mythological representation of the moon.

The later poets, however, transferred the duty of serving as goddess of the moon to Diana/Artemis, the sister of Apollo. She is also called Cynthia because she was supposed to have been born on a mountain called Cynthus on a small island in the Aegean Sea. Apollo is therefore, but much less frequently, called Cynthius.

Diana is, of all the Greek goddesses, the most insistently virgin. Venus therefore says that Adonis may lose his way or trip because the night is dark; and the night is dark because the moon hides herself, lest while shining on Adonis' beautiful face she be unable to resist kissing him, thus ruining her rigid chastity.

A purple flower...

Venus' urgings are all in vain. The next day he hunts the boar and is slain. The horrified Venus finds him:

And in his blood, that on the ground lay spill'd

A purple flower sprung up, check'red with white,

Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood

'Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.


—lines 1167-70

The flower that arose out of the blood, according to the myth, was the anemone, and its appearance makes a second reason why the tale qualifies for inclusion in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

This is not the only flower that was supposed to have originated out of the blood of a mortal loved by a god.

There was the case, for instance, of a beautiful Spartan prince, Hya-cinthus, with whom Apollo fell in love. (The Greeks had a tolerant and even approving attitude toward male homosexuality, and the Greek gods indulged in it too.) The West Wind was also in love with Hyacinthus and when Apollo and Hyacinthus were exercising by throwing the discus, the West Wind, out of jealousy, blew the discus against the boy's head, killing him. From the blood of Hyacinthus sprang the hyacinth, which carries on its petals markings that look like the first two letters of the name of Hyacinthus (in Greek), two letters which, coincidentally, mean "woe."

… to Paphos. ..

Shakespeare's version of the story ends there, with the disastrous climax of Adonis' death. The last, and 199th, stanza, reads:

Thus weary of the world, away she hies

And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid

Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies «

In her light chariot quickly is convey'd,

Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen

Means to immure herself and not be seen.


—lines 1189-94

The doves, for their amorous dispositions, their whiteness and gentleness, are fitting representations of romantic love and are therefore associated with Venus. Shakespeare makes a number of allusions to her doves in the course of his writings.

Paphos is a town on the western shore of the island of Cyprus, a town particularly dedicated to the worship of Venus. She is sometimes called the "Paphian goddess" as a result and sometimes "Cypris."

In the Greek myth, however, the tale of Adonis does not end with his death and Venus' mourning. In the proper fashion of death-and-resurrection, Venus goes to Jupiter and persuades him to make an arrangement whereby Proserpina, queen of the underworld, can have Adonis for half the year and she for the other half. And thus, Adonis, like the vegetation god he is, dies and is resurrected each year.

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