Love, the Two Sided Sword
How do Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply explore the theme of love through contrasting interpretations?
“Thank you, I’ll say goodbye soon
Though it’s the end of the world, don’t blame yourself…Now
And if it’s true, I’ll surround you and give life to a world
That’s our own”
Love is an emotion which transcends all boundaries, since it is interwoven to the human experience and a foundation of humanity; many texts have tried to interpret the magnitude and consequences of love. Venus and Adonis twists Ovid’s classic tale to reflect the dance of love, the pushing and pulling between two parties, whilst The Nymph’s Reply emphasizes a cold and logical response to stifle a burst of passion.
In many respects Venus and Adonis could be read as a cautionary tale against resisting the natural temptations of passion and lust and the socially accepted practice of forming a stable relationship to create children. Adonis has reached the age of adolescent, the age where he can openly choose his future, whether that lies in the realm of hyper-masculinity or a reality where he embraces feminine emotions like love. Unfortunately Adonis’ obsession with the militant characteristics of masculinity such as being a soldier or hunting means his “heart stands armed in his ear.” Adonis views love in a logical and emotionless state and thus he is never able to understand its power to unite. He responds to Venus’ advances with more references to his violent and militaristic mentality “remove your siege from my unyielding heart/ to love’s alarms it will not ope the gate.” Adonis’ fixation on the unattractive elements of love ultimately leads to his demise, this epyllion warns about the dangers of forsaking love and delving too deeply into masculinity. On the other hand, The Nymph’s Reply pushes a different agenda, emphasising the benefits of choosing logic over love, believing that desires to reproduce or fall in love are foolish.
Unwilling and unable to succumb to the weakening effects of love, Adonis is consumed with slaying a boar, a symbol of uncontrolled masculinity and reckless passion during the Renaissance. Blinded by his need to prove himself, Adonis forsakes one of the foundational pillars of humanity; the ability to forge and maintain sophisticated and complex relationships. Another interpretation may view Adonis’ death as a warning against homosexuality since one is straying into a relationship deemed ‘unnatural’ since “thou art bound to breed.” This reading is reinforced by the description of the boar as the “loving swine” who had attempted to “nuzzle” with Adonis and merely wanted to plant a kiss on him, the sexual connotations hinting at a possible romance. The tusk “sheathed in his soft groin” emphaises how homosexuality can be dangerous. It symbolically destroys Adonis’ manhood; as homosexual relationships are inherently unable to create new life, necessary to maintain the human species.
The Nymph’s Reply explores the theme of from a different angle, unlike Venus and Adonis which warns about the dangers of isolation and failing to build a connection to others, the Nymph completely rejects the notion of love. Because human life is finite, promises of love and passion will only echo true in the moment, for the Nymph such rhetoric only serves to hide the suitor’s lust. This is echoed in the statement “If all the world and love were young/ and truth in every shepherd’s tongue” the hyperbole sorely contradicts the sombre reality of an imperfect world where the nymph and her suitors live in. An imperfect world where idealistic emotions fall on deaf ears, where promises of fidelity ring hollow.
The Nymph shares a similar opinion to Adonis, believing love to be an intrusive force, powerful enough to strip away one’s independence. The vast majority of the poem involves the Nymph scientifically and methodically refuting the shepherd’s words, “Times drives the flocks from field to fold… Rivers rage and rocks grow cold.” In the Nymph’s Reply there is a clear focus upon winter imagery, purposely contradicting and countering the connotations of spring, hope and growth found in the shepherd’s response. This is also reflected in “The flowers do fade, and wanton fields/ to wayward reckoning yields.” The physical gifts like gowns, caps and a bed of roses promised by the shepherd “soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten:” the repetition of “soon” further reinforces the fragility of love and how promises of faithfulness, which were once full of joy and gratitude will deteriorate. The decay of natural objects is a metaphor for the fading feelings that humans will inevitably experience. Unlike Venus, who tries to persuade Adonis to have sexual intercourse with her because life is short, beauty will eventually fade and thus one is charged to enjoy and relish their youth. The Nymph sees love as rather pointless, a superficial and trivial feeling which cannot and will not survive the passing of time.
The Nymph stands as the traditional symbol of the Petrarchan mistress, being virtuous and beautiful in one sense but cruel and unempathetic on the other hand. But in Venus and Adonis, this role which is typically reserved for the female is filled by Adonis, highlighting how love and passion respects no boundaries like gender, age or culture. The uncontrollable desires and consequences are shown to bringing out the animal savagery within people, transforming the noble goddess into a fierce and violent eagle. Unsatisfied with Adonis, Shakespeare gives us a gorgy description of Venus’ pursuit “Tires with her beak in feathers, flesh and bone… devouring all in haste… till gorge be stuffed or prey be gone.” The morphing of characters are poetic techniques trying to capture the selfish and destructive capabilities of unchecked lust or passion. These emotions have the ability to transform a human being into whatever it wills, where that is an animal, a flower or be the catalyst for an incestuous and borderline paedophilic relationship.
It is through these animal metaphors that, Shakespeare’s presentation of love starts to match the Nymph’s Reply, “Now quick desire hath caught the yielding prey… I’ll be a park and thou shalt be my deer.” By degrading Adonis to a prey and a deer, the possessive and selfish motivators in love are revealed; Venus’ words are inspired by lust, which is inseparable from love or passion. The extended metaphor of Venus’ body as a park and Adonis as a small, insignificant animal trapped within, further reinforces the one sided nature of love, the negative qualities which the Nymph spoke off. The crippling repercussions are so strong that even the god of love and fertility has fallen victim to her own domain, as Shakespeare paradoxically writes “She’s love, she loves, yet she is not loved.”
There are many similarities and differences between the two texts, as they both try to explore the diverse topic of love from various perspectives. Venus and Adonis focuses upon the push and pull of two people. Whilst it stresses the controlling and damaging aspects of love, if Adonis embraced love, he would have been ultimately saved. The Nymph’s Reply on the other hand aims to purely point out the unreliable nature of love as it attempts to cover up lustful intentions, the Nymph’s responses pushes the belief that love is superficial in a superficial world.