Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s retelling of the well-known myth of the doomed desire of the goddess of love for a young mortal, is an exuberant erotic narrative and a playful display of linguistic virtuosity in which Shakespeare contrives to tell a tragic story with a vitality of manner that often propels his material towards the comic. Like much Elizabethan poetry it is a product of the Renaissance fascination with classical myths, a concern that to a modern reader might seem to be distant and obscure. However, in early modern Europe, classical thought was widely held to contain the sources of intellectual and aesthetic truth, while the myths themselves could be reinterpreted for contemporary needs. The story of Venus and Adonis thus provided Shakespeare with a situation of intense dramatic conflict that he was able to exploit to illuminate questions that were germane to the real, everyday experience of his readers, and that retain equal, though perhaps different, interest for modern readers. Venus and Adonis concerns human relationships at their most elemental and frustrating level. It raises questions about the meaning of desire, about the relationship between self and other, about the troubled connections between comedy and tragedy, and about the connections between beauty, love and death. Underlying all of these concerns is the question of the relationship between language and power.
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