(Un)natural Loving:
Swine, Pets, and Flowers in Venus and Adonis

Dympna Callaghan

 

 

     1. The history of the twentieth century is such that one is tempted to assume it has surpassed all previous eras in every form of depravity. Yet, one abuse, which much preoccupied the inhabitants of early modern England, "buggery with beasts," has been either in sharp decline since the Renaissance, or at the very least, has been eclipsed by more comprehensively destructive rapes of nature.1

     2. One can say with certainty, in any event, that attitudes toward bestiality (which are probably never fully coincident with practice) were markedly different in the early modern period than in our own. For the Renaissance, sexual congress with brute creation transgressed the fundamental distinction between the human and the animal even as it served to articulate the notion of an absolute and inviolable distinction between them. Bestiality was the worst of sexual crimes according to one Stuart moralist because "[I]t turns man into a very beast, makes a man a member of a brute creature."2

     3. It was in 1534, at the beginning of the Reformation, that animal buggery, "When a man or woman commiteth filthinesse with a beast,"3 became a capital offense. This legislation, which proffers an unaccustomed view of rural life in Tudor England (one assumes, perhaps unjustly, that bestiality was less prevalent in towns) was renewed in 1536, 1540, 1548, 1553, and again by Elizabeth I. (Offenders could be hanged for this transgression up until 1861).4 Legal and moral anxiety about bestiality reveals the androcentric boundaries of certain foundational categories in the period's taxonomy--"man" and beast, culture and nature--and in doing so brings the radical alterity of nascent modernity starkly into focus. This is important not because this particular past is usually remote and hidden, but rather because it is so familiar and proximate, everywhere so visibly embedded in the structures of the present that it is only with difficulty that we can see it as belonging to history at all. The system of distinctions around bestiality reveals, then, not so much the categories it takes such pains to detail, but rather exposes the difference between the past and the present, the space of history itself.

     4. In what follows, I want to address a series of related conceptual categories--humans and animals, culture and nature--which are largely the same as our own but whose demarcations and contents are irreducibly different. The textual focus of my analysis is Shakespeare's singularly Ovidian poem Venus and Adonis (1593), whose literary merit has hitherto been generally understood to reside in those moments closest to our modern sensibilities, namely, in its exquisite mimetic descriptions of the natural world.5

     5. In Shakespeare's poem, the fundamental distinction between the human and the animal, whose articulation is undergirded by the ostensible sexual integrity of the human species, also depends on what threatens to undermine it, namely sex itself. Indeed, Renaissance Ovidian poetry with its emphasis on illicit sexual desire and "unnatural" consummation, as well as metamorphosis, represents the disturbing capacity to "turn man into a very beast," to effect, like bestiality, an "unlawful conjunction," "which is a most abominate confusion."6 That is, poetic metaphor contains the propensity to convert the human into the animal, or more radically, in the specific context of metamorphosis, to reduce it to the vegetative matter at the base of nature. Taking bestiality as a new figure for the demarcation between culture and nature, I propose that these categories are themselves produced along a spectrum of specifically sexual discriminations about "kind."7

I. Loving Swine

'Tis true, 'tis true, thus was Adonis slain:
          He ran upon the boar with his sharp spear,
          Who did not whet his teeth at him again,
          But by a kiss thought to persuade him there;
          And nuzzling in his flank, the loving swine
          Sheath'd unaware the tusk in his soft groin.

     6. Consistent with the Ovidian world of forbidden wishes, the death of Adonis constitutes the fatal consummation of interspecies desire: "I know not love," quoth he, "nor will not know it, / Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it "(409-10). A painfully comic measure of Adonis's profound alienation from his own species,8 "the tusk in his soft groin" serves as a grotesque parody of the legal definition of bestiality, "carnall knowledge" of a brute, as explained by Sir Edward Coke in The Third Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England (1644): "[T]here must be penetratio, that is, res in re, either with beast, but the least penetration maketh it carnall knowledge."9 Coke's solemn explication cannot fully anticipate a scenario, such as the one outlined by Venus, where the animal and not the human, "the loving swine," is the active sexual partner. Like Coke, Peter Barker's A Judicious and Painefull Exposition upon the ten commandments (1624) envisages human culpability and bestial ingenuousness: "Buggery with beasts is . . . a sinne so hated of God, that the innocent and harmless beast should dye as well as the party that committed the fact."10 William Gouge, likewise denies animal agency claiming that beasts (contra Venus) never attempt sex with humans or other creatures outside their own species: "bruit beasts content themselves with their own Kinde."11

     7. Certainly, the poem's comic imputations about bestiality had serious ramifications in a culture where, as Keith Thomas points out: "The frequency with which bestiality was denounced by contemporary moralists suggests that the temptation could be a real one."12 Summarizing conventional wisdom on the matter of venturing outside one's own species for sexual satisfaction, Richard Capel's Tentations (1635) admonishes: "It is a pit, out of which those few that do fall into it do hardly recover: it is like a winter Plague, some doe recover, but in comparison of those that perish, a poore few."13 Similarly in the widely circulated Domesticall Duties, William Gouge finds it necessary to point out the importance of selecting as a marriage partner another human being, "One of the same Kinde or nature":

     for among all the creatures which were made, there was not found an helpe meet for man: therefore God out of his bone and flesh made a woman of his owne nature and Kinde.

     Contrary to this is the detestable sinne of buggery with beasts, expressly forbidden by the law.14

Although there is a degree of cultural uncertainty--one made very much apparent in Shakespeare's poem-- about the question of woman's "kinde," Gouge constructs what amounts to a choice, not between, say, heterosexuality and homosexuality, but between the love of women and the love of beasts.

     8. Yet, Adonis is unequivocal in his election of the boar over Venus, a choice which the poem constructs within a specifically sexual context. Thomas Middleton's A Mad World My Masters (c. 1604), a play which explicitly references Venus and Adonis (I. ii. 44), offers an interesting cultural reflection on the implications of such an erotic choice. In this play, "The worst [creature] that ever breathes" (IV. iii.), "a wild boar," is punningly extrapolated as and conflated with "a vild whore, Sir" (IV. iii. 71-5). Both sexual and species difference here articulate the contradictory, driving forces of attraction and repulsion that characterize heterosexual and misogynist male desire. This double nature of desire, however, is apparent not only in terms of men's conflicted feelings about female sexuality, but also, astonishingly, in relation to pigs. For example, Gervase Babington in commentary on Old Testament dietary prescriptions rather like those of Zeal-of-the-land Busy in Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair, demonstrates a deep-seated hatred of swine, matched only by his equally profound love of sausage:

     The Swine was uncleane, because he parteth the hoofe, but cheweth not the cudde; and of their flesh they might not eate, nor touch their carkasse &cc. . . . God would admonish the Jewes by this figure, and still we may learne by it, to be no Swine, no Hogges, no fylthie myrie creatures, wallowing in sinne and uncleannesse, withought regard and feeling, loving the earth, and looking ever on the earth and rooting in it all the day, and feeding the bellie with all greedinesse. . . . A knife therefore to the Hogge, that we may have Puddings.15

Babington's desire for "Puddings" finds him in violation of the very injunction he is at pains to explicate and appears to run a very different course from that of Adonis's perilous pursuit of wild bacon. The latter, however, is curiously contiguous with the Biblical injunction against sodomy in Judges V. 7, defined as "going after strange flesh" (Capel 358). Since sodomy is in the period a figure for the reversal and dissolution of order, the risibly gruesome ars verse of Adonis's preposterous death carries inescapable (and ultimately tragic) imputations of human as well as bestial buggery, especially in the image of his feminized, castrated/invaginated body: "the wide wound that the boar had trenched / In his soft flank."16 From the chiastic formulation of the opening lines: "Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn" (1-2), the poem rhetorically anticipates the final transposition of categories--hunter and quarry/man and beast. In thus forging an alliance between comic inversion and sodomitical reversal, Venus and Adonis is undeniably, as Mario DiGangi has observed, "a highly queer" poem.17

     9. In fact, in legal and religious discourse of the period, bestiality and homosexuality were often contiguously positioned. In Gervase Babington's biblical commentary, bestiality and sodomy are near neighbors: "Thou shalt not lye with the male, as one lyeth with a woman: for it is abhomination. Thou shalt not also lye with any beast to be defiled therewith."18 Sir Edward Coke's legal explication concurred:

If any person shall commit buggery with mankind, or beast; by authority of parliament this offence is adjudged felony without benefit of Clergy. . . Buggery is a detestable, and abominable sin, amongst Christians not to be named, committed by carnall knowledge against the ordinance of the Creator, and order of nature, by mankind with mankind, or with bruite beast, or by woman-kind with bruite beast.19

Curiously, it is not so much object choice (man, woman, or animal) that is a matter for condemnation here, but the somewhat undefined practice of "buggery" itself.20 Having ruled out a series of possible options for sexual encounter, intercourse between men and women presumably remains, like English Protestantism, the via media. This is, of course, the very middle path--woman not beast--that Adonis refuses to take. In this, he demonstrates obstinate indifference to received cultural wisdom on several fronts, including Edward Topsell's sage admonition that "It behooveth the hunter of boars to be very wary."21

     10. The indistinction of boundaries between animal and human sexuality, on the one hand, and animal ferocity and divine vengeance on the other, is played out, most vividly in Venus's own identification of her lust for Adonis with that of the boar: "Had I been tooth'd like him, I must confess / With kissing him I should have killed him first." There is, indeed, a cultural consensus on the libidinous nature of boars. Andrew Willet emphasizes both the similarities between human coitus and the mating habits of boars in Hexapla, a commentary on Leviticus: "This kinde of creature is prone unto lust, and more then [sic] commonly other are: for at eight moneths they begin to couple; and when they begin, they keepe not their seasons and times of the yeere, as other beasts doe, but at all times, and night and day they come together."22 Venus herself relates to Adonis the terrifying demeanor of the boar, "a mortal butcher" whose back has "a battle set / Of bristly pikes," whose "snout digs sepulchers where're he goes," and "whom he strikes his crooked tushes slay" (619-24). Edward Topsell's natural history of the period, The History of Foure-Footed Beasts, paints a similarly vivid portrait not just of the boar's ferocity, but also of his savage lust:

[B]eing inflamed with venereal rage, he so fretteth upright the bristles of his neck, that you would take them to be the sharp fins of Dolphins; then champeth he with his mouth, grateth and gnasheth his teeth one against another, and breathing forth his boyling spirit, not only at his eys, but at his foaming white mouth, he desireth nothing but copulation, and if his female endure him quietly, then doth She satisfie his lust, and kill all his anger; but if she refuse, then doth he either constrain her against her will or else layeth her dead upon the earth.23

Crucially, the boar's violent sexual aggression is connected by Topsell with a refusal of coitus. In this, the boar has a ferocious, vengeful, and specifically masculine energy: "[T]he males have upon that occasion deadly and strange fights, one with another, and the wilde Boares whet their tuskes against trees for the fight."24 While the boar has an inescapably masculine dimension, Venus's identification with this beast also resembles that between the goddess Diana and the boar of Calydon in Book VIII of the Metamorphosis, "The which Diana for to wreake her wrath conceyvde" (360), and "In great Orithyas thigh a wound with hooked groyne he drew" (497). Thus, Adonis's boar "always has the double role of being both the Goddess, infernalized and enraged, and her infernal consort (Mars in boar form)."25

     11. In a story familiar in the Renaissance via both Euripides and Seneca, Hippolytus, son of Theseus, is dragged to his death by a monstrous sea bull who frightens the horses pulling his chariot along the strand. Crucially, this ferocious sea creature represents the slighted Aphrodite. Not only has Hippolytus rejected the goddess, however, but he has also spurned the incestuous advances of his stepmother, Phaedra: "the rejected Goddess comes to emerge in her animal form, claiming in violence what she has been denied in love."26 The boar, then, has mythological connotations of taking vengeance on behalf of rejected yet powerful women. There is, in addition, a parallel notion current in the moral literature of the period that animals are capable of avenging themselves on humans who use them in acts of sexual perversity. Thomas Beard in The Theatre of Gods Judgements (1597) offers instances of precisely this phenomenon whereby nature retaliates on depraved human sexuality. A male goat avenges the buggery committed upon his mate by a shepherd by "running at him so furiously with his hornes, that he left him dead upon the ground."27 Similarly a horse "ran so furiously upon the keeper," who has compelled him to mate with his mother, that "incontinently he tore him in pieces."28

     12. When the ironically named Elizabethan family of love declared that all men were brothers, and added "whosoever is not of [our] sect, [we] account him as a beast that hath no soul,"29 they demonstrated that violence is the logical (and ideological) destination of difference, and that it is inherent in the absolute distinction to which difference is always continually propelled. The regimes of gender and species difference necessarily inhere not only in desire but also in violence. So it is that Adonis loves the ferocious boar and Venus "murders with a kiss."

     13. The queasy, tragicomic violence of Adonis's end on the tusk of a loving swine follows in the wake of the most frothily humorous dimension of Shakespeare's epylion, namely, the transposition of gender attributes between the lovers manqués. The exaggeratedly feminine, hefty, oversized goddess of love, saturated with corporeality and perspiration, figures both the fragile cultural membrane that separates the feminine from animal sexuality as well as the taxonomic confusion that ties them together.30

II. Pets

     14. While it is axiomatic that the only perfect companion has four feet, in Shakespeare's poem the only sexual companion has four feet. Animals, like the "lusty courser" (31) are possessed of a sexuality which is happily confined within the bounds of "natural" propriety. Here, nature is resolutely natural while human sexuality--although, strictly speaking, flinty Adonis is the only human (mortal) in the poem--is aberrant. Contemporary moralists such as Richard Capel argued that human beings are tempted to "unnaturall sins" like bestiality and incest because "Sathan hath no naturality in him, for he lost all in his fall: the Law of Nature was not given to him" (Capel 52; 53-4).31 Even Venus in her sexual persona as Nature is given to perverse, and therefore "unnatural" desire, signaled in the poem not only by Adonis's indifference to her but also by the uneasily semi-incestuous tenor of her designs upon him. Not only, says Capel, will the devil "tempt on both sides of the hedge if he can," but also as he points out, in a remark which is of considerable relevance to the psychosexual dynamics of the poem: "It is our corrupt humor, to be strongest where we are denied."32 Indeed, the poem repeatedly engages the question of what, given the inherent perversity of desire, constitutes "natural" sexual behavior--among human beings, among animals, as well as in that shady area, both literal and metaphoric, of relations between the species.

     15. The blindly procreative aspect of her divinity represented by Venus genetrix together with her rapacity as Venus vulgaris offers a reminder that Venus's identity is essentially non-human, both bestial and immortal. Crucially, also, the poem signals her specifically maternal and feminine propinquity to the animal kingdom. Amid parodic33 and overtly bestial variations on coitus, there is also some very heavy petting:

"Fondling," she saith, "since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale.
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer:
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale;
Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie." (229-234)

Venus's outlandish imagery reverses the familiar poetic trope whereby the woman is the poet's hunted hind (as, for example in Sir Thomas Wyatt's Petrarchan Whoso List to Hunt, I Know Where is an Hind) and Adonis as "deer" is reminiscent of Mistress Ford's mockery of Falstaff's romantic rhetoric in Merry Wives: "Sir John? art thou my there, my deer? My male deer?" (V. v. 16-17). "Feed where thou wilt," an invitation to the breast (the "mountain") and to cunnilingus ("lower where the pleasant fountains lie"), further positions Venus in a simultaneously maternal and sexual relation to Adonis. It is the liminal condition of femininity that signals Venus's alliance with nature. Within a single animal identity, she is possessed of an almost instinctive sexual voracity and maternal nurture: "With blindfold fury she begins to forage" (554); "glutton-like she feeds, but never filleth" (548). Venus's animal insatiability as a mother bears some resemblance to a phenomenon described by E. Fenton in Certaine Secrete Wonders of Nature (1569). In this account, the all-consuming appetites of a pregnant woman are such that she turns not beast but cannibal, the terrifying embodiment of devouring femininity: "lusting to eate the flesh of a faire boy." Monstrosity in general, Fenton opines, is the result of animal sexuality, which, he argues, violates the laws of nature:

It is moste certaine, that these monstrous creatures, for the most part do proceede of the judgement, justice, chastisement and curse of God, which suffreth the fathers and mothers bring forth these abominations, as a horrour of their sinne, suffering themselves to run headlong, as brute beastes without guide to the puddle or sink of their filthie appetites, having no respect or reggarde to the age, place, tyme or other lawes ordained of Nature. . . .34

     16. Her simultaneously amorous and motherly address to Adonis as "Fondling," also, connotes both pet and infant, and blurs the boundaries between sexual and non-sexual relations. Adonis becomes Venus's animal familiar, her protected game, a deer/dear within "this ivory pale" (240). In petting the "fondling" Adonis, Venus transgresses--and perhaps, transcends--both interspecies, intergenerational, and intrafamilial distinctions.35 Pet keeping is inescapably parental, making the beast part of the family, obscuring the division between kin and kind. Thus, as moralists continually reminded their readers, "The change is easie, from naturall love to Carnall."36

     17. Of course, the relationship of pethood is precisely (or, rather, ideally) not-sexual, though it is so as much on grounds of incest as of bestiality. Incest and bestiality constitute categories which are conceptually and antithetically related because they define with what or whom sexual congress is permitted or prohibited. Incest prohibits endogamy and finds its furthest exogamous reach in bestiality while bestiality, the cultural imperative against endogamy, discovers its logical destination in incest.37 Incest and bestiality are, in fact, versions of one another, and neither prohibition is necessary or "natural." In a sense, Adonis finds himself caught between the suffocating passions of the maternal Venus, and the ferocious embrace of a "loving swine." In this situation, connection between "kin" and "kind" (Hamlet I. ii. 65), or rather, the imperative to make the distinction between them, becomes critical. That is, at one level, forced to choose between bestiality and incest, Adonis chooses bestiality. Pets, however, serve as transitional objects that conveniently defer the necessity of making such a drastic choice. If Venus can keep Adonis as a pet, she can possess him both as child and lover, human and animal.

     18. While, as we have seen, bestiality was discursively if not actually rife in this period, the institution of pethood had yet to be fully instantiated. In a statement that might be intended to discourage a range of possible behaviors, from copulation with donkeys to fondness for kittens, Erasmus in De Civilitate Morum Puerilium argued that "Over-familiar usage of any brute creature is to be abhorred."38 He would surely have condemned Samuel Pepys who confessed the jealously he felt ("God forgive me") when a dog was brought to line with his little bitch.39 A less disturbing instance of pet love, one is tempted to say, evidence of a more robust affection, was to be found in Sir John Harington's account (1608) of "my rare dogge," "my Bungay (for so was he styled)."40

     19. In a strategy which deftly demonstrated both condescension and affection, Elizabeth I had what Hamlet described as the distinctively feminine habit of giving her courtiers animal pet names: "You jig and amble, and you lisp, you nickname God's creatures, and you make your wantoness your ignorance" (3. 1. 145-51). Elizabeth used the diminutive "Robin" to refer to the Earl of Leicester, Ralegh was "Fish" and "Goose" (though he went mostly by the cognomen, "Water"), and the French envoy who wooed Elizabeth on Alençon's behalf, she named "monkey" because his last name was Simier. Alençon himself was nicknamed "Froggy," and, during the marriage negotiations, Elizabeth accessorised her wardrobe in accordance with this thematic. Lady Margaret Norris was dubbed "Crow," and in a letter of 1579 before his ascendancy to the office of Lord Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton sycophantically signed himself, "your majesty's sheep."41 Anthony Petti observes:

     In giving beast nicknames to all her favourites, Elizabeth appears to have acted according to that strong mixture of sentimentality and cynicism in her personality which affected nearly all her love relationships as far as they can be ascertained. They are certainly strong marks of affection, but reduce their bearers considerably in stature, for they are highly dependent, incapable, or uncomely creatures. Such is likely to be the case for a pre-eminently queenly sovereign with subjects for lovers, some of them easily young enough to be her children or grandchildren.42

Like Venus, for whom, as Anthony Mortimer points out, "incest is the only conclusion that can satisfy [her] desire to possess Adonis both as a child and as a lover," Elizabeth's penchant for petting allows her to maintain power over her courtiers both as minions and lovers. Not only is it that as Jonathan Bate observes, "the sexual dealings of partners of greatly unequal age are bound at some level to replicate the archetypal relationship based on an unequal power structure, incest between a parent and a child"43 (such relationships are presumably not uncommon in love), but also, more specifically, that in a rigidly patriarchal society any form of female sovereignty could be represented as a form of overpowering maternal control. Certainly, these petting relationships--Venus with Adonis, and Elizabeth with her courtiers--violate the widespread belief that for sexual (i. e. conjugal) relations to be appropriate "[T]here should be some equality betwixt the parties . . . in Age, Estate, Condition, Piety."44

     20. Shakespeare's Venus unquestionably (although perhaps not intentionally) offers a satirical glance at Elizabeth herself.45 There were solid political and literary precedents for such an incongruous identification as that between the virgin queen and the goddess of love. In a situation precisely the inverse of Elizabeth's, Diane de Poitiers, styled herself after her virgin namesake despite being mistress to the King of France, while in the more exalted literary context of Virgil's Aeneid, Venus-in-Virgo represented the union of chastity and love whose double nature was extrapolated with both frivolity and reverence throughout the Renaissance.46 That the maternal relationship might be experienced as a kind of primal female sovereignty is emphasized when, in his struggle to escape, Adonis is described as being "like the froward infant stilled with dandling" (562). Philippe Ariès has shown the astonishing sexual liberties early modern adults habitually took by way of public amusement with very young children (though not with children who had reached puberty). For example, adults would manipulate infant genitals in spite of children's protests, and engage children in lewd conversation. Astonishingly, none of this was regarded as remotely incestuous or paedophilic. In one incident from the court life of the three-year old Louis XIII, the Marquise de Verneuil, a woman who "often put her hand under his coat,"

wanted to play with him and took hold of his nipples; he pushed her away, saying, 'Let go, let go, go away.' He would not allow the Marquise to touch his nipples, because his nanny had told him: 'Monsieur, never let anybody touch your nipples, or your cock, or they will cut it off.' He remembered this.47

Admittedly, the conduct of the seventeenth century French court was probably considerably less inhibited than that at the court of Elizabeth. Possibly, however, aristocratic, French child-rearing practices were no less restrained than those reported by Juliet's Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Further, both of these contexts may be significantly closer to the decadent pagan world of Shakespeare's poem. Like little Louis XIII, Adonis is child-like in relation to Venus: "'Fie, fie' he says, 'you crush me. Let me go. / You have no reason to withhold me so'" (611-12). That his petulant protests also represent, symbolically at least, a proleptic response to castration is confirmed by the description of Adonis's ravaged corpse: "In his soft flank, whose wonted lily-white / With purple tears that his wound wept was drenched."

     21. Shakespeare's Ovidian source for Venus and Adonis, Metamorphosis Book X, is narrated by an explicitly pederastic Orpheus, who, in grief for Eurydice, has turned not just to homosexuality, but specifically to "boayes":

And Orphye [ . . . ] did utterly eschew
The womankynde. Yit many a one desyrous were to match
With him, but he them with repulse did all alike dispatch He also taught the Thracian folke a stewes of Males too make
And of the flowring pryme of boayes the pleasure for too take. (X. 87-92)48

On the one hand, Orpheus demonstrates a reluctance about women very like that of Adonis, but on the other hand, his object choice, "flowring . . . boayes," resembles, though it does not exactly replicate, Venus's parental passion for her flower-child. There is a further etymological connection between Venus and Orpheus in Richard Huloet's 1552 definition of a "bugger" as a"Lover of chyldren buggerly or dissolutely, Paederastes."49

     22. The inequalities of power inherent in "petting" (the fondling of both dependent animals and people, but especially children) are, then, structurally speaking, indebted to both bestiality and incest. The incestuous aspects of Venus's pet love become quite explicit towards the end of the poem in her frantic apprehension and when, in her grief, she becomes the mater dolorosa:

To grow unto himself was his desire,
And so tis thine; but know it is as good
To wither in my breast as in his blood

Adonis is now literally at Venus's maternal breast, and given this context, Adonis's desire to "grow into himself" also suggests a symbolic manifestation of inbreeding, namely a narcissistic insistence on physical integrity. Adonis is himself, of course, in the Ovidian source literally the product of an incestuous union "the cursed seede in [Myrrha's] wicked wombe" (1. 5 38.)50 "A son [Adonis] that sucked an earthly [and incestuous] mother [Myrrha]" (863-4) is now explicitly linked via an image which returns the relation between Venus and Adonis not just to an incestuous paradigm, but crucially also to an animal one, namely the anguished "milch doe whose swelling dugs do ache" (875-6).

     23. Adonis's mother bears in the poem an important connection with the aberrant desires of Venus. As Venus genetrix mother goddess of omnipresent fecundity, Venus urges indiscriminate copulation: "By law of nature thou art bound to breed" (171),51 and, crucially, she does so by way of the poem's central reference to Myrrha:

O, had thy mother borne so hard a mind,
She had not brought forth thee, but died unkind. (202-3)

Here, Venus represents Myrrha as being less self-enclosed, ("incestuous" in the broader sense) than her son. Myrrha would have "died unkind" if she hadn't loved a man and thus borne a child" but " it would have been better if she had died untouched by her own kind" (Bate 85).52 Yet, a recent critic on the subject of incest argues: "Incest is not 'unnatural' in the same sense that the mating of different species is unnatural."53 Presumably, what the critic means is that incest is, potentially at least, procreative, and thus, in a sense, permitted by nature, in a way that, contra naturum, bestiality is not. Such distinctions, however, elide the fact that the prohibition against incest may produce the prohibition against bestiality. Further, in the late sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries, bestiality was believed to be procreative, and the biological degeneration now adduced to incest was then routinely assigned to bestiality. As Gouge remonstrates: "Monstrous it [bestiality] is in the kinde thereof: and a cause of abominable monsters."54 Deformity, or "monstrosity" as it was often known, was defined by the likes of Fenton and Ambrose Paré primarily in terms of the way in which apparently physiologically animalistic characteristics adhered to the progeny of otherwise unremarkable, human parents. William Ramesey believed that copulation with animals might produce "a monster, partly having the members of the body according to the man, and partly according to the beast" (Thomas 135). Outrageous tales about such phenomena abound. For example, a sheep allegedly violated by a youth gave birth to a half-human monster--a human/animal hybrid, which was nailed up by way of a warning to others in the local parish church at Birdham near Chichester in 1674 (Thomas 145). At Shrewsbury in 1580 an eight year old boy was exhibited with "both his feet cloven and his right hand also cloven like a sheep's feet.55

     24. Crucially, deformed children were often understood as signs of their mother's aggressive and unnatural sexual agency in relation to animals. Theologians explained that like men, "[N]either shall any Woman stand before a beast to lye downe thereto: for it is abhomination. Ye shall not defile yourselves in any of these things."56 Nor was legal clarification wanting. The Act prohibiting bestiality, Sir Edward Coke emphasized:

extend[s] as well to a woman as to a man, and therefore if she commit buggery with a beast, she is a person that commits buggery with a beast, to which end this word [person] was used. And the rather for that some what before the making of this Act, a great Lady had committed buggery with a Baboon and conceived by it.57

Curiously, Coke implies that women might have claimed exemption from regulation in earlier acts. "Buggery," which usually implies the act of penetration, comes under some pressure here because it seems to imply that the woman, like Venus, was the "active" partner and the baboon the "passive" one. The reverse is true in Anthony Wood's racist account of the generation of an Irishwoman's deformed child, in which the woman is clearly the passive and penetrated partner of both man and beast: "originally begot by a man, but a mastiff dog or monkey gave the semen some sprinkling" (Thomas 135).

     25. The culture is no doubt that the generation of hybrids is possible as a result of bestiality. What is in doubt is whether progeny belonging to only one of the two species who generated it can result from copulation with animals. Andrew Willet opines:

This horrible wickednesse committed by the male, or female, by this Law is provided against: for such is the corruption of mans nature, that not onely men have companied with beasts, as Mares, Kine, Swine, and such other: but even uncleane women have prostituted themselves unto beasts as Pasiphae to a Bull, Polyphontes to a Beare, Semiranus to an Horse: the women of Mendes in Egypt, to Goats. . . . But whether any perfit kind may by such monstrous copulations be brought forth it is a question. Some thinke that beside monstrous births, which are usually fruits of such bestiall lust, there have been borne somethime perfit men: sometimes beasts: as Plutark writeth of a boy begotten of a man, and a mare; and a girle, of a man, and an asse. . . . Galen denyeth, that any such generaton may bee of mankind, but Porta maintaineth."58

Bizarre and unscientific as these accounts may seem to us, they offer none the less incontrovertible evidence of the way in which animals are understood as beings whose sexual desires physically and affectively bear a close affinity with those of humanity.

     26. Beasts also figure regularly and significantly in early modern arguments against incest. Gervase Babington contends in his commentary on Leviticus: "Yea the Camels (saith Aristotle) abhorre it [incest] by nature, and the Colt will not come neere in this sort to the Dam; God being pleased in bruit beasts to give us an example against this thing."59 A compelling counter example of incest among the beasts is Myrrha'a articulation of her desire for her father, Cinyras in the Metamorphosis:

For every other living wyght dame nature dooth permit
To match without offence of sin. The Heifer thinkes no shame
To beare her father on her backe: the horse bestrydes the same
Of whom he is the syre: the Gote dooth bucke the kid that hee
Himself begate: and birdes doo tread the selfsame birdes wee see
Of whom they hatched were before. In happye cace they are
That may doo so without offence. But mans malicious care
Hath made a brydle for it self, and spyghtfull lawes restreyne
The things that nature setteth free.60

Horses do it, cows do it, goats do it; yet human law forbids it. Myrrha's bizarre rationalizations of her lust for her father are not only reminiscent of Venus's tenderly ludicrous images of love, "I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer," but like Shakespeare's poem figure human sexual discriminations which constitute incest via species distinction, both as relations between beasts and the difference between humans and animals.

     27. Critics of Venus and Adonis have long suggested that Shakespeare might have known Titian's painting of the reluctant Adonis, anxious to be on his way to the boar,61 but a more appropriate visual analog for my purposes (one whose relevance is in no way dependent upon Shakespeare having known it) is Bronzino's late sixteenth century Allegory of Venus and Cupid, where mother and (adolescent rather than cherubic infant) son are "locked in a peculiarly sensual embrace."62 Of course, Bronzino's Cupid is no reluctant Adonis, but the painting does suggest the incestuous overtones of even Venus's maternal aspect as mother of Cupid. Richard McCabe's remarks on this painting, whose figures strike him as "reptilian" ("not merely in the contrived contortion of the limbs, but in the narrowed, mesmeric eyes and the thin wedge of tongue obscenely parting the goddess's lips"), are also remarkably apposite for Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis: "It would appear that the ultimate expression of eroticism necessitates the ultimate confusion of animal and human nature, the ultimate desecration of kinship."63

     28. There is, however, a further sacred and sacrilegious dimension to the desecration of kinship here. Petting an infantalized Adonis not only replicates the relation between Venus and Cupid, but also proffers the pagan and erotic equivalent of the Madonna and Child. Adonis as "a son that sucked an earthly mother" (863-4) himself reflects the infant Christ, while Venus and Adonis, after the latter's death, form an erotic Pietà.64 Religious forms and experiences are those which are normatively scandalous--eating bodies, drinking blood, crucifying gods, committing incest within the holy family (Mary is both mother of Jesus, and daughter to his Godhead). Within the framework of religion, one is permitted to contemplate what Peter Barker says he will "purposely pass over" in the course of his commentary on bestiality: "Other sinnes of the like sort, which nature doth abhorre and chaste eares will not willingly heare, the very thought whereof woundeth the heart with horrour."65 Ultimately bestial and sacred, Venus and Adonis also represents the sublime eroticism of both pagan and Christian profanity.

III. Flowers

     29. Whereas in early modern anxieties about the integrity of human identity, copulation with animals figured the fragile boundary between nature and culture, modern anthropology and psychoanalysis cite the incest taboo as the foundational distinction between them.66 This prohibition, writes Juliet Mitchell, is "the decisive break man makes with the beasts. It is definitional of humanity."67 As Lévi-Strauss explains: "[W]hat confers upon kinship its socio-cultural character is not what it retains from nature, but, rather, the essential way in which it diverges from nature."68 In the poem's incestuous family, however, Adonis is, like Christ, both father and child whose fate it is to wither in Venus's distinctively maternal bosom. That is, the most incestuous moment in the poem represents a return to nature of the most extreme, but literary kind. "Poor flower," quoth she, "this was thy father's guise,-- / Sweet issue of a more sweet-smelling sire," the anemone seems to be, like the flower in A Midsummer Night's Dream, which represents Elizabeth's virginity, an emblem of chastity:

And in his blood that on the ground lay spill'd,
A purple flower sprung up, checkere'd with white,
Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood (1165-1170).

Always predisposed to rot rather than to reproduce, "For flowers that are not gathered in their prime / Rot, and consume themselves in little time" (131-2), Adonis remains immured in the world of great creating nature, which has consumed and regenerated him according to its cycles:

'Here was thy father's bed, here in my breast.
Thou art the next of blood, and 'tis thy right.
Lo, in this hollow cradle take thy rest;
My throbbing heart shall rock thee day and night,
There shall not be one minute in an hour
Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love's flower.'

Mythologically speaking, of course, Adonis has always been biodegradable. The anemone, into which Adonis is transformed in the Metamorphosis, is associated by Ovid with the fruit revealed when the rind of the pomegranate was removed. In a sense Adonis here, returns to his Ovidian origins because he was born from the weeping cypress tree to which his mother was confined. Fissuring the bark/rind from which he emerges, Adonis comes to figure the permeability of the boundaries of "kind."

     30. Rigorously self-cultivating even before he becomes a flower, Adonis argues: "Who plucks the bud before one leaf put forth" (416); "The mellow plum doth fall, the green sticks fast, / Or, being early plucked is sour to taste" (517-22). But now, in his final metamorphosis, he literally becomes an object of cultivation, a plant and a "cult," namely the pagan cult of Adonis. Unlike the naturalistic depictions of the host of nature's creatures in the poem--the boar, the deer, the hare, the eagle, the horse, the jennet, the snail--the depiction of the flower is completely emblematic. This is because, as Leonard Barkan has so acutely observed, the artistic effect of metamorphosis is "to transform human identities into images."69

     31. The emblematic status of flowers seems, oddly, to have intensified during the spectacular growth of domestic flower cultivation in Elizabethan England. One the new flowers introduced was the wild anemone, and, at the same time, potted plants, known as "Gardens of Adonis" also became popular.70 That is, the cultural understanding of flowers as signifiers is actually, though perhaps paradoxically, continuous with horticultural advances, which, as Polixenes points out in The Winter's Tale, had served only to complicate the distinctions between nature and culture: "The art itself is nature" (IV. 4. 97). Cultivation does not so much usurp the art of nature as erase the boundary between the natural and the artificial. Significantly, the "art" to which Polixenes refers is constituted by the vegetative equivalent of the incest taboo: "we marry / A gentle scion to the wildest stock / And make conceive a bark of baser kind / By a bud of nobler race" (IV. 4. 88-97). In this instance, inbreeding is antipathetic to cultivation, and thence to culture.

     32. Demarcations between nature and culture have also been part of the poem's critical mythology, which has long maintained that Shakespeare made such an art of nature in Venus and Adonis that he may have composed the poem while he was still in Stratford and had not yet been inducted into the sophistication of metropolitan culture. In Muriel Bradbrook's (mistaken) verdict: "Shakespeare still had some heavy provincial Warwickshire loam sticking to his boots."71 Although distinctions between nature and culture are all too easily trivialized, it is worth remembering that, in essence, Reformation theology addressed itself to the question of how the animal aspects of human nature, the "corrupt flesh" (Capel 408) estranged human beings from God, while the exultant spirit of the Renaissance celebrated humanity's divine potential as "the paragon of the animals" (Hamlet II. ii). As Golding put it in the Epistle to his translation of the Metamorphoses:

Our soule is wee endewed by God with reason from above;
Our bodie is but as our house, in which wee worke and move.
T'one part is common to us all with God of heaven himself;
Th'other common with the beastes, a vyle and stinking self. (Golding's Epistle,102-6; p. 426)

That Golding was the translator of both Ovid and Calvin exemplifies the irreconcilable contradictions of Renaissance humanism and radical Protestantism, which were being played out in relation to the status of poetry at the end of the sixteenth century. The epyllion in particular seemed dedicated to frivolity and delight, to what human beings have in "common with the beastes, a vyle and stinking self" rather than to the more sober task of Protestant aesthetics.72 In fact, Shakespeare's poem works over these contradictions in human nature, or rather the contradictions between the human and the natural. The poem's naturalistic images of wildlife at one end of the spectrum, the mythically voracious boar, and (ostensibly one of the most frivolous images of the poem) Venus's deer park, at the other, bespeak the inherent perversity of desire and are precisely what lend the poem its tragic-comic quality. By repeatedly transgressing the discrete taxonomies of human and animal, nature and culture, the poem's images render them demonstrably artificial categories. In so doing, Venus and Adonis conveys with singular poignancy the (un)naturalness of loving where we should not love, or where we are not wanted.

 

 

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Notes

1 Bruce Thomas Boehrer argues that "the rhetoric of bestiality was in some basic ways more important than the crime itself" on the grounds that there were so few prosecutions and executions for the offense during the period. It was, he argues, "a victimless crime" against "a kind of abstract linguistic principle." "Bestial Buggery in A Midsummer Night's Dream," in ed., David Lee Miller, Sharon O'Dair, and Harold Weber, The Production of English Renaissance Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) 123-50; 132.

2 Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of Modern Sensibility (NY: Pantheon, 1983) 39.

3 James Usher, A Body of Divinity (London: 1645) 280.

4 Keith Thomas 39. In sharp contrast, a recent commentator remarks: "[T]here is no satisfactory reason for retaining in the modern law a crime of buggery with animals. . . . It has become pointless." Tony Honoré, Sex Law (London: Duckworth, 1978) 176.

5 "Indeed, the reminiscences of the countryside, especially the hunting of the hare, have often been praised as the most 'natural' parts of the poem." M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Poets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) 62.

6 Usher 280.

7 See Philippa Berry, "Hamlet's Ear," Shakespeare Survey 50 (1997) 57-64.

8 Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) Kahn 40.

9 Sir Edward Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England 59. On the uniqueness of Shakespeare's treatment of this episode see William Keach, Elizabethan Erotic Narratives: Irony and Pathos in the Ovidian Poetry of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Their Contemporaries (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1977) 80.

10 Peter Barker's A Judicious and Painefull Exposition upon the ten commandments (London: 1624) 270.

11 William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties London (London: 1634)185.

12 Thomas 118.

13 Richard Capel, Tentations: Their Nature, Danger, Cure (London: 1635) 356-8.

14 Gouge 185.

15 Babington 461. Christian commentators found it expedient to allegorize biblical injunctions against eating pork. Intriguingly, Andrew Willet argues that "the Jews abhorred Swinnes flesh . . . because Adonis whom Bacchus loved, who is worshipped of the Jewes, was slaine of a Boare." Hexapla In Leviticum That Is, a Six-Fold Commentaries upon the third booke of Moses , Called Leviticus (London: 1631) 224.

16 Jonathan Goldberg, Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992); Pat Parker, Shakespeare from the Margins. As Coppélia Kahn remarks "The playful suggestion that . . . he would rather 'know' or love the boar seems a kind of risqué joke at first, a glance at sodomy. But it carries the serious undertone that he is deeply alienated from his own kind determined not to love even at the expense of being perverse" (40). C. L. Barber has argued that the boar is a figure of "homosexual rape." C. L. Barber and Richard Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986) 147.

17 As Mario Digangi points out: "the source of [the poem's] confusion resides in 'Venus,' the disorderly passion that afflicts unruly women and womanish men [my emphasis]," The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) 136-7.

18 Gervase Babington, The Works (1615) 480.

19 Coke 59.

20 Even today, the OED opts for the vague but symptomatic "Unnatural intercourse of a human being with a beast, or of men with one another, sodomy. Also used of unnatural intercourse of a man and a woman. Now mainly a technical term in criminal law." The OED also notes the definition from G. Jacob's Law Dictionary (1729): "Buggery is defined to be carnalis copula contra Naturum, & hoc vel per Confusionem Specierum, sc. a Man or Woman with a brute Beast; vel Sexuum, a Man with a Man, or Man with a Woman."

21 Boars were not hunted to extinction until the middle of the seventeenth century. Edward Topsell, The History of Foure-Footed Beasts (London: 1607) 541.

22 Willet 224.

23 Topsell 540.

24 Willet 224.

25 Hughes 73.

26 Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being 68-9.

27 Quoted Boehrer 134.

28 Thomas Beard, The Theatre of Gods Judgements (London 1597).

29 John Rogers, The Displaying of an Horrible Secte of Grosse and Wicked Heretiques, Naming Themselves the Family of Love (1578) quoted Shell 138. Marc Shell, "The Family Pet," Representations (15) 1986, 121-53.

30 Katharine Mauss points out: "Again and again, its [the poem's] metaphors and similes insist on the similarity of what seems different, the difference in what seems the same." In ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al., The Norton Shakespeare (NY: W. W. Norton, 1987) 603.

31 George Steeven's endnote on the poem in Malone's edition of Shakespeare (1821) points out: "It is not indeed very clear whether Shakespeare meant on this occasion, with Le Brun, to recommend continence as a virtue, or to try his hand with Aretine on a licentious canvas. If our poet had any moral design in view, he has been unfortunate in his conduct of it. The shield which he lifts in defence of chastity is wrought with such meretricious imagery, as cannot fail to counterpose a moral purpose. Shakespeare, however, was no unskillful mythologist, and must have known that Adonis was the offspring of Cynaras and Myrrha. His judgement therefore would have prevented him from raising an example of continence out of the produce of an incestuous bed,--considering this piece only in the light of a jeu d'esprit, written without peculiar tendency, we shall even then be sorry that our author was unwilling to leave the character of his hero as he found it." George Steevens, endnote from The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. Edward Malone 21 vols (London: 1821) vol 20, 84. I am indebted to Patrick Chenney for this reference.

32 Capel 408; 378.

33 Jonathan Bate, "Sexual Perversity in 'Venus and Adonis'" The Yearbook of English Studies 23 1993 80-92; 92.

34 E. Fenton, Certaine Secrete Wonders of Nature (London: 1569) 13; 12.

35 Shell, "[P]et love traduces (or transcends) two practices we ordinarily think of as being taboo. One of these practices is bestiality, or interspecies lovemaking, which is an effect of traducing the ordinary interspecies distinctions between human and non-human beings, or between kind and non-kind. The other practice is incest, or intrafamilial lovemaking, which is an effect of traducing the ordinary distinction between kin and non-kin" (123).

36 Capel 408.

37 Astonishingly, incest was not criminalized until 1908 though of course it was prohibited via the tables of consanguinity.

38 Quoted Thomas 40.

39 Thomas 119.

40 Sir John Harington, Nugae Antiquae (London 1804) 2 vols, 390-94.

41 Thomas 99.

42 Anthony G. Petti, "Beasts and Politics in Elizabethan Literature," Essays and Studies 16 (1963): 68-90. Petti comments, "Presumably the Bacons were obvious targets for this type of wordplay, but none seems to be recorded" (77).

43 Anthony Mortimer, "The Ending of Venus and Adonis," English Studies 78 (1997) 4: 334-41; 338; Bate 92.

44 Gouge188.

45 Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987) 34. See also Peter Erickson, who argues that Venus is a refracted image of Elizabeth, Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 31.

46 "In view of the Italian sources of Elizabethan imagery, perhaps the question is not unjustified whether the worship of Queen Elizabeth as Diana was not also a cult of Venus in disguise," Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (1958; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980) 77. See also 24; 75

47 Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood Trans. Robert Baldick (1962; Pimlico: London, 1996) 99.

48 Bate 82.

49 See OED.

50 McCabe 19.

51 Kahn 34.

52 Bate 84.

53 McCabe 21.

54 Gouge 185.

55 Vavasor Powell, God the Father Glorified (1649). Quoted in Thomas 135.

56 Babington 480.

57 Coke 59.

58 Willet 434.

59 Babington 478.

60 John Frederick Nims, ed., Ovid's Metamorphoses: The Arthur Golding Translation 1567 (NY: Macmillan, 1965) 258-9.

61 For a full discussion of the relations between Shakespeare's poem and the treatment of Venus and Adonis in painting, see Clark Hulse, Metamorphic Verse: The Elizabethan Minor Epic (Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 1981) 141-94.

62 McCabe 28.

63 McCabe 28.

64 James Nohrnberg, The Analogy of the Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976) 565. Edgar Wind observes: "Renaissance art produced many images of Venus which resemble a Madonna or a Magdalen. An extreme instance is the Hyperotomachia, in which Venus is pictured as mater dolorosa, nourishing her infant son with tears," 24.

65 Peter Barker, A Judicious and Painefull Exposition upon the ten commandments (London: 1624) 270.

66 For Freud, Lévi-Strauss and others, the incest taboo is the cornerstone, the foundational moment of civilization, marking the fundamental development from the state of nature to that of culture. McCabe 17.

67 Mitchell 374.

68 Strauss 50.

69 Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986) 26.

70 F. T. Prince ed., Venus and Adonis, Arden edition, 61-2.

71 M. C. Bradbrook, Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Poets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951) 62.

72 "By and large the poems of the minor epic genre have no great ethical import and little redeeming social value. They are by turns artificial, frivolous, arcane. . . ." Hulse 3.

 

 

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