Venus and Adonis

Venus and Adonis: is Adonis a Rapper?

Is Adonis a Rapper?

In this series of talks about Shakespeare’s rhythm I am investigating the way that the poetry can be read.  Shakespeare in the Mountains gives us the opportunity to engage in read performance:  it is not acting; it is reading; yet, to read well, we need to understand the texts in order to put the expression where the text demands it.  Understanding something of the structure of the verse enables us to read better.

Today I want to look at Venus and Adonis.  This long poem finds the goddess of love herself attempting to seduce young Adonis.  He is not interested.  Here is the section I want to discuss (lines 409 to 426).

‘I know not love,’ quoth he ‘nor will not know it,

Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it.

‘Tis much to borrow, and I will not owe it.

My love to love is love but to disgrace it;

For I have heard it is a life in death,

That laughs, and weeps, and all but with a breath.


Who wears a garment shapeless and unfinish’d?

Who plucks the bud before one leaf put forth?

If springing things be any jot diminish’d,

They wither in their prime, prove nothing worth.

The colt that’s back’d and burden’d being young

Loseth his pride and never waxeth strong.


You hurt my hand with wringing; let us part,

And leave this idle theme, this bootless chat;

Remove your siege from my unyielding heart;

To love’s alarms it will not open the gate.

Dismiss your vows, your feign’d tears, your flatt’ry

For where a heart is hard they make no batt’ry.


The rhymes are straightforward, aren’t they?  There are some words that we know should rhyme because of the scheme but in modern English do not: forth/worth; young/strong, chat/gate.  I recommend that we do not make them rhyme.  It is torturing sense to force them and, in any case, the rhyming scheme is so strong and the assonance of the half-rhymes enough to keep the pattern.

It is almost impossible to read these words without giving a heavy accent at the end of the line that reinforces the rhymes.  The first four lines, in particular, seem almost like a rap song and I recommend trying them out in this style, giving extra emphasis to the rhyme as rappers do.  Emphasise the natural break in the line- the caesura- and you will see how it comes out:

‘I know not love,’ quoth he        ‘nor will not know it,

Unless it be a boar,                      and then I chase it.

‘Tis much to borrow,                   and I will not owe it.

My love to love is love                 but to disgrace it;

You are probably aware that Shakespeare normally writes with iambic pentameters.  Iambic means a walking pace that goes from soft to strong: ti DUM, ti DUM, ti DUM.  This is a base rhythm, not a strait-jacket, and it is natural to English speech so rarely seems forced.  “My love to love is love” is a good example here.  The pentameter means that there are five feet in each line.  Those feet normally have two syllables: my love; ti DUM.  In this example, we have an extra syllable at the end: “it”.  The lines ask to end with know, chase, owe and disgrace, and it does not distort the sense to remove the “it” altogether:

‘I know not love,’ quoth he ‘nor will not know,

Unless it be a boar, and then I chase.

‘Tis much to borrow, and I will not owe.

My love to love is love but to disgrace;

That sounds altogether more dignified.  What effect does that extra unstressed syllable have at the end of the line?

Ti DUM ti DUM ti DUM ti DUM ti DUM ti

It is comic, isn’t it?

Shakespeare uses the heavy rhyme in Adonis’s speech to make him look foolish.  I apologize to all rappers for suggesting as much, but how foolish is it to turn down the goddess of love in favor of a boar?  This means that when we read Adonis we should not try to circumvent the effect of the rhyme and we should emphasize his stupidity.  It is better to have at those rhymes with gusto, getting to the end of the lines with added force, like a rapper.

In the second stanza we have another example of the extended line being used for comic effect.  The lines ending “unfinish’d” and “diminish’d” have that extra unstressed syllable at the end.  Rhyming is not always comic in English poetry or in Shakespeare, but it is harder in English to rhyme than in Latin languages and the feminine rhyme, with the unstressed last syllable, always borders on the ludicrous.  You need only think of that master of rhyme, Lord Byron, whose ingenuity and wit was better fitted to comic effects than high tragedy.  This is not the case in Italian or Spanish poetry where the very structure of the language gives more opportunities for rhyme and the rhymes do not call attention to themselves.

If the rhyme is calling attention to itself, then in our reading we should not go against what the text is demanding.  Here there is no enjambement: each line ends the phrase that makes it.

I will talk at another time of Shakespeare’s use of rhyme in closing off and farewell speeches.  The effect there is always to accelerate the action out of the end of a scene- a sound marker of ending, if you like.  In this speech by Adonis, we have another forced rhyme that tells us he is ending, and again we need to emphasize the rhymes to get the full impact.  I imagine him speaking in sarcastic tones to Venus:

Dismiss your vows, [pause] your feign’d tears, [pause] your flatt’ry

For where a heart is hard [pause]they make no batt’ry.

You can listen to the reading here:


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