Before we dive into the verse of Venus and Adonis, let’s take a little look at what comes before it in the text: The opening dedication…
The salutation is simple enough:
Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Baron of Titchfield.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Shakespeare and Southampton have become intertwined in literary lore: Southampton is widely regarded as one of Shakespeare’s patrons.
Once a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, Southampton was involved with the Essex rebellion of 1601, in support of which he attempted to have a revival of Richard II produced (remember, this is a play about the disposition of a monarch). It didn’t go well. He was arrested, tried for treason, convicted and sentenced to death. Elizabeth commuted the sentence to life imprisonment (still a favorite? Maybe not. Some attribute the commutation to influence exerted by her chief minister Robert Cecil, for whom Essex was a main rival…). When James took the throne following Elizabeth’s death, Southampton was released from prison and returned to his place in the court.
Moving back in time, it’s theorized that Southampton is the “fair youth” of the sonnets, and even a possible lover of Shakespeare. It’s also thought he may be the “W.H.” mentioned introduction of those poems (Southampton’s initials reversed).
But all of this is after Venus and Adonis.
When Venus and Adonis was composed–the best bet is 1593, early in Shakespeare’s career (probably post-Titus and post-first tetralogy, but pre-Love’s Labor’s Lost [and Won] and pre-second tetralogy…and most likely written during a forced plague-induced down-time)–Shakespeare was probably around 29 years old, and the dedicatee was but a mere 19 or 20.
And to his lad, Shakespeare wrote:
I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your Lordship, nor how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden; only if your Honor seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised and vow to take advantage of all idle hours till I have honored you with some graver labor. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honorable survey, and your Honor to your heart’s content, which I wish may always answer your own wish and the world’s hopeful expectation.
Your Honor’s in all duty,
This dedication is full of modesty and self-deprecation (“unpolished lines,” “weak a burden,” and “so bad a harvest”). Now I haven’t read many dedications from the period, so I don’t know if this is par for the course; it feels right, though.
It certainly doesn’t set a high bar for what is to follow…