Egan: “Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are respectable poetry. Why were they not published under Oxford’s name?”
Hughes: They’re “respectable” today, but how “respectable” were they in 1594, or is “respectable” even an appropriate term? We must be careful not to project our 21st-century values onto the 16th-century.
Venus and Adonis is respectable now because over the past 400 years it’s become a classic and also because we’re so inundated today with raw and vulgar sexual images that we’ve become dull to how it might have been viewed in more puritanical times. In Shakespeare’s own time, of course, the measure was hardly its respectability, but its tremendous popularity, which, unlike today’s assessment, was based far less on its style than on its content. As a portrayal of female sexual arousal, Venus and Adonis has never been surpassed, and all without a single vulgar word or image!
As for who wrote it, respectability had nothing to do with whether or not someone like Oxford could put his name to it, since, for a nobleman, the issue was not about writing, but about stooping to do something that was seen as the purview of men of lesser rank. Nor was it about writing as such––peers could write whatever they pleased––it was about publishing, about exposing himself, his feelings and views, to the reading public.
Admittedly, this reading public was still a small percentage of the population at large, yet beyond it lay a much wider audience. For most educated readers were surrounded by a circle of family members and retainers, who, gathering at night by the fire in the winter or in summer on a terrace under the stars, would be entertained or enlightened as they were read to aloud by candlelight. In Reformation England there were many who believed that they should only be read chapters from the Bible, with perhaps a nice uplifting hellfire sermon now and then for a change of pace.
Was the scion of the oldest earldom in the nation, son-in-law of the Virgin Queen’s leading minister and point man for the English Reformation, to be seen as having authored this description of a naked and sexually aroused queen? Consider Oxford’s milieu! Consider the subject of the poem! Consider the nature of the Reformation! Read a little history and consider!
Competition with Philip Sidney
Oxford didn’t write V&A for the public, of course, but for the circle of writers and patrons who admired his work. Why then did he allow it to be published? I believe it was because he felt he had to show the world who was really England’s greatest poet.
Two years earlier, two unathorized versions of Philip Sidney’s sonnet cycle, Astrophil & Stella, had been published to an almost hysterical outpouring of praise. (The first contained one of Oxford’s poems; it was missing from the second.) There’s much to be said about this moment in literary history, the first discernable crack in the wall between aristocratic authors and a wider reading public, but here we’re examining the effect it must have had on Oxford.
Sidney, four years younger than Oxford, was an exemplary figure and an excellent poet, but Fate for some reason had set him up right from the beginning as Oxford’s adversary in almost every area of life, each having things that the other desired but could not have. To add insult to various perceived injuries, just as Oxford was beginning to feel his youth slipping away, Sidney managed his glorious exit from the stage of life, still young, exalted both as Christian martyr and military hero, the latter a role that Oxford had craved since childhood and that had been consistently denied him. Most recently Sidney had been given the command in the Lowlands war that Oxford had fought so hard to get for himself, and then lost, again, a few weeks later.
Was he now about to let his lifelong rival reach out from beyond the grave to grab the one thing that he could still claim was entirely his, his laurels as England’s best poet? He missed the May festival season the following year, but by the same time in 1593 he was ready to publish his exuberant paeon to female sexuality. No longer able to use Robert Greene, which he’d been forced to let go of eight months earlier, he acquired a new one through the offices of his printer, Richard Field. Field had a friend in his hometown with a name that could be read as a pun, pun-names being a traditional means of publishing anonymously. To make it clear that “William Shakespeare” was not the actual author, they left his name off the title page, placing it instead on thefollowing page, after the dedication to Southampton.
Along with the early sonnets, Venus and Adonis was one of the first things Oxford wrote in the style we know as Shakespeare, a magical distillation of all the reading and all the experimenting he’d been doing since he was a kid. As for what inspired it, I believe it grew out of the same situation that inspired Sonnets 40, 41, 42, 133, 134, and 144, Venus representing his mistress Emilia Bassano and Adonis the young Earl of Southampton. As was so often his pattern, he conflated a situation from his own life with one taken from a classic, in this case, Book 10 from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Having promised “something graver” (à la Greene, that master of Early Modern self-promotion), Oxford published Lucrece the following year, which, though popular, never reached the peak achieved by V&A. Nor was it written with quite the same enthusiasm. As Prof. Michael Delahoyde shows in his excellent article in the 2006 Oxfordian on the background to Lucrece, right in the middle of the narrative Oxford takes off on a long sidebar to describe paintings he had seen on the walls of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. Apparently Oxford was considerably more inspired by the vision of an aroused Venus than by the story of Lucrece, whose suicide was probably not something he believed in for a minute. It was, however, the sort of thing that would please that segment of his audience that had been upset by V&A.
It would be interesting to see the two poems compared as bookends to an idea, each feature given its opposite: the sexual desire of a powerful female contrasted to that of a powerful male, the plight of the much-desired but less powerful male vs. the same as female in the other, both resulting in their deaths, and so forth. Here we see another of Shakespeare’s traits: when obsessed with an idea he will play it out, in two (or more) different and often opposite ways, as though exploring through plot and character how variously some basic dynamic can be seen to operate in human lives.
A response to Prof. Egan’s fourth and final question will follow shortly.