Love vs. Lust
The most prominent reason for examining Venus and Adonis in its historical context is that conceptions regarding love--and lust--in Elizabethan times were vastly different from those in modern times. As Russ McDonald notes in his Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, marriage frequently had little, if anything, to do with the degree of love shared by the partners in question. Especially among upper class families, who possessed capital and estates that potential brides could give to their suitors as dowries, the agreeability of the financial arrangement and the effect the union would have on the social status of each were frequently the most important matchmaking factors. While ''love'' certainly sprang from such arrangements over time, the unions often functioned more as partnerships than as marriages. William E. Shirley notes that the story's conclusion--Adonis meeting death after spurning Venus--can, and perhaps should, be read as his punishment for failing to give himself over to the goddess of love. Shirley frames his discussion in part around the contrast between religious and secular points of view, which he differentiates as ''the mystical neoplatonic vision of love as the pathway to God, and the somewhat less exotic and more characteristically Shakespearean understanding of love, through its consummation in marriage and procreation, as the ordering principle and unifying bond of the cosmos.'' That is, without love--and sex--the human race would cease to exist. Taking note of the literary climate, he states, ''English poets of the era, like many members of the Christian humanist intellectual community in general, frequently express ambivalence or perplexity about the traditional poetic vision of love.'' Indeed, some Elizabethan writers came to adopt ''antelope'' standpoints, which better accorded with contemporary religious views touting the virtues of chastity. Shakespeare, to the contrary, perhaps recognized...
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