Idle Wantonness: A Misreading of Venus and Adonis in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, by M. Alexandra van Nievelt

The “Big Bad” in Edmund Spenser’s fairyland is not an evil ogre, a crafty warlock, or a wanton temptress, but human beings’ fallible power of interpretation. Decoding the meaning and significance of the Faerie Queene’s innumerable intertextual allusions and allegories is as much an obstacle for the poem’s characters as it is one for its readers. The episodes that most obviously require the use of the former’s interpretative faculty are those in which they encounter pictorial works of art, which Spenser often uses to hint at the moral character or life philosophy of the owners of the dwellings in which said art is found. One of such episodes occurs in Malecasta’s Castle Joyous, where Britomart inspects a tapestry depicting the myth of Venus and Adonis.

While this portrayal of the story tracks the general argument of Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses, it also introduces innovations and selectively highlights certain aspects of the tale in a way that presents a tendentious reading of the Ovidian original. The effect of such imitation with a difference is a dearth of action in the story of the lovers, who are always shown in moments of rest. Furthermore, the tapestry’s Venus is characterized as a far more languorous figure than the Ovidian goddess of love, and her moral weakness is suggested by indirectly associating her with other idle and wanton Spenserian female characters such as Acrasia, Duessa, and Malecasta herself. Unlike the Venus of active, productive, and generous love later described in the Garden of Adonis, this Venus presents erotic desire as a stagnating, distracting, and somewhat selfish force.

Perhaps the most conspicuous deviations from the Ovidian version of Venus and Adonis are the missing scenes of activity in between fixed images of the lovers at rest. Although Adonis is supposed to be a hunter, we see nothing but lethargic passivity from him: he allows himself to be led to a shadowy area, persuaded to sleep, and bathed in a fountain. Indeed, he is deprived of agency even in his rebellion against Venus, which comes in the form of a rhetorical question whose subject is not Adonis, but a vague relative pronoun, and which furthermore portrays him as a victim of fate:

She oft and oft advizd him to refraine

From chase of greater beasts, whose brutish pryde

Mote breede him scath unwares: but all in vaine;

For who can shun the chaunce, that dest’ny doth ordaine?


Spenser carries the inertia of the story to the extreme by shockingly skipping the boar hunt completely. We have seen Adonis sleeping and bathing, and the next time we see him, he is dying, or “lyeth languishing” (FQ.III.i.38.1), to be more precise. Even in death, there is idleness to his characterization, and this sense is reinforced by smooth alliteration in the phrase. The effect of the omission of Adonis’s encounter with the boar is more significant than it might seem upon a quick reading of the passage: we are told about Venus leading the boy to the shadows, watching him sleep, and standing over him as he dies soon after that. In a perverse way, it seems as though once Venus initiates him in her indolent ways, Adonis gradually wanes and eventually stops moving completely.

The tapestry’s version of Venus’s conversion of the dead boy into a flower is aberrant as well. Instead of transforming him into an ephemeral, but living anemone, she morphs him into an embroidery or stamp of sorts—a “dainty flower… which in that cloth was wrought, as if it lively grew” (FQ.III.i.38.9). If her objective was to possess him fully in inert, perfect stasis, she could have hardly been more successful; in fact, Adonis—already gored by the boar in the thigh—seems to suffer a second figurative castration or unmanning at the hands of Venus. This profoundly unsatisfactory metamorphosis is especially jarring in contrast with Spenser’s later reengagement with the Ovidian myth in the Garden of Adonis, where Venus’s lover is in a magnificently generative state of constant death and rebirth: he is “eterne in mutability, / And by succession made perpetual” (FQ.III.vi.47.5-6).

Malecasta’s Venus is barely more active than her Adonis. While in the Metamorphoses, the love-struck goddess accompanies Adonis in his hunts “across the ridges, / Through woods, through rocky placed thick with brambles” (Met.X.538-9), renouncing her “preferred… shadowy places” and “ease” in favour of Adonis’s busy pro-activeness (Met.X.536-7), Malecasta’s Venus is very much attached to her self-indulgent, languid inaction. In the Ovidian version, the deity invites the youth to rest with her under a “canopy of poplar” only after hunting with him (Met.X.560). The tapestry’s Venus, on the other hand, never accompanies Adonis in his hunts; instead, she separates him from his fellow hunters and leads him “into a secret shade” and then a “covert glade” away “from bright heavens vew” (FQ.III.i.35.6-9).

The recurrent motif of lack of light and concealment is significant as well. In the Spenserian imagination, to choose darkness over light, passivity over action, and secrecy over openness is laden with negative moral implications, and often followed by nasty consequences. Venus’s spreading of her “mantle, coloured like the starry skyes” over Adonis’s sleeping form further reinforces the suggestion that she is ensnaring the boy with her dissolute behavior, which Spenser is unlikely to leave unpunished (FQ.III.i.36.2). Venus’s sprinkling of Adonis “with sweet Nectar” while he is bathing carries a sinister note as well (FQ.III.i.36.9); in the Ovidian version of the story she does not perform this funerary rite-cum-morphing spell until after he has bled out (Met.X.731-2). Changing the order of events casts even more ambiguity over Venus’s intentions, and at the very least foreshadows Adonis’s death in his moment of careless idleness.

The seeming lack of reciprocity in Venus and Adonis’s relationship as portrayed in the tapestry is another difference in the way Spenser interprets the Ovidian myth here, and the way he does so in book six. Although in the Garden of Adonis, Venus remains as the dominant partner, the youth’s pleasure is mentioned: “There now he liveth in eternall blis, / Joying his goddesse, and of her enjoyed” (FQ.III.vi.48.2). There is no mention whatsoever of Adonis’s thoughts or feelings in Castle Joyous, however. Admittedly, this is not a great deviation from the classical account of the story. After all, Ovid also concentrates on Venus’s thoughts and feelings; he only tangentially alludes to the boy’s state of mind in the latter’s scorn of his lover’s warnings and his fear of the charging boar. Adonis’s feelings for Venus, however, are not explored—even in the Ovidian original, it is clear that the young hunter plays the role of the passive beloved, and Venus that of the active lover.

Spenser capitalizes on this feature of the poem, exaggerating Venus’s dominance and Adonis’s vulnerability. The Venus of Castle Joyous “joyd his love in secret unespyde,” but whether Adonis is also joyful is not clarified and seems ultimately unimportant (FQ.III.i.37.2). In fact, the goddess barely even engages the youth in her enjoyment of him; rather than making love with him like the Venus in the Garden, the tapestry’s Venus derives her pleasure from a voyeuristic inspection of Adonis’s every “daintie lim” as he bathes (FQ.III.i.36.6). This description is strongly reminiscent of Guyon’s encounter with two bathing “naked Damzelles” in Acrasia’s Bower of Bliss, whose “dainty parts” the knight also spies (FQ.II.xii.63.6). Spenser is highly critical of this kind of self-centered, objectifying, and sterile approach to the erotic, which objectifies the beloved and garners pleasure from a mere aesthetic appreciation of his or her body parts. The voyeuristic gaze is blind to the spark of the divine in the beloved, disobeying the God-given command to “be fruitful and multiply,” both in reproductive terms and in the multiplication of love and joy (Genesis 1:28). The narrator thus negatively qualifies these erotic episodes by imputing moral censure to the eye that spies. Thus Guyon’s eyes are “greedy” for he extracts pleasure from the bathing maidens and gives none in return (FQ.III.i.64.9); Venus’s are “crafty spyes” (FQ.III.i.36.5) since she observes Adonis while remaining “unespyde” herself (FQ.III.i.37.2).

Venus’s underhandedness is, in fact, an element that Spenser introduces to this characterisation of the goddess, but there is little to no basis for it in the Ovidian text. In the Metamorphoses, she is said to have “preferred to improve her beauty / By careful tending” before she met Adonis and took up hunting (Met.X.537-8). Not only is this statement a description of a past predilection, but it also does not seem to be morally judged by the narrator. In the Spenserian imagination, however, the artificial beautification of that which is natural carries a connotation of deception, and the Venus of Castle Joyous, who “well that art she knew” does not escape it (FQ.III.i.35.2). The goddess thus successfully entices Adonis and “steale[s]” the hunter’s “heedeless hart away” (FQ.III.i.37.1) by means of “sleighs and sweet allurements” (FQ.III.i.35.1). While the word “sleight” can simply mean skill (OED, 1.3a), it is often used to connote trickery and deception (OED 1.1). In fact, Spenser almost never uses the word in an innocent fashion (Osgood, 782): Duessa (FQ.I.vii.51.1 and xii.Arg) and Acrasia (FQ.II.xii.81.9) are some of the Faerie Queene’s proud possessors of “sleights.”

There are other ways in which Spenser suggests a parallel between the tapestry’s Venus and other morally reprobate female antagonists in the Fairie Queene. For example, Venus and Adonis’s indolent rest in a “secret shade” (FQ.III.i.356), and their visits to “a fountaine by some covert glade” (FQ.III.i.35.9) are strongly reminiscent of Duessa and Redcrosse’s enjoyment of the “joyous shade” near a “fountaine” (FQ.I.vii.4.5) and a “gloomy glade” (FQ.I.vii.4.4). Adonis’s abandonment of his hunting companions and his passivity while under Venus’s care parallel Redcrosse’s vulnerability in this episode, in which he removes his armor, grows lethargic and figuratively ends “pourd out in loosnesse on the grassy grownd” (FQ.I.vii.7.2). While Redcrosse is punished at the hands of Orgoglio for his unmanly self-indulgence, Adonis’s penalty is to die gored by a bore. In the case of both men, their ladies—Duessa and Venus respectively—seem to be implicated in their downfall.

Spenser establishes a similar parallel between Venus and Acrasia by sneaking in a seemingly unimportant image of the goddess kissing her beloved’s sleeping eyes. This gesture is not based on textual evidence from Ovid’s version of the story, but rather seems to be a tamer version of Acrasia’s own kissing of the captive Verdante’s eyes:

And oft inclining sown with kisses light,

For feare of waking him, his lips bedewd,

And through his humid eyes did sucke his spright (FQ.II.xii.73)

Although the description of how Venus “with ambrosiall kisses bathe his [Adonis’s] eyes” seems distinct to the passage above in that it lacks the disturbing suggestion that the lady is sucking her beloved’s soul (FQ.III.i.36.4), the word “ambrosiall,” is reminiscent of the sweet nectar with which Ovid’s Venus sprinkles her dead lover. As mentioned before, the tapestry’s Venus disconcertingly performs this act while Adonis is still alive, inviting the reader’s suspicion of her intentions. Could Venus be figuratively feeding on Adonis’s vitality after all?

The Venus in Castle Joyous is perhaps most obviously compared with the tapestry’s very owner, the fickle Malecasta, whose ardor for Britomart is described in the same language of convulsions and inner turmoil used to relate Venus’s passion for Adonis (FQ.III.i.34.7-9 cf. 47.6-9). Yet while Venus succeeds in persuading Adonis to lay aside his hunter gear, so to speak, Britomart resists Malecasta when the latter entreats “her to disarme” (FQ.III.i.52.2). Britomart is nothing like the tapestry’s Adonis, who—unlike his Ovidian progenitor—seems to be punished for succumbing to Venus’s wanton idleness, rather than for hunting too boldly.

In fact, the martial maiden’s confrontation with Malecasta’s knights in her bedroom seems to in some ways stand for Adonis’s confrontation with the boar, which is conspicuously missing in the tapestry. Here, Britomart subverts the expected outcome of the encounter in all ways: she is not seduced by Malecasta, does not turn out to be male, and, in the end, shakes off any association with Adonis in battle. The wound Britomart receives from Gardante in her side, is, indeed, more like the “glancing blow” that Adonis inflicts on the boar than the boar’s mortal goring of the boy’s thigh (Met.X.715), and—like the attack on the Ovidian boar—it only serves to ignite her fury. With her “wrathfull steele” (FQ.III.ii.66.6), Britomart proceeds to defeat her foes and send them running in fright; unlike the boar, she lets Malecasta’s Adonises escape. The female knight is like one of the “greater beasts” (FQ.III.i.37.7), the “bold ones” (Met.X.544) that “offer / Breast to the fight, not backs” (Met.X.706-7). Unlike the tapestry’s passive Adonis, she is no prey.

In conclusion, the “cunning hand” that portrays the love of Venus and Adonis in Castle Joyous both exaggerates and neglects certain aspects of the Ovidian version (FQ.III.i.34.3). It furthermore introduces words and events that draw a parallel between Venus and wicked Spenserian temptresses such as Duessa, Acrasia and Malecasta. Most shockingly, Spenser also banishes all action and movement from the work, going as far as skipping Adonis’s boar hunt altogether. The overall effect is a characterization of Venus as deceptive and dissolute—the championess of a sterile, selfish and wanton lifestyle that debilitates and unmans. The inhabitants of Castle Joyous derive their joy from this lifestyle precisely (FQ.III.i.39.1-9). In this way, not only has the artist of the tapestry—perhaps wilfully—misread Ovid, but Malecasta and her entourage have also misread the tapestry and derived the wrong lesson from it. Indeed, Spenser provides enough hints to suggest that in this depiction of the story, Adonis is not at all punished for being too bold. The Adonis of Castle Joyous is a fly in Venus’s web, and, if any, his offence is his submission to a life of idleness and unchaste love.

Works Cited

Osgood, Charles Grosvenor. “Sleight.” A Concordance to the Poems of Edmund Spenser. Washington: The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1915. Print.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. Rolfe Humphries. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

“Sleight.” Def. 1.1. and 1.3a. N.d. Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. Hugh Maclean and Anne Lake Prescott. New York: Norton, 1993. Print.