Monday, January 31, 2011

Shakespeare: intensifying physical & emotional proximity

Metaphors frequently function in poetry a way of distancing the reader from a character or situation, but not here [in Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, in this example, Venus and Adonis]. Here they are ways of intensifying physical and emotional proximity, so that we view everything in a sustained close-up. The dimples in Adonis’s cheeks are “round enchanting pits” that “Opened their mouths to swallow Venus’ liking” (lines 247-48). The goddess’s face “doth reek and smoke” (line 555) with erotic arousal. And when the two recline—or rather when Venus pulls Adonis down to the ground—they lie not simply on a bed of flowers, but on “blue-veined violets” (line 125).

Without once making an appearance in his own person—for, after all, this is a mythological fantasy—Shakespeare is constantly, inescapably present in Venus and Adonis, as if he wanted Southampton (and perhaps “the world,” at which he glances in his dedication) fully to understand his extraordinary powers of playful identification. He is manifestly in Venus, in her physical urgency and her rhetorical inventiveness, and he is in Adonis too, in his impatience... But he is in everything else as well. If a mare could write a love poem to a stallion (and, more precisely, the ecstatic inventory of the beloved’s features, known as a blazon), she might write this:

Round-hoofed, short-jointed, fetlocks shag and long,
Broad breast, full eye, small head, and nostril wide,
High crest, short ears, straight legs, and passing strong;
Thin mane, thick tail, broad buttock, tender hide.
(lines 295-98)

If a hare could write a poem about the misery of being hunted, he might write this:

Then shalt thou see the dew-bedabbled wretch
Turn, and return, indenting with the way.
Each envious brier his weary legs do scratch;
Each shadow makes him stop, each murmur stay.
(lines 703-6)

The point is not that horses or hares are central to the poem—they are not. The point is that Shakespeare effortlessly enters into their existence. – Stephen Greenblatt

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