Venus and Adonis is a long narrative poem by William Shakespeare. It is historically important because it is believed to be Shakespeare's first ever published poem. When it was published in 1593, few had heard of the young man who would become one of Queen Elizabeth I's favorite playwrights, and whose work would entertain royalty and peasantry alike.
This work is a long poem inspired by stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses, a narrative poem written around 8 AD. Ovid's version of the Venus and Adonis myth was much shorter than Shakespeare's. Shakespeare's poem tells the tale of Venus, Goddess of Love, and her attempts to seduce Adonis, a handsome young man who prefers hunting to romance, and who does not reciprocate Venus's unrequited love. The poem depicts the pursuit of love between men and women, but is notable for its casting of the female as the aggressor. Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis blends a number of genres including pastoral, comedy, tragedy, and even erotica.
The poem is written in sesta rima, often now called the "Venus and Adonis stanza." This form consists of a stanza of six lines, split into one quatrain of ABAB rhyme scheme, followed by a rhyming couplet, CC. Venus and Adonis contains 199 sesta rima stanzas, totaling 1,194 lines.
The poem was first published in the form of a pamphlet known as a quarto. Quartos were made of full-page blank pages that only contained eight pages of text, four each side. It was then folded twice to produce eight book pages. It is believed that the first pamphlets were printed from foul papers, which are drafts of an author's working copy of a poem or play. Once a piece of work was finished, a transcript, or fair copy, would be produced by a scribe under the strict direction of the author. Shakespeare's good friend Richard Field printed the poem; both men hailed from Stratford-Upon-Avon and maintained a close friendship that blossomed into a working relationship as Shakespeare's success increased.
Although Shakespeare had not published any other work before this poem, several of his plays had been performed on stage in London. Due to the plague, theaters were closed, and he thus turned his hand to poetry instead. Critics cite the poem's similarity to plays that pre-date it, most notably A Midsummer Night's Dream, in that it features unrequited love as its key theme. The poem was widely popular and also enduring; it was re-printed fifteen times before the year 1640. Despite the fact that it is a poem and not a play, the Royal Shakespeare Company has performed Venus and Adonis, adapting it for the stage and casting puppets as the eponymous characters.