The Metamorphoses (Latin: Metamorphōseōn librī: "Books of Transformations") is a Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, considered his magnum opus. Comprising 11,995 lines, 15 books and over 250 myths, the poem chronicles the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar within a loose mythico-historical framework.
Although meeting the criteria for an epic, the poem defies simple genre classification by its use of varying themes and tones. Ovid took inspiration from the genre of metamorphosis poetry, and some of the Metamorphoses derives from earlier treatment of the same myths; however, he diverged significantly from all of his models.
One of the most influential works in Western culture, the Metamorphoses has inspired such authors as Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare. Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in acclaimed works of sculpture, painting, and music. Although interest in Ovid faded after the Renaissance, there was a resurgence of attention to his work towards the end of the 20th century. Today the Metamorphoses continues to inspire and be retold through various media. The work has been the subject of numerous translations into English, the first by William Caxton in 1480.
Title page of 1556 edition published by Joannes Gryphius (decorative border added subsequently). Hayden White Rare Book Collection, University of California, Santa Cruz
|Original title||Metamorphoseon libri|
|First published in||8 AD|
|Genre(s)||Narrative poetry, epic, elegy, tragedy, pastoral (see Contents)|
Ovid's decision to make myth the dominant subject of the Metamorphoses was influenced by the predisposition of Alexandrian poetry. However, whereas it served in that tradition as the cause for moral reflection or insight, he made it instead the "object of play and artful manipulation". The model for a collection of metamorphosis myths derived from a pre-existing genre of metamorphosis poetry in the Hellenistic tradition, of which the earliest known example is Boio(s)' Ornithogonia—a now-fragmentary poem collecting myths about the metamorphoses of humans into birds.
There are three examples of Metamorphoses by later Hellenistic writers, but little is known of their contents. The Heteroioumena by Nicander of Colophon is better known, and clearly an influence on the poem—21 of the stories from this work were treated in the Metamorphoses. However, in a way that was typical for writers of the period, Ovid diverged significantly from his models. The Metamorphoses was longer than any previous collection of metamorphosis myths (Nicander's work consisted of probably four or five books) and positioned itself within a historical framework.
Some of the Metamorphoses derives from earlier literary and poetic treatment of the same myths. This material was of varying quality and comprehensiveness—while some of it was "finely worked", in other cases Ovid may have been working from limited material. In the case of an oft-used myth such as that of Io in Book I, which was the subject of literary adaptation as early as the 5th century BC, and as recently as a generation prior to his own, Ovid reorganises and innovates existing material in order to foreground his favoured topics and to embody the key themes of the Metamorphoses.
Scholars have found it difficult to place the Metamorphoses in a genre. The poem has been considered as an epic or a type of epic (for example, an anti-epic or mock-epic); a Kollektivgedicht that pulls together a series of examples in miniature form, such as the epyllion; a sampling of one genre after another; or simply a narrative that refuses categorization.
The poem is generally considered to meet the criteria for an epic; it is considerably long, relating over 250 narratives across fifteen books; it is composed in dactylic hexameter, the meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid; and it treats the high literary subject of myth. However, the poem "handles the themes and employs the tone of virtually every species of literature", ranging from epic and elegy to tragedy and pastoral. Commenting on the genre debate, G. Karl Galinsky has opined that "... it would be misguided to pin the label of any genre on the Metamorphoses."
The Metamorphoses is comprehensive in its chronology, recounting the creation of the world to the death of Julius Caesar, which had occurred only a year before Ovid's birth; it has been compared to works of universal history, which became important in the 1st century BC. In spite of its apparently unbroken chronology, scholar Brooks Otis has identified four divisions in the narrative:
Ovid works his way through his subject matter, often in an apparently arbitrary fashion, by jumping from one transformation tale to another, sometimes retelling what had come to be seen as central events in the world of Greek mythology and sometimes straying in odd directions. It begins with the ritual "invocation of the muse", and makes use of traditional epithets and circumlocutions. But instead of following and extolling the deeds of a human hero, it leaps from story to story with little connection.
The recurring theme, as with nearly all of Ovid's work, is love—be it personal love or love personified in the figure of Amor (Cupid). Indeed, the other Roman gods are repeatedly perplexed, humiliated, and made ridiculous by Amor, an otherwise relatively minor god of the pantheon, who is the closest thing this putative mock-epic has to a hero. Apollo comes in for particular ridicule as Ovid shows how irrational love can confound the god out of reason. The work as a whole inverts the accepted order, elevating humans and human passions while making the gods and their desires and conquests objects of low humor.
The Metamorphoses ends with an epilogue (Book XV.871–9), one of only two surviving Latin epics to do so (the other being Statius' Thebaid). The ending acts as a declaration that everything except his poetry—even Rome—must give way to change:
The different genres and divisions in the narrative allow the Metamorphoses to display a wide range of themes. Scholar Stephen M. Wheeler notes that "metamorphosis, mutability, love, violence, artistry, and power are just some of the unifying themes that critics have proposed over the years".
Metamorphosis or transformation is a unifying theme amongst the episodes of the Metamorphoses. Ovid raises its significance explicitly in the opening lines of the poem: In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora; ("I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities;"). Accompanying this theme is often violence, inflicted upon a victim whose transformation becomes part of the natural landscape. This theme amalgamates the much-explored opposition between the hunter and the hunted and the thematic tension between art and nature.
There is a huge variety among the types of transformations that take place: from human to inanimate object (Nileus), constellation (Ariadne's Crown), animal (Perdix); from animal (Ants) and fungus (Mushrooms) to human; of sex (Hyenas); and of colour (Pebbles). The metamorphoses themselves are often located metatextually within the poem, through grammatical or narratorial transformations. At other times, transformations are developed into humour or absurdity, such that, slowly, “the reader realizes he is being had”, or the very nature of transformation is questioned or subverted. This phenomenon is merely one aspect of Ovid's extensive use of illusion and disguise.
The Metamorphoses has exerted a considerable influence on literature and the arts, particularly of the West; scholar A. D. Melville says that "It may be doubted whether any poem has had so great an influence on the literature and art of Western civilization as the Metamorphoses." Although a majority of its stories do not originate with Ovid himself, but with such writers as Hesiod and Homer, for others the poem is their sole source.
The influence of the poem on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer is extensive. In The Canterbury Tales, the story of Coronis and Phoebus Apollo (Book II 531–632) is adapted to form the basis for The Manciple's Tale. The story of Midas (Book XI 174–193) is referred to and appears—though much altered—in The Wife of Bath's Tale. The story of Ceyx and Alcyone (from Book IX) is adapted by Chaucer in his poem The Book of the Duchess, written to commemorate the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster and wife of John of Gaunt.
The Metamorphoses was also a considerable influence on William Shakespeare. His Romeo and Juliet is influenced by the story of Pyramus and Thisbe (Metamorphoses Book IV); and, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, a band of amateur actors performs a play about Pyramus and Thisbe. Shakespeare's early erotic poem Venus and Adonis expands on the myth in Book X of the Metamorphoses. In Titus Andronicus, the story of Lavinia's rape is drawn from Tereus' rape of Philomela, and the text of the Metamorphoses is used within the play to enable Titus to interpret his daughter's story. Most of Prospero's renunciative speech in Act V of The Tempest is taken word-for-word from a speech by Medea in Book VII of the Metamorphoses. Among other English writers for whom the Metamorphoses was an inspiration are John Milton—who made use of it in Paradise Lost, considered his magnum opus, and evidently knew it well—and Edmund Spenser. In Europe, the poem was an influence on Giovanni Boccaccio (the story of Pyramus and Thisbe appears in his poem L'Amorosa Fiammetta) and Dante.
During the Renaissance and Baroque periods, mythological subjects were frequently depicted in art. The Metamorphoses was the greatest source of these narratives, such that the term "Ovidian" in this context is synonymous for mythological, in spite of some frequently represented myths not being found in the work. Many of the stories from the Metamorphoses have been the subject of paintings and sculptures, particularly during this period. Some of the most well-known paintings by Titian depict scenes from the poem, including Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon, and Death of Actaeon. Other famous works inspired by it include Pieter Brueghel's painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's sculpture Apollo and Daphne. The Metamorphoses also permeated the theory of art during the Renaissance and the Baroque style, with its idea of transformation and the relation of the myths of Pygmalion and Narcissus to the role of the artist.
Though Ovid was popular for many centuries, interest in his work began to wane after the Renaissance, and his influence on 19th-century writers was minimal. Towards the end of the 20th century his work began to be appreciated once more. Ted Hughes collected together and retold twenty-four passages from the Metamorphoses in his Tales from Ovid, published in 1997. In 1998, Mary Zimmerman's stage adaptation Metamorphoses premiered at the Lookingglass Theatre, and the following year there was an adaptation of Tales from Ovid by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the early 21st century, the poem continues to inspire and be retold through books, films and plays. A series of works inspired by Ovid's book through the tragedy of Diana and Actaeon have been produced by French-based collective LFKs and his film/theatre director, writer and visual artist Jean-Michel Bruyere, including the interactive 360° audiovisual installation Si poteris narrare, licet ("if you are able to speak of it, then you may do so") in 2002, 600 shorts and "medium" film from which 22,000 sequences have been used in the 3D 360° audiovisual installation La Dispersion du Fils from 2008 to 2016 as well as an outdoor performance, "Une Brutalité pastorale" (2000).
In spite of the Metamorphoses' enduring popularity from its first publication (around the time of Ovid's exile in 8 AD) no manuscript survives from antiquity. From the 9th and 10th centuries there are only fragments of the poem; it is only from the 11th century onwards that manuscripts, of varying value, have been passed down.
Influential in the course of the poem's manuscript tradition is the 17th-century Dutch scholar Nikolaes Heinsius. During the years 1640–52, Heinsius collated more than a hundred manuscripts and was informed of many others through correspondence.
But the poem's immense popularity in antiquity and the Middle Ages belies the struggle for survival it faced in late antiquity. "A dangerously pagan work," the Metamorphoses was preserved through the Roman period of Christianization, but was criticized by the voices of Augustine and Jerome, who believed the only metamorphosis really was the transubstantiation. Though the Metamorphoses did not suffer the ignominious fate of the Medea, no ancient scholia on the poem survive (although they did exist in antiquity), and the earliest manuscript is very late, dating from the 11th century.
The poem retained its popularity throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and is represented by an extremely high number of surviving manuscripts (more than 400); the earliest of these are three fragmentary copies containing portions of Books 1–3, dating to the 9th century.
Collaborative editorial effort has been investigating the various manuscripts of the Metamorphoses, some forty-five complete texts or substantial fragments, all deriving from a Gallic archetype. The result of several centuries of critical reading is that the poet's meaning is firmly established on the basis of the manuscript tradition or restored by conjecture where the tradition is deficient. There are two modern critical editions: William S. Anderson's, first published in 1977 in the Teubner series, and R. J. Tarrant's, published in 2004 by the Oxford Clarendon Press.
The full appearance of the Metamorphoses in English translation (sections had appeared in the works of Chaucer and Gower) coincides with the beginning of printing, and traces a path through the history of publishing. William Caxton produced the first translation of the text on 22 April 1480; set in prose, it is a literal rendering of a French translation known as the Ovide Moralisé.
In 1567, Arthur Golding published a translation of the poem that would become highly influential, the version read by Shakespeare and Spenser. It was written in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter. The next significant translation was by George Sandys, produced from 1621–6, which set the poem in heroic couplets, a metre that would subsequently become dominant in vernacular English epic and in English translations.
In 1717, a translation appeared from Samuel Garth bringing together work "by the most eminent hands": primarily John Dryden, but several stories by Joseph Addison, one by Alexander Pope, and contributions from Tate, Gay, Congreve, and Rowe, as well as those of eleven others including Garth himself. Translation of the Metamorphoses after this period was comparatively limited in its achievement; the Garth volume continued to be printed into the 1800s, and had "no real rivals throughout the nineteenth century".
Around the later half of the 20th century a greater number of translations appeared as literary translation underwent a revival. This trend has continued into the twenty-first century. In 1994, a collection of translations and responses to the poem, entitled After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, was produced by numerous contributors in emulation of the process of the Garth volume.
The indebtedness to Ovid of passages and ideas in Spenser's Mutabilite cantos has been pointed out by various commentators;(subscription required)
In Greek mythology, Aesacus or Aisakos (; Ancient Greek: Αἴσακος) was a son of King Priam of Troy. Aesacus sorrowed for the death of his wife or would-be lover, a daughter of the river Cebren, and was transformed into a bird.Antoninus Liberalis
Antoninus Liberalis (Greek: Ἀντωνῖνος Λιβεράλις) was an Ancient Greek grammarian who probably flourished between AD 100 and 300.
His only surviving work is the Metamorphoses (Μεταμορφώσεων Συναγωγή, Metamorphoseon Synagoge, literally "Collection of Transformations"), a collection of forty-one very briefly summarised tales about mythical metamorphoses effected by offended deities, unique in that they are couched in prose, not verse. The literary genre of myths of transformations of men and women, heroes and nymphs, into stars (see Catasterismi), plants and animals, or springs, rocks and mountains, were widespread and popular in the classical world. This work has more polished parallels in the better-known Metamorphoses of Ovid and in the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius. Like them, its sources, where they can be traced, are Hellenistic works, such as Nicander's Heteroeumena and Ornithogonia ascribed to Boios.The work survives in a single manuscript, of the later 9th century, now in the Palatine Library in Heidelberg; it contains several works. John Stojkovič brought it to the Dominican convent at Basel about 1437; in 1553, Hieronymus Froeben gave it to Otto Henry, Elector Palatine, who gave it to the Library. In 1623, with the rest of the Palatine Library, it was taken to Rome; in 1798, to Paris, as part of Napoleonic plunder under the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino; in 1816, it was restored to Heidelberg.Guilielmus Xylander printed the text in 1568; since some leaves have since disappeared, his edition is also a necessary authority for the text.
Many of the transformations in this compilation are found nowhere else, and some may simply be inventions of Antoninus. The manner of the narrative is a laconic and conversational prose: "this completely inartistic text," as Sarah Myers called it, offers the briefest summaries of lost metamorphoses by more ambitious writers, such as Nicander and Boeus. Francis Celoria, the translator, regards the text as perfectly acceptable koine Greek, though with numerous hapax legomena; it is "grimly simple" and mostly devoid of grammatical particles which would convey humor or a narratorial persona.Arachne
In Greek mythology (and later Roman mythology), Arachne (; from Greek: ἀράχνη "spider", cognate with Latin araneus) was a talented mortal weaver who challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a weaving contest; this hubris resulted in her being transformed into a spider. There are many versions of the story's weaving contest, with each saying that one or the other won.Circe
Circe (; Greek: Κίρκη Kírkē pronounced [kírkɛː]) is a goddess of magic or sometimes a nymph, witch, enchantress or sorceress in Greek mythology. By most accounts, she was the daughter of the Titan sun god Helios, and Perse, one of the three thousand Oceanid nymphs. Her brothers were Aeëtes, keeper of the Golden Fleece, and Perses. Her sister was Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur. Other accounts make her the daughter of Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. She was often confused with Calypso, due to her shifts in behavior and personality, and the association that both of them had with Odysseus. Circe was renowned for her vast knowledge of potions and herbs. Through the use of these and a magic wand or staff, she transformed her enemies, or those who offended her, into wild beasts.Daphne
Daphne (; Greek: Δάφνη, meaning "laurel") a minor figure in Greek mythology, is a naiad, a variety of female nymph associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of freshwater. She is said by ancient sources variously to have been a daughter of the river god Peneus and the nymph Creusa in Thessaly (Hyginus Fabulae 203) or of Ladon (the river Ladon in Arcadia) or Pineios, and to Ge (or Gaia) (Pausanias and others).There are several versions of the myth in which she appears, but the general narrative appears in Greco-Roman mythology, is that due to a curse made by the god Cupid, son of Venus, on the god Apollo (Phoebus), she became the unwilling object of the infatuation of Apollo, who chased her against her wishes. Just before being overtaken by him, Daphne pleaded to her river god father for help, who transformed her into a laurel tree, thus foiling Apollo.
Thenceforth Apollo developed a special reverence for laurel. At the Pythian Games which were held every four years in Delphi in honour of Apollo, a wreath of laurel gathered from the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly was given as a prize. Hence it later became customary to award prizes in the form of laurel wreaths to victorious generals, athletes, poets and musicians, worn as a chaplet on the head. The Poet Laureate is a well-known modern example of such a prize-winner, dating from the early Renaissance in Italy. According to Pausanias the reason for this was "simply and solely because the prevailing tradition has it that Apollo fell in love with the daughter of Ladon (Daphne)". Most artistic depictions of the myth focus on the moment of Daphne's transformation.Echo (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Echo (; Greek: Ἠχώ, Ēkhō, "echo", from ἦχος (ēchos), "sound") was an Oread who resided on Mount Cithaeron. Zeus loved consorting with beautiful nymphs and often visited them on Earth. Eventually, Zeus's wife, Hera, became suspicious, and came from Mt. Olympus in an attempt to catch Zeus with the nymphs. Echo, by trying to protect Zeus (Zeus ordered her to protect him), endured Hera's wrath, and Hera made her only able to speak the last words spoken to her. So when Echo met Narcissus and fell in love with him, she was unable to tell him how she felt and was forced to watch him as he fell in love with himself.Harmonia
In Greek mythology, Harmonia (; Ancient Greek: Ἁρμονία) is the immortal goddess of harmony and concord. Her Roman counterpart is Concordia. Her Greek opposite is Eris, whose Roman counterpart is Discordia.
There was also a nymph called Harmonia. According to Apollonius of Rhodes, she was a naiad of the Akmonian Wood who was a lover of Ares and mother of the Amazons.Hecuba
Hecuba (; also Hecabe, Hécube; Ancient Greek: Ἑκάβη Hekábē, pronounced [hekábɛ͜ɛ]) was a queen in Greek mythology, the wife of King Priam of Troy during the Trojan War, with whom she had 19 children. These children included several major characters of Homer's Iliad such as the warriors Hector and Paris and the prophetess Cassandra.Io (mythology)
Io (; Ancient Greek: Ἰώ [iːɔ̌ː] means "moon") was, in Greek mythology, one of the mortal lovers of Zeus. She was an ancestor of many kings and heroes such as Perseus, Cadmus, Heracles, Minos, Lynceus, Cepheus, and Danaus. The astronomer Simon Marius named a moon of Jupiter after Io in 1614.Iynx
In Greek mythology, Iynx was an Arkadian Oreiad nymph; a daughter of the god Pan and Echo. She cast a spell on Zeus which caused him to fall in love with Io. In consequence of this, Hera metamorphosed her into the bird called iynx (Eurasian wryneck, jynx torquilla).According to another story, she was a daughter of Pierus, and as she and her sisters had presumed to enter into a musical contest with the Muses, she was changed into the bird iynx. This bird, the symbol of passionate and restless love, was given by Aphrodite to Jason, who, by turning it round and pronouncing certain magic words, excited the love of Medea.Medusa
In Greek mythology, Medusa (; Μέδουσα "guardian, protectress") was a monster, a Gorgon, generally described as a winged human female with living venomous snakes in place of hair. Those who gazed upon her face would turn to stone. Most sources describe her as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, though the author Hyginus makes her the daughter of Gorgon and Ceto. According to Hesiod and Aeschylus, she lived and died on an island named Sarpedon, somewhere near Cisthene. The 2nd-century BCE novelist Dionysios Skytobrachion puts her somewhere in Libya, where Herodotus had said the Berbers originated her myth, as part of their religion.
Medusa was beheaded by the hero Perseus, who thereafter used her head, which retained its ability to turn onlookers to stone, as a weapon until he gave it to the goddess Athena to place on her shield. In classical antiquity the image of the head of Medusa appeared in the evil-averting device known as the Gorgoneion.Minthe
In Greek mythology, Minthe (also Menthe, Mintha or Mentha; Greek: Μίνθη or Μένθη) was a naiad associated with the river Cocytus.Morpheus
Morpheus ('Fashioner', derived from the Ancient Greek: μορφή meaning 'form, shape') is a god associated with sleep and dreams. In Ovid's Metamorphoses he is the son of Sleep, who appears in dreams in human form. From the medieval period, the name began to stand more generally for the god of dreams, or of sleep.Myrmidons
The Myrmidons (Greek: Μυρμιδόνες Myrmidones) were legendary people of Greek mythology, native to the region of Thessaly. During the Trojan War, they were commanded by Achilles, as described in Homer's Iliad. According to Greek legend, they were created by Zeus from a colony of ants and therefore took their name from the Greek word for ant, myrmex (Greek: μύρμηξ).Narcissus (mythology)
In Greek mythology, Narcissus (; Ancient Greek: Νάρκισσος Nárkissos) was a hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia who was known for his beauty. According to Tzetzes, he was a Laconian hunter who loved everything beautiful. Narcissus was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him, causing some to commit suicide to prove their unrelenting devotion to his striking beauty. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one's physical appearance or public perception.Ovid
Publius Ovidius Naso (Classical Latin: [ˈpu:.blɪ.ʊs ɔˈwɪ.dɪ.ʊs ˈnaː.soː]; 20 March 43 BC – 17/18 AD), known as Ovid () in the English-speaking world, was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of Augustus. He was a contemporary of the older Virgil and Horace, with whom he is often ranked as one of the three canonical poets of Latin literature. The Imperial scholar Quintilian considered him the last of the Latin love elegists. He enjoyed enormous popularity, but, in one of the mysteries of literary history, was sent by Augustus into exile in a remote province on the Black Sea, where he remained until his death. Ovid himself attributes his exile to carmen et error, "a poem and a mistake", but his discretion in discussing the causes has resulted in much speculation among scholars.
The first major Roman poet to begin his career during the reign of Augustus, Ovid is today best known for the Metamorphoses, a 15-book continuous mythological narrative written in the meter of epic, and for works in elegiac couplets such as Ars Amatoria ("The Art of Love") and Fasti. His poetry was much imitated during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and greatly influenced Western art and literature. The Metamorphoses remains one of the most important sources of classical mythology.Scylla
In Greek mythology, Scylla ( SIL-ə; Greek: Σκύλλα, pronounced [skýl̚la], Skylla) was a monster that lived on one side of a narrow channel of water, opposite her counterpart Charybdis. The two sides of the strait were within an arrow's range of each other—so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass dangerously close to Scylla and vice versa.
Scylla made her first appearance in Homer's Odyssey, where Odysseus and his crew encounter her and Charybdis on their travels. Later myth gave her an origin story as a beautiful nymph who gets turned into a monster.The strait where Scylla dwelled has been associated with the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily, for example, as in Book Three of Virgil's Aeneid. The idiom "between Scylla and Charybdis" has come to mean being forced to choose between two similarly dangerous situations.The Golden Ass
The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, which Augustine of Hippo referred to as The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus), is the only ancient Roman novel in Latin to survive in its entirety.The protagonist of the novel is called Lucius. At the end of the novel, he is revealed to be from Madaurus, the hometown of Apuleius himself. The plot revolves around the protagonist's curiosity (curiositas) and insatiable desire to see and practice magic. While trying to perform a spell to transform into a bird, he is accidentally transformed into an ass. This leads to a long journey, literal and metaphorical, filled with inset tales. He finally finds salvation through the intervention of the goddess Isis, whose cult he joins.Venus and Adonis (Shakespeare poem)
Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem by William Shakespeare published in 1593. It is probably Shakespeare's first publication.
The poem tells the story of Venus, the goddess of Love; of her unrequited love; and of her attempted seduction of Adonis, an extremely handsome young man, who would rather go hunting. The poem is pastoral, and at times erotic, comic, and tragic. It contains discourses on the nature of love, and observations of nature.
It is written in a verse form known as sesta rima, which is a quatrain followed by a couplet (ABABCC). This form was also used by Edmund Spenser and Thomas Lodge. The poem consists of 199 stanzas or 1,194 lines of iambic pentameter.
It was published originally as a quarto pamphlet and published with great care. It was probably printed using Shakespeare's fair copy. The printer was Richard Field, who, like Shakespeare, was from Stratford. Venus and Adonis appeared in print before any of Shakespeare's plays were published, but not before some of his plays had been acted on stage. It has certain qualities in common with A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Love's Labour's Lost. It was written when the London theatres were closed for a time due to the plague.
The poem begins with a brief dedication to Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, in which the poet describes the poem as "the first heir of my invention".
The poem is inspired by and based on stories found in the Metamorphoses, a narrative poem by the Latin poet, Ovid (43 BC – AD 17/18). Ovid's much briefer version of the tale occurs in book ten of his Metamorphoses. It differs greatly from Shakespeare's version. Ovid's Venus goes hunting with Adonis to please him, but otherwise is uninterested in the out-of-doors. She wears "tucked up" robes, worries about her complexion, and particularly hates dangerous wild animals. Shakespeare's Venus is a bit like a wild animal herself: she apparently goes naked, and is not interested in hunting, but only in making love to Adonis,offering her body to him in graphically explicit terms. In the end, she insists that the boar's killing of Adonis happened accidentally as the animal, impressed by the young hunter's beauty, gored him while trying to kiss him. Venus's behavior seems to reflect Shakespeare's own feelings of empathy about animals: his poem devotes many stanzas to descriptions of a stallion's feelings as he pursues a sexually attractive mare and to a hare's feelings as hounds run it down, which is inconsistent with Venus's request that he hunt only harmless animals like hares. Other stories in Ovid's work are, to a lesser degree, considered sources: the tales of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, Narcissus, and Pygmalion.
It was published about five years before Christopher Marlowe’s posthumously published Hero and Leander, which is also a narrative love poem based on a story from Ovid.
Venus and Adonis was extremely popular as soon as it was published, and it was reprinted fifteen times before 1640. It is unusual that so few of the original quartos have survived.