The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.0495  Tuesday, 4 December 2012


From:        Ian Steere <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         December 4, 2012 12:37:22 PM EST

Subject:     The Venus & Adonis Dedication


So far, there has been no overt response to the evidence that there are contrary themes in the V & A dedication—and that both were deliberate. Given that we have members who will leap with alacrity on any perceived weakness of argument (and thank God for them), we may take it that the premises are solid. Shakespeare was, in all probability, expressing personal grievances against Wriothesley and doing so with admirable panache.


However, it is strange that a punchy new example of Shakespeare’s wit and style is not of more interest to this forum (which professes to explore Shakespeare’s works). A private respondent has pointed me to an angle which perhaps I have not taken into account sufficiently—that the homophobia of many Shakespearean scholars may impede discovery which threatens their image of our hero.


Now, I don’t know whether this is true (though the revelations of an article brought to my attention were thought-provoking). Nevertheless, it prompts me to offer for consideration the following scenario. I imagine that it may offend homophobes and homophiles alike. If it does, I apologize—no offense is intended. 



In 1592 Shakespeare is a streetwise, ambitious author-showman, prepared to do what it takes to achieve his aims. The prolonged closures of the London playhouses are putting him in a perilous position financially and professionally.  He is attempting to cultivate the patronage of a narcissistic young aristocrat, Henry Wriothesley. 


The theatre-loving Wriothesley is, at this stage of his life, a catamite. As Earl of Southampton, he represents a potential lifeline (albeit that he is cash-strapped by his tendency to spend more than the allowance permitted by his guardian). Homosexual suitors attractive to the Earl will have an advantage. However, a heterosexual artist prepared to indulge in exaggerated endearments and (as necessary and if capable) homosexual dalliances, may secure sustenance and, hopefully, prosperity through Wriothesley's sponsorship.


Shakespeare is strongly attracted to, and experienced in, women. He is either fully hetero or thereabouts. He does his best to seduce Wriothesley emotionally, intellectually and physically. His wit flatters and engages. He tries (but over a period of time fails) to meet the sexual needs of the young Narcissus. Eventually he is supplanted in the latter’s esteem by a rival suitor for patronage. The rival provides sex, wit, flattery and poetry in a package which better appeals to the young Earl.


Shakespeare feels devastated and forsaken. He is about to publish Venus & Adonis, his first major tribute to Wriothesley. He has spent many a long hour applying his skills towards the gratification of the Earl—in the creation of that work, numerous private poems and other entertainment. Another long poem, Lucrece, is in its early stages of development. He has received much encouragement from the object of his attentions. Yet the prospects of reward and/or continued sponsorship are now vanishing. Is it fair that so much effort of cultivation will be rewarded by “still so bad a harvest”? He responds with his savage and wickedly witty dedication.



Are we interested in finding out more about Shakespeare and/or his works? If so, why does the V & A dedication convey veiled insults and rebuke? Is there any evidence which contradicts the above scenario? Is there any other scenario which better fits all the available evidence? 

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