Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Master of Arts




Dr. James Purkis


This thesis offers a study of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (and by extension Lucrece) that builds on Ted Hughes’s claim that they function as two halves of a binary whole.[1] Tracing a contrapuntal surface symmetry between the poems, Hughes argues that Venus and Adonis encodes the founding myth of Catholicism and Lucrece that of Puritanism; the poems together convey the great metaphysical war between these two oppositional forces that so haunted Elizabethan England.[2] Critics have dismissed Shakespeare’s mythological references as mere “poet’s argot,” yet I shall build on Hughes’s reading of this ‘argot’ as “a sacred symbolic language in itself” to show how Venus and Adonis embodies a coherent system of signification that encrypts the archetypal conflict, not ultimately between Protestantism and Catholicism, but rather between two diametrically opposed hermeneutical tendencies: on the side of Venus, that of the broadly ‘Gnostic’ (the highly syncretic, ever-allegorizing, esoteric knowledge-seeking) tradition; and on the side of Adonis, that of the broadly ‘Puritan’ (the rigidly dogmatic, Protestant Biblical literalist) tradition.[3]

[1] Ted Hughes, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (Faber, 1992), 82.

[2] Hughes, 90.

[3] Hughes, 57.