February 25, 2003

Rambuss Examines Sex in Shakespeare

Print More

Richard Rambuss, a professor of English at Emory University, presented his paper on gender and sexual identities in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” in a lecture and discussion sponsored by the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Studies program yesterday.

“Venus and Adonis,” first published in 1593, was Shakespeare’s first published work. According to Rambuss, it was extremely successful.

“It was very popular,” Rambuss said about the original release of “Venus and Adonis,” around the end of the 16th century.

“It was one of the things he was known for. There is some discussion of this poem as an aphrodisiac,” Rambuss said.

Rambuss’ presentation revolved around the sexual identification of the character of Adonis, who, in the poem, refuses the love of Venus in favor of hunting wild boars, an act which Rambuss views as being a symbolic expression of homoerotic sentiment. In Rambuss’ view the poem is also significant because it foreshadowed a transformation in society’s concept of sexuality itself.

The idea that individuals should only be attracted to one sex did not exist during the Renaissance. Men who were married and mainly attracted to women could have romantic feelings towards other men without being considered gay. It was considered natural for people to be simultaneously attracted to members of both sexes. As evidence of this phenomenon, Rambuss pointed to several characters in Shakespeare’s plays.

“Adonis’s desire flows in one way only: towards the boar,” Rambuss said. In this respect, Rambuss compared Adonis to the character of Antonio in Twelfth Night and Antonio in Merchant of Venice, both of whom appeared to be attracted exclusively to the male sex.

“It was a proto-gay male text. The nature of being a homosexual or a heterosexual is a modern development. We don’t really have gay people in Renaissance [literature],” Rambuss said. “Venus and Adonis” represents a shift towards a more modern concept of sexuality. This is exhibited in Adonis’ attraction to the wild boar.

The atmosphere of the presentation was intimate, with about 15 people in attendance. Members of the audience, consisting of professors as well as graduate and undergraduate students, gathered around Rambuss in large chairs. After Rambuss read his paper, there was a question and answer session followed by refreshments.

One of the organizers, Prof. Ellis Hanson, English, praised the clarity of Rambuss’ paper, by noting that it transcended the often opaque language of literary criticism.

“I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a topic I don’t know much about. Rambuss’ paper seemed well reasoned and researched. He responded to the questions very articulately,” J. P. Janowski ’03 said.

In addition to discussing the homosexuality of Adonis’ character, Rambuss drew attention to what he characterized as a lack of character development as well as inconsistencies in tone over the course of the poem.

“Adonis is an unrealized character,” Rambuss said. He pointed out that while Adonis clearly rebuffs the advances from Venus, Adonis never clarifies what he desires as an alternative to the love from Venus. Adonis also appears unable to properly distinguish between love and lust.

Rambuss is critical of the shifting tone throughout the poem. At some points “Venus and Adonis” is quite humorous but it transforms into a very serious work later on, as it concludes with the death of Adonis. Rambuss attributes these shortcomings as signs of Shakespeare’s inexperience as a writer.

Rambuss’ lecture is part of an ongoing series of lectures devoted to lesbian, gay and bisexual issues.

Archived article by Daniel Palmadesso