The Mouth’s Many Meanings: Oral Imagery in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis
During my reading of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, I was particularly struck with the role the mouth played, and, subsequently, that of kissing. The mouth, lips, and tongue have myriad representations in this work, and seem to take on different responsibilities and tasks depending on the situation. There is, of course, perhaps one of the most obvious representations: the mouth as the centre for communication. Interestingly, in Venus and Adonis the mouth creates its own sort of language, oftentimes through kissing, rather than making use of the spoken word. There are other representations, too. The mouth can be both passive and aggressive, the giver and the receiver, attacker and attacked. It can also engage in its own particular form of economic bargaining, as kisses are traded and ransomed between the two characters. The mouth, with its various parts and actions, takes on a significant role within the poem.
I mentioned the mouth and its techniques of communication, and I’d like to look at that a bit more. In lines 44-48, it says:
Now doth she stroke his cheek, now doth he frown
And gins to chide, but soon she stops his lips
And kissing speaks, with lustftul language broken:
‘If thou wilt chide, thy lips shall never open.’
Here, not only does Venus’ mouth communicate, as ‘kissing speaks’, but so too does she put a stopper on any reciprocation from the young Adonis – her mouth is at once speaking and silencing.
There is another interesting example in lines 119-120, where Venus says, “Look in mine eyeballs; there thy beauty lies./Then why not lips on lips, since eyes in eyes?” (119-120). Here, she is comparing the visual, communicative ability of the eyes to the lips, elevating the mouth’s role from that of the perhaps purely sensual to the almost spiritual.
Throughout the poem the mouth is the centre of a complex series of negotiations, and even begins to takes on a sort of economic value. On line 84 it is said that “one sweet kiss shall pay [a] countless debt” (84). This image is later elaborated, as Venus says:
A thousand kisses buys my heart from me;
And pay them at thy leisure, one by one.
What is ten hundred touches unto thee?
Are they not quickly told, and quickly gone?
Say for non-payment that the debt should double,
Is twenty hundred kisses such a trouble?
The mouth, and kissing, have their own unique value, and Venus manipulates this fact in order to levy power against Adonis. By claiming that he owes her a debt which must be paid in kisses, she is effectively creating an unbalanced system of bodily economics in a cunning attempt to get Adonis’ lips to pay the “ransom” which is referred to in line 550.
The mouth is many things in this poem; it has its own unique power and communicative skills, yet it can also be stopped up, bartered away, or victimized, all of which occur during the ongoing struggle between Venus and her prey.