Venus and Adonis: The classical myth that inspired Shakespeare’s epic poem and John Blow’s 17th-century opera

What many consider to be the earliest known English opera shares its mythological subject with Shakespeare’s most popular published work during his lifetime: the epic poem Venus and Adonis. Here we see great artists from different centuries using different art forms to make new creations from the same source material, putting their own mark on it. Shakespeare’s poem dates to 1593, while John Blow’s opera was composed around 1683.

The libretto to this opera has been attributed to an English noblewoman in the court of Charles II, Anne Kingsmill Finch, and an early manuscript of the opera is part of the Folger Shakespeare Library collection. According to scholar Jennifer Keith, the libretto may also have had some input by two other women of letters in the service of the court.

In the classic myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Adonis is the willing lover of Venus, but the story ends tragically when Adonis is mortally wounded while hunting, despite Venus’s pleas for caution, leaving her forlorn. But in Finch’s libretto, Adonis goes hunting only reluctantly, with Venus encouraging him to leave: “I would not have my lover tire….” (Shakespeare’s poem twists the Ovidian myth by having Adonis reject the goddess of love instead of being receptive to her advances.)

Blow and Finch’s Venus and Adonis is the other great work of through-composed English lyric drama in the 17th century, pride of place going to Henry Purcell’s famous Dido and Aeneas, composed in the same decade and based on Virgil’s Aeneid. Dido is an extraordinary work which gets produced regularly – DC audiences may remember the Folger Consort’s 1995 production and its 2016 mash-up with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (Shakespeare references Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas in several of his plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, and Henry IV, Part 2.)

Venus and Adonis shows us that Purcell was not entirely sui generis. Blow’s music sets words with care, finds pungent dissonances to characterize feeling, and builds on contrapuntal viol and vocal traditions to create instrumental and choral pieces both complicated and direct.

We get a sense of the opera’s court audience when Finch’s libretto has Cupid, Venus’ child, address the courtiers rather cheekily. In the Prologue, he pokes great fun at their fickleness with “Courtiers there is no faith in you, You change as often as you can….” Later, in Act 2, Cupid directs a spelling lesson, teaching little Cupids to punish “ the In – so – lent, the Ar – ro -gant, the Mer – ce – na – ry, the vain and sil – ly.“ All this is still more unusual  when we consider that in the performances at court, Venus was played by a former mistress of Charles II, and Cupid by their illegitimate 11-year-old daughter!

This alternation of divertissement and drama, ending in tragedy (unlike the myth, there is no final transformation which mitigates grief) probably reflects French influence. Charles, who was a cousin of Louis XIV and had spent time in France during his exile from England, brought French taste and entertainment with him when he returned to the throne of England. This is particularly evident in the role dance plays in Venus and Adonis.  In some ways it acts as a unifying element in introducing or closing the three short acts. The Opera Lafayette performances, at GW’s Corcoran Gallery of Art on November 21 and 23, and in New York at the Museo del Barrio on the 22nd, will include two dancers, one of whom also directs the movement of the principal characters and the Shepherds, Hunters, Little Cupids, and Graces.

As Keith reminds us, Venus and Adonis played out under fraught political circumstances in 17th century England, where those like Finch, who were loyal to the Jacobite succession represented by Charles and his brother James, ultimately suffered. Some have suggested that in this beautiful little court opera, Venus represents an England not sufficiently devoted to Charles II (Adonis), and that Venus’ great sadness when Adonis dies is a cautionary tale. In any case, it is a fascinating window into the period and a musical gem that sparkles anew for us today.

In collaboration with Opera Lafayette, the Folger Shakespeare Library held an event on November 14, 2019, to explore the libretto for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, along with some of the Restoration era’s female literary voices, notably Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720). A conversation between Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore and Dr. Jennifer Keith was followed by an exhibition of related rare materials from the Folger collection. (All photos by Brittany Diliberto, Bee Two Sweet.)