While I agree with Daryl Pinksen that Marlowe wrote Venus and Adonis, I don’t think it was written to try to convince the Earl of Southampton to marry. The first 17 of the famous Sonnets were, as Daryl and I believe, written by Marlowe at the behest of Lord Burghley to persuade Southampton to marry his granddaughter Elizabeth. Apparently the poems failed to do the job.
But I think Venus and Adonis tells a different story, one of seduction by an aggressive female of a reluctant handsome young man. And it is only when Venus becomes totally passive that Adonis becomes sufficiently aroused to make love to her.
If the thesis I put forth in my book is correct, Marlowe is telling us exactly what took place between him and Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke. Of course, my thesis is pure speculation, but I believe that Marlowe was Philip Sidney’s page, engaged at the age of eight when in 1572 Sidney was embarking on his two-year tour of the Continent with a contingent of servants. I also believe that young Christopher stayed with Sidney until the age of fourteen when he entered the King’s School on Archbishop Parker’s scholarship.
During those six years in Sidney's employ, Marlowe traveled with the young nobleman and his servants all across Europe, was in Paris during the horrible St. Bartholomew massacre of the Huguenots, and on return to England remained with Sidney until 1578.
Apparently, Sidney’s sister Mary, two years older than Marlowe, became acquainted with her brother’s precocious page and recognized in him a highly intelligent, good looking, and personable young man with a talent for writing poetry.
At the age of fifteen, Mary Sidney married the elderly Second Earl of Pembroke, Henry Herbert, who had had two wives, neither of whom bore him an heir. After two years of marriage, it became clear to Mary and the Earl that he was infertile. But the Earl wanted an heir to carry forth the Pembroke earldom. The great problem that many noble titled families had was the lack of a male heir to carry forth the title.
The Earl no doubt told Mary that she had to get him an heir, and he didn’t care how she went about doing it. But she had to be discreet, careful, and secretive about the whole affair. Who was available to impregnate her? The most convenient candidate was her brother’s former page, now fifteen and attending the King’s School. He was perfect: a social nobody, and therefore no threat, but physically healthy, highly intelligent, virginal, and full of teenage testosterone. And he greatly admired Mary. How Mary arranged for them to meet and what took place at that meeting we can never know. What we do know is that the Third Earl of Pembroke, William Herbert, or W.H., was born on April 8, 1580.
Which means that it was in the summer of 1579 that Mary found a convenient time and place to seduce young Christopher. And there is every likelihood that, as a result of this highly charged first sexual experience, Marlowe not only considered it a privilege to contribute his blood to the Sidney-Pembroke line, but also fell in love with the Countess.
It is my contention that Venus and Adonis tells the story of that seduction by the aggressive Countess, the resistance of Adonis, and how he discovered that women aroused him when they became completely passive. Some men enjoy aggressive women, but apparently Marlowe did not. Thus in Hero and Leander, Leander is the aggressor.
The Countess went on to have three more children: Katherine, Anne, and Philip Herbert, the future Earl of Montgomery. Who were their fathers? The best candidate is the poet Samuel Daniel, the rival poet, who lived with the Countess, and served as a tutor to young William.
We do know that throughout her life Mary Sidney bore a terrible burden of sin because of her aroused sexual desires. In other words, it was the Second Earl of Pembroke who forced his young wife to become a latent nymphomaniac.
As for the dedication of Venus and Adonis to Southampton by the unknown Shakespeare, I believe it was done to give this highly erotic poem respectable and prestigious patronage. Marlowe undoubtedly knew Southampton, Burghley’s ward, and may have even tutored him at Cambridge, and it is quite likely that Southampton knew who the true author was.
G. K. Chesterton once wrote about political secrecy: “It is the thing most common to humanity that is most veiled by humanity. It is exactly because we all know that it is there that we need not say that it is there.” Perhaps this insight explains why secrets were so well kept during Elizabethan times. Chesterton says further: “We are asked to be silent about these things, but we are not asked to be ignorant about them.” (All Things Considered, New York, John Lane Co., 1910)
© Samuel Blumenfeld, September 2009
Samuel Blumenfeld, a regular contibutor to MSC, has authored more than ten books. His latest, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection: A New Study of the Authorship Question, was published by McFarland. He is a former editor in the New York book publishing industry, and he has lectured in all 50 U.S. states. His writings have appeared in such diverse publications as Esquire, Reason, Education Digest, Vital Speeches of the Day, Boston, and many others.
A recent anecdote Sam related to me from his fascinating life experiences: "I did meet Ayn Rand when I was editor at Grosset & Dunlap. Took her to lunch. I then attended the Objectivist lectures given by her protege Nathaniel Branden. Rand would come at the end of each lecture and answer questions. After the lecture, a group of us would retire to the bar in the hotel for further dicussion. Alan Greenspan was part of that group. Of course, Rand later broke off with Branden because he was in love with a younger woman."
See Sam on YouTube addressing the Shakespeare authorship controversy.
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