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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 11 (2005) No. 1

Narrating a Nation: Venus on the Late Seventeenth-Century English Stage

Ken McLeod*


The character of Venus is commonly found in seventeenth-century English theater music, typically embodying a binary representation of both heavenly love (Venus Coelestis) and bodily love (Venus Vulgaris). With particular emphasis on John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and John Eccles’ The Loves of Mars and Venus this essay demonstrates that Venus provided a powerful emblem of the factionalized nature of Britain and its Trojan heritage while simultaneously functioning as an icon of the dangers of the feminine “other,” an image which aided in coalescing an emerging national ideal of British masculinity.

1. Introduction

2. Venus, Music, and Politics

3. Venus and Adonis and the Loves of Mars and Venus

4. The Loves of Mars and Venus

5. Venus and the Monarchy on the Restoration Stage

6. Conclusion


Musical Examples


1. Introduction

1.1 Venus, goddess of love and beauty, appeared often on the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century musical stage. Major works incorporating her character include John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1682), Louis Grabu’s Albion and Albanius (1685), Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1684–9?) and King Arthur (1691), John Eccles and Gottfried Finger’s The Loves of Mars and Venus (1696), various musical settings of William Congreve’s The Judgment of Paris (1700), and numerous lesser-known or smaller works.1 To some extent this interest in Venus was a by-product of her close ties to England and its monarchy. As the mother of Aeneas and great-grandmother of Brutus (Britain’s namesake), Venus was the matriarch of England’s mythical Trojan heritage and monarchy. Her association was such that she was often even portrayed as a resident. As Dryden writes in King Arthur “Venus here will choose her dwelling, and forsake her Cyprian Groves” (V, 2).2 Johann Pepusch’s cantata The Island of Beauty (1715) is similarly devoted to the topic of Venus settling in her “favorite land” of Britain. Attributes commonly associated with Venus include, grace, nobility, elegance, affability, courtesy, patience and wealth.3 As such, Venus was representative of a moneyed and successful society, as England aspired to be—a nation that could afford to be devoted to music, beauty, and pleasure.

1.2 Venus, like Love, was well known for her mutable nature. She was the goddess of sacred love and beauty but also the goddess of profane love and the patroness of prostitutes and libidinous affections. An historically ambiguous figure, and arguably a dubious choice to be associated with the monarchy and image of a nation, Venus variously depicted either the stability or instability of the monarchy and state as well as the power of women. The profane side of her character provided a cautionary representation of both uncontrolled monarchical and feminine power. In keeping with this latter theme, many, if not most, Restoration plays and musical dramas are rife with images of male jealousy, fears of cuckoldry, shrewish or scolding women, and women who transgress sexual boundaries. Typically the product of male authors, such works testify to the centrality of issues involving gender and sexuality and a prevailing concern for the maintenance of masculine order during this period.4

1.3 Despite the common presence of Venus in theater music from this period there has been little or no recognition of her symbolic importance. In addition to rectifying this omission, I will attempt to account for the contradictions that result from the inevitable confrontation of and negotiation between definitions of love as sacred and orderly or profane and disruptive. In particular I am concerned with how Venus embodied both aspects of love and how her various images functioned during the Restoration to sustain many of the privileges and prerogatives of men. I focus on images of Venus on the Restoration musical stage that expose the construction of woman as “other” that, in keeping with the mutability of her character, either confirm or disrupt masculine identity and patriarchal order commonly associated with the emerging national identity of England during this period.

2. Venus, Music, and Politics

2.1 Venus’s musical and political associations in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had important classical roots. In imitation of notions expressed in Plato’s Symposium she was recognized as Venus Coelestis, goddess of sacred love, pacifier of Mars, loving mother of Aeneas, and sanguine source of universal harmony. She was also Venus Vulgaris, goddess of bodily love and passion, and the seductress who led Helen and Paris astray causing the Trojan war.5 This dual nature is reflected in Colley Cibber’s libretto for the masque Venus and Adonis (1715) in which the innocent Adonis calls to “Celestial Venus!” while Mars calls to “O perjur’d Venus! False as fair!”6 These two sides of Venus correspond with a binary opposition of order (Coelestis) and disorder (Vulgaris). However, Venus is typically assigned multivalent personalities and characteristics that both transcend and encompass such reductive polarities. Taken as a whole, Venus’s oppositional character has led many to regard her as a representation of mutability and change.7 She was an embodiment of transience—the evanescence of love and passion, kings and countries, and even music.

2.2 Associations of Venus with music were common throughout English history. Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, for example, depicted her rising from the waves, “A citole [cittern] in hir right hand hadde she”; and her temple was described as having “Festes, instrumentz, caroles, daunces, Lust and array … peynted on the wal.”8 Reflecting her association with profane love, Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, compared Venus’s voice to a “tempting tune” that is “bewitching like the wanton mermaids song.”9 Not only are musical instruments, in general, iconographic symbols of love, but also Medieval astrology taught that musicians of all kinds were among “the children of Venus.”10 Medieval and Renaissance representations of Venus’s nativity commonly portray her being transported to shore on a scallop shell—iconography that carried over to the incorporation of her likeness on lutes and citterns with their analogous shell-like constructions.11 Venus with music was often the subject of artworks such as Titian’s “Venus and the Lute Player” (ca.1560), and Breugal the Elder’s “Hearing” (1618). English sources and iconography also underlined Venus’s relationship with music. In 1565, Thomas Cooper described the “Cithera” (or Cittern) as “A womanly harpe singyng songs of loue and not of valient acts.”12 The term “Cithera” would seem to derive from Venus’s island birthplace of Cytherea.13 Venus is also often depicted teaching music. A detail from the frontispiece to the published songs in Handel’s Rinaldo (1711), for example, portrays Venus instructing Cupid in the art of music (see Figure 1).14 Similar scenes of Venus-like figures teaching music to cupids were common in decorative English music title pages.15

2.3 Venus’s musical associations often reflected a connection with political and social harmony. This relationship is reinforced by the ancient belief in the harmonious reconciliation of opposed qualities in a stable union, or discordia concors—a concept relating love, politics, and music.16 Indeed, according to Plutarch’s Moralia, it was “well known to all that … Concord [Harmony] is sprung from Aphrodite [Venus] and Ares [Mars], the one of whom is harsh and contentious, and the other mild and tutelary.”17 Thus Venus, goddess of both sacred and profane love, was an embodiment of discordia concors. She is tied to the notion of state harmony and, as outlined below, it is she who invariably instigates and/or resolves the discords of the works in which she appears.

2.4 In a similar fashion, the concept of love in much Restoration poetry was often related to the monarchy and the establishment or maintenance, often by forceful means, of order or disorder. As Dryden writes in Cymon and Iphigenia:

                  … Love disdains the Laws, And like a King by conquest gains his Cause: When Arms take place, all other Pleas are vain, Love taught me Force, and Force shall Love maintain. (II, 300–3)18

Dryden here alludes to love’s transcendence of social rules and draws a parallel with kingly conquest and the maintenance of this conquest by force. It is also a not too subtle reference to William III’s ascension to the throne over James II in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688–9.19 Dryden thus equated the power of love directly with the power of the monarchy. He and other authors also made less overt associations between Venus and the monarchy.20 Andrew Walkling, for example, has pointed out the analogy of James II’s wife Mary of Modena as a new Venus in Dryden’s 1682 Prologue to The Duchess, On Her return from Scotland.21 The work celebrates the return of the future queen following her husband’s exile in France:

When Factious Rage to cruel Exile, drove The Queen of Beauty, and the Court of Love; The Muses Droop’d, with their forsaken Arts, And the sad Cupids broke their useless Darts.

As James Winn has discussed, this version of mythology places Venus rather than Minerva in the role of patroness of the arts.22 These examples underline the state of harmony or disharmony that existed within and between the monarchy and the nation. Love was viewed as the most powerful expression of that relationship, and the “Queen of Love” was a common representation both of the king’s consort and of his symbolic marriage to the nation. As such Venus embodied aspects of both the nation and the monarchy, either of which could be loving or fickle.

3. Venus and Adonis and the Loves of Mars and Venus

3.1 Though Venus was undoubtedly representative of both the monarchy and the nation during the Restoration, in her Venus Vulgaris persona, she also symbolized male fears of female empowerment. Nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in the well-known myths of Venus and Adonis and the Loves of Mars and Venus, particularly their respective musical settings by John Blow and John Eccles.

3.2 Ovid’s Metamorphoses presents the standard version of the Venus and Adonis story which recounts the tale of a powerful older woman, Venus, attempting to seduce the youthful Adonis. Ignoring Venus’s protective warnings of the dangers of the hunt, Adonis is fatally gored during a boar hunt and a grieving Venus turns him into an anemone, a symbol of the fragility and ephemerality of his life and love.23 This story was elaborated upon by various authors, notably by Shakespeare who, in his famous poem, has the lovers consummate their relationship. But even a basic outline of the myth contains the elements of Venus’s power. In contrast to the rurally naïve, conservative, and constant character of Adonis (described in Blow’s work as “faithful” and “ever tender ever kind”), Venus embodies a liberal character, mutable in her role as both a maternal figure and lover and as a woman who pursues and desires control but ultimately has none. To some extent, in her “hunt” for Adonis she is a symbol of unnatural destructive lust while Adonis, in his innocence, can be read as an agent of natural reason, truth, and beauty. Venus here subverts both her typical gender roles and her traditional role as the personification of desire in that, rather than being the object of desire, she is now placed in the position of a powerful older suitor. She represents a male constructed image of female disruption, an unstable, uncontrollable, and dangerous political force who, through her seductive powers, can emasculate and render traditional patriarchal order impotent.24

3.3 John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (1682) is the most well-known musical setting of this story. Subtitled “A Masque for the Entertainment of a King,” the work is rife with thinly veiled political commentary. The anonymous libretto, based on the danger of the “hunt,” satirizes the amorous proclivities of Charles II and his court.25 Andrew Walkling suggests that Charles was represented by Adonis while the boar that kills him “clearly represents the factional and partisan strife that threatened … Charles’s rule … following the Exclusion Crisis.”26 Reading Charles as Adonis, it seems natural to read Venus as England—the ultimate object of his desire. Just as Adonis claimed to “have already caught the noblest prey” so too had Charles assumed the throne of England. This scenario, of course, provides an alternate model to the typical allegory of a harmonious king-country relationship. In the manner of keeping a mistress, Adonis (Charles) is seduced by the charms and powers of Venus (England) yet he must also pay for her love (and the affection of the country) through his benevolent acts. Venus’s variable character in the work, spanning that of a loving mother and manipulative seductress—Madonna and whore—corresponds to the generally fickle attitude of the English public towards Charles as manifest in his previous Scottish and continental exiles and by the internal and often antimonarchical “partisan strife” to which Walkling alludes.

3.4 Blow’s work begins with a profane image of Venus. Act I opens with the two lovers “sitting together upon a Couch Imbracing one another” and passionately moaning each other’s name in a succession of what Edward Dent cautiously refers to as “whispered caresses.”27 With the couple engaged in what might be termed today “petting,” a sensuous flute obbligato accompanies Venus’s final melismatic repetition of “Adonis,” eventually lingering on a voluptuous half cadence as if to prolong her pleasure (see Example 1). It is clear however, that the relationship has not been consummated as Adonis next asks “Venus when shall I taste soft delights, / And on thy bosome dye?” To this Venus replies “With thee the Queen of Love employs / The hours designed for softer joys.” Adopting a coquettish persona, she is here presumably referring to the intentions of pursuing a future liaison, possibly in the evening or nighttime hours.

3.5 Their intimate conversation is interrupted by the sound of “Hunters Musick” which immediately disrupts the harmony of their lovemaking. In the original Ovidian version of the myth, Venus tries to dissuade Adonis from the hunt. In this version, however, Venus insists on Adonis joining the hunting party: “They summon to ye chase, haste, haste away!” When Adonis protests, claiming to “have already caught the noblest prey,” the goddess continues to encourage his departure with the justification that “absence kindles new desire / I would not have my Lover tire.”28 The negotiation continues with a duet in which Adonis insists that he “will not hunt today” while Venus urges “No my shepherd haste away.” Venus ends the dispute by simply exiting the stage, forcing Adonis to join the hunt—essentially by default. Thus Venus dominates Adonis, usurping and negating his freedom of choice.29 In the end she manipulates and controls Adonis’s fate as he joins the hunt, eventually meeting his death, ostensibly at her insistence. In the Ovidian version, Venus unsuccessfully begs Adonis not to hunt and, in the manner of a nation cautioning a king, warns him not to be foolish “lest your manly courage be the ruin of us both.”30 She tries to protect him and herself but fails. In Blow’s version, Venus/England doesn’t try to protect Adonis/ Charles II but instead urges him into the fray. The work can thus be read as a caution to Charles to remain outside of the “partisan strife” even if encouraged by his subjects.

3.6 The manipulative side of Venus’s nature is further revealed in Act II. Venus “takes Cupid into her lap” and asks if he has “been reading Thy Lessons and refined Arts.” Cupid replies that he has, but asks his mother to “teach me to destroy / all such as scorn your wanton boy.” Venus responds with some drastic advice:

Fit well your arrows when you strike, And choose for all what each may like; But make some love, they know not why, And for the ugly and ill humour’d die.

Again Venus councils Cupid to deny freedom of choice and is exposed as a dangerous source of male anxiety, a woman capable of controlling a man’s fate.

3.7 Later in Act II, Venus briefly reverses roles following “The Cupids Lesson” in which a coterie of Cupids syllabize a litany of negative character traits: “The insolent, the arrogant, … the mercenary, the vain and silly, the jealous and uneasy.” Adopting a Socratic strategy, Venus interrupts the exercise with the question: “But Cupid how shall I make Adonis constant still?” In confirming typical masculine fears of female manipulation, Cupid immediately responds “Use him very ill.” Venus responds with a burst of uncontrollable laughter which Blow appropriately highlights with a disturbing a''-flat which descends in a rush of thirty-second notes—roughly underlaid with the syllable “Ah” (see Figure 3, transcribed in Example 2). At a climactic moment in the masque, Venus reveals the depth of her depravity. Convulsed with laughter she is now her most deceptive, dangerous, and uncontrolled self. It is a moment of complete feminine disruption—excessive, verging on madness—which Blow reinforces with an equally excessive setting.

3.8 In Act III Venus, reflecting public disinterest in the Parliamentary strife which threatened Charles’s rule, appears to be almost entirely self concerned when Adonis is led in dying from injuries inflicted by “th’ Aedalian boar!”.31 Venus initially grieves, not for her lover, but for herself:

My groans shall reach the heav’ns: Oh pow’rs above, Take pity on the wretched Queen of Love!

The ever “Faithful Adonis” expires and in her concluding lament the now “wretched Queen of Love” mourns again as much for herself as for Adonis: “He shall adorn the heav’ns: here I will weep / Till I am fall’n into as cold a sleep.”

3.9 Superficially, at least, Venus is sometimes also portrayed benevolently in the work. Blow presents her as an attentive mother to Cupid (she encourages the Cupids “To play, my Loves, to play”) and also as a grieving lover to Adonis. These apparently benign characteristics are, however, constantly belied, transformed, and undercut by her aggressive pursuit, domination, and manipulation of Adonis which ultimately results in his death. Such divergent characterizations—passionate seductress, doting playful mother, and grieving lover—underline Venus’s transitory, often oppositional, nature and reflect something of the contradicted, factionalized, and partisan nature of the state itself in the wake of the Exclusion Crisis. Perhaps an unlikely representation of the state, Venus nonetheless embodied a stereotypical image of female power while simultaneously reflecting the chameleon face of society and the evanescence of life, be it of Adonis, the king, or even the country.

4. The Loves of Mars and Venus

4.1 Another story that was often subjected to musical interpretation was the illicit love affair of Mars and Venus.32 According to this myth, which forms a brief episode in book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Venus was appointed a husband, Vulcan, the lame god of metal working. The marriage between the crippled blacksmith and golden goddess of love was an obvious mismatch. Venus constantly cuckolded Vulcan, above all with Mars, the god of war and Vulcan’s half brother. Vulcan, however, is informed of his wife’s deceit and forges a metal net of invisible mesh that he throws over the couple as they lie together. Unable to escape, he exposes the couple to the ridicule of the rest of the gods.

4.2 In 1696, Pierre Motteux’s The Loves of Mars and Venus was set by Gottfried Finger and John Eccles as an interpolated masque in Thomas Ravenscroft’s play The Anatomist. In telling the well-known myth of the illicit affair, the work casts Venus in a purely Vulgaris mode and is also a negative commentary on female fidelity. In many ways the work parallels the tone and content of the Venus and Adonis story which also depicts an illicit relationship. Motteux sums up Venus’s role in “An Explanation of the Fable” attached to the libretto:

Venus is libidinous Pleasure, which is always wedded to the Fire of Lust … she’s [also] apt to cause stormy commotions, Fire and Bloodshed … By Mars Warriors are to be understood, who gazing upon Venus … are entic’d; and … lose their martial vigor.33

Venus is thus represented as a dangerous figure capable of rendering even the most vigorous men impotent. The misogynist overtones of the work also become evident when in Act I Vulcan refers to Venus as “Thou plague of my Life, Thou devil, thou wife,” while Venus shrewishly replies “My Fool … I’ll dress when I please, nay I’ll Cuckold Thee too.” Indeed, the Epilogue spoken by Mars advises the audience to “Learn of Vulcan to forgive; Or else, egad, few plays or Wives will live.”

4.3 Similar to Charles II’s association with Adonis in Venus and Adonis, Mars is associated with William III who was well known for his military prowess. In a spoken section of the libretto Mars directly identifies himself with William, proclaiming:

Let future Heroes there appear; Place Greece’s, Rome’s, and brave Britain’s there. Let Alexander, Caesar, Arthur meet, And all their Lawrels lay at greater William’s Feet. William, more God-like, and as brave, Shall only fight th’ endanger’d World to Save:             William, my other self shall be;              Inspir’d by Themis, and by me.

By casting Mars as William, Motteux is potentially satirizing William’s ad hoc installation as a consort king, and thus Venus might again be viewed as representative of England.34 As in Blow’s Venus and Adonis, England and its citizenry are portrayed as a fickle mistress with whom William carries on an illicit affair. Given this scenario, Vulcan could be identified as James II seeking to undermine and humiliate William and his relationship with England. This interpretation would seem to be reinforced by the fact that William had recently survived a number of Jacobite plots, including an assassination attempt in 1696, carried out in order to help James recapture the Crown.35 Thus Mars/William demands an apology from Vulcan/James for his transgressions against Venus/England:

Come, for her Pardon humbly sue! Tho’ she were not so true, She’s still too good for you. Come, for her Pardon humbly sue!

Later, a humbled Vulcan is engaged in forging Mars’s weapons, “thunder-Bolts for Heav’ns King.” He imagines Mars slinging these bolts at a long list of cowards, atheists, fools and, finally and most notably, “At a Briton who says, he can long live contented.” This is again a backhanded comment on the fickleness of his wife Venus, and by analogy, of the British public.

4.4 Underlining the Venus Vulgaris portrayal in this satire is the overt consummation of Venus and Mars’s illicit relationship. Venus coos to Mars, “In thy arms I ravish’d fall, / Tranc’d in melting Joys I dye.” William similarly consummated his relationship with England by becoming king. Indeed later, in a cloying speech to Mars, Venus reinforces the analogy between male seduction and kingly conquest: “Ev’ry Town that’s worth the keeping, / Keeps a while th’ Invader out.” No sooner is the lovemaking completed than Vulcan—accompanied by “Wild Musick!”—casts his net over the pair, trapping them on the couch and exposing them to the ridicule of the other gods. To carry the political allegory further one need only imagine James’s casting his own net of blame and ridicule in recounting the illicit installation of William to various monarchs and dignitaries while in exile. The active acts of rebellion and assassination attempts against William made on his behalf would also appear to support this reading.

4.5 Cupid ends the torment of Venus and Mars, proclaiming “Thus all unequal Unions break”—a none too subtle sanctioning of the nation’s right to sever its ties and allegiances to James II. Vulcan is then struck by Cupid’s arrow and, now compelled by love, sets the couple free.        

4.6 In 1704, productions of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas removed the laudatory Prologue, and its images of Venus Coelestis (see par. 5.1), replacing it with The Loves of Mars and Venus, with its overtly critical tone and images of Venus Vulgaris.36 The reasons for this apparently pointed reversal in tone, occurring some two years after William’s death, are unclear although perhaps Motteux’s comment on marital infidelity was merely meant to reinforce the consequences of the similarly illicit passion of Dido and Aeneas and the notion, common to both works, of the abandonment of masculine order and destiny in the face of feminine power. This scenario is reinforced by the presence of a powerful woman, Queen Anne, on the throne.

4.7 In 1696, the same year as the premiere of The Loves of Mars and Venus, Dorset Garden mounted the “opera” Brutus of Alba, or, Augusta’s Triumph, an adaptation by George Powell and John Verbruggen of Nahum Tate’s tragedy Brutus of Alba (1678). The work is musically rather unremarkable but includes a final act that recounts the Mars and Venus myth. Set in ancient Britain, in and around the Thames and the cliffs of Dover, Brutus of Alba is based on Britain’s Trojan namesake. It is largely a laudatory reinforcement of the monarchy and thus possibly another allegory of William III.

4.8 According to the stage directions, in the fifth act “A very large Machine descends” in which “sits Apollo, Cupid, Mars, Vulcan, Juno, Venus etc.”37 The episode that ensues briefly recounts the story of Mars and Venus, and of Vulcan’s remonstrations over Venus’s infidelity. As in The Loves of Mars and Venus, Venus is confined to the role of an adulteress whose husband (Vulcan) “to Cuckolding was so much us’d.”38

4.9 In Venus and Adonis, The Loves of Mars and Venus, and in the final act of Brutus of Alba, Venus is portrayed as a manipulative seductress who carries on transgressive affairs with either a young boy or behind the back of her husband. There are certainly notable differences between the two scenarios, among the most prominent being that, unlike Adonis, Mars does not die as a result of his relationship. Nonetheless, in each case Venus can be viewed as a representation of England—analogous to a fickle, yet seductive, courtesan with whom Charles II and later William III are having transitory affairs.

5. Venus and the Monarchy on the Restoration Stage

5.1 In contrast to the portrayals of Venus as the inconstant nation found in Venus and Adonis (1682) and The Loves of Mars and Venus (1696), the intervening period witnessed a number of works that promoted Venus as a positive representation of the monarchy.39 The controversy surrounding the monarchy that led to the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–9 resulted in an increase of theatrical subjects based on the Trojan origins of the early Britons. This myth provided English kings with a series of heroic monarchs, such as Brutus, Aeneas, and King Arthur on which to model their own political ambitions. In works evoking a Trojan origin of Britain, such as Albion and Albanius (1687), Dido and Aeneas (1684–9?), and King Arthur (1684–91), Venus appears solely in her Coelestis persona, a source of social harmony, and the celebrated matriarch of England’s Trojan lineage. Similarly there is little evidence in these works that she represents any danger to masculine order and control. Indeed the reverse appears true, as she is typically reduced to singing encomiums to the monarchy and nation.

5.2 Louis Grabu and John Dryden’s opera Albion and Albanius (1685) reaffirms the lineage of the English monarchy from Albion (a.k.a. Brutus) to Charles II. In an unreservedly royalist preface, Dryden explains that the work “plainly represents the double restoration of his Sacred Majesty,” in particular Charles II’s restoration in 1660 and the exile and return of James, Duke of York, following the Bill of Catholic Exclusion.40 The work thus clearly represents Albion and his brother Albanius as Charles II and his successor James II.

5.3 Venus appears in the final act, rising from the ocean to return Albanius/James from exile and present Albion/Charles with “Peace and Pleasure.” Functioning as Venus Coelestis, she is directly associated with the monarchy and Britain as she restores both Albanius and civic peace and order to the nation. Reflecting her regal association her main musical function is to sing acclamations to the two kings and to “Thy glorious Race, where Love and Honour claim an equal place” (III, 2).

5.4 Venus also makes a brief appearance in Naham Tate’s prologue to Dido and Aeneas. Addressed as “The Sovereign Queen of Beauty” (in opposition to “The wretched Queen of Beauty” as in Blow’s Venus and Adonis) she brings spring, and hence fertility and abundance, to the shores of England and is again representative of monarchical order, peace, and prosperity.41 Andrew Walkling’s association of Venus with James II’s queen, Mary of Modena, again points to a monarchical symbolism.42 Venus’s often depicted function as the corrupting woman is usurped in this work by the presence of the equally uncontrollable Sorceress and Witches and by the character of Dido who can also be read as representing a jilted English nation.

5.5 Dryden and Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur (1684–91) is similarly drawn from the myth of English Trojan ancestry. The libretto revolves around Arthur’s quest to unify Britain and liberate the Christian Britons from the pagan Saxons. The final act offers an assortment of patriotic, rustic, and pastoral numbers highlighted by the unexpected arrival of Venus and her minuet aria “Fairest Isle.” An unalloyed adoration of Britain (“all isles excelling”), its lilting triple meter and string introduction and accompaniment mark it as a prime exemplar of Venus Coelestis.43 The undulating melodic phrases, exhibiting almost palindromic symmetries, are another manifestation of the stable and orderly society that Venus represents. Indeed, contrasted with the preceding blasphemous protest song, “Your hay it is mow’d,” “Fairest Isle” represents the civilizing strength and power of love and the restoration of peaceful national order in the wake of chaotic Saxon rule. No longer the instigator of civil unrest, as in Venus and Adonis or The Loves of Mars and Venus, in “Fairest Isle” she is the sanguine representative of peace and love who honors the beauty and virtue of Britain.

5.6 In works from the late 1680s Venus appears as the benign matriarch of England’s Trojan lineage and a positive, socially harmonizing figure. Following the unrest engendered by the Glorious Revolution, subsequent works reverted to depictions of Venus which emphasized the disruptive Vulgaris side of her character. This is evident not only in The Loves of Mars and Venus and Brutus of Alba (see Section 4), but also in Dryden’s The Secular Masque (1700), and Congreve’s “Prize Musick” libretto The Judgment of Paris (1700), works which depict her libidinous predilections.44

5.7 Venus remained a common subject of English theater music well into the eighteenth century. Works such as “Venus and Adonis, a Cantata, Set by Mr. Handel” (ca. 1711),45 Johann Pepusch’s opera Venus and Adonis (1715), and new settings of Congreve’s Judgment of Paris by Giuseppe Sammartini (1740) and Thomas Arne (1742)46 ensured her profile until the mid-century when classical deities gradually declined as subjects of serious contemplation.47

5.8 Britain was by no means unique in its use of Venus either as a musical subject or as an allegorical representation of the state. The relationship of Venus with music and politics has been recognized in various forms throughout history and in many regions of Europe.48 In terms of their relevance to English works, however, the most important settings to involve Venus originated in Italy. Like Britain, Italy—and particularly Venice and Rome—saw themselves as heirs of the Trojan empire. As such, they too had a common fascination with Venus as the progenitor of their, albeit fragmented, monarchical lineage—a fascination which manifests itself in a similar use of Venus as a subject for many musical works which all incorporate her character in relation to the myth of Trojan origins.49 In addition to sharing the same myth with Britain, the Venetian republic had long served as a model for the English parliamentary system.50 Politicians such as the Earl of Shaftesbury, a staunch Whig, were interested in reducing the power of the king and increasing individual liberty by refashioning Parliament on the model of a Venetian Senate.51

5.9 Despite this geographically widespread fascination with Venus, Britain, nonetheless, had a particular affinity for the character. Venus was a central subject in medieval English poetry, particularly in the works of Chaucer, Lydgate, and Gower.52 This interest was carried through into the Renaissance, with works such as Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, and on into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as is evident in the numerous references to Venus in the works of authors such as Dryden, Congreve, Cibber, and Prior.

6. Conclusion

6.1 Venus, in her liminal representations of both nation and monarchy, was also a common personification of masculine anxiety over female power. Classical authors regularly wrote about the loss of masculine strength when faced with feminine powers of seduction. In myths featuring the Sirens or Venus and Adonis, for example, female protagonists seduce and ostensibly control weaker mortal males who die as a result. Homer’s fifth hymn similarly recounts Anchises’ fear of emasculation upon discovering that he is making love to Venus:

I knew it in that first moment, when I saw Thee—well I knew That Thou wert indeed a Goddess. Twas Thy tongue spoke not true. Leave me not, I beseech Thee, on earth to linger now A feeble, strengthless shadow! For that man wastes away, Who once in the arms immortal of a daughter of heaven lay.53

Indeed the male orgasm has historically been interpreted as a supreme moment of masculine disempowerment and vulnerability, embodying a literal and figurative loss of masculine agency and self-control.54 Similarly, the term “venereal disease” is also evidence of the widespread anxiety regarding the fear of Venus who functions as a symbolic representation of the sexual powers of women in general.55

6.2 As manifest in Venus’s beauty, female vanity was particularly viewed as a threat to male power. John Andrews outlined the danger in 1783, when he observed that French women were consumed by an “appetite for admiration,” and their “natural eloquence” rendered men powerless and submissive such that “subjection of some kind or other seems necessary for a Frenchman.”56 The introduction of Italian opera into England was also viewed as a feminine disruption. In 1706, for example, John Dennis voiced his anxiety regarding the pernicious influence of “the soft and effeminate Measures of Italian Opera” which caused Italian men to be “neither Vertuous, nor Wise, nor Valiant” and similarly caused “they who have reason to know their Women, [to] never trust them out of their sight.”57

6.3 Englishmen’s view of their own women was scarcely any more enlightened. Alexander Pope’s Epistle to a Lady: Of the Characters of Women (1732–4), for example, directly comments on the duplicitous and vain nature of women. Pope in his opening argument explains “How Contrarieties run thro’ them all” and that “the Particular Characters of this Sex are more various than those of Men.”58 Later, at line 215, Pope includes the following verse:

Men, some to Bus’ness, some to Pleasure take; But ev’ry Women is at heart a Rake: Men, some to Quiet, some to public Strife; But ev’ry Lady would be Queen for life. Yet mark the fate of a whole Sex of Queens! Pow’r all their ends, but Beauty all the means.

Such a comment of course reflects something of the transgressive ambition manifest in Venus’s character.

6.4 The mutable representations of Venus that inhabited the late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century English stage in part reflected a fear of the feminine disruption of the masculine concept of order and peace that governed the country. In terms evocative of Venus’s pluralistic character, political historian Tom Nairn propounds nationalism’s chameleon-like ability to be “communal and authoritarian, friendly and bellicose” and “to rouse unlike peoples in unlike conditions.”59 Venus’s representation of the nation is grounded in both her historical image as matron of the Trojan lineage of Britain and in the literary analogy, derived from ancient Greek writers, of either the socially harmonizing or disruptive goddess of love. Venus is often symbolic of a (female) English populace that can be either positive (a good wife devoted to the monarchy) or negative (a masculinized, cuckolding wife opposed to the monarchy). In Venus and Adonis, Mars and Venus, and Brutus of Alba, for example, Venus is portrayed as negative and destructive. As such, the association of Venus with England in these works warns against the consequences of a transgressive English populace subverting their monarchy like a bad wife.60 In the project of unifying a diversity of individual experiences under an identifiable national image, Venus, in this latter guise, often represented a readily identifiable feminine “other” against which notions of the masculine image of the nation might be focused. The portrayal of England as a strong, powerful, and masculine nation (in opposition to France and Italy, whose language and nature were commonly viewed as feminine) infused language, literature, and music throughout the early eighteenth century.61 Indeed, to a large degree, conquest of the “other” is a matter common to the forging of both empire and nation. In this manner Venus’s seemingly antithetical roles of dangerous women and national matriarch are inextricably linked.

6.5 Restoration-era Britain was never a singular identifiable national entity but rather a mutable conglomeration of factions and ideologies. Recent scholarship has demonstrated that before the mid-eighteenth century, Europeans identified more strongly with their monarch, religion, or native region than with Benedict Anderson’s definition of nation as an “imagined community.”62 Nonetheless, preceding this development, Venus provided not only a powerful emblem of the plurality and factionalized nature of Britain and its Trojan heritage but also an icon of the dangers of the feminine “other” which aided in coalescing an emerging national ideal of British masculinity. During an era when Britain was struggling to form a coherent national identity her mutable nature was manipulated to appeal to all people, and thus she was a suitable polysemic emblem of the fickle populace of Britain in general.

6.6 As with much history, there is a lack of linear teleology in Restoration socio-political life. All elements of society were subject to continual change, decay, and renovation, and it cannot reasonably be claimed that there was ever a complete triumph of absolutist divine-right ideologies or Whiggish libertine values. Venus, however, was emblematic of such competing ideologies and of a multi-faceted, often conflicted, nation. Her royal and musical associations, combined with her highly mutable character, made her a perfect emblem of the often fractious and constantly evolving society that marked the period surrounding the Civil War and Glorious Revolution.63 Robin Headlam Wells has recently outlined the importance of the “musician-king” during the English Renaissance, arguing that “the state is like a family, united in loving concord by the offices of a paternal musician-king whose task is to harmonize the conflicting elements in society.”64 In the Restoration, associating the king with the ambivalent character of Venus served to complement his harmonizing power while simultaneously warning of the dangers of exceeding royal authority and abusing the powers vested in him by Parliament. Ultimately a cautionary figure, Venus typically represented both the harmony and potential discord of state—reinforcing the Trojan lineage of the monarchy and its potential transience. She represented not only the beauty, peace, prosperity and order which Britain desired, but also the wanton disorder which it feared. In this manner the state and monarchy were deemed analogous to a woman, often beautiful and nurturing yet dangerous if allowed too much control or power. Thus, embedded in Venus’s representation of state order or disorder was a powerful paradigm of female possibility and a prototypical form of female empowerment. To understand Venus’s presence on the Restoration stage is to discover a powerful and liminal figure who was instrumental in negotiating notions of love, beauty, gender, politics, nation, and music during this period.


* Ken McLeod (mcleodk@mail.belmont.edu) is an Assistant Professor of Music at Belmont University (Nashville, Tennessee). His research and publishing activities are divided between the study of gendered narratives of national identity in Restoration and eighteenth-century theater music and various socio-political aspects of popular music.

1 It should be noted that Matthew Locke’s Psyche (1675), though it is not substantially addressed in the body of the current article, also significantly employs the character of Venus. See ref. 39.

2 John Dryden, King Arthur or The British Worthy (London: Jacob Tonson, 1691), 63.

3 These attributes are typically found in her courtiers. See Paul Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 72–100.

4 The complex interrelationship of love, music, and women in Renaissance England has been explored in Linda Phyllis Austern’s “‘For, Love’s a Good Musician’: Performance, Audition, and Erotic Disorders in Early Modern Europe,” The Musical Quarterly 82 (1998): 614–53; “‘Alluring the Auditorie to Effeminacie’: Music and the Idea of the Feminine in Early Modern England,” Music and Letters 73 (1993): 343–54.

5 The dual nature of Venus is first expressed by Pausanias in Plato’s Symposium. Plato, Symposium, ed. Kenneth Dover (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 95.

6 “Venus and Adonis” in The Dramatic Works of Colley Cibber (New York: AMS Press, 1966), 5:224.

7 See Friedrich, 100–1; James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (London: Harper & Row, 1974), 319; and Christine Downing, The Goddess (New York: Crossroad/Continuum International, 1990), 186–216.

8 “The Knight’s Tale” in The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Fred Noris Robinson, 2nd ed., (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), 36. See also Robin Wells, Elizabethan Mythologies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 158, n. 48.

9 The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 1714.

10 Hall, 217.

11 For a discussion of this iconological transfer see Wells, 143–66.

12 “Cithara” in Thomas Cooper, Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae (London, 1565). See also “Cithara” in An Early Music Dictionary: Musical Terms from British Sources 1500–1740, ed. Graham Strahle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

13 The epithet “Cytherea” or “Great Cytherea” is used to refer to Venus and her island birthplace throughout Virgil’s Aeneid and elsewhere. Underlining Venus’s relationship to the monarchy, Matthew Prior, in Carmen Seculare, For the Year 1700, compares William III “To Virgil’s Theme, bright Cytherea’s Son, Sire of Latian, and the British Throne.” See Matthew Prior, Poems on Several Occasions, ed. Alfred Rayney Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1941), 120.

14 This frontispiece was also used by John Walsh for several of Handel’s later operas and for Johann Pepusch’s Six English Cantatas (London: John Walsh, 1715). See Gottfried S. Fraenkel, ed., Decorative Music Title Pages (New York: Dover, 1968), 154.

15 See, for example, a Venus figure teaching cupids music in John Walsh’s frontispiece to Corelli’s Parte prima Sonate a Violino e Violone o Cimbalo Opera Quinta, (London: Walsh, 1700). Walsh reused this frontispiece for William Topham’s Six Sonata’s, or Solos, for Flute (London: Walsh and Hare, 1701). A similar setting was used for the frontispiece of John Eccles’s A Collection of Songs for One Two and Three Voices (London: Walsh, 1704). Venus was also the main focus of the Judgment of Paris frontispiece engraved by Michael van der Gucht, used by Walsh for both Daniel Purcell’s and John Eccles’ The Judgment of Paris settings, following the “Prize Musick” competition of 1701 (see Figure 2). This frontispiece was also later reused for Giuseppe Fedeli Saggione’s Songs In The New Opera Call’d The Temple of Love (London: Walsh and Hare, 1706).

16 For a more detailed discussion of this concept see Julie Cumming, “Concord out of Discord: the Occasional Motets of the Early Quattrocento,” Ph.D. diss. (University of California, Berkeley, 1987), 3–34.

17 Moralia, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 370C: 117.

18 Spoken by Cymon to the Rhodian youth. See The Poetical Works of Dryden, ed. George R. Noyes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 894.

19 For a more complete discussion of the poetic manifestations of Dryden’s objections to William III, see David Bywaters, Dryden in Revolutionary England (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991).

20 Nathan Bailey even offers one definition of “Venus” as “the green colour in Coats of the Sovereign Princes.” See “Venus” in Nathan Bailey, Dictionnarium Britannicum; or, A More Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary Than Any Extant, 2nd ed. (London: T. Cox, 1736).

21 Andrew Walkling, “‘The Dating of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas?’: A Reply to Bruce Wood and Andrew Pinnock,” Early Music 23 (1994): 475. Walkling also convincingly argues that Venus’s appearance in the prologue to Dido and Aeneas is a representation of Mary of Modena. See also his “Court, Culture, and Politics in Restoration England: Charles II, James II, and the Performance of Baroque Monarchy,” Ph.D. diss. (Cornell University, 1997), 485.

22 James Anderson Winn, When Beauty Fires the Blood: Love and the Arts in the Age of Dryden (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 412. Winn also offers Dryden’s first published poem “Upon the death of the Lord HASTINGS” (1649), in which Hastings is described as “our Venus,” as evidence that “Panegyrics to monarchs had typically given them aspects of both genders, praising the heroic courage of queens and the nurturing mercies of kings, and [that] the multiplying of sexual identities here may be part of that universalizing process” (Winn, 40). Of course the multivalent character of Venus embodies many aspects of both genders.

23 Ovid, Metamorphoses trans. Frank Justice Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 2:116–7 (Book 10).

24 Neil Heartz argues something of the same idea in “Medusa’s Head: Male Hysteria under Political Pressure,” Representation 4 (1983): 27–54. In Greek mythology a variety of male heroes must overcome similar feminine threats to the fulfillment of male order. Aeneas, for example, must overcome the love of both Venus and Dido in order to come to terms with his heroic destiny.

25 Indeed, according to annotations in GB-Lbl Add. 22100, it seems likely that the role of Venus was sung by Mary “Moll” Davis, a professional singing actress and former mistress of Charles II. Margaret Laurie has suggested that her casting was designed in part to remind Charles of his responsibility for the upkeep of former mistresses: A. Margaret Laurie, “Allegory, Sources, and Early Performance History,” in Dido and Aeneas: An Opera, ed. Curtis Price (New York: Norton, 1986), 44. All subsequent text references to John Blow’s Venus and Adonis are to GB-Lbl Add. 22100.

26 Andrew Walkling, “Politics and the Restoration Masque: The Case of Dido and Aeneas,” in Culture and Society in the Stuart Restoration, ed. Gerald MacLean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 63. Robert Hume has questioned the presence of covert allegorical content in many late seventeenth-century English works. Hume particularly takes issue with Walkling’s political interpretation of Venus and Adonis and Curtis Price’s interpretation of King Arthur: Robert D. Hume, “The Politics of Opera in Late Seventeenth-Century London,” Cambridge Opera Journal 10 (1998): 15–43.

27 Edward J. Dent, Foundations of English Opera (Cambridge: Da Capo, 1928), 175.

28 The reasons for this departure from the original story are unclear. Perhaps it is an allusion to the ruinous fate that Charles would ultimately suffer if he did not diligently maintain his mistress, literally Moll Davies who sang the role, and figuratively England. In either case it provides more evidence of Venus as manipulative and domineering—capable of instilling anxiety among men.

29 Andrew Walkling has advanced a similar interpretation of Venus’s motivations in this act (“Court, Culture, and Politics,” 392).

30 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2:115.

31 The notion of Adonis’s injuries resulting from goring often carried overt sexual overtones. Shakespeare, for example describes the death of Adonis in none too subtle terms: “And nousling in his flank, the loving swine / Sheath’d unaware the tusk in his soft groin.” (Venus and Adonis, lines 1115–6.) To some extent such a death is tied to the notion of the ecstasy of the hunt. Ultimately Venus’s sexual fulfillment is frustrated while Adonis, a representative of purity and natural love as opposed to Venus’ licentious profane love, receives his ultimate, albeit final, gratification at the hands of nature. Venus’s self concern is also noted in Walkling “Court, Culture, and Politics,” 414.

32 Testifying to its ongoing popularity, the myth is set in a variety of works including William Drummond’s madrigal “Pourtrait of Mars and Venus” (1649), Daniel Purcell’s semi-opera Brutus of Alba (1696), John Eccles’s and Gottfried Finger’s masque The Loves of Mars and Venus (1696), John Weaver’s ballet The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717), Charles Didbin’s burletta Poor Vulcan (1778), and numerous individual songs.

33 “An Explanation of the Fable of Mars and Venus,” appended to the published libretto of The Loves of Mars and Venus (London: New Theatre in Little-Lincolns-Inns-Fields, 1696), 29–30.

34 It should be noted, of course, that not all works involving Venus had allegorical associations to contemporary politics. However, Venus’s common appearances in such openly political works seems to invite such readings.

35 Tim Harris, Politics Under the Later Stuarts (London: Longman, 1993), 208.

36 Ellen Harris points out this fact and compares the singing roles in these two works in Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 61–2.

37 George Powell and John Verbruggen, A New Opera Called Brutus of Alba, or Augusta’s Triumph (London: W. Only for Sam Briscoe, 1687), 55.

38 Powell and Verbruggen, 56.

39 Previous to these works Mathew Locke’s and Thomas Shadwell’s semi-opera Psyche (1675) provided an early example of Venus as a somewhat alloyed representation of the monarchy. In a cautionary tale of the evils of pride and vanity, Venus evokes the “divine” lineage of the monarchy in her lecture to Psyche:

Your Pride did first all Earthly Kings refuse, And then my Son, a God, must chuse. How durst you thus my heavenly Race abuse? (IV, 2)

In the final act, however, Psyche is granted immortality and Venus, placated, allows Psyche to live. Venus thus both creates and resolves the discord of the plot; she is analogous to the monarchy which similarly governs the destiny of mortals and terrorizes the disrespectful, while exhibiting benevolence to subjects offering proper devotion. As in Venus and Adonis, she is also depicted as a manipulative and powerful woman who attempts to control and instill fear in both Cupid and Psyche, and manifests stereotypical feminine traits of jealousy, and vanity. Order is restored only when Venus’s sexual jealousy has been appeased.

40 John Dryden, Albion and Albanius an Opera, in The Works of John Dryden, ed. Earl Miner (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), 15:11.

41 Curtis Price, Henry Purcell and the London Stage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 229.

42 This association, in combination with the fact that Mary of Modena ceased to be queen in 1688, is part of Walkling’s argument that Dido and Aeneas, including Tate’s prologue, has an earlier date. Walkling also argues that Dido is representative of England. See Walkling, “Court, Culture, and Politics,” 476–86.

43 Henry Purcell, King Arthur in The Works of Henry Purcell, ed. Dennis Arundell (London: Novello, 1971), 26:154. See my discussion of typical musical representations of Venus in Section 6.

44 The “Prize Musick” competition of 1701 was sponsored by a group of Whiggish nobility in order to encourage English composition. John Eccles, Gottfried Finger, Daniel Purcell, and John Weldon staged competing settings of William Congreve’s one-act pastoral masque The Judgment of Paris. The outcome was determined by the approbation of the subscribers, with Weldon’s work unexpectedly taking first place; Eccles, Purcell, and Finger respectively came second, third, and fourth.

45 Although it lacks a conclusive attribution, most scholars consider the surviving setting, published in 1735 and discovered by W.C. Smith in the 1930s, to be one of Handel’s first experiments in setting the English language. See Donald Burrows, G. F. Handel, Songs and Cantatas for Soprano and Continuo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), ix.

46 Significant portions of Congreve’s Judgment of Paris and various “Prize Musick” settings were also satirized in John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. For a more in-depth discussion of all of Congreve’s Judgment of Paris settings see my “Judgment and Choice: Politics and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century Masques,” Ph.D. diss. (McGill University, 1997).

47 The burlettas and burlesques, such as Kane O’Hara’s The Golden Pippen (1773), which subsequently gained prominence, functioned mainly as aristocratic parodies which underscored the mutable nature of Venus and, by analogy, of women in general.  

48 In France, Venus appears in works such as Lully’s La Naissance de Vénus (1665), Psyché (1671), and Thésée (1675); and Charpentier’s interlude Vénus et Adonis (1685). Later in the eighteenth century, she is the focus of even more numerous settings such as Gluck’s comic opera La Cythère assiégée (1759), Françoise Guichard’s song collection Les Soirées de Paphos (1776), Grétry’s ode “Le Marché de Cythère” (1783), and the opera l’Amour exilé de Cythère (1793, often misattributed to Antoine-Frédéric Gresnick). Notable German operatic references include Reinhard Keiser’s Der geliebt Adonis (1697) and Georg Philipp Telemann’s opera Adonis (1708). Spain also produced works such as Calderón’s libretto La púrpura de la rosa (1660) which was a retelling of the Venus and Adonis story to celebrate the wedding of Maria Theresa to Louis XIV; see Louise K. Stein, “Opera and the Spanish Political Agenda,” Acta Musicologia 63 (1991): 125–67.

49 Italian works involving Venus include Jacopo Peri’s opera Adone (1611), Francesco Cirillo’s opera Adone (1656), Alessandro Scarlatti’s sereneta Venere, Adone et Amor (1696, 1706), and a host of operatic works produced in Venice, including Francesco Manelli’s Adone (1639–40), Giovanni Legrenzi’s Adone in Cipro (1676), Francesco Sacrati’s Venere gelosa (1643), Monteverdi’s Le nozze d’Enea in Levinia (1640–1), and Francesco Cavalli’s Didone (1641). Though Venice was ostensibly named in honor of Venus, there is ample evidence that Venus was, as in Britain, often negatively regarded. In the context of a general debate regarding the role of women in Venice, Wendy Heller cites Giuseppe Passi’s I donneschi difetti (Venice, 1599) as claiming Venus to be the original adulterous woman. For this and a general discussion of masculine constructed “dualism” of the character of Semiramide, see Wendy Heller, “The Queen as King: Refashioning Semiramide for Seicento Venice,” Cambridge Opera Journal 5 (1993): 93–114. Regarding the presence of Venus in Venetian opera, the catalog of Venetian librettos at the University of California, Los Angeles, lists her character in some 51 entries from the years 1637–62. See Irene Alm’s Catalog of Venetian Librettos at the University of California, Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

50 Zera S. Fink, “Venice and English Political Thought in the Seventeenth Century,” Modern Philology 38 (1940–1): 155.

51 Thomas Otway’s play Venice Preserv’d; or, A Plot Discovered (1682) underscored the relationship between Britain and Venice. The work dramatizes a Spanish plot against Venice and serves as an apparent parallel for the Popish Plot against the throne of England. See Aline Mackenzie Taylor, “Venice Preserv’d” in Restoration Drama: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. John Loftis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 195–228.

52 See Theresa Tinkle, Medieval Venuses and Cupids (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

53 Aphrodite: The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, trans. Frank Laurence Lucas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 21.

54 Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, has posited a similar notion that men harbor anxiety regarding sexual relations with women because they risk losing self-control and fear surrendering their will to another. See Mary Wornock, The Philosophy of Sartre (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1968), 84–6.

55 Numerous books on the subject of venereal disease were published during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries including seven editions, from 1670 to 1702, of Gideon Harvey’s Little Venus Unmasked: or a Perfect Discovery of the French Pox. See Raymond Anselment, The Realms of Apollo: Literature and Healing in Seventeenth Century England (London: Associated University Presses, 1995), 101.

56 Quoted in Michèle Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Routledge, 1996), 77.

57 John Dennis, Essay on the Operas after the Italian Manner … with Some Reflections on the Damage Which They May Bring to the Publick (London: J. Nutt, 1706), reprinted in The Critical Works of John Dennis, ed. Edward Niles Hooker (Baltimore: Modern Language Association of America, 1939), 1:384.

58 “Epistle II. To a Lady: Of the Characters of Women,” in The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Bull (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 559.

59 Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain (London: NLB, 1977). See also Timothy Brennan, “The National Longing for Form” in Nation and Narration, ed. Homi Bhabha (New York: Routledge, 1990), 45.

60 In Mars and Venus the allegory clearly supports empowering a populace/wife to choose a king/lover in opposition to the divine/marital rights of the husband/king.

61 For a discussion of the attempts to construct a masculine English image see Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity.

62 On the development of the concept of “nation” during the eighteenth century see Nicholas Hudson, “From ‘Nation’ to ‘Race’,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 29 (1996): 247–64; John Breuilly, Nationalism and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 44–64; Anthony Smith, Theories of Nationalism (London: Duckworth, 1983), 27–40. See also Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso/NLB, 1983), 37–46.

63 A sense of the general crises in social and state order during this period may be gleaned in the following: Gareth Vaughan Bennett, The Tory Crises in Church and State, 1688–1730 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975); Jonathan C. D. Clark, Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Gary S. De Gray, A Fractured Society: The Politics of London in the First Age of Party, 1688–1715 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985); Tim Harris, Politics Under the Later Stuarts: Party Conflict in a Divided Society 1660–1715 (London: Longman, 1993); and Paul Slack, ed., Rebellion, Popular Protest and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).

64 Wells, 17.

Musical Examples

Example 1: John Blow, Venus and Adonis Act I, mm. 1–4

Example 2: John Blow, Venus and Adonis Act II, mm. 114–5


Figure 1: Venus teaching music to Cupid

Figure 2: Venus from John Eccles’ Judgment of Paris

Figure 3: John Blow, Venus and Adonis Act II, mm. 114–5, autograph score

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