Shakespearean Soundscapes: Music – Voices – Noises – Silence

Sonic Youth – Echo and Identity in Venus and Adonis

by Judith Luig

Echo – the disembodied voice answering to human utterances – has fascinated early modern thinkers. The seventeenth century encyclopaedist of sound, Marin Marsenne, projected a whole discipline dedicated especially to it. “Echometry”, he declares in Harmonie Universelle (1636), should explore such intriguing problems as echoes that could respond up to twenty times, with the final repetition louder than the initial ones, or echoes that would store the sound and reflect only at certain times of day or night. His colleague Athanasius Kircher, investigated in Phonurgia Nova (1673)an artificial echo which has the walls so placed that the shouted Italian expression clamore became re-echoed as the Italian words for “costumes”, “love”, “hours” and finally “king”. And a slightly disturbing epigram by Ausonius was frequently quoted by contemporaries, where a personified echo declares itself to be “a voice without a mind / I only with anothers language sport”.

Kirchner, Phonurgia
Athanasius Kircher, Phonurgia Nova, 1673

As these examples suggest, echo was much more than a child’s game in a tunnel in early modern times. Echo is often represented as a powerful mocker, an invisible presence that deconstructs the words of a speaker.[1] Echoes in lonely places, commented Lucretius, cause imagined nymphs and satyrs to come into being.

In Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s contribution to the genre of the erotic Epyllion, echo appears at a crucial moment, right when the poem turns from a tale of wooing to a tale of woe. After eight hundred lines of Venus incessantly talking Adonis into loving her, the lusting goddess is forced to take a break in her pursuit, because the “merciless ... night”, did seclude from her the object of her desire. Venus sits down, deluded. No longer able to visualize the scene, the poem’s narrator focuses on titillating another sense: hearing.


And now she beats her heart, whereat it groans,
That all the neighbour caves, as seeming troubled,
Make verbal repetition of her moans;
Passion on passion deeply is redoubled:
‘Ay me,’ she cries, and twenty times, ‘Woe, woe’,
And twenty echoes twenty times cry so. (ll.829-834)[2]

When Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis, the rhetorical device of Echo was highly popular. Echo’s power is often that of being able to reveal something implicit in the original statement, something the speaker had pretended to be unaware of. But at first glance it seems that the author of Venus and Adonis does not use the echo device as satiric fragmentation. Instead of mocking her, the echoes faithfully repeat the groans of Venus’ body. They reflect them back at their source, as underlined by the exact number in the motif “twenty times”. This reflection of sounds attracted me to the idea of reading this moment in Venus and Adonis as a mirror-stage, or rather “an echo-stage”, since it is not a visual image that is reflected here, but a sonic one. I coined this term “echo stage”, rather obviously so, in reference to Lacan from where I take my theoretical background.

According to Lacan the mirror stage is an important step in the formation of an “I”. When the child recognizes its own image in the mirror it explores in a play of gestures the relation between “this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates – the child’s own body, and the persons and things, around him.”[3] Contrary to the turbulent movements that the subjects experience, the spectral image is perceived as something complete, a totality. Lacan proposes to understand the mirror stage not as a mere reflection, but rather as a process of identification, a “transformation that takes place in the subject” since the child up until this point has experienced its “self” as something radically different from what he sees in the mirror. This image of a spectre “I” is what the child will assume from now on. Thus the Gestalt, the total form of his body in the mirror, has, as Lacan explains, “formative effects in the organism”[4]. “The mirror stage”, Lacan declares, “is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation.” Its aim is “the assumption of the armour of an alienating identity.” [5]

Up until the verses quoted above, where the lustful goddess is forced to interrupt her hunt, Shakespeare’s Venus has experienced herself as thoroughly insufficient in her role as a wooer. It is not surprising that Venus and Adonis was regarded as a lover’s manual by its contemporaries: Venus knows all the tricks in the book – from male force to female weakness and back. She woos like a bold-faced suitor, she applies elaborate tropes, flattery, neo-platonic logic and Ovidian bawdy talk, but nothing can stir Adonis’ fire.

But when she starts beating her breast and venting her frustration merely with an acoustic element, for the first time in the poem she gets some lasting satisfaction. The neighbouring caves seem to pity her, the narrator tells us, and make “verbal repetition of her moans” – which is to say they translate it into text. This is the moment that I identify as the echo-stage. The phase in which Lacan’s child sees his body and explores the relation between self and image, appears in Venus and Adonis as an acoustic mirroring. Venus starts to experiment with her sonic presence, when the repetitions of her laments are thrown back at her. Platonic Tradition has it that the particular pitch of any sound causes a movement in the air around us which, on our hearing it, generates a similar movement within us. The narrator of Venus and Adonis takes up this idea when he tells us that Venus is moved inwardly by hearing her own sounds. “Passion on Passion deeply is redoubled.” This is comparable to the formation that according to Lacan takes place in the “I” during the mirror stage.

Where at first only Venus’ body had produced groans, now she begins to lament with her voice, “Ay me” and “Woe, woe” exclamations, that mark the liminal stage between mere acoustic sounds and those that are semantically charged. “In acoustic terms”, Dennis Fry states, “there are two versions of my speech: the ‘private’ speech I hear inside my body and the ‘public’ speech that others hear outside.”[6] Due to the effect of the echo, Venus hears her own words not only as private, but also as public speech. More so: if one does the maths, the echoes that fill the air augment to a bombastic soundscape of 21 “ay me”s, and 420 “woe”s.[7] These multiplied voices can be read as more than just lamentations. In the exclamation “Ay me” we also have a self, an “I” that is imitated, claimed by other’s voices. The woe is no longer an authentic experience of the speaker, it is no longer original. So it is not really Venus’ own text that is thrown back at her but rather a multivocal choir that necessarily disturbs the original sounds, reveals the medium and gives back a distorted vocal image that will now re-enter Venus’ body through her ear.

Whether hearing or seeing is more important in the sensorium is a point intensely debated in western philosophy. Venus and Adonis seems to add yet another twist to this discussion. Whereas Elizabethan culture generally favoured the eyes as a stronger enticement for falling in love, in Venus and Adonis hearing seems to have an equally direct connection to the emotions. In one of the most beautiful passages of the poem, Venus elaborates on the strong ties of love and perception: “Had I no eyes, but ears, my ears would love that inward beauty and invisible” she professes and, further on: “Though neither eyes nor ears, to hear nor see, yet should I be in love with touching thee.” (ll. 433-8).

The inward beauty she alludes to is, according to the neo-platonic concept, Adonis’ voice. After speaking only two lines of the poem’s first 400 verses, Adonis suddenly breaks his passive silence and opens up with “three stanzas of high-pressured arguments against love.”[8] “What, canst thou talk?” (l. 427), is Venus astonished reply and then she, unwilling to listen to the content, uses his cue only to strengthen her argument:


‘What, canst thou talk?’ quoth she, ‘hast thou a tongue?
O would thou hadst not, or I had no hearing.
Thy mermaid’s voice hath done me double wrong;
I had my load before, now pressed with bearing;
       Melodious discord, heavenly tune harsh sounding,
       Ears deep sweet music, and heart’s deep sore wounding. (ll. 427-32)

The ear, early modern thinkers have suggested, is closely connected to the passions situated in the liver and heart. “Setting a lower portion of the soul in motion, sound could consume the auditor with joy, fear, and anger, evoke an exalted state of divine furor”[9] The ear connected the senses and the intellect. And one of the most powerful agents to penetrate it and animate the soul was music. The sonoric vibrations of music incurred motions on the body owing to their mathematically structured consonances.When Venus ascribes “melodious discord” and “heavenly tune harsh sounding” to Adonis, she alludes to the fact that Adonis unmathematical voice does not lead her to the concordant unity, but rather disturbs her lower passions. Yet, according to a concept by Pierre de Ronsard, if the passion responsible for appetite and sensuality is stirred, this will entice the soul to poetic furor.[10]

The relation of voice and music makes reference to yet another mythological tale. While in the Metamorphoses the talkative Echo is associated with the self-absorbed youth Narcissus, a later tradition gives a different aetiology of the nymph’s fragmentation of speech, one that became equally popular in Renaissance poetry. In his third-century romance Daphnis and Chloe the poet Longus depicts Echo as a wood-nymph, adverse to sexual advances and punished by Pan for not giving herself to one man by being given to all men. I will read to you from the seventeenth century translation by George Thornley:

Pan sees [her love of virginity], and takes occasion to be angry at the maid, and to envy her music because he could not come at her beauty. Therefore he sends a madness among the shepherds . . . and they tore her all to pieces and flung about them all over the earth her yet singing limbs. The Earth ... buried them all, preserving them still their musical property, and they by an everlasting sentence ... breath out a voice. And they imitate all things now as the maid did before, the Gods, men, organs, beasts. Pan himself they imitate too ... which when he hears he bounces out ... to know what clandestine imitator that is that he has got.[11]

Unfortunately the short amount of time I have forces me to leave unconsidered a number of questions that this alternative myth of Echo poses for the reading of Venus and Adonis. For my present purpose it shall suffice to draw your attention to Echo as an imitator of music. In this tradition, connected with Pan, the nymph is allegorized as celestial harmony. This context turns Echo into a credential voice. Where Narciss’ Echo is satiric, Pan’s echo is lyric. When Venus accuses Adonis of a “heavenly tune harsh sounding”, she makes reference to this nymph that Adonis is and is not at the same time, just like Echo is an ill-fitting identity for Venus.

Francis Bacon elaborates on this idea of the relation between the voice, the word and the world when he merges the myths of Echo and Syrinx:

such is the nymph Echo, a thing not substantial but only a voice, or if it be more of the exact and delicate kind, Syringa, ­- when the words and voices are regulated and modulated by numbers, whether poetical or oratorical.... For that is the true philosophy which echoes most faithfully the voices of the world itself, and is written as it were at the world’s own dictation.[12]

Considering this, Echo is transformed yet another time, from a disembodied voice to the personification of discourse. Echo, both in the Ovidian and in the Longian tradition is, after all, text. The examples I cited at the beginning of my paper have already hinted at this, the experiments with artificially created echoes play with the possibility of an orally transmitted text that can be recorded and reproduced but that at the same time has a life of its own.

Bearing these considerations in mind, I want to come to my last point. Let us return once more to the echo-stage we have left Venus in. From a gender perspective it is rather telling, that at the moment, when all her active male wooing strategies have been defeated, that Venus should find consolation from the mythological archetype of scorned female wooers, the nymph Echo. Yet I want to venture further in my interpretation of Shakespeare’s use of Echo’s myth. Using Lacan I have proposed reading Venus’ perception of her own voice’s echoes as a step in the formation of a self. But what kind of image of herself does she perceive in the reflection of the echoes? At first Venus is shown to be trapped into repeating sentiments she cannot escape, a process that is itself replicated when the echoes mime the words.[13] Repetition is a fundamental praxis of Petrarcan poetry and if we assume that Venus has only rehearsed contemporary love strategies before, one could suggest that she now tries to take upon her the role of a Petrarcan lover. More so, the multiplied repetition of the woes reveal, how unauthentic the expression of the experience of love and loss is. This interpretation is enforced by the next verses. Marking the echoes, that have already distorted her text, the narrator expands on how Venus begins a “woeful ditty” (l.836). The Queen of Love, up until this point depicted as a victim of her own laws (l.251), does not continue in the Petrarcan pose, but now strives to gain an Olympic position over the trifles of lovers by singing: “How love makes young men thrall and old men dote” (ll. 837-8). Just one stanza after the impressive soundscapes of woes and laments that had filled the air with pathos, the poem now takes an ironic twist. Both narrator and reader are well aware of the fact that Venus, the personified love, has not taken any young man captive. Quite the contrary.

Shakespeare wrote his narrative poem at a moment when Ovidian erotic verses had just started to become popular. The genre had originated some years earlier in the highly competitive grounds of the early modern Inns of Court, where gentlemen’s sons were educated to be transformed from clueless youths into valuable members of London’s society. It is therefore not surprising that the subject of the Epyllia is change – the metamorphoses of young men. Yet while most critics focus on the transformation of the more obviously coded male protagonists of the narrative poems, I want to suggest that in Venus and Adonis it is not only Adonis but also Venus that experiences a metamorphosis. As I propose in this paper, Venus and Adonis can be read as dramatizing the formation of a poetic self.

Mirroring, imitating and miming – both of images and of voices is an important motif in Venus and Adonis. And Venus’ echo-stage in the end proves to be just as narcissistic as the self-love she accuses Adonis of. Due to his model Ovid, the master of mingling satire and pathos, the narrator compares Venus’ new-found poetic voice to the babbling of a drunkard in a pub who believes he is fascinating his audience while he is actually just paying them for their applause.


For who hath she to spend the night withal,
But idles sounds resembling parasites;
Like shrill-tongued tapsters answering every call
Soothing the humour of fantastic wits?
    She says ‘Tis so’; they answer all ‘Tis so;
    And would say after her, if she said ‘No’. (ll. 847-52)

Shakespeare’s narrative poem about Venus and Adonis, this “first heir” to his “invention”, as the dedication has us know, bears all the marks of a highly competitive young author. Whoever put the motto on the frontispiece was well aware of this: “Let the vulgar throng admire worthless things;” it says there, quoting Ovid’s Amores, “but to me may the golden-haired Apollo supply cups filled at the Castalian stream.” The vulgar throng seems to find their equivalent in these “shrill-tongued tapsters”. Echo is now transformed once again from text to audience.

As I have suggested in this paper, the discussion of sounds and echoes in Venus and Adonis can be interpreted as the dramatization of an individual searching for a poetic voice. While the motto, the self-confident voice of the narrator and the repeated humiliations of Venus appear to be an author’s attempt to fashion himself as a genius, the use of the myth of Echo undermines all self-confident poses. Hearing and interpreting is depicted as problematic in Venus and Adonis, Adonis closes his ear Venus’ entreaties, “to love’s alarms [my heart] will not ope the gate” (l. 424), Venus is deluded by empty sounds she takes to be Adonis’ voice, and text that is uttered is multiplied and changed by the echoes in the air. An author, Venus and Adonis seems to suggest, might flatter himself into thinking that he has agency over his text, but in fact it will be the echo, the transmission of the text, and the audience that determines the perception.


[1]  See for example Joseph Loewenstein, Responsive Readings, Versions of Echo in Pastoral, Epic and the Jonsonian Masque, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1984; and John Hollander, The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley: University of Califorinia Press, 1981).

[2]  William Shakespeare, The Poems, ed. by John Roe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.121.

[3]  Jacques Lacan,”The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience”, Écrits, A Selection, ed. by Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock Publications, 1977), p.1.

[4]  Lacan, Ecrits, p.3.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Dennis Fry, Homo Loquens: Man as Talking Animal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 94.

[7]  This is at least how I read the mathematical exercise. One might of course also interpret, that each of the echoes only echoes once, and not twenty times. Still the effect would be quite impressive I think.

[8]  Coppélia Kahn, “Self and Eros in Venus and Adonis (1976)”, in C. Philip Kolin, ed., Venus and Adonis, Critical Essays (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1997), 181-202, p.193. I do not agree with Kahn, that Venus answers in mock surprise.

[9]  Kate van Orden, “An Erotic Metaphysics of Hearing in Early Modern France”, The Musical Quaterly, p. 690.

[10] Pierre de Ronsard, “Des vertus intellectuelles et moralles”, in Édouard Fremy, L’academie des derniers Valois: Académie de poésie et de musique, 1570-1576 (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1887).

[11] Longus, Daphnis and Chloe, transl. by George Thornley (London, 1652).

[12] Francis Bacon, De dignitate et augmentis scientarum, II, xiii, transl. by Ellis and Spedding.

[13] See Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995), p.1-3.


Identität – das suggeriert meine Leseweise von Venus and Adonis – wird jenseits des symbolischen Codes der Sprache gebildet. In Shakespeares erotischem Versgedicht liefern Klänge und Stimmen die Folie für die Konstruktion eines Selbst. Die im Gedicht beschriebene akustische Verwandlung der Liebesgöttin Venus nenne ich in Anlehnung an Lacans Konzept des Spiegelstadiums ‚Echostadium‘.