When Shakespeare wrote this witty, sexy, sophisticated poem about a goddess's love for an alluring boy, he was a fledgling playwright in the tough competitive arena of London theatre. Some who picked up the handsomely printed quarto volume when it went on sale in mid-June of 1593 might have known him as author of the seven or eight plays that he had probably written by this date. But Venus and Adonis was the first work that Shakespeare published under his name. Why would this actor-playwright at the beginning of a theatrical career turn to writing a long poem about a mythological love affair, appealing to an educated elite instead of the polyglot crowd of playgoers?
Several answers are possible. For centuries, this poem and Lucrece were regarded as sidelines from Shakespeare's 'real' theatrical calling, so scholars looked to external circumstances for an explanation of his swerve away from playwriting. They readily found one in the fact that London theatres were closed from June 1592 until June 1594 because of the plague, with only two brief periods of playing in the winters of 1593 and 1594. Deprived of his usual earnings from the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare needed money, so this argument goes, and hoped to find it in patronage from his dedicatee, the well-connected Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton. Whether or not the promise of patronage - and perhaps some kind of passionate friendship with Southampton himself - induced Shakespeare to write Venus and Adonis, these scholars think, it was peripheral to the bent of his talent, which was first and foremost a theatrical one. In contrast, it has also been argued that Shakespeare turned to poetry because he wanted his career to follow the pattern of classical poets such as Virgil and Ovid, beginning with pastoral lyrics that often focused on the vicissitudes of love, and then moving into a loftier epic style.