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Lucrece, Shakespeare's most substantial narrative poem, was first published in 1594, during an extended period when the London theaters are understood to have been closed due to an outbreak of the plague. Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's second-longest poem, was published the previous year, in 1593. Both poems are addressed to—and written under the patronage of—the Earl of Southampton, with the more intimate address of Lucrece reflecting the increased familiarity between the two men at that later date. Thus, Shakespeare's bid to secure respect among London's courtly literary circles was proving successful.

The title of the work is the object of some uncertainty, as the first five quartos are entitled Lucrece, but the longer title of The Rape of Lucrece is used on some of the pages within. Coppélia Kahn notes that an editor was actually responsible for the revision of the title of the 1616 quarto to the longer version. While some critics see The Rape of Lucrece as the fuller title, others have posited that Shakespeare ultimately preferred the shorter title because it better reflected his focus on the character of Lucrece rather than on the fact of her being raped.

The tale of Lucrece has been told time and time again since its historical occurrence in 509 b.c.e., with Lucrece often lauded as a heroine for her role in ending the reign of kings in Rome; a republic led by consuls was established by Brutus and the others who avenged her rape and death by exiling the royal family of Tarquin, the assailant and prince. In his introduction to the bard's narrative poems, Jonathan Crewe points out that Lucrece has also often been painted, perhaps most notably by the Renaissance-era artist Artemisia Gentileschi, who was herself a victim of rape. Thus, one cannot doubt the universal interest in the movingly tragic—and history altering—tale.

Given Lucrece's renown, many critics have sought to more fully understand Shakespeare's artistry and intentions by comparing his version to the literary precedents that he had undoubtedly been exposed to. Of course, comparisons with various sources—such as the Bible, Roman mythology, Livy's history, and Ovid's poetry—have produced various perspectives on the meaning behind Lucrece. Regardless, the modern reader cannot lose sight of the fact that much of the poem's value lies in its psychological portrayal of both the perpetrator and the victim. Aptly, the rapist can earn himself nothing but condemnation and shame, while in her state of mental and emotional crisis the victim demonstrates that she deserves nothing but sympathy and support.


"The Argument"

In the long paragraph of prose that precedes Lucrece, the narrator relates in summary not only Tarquin's assault of Lucrece and its aftermath but also the events leading up to the assault. Discussed here, but not in the poem, is the episode wherein the Roman military men surprised their wives by returning home unannounced; only Lucrece was found to be humbly spinning with her maids rather than reveling. The Argument also relates in slightly more detail the actions of Brutus and the others after Lucrece's suicide.

Lines 1-119

Sextus Tarquinius, referred to as Tarquin, has withdrawn from the siege at Ardea to lodge with the wife of the soldier Collatine, Lucrece. Collatine has himself boasted of his wife's exceptional beauty and unfaltering fidelity, which inspired a certain envy in Tarquin. Tarquin now explicitly intends to satisfy his lust and ruin Lucrece's reputation by defiling her. Lucrece, whose complexion bears both the red of roses and the white of lilies, and who has no conception of Tarquin's plot, warmly welcomes him. Tarquin praises Collatine's deeds in war and "makes excuses for his being there"; otherwise, he reveals nothing of his intentions.

Lines 120-280

Tarquin retires after long conversing with Lucrece. The narrator discourses about people wanting to gain something so much that they are content to lose something else in the process; such is the case with Tarquin, who will sacrifice his honor "to obtain his lust." The night is still, with predators emerging to do horrors to their prey.

Tarquin rises from his bed and lights a torch, to weigh his conviction with regard to his "loathsome enterprise." He is well aware of the baseness of the deed he intends to commit and how it will utterly ruin him—to gain only the most fleeting "mirth." He imagines Collatine returning home on instinct; he wonders whether he could possibly conceal his guilt afterward. He notes that he owes Collatinus (that is, Collatine) no ill. Eventually, he persuades himself to continue, as he claims that he is so swayed by Lucrece's beauty that his "affection," his "desire," controls him.

Lines 281-441

Tarquin begins creeping through the house, still somewhat uncertain—but again, he eventually thinks only of satisfying his lust. He breaks the locks on all the doors leading to Lucrece's chamber, fearful that he will be heard, and drafts almost extinguish his torch—but he blows the flame back to life and proceeds. He happens upon a glove of Lucrece's and picks it up only to be pricked by a needle within, but he remains undeterred. When he reaches the last door, he begins to pray but then realizes the absurdity of doing so; he declares that "love and fortune" will be his gods that night.

Tarquin enters Lucrece's chamber, where she sleeps soundly. Looking upon her, he is dazzled by her beauty, as if beholding the "fiery-pointed sun." He admires various aspects of her countenance and features, such as her hands, hair, and breasts. As he gazes down, he is momentarily stilled, satisfied even by the sight of the woman—but in time he regains his initiative and lays a hand on her.

Lines 442-672

At Tarquin's touch, Lucrece awakens, terrified by what seems a ghost. As Tarquin does not release her, her heart beats ever quicker. When she demands to know why he is doing what he is doing, he declares that "the fault" is hers, as she is so beautiful that he supposedly cannot still his lust. He expects her to fight back and knows the irrevocable harm that he is doing, but he cares not. He tells her that if she struggles, he will arrange the scene so that it appears that she had been committing adultery with one of the servants—ruining the reputation of her entire family—while if she relents, he will say nothing.

Lucrece pleads for mercy, leading Tarquin to pause only as if a cat toying with a mouse. Still, Lucrece speaks at length in an attempt to persuade him to cease. She reminds him of her hospitality and of his friendship with her husband and hopes that he might feel some empathy for her. She observes that he will be ruining his own honor, future king that he is, in committing such a shameful crime. She speaks of the sinfulness of such lust and of how vile he would view such an act if committed by another. In the end, she simply begs for pity—but he professes to be unmoved, as if an overbearing tide or huge fire. She offers metaphors depicting the shame he will feel, but he finally cuts her off and demands that she yield.

Lines 673-742

Tarquin extinguishes the light and covers Lucrece's head with her nightclothes. Through the rape then committed by the "surfeit-taking" Tarquin, Lucrece loses "a dearer thing than life," while he immediately realizes the extent to which he has disgraced himself. Afterward, he finds that the "spotted princess" (understood to be referring to his soul) has entered a state of "living death." He flees guiltily, while she lies there in despair.

Lines 743-875

Lucrece begins a long and sad lament about her fate. She reveals that she herself feels profound guilt and shame over what Tarquin has done to her. She castigates the night, which ever abets such horrific crimes, referring to how the "rotten damps" of night fogs "ravish the morning air" and calling Tarquin himself "night's child." She rues that she has no one to share her misery with and hopes that day will never come, so that she might never reveal her shame.

She imagines how tales will be told of how Tarquin wronged her and how she thus also wronged Collatine. She conceives that her husband's honor once lay in her, but that honor has been stolen away. She feels guilty for having lost that honor, even though she entertained Tarquin in the first place for the sake of Collatine's honor, as well as out of genuine hospitality. She notes how other beautiful and virtuous things are so easily ruined.

Lines 876-1078

She places much blame on "opportunity," which seems to be given always to those committing the foulest deeds and never to the poor and destitute. Truth and virtue are ever forsaken by opportunity, while sin receives opportunity's favors at no cost. As such, she condemns opportunity itself as guilty for all crimes ever committed.

She also despises "time," which betrayed her and has tied her to an eternity of woe. Time does better to "unmask falsehood" and to generally right whatever wrongs are committed; to allow things to decay over time; and to contribute to life's cycles. She then hopes that time will manage to curse Tarquin, to make his life unbearable owing to thoughts of "his committed evil"—to leave him drowning in his own remorse. She considers how the foul deed will ever stain his character, especially in that he would be king and so examined more closely than other men.

At length, she turns to cursing her own words, which can do nothing to change her situation. Her only course of action, then, she imagines, is suicide, though her hand quivers at the thought. She looks for a sharp instrument to use but finds nothing. Still, she is resolved to "clear this spot by death," especially as she could not bear the thought of bearing Tarquin's child. She intends not only to kill herself but also to reveal the truth of what happened.

Lines 1079-1211

Day breaks, leading Lucrece to now lament the sun's mocking beams of light. The narrator describes her as utterly possessed by her grief, such that the birds' songs, which would otherwise be pleasant, only intensify her sorrow. She speaks to a bird as if to Philomel, a mythical rape victim who metamorphosed into a nightingale.

Like a "poor frighted deer" now, Lucrece ponders whether she should truly take her own life and thereby slay her soul, which she might otherwise save; but she feels as though her body has been ruined, and her soul, like the tree beneath the peeled bark, must likewise decay. Still, she will tell Collatine of Tarquin's trespass, so that her husband might seek revenge. She declares a sort of last testament, bequeathing various aspects of herself and her life to the people and objects that she will be leaving behind.

Lines 1212-1365

Sadly certain, now, about committing suicide, Lucrece summons a maid, who reads Lucrece's sorrow—though not its cause—in her face and weeps along with her. The narrator describes women's minds as "waxen," such that emotional impressions are easily made and discerned. Thus, a woman may feel shame for a foul act inflicted upon her by a man. At Lucrece's questioning, the maid notes that Tarquin left well before sunrise that morning. The maid inquires about her sorrow, but Lucrece declines to announce it. Lucrece then asks for pen and paper and for a servant of her husband's who might take his master a letter.

After the maid departs, Lucrece writes a brief note relating the extent of but not the reason for her grief, as she imagines that the occurrence might be misconstrued if she were not able to show the sorrow of her person while explaining it. Collatine's servant accepts the letter and blushes out of "bashful innocence," which Lucrece distressfully interprets as his embarrassment over the knowledge of the shame that she has suffered. Once the man departs, she again sinks into her woe.

Lines 1366-1568

Lucrece finds herself distracted by a painting that depicts the famous invasion of Troy by the Greeks, which was incited by Paris's "rape," meaning "abduction," of the Greek Helen. In showing the tragedy of battle, the painting contains a great number of instances of sorrow and death. The faces and bodies of the famous Greeks Ajax and Ulysses have been painted with especial precision; likewise, the depiction of the Trojan Nestor discoursing to a crowd fascinates Lucrece. On the other hand, little is revealed of the Greek Achilles.

Lucrece eventually notes the presence of Hecuba, the wife of Priam, who was the king of Troy, as only Hecuba's grief in standing over her dying husband seems comparable to Lucrece's grief. Lucrece even wishes the painted Hecuba had the power of speech. Lucrece then imagines taking revenge on the images of the Greeks, blames the "strumpet" Helen, and laments that one person's private concerns could cause so much death. At last, her gaze settles on Sinon, the Trojan who persuaded the king to admit the Trojan horse, and the Greeks within, through the city gate. She despises his peacefully content look—and the once-unthreatening image of the similarly traitorous Tarquin is brought to mind. At length, she tears Sinon's image from the painting.

Lines 1569-1659

The distraction of the painting proves to have only temporarily assuaged Lucrece's woe. The messenger then returns with Collatine and other men, and Lucrece's husband immediately recognizes in her mournful face and attire that she has suffered some extreme event. She has trouble speaking at first—but then manages to relate what was done to her "by foul enforcement," at the hands of an armed foe who threatened to murder and defame her if she resisted. She professes, yet, that while her body has been "stained," her mind and soul remain pure.

Lines 1660-1806

Collatine is speechless at first, able only to breathe through the sorrow he in turn experiences. Lucrece implores him not to weep and asks only that he exact revenge on the perpetrator, whom she will not name until all the lords present agree to likewise participate in the vengeance. They all swear as much, and Lucrece then wonders aloud how she might rid herself of the stain she has incurred. The men insist that her mind remains "untainted"—but she utters Tarquin's name and then nevertheless buries a knife in her chest and dies.

Collatine and the others are so shocked as to remain motionless, until Lucrece's father finally falls upon his daughter, while Brutus removes the knife from her body. Pools of her "stained" blood then circle her body, with a watery sheen seeming to evidence its corruption. Lucretius, the father, laments that his offspring, the image of himself, has perished before him. Collatine then falls upon his deceased wife, able only to mutter incoherently. The two men then weep over Lucrece as if trying to out mourn each other.

Lines 1807-1855

At length, Brutus, who had theretofore been viewed as something of a fool, bids Collatine to rise and, instead of weeping and lamenting, to pray to the Roman gods to assist them in their quest for vengeance. Brutus vows on Lucrece's soul and on the bloodied knife to exact that revenge, and the others all swear likewise. They then determine to bear Lucrece's body through Rome to reveal Tarquin's offense; the narrator states that he is indeed afterward banished.



Lucius Junius Brutus (an ancient forebear of the Marcus Junius Brutus who assassinated Julius Caesar) leads the other men present in the closing scene, including the father and husband of Lucrece, in swearing upon her knife and her soul to avenge her death. Thus, while he had theretofore been deemed an idiot, Brutus seizes upon the opportunity to make political use of Lucrece's suicide


Collatine's boasting of his wife's extraordinary chastity in the company of the other military men initially inspires Tarquin to rape her. When Collatine returns to Lucrece afterward, he is struck by her evident sorrow; when she moves to kill herself, he says and does nothing. After Lucrece's father falls upon the body, Collatine eventually falls likewise, mumbling incoherently, then insists that his deceased wife yet belongs to him.

The Groom

Before delivering Lucrece's letter to her husband, the groom blushes innocently, leading Lucrece to imagine that he knew of the shame she felt.


Lucrece is without doubt both the moral and literary heart of the story, as indicated by the title, her tragic suffering, and her heroic death. Philippa Berry notes that Lucrece's rhetorical performance, which constitutes over a third of the narrative poem's 1,855 lines, "is one of the most extended tragic utterances attributed to a woman in English Renaissance literature." And perhaps no literary character merits as much opportunity for discourse about her plight than the victim of rape, who, as in the case of Lucrece, likely has no acquaintance who can truly understand the trauma of her experience.

Lucrece is understood to define her identity almost exclusively as the chaste wife of Collatine. In spending her time at home spinning with her maids while other women are reveling, she proves her husband's boasts accurate, and the narrator notes in line 85 that she is an "earthly saint" and in line 87 that "unstained thoughts" such as hers "do seldom dream on evil." Indeed, as Coppélia Kahn has noted, in accord with the Roman patriarchal tradition, as a woman, she is defined in terms of the man that she is primarily associated with. (At the poem's close, of course, Lucrece's father, the first man through whom she defines her identity, vies with Collatine over the ownership of her deceased body.) Jonathan Crewe describes how since Lucrece is "well schooled" in the codes of patriarchy, the alteration of the central aspect of her identity—her chastity—essentially destroys her: "The goods she feels to have been damaged after the rape are principally her husband's. It thus becomes extraordinarily difficult for her to process the rape subjectively—at first, she can hardly be said to have her own subjectivity—and reconcile herself to her new, damaged, and devalued condition." That is, regardless of how she might be inclined to, or wish to, perceive herself, if she has been ruined in the eyes of her husband and society, then as far as she is concerned she is ruined. Thus, as Kahn notes, since "no alternative identity is possible" for Lucrece, she can only imagine maintaining her integrity through suicide: "The tragedy of Lucrece is that only by dying is she able to escape from marginality and regain her social and personal identity as a chaste wife."

Heather Dubrow notes that while some critics have denounced Lucrece's meandering lament after her rape as so conventionally rhetorical, in literary terms, as to reduce the realism of the situation, the victim's mindset is in fact portrayed with profound accuracy. She observes of Lucrece, "The parallels between her behavior and the responses analyzed in the extensive recent literature on rape are compelling enough to suggest that certain reactions commonly recur, at least in Western culture—and to testify that Shakespeare understood those reactions well." Dubrow explicates a number of Lucrece's reactions that are understood to be characteristic of victims of rape: she has difficulty relating the trauma to others, speaking to herself at length but to Collatine and the others only in brief terms; she blames herself for not resisting with more determination; she dwells on the fruitless question of how she might have averted the rape; she experiences abrupt shifts in mood; she demonstrates a need to regain some degree of control over the situation and herself (ultimately, through suicide); and, as discussed above, she feels a profound loss of identity. Indeed, Dubrow cites the researchers Kurt Weis and Sandra S. Borges as calling rape "a total attack against the whole person, affecting the victim's physical, psychological, and social identity." Thus, through his Lucrece, Shakespeare offers a sympathetic, informative, and sorrowful portrait of a woman who has suffered the trauma of rape.


Lucretius falls upon his daughter's body before Collatine, and the two consequently engage in a sort of verbal competition over the ownership of her body.

The Maid

The maid shares tears with Lucrece, empatheti-cally understanding and feeling her sorrow, though not its cause.


In certain respects, little need be said of Tarquin that is not communicated directly through the poem, through both the narrator's assessment of his character and through Tarquin's own ruminations before committing the rape. The narrator calls him a "devil" and a "false worshiper," noting that he will be "pawning his honor to obtain his lust." Meanwhile, Tarquin admits that the rape he intends to commit will be both "shameful" and "hateful," and he realizes, "my posterity, shamed with the note, / Shall curse my bones, and hold it for no sin / To wish that I their father had not been." Thus, one cannot question the rapist's understanding of the evil nature of his crime.

In fact, Roy W. Battenhouse notes that Tarquin is principally motivated by the illicitness of the act; while he cites Lucrece's beauty as the deciding factor, he dwells far longer on the lack of morality he would be demonstrating. Battenhouse aptly note show no more depth of character can be found in the story's egotistical rapist than in any common criminal; "Basically what he loves is his own resoluteness, and the illusion of power which his fearlessness of consequences gives him, and in particular the satisfying sense of activity he gets from striking his falchion against flint, or in setting his foot upon the light." Battenhouse also observes how Tarquin's shallow deviance renders Lucrece's pleas with respect to his honor utterly useless: "From the outset of the enterprise, the very blame-worthiness of his design has excited his will."

Despite the demonstration of Tarquin's self-conscious immorality, Jonathan Crewe acknowledges that "a certain sympathy is solicited for" Tarquin in the course of the poem. That is, in providing a full account of Tarquin's thought processes before the rape, Shakespeare is effectively humanizing him; the reader recognizes him not simply as evil but as a person who has convinced himself through specious reasoning that he is justified in committing a horrible crime. Crewe points out that even Lucrece herself finds exclusively blaming Tarquin to be difficult, as she decries Night, Opportunity, and Time in search of the "ultimate perpetrator" of the rape. This shifting of blame may stem from the fact that Shakespeare was not only sympathetically portraying the plight of the rape victim but also providing a social commentary; thus, as Crewe writes, Tarquin "seems driven by destructive social dynamisms he can neither understand nor resist" and "is acting within larger scenarios of gendered violence." That is, Tarquin is presented as a tragically misguided product of an excessively patriarchal culture.


Guilt and Innocence

Shakespeare devotes a fair number of lines in Lucrece to addressing the sentiment of guilt experienced by the title character. Lucrece in fact explicitly professes to feeling guilty after being raped by Tarquin, despite having been promised death (as well as posthumous slander) if she does not allow the act. As a military man, Tarquin certainly needed no weapon to legitimate his threat of using harmful force, and any argument asserting that Lucrece should have prioritized her chastity over her life must contend with the fact that in so doing she would be deliberately deceiving her instinctively self-preserving nature. (In fact, she later persuades herself that Collatine's family's honor is more important than her life and does manage to commit suicide.)

Regardless of her obvious faultlessness, Lucrece's first thoughts after Tarquin's departure revolve around what she imagines to be her "sin," "guilt," and "helpless shame." In line 819 she declares, "Tarquin wrongèd me, I Collatine," as if she were in some way responsible for the actions of another beyond her control. Heather Dubrow relates, "Women who have been raped characteristically blame themselves for not fighting enough." She then discusses how Lucrece ultimately centralizes her guilt in her hand, which she accuses of being "afeard to scratch her wicked foe" and then sentences it to the role of executer. Dubrow remarks, "Like so many of us, Lucrece attempts both to blame and defend herself: by reproaching the hand she is at once censuring herself and deflecting that censure onto only one part of her body, with the implication that the rest may be less guilty."

The theme of Lucrece's guilt is made concrete throughout the poem through the metaphor of the "stain" that she feels. Focusing on the recurrences of words—a common practice in the study of Shakespeare—Coppélia Kahn notes that "the words 'stain' and 'stained' are mentioned eighteen times in the poem's 1855 lines, and synonyms such as blot, spot, blur, blemish, attaint, scar, and pollution are frequently used." She connects this association with the black-and-white characterization of women's sexual virtue in Shakespeare's depiction of Rome: "Marriage makes sex, and woman as sexual object, clean; outside of marriage sex is unclean." Thus, Lucrece can feel corrupted or defiled in the same way that a work of art, say, could be deemed of lesser value—if not worthless—with an accidental blotch of paint in the middle.

Kahn posits that the connotations of the metaphor of the stain reveal that Lucrece may not quite feel the sense of guilt she claims to feel: "Though Lucrece uses moral terms such as sin and guilt, she actually condemns herself according to primitive, non-moral standards of pollution and uncleanness, in which only the material circumstances of an act determine its goodness or evil." Jonathan Crewe draws a similar conclusion regarding Lucrece's inability to rid herself of her guilt. He notes that her "peculiar anguish … is that of the innocent woman who cannot fully believe in her own innocence or escape an acute sense of shame." He then likewise declares that her words inadequately correspond to her actual thoughts, highlighting "her inability to find a language in which to come to terms with her new situation: there is no fitting or expressive language for the raped Roman wife." Indeed, in any era, language may have difficulty doing justice to the angst of such an emotional trauma.


A theme that is inherent not only in the attitudes and actions of the characters but also in the overall essence of the plot is the sociological fact of patriarchy, whereby men are given legal priority over women. In fact, as discussed thoroughly by Coppélia Kahn, the prevailing patriarchal attitudes were largely responsible for Lucrece's seeing fit to kill herself. Lucrece laments more than once that Collatine's honor has been compromised by her being raped and that her remaining alive, and defiled, will ever be a stain on that honor. Particularly distressing to her is the notion that Tarquin might have impregnated her, in which case Collatine's entire bloodline would be seen as "polluted." While Heather Dubrow notes that many of Lucrece's sentiments following the rape accurately reflect sentiments commonly expressed by victims of rape in the modern era, a twenty-first-century woman might yet be less likely to give the social consequences for her partner such overarching importance. Indeed, Lucrece expresses that the rape is impossible to deal with because through it, regardless of her guilt or innocence, she has lost the identity of chaste wife—an identity that is centered not around herself but around Collatine. Thus, giving primary consideration to Collatine, Lucrece determines that if she can no longer be the ideal of a chaste wife, she must cease to exist.

Kahn makes reference to the legal system of inheritance in the Elizabethan era, whereby the production of male heirs was necessary to ensure that a family could retain its wealth. If a woman owned any property, it would belong to her husband at the time of her marriage. As such, among the propertied classes, at least, women were typically subservient to their fathers before marriage and to their husbands after. Nancy Vickers, in turn, notes that the rhetorical descriptions of Lucrece reflect the objectification of women in a patriarchal society. In sum, the story is overlaid with the various patriarchal aspects of Roman society, and these aspects play a substantial role in the unfolding of the narrative's events.


  • Research the history of painted images of Lucrece. For a number of different paintings, comment on the artist and why he or she may have been interested in Lucrece, on what the artist chose to highlight with respect to Lucrece's story, and on any other aspect of the painting that merits attention. Also, compare the styles of the various works and their effects on the moods of the paintings. If possible, provide photocopies of the paintings you discuss.
  • In certain eras of history, in certain geographical locations, women have been reduced to the status of second-class citizens. Research how the role of childbearing, as held by women exclusively, has shaped women's overall societal role throughout the history of the United States specifically. Provide extensive discussion on current cultural norms and developments with respect to the bearing and raising of children.
  • Suicide is viewed differently in different cultures. In an essay, provide a full discussion of hara-kiri, also known as seppuku, the form of ritual suicide viewed as honorable by Japanese samurai. Discuss Lucrece's suicide in light of this perspective on the respectable killing of oneself.
  • Reflect on your life and recall a time when an artistic product of some sort gave you additional perspective on your own circumstances. The work in question may be a painting, photograph, song, play, or film. Discuss the qualities of the art work, and ideas inherent in the art work, that struck you; also discuss how the art seemed to relate to your circumstances.


An Oft-Told Tale

As with many of his works, Shakespeare derived the story of Lucrece from existing materials, in this case largely historical. Different histories, of course, as well as fictionalized versions of history, have different perspectives, and retellings can reflect the ideological priorities of a writer or of an era. In choosing to adopt or readapt the perspectives of authors before him, Shakespeare revealed much about his personal priorities with regard to the tale. As Mercedes Maroto Camino notes, one of these priorities was certainly consideration for Queen Elizabeth, as a "myth of female heroism and virginity" could easily be construed as alluding to the chaste queen.

Among many others, the ancient Romans Livy and Ovid and the fourteenth-century English poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower had retold the story of Lucrece. Shakespeare is understood to have gleaned his own understanding of the tale primarily from the ancient Romans, with Livy addressing the matter in his Historia, and Ovid in his poetic work Fasti. One of the most noted discrepancies between Shakespeare's Lucrece and the ancient Roman works is the bard's shifting the instigation of Tarquin's rape from the sight of Lucrece's beauty to Collatine's boasts of her chastity. In fact, as noted by Nancy Vickers, in the ancient sources, Collatine actually advocates that the men forgo discussion so as to simply conduct a test of their wives' chastity through a surprise return trip. Vickers highlights this alteration as reflecting "a heightened insistence on the power of description, on the dangers inherent in descriptive occasions. Here, Collatine's rhetoric, not Lucrece's behavior, wins over his companions; Collatine's rhetoric, not Lucrece's beauty, prompts Tarquin's departure."

Various other discrepancies between Shakespeare's Lucrece and his ancient sources have been found and discussed. For example, Jane O. Newman mentions that neither Ovid nor Livy make any mention of the possibility that Lucrece was impregnated by Tarquin. Overall, perhaps most prominent is the addition of much of Shakespeare's innovative character development. As Newman reports, "The progress of the narrative is frequently interrupted by interior monologues and rhetorical set pieces that dilate Livy's and Ovid's essentially political story of Lucrece's rape and suicide into a lengthy, almost psychological investigation of the motivation for and implications of both Lucrece's and Tarquin's actions." Thus, as he often did, Shakespeare truly rewrote a tale that had been presented by others before him.

The Relevance of Rhetoric

As a narrative poem produced by Shakespeare early in his career, Lucrece contains a fair degree of rhetoric, or artful speech. While some critics believe the lack of realism behind some of this rhetoric detracts from the poem as a whole, those who have examined the poem more closely, such as Heather Dubrow and Nancy Vickers, have seen the poem's reliance and emphasis on rhetoric to be highly meaningful.

A number of critics have pointed out that Shakespeare strayed from his ancient sources in shifting the event that instigated the idea of the rape in Tarquin's mind from the sight of Lucrece to Collatine's boasts about her. Vickers describes the particular type of rhetoric in question as "blazon," whereby an object is described so as to be given praise, often through references to the various parts of the object. Thus, the description of Lucrece provided when Tarquin first enters her chamber can be referred to as a blazon—and in that Lucrece is so blazoned, she is in a sense dehumanized; she is reduced from a whole person to the sum of her parts. Likewise, Collatine's boasts largely objectify Lucrece. Dubrow asserts that in making Collatine's rhetorical objectification a source of Lucrece's tragedy, Shakespeare is in a sense condemning its use—and he highlights its effects by employing it himself: "The poem is characterized (and, one suspects, inspired) less by a pleasure in poetic adornment per se than by a preoccupation with the moral and psychological issues expressed through—or even raised by—such adornment."

Vickers, meanwhile, highlights the prominence of the motif of colors in the descriptions of Lucrece. This motif primarily revolves around her complexion bearing both the red of roses and the white of ivory, reflecting her beauty and her purity. However, a subtext relates to the colors that appeared on shields and coats of arms, which were of great importance with respect to honor in Shakespeare's time and were thus under a fair degree of regulation; only kings could display the sun on their shields, and certain permanent marks could be added to coats of arms to reveal dishonorable deeds committed by members of a family. Vickers notes the two particular objectifications represented by this emphasis on colors: "Read as a martial image, Lucrece's body as shield stands between Tarquin and Collatine to deflect blows, to prevent direct hits; read as a heraldic image, that same body is the medium assuring the passage of Collatium [the estate held by Collatine] from father to as yet unborn son." Thus, in multiple senses, the rhetoric presented by Shakespeare is emblematic of the compromising position in which Lucrece finds herself in the context of a patriarchal society.

A Foil to Philomela

In Greek mythology, Philomela was raped by her sister's husband, Tereus, the King of Athens. Afterward, indifferent to her own shame, she vowed to reveal his crime—prompting Tereus to cut out her tongue. At length, she was transformed into a bird, alternately a sparrow or a nightingale. In Lucrece, Philomela's name is invoked twice: first, Lucrece is referred to by the narrator as "lamenting Philomel," notably, after she has asserted, "My tongue shall utter all"; some fifty lines later, Lucrece calls a bird that "sing'st of ravishment" Philomel. Thus, as many critics have noted, Shakespeare makes a nominal comparison between two women who were raped.

In her essay "'And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness': Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece," Jane O. Newman offers a different perspective on the references to Philomela, asserting that beneath the poem's surface "lies an ideology of gender that represses traditions of female political agency more threatening to patriarchy than Lucrece's." Newman notes that while the aspects of the Philomela myth represented in the poem cast the victim in a subjugated light, the myth in its entirety features both Philomela and her sister, Procne, exacting revenge on Tereus through severe violence. In the course of the festival of Bacchus, the women ritually slaughter and cook Itys, the son of Tereus and Procne. Thus, the mythical women manage to discontinue Tereus's (as well as Procne's own) royal line of descent. Lucrece, on the other hand, ultimately accomplishes only the banishment, not the death, of Tarquin's line, and she accomplishes this only through her own destruction. In turn, as Newman notes, the change from monarchical to consular rule brought about by the banishment of Tarquin's kin did not remove power from the hands of men or give power to women. Assessing the relationship between the Philomela myth and Shakespeare's Lucrece, Newman concludes, "The manifest absence, even deletion, of the revenge alternative from Lucrece's options is figured in the truncation of the full Philomela story. Women's responses to rape and their participation in political renewal are thereby limited, ideologically speaking, to actions that require their self-destruction."


Roman Society

Shakespeare's treatment of the setting of Rome both here and in his plays often evokes the cultural relationship between that ancient culture and Elizabethan London. Coppélia Kahn asserts, "It is a critical commonplace that Elizabethans regarded Rome as a political mirror of their own times, finding in it a series of lessons … which they considered to have more than theoretical value." In Lucrece, the depictions of certain societal values reflect and refract both Elizabethan and Roman cultural beliefs.

Foremost, perhaps, among these societal value was patriarchy, which Kahn notes was the cultural rule in Elizabethan and ancient Roman times alike. One aspect of patriarchy found in both eras was an institution of marriage that essentially sanctioned sex—for women—only within a relationship so legally defined. Kahn notes that in ancient Rome, "the national cult of Vesta, goddess of the hearth, virtually institutionalized the virginal wife." In the context of this cult, virgins were given the task of maintaining the sacred fires burning at the temple in Vesta, with these idealized women serving as prominent role models for the remainder of the population, inspiring a belief in the possibility of complete chastity. In England around 1600, meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth, known as "the Virgin Queen," likewise presented to the population an influential image of a perfectly chaste woman. In addition, institutionalized Christian values frowned upon sex outside of marriage.

The Christian Perspective

Certain commentators approaching Lucrece's tale from a Christian perspective have seen fit to question her integrity. In fact, the topic of Lucrece's conduct had long been discussed, perhaps most notably by Saint Augustine in his fifth-century work The City of God. According to Christian dogma, suicide is sinful (and thus might be interpreted as an expression of guilt), while the soul can remain pure regardless of what happens to the body. Thus, Augustine asserts, Lucrece's killing herself must be indicative of either an unspoken consent to the rape or the fact that, as quoted by Kahn, she was "too greedy of praise" to cope with any ambiguous or suspicious reactions from others regarding her victimization.

A number of critics have noted that Shakespeare certainly had this Christian perspective in mind in retelling the tale. Indeed, the passages in which she contemplates the virtue of suicide (beginning with line 1156) and notes how "immaculate and spotless" her mind yet remains (line 1656) seem to indicate as much. D. C. Allen concludes that Shakespeare was perfectly aware of the story's "tragic import, but he felt that it must be glossed in terms of Christian options. Lucrece should have defended herself to the death, or, having been forced, lived free of blame with a guiltless conscience. Her action was rare and wonderful, but a little beyond forgiveness." Thus, in that Shakespeare nevertheless portrays Lucrece as a heroine, Allen attributes to him a judicious "recognition of the double understanding of the Lucrece story." Notably, Roy W. Battenhouse claims that the Christian perspective influenced not just those isolated passages of moral questioning but the entire work; in fact, he wildly interprets certain clues scattered throughout the poem as revealing that Shakespeare was subtly portraying Lucrece as wholly complicit in the act of "adultery." Kahn dismisses Battenhouse as displaying "considerable bias against Lucrece" in the course of his inventive argument.

The Fall of Troy

Many commentators have offered unique interpretations of the significance of the section of the poem in which Lucrece ruminates on the painting of the mythological fall of the ancient city of Troy. Indeed, her various descriptions of, and reactions to, the event's different characters seem to demand assessments from multiple perspectives, especially in light of the varied and conflicting emotions Lucrece was herself experiencing at the time. Foremost, perhaps, is the narrator's recurring identification of Lucrece with a besieged city like Troy. Tarquin's hand upon her breast is called a "rude ram, to batter such an ivory wall," and Tarquin is consequently described as intent to "make the breach and enter this sweet city." Thus, for its connotations alone, the fall of Troy effectively highlights Lucrece's tragic plight.

Beyond the greater situation, Lucrece bears various relationships to the characters depicted in the painting. Lucrece expresses the most loathing for Sinon, who counseled Priam, the king of Troy, to admit the Trojan Horse through the gates: she ultimately tears Sinon's image from the painting. Lucrece likens Sinon to Tarquin based on the treacheries of the two, yet, as Philippa Berry notes, with his tears and his "cheeks neither red nor pale, but mingled so," Sinon seems to somewhat resemble Lucrece herself. In fact, both Lucrece and Sinon bring about the downfall of royalty through orations, as Lucrece's speech before her suicide inspires Brutus to lead in the overthrow of the Tarquins. Lucrece also denounces Helen, the exceedingly beautiful Greek woman whose abduction inspired the invasion, calling her a "strumpet." Different legends depict Helen's role differently, as she was perhaps made captive by, perhaps simply persuaded to accompany Paris, the Trojan prince (who was assisted by the goddess Aphrodite in his seduction of Helen). Regardless, Lucrece's disdain for Helen may be interpreted as reflecting the self-loathing she feels in her "defiled" state. As Philippa Berry notes with regard to these crossing of character traits, "In her intense hostility to Helen and Sinon, Lucrece may imply a buried anxiety about her own ambiguous status as both member of and traitor to her society."


  • 500 b.c.e.: The cult of the vestal virgins sanctifies the ideal of the chaste woman.
    1600s: Christian notions prevalent throughout Western society condemn sex outside of marriage as sinful.
    Today: In America, Christian notions regarding sex and marriage are increasingly at odds with changing societal norms, with people often having sex before marriage, and marriages between homosexual couples gaining acceptance.
  • 500 b.c.e.: A woman may be reluctant to admit she has been raped because of the effect the revelation will have on the honor of her husband and family.
    1600s: Christian ideals allow women to preserve their own honor if they have been raped, despite the "adultery" that their bodies have technically committed, if they never consented in spirit, such that their soul remains "clean."
    Today: While women who have suffered rape are perhaps extended more sympathy than at any time in the past, rape remains one of the most under-reported crimes, largely due to the social consequences for the victim.
  • 500 b.c.e.: Women are essentially excluded from the inheritance of property and estates.
    1600s: In legal terms, a woman is virtually always under the guardianship of—and thus subservient to—her father, her husband, or some other male relation.
    Today: In most Western cultures, laws allow for no discrimination against women with regard to property ownership.


Shakespearean scholars have approached Lucrece from various angles over the years. Coppélia Kahn notes that the earlier critical tradition largely featured discussions of Shakespeare's developing artistry, sometimes to the exclusion of dialogue about the implications of the content. This artistry certainly merited ample discussion; D. C. Allen declares that both Lucrece and Venus and Adonis "are barns in which the young poet is storing up themes and metaphors for the future. They are virtuoso performances in which Shakespeare like a good musician is demonstrating both his repertoire and his skill with his instrument." In fact, Kahn points out that the focus on the artistry of Lucrece was inspired in part by the fact that, as contrasting with the playful romance of the preceding narrative poem, in Lucrece, traditional sex roles "are taken with deadly seriousness and carried to a logical and bitter extreme, which makes it painful to confront the poem squarely." Kahn notes that the rape demands attention, however, because "the poem must be understood in a psychosocial context which takes account of sex roles and cultural attitudes toward sexuality." Highlighting the philosophical outlooks of commentators past and present, Jonathan Crewe notes, "Feminist attention to the poem must largely be given the credit for the intensiveness and high level of recent criticism."

In offering her comprehensive treatise on the use of rhetoric in the poem, Heather Dubrow notes that Shakespeare was by no means performing a literary exercise with disregard for the quality of the work. She writes, "Lucrece's reactions to the threat of rape and to the crime itself are often cited as prime instances of what is wrong with the poem in which she figures. According to these readings, Shakespeare himself gets as carried away with rhetoric as his heroine: he employs the conventions of set speech with no regard for psychological reality or even common sense, crams in rhetorical tropes with no concern for their appropriateness to the context." Having thoroughly researched the topic, however, Dubrow can astutely note, "If Lucrece's lines could be cited as examples in a sixteenth-century textbook on rhetorical declamations, they would be no less appropriate in a twentieth-century textbook on the behavior of rape victims." Thus, echoing the words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, she concludes that Shakespeare "manifests an extraordinary ability to work on subjects distant from his own experience."


Peter J. Smith

In the following essay, Peter J. Smith examines Shakespeare's Lucrece in light of the political, social, and cultural structures that could allow rape to occur. The critic argues that Shakespeare's focus on the "political aspects of the crime" does not constitute a denial of the importance of the rape itself, as some scholars have argued, but rather reveals his interest in highlighting the larger social systems that make rape possible.

W.B. Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan' is probably the most famous literary rape of the twentieth century:

     A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
     Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
     By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
     He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
     How can those terrified vague fingers push
     The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
     And how can body, laid in that white rush,
     But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
     A shudder in the loins engenders there
     The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
     And Agamemnon dead.
     Being so caught up,
     So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
     Did she put on his knowledge with his power
     Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

In the original edition, published in The Dial in June 1924, Yeats noted: 'I wrote Leda and the Swan because the editor of a political review asked me for a poem … My fancy began to play with Leda and the Swan for metaphor, and I began this poem; but as I wrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it.' That Yeats views politics and rape as mutually exclusive is hardly surprising. On the one hand, an offence so clearly directed at the person and so intimately executed seems worlds away from the larger social structures that constitute the political. Even though Jove's rape of Leda is shown to unleash the violence of the Trojan war—as the reference to 'the burning roof and tower' makes plain—the painful focus on the 'terrified vague fingers', the seized nape, breast and thighs implants the poem with a physicality which has the effect of evoking the sadistic act rather than exploring the ideological implications of the moment. Moreover, the final lines ask a dangerously leading question—was Leda in some way empowered by her forcible coupling with a god? Did she, in other words, profit by the act? In 1968 William Empson infamously made the same suggestion of Lucrece: 'She was no virgin, having several children; and it is a basic fact about the young Shakespeare that he considers young men in general overwhelmingly desirable to women, let alone brave young lords. Thus she took an involuntary pleasure in the rape, though she would have resisted it in any way possible; that is why she felt guilty, and why some of her blood turned black'.

The fact that Yeats could have seen such questions as apolitical or that Empson could have viewed the episode in terms of personal blame is a sign of the shift in sensibility between 1924/1968 and the present day. For contemporary feminist critics, rape is an act of the most profoundly political nature and it would seem that this view of rape is shared by Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece. As Sara E. Quay has argued, 'Lucrece is not able to be raped because she is a woman, but because she is constructed as a woman who is able to be raped.' The feminist rationale is not difficult to see. In cultures in which rape is accepted as an albeit abnormal part of sexual behaviour, it is naturalised and the circumstances that produce it remain unquestioned and therefore dangerously unchallenged. If, on the other hand, rape is viewed as a social or political construction, the reasons for its acceptance and perhaps even its existence are available for interrogation. It is my contention that Shakespeare's poem sets out to display the 'constructedness' of rape and that its concentration on the political aspects of the crime are not due to a shying away from the horror of the act itself, but rather reveal the social and cultural organisations that allow rape to occur in the first place. In such a way this essay takes issue with Coppélia Kahn's assertion that criticism of The Rape of Lucrece 'has so far failed to confront' the rape in the poem. While she may be right that it is 'painful to confront the poem squarely', the poem's stress on the political consequences of the crime and the political circumstances that led to it, constitutes an empowering rather than a disempowering reading for a feminist agenda in that it makes manifest not the physical details of the assault but rather the patriarchal structures that permit and even sponsor the activity.

Rape in Renaissance literature was often set in directly political circumstances. In a horrible instance, Tamburlaine defies the supplications of the Damascan virgins who plead with him to spare the marital security of the city's population:

   Pitie the marriage bed, where many a Lord
   In prime and glorie of his loving joy,
   Embraceth now with teares of ruth and blood,
   The jealous bodie of his fearfull wife,
   Whose cheekes and hearts so punisht with conceit,
   To thinke thy puisant never staied arme
   Will part their bodies, and prevent their soules
   From heavens of comfort, yet their age might beare,
   Now waxe all pale and withered to the death—
   [I Tamburlaine, V. i., Christopher Marlowe]

The husbands' 'jealous' embrace is to be ruptured by Tamburlaine's soldiers so that the defilement of the marriage bed is seen to be an act of war. In a moment of thinly veiled phallic aggression, Tamburlaine mocks the virgins by introducing them to Death, who sits on the end of his sword: 'there sits Death, there sits imperious Death, / Keeping his circuit by the slicing edge' (V. i. 111-12). Tamburlaine voices his determination to defile the city in terms that suggest the sexual nature of his invasion: 'I will not spare these proud Egyptians, / … for the love of Venus, would she leave / The angrie God of Armes, and lie with me' (V. i. 121-5); the violation of the city will be even more sexually charged than sleeping with the goddess of love. Even Zenocrate, the woman Tamburlaine claims to love, has been subjected to his sexual assault. Agydas asks her why she appears so troubled given that she has had so long to get over her abduction by Tamburlaine: 'Tis more then pitty such a heavenly face / Should by hearts sorrow wax so wan and pale, / When your offensive rape by Tamburlaine / … Hath seem'd to be digested long agoe' (III. ii. 4-8). These instances exemplify the essentially political nature of the sexual crime as well as its ineluctable contiguity with martial conflict.

A decade later, this tyrannical sexuality reappears in another fearful example, this time in Shakespeare's Henry V. Before the siege of Harfleur, the romanticised warrior spits out threats of sexual violation designed to terrorise the Governor into submission:

    If I begin the batt'ry once again
    I will not leave the half-achievèd Harfleur
    Till in her ashes she lie burièd.
    The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
    And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
    In liberty of bloody hand shall range
    With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
    You fresh fair virgins and your flow 'ring infants …
    What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
    If your pure maidens fall into the hand
    Of hot and forcing violation?
    What rein can hold licentious wickedness
    When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
    … why in a moment look to see
    The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
    Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters.

Not only will the female inhabitants be sexually assaulted but, as my emphases demonstrate, the city itself will be laid waste as if it were a female victim of a perverted attack. As Heather Dubrow has pointed out, 'given the common association of gates with the vagina, the notion of rape is latent in the image of the attacked city.' Towards the end of the same play the French King describes the hitherto peaceful cities in terms of anthropomorphic landscapes. Their intact walls make them politically virginal: 'you see them perspectively, the cities turned into a maid—for they are all girdled with maiden walls that war hath never entered.' (V. ii. 317).

In his oration to his troops on the eve of Bosworth, King Richard galvanises his men with the threat that if they lose the battle, their lands and wives will pay the price:

    You having lands and blessed with beauteous wives,
    They would distrain the one, distain the other.
    Shall these enjoy our lands? Lie with our wives?
    Ravish our daughters?
    (V. vi. 51-67)

Moreover, this sexually charged intimidation is not merely the warped and twisted oratory of the play's villain; even the political saviour, Richmond, attempts to arouse his soldiers with threats to their womenfolk: 'If you do fight in safeguard of your wives, / Your wives shall welcome home the conquerors.' (V. v. 213-14) Though less blunt and offensive than Richard's rhetoric, the threat is the same—if you lose this battle, you will be cuckolded.

In The Rape of Lucrece the rampaging army appears as a version of Tarquin's engorged veins which, let loose, run away in a riot of impetuous rape and murder, levelling all in front of them, including the rhyme scheme:

    And they like straggling slaves for pillage fighting,
    Obdurate vassals fell exploits effecting,
    In bloody death and ravishment delighting,
    Nor children's tears nor mothers' groans respecting,
    Swell in their pride, the onset still expecting.
    Anon his beating heart, alarum striking,
    Gives the hot charge, and bids them do their liking.

This concatenation between urban devastation and rape is figured most clearly in the poem during Lucrece's contemplation of the picture of the Trojan war. As she summons up her memory of the whereabouts of the picture, the immediacy of the two events is reinforced:

    At last she calls to mind where hangs a piece
    Of skilful painting made for Priam's Troy,
    Before the which is drawn the power of Greece,
    For Helen's rape the city to destroy.

Urban and female ravishment are fused.

In The Rape of Lucrece, as has often been noted, the act itself occupies only a tiny fragment—lines 673-83, that is ten lines out of the poem's 1855 lines or 0.54 percent. This is a startling statistic and firmly gives the lie to the suggestion that (as far as this poem is concerned) 'rape is a strangely pleasurable topic to read about because it draws us to what is perceived as a "closed" topic, a taboo'. In fact this poem is quite the opposite of Yeats's since it lacks any close attention to the process of forced intercourse. Instead the poem dwells on the larger political context that surrounds the attack. In the 'Argument', the rape occupies only a single perfunctory sentence: 'The same night he treacherously stealeth into her chamber, violently ravished her, and early in the morning speedeth away.' It then goes on to spell out, in much greater detail, the political consequences of the action:

with one consent they [Lucrece's relatives and friends] all vowed to root out the whole hated family of the Tarquins, and, bearing the dead body to Rome, Brutus acquainted the people with the doer and the manner of the vile deed, with a bitter invective against the tyranny of the King; wherewith the people were so moved that with one consent and a general acclamation the Tarquins were all exiled and the state government changed from kings to consuls.

The rape, then, is first and foremost a political action with grave political consequences. It is the moment that transforms the Kingdom of Rome into a republic and the poem is thus much more a narrative of cultural formation than an account of a gross act of violence. Its very setting—the siege of Ardea—frames the action, much as the Trojan war frames the action of Troilus and Cressida; the feuding of Verona frames the central affair of Romeo and Juliet; and the civil disorder between the triumvirate defines the world of Antony and Cleopatra. But in addition to the setting, the poem's metaphorical treatment of its heroine and her violation is quite explicitly and deliberately politicised.

As Peter Stallybrass, Georgianna Zeigler and Linda Woodbridge have shown, the female body is frequently a site of masculine occupation and colonial struggle. Examples are legion, the most famous of which are [John] Donne's 'Oh my America, my new found lande, / My king-dome, safeliest when with one man man'd, / My myne of precious stones, my Empiree, / How blest am I in this discovering thee' (27-30), as well as Ralegh's naming of his newly founded colony: Virginia, and his evocative description of Guiana in 1595 as 'a country that hath yet her maydenhead'. Petruchio's definition of his new wife as '[m]y household-stuff, my field, my barn' (The Taming of the Shrew, III. iii. 103-4) and Valentine's description of his love as a 'principality' (Two Gentlemen of Verona, II. iv. 150) are further examples.

This Renaissance geo-eroticism dramatises the inherent violence as well as the facelessness of masculine desire. These landscaped women are generally supine, still and anonymous from the neck up. In Thomas Carew's 'A Rapture' the female body is itemised, dissected and fragmented as it melts mysteriously into a fervently eroticised landscape:

    I'le seize the Rose-buds in their perfum'd bed,
    The Violet knots, like curious Mazes spread
    O're all the Garden, taste the ripned Cherry,
    The warme, firme Apple, tipt with corall berry:
    Then will I visit, with a wandring kisse,
    The vale of Lillies, and the Bower of blisse:
    And where the beauteous Region doth divide
    Into two milkie wayes, my lips shall slide
    Downe those smooth Allies, wearing as I goe
    A tract for lovers on the printed snow;
    Thence climbing o're the swelling Appenine,
    Retire into thy grove of Eglantine.

Like Donne's intrepid explorer, Carew's persona is also a cartographer leaving his trail for others to follow as they certainly will, for in this poem and the female landscape of the Renaissance, woman is sexually available for anyone. The poet of 'A Rapture' despises those 'greedy men that seek to enclose the common, / And within private armes empale free woman' (19-20), but she is not free herself, rather she is freely available to everyone else, just like Johnson's Doll Common who speaks of herself as a commonwealth, 'Haue yet, some care of me, o' your republique' (The Alchemist, I. i. 110). Land held in common and women commonly used lose their value. Robert Tofte insists on the consequences of trespassing:

And so puissant and potent is this our desire, which wee haue to enioy that Party (which wee loue) soly and alone, without the societie and company of any other whatsoeuer, as that (many times) when this our high-pris'd Commoditie chanceth to light into some other merchants hands, and that this our private Inclosure proueth to be a Common for others, we care no more for it, but giue it altogether ouer.

Woman comes to be an object for man's libidinal pleasure rather than a presence in her own right in these sexually charged pastorals. As Mercedes Maroto Camino writes, 'woman is nothing other than the unlucky terrain where political struggles are fought and her sexuality the liminal space where a culture establishes its coordinates and fixes its boundaries.' It is trenchantly significant that the Latin verb rapere, 'to take by force', gives us both rapture and rape.

This vocabulary of geo-sexual assault is employed during Shakespearean rapes. Titus Andronicus addresses the raped Lavinia as '[t]hou map of woe' (III. ii. 12) while the sleeping Lucrece is described, immediately prior to her rape, as a 'map of death' (402). Her breasts are 'like ivory globes circled with blue, / A pair of maiden worlds unconquerèd' (407-8). As her male relatives attempt to console her she turns from them: 'with a joyless smile she turns away / The face, that map which deep impression bears / Of hard misfortune, carved in it with tears' (1711-13). Lucrece is landscaped in such a way as to reify her as an object of masculine ownership or occupation—as Collatine pronounces 'she was my wife. / I owed her, and 'tis mine that she hath killed' (1802-3). The poem articulates the rape as a kind of trespass just as Tofte describes it: Tarquin's hand rests '[o]n her bare breast, the heart of all her land' (439) and the final image of the dead and bleeding body is of 'a late-sacked island [which] vastly stood, / Bare and unpeopled in this fearful flood' (1740-1).

In addition, this imagery of physical geography, that is of natural scenery, is overlaid with the discourse of urban invasion I have already documented. Repeatedly and in a way that emphasises the political rather than the physical, the body of Lucrece is transmogrified into the features of a cityscape—Tarquin's 'hand did scale / Left their [her breasts'] round turrets destitute and pale' (440-1); 'His hand that yet remains upon her breast—/ Rude ram, to batter such an ivory wall—' (463-4); the movement of her breathing 'moves in him more rage and lesser pity / To make the breach and enter this sweet city' (468-9); 'Under that colour am I come to scale / Thy never-conquered fort' (481-2). Lucrece is both a colonised landmass and a besieged city and her attack is, in places, indistinguishable from the larger political strife—the siege of Ardea—with which the poem opens: Tarquin's assault is described as a 'siege that hath engirt his [Collatine's] marriage' (221) while Lucrece herself images the violation of her soul in terms of a routed castle:

    Her house is sacked, her quiet interrupted,
    Her mansion battered by the enemy,
    Her sacred temple spotted, spoiled, corrupted,
    Grossly engirt with daring infamy.
    Then let it not be called impiety
    If in this blemished fort I make some hole
    Through which I may convey this troubled soul. (1170-6)

Lucrece appears as yet another spoiled manmade structure: a muddied fountain. She appeals to Tarquin to '[m]ud not the fountain that gave drink to thee' (577), the rape is likened to the poisonous toads that 'infect fair founts with venom mud' (850); and as she addresses the possibility of her own redemption she notes that '[t]he poisoned fountain clears itself again' (1707). Lavinia too appears as a polluted fountain. Titus tells her attackers, '[h]ere stands the spring whom you have stained with mud' (Titus Adronicus, V. ii. 169) and he proposes to his daughter that they should 'sit round about some fountain' and cry into it: 'in the fountain shall we gaze so long / Till the fresh taste be taken from that clearness, / And made a brine pit with our bitter tears' (III. i. 123, 127-9). Clearly, in a society predicated on primogeniture, rape muddies the line of descent so that the clarity of legitimate lineage is mired in dynastic confusion.

In addition to the employment of these ideologically loaded images of country, city and fountain, the outcome of Lucrece's rape is publicly staged. Just as we witness the aftermath of Lavinia's ordeal at the hands of Demetrius and Chiron—the actual rape takes place offstage (Titus Andronicus, II. iii. 187)—so the audience that witnesses Lucrece's 'confession' and the procession of her body ensures that her suffering is publicly acknowledged. In this way her wounds, like those of Julius Caesar, are displayed to political ends: 'They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence, / To show her bleeding body thorough Rome, / And so to publish Tarquin's foul offence' (1850-2, my emphases). Virtue is conspicuous: 'Poor grooms are sightless night, kings glorious day. / Gnats are unnoted wheresoe'er they fly, / But eagles gazed upon with every eye' (1013-15). Moreover, while men seem to be able to cover their tracks with machiavellian cunning, women have no choice but to reveal their inner corruption: 'Though men can cover crimes with bold stern looks, / Poor women's faces are their own faults' books' (1252-3). Little wonder then that while Tarquin exits subtly (1280-1), Lucrece's grief and funeral are public, even state occasions. Lucrece's account of the previous night is an explicit and civic event. The poem is insistent that the account takes place in front of an assembled audience: 'Collatine and his consorted lords / With sad attention long to hear her words' (1609-10); "'But ere I name him, you fair lords," quoth she, / Speaking to those that came with Collatine' (1688-9); 'Each present lord began to promise aid' (1696). Also, the vocabulary associated with her description of the rape is drawn from that of the public court:

    My bloody judge forbade my tongue to speak;
    No rightful plea might plead for justice there.
    His scarlet lust came evidence to swear
    That my poor beauty had purloined his eyes;
    And when the judge is robbed, the prisoner dies.
    (1648-52, my emphases)

Injustice is not only done, but it is seen to be done and the reason this is important is because chastity is as much about public—that is political—reputation as personal virtue. As Hamlet instructs his mother, repute is all: 'Assume a virtue if you have it not' (III. iv. 151). In The Duchess of Malfi [by John Webster], Ferdinand's apocalyptic vision links sexual licence with fading reputation:

    Upon a time, Reputation, Love, and Death
    Would travell ore the world: and 'twas concluded
    That they should part, and take three sever-all wayes:
    Death told them, they should find him in great Battailes,
    Or Cities plagu'd with plagues: Love gives them councell
    To enquire for him 'mongst unambitious shepheards,
    Where dowries were not talk'd of: and sometimes
    'Mongst quiet kindred, that had nothing left
    By their dead Parents: stay (quoth Reputation)
    Doe not forsake me; for it is my nature
    If once I part from any man I meete
    I am never found againe. And so, for you:
    You have shooke hands with Reputation,
    And made him invisible: So fare you well.
    I will never see you more.
    (III. ii. 123-37)

Sexuality (especially female sexuality) is public property, an index of the civilisation of the society in which it resides. Brutus is adamant that the rape of Lucrece is just as much (if not more so) a crime against the state as against her person. Collatinus is not considered to be the wronged husband of Lucrece but rather '[t]hou wrongèd lord of Rome' (1818) and Brutus' call to action is peppered with conspicuous references to the city:

   Courageous Roman, do not steep thy heart
   In such relenting dew of lamentations,
   But kneel with me, and help to bear thy part
   To rouse our Roman gods with invocations
   That they will suffer these abominations—
   Since Rome herself in them doth stand disgraced—
   By our strong arms from forth her fair streets chased.
   Now by the Capitol that we adore,
   And by this chaste blood so unjustly stained,
   By heaven's fair sun that breeds the fat earth's store,
   By all our country rights in Rome maintained,
   And by chaste Lucrece' soul that late complained
   Her wrongs to us, and by this bloody knife,
   We will revenge the death of this true wife.

It is 'Rome herself [which] doth stand disgraced'—Lucrece hardly figures. At the climax of the poem then, the personal is configured as the political in a way that underlines the cultural significance of the moment, for rape is seen to be not a crime against an individual, but an offence against a civilisation.

Diana Fuss questions the 'tendency to psychologize and to personalize questions of oppression, at the expense of strong materialist analyses of the structural bases of exploitation.' While Shakespeare's poem acts in the opposite direction, it is a brave critic who will argue that their depersonalised readings of rape must be recognised to be more progressive or radical than those that focus on the victim. Rape is after all not a literary event, but a terrible reality with real-life casualties.

Source: Peter J. Smith, "Rome's Disgrace: The Politics of Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece," in Critical Survey, Vol. 17, No. 3, 2005, pp. 15-26.

G. W. Majors

In his excerpt, Majors focuses attention not on the major characters of Tarquin and Lucrece but on the minor character of L. Junius Brutus. Majors contends that only Brutus provides the poem with any amount of "moral enigma" and ambiguity.

Moral ambiguities scarcely abound in The Rape of Lucrece. For all the attention given their "psychological aspects," Tarquin and Lucrece are characters no more elusive, ethically, than Lust and Chastity in a morality play. They are humanized, to be sure, racked by doubt, and possessed of a self-scrutiny totally foreign to their allegorical forebears. But their aching hearts still beat in clean sight. However searching the analysis, the essential goodness of Shakespeare's heroine remains invulnerable to argument. Nor can the evil embodied in the rapist be extenuated, either by his awareness of pain or by our awareness of Freud.


  • Shakespeare placed rape in the dramatic context of a tragedy in Titus Andronicus (c. 1593).
  • Cymbeline (c. 1609), one of Shakespeare's latest plays, also features a man boasting about the chastity of his wife, in this case leading another man to desire to seduce her into committing adultery.
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky provides one of the most highly regarded psychological studies of a criminal in all of literature in Crime and Punishment (1866), offering much insight into the manner in which the criminal copes with his guilt.
  • In Chaste Thinking: The Rape of Lucretia and the Birth of Humanism (1989), Stephanie H. Jed discusses the progression of the various versions of the myth of Lucrece, and relates them to societal changes.

If there is a moral enigma in the poem, it waits in the last seven stanzas, those dominated by L. Junius Brutus. Coming where it does, Brutus's share of the poem would seem to court notice, and his character appears mysterious enough to warrant this attempt to pluck it out. Admittedly, the conclusion always excites more attention as source evidence than as poetry. It concerns the major characters only incidentally and exhibits none of the self-conscious artfulness manifest in the passages most remembered and discussed. Hasty, derivative, these uninspired stanzas have evoked almost nothing from critics, save an occasional remark about Shakespeare's desire to tie up loose ends before concluding. Of the few who have bothered to comment, Esther C. Dunn is typically sketchy:

The end of the poem like the end of many Elizabethan plays carries the story beyond what the modern audiences would call "the final curtain." After Lucrece has confessed, charged her husband to revenge her upon Tarquin, after the embroidered grief in the speeches by her father and Collatine, we should cry for an end. But Shakespeare carries the story on. Neither he nor his public could forego the tidying up of the events.

She does right to assume that the Brutus segment, anticlimactic, invites apology in view of its apparent superfluousness. But to pretend that the purpose of these verses lies in "the tidying up of the events" requires exception of all but the final stanza. Taken as they stand, the last forty-nine lines argue strongly to the contrary. Shakespeare, whatever his purposes, was not content to put a hem on the work until he had spun a final thread—one which dangles in the reader's face long before it is used in stitching the poem to a tidy conclusion.

Probably I am not the only reader who has been puzzled by the intrusive stanza that cuts us off from the lamentations of Collatine and Lucretius. With slight regard for continuity, the poet shifts our attention to a character who has been named (line 1734) but hardly noticed:

   Brutus, who pluck'd the knife from Lucrece' side,
   Seeing such emulation in their woe,
   Began to clothe his wit in state and pride,
   Burying in Lucrece' wound his folly's show.
   He with the Romans was esteemed so
   As silly jeering idiots are with kings,
   For sportive words and utt'ring foolish things.

Here, Lucrece having already run more than ninety-seven per cent of its lengthy course, we suddenly encounter the only ethically indistinct figure in the poem. To the reader uninitiated in Roman legendary history, the lines at first suggest another villain in our midst. The reader will soon change his mind, however; and by the end of the poem, unless he is more chary than most, he will err again by supposing Brutus a right champion of unambiguous virtue. L. Junius Brutus doubtless belongs with the innocent inasmuch as he opposes the wicked. Yet to view Shakespeare's Roman hero with so easy an eye is to misunderstand both the character and his function in the poem.

From the outset it is evident that Brutus is not the simple instrument we find, for example, in Chaucer's version of the story. An avenger still, and a means for concluding, Shakespeare's handy vindicator nevertheless raises as many problems as he solves. When he "throws that shallow habit by, / Wherein deep policy did him disguise" (1814–15), Brutus tempts us to fancy that he reveals nothing less than naked heroism. As it happens, we have already been told of another garment which will replace the shallow habit of foolery, this one woven of "state and pride" (1809) and the rich connotations that attend them. Hero or none, Brutus has put off one role only to put on another. And the right-ness of his cause should not blind us to the chance that he may be pursuing his "deep policy" still.

After his metaphorical change of costume, Brutus sets about to persuade Collatine to stop sobbing and join with him in seeking revenge—revenge not against the rapist alone, but against Tarquin's father the King, against the whole government (cf. Lucrece's insistence [1478–84] that private sins ought to be punished without public consequences). For in Lucrece's rape, Brutus casually alleges, "'Rome herself … doth stand disgraced'" (1833). This point made, he can now tender his dramatic pledge of revenge:

   "Now by that Capitol that we adore,
   And by this chaste blood so unjustly stained,
   By heaven's fair sun that breeds the fat earth's store,
   By all our country rights in Rome maintained,
   And by chaste Lucrece' soul that late complained
   Her wrongs to us, and by this bloody knife,
   We will revenge the death of this true wife."

Even allowing for the rhetorical flavor of the entire poem. Brutus's sumptuous avowal smacks vaguely of humbug, especially when we are told (847-48) that he will recite the whole thing over again for those who agree to join him. More striking than the oratory is the curiously indecorous gesture that follows: "This said, he strook his hand upon his breast, / And kiss'd the fatal knife to end his vow." (1842–43). Probably not since Judas's was a kiss so sticky with ambiguity. Even Seneca's revengers had taste enough to avoid this kind of grotesquerie, so we cannot help remarking the incongruousness of the gesture. Though we seek in Brutus such selflessness as befits a proper champion, we are obliged to concede the possibility that his kiss conveys a note of private thanks. The same knife which destroyed Lucrece will, after all, serve as the weapon with which this shrewd republican deposes his enemies and becomes first consul of Rome. Nor is it impertinent to recall Brutus's political rise. The story being a popular one. Shakespeare likely assumes his audience will know the result of Brutus's conquest, just as he earlier found it unnecessary to tell us why Brutus had been posing as a fool. He can assume that the educated reader will be familiar with at least the broad outline of the "history" he recounts.

Now, before confessing that I have overvalued the argument against Brutus, I should put the case in its simplest form. The poem ends with the banishment of the offender, a direct result of Brutus and his pledgers' having paraded the martyred Lucrece from spot to spot. "To show her bleeding body thorough Rome, / And so to publish Tarquin's foul offence." (1851–52) Careful readers at this point will think back to Brutus's abrupt transformation and ask a question which seemed only secondary at the time: what exactly was it that moved him to put aside his show of folly for the sobriety of a determined avenger? From convenience and romantic impulses, we want to reply that it was simple indignation born of the pitiful spectacle he had just witnessed. But Shakespeare tells us only that it was because Brutus saw "such emulation" (1808) in the plaints of Collatine and Lucretius. We are invited to wonder, then, whether Brutus aims to assuage their woe or to capitalize on it. Although a case could be made both ways, surely the final stanza italicizes the less Christly objective. Earlier, in one of several dozen gnomic precepts contained in the poem, Shakespeare teaches a theatrical lesson now implicit in the conclusion: "To see sad sights moves more than hear them told." (1324). Pointedly commonsensical, this Horatian dictum might just as well have come from an ambitious Machiavel when he spied, in the blood-spattered Lucrece, a "sad sight" that could move the people to join in supplanting a regime which he hated and feared.

Though I have reckoned one-sidedly in this preliminary account of Lucius Brutus, it is not because I am keen to insist upon his self-inter-estedness. The point is that one cannot tell. We watch and applaud the sudden emergence of a leader, and like the Roman onlookers, we are left "wond'ring at him." (1845). Because the unromantic possibilities loom conspicuous, our "wonder" holds less of admiration. less still of astonishment, as compared to plain doubt. Brutus wears a fog on his heart. Shakespeare gives him an obscurity that prevents us from making the categorical moral judgment we automatically make with respect to the other characters. By recognizing the obscurity we move a step nearer to Brutus's role in the poem and the way Shakespeare's character differs from Brutuses who marched before.

But other obstacles remain. If the distinctions between Chaucer's Brutus and Shakespeare's ask no rehearsing, not so with the versions of Ovid and Livy. The conclusion of Shakespeare's poem is noisy with source echoes, most of them traceable to one or both of the Augustans. Hence, even long before T. W. Baldwin's meticulous research, editors were posting quick footnotes to account for the end of Lucrece as a virtual translation of its sources. Over those footnotes, however, one hears testimony to a slightly different effect.

Traditionally, the most idealistic accounts of the Roman liberator find in his disguise a mere "protection" against the Tarquins, in his uprising an indignant response to the spectacle of innocence wronged. Modified interpretations had been advanced long before Shakespeare. For example:

And although Titus Livy assigns but one cause as the ground which induced [Brutus] to practise this dissimulation, namely, that he might live in greater security and preserve his estates, none the less, in view of his conduct, one can well believe that he practised it also in order to escape observation and that he might get a better opportunity of downing the kings and liberating his country, whenever they gave him a chance.

The voice is Machiavelli's; he is teaching the political lesson "That it is a Very Good Notion at Times to pretend to be a Fool." Though the Florentine Secretary may have read his Livy a bit too hastily, his point is indicative. Neither Livy nor Ovid does much to encourage speculation about the motives of the giant-killer destined to liberate Rome. Both deal with the shrewd Brutus as well as the valiant one. Both treat the clever pretender, ingenious interpreter of the Delphic oracle, kisser of his mother earth. Yet neither offers to draw motivational connections between the disguised strategist and the avenger who reacts with such heartful determination to the tragedy of Lucrece. From all appearances, they are simply not concerned to qualify the famous patriot's heroics. Practically, therefore, the vindicator who champions Rome's cause and Lucrece's seems as unambiguous as in Chaucer or Painter, where his duplicitous side is completely omitted.

Seems, perhaps, but is not so. To readers like Machiavelli or Shakespeare, heroes—even Roman ones—were made of human stuff. Certain questions were bound to arise. Machiavelli could not read Livy's account without probing for unspoken motives behind Brutus's dissemblance. As to his shedding of the disguise at a crucial moment later on, Machiavelli confidently assumes that Brutus seized upon Lucrece's affliction as a political pretext, else why should he have been the one to pull the dagger from Lucrece's wound in the presence of her relatives and to exact from bystanders a pledge to abolish monarchy (Discourses, I, 464)? In Lucrece the same assumption is writ, if not large, at least legibly in the space between the lines. Like other Elizabethans, Shakespeare grew up with the Lucrese story and probably read it or heard it in a dozen versions. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, he was enough a realist to recognize and publicize the fact that the men who slay dragons are as often bounty hunters as chevaliers. To what extent might Brutus's famous commitment proceed from compassion or moral outrage, and to what extent from plain opportunism, whether patriotic or self-seeking? With a few deft touches, Shakespeare hints at this motivational riddle in the last forty-nine lines of Lucrece. He asks us to be bothered by the same questions that Ovid and Livy seemingly contrived to suppress.

Editors are right when they tell us that Shakespeare followed his sources closely in the poem's final stanzas. Indeed, he followed so closely that he stepped on them. Then he moved ahead, unemphatically, without breaking stride. He did not alter the course taken by his Latin references; he merely went farther than they did. He went farther by insisting on the equivocality that was always there. In the broad outline of the event, and in a number of grammatical and incidental particulars, the last stanzas of Lucrece correspond to the probable sources. But more essential to the total effect are the bits and pieces the Elizabethan poet added on his own. Brutus's kissing of the bloody knife, the clothing of his wit in "state and pride," the explicit contradiction between his and Lucrece's notions of private justice in a political world—these and other such nagging details appear, so far as I am aware, in no previous treatment of the story.

At least in the limited way that I have suggested, Shakespeare's is an original, carefully ambivalent treatment of L. Junius Brutus. If not yet the seriocomic egomaniac that Heywood was to make him, Lucrece's revenger now shows a dubious side scarcely thinkable in earlier Elizabethan versions. He becomes the second Shakespearean character to be called "unsounded" (1819) and the first who truly deserves the name. We are left faintly suspicious that chastity's paladin may be polity's Machiavel, a sly aspirer who, less playfully than Touchstone, "uses his folly like a stalking horse" (As You Like It V.iv.100). He reminds us, possibly, of a certain canny prince who awaits a seasonable moment for throwing off his loose behavior, so that "he may be more wond'red at" (1 Henry IV I.ii.189).

However minor his role, Brutus emerges as an intriguing character who earns a position in the Shakespearean assembly of politic inscrutables. In this respect, he likely merits notice in an appendix to Harold R. Walley's provocative study of the connections between Shakespeare's poem and his later dramatic habits. As plot opportunity and plotting opportunist, Brutus anticipates other minor characters such as Fortinbras. In a more general way, he is kin to those major characters—Bolingbroke, for example, or Octavius Caesar—who would be shown by Shakespeare to combine villainous proficiency with a bland refusal to be villains.

But while Brutus's place in the canon invites consideration, it does not, of course, explain his place in Lucrece. The poet no doubt needed Brutus for the tidying up of the events, but why did he draw the avenger with such riddling lines? Whether he studied Ovid or Livy or both, Shakespeare seems to have found thematic potential in the queer, equivocal genius who presides over the finish and over Rome thereafter. From the moralistic viewpoint that predominates in the poem. Shakespeare's Brutus is a composite figure, spotty enough to recall both the goodness of Lucrese and the villainy of Tarquin. Outside that perspective, he models a paradox typically Shakespearean: morally indeterminate, he is nevertheless publicly and existentially perfect. By handling his revenger as he did, Shakespeare made a narrative convenience something more.

In a poem dominated by two characters not perplexing but perplexed, Brutus comes as a disturbing antithesis. Ethically unfixed, this slippery character nearly slides off the page. The poem that has relied so largely on painstaking exploration of motive, and on the assumption of a normative ethic, can only barely accommodate him. But precisely this difficulty accounts for Brutus's important, extradramatic role in the poem. His true moral worth matters nothing. Shakespeare encourages us to ask unanswerable questions about Brutus's intentions and then to recognize that whatever his real motives and whatever his ethical stature, Brutus is self-contained, passionless, unerring. Or to borrow terms from the riskiest of contemporary texts, he embodies what it takes to "inherit heaven's graces / And husband nature's riches from expense" (Sonnet 94). As such, he stands out like a marginal gloss when set beside the other figures in the story.

Structurally, he looks the part of an epilogue. He occupies center stage in the last seven stanzas, outside the boundaries of the main action. From this vantage point Brutus oversees the conclusion while offering an informal review of the other characters. Of course, only three characters really count in the poem: Tarquin, Lucrece, and Collatine. Their vices and virtues have been studied throughout, but their means and strategies remain secondary, their practical failings largely untallied, until the coming of Brutus. In the anticlimactic last stanzas dedicated to a sturdy realist, efficiency supplants morality as the prevailing standard. Here, in other words, Shakespeare finally provides the norm by which to measure his characters on an other than ethical basis.

First consider Lucrece, whose tragedy comes in two parts. Responsibility for the rape rests, as always, most immediately with the rapist. But the poet has implied—and now, I would suggest, demonstrates—that the innocent victim owns a share of the blame. Open and unsuspicious, Lucrece flounders for lack of the same skills by which Brutus succeeds. She is beguiled by Tarquin because she trusts appearances (89-91, 99-105) and because her public sensibility makes her overly dainty about etiquette (841-44). The suspiciousness that might prompt faux pas she avoids by a gullibility that prompts deadly missteps. The tracks of these missteps show up tellingly when the disguised Brutus shows up at the end. His mere appearance reminds us that Lucrece's tragedy was avoidable, that not everybody plays gull to a dissembling tyrant. For here, more inscrutable than ever, comes the famous

   Roman Brutus,
   Covering discretion with a coat of folly;
   As gardeners do with ordure hide those roots
   That shall first spring and be most delicate.
   (Henry V II.iv.37-40)

Lucrece misses such discretion and such a covering. Her trustfulness and openhanded hospitality reflect proper social conduct, but not the conduct needed to survive in a world inhabited by the likes of Tarquin.

Lucrece's suicide is another matter. Hers alone is the burden of direct responsibility, yet she seems to have the not too reluctant admiration of Shakespeare (and of most readers) when she makes her fatal decision—a decision which, as Hallett Smith has remarked, "is a heroically simple one." With the entrance of Brutus, however, the scene shifts to the real world. In this setting passion wants splendor, and heroic virtues appear absurd. With a single stroke, the cool realist would destroy our illusions about the beauty and aptness of Lucrece's tragic end: "'Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so. / To slay herself that should have slain her foe.'" (1826–27). He is right. Seen outside a romantic context (and not in Battenhouse's Christian one), Lucrece's self-destruction reflects only the fact that she "mistook the matter," since it neither restored what she lost nor punished the thief who took it. Brutus is a practical man urging practical action. In his Rome goodness and heroism, when they prove ineffectual, translate as folly.

Lucrece's needless suicide issues from a motive to which Brutus, once again, provides the potent counterstatement. Although shame weighs immoderately on such saints, the decisive factor in Lucrece's tragic choice is not that she herself doubts her innocence:

    "Though my gross blood be stain'd with this abuse.
    Immaculate and spotless is my mind:
    That was not forc'd, that never was inclin'd
    To accessory yieldings, but still pure
    Doth in her poison'd closet yet endure."

Instead, it is her fear of what others will think (e.g., 810-19, 1314-23). That the wiser, self-contained Brutus pays tiny regard to such rumor appears plain enough by his willingness to act the public fool in order to further his private strategy. Simply because she makes inexpedient ado about her public standing, Lucrece is obliged to destroy both the "poison'd closet" and the pure mind that hurts within it, rather than risk that the world infer the guilt of the one from the outward shame of the other. Her tragedy, in one important respect, is that no matter how convinced of her indwelling taintlessness, she knows she cannot hide from her countenance the shame that would argue guilt. Unhappily, she lacks Brutus's aptitude for making outward appearance subject to inner command. While he is among those who, lords and owners of their faces, do not do the thing they most do show, Lucrece desponds untutored in such ways of the wise: "'And my true eyes have never practis'd how / To cloak offences with a cunning brow.'" (748-49). All considered, Lucrece perishes because she is too good, too trusting, too idealistic, too artless for survival in a post-Saturnian world. And that is exactly what Brutus tells us—with his disguise, his actions, his words—when he makes his belated appearance, a realist epilogue in an idealistic fable.

Brutus's commentary on Lucrece's husband and on Tarquin can be more speedily summarized. Shakespeare has told us that Collatine's boasting was the spark that ignited lustful flames in Tarquin's heart. The didactic poet advises, along the way, that some treasures are best kept hidden, that the beauty and virtue of Lucrece ought to have remained the secret blessing of the one man fortunate enough to enjoy them (33-35). And now, in the closing section of the poem, he introduces a character more studious than Collatine of this prudent individualism. By maintaining his show of folly, Brutus has managed to keep his own dearest possession "long-hid" (1816) and thus safe from the envy of tyrants. Far from boasting, as Collatine did, Brutus committed himself to the most self-deprecatory course available. Pretending idiocy and subjecting himself to the reputation that goes with it, the "unsounded" tactician was satisfied to be thought capable of nothing more than "sportive words and utt'ring foolish things." He belongs with those who husband nature's riches from expense, just as Collatine joins the lesser group, those but stewards of their excellence.

Shakespeare makes his enigmatic revenger the most efficient character in Lucrece, not just for the ways he contrasts with Collatine and his virtuous lady, but also for his superiority over the creature on the other end of the moral spectrum. As already noticed, Brutus shares with his enemy the ability to pretend to be other than he is. In design and execution, however, he reverses the pattern established by Tarquin. When he arrived at Lucrece's, Tarquin succeeded in masking his "inward ill" by feigning dignity and propriety:

   For that he colour'd with his high estate,
    Hiding base sin in pleats of majesty,
    That nothing in him seem'd inordinate.

Now, when we meet Brutus in the final section of the poem, has he not been turning the same trick in another direction—coloring his true worth with his low estate, hiding his natural majesty in pleats of baseness, so that all about him (since he was playing the fool) seemed more than a little inordinate? Brutus is every bit as furtive as Tarquin, else he had not managed to survive. The signal distinction, with or without the moral overtones, is that the dissimulation in the one springs from wit, in the other from mindless passion. Tarquin makes a somewhat palliative confession in this regard: "'My will is strong past reason's weak removing.'" (243). Palliative, that is, because the weakness he attributes to "reason" belongs, more particularly, elsewhere. Although Brutus's later words are directed against a very different outburst of passion, his commentary, granted the choric privilege it deserves, pronounces judgment on Tarquin as well: "'Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds.'" (1825).

Whether victim or villain, those who err suffer exposure beside the mysterious pragmatist who gets the last word and the last seven stanzas. More than a narrative expedient, Shakespeare's Brutus earns significance as a community foil. In his role in the poem, however late and slight, he behaves in such a way as to provide a practical assessment of the main characters. Hence, if he comes from Shakespeare's pen a more blotched and problematic figure than before, he does so to a purpose. The moralizing poet supplies neat ethical determinations but stops short, cannily, when he reaches the last stanzas. Relieved of obligation to the idealistic schema, Brutus affords the means for understanding this sentimental, moral tale on a basis unsentimental and unmoral.

Source: G. W. Majors, "Shakespeare's First Brutus: His Role in Lucrece," in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4, December 1974, pp. 339-51.


Allen, D. C., "Some Observations on The Rape of Lucrece," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 15, 1962, pp. 89-98.

Augustine, Saint, The City of God, translated by George E. McCracken et al., 7 vols., Harvard University Press and Heinemann, 1957, p. 72.

Battenhouse, Roy W., "Shakespeare's Re-Vision of Lucrece," in Shakespearean Tragedy: Its Art and Its Christian Premises, Indiana University Press, 1969, pp. 3-41.

Berry, Philippa, "Woman, Language, and History in The Rape of Lucrece," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 44, 1992, pp. 33-9.

Camino, Mercedes Maroto, "'That Map Which Deep Impression Bears': The Politics of Conquest in Shakespeare's Lucrece," in Shakespeare: World Views, edited by Heather Kerr, Robin Eaden, and Madge Mitton, University of Delaware Press, 1996, pp. 124-45.

Crewe, Jonathan, "Introduction," in The Narrative Poems, by William Shakespeare, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. xxix-lii.

Dubrow, Heather, "'Full of Forged Lies': The Rape of Lucrece," in Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 80-168.

Kahn, Coppélia, "The Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece," in Shakespeare and Gender: A History, edited by Deborah E. Barker and Ivo Kamps, Verso, 1995, pp. 22-46.

MacCallum, Mungo W., Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background, Macmillan, 1910.

Newman, Jane, "'And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness': Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3, Autumn 1994, pp. 304-26.

Shakespeare, William, Lucrece, in The Narrative Poems, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 50-120.

Stimpson, Catharine R., "Shakespeare and the Soil of Rape," in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp 56-64.

Sylvester, Bickford, "Natural Mutability and Human Responsibility: Form in Shakespeare's Lucrece," in College English, Vol. 26, 1965, pp. 505-11.

Vickers, Nancy, "'The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best': Shakespeare's Lucrece," in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Methuen, 1985, pp. 95-115.

Weis, Kurt, and Sandra S. Borges, "Victimology and Rape: The Case of the Legitimate Victim," in Rape Victimology, edited by Leroy G. Schultz, Charles C. Thomas, 1975.


Boardman, John, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray, eds., The Oxford History of the Roman World, Oxford University Press, 2001.

This comprehensive volume provides a variety of essays on the evolution of Roman society.

Burgess, Ann Wolbert, and Holmstrom, Lynda Lytle, Rape: Victims of Crisis, Robert J. Brady, 1974.

Among other aspects of the topic, Burgess and Holmstrom discuss reactions to rape such as the blaming of the self by the victim.

Donaldson, Ian, The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformations, Oxford University Press, 1982.

In this scholarly work, Donaldson addresses how historical conceptions of sexual morality are reflected in the various re-iterations of the myth in question.

Lynd, Helen Merrell, On Shame and the Search for Identity, Harcourt Brace, 1958.

In the context of a larger discussion revolving around the notion that certain cultures can be classified as "shame cultures" or "guilt cultures," Lynd provides various reactions to the cultures reflected in versions of the Lucrece myth.


views updated May 29 2018


According to legend, Lucretia was the beautiful wife of the early Roman army commander Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. During a military expedition, Lucius and the other Roman leaders talked about how moral and good their wives were. They decided to return to Rome to see if the women were actually as faithful as each man claimed. They found only Lucretia at home; the other wives were misbehaving while their husbands were away.

One of the men in the group, Sextus Tarquinius, was the son of the Roman king. Fascinated by Lucretia's beauty and goodness, he went to see her again and raped her at knifepoint. Lucretia made her husband and father swear to avenge the deed and then killed herself. According to Roman legend, people were so outraged by the incident that they overthrew the monarchy and founded the Roman Republic. The story of Lucretia appears in works by the Italian artists Botticelli and Titian and in Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece.

See also Roman Mythology.


views updated May 29 2018

Lucretia in Roman legend, a woman who was raped by a son of Tarquinius Superbus and took her own life; this led to the expulsion of the Tarquins from Rome by a rebellion under Brutus.