The story of Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece is an ancient Roman legend that has been presented in many versions, including in this poem by William Shakespeare. The Elizabethans were especially fond of this legend, so Shakespeare had numerous sources upon which to draw. Compared with his other writings, this poem is far more conventionally Elizabethan, yet its passages of great emotion and its consistently beautiful poetry rank it above other interpretations of the story known in his day.
The Rape of Lucrece was entered at the Stationers’ Register on May 9, 1594. Like Venus and Adonis which had been published the previous year, it was finely printed by Richard Field and dedicated to the earl of Southampton. Both of these narrative poems had been written while the theaters were closed because of the plague, but these companion pieces are not the idle products of a dramatist during a period of forced inactivity. Rather, as the dedications and the care in publication indicate, they are efforts at what, in Shakespeare’s day, was a more serious, more respectable type of composition than writing plays.
Longer and graver in tone than Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece was extremely popular, going through many editions, and was quoted frequently by contemporaries. The stern Gabriel Harvey, a Cambridge fellow and friend of Edmund Spenser, enthusiastically approved of the poem and paired it with Hamlet, Prince...
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