Study Guide

The Rape of Lucrece

by William Shakespeare

The Rape of Lucrece Essay - Lucrece's Gaze

Lucrece's Gaze

Introduction

Lucrece's Gaze

Stephen J. Carter, York University

I

In Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece Tarquin's and Lucrece's acts of seeing precede their speaking. I shall argue that a specific, constructed experience of social space produces their ability to speak through a sequence of narratable actions. This spatial figuration projects along gender lines. How vision is socially put together reveals the linguistic means by which Lucrece, Tarquin, 'their' narrator, and the narrative's audience come to be screens for the imaginai projection of gender.

A useful beginning may be to investigate the phenomenological acquisition of sight as documented in clinical situations. When patients who had been blind from birth first started receiving cataract operations, records of the doctors' reports on the patients' progress were collected in a study by Marius von Senden.1 As it turned out, such "newly sighted" patients were not merely confronting a surfeit of new, different data. Their task was to learn a thoroughly new intellectual skill: how to put together the vast sensory experience contained in even the simplest, smallest movement of one's body through space. Their experience constitutes persuasive evidence that we are "taught" to posit not only an objective world outside ourselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a curiously objective gender inside, inseparable from our experience of being subjects. "I showed her my hand," wrote one of the doctors of a patient,

and asked her what it was; she looked long at it, without saying a word; I then took her own hand and held it before her eyes, she said with a deep sigh: 'That's my hand.' A blind person has no exact idea even of the shape of his own body; so that I first had to hold her own...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

II

The story of Lucrece would have been well-known to Elizabethan audiences. Its passive/active linking of her rape/suicide was left largely unquestioned. The presumed choice presented in the poem between death or shame was a foregone conclusion. The theological position counseled choosing shame, of which one could be shriven, over suicide, a mortal sin. Preferring death implied that rape was necessarily, regardless of the purity of mind, a pollution of the body's chastity, an effect which could not be undone. The Elizabethan audience could imagine, and perhaps praise, a woman's choosing a public transformation of unchastity through death, over the private shame of bodily pollution, however technically virtuous of mind she remains. A gap opens up here socially between an audience's deploying of a secular discourse within the larger theological context. The former produces a reading of female space as that which needed to be kept enclosed, unseen, pure—within a larger, allegedly protective male space. The latter, however, produces a reading that condemns Lucrece's actions as, in St. Augustine's view, a failure to see

that while the sanctity of the soul remains even when the body is violated, the sanctity of the body is not lost; and that in like manner, the sanctity of the body is lost when the sanctity of the soul is violated, though the body itself remains intact.6

Shakespeare's text intriguingly anticipates and conflates these two readings. Lucrece's choice of suicide is not presented as the automatic secular choice it was assumed to be. The process of her reaching her decision is represented as a discursively critical task in which she challenges the casting of her rape as bodily pollution. The Elizabethan audience was potentially being made aware of its emphatically split reading: that she courageously chose and acted on a theologically incorrect reading, for which she could not be held responsible given the Roman setting of the story.

III

The activity of her "looking at" the wall painting occurs within a larger terrain of envisioning modes. These take many forms in the poem: the mutable register of Tarquin's gaze at Lucrece and Collatium's interior, and similarly of Lucrece's "regard" (for Tarquin, the Apostrophic objects, and the painting); the mind's eye of lust and shame, which as signifieds, look inward at their objects; the varied surfeit(s) of what is seen (focalized); and the presence of "painted" eyes within, and looking back from, the painting.

The narrator gradually escalates the activity of Tarquin's 'seeing' of Lucrece: from his "wanton sight,"7 to "lustful eye"(179), to "greedy " eyeballs" (368), to willful eye" (417), to "a cockatrice' dead-killing eye" (540). Such rhetorical anaphora proliferate in tandem with the violent expansion of Tarquin's envisioning space; his license to "look," to penetrate with ever greater intensity, inscribes his movement across and into the female space of corridors, doorways, and the bedchamber of Collatium, which enclose the chaste, untrespassed inner female space of Lucrece's body. The nature of his seeing—surveying and violently reaching out—is being employed here to construct a version of incursive male space.

Female space is possessed within the envisioning male, whether Collatine or Tarquin. As the signified within Tarquin's mind's eye, she contracts.

Within his thought her...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

IV

What is our response upon viewing an effectively conceived and executed visual representation? Writing on narrative painting, Leonardo da Vinci states that if the work

represents terror, fear, flight, sorrow, weeping, and lamentation; or pleasure, joy, laughter and similar conditions, the minds of those who view it ought to make their limbs move so that they seem to find themselves in the same situation which the figures in the narrative painting represent.11 (italics mine)

As an audience before the Troy painting Lucrece herself does this, and more. We need to observe, however tritely, that she must have walked by this artwork, glanced at it, and doubtless viewed it at length on countless occasions during the years she lived at Collatium. Yet on this occasion she deliberately seeks it out. Faced by a representation-as-event, one that exerts a gradually intensifying, cathecting hold on her, she experiences herself mimicing and voicing the physiological and emotional states of its varied characters. In doing so she temporarily steps into the representation. Not surprisingly, the meaning she makes of herself in the painting is to a considerable degree determined by the remembered image of the violence of her rape—an image, some critics argue, unduly "stimulated" by her own language.

"Narratives," as R. Rawdon Wilson claims, can "catch, hold, illude, and frequently delude their narratees."12 The...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

V

Let us now "track in" for a closer look at the rhetorical, visual, and narrative components of each of these passages in the wall painting scene. In the narrator's first passage (1366-1463) we are gradually introduced to the "skillful painting." The narrator's initial, tentative address to the reader, "These might you see [ … ] / " (1380), "That one might see [ … ] / " (1386), and "You might behold [ … ] / " (italics mine) acknowledge the painting as "mere" representation, of which we are rightly to be skeptical. By the midpoint of this passage, however, by a grammatical shifting from the conditional to the simple past, the language inserts us into that representation.

This process is emphasized in the cinematic movement of narrative focus. Whom and what do we see? The most visual sequence within this passage directs our eye as follows: a "medium shot" on

Ajax and Ulysses, O what art
Of physiognomy might one behold!
                                       (1394);

CUT to a "close shot" on

The face of either cipher'd either's heart
                                       (1396);

CUT to an 'extreme close' on

Ajax' eyes blunt rage and rigor roll'd
                                       (1398);

PAN to

the mild glance that smiling Ulysses lent.
                                       (1399);

CUT to a "medium" on Nestor; PULL BACK to a "long" to bring into frame the silent, listening faces of the soldiers; and follow with a slow "pan" among

The scalps of many, almost hid behind,
To jump up higher seem'd to mock the mind.
                                       (1413-14)

With this there is a shift back, in language, from what occurs in the painting-as-narrative to a look at the painter's technique itself. A subsequent description of the painterly device of overlap intensifies this:

That for Achilles' image stood his spear,
Grip'd in an armed hand, himself behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of the
 mind[:]
                                    (1424-26)

Space, in effect, is being constructed through an acknowledgement of what perception contributes—our learning to view the real in fragments. Fragments imply gaps; the text signals that what is "left un-seen" is where the reader's role enters, to fill in such space. A whole is merely a consensus among the senses of a thing "they" willfully put together. From the poem's above-noted technical description of painterly special effects there is a further shift to the description of the Trojan mothers' contradictory spectatorship:

And from the walls of strong-besieged Troy,
When their brave hope, bold Hector, march'd
 to field,
Stood many Troyan mothers, sharing joy
To see their youthful sons bright weapons
 wield,
And to their hope they such odd action yield
 That through their light joy seemed to
  appear
(Like bright things stain'd) a kind of heavy
...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)