The Rape of Lucrece Essay - The Rape of Lucrece (Vol. 71)

William Shakespeare

The Rape of Lucrece (Vol. 71)


The Rape of Lucrece

One of Shakespeare's lesser known works, The Rape of Lucrece was quite popular during Shakespeare's lifetime. The narrative poem focuses on Lucrece, wife of Collatine, who is raped by the Roman prince Tarquin. The first quarter of the poem details Tarquin's struggle, and ultimate failure, to contain his lust. After the assault, the poem focuses on Lucrece and the personal and political aftermath of her rape, which includes Lucrece's suicide as well as the founding of the Roman Republic. Modern critics often concentrate on the poem's language and rhetoric, the characters of Tarquin and Lucrece, the poem's treatment of gender issues, and the Renaissance understanding of rape as well as Shakespeare's treatment of it.

Analyses of the characters of Tarquin and Lucrece are almost inextricably woven into any study of the poem as a whole. In Ted Hughes's study of The Rape of Lucrece (see Further Reading), Lucrece's chastity is identified as the poem's primary subject. Hughes argues that Shakespeare's concern with Lucrece's chastity is reflective of a larger metaphysical concern with the sacredness of the soul. Carolyn D. Williams (1993) examines Lucrece's rape, as well as the rape of Lavinia from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and finds that Shakespeare's treatment of rape reflects the confusion of his time, when there existed a deep conflict between the shame and guilt associated with the act of rape. In conclusion, Williams observes that Lucrece may be best understood as Shakespeare's portrayal of the archetypal rape victim. Edward T. Washington (1994) contends that Tarquin, understood to be the poem's villain, serves to emphasize a complex pattern of meaning at work in The Rape of Lucrece. Washington maintains that Lucrece is not just a rape victim, but is a personification of an outdated mode of literary expression, that of the Petrarchan ideal of beauty and virtue. Tarquin may then be understood, Washington stresses, not just as the villain, but as one who commits a transgressive but necessary purging of literary hegemony.

After Lucrece's rape, her reflections and emotions are expressed in a lengthy soliloquy often criticized as overabundant and extravagant. Mercedes Maroto Camino (1995) studies this section of the poem in order to better understand the negative reactions to it, and to challenge those who have argued that Lucrece's language here erases her claims of innocence. Camino analyzes Lucrece's attitude within the context of Renaissance discursive practices, and demonstrates that throughout this section of the poem Lucrece abolishes the power of Tarquin's lines—Lucrece effectively silences him with words in the same way that Tarquin silenced her physically. Like Camino, Robert L. Montgomery, Jr. (1967) explores the abundant use of formal, patterned rhetoric that Shakespeare employed in The Rape of Lucrece. Montgomery maintains that through this extravagant rhetoric Shakespeare shifted the reader's perspective, established mood, explored the psychology of his characters, moralized, and suggested a philosophical framework for the poem. Mark Breitenberg (1996) examines the ways in which honor, publication, and desire serve as the bases for Shakespeare's depiction and criticism of masculinity in The Rape of Lucrece, and emphasizes that this exploration is undertaken within the context of early modern rhetoric concerning the nature of masculinity. The role of desire within the poem plays an important part in Catherine Belsey's 2001 study of The Rape of Lucrece. Belsey explores the prevalent Renaissance concept of women as the possessions of their fathers or husbands and the endorsement of this notion by the poem. Belsey observes, however, that while the text endorses this notion of possession, it also identifies the instability of this conception of human relationships. For Collatine and Tarquin, Belsey demonstrates, possession fails to gratify desire, as they never truly own what they take into their possession.

Criticism: Character Studies

SOURCE: Washington, Edward T. “Vanishing Villains: The Role of Tarquin in Shakespeare's Lucrece.Upstart Crow 14 (1994): 126-38.

[In the following essay, Washington contends that Tarquin, understood to be the poem's villain, serves to emphasize a complex pattern of meaning at work in The Rape of Lucrece. Through both Lucrece and Tarquin, Washington maintains, we are encouraged to see Lucrece as a personification of an outdated mode of literary expression, that of Petrarchan perfection, and to view Tarquin as the means by which Lucrece's literary hegemony is necessarily purged.]

The general theme of rebellion by an individual against the supreme authority in the established normative order and against the rules by which this order operates [is] the basic meaning of evil in the traditions of the … classical and Christian civilizations.1

Early twentieth-century criticism was reluctant to accept Shakespeare's Lucrece as a complex and problematic literary text. Douglas Bush called it a “museum piece,” C. S. Lewis said it was “puerile” and “imperfect,” and F. T. Prince deemed it “as a whole an artistic failure.”2 During the 1960's, however, a more controversial critical trend developed when D. C. Allen, J. C. Maxwell, and Roy A. Battenhouse (among others) offered readings of the poem from what has come to be called the “Augustinian” perspective.3 In exploring what Battenhouse called a “surprisingly complex meaning” in Lucrece, the Augustinians argued that the judged “imperfection” of the poem derived from the inability of earlier critics to see that Shakespeare's “perfect”4 heroine was morally culpable in her own demise. Hence, artistic “incongruities” like Lucrece's long-winded complaints became, not euphuistic flights of fancy by an immature Shakespeare, but rather sophisticated poetic signs that revealed Lucrece's way of “escaping from calling for help.”5 In the seventies and eighties feminist critics mounted a successful counter-attack against the Augustinians' unkind view of Lucrece's motives and morals, frequently by offering dense readings of their own that presupposed “complex meaning” in the poem.6 However, while feminist readings have argued effectively against what the Augustinians called the problem of Lucrece's moral incongruity, their arguments have not adequately accounted for the narrative's poetic incongruity. That is, their arguments do not explain the persistent way in which the poem encourages the sense that something more complex is happening in the text than the language and action of the poem seem to indicate.7 Why, for example, is the diction used to praise Lucrece so hyperbolic that it makes Petrarchanism feel like idolatry? Why should Lucrece's movement toward courageous self-assertion be compromised by her obviously manipulative methods and style? What are we to think when the political hero, Brutus, dismisses Lucrece's reactions to the rape as weak-minded and “mistook” (1826)?

In the effort to offer a cogent alternative to Augustinian and feminist solutions to the problem of meaning in Shakespeare's Lucrece, I will suspend the normative critical emphasis on the literal fact of the rape, and hence, on the moral worth of the emblematized protagonists. Rather I will examine these characters in their roles as typological poetic conventions in a highly self-conscious literary text.8 By foregrounding the poem's central characters in this way, I will endeavor to show how the villain Tarquin illuminates a “surprisingly complex” pattern of meaning in the poem that helps to clarify long-standing questions concerning incongruities in the poem's ostensibly “perfect” heroine, Lucrece.


Shakespeare's Lucrece is a poem that spends an inordinate amount of time calling attention to its own ill-fitting, somewhat archaic literary traditions (e.g., “the good woman wronged,” the Petrarchan ideal, the “mirror” tradition, the myth of Lucrece) and calling attention to its use of conventional, but dated (and incongruous) poetic techniques (e.g., long laments, effusive ornateness, the discourse of moral heraldry); the poem also features many reflexive allusions to the arts, literature, or to written texts (e.g., Lucrece's lament is a “dirge” [1121], the setting is a “stage for tragedies” [766], Collatine is the “publisher” [33] of Lucrece's virtues, Tarquin's eyes are “glassy margents of books” [99-102], etc.). The invocation of these various traditions, techniques, and allusions helps draw our attention to what one critic has called Lucrece's “curious preoccupation with poetic self-consciousness, as if she knows that she is bound for immortality in the realms of poetic fancy.”9 As Lucrece herself proclaims:

“The nurse to still her child will tell my story,
And fright her crying babe with Tarquin's name.
The orator to deck his oratory
Will couple my reproach to Tarquin's shame.
Feast-finding minstrels tuning my defame,
          Will tie the hearers to attend each line,
          How Tarquin wronged me, I Collatine.”


It is my contention that Lucrece's (and the poem's) “acute and uneasy self-consciousness about poetic technique and resources” (as Katherine Maus has termed it) encourages us to see Lucrece not only as the abused and pitiable victim of a vile rape, but also as the petulant personification of an outmoded but tenacious mythical trope whose suitability as an ideal Petrarchan image of “unmatched” (13) beauty and “divine” (193) virtue has outlived its usefulness.

This figurative view of Lucrece as an exhausted literary convention receives support from the political theme of revolt against monarchical tyranny in the poem. That is, as the opening “Argument” and the end of the narrative make clear, the central problem the society (and the poem) must solve is that of oppression under the traditional rule of kings. Hence, despite the poem's detailed account of Tarquin's assault and its effect on Lucrece, the rape is but the most vile symptom of a long-standing political tyranny and technically, a subplot of the poem's larger dramatic movement from monarchy to Roman republic.10 But just as Rome's central problem involves its blind acceptance of “divine” kingship, similarly the Romans in the poem demonstrate an exalted admiration for the “divine” Lucrece. This disturbing parallel between “divine” kings and an “exalted” Lucrece is what lends credence to the idea that, while on a literal level Lucrece is the victim of a violent rape, on the level of metaphor she is, rather, the target of or scapegoat for a strong literary reaction against an outmoded poetic tradition.11 In this scenario, it is Tarquin, Lucrece's antagonist and literary antithesis, who, in the guise of dark lust, purges Lucrece's “perfect white” (394) literary hegemony: a bold and transgressive, but also needful action, not unlike the purging of kingly hegemony that describes the broader political theme of the poem.12

To substantiate the assertion that Tarquin's dastardly act also represents a curative rebellion against a hegemonic literary tradition, we may begin by noting that Tarquin's desire to despoil Lucrece does not arise from any pure delight in evil: that is, in going forward with his plan to ravish, Tarquin is fraught with ambivalence, tension, and fear, and he suffers through a genuine struggle between his passions and his more civilized sense of self:

And now this lustful lord leap'd from his bed,
Throwing his mantle rudely o'er his arm;
Is madly toss'd between desire and dread:
Th' one sweetly flatters, th' other feareth harm.
But honest fear, bewitch'd with lust's foul charm,
          Doth too too oft betake him to retire,
          Beaten away by brain-sick rude desire.


As these lines indicate, Tarquin's tortured consciousness, his psychomachia, does not parallel precisely the willing malignity of Iago, or the vengeful ruthlessness of Richard III, or even the monstrous hypocrisy of Angelo in Measure For Measure: and unlike Tereus, the archetypal rapist in Ovid, or Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, Tarquin does not attempt to mask his crime with either the post-facto mutilation of his victim, or murder. On the contrary, given Tarquin's internal struggle with his passions—his “guilty fear,” his chiding of his “vanished loathed delight,” his departure as a “heavy convertite” (740-43)—the circumstances of his crime resemble most the anguishing quandary that all “the world” experiences with respect to lust as described in Shakespeare's Sonnet 129:

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Made in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
          All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
          To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.(13)

While Tarquin's ambivalence and guilt allow him more dramatic and thematic significance than critics have typically acknowledged, the arguments against the view that he is anything other than a one-dimensional villain have persisted, due largely to the critical preoccupation with his attenuated and foil-like role in the poem's moral drama. Heather Dubrow, for example, supports her view of Tarquin's limited importance to the text by noting his early departure from the narrative:

Lucrece's assailant seems like nothing so much as the stock villain of Victorian melodrama … The differing titles of the poem (“Lucrece,” then later “The Rape of Lucrece”) may reflect the author's recognition that he had gradually lost interest in Tarquin, concentrating far more on Lucrece in the latter part of the poem.14

Jonathan Hart goes further to suggest that Tarquin's anguished role represents the reader's embarrassed attraction to “the (seductive) power of sex and violence”; thus, Hart maintains that, in the end, Tarquin is a “half-forgotten” force that the poem (and the reader) would prefer to “ignore, hide, or suppress.”15 And despite his more thoroughgoing assessment of Tarquin as a forerunner of Shakespeare's later tragic heroes, Harold Walley concludes that Tarquin's role is circumscribed by the limitations inherent in what he calls Shakespeare's psychology of evil: “[In Shakespeare], whatever other damage evil may do, its destructive force inevitably ends in self-destruction.”16 But contrary to the view that Shakespeare “loses interest” in or “half-forgets” Tarquin, or that Tarquin, at best, represents a potentially complex tragic evil that “inevitably” self-destructs, I would argue rather that the poem refigures its own givens regarding Tarquin's role as a one-dimensional villain by re-introducing him, later in the poem, in radically altered character forms. On the one hand, the idea of alternative forms for Tarquin simply echoes the movement toward new political structures in the poem; but in a larger sense, the advent of these enlivened renewals helps to reveal how Tarquin's character is allied with a subversive dramatic energy in the poem that seeks to overturn several types of outmoded conventions—not the least of which includes Lucrece's conventional role as an ideal image of Petrarchan perfection.17


One of the most singular elements of the Lucretian myth involves Tarquin's coercive threat to kill Lucrece and then to blame her death on an errant sexual tryst with a servant. Tarquin would then murder some unwitting attendant and claim to have killed him after finding him in bed with the slain Lucrece. Given the mordant references to servants expressed throughout the text (they are deemed “vile” [202], “foul” [284], “low” [665], “heartless” [1392], “lustful” [1636], etc.) and given the Romans' almost frenzied concern with reputation or fama, even the false accusation of sexual impropriety with an underling is as horrifying a prospect for Lucrece as actual rape by the noble Tarquin. In Shakespeare's poem, moreover, the threat to implicate Lucrece sexually with a low-born vassal, cited three times in the text (in Ovid, Chaucer, and Painter's Livy it occurs but once), highlights the issue of class distinction in the narrative to a greater degree than is the case in other versions of the myth.18 On the one hand, this threatened image of socio-sexual impropriety simply heightens our sympathy for Lucrece's already degrading plight; however, unlike earlier mythical analogues, Shakespeare introduces an element into his poem which deflates the horridness of our imagined view of a baseborn servant sprawled atop the virtuous Lucrece. While Ovid, Chaucer, and Painter represent “vassal slaves” as a vaguely delineated aggregation of inconsequential humanity, Shakespeare brings forth individualized characters from the servant class (specifically the maid and the messenger) through whom our imagined...

(The entire section is 5603 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

SOURCE: Stodder, Joseph H. “The Rape of Lucrece Dramatized in Los Angeles.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43, no. 1 (spring 1982): 86-9.

[In the following review, Stodder offers an analysis of the 1990-91 Shakespeare Society of America's Globe Playhouse production of The Rape of Lucrece, directed by Theresa Shiban and produced by R. Thad Taylor. Stodder praises in particular the production's use of the chorus and the performances of Eric Briant Wells as Tarquin and Hisa Takakuwa as Lucrece.]

R. Thad Taylor, Executive Producer at the Shakespeare Society of America's Globe Playhouse in West Hollywood, has demonstrated over the past two decades an unstinting...

(The entire section is 2494 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Robert L. Montgomery, Jr. (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Montgomery, Robert L., Jr. “Shakespeare's Gaudy: The Method of The Rape of Lucrece.” In Studies in Honor of DeWitt T. Starnes, edited by Thomas P. Harrison, Archibald A. Hill, Ernest C. Mossner, and James Sledd, pp. 25-36. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Montgomery studies Shakespeare's abundant use of formal, patterned rhetoric in The Rape of Lucrece, maintaining that through this extravagant rhetoric Shakespeare shifted the reader's perspective, established mood, explored the psychology of his characters, moralized, and suggested a philosophical framework for the poem.]

Whatever Shakespeare made of the...

(The entire section is 4281 words.)

Carolyn D. Williams (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Williams, Carolyn D. “‘Silence, like a Lucrece knife’: Shakespeare and the Meanings of Rape.” The Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 93-110.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes the rapes of both Lucrece in The Rape of Lucrece and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, and concludes that although little resolution may be reached regarding Shakespeare's treatment of rape, some understanding of the confusion of Shakespeare and his contemporaries concerning the issue of rape may be achieved.]

Brief allusions to rape occur throughout Shakespeare's work, combining maximum effect with minimum critical perturbation. Issues often appear...

(The entire section is 7954 words.)

Mercedes Maroto Camino (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Camino, Mercedes Maroto. “Writing Lucrece: Shakespeare's ‘Virtuous Moment.’” In “The Stage Am I”: Raping Lucrece in Early Modern England, pp. 12-75. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt, Camino studies the lengthy soliloquy that follows Lucrece's rape, demonstrating the ways in which Lucrece uses language to successfully dismiss Tarquin's arguments, thereby silencing him within the text of the poem in much the same way that Tarquin silenced her within her bedchamber. ]


Here, therefore, is the first distemper of...

(The entire section is 8465 words.)

Mark Breitenberg (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Breitenberg, Mark. “Publishing Chastity: Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece.” In Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England, pp. 97-127. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Breitenberg examines the ways in which honor, publication, and desire serve as the bases for Shakespeare's depiction and criticism of masculinity in The Rape of Lucrece, and emphasizes that this exploration is undertaken within the context of early modern rhetoric concerning the nature of masculinity.]

In this chapter my discussion is organized around the circulation of three critical figures in the rhetoric of early modern masculinity:...

(The entire section is 14650 words.)

Catherine Belsey (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Belsey, Catherine. “Tarquin Dispossessed: Expropriation and Consent in The Rape of Lucrece.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (2001): 315-35.

[In the essay below, Belsey studies the treatment of the issues of marriage and rape in The Rape of Lucrece, and demonstrates the ways in which the poem's treatment of these subjects reflects Renaissance thinking.]


Lucrece tells a story about possession.1 The woman at the center of the story is treated as the proper possession of her husband—or perhaps her father: propriety evidently defines women as property in Shakespeare's Rome. But possessions can be...

(The entire section is 9656 words.)

Further Reading


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, pp. 124-45. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996.

Discusses The Rape of Lucrece as a narrative space inscribed by patriarchal power, in which both sexual and political conquests represent various elements of masculinity.

Hart, Jonathan. “Narrational Strategies in The Rape of Lucrece.Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 32, no. 1 (winter 1992): 59-77.

Studies the use...

(The entire section is 294 words.)