The Rape of Lucrece Essay - The Rape of Lucrece (Vol. 82)

William Shakespeare

The Rape of Lucrece (Vol. 82)


The Rape of Lucrece

Shakespeare's narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594) recounts the tale of Lucrece, the chaste wife of Collatine, whose rape by the Roman prince Tarquin causes her suicide and—ultimately—the founding of the Roman Republic. The poem has been subject to a wide range of critical reactions over the centuries. Although quite popular during Shakespeare's own lifetime, it was largely disregarded until the early twentieth century. Early critics tended to regard the poem as a flawed work, citing its lack of unity and inconclusive nature, and attributing its deficiencies to Shakespeare's artistic immaturity. Many modern scholars, however, have focused on the poem's merits, including its masterful use of language and rich imagery. Colin Burrow (2002) defends the poem against its detractors, maintaining that its primary distinction is its willingness to explore “dark but profound questions.” The renewed critical interest in The Rape of Lucrece has sparked significant discussion on the poem's sources, structure, and style, as well as of its treatment of such topics as gender roles, rape, and colonialism.

The sources that influenced The Rape of Lucrece have long been debated, with a host of authors being cited as models for the poem. Rolf Soellner (1982) points to the works of French author Robert Garnier as possible sources, arguing that English translations of two of Garnier's “closet tragedies” and a similar work by Samuel Daniel helped inspire The Rape of Lucrece. The critic contends that Shakespeare made use of these works' basic premise—a woman struggling heroically against a powerful male antagonist—but that his poem surpassed its sources in complexity and ingenuity. Mary Jo Kietzman (1999) focuses on the tradition of the complaint poem, a poetic style popular in the 1590s that features a woman voicing her grief. Kietzman contends that Shakespeare's poem pushes the boundaries of this genre because Lucrece—unlike the heroines of other complaint poems—uses her complaint to transform herself and resolve her feelings about the rape. Heather Dubrow (1986) likewise acknowledges the influence of the complaint genre on The Rape of Lucrece, but posits that Shakespeare's poem contains an implicit criticism of the values and conventions of this poetic style. Sara E. Quay (1995) adds her voice to the many feminist assessments of The Rape of Lucrece. Quay addresses the patriarchal social constructs depicted in the poem and examines how these “promote and permit” rape. Linda Woodbridge (1991) views the rape as a symbol of military invasion that reflects England's fear of foreign conquest. Woodbridge asserts that Lucrece's rape can be interpreted as a metaphor for military conquest by foreign enemies, an especially urgent subject in the period following the failed attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Looking at the subject of conquest in a different way, Mercedes Maroto Camino (1996) draws parallels between The Rape of Lucrece and the practices of mapmaking and colonial conquest that became prominent during the Renaissance. She asserts that the poem can be regarded as an expression of the “imperial ‘achievement’ of patriarchy” that resulted in the sublimation of both colonized populations and women in general.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Burrow, Colin. Introduction to Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems, edited by Colin Burrow, pp. 45-73. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Burrow provides an overview of The Rape of Lucrece, focusing on the poem's sources, political implications, and its treatment of the topic of rape. Burrow takes issue with those who disparage The Rape of Lucrece as confusing and inconclusive, and he maintains that the poem's primary merit is its willingness to explore “dark but profound questions.”]


The story of Lucretia, the chaste wife whose rape precipitated the ejection of the kings from Rome, has been subjected to varieties of interpretation from the earliest period of Roman historiography.1 Shakespeare could have read versions by Ovid, Livy (or by Livy in Painter's translation), by Dionysius Halicarnassus, Gower, and Chaucer, and any number of popularized versions of these.2 Each version differs slightly in detail, as well as in its ethical and political attitudes to the central character. Lucretia stood at the centre of a variety of intersecting ethical and political debates. She was often briefly cited in both poetry and prose as an example of feminine virtue, whose suicide reflected the purity of her mind. But most post-classical interpreters of her story were also aware of St Augustine's critical treatment of it. Augustine argues at length that chastity is a virtue of the mind, and so ‘what man of wit will think he loseth his chastity, though his captived body be forced to prostitute unto another's bestiality?’3 He consequently presented the suicide of Lucretia as a case which raised a mass of awkward questions about responsibility and punishment: either she did not consent to the rape, in which case only Tarquin was guilty of a crime and she unjustly condemned herself to death; or else ‘she herself did give a lustful consent’ and so rightly punished herself. He concludes, ‘this case is in such a strait, that if the murder be extenuated, the adultery is confirmed, and if this be cleared the other is aggravated’.4 By 1610 the full text of Augustine's City of God was available in English (by an odd quirk of fortune it was printed at almost exactly the same time, and in the same print-shop, as Shakespeare's Sonnets). In its post-classical forms the story of Lucretia prompts uneasy arguments about relations between body and will, consent and pollution.

In most of the versions which precede Augustine Lucretia's story is politically charged. Her rape lies at the start of the Roman Republic, and writers who like republics regard it in a very different way from those who do not. According to Livy, her violation led to the banishment of the kings from Rome and the institution of government by consuls, and thus enabled the emergence of later forms of Roman republican government. This was a profoundly influential view of her significance, but was by no means the only way of glossing the political consequences of her rape. For a tradition deriving from Tacitus, the consular government to which her rape gave rise was as much a form of slavery as the monarchy from which it was notionally an escape. William Fulbecke in his An Historical Collection of the Continual Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans and Italians (printed by Richard Field in 1601) wrote of the transfer of power from kings to consuls which followed the expulsion of the Tarquins, ‘what could be more unjust, or more contrary to the free estate of a city, than to subject the whole common weal to the rule of many potentates, and to exclude the people from all right and interest in public affairs?’ (p. 1).5 By 1574 Justus Lipsius was praising Tacitus for having concentrated on examining life inside the courts of princes, and the flattery and treachery which occur under a tyrant, rather than dwelling on the ‘speciosam Lucretiae necem’, the misleadingly beautiful death of Lucrece.6 These arguments about the political significance of Lucretia's story have not stopped: some twentieth-century readers have felt that the republican panegyrists who leapt to praise the republic which resulted from Lucretia's fate are too readily founding their form of liberty on a woman's violation, and that republican ideals and the justification of rape are not just bedfellows in this story, but are sinisterly and consistently intertangled.7

So the question ‘Which sources did Shakespeare follow?’ does not just mean comparing in painful detail versions of the story in which Lucrece sends out two messengers to tell her family about her rape, and those in which she sends only one. It means deciding which sides (and the plural is necessary) Shakespeare took in these many arguments about Lucrece: is her story about rape, or about liberty? Does telling her story distract attention from an analysis of what tyranny is and how it works? The question as to which sources Shakespeare drew on also reverberates with two other questions: what are the politics implicit in the poem? And what is the relationship between the poem and the prose Argument which is prefixed to it? These three questions are intervolved because the Argument shows clear signs of a debt to Livy, and shows an implicit allegiance with a republican form of government (or, to be more precise, an elective consulship). It concludes: ‘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 vital word here is ‘consent’, and the key concept which it appears to support is the belief that the government of the state should reflect a popular voice.8 The poem, however, differs from the Argument in several respects, some relatively insignificant, and some central to its moral emphasis and meaning.9 In the poem Lucrece sends one messenger to her father and husband, whereas in the Argument she sends ‘messengers’; in the poem Tarquin does not seem to have visited Lucrece's house before the rape, whereas the Argument says he and Collatine had surprised the other Roman matrons at play the night before, and had discovered the chaste Lucrece busily sewing. The most significant difference of emphasis, however, emerges in the very last lines of the poem:

The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin's everlasting banishment.

(ll. 1854-5)

Here the Romans only ‘give consent’ to the punishment of Tarquin, and there is no reference to a change in the mode of government. The word ‘consent’ is echoed from the Argument, but seems muffled by the echo: here it is as though the Romans are simply applauding the performance of Tarquin's punishment in order to give it a retrospective seal of approval, rather than actively participating in a transformation of their state.

What is going on here? Was a more Livian and more political Argument tacked on to an only peripherally political poem? Richard Field printed a number of political works, including William Fulbecke's Historical Collection, and, in 1594, Justus Lipsius's highly Tacitean Six Books of Politics. His print-shop certainly had connections with people who were capable of writing a preface to Shakespeare's poem which was informed by detailed knowledge of Roman historians. The pagination of the Quarto left him with a blank page after the dedication (A2v), which the Argument fills up neatly.10 Perhaps it was put there just before publication, to flesh out the narrative and historical context to what the Dedication describes as a pamphlet ‘without beginning’. Alternatively, Shakespeare may have read or reread Livy (perhaps in Painter's translation) before he wrote the Argument.11 Or, like Spenser, whose ‘Letter to Ralegh’ gets almost all of his own Faerie Queene wrong, he might have forgotten details of the poem when he came to describe it in prose.

The simplest and most radical hypothesis, however, is that Shakespeare read the version of the story of Lucretia in Ovid's Fasti side by side with the more explicitly political prose versions by Livy and the Greek historian Dionysius Halicarnassus, and that by adding the prose Argument to his poem he invited his readers to read the Lucretia story in the same way, as two generically distinct things. A single book would have given Shakespeare a grasp of all these variant versions of the story. This was Paulus Marsus's edition of Ovid's Fasti, which was frequently reprinted in the sixteenth century.12 There are strong grounds for believing Shakespeare knew this version. Before the rape of Lucretia, Ovid's Tarquin pretends to the Gabii that he has been cast out by his family. He then betrays the tribe who have taken him in. At this point both Marsus and his fellow commentator Constantius compare Tarquin to Sinon.13 This detail is almost certainly what prompted Shakespeare, who was attempting a ‘graver’, quasi-epic, labour in Lucrece, to insert the description of the sack of Troy into his poem, at the climax of which Tarquin is compared to Sinon, the Greek who wins the pity of the Trojans and then persuades them to take in the Trojan horse.

But whether or not Shakespeare owned or read Marsus's Ovid, the edition gives an exemplary instance of how early-modern readers read the tale of Lucretia, and casts a bright light on the relationship between the poem and its Argument. To read Ovid's Fasti in Marsus's edition is to experience the story of Lucretia in multiple versions at the same time. Massive quotations from Livy physically surround the elegiac couplets of Ovid, and sometimes all but push them off the page. Marsus prints so much of Livy because he believed that Ovid imitated the Roman historian, and he urges his readers to make comparisons between the versions in prose and verse.14 He also ends his commentary on the story with an encomium of the liberty which the Romans obtained after the banishment of the kings, which he compares to the liberty which he himself had obtained several years before, and which he celebrates each year.15 The most influential recent accounts of the way Livy was read in the late sixteenth century suggest that he was taken as a practical guide to political life;16 the example of Marsus's Ovid indicates that readers in this period also read comparatively, with an eye to variant versions rather than to the practical applications of what they read. Marsus encourages his readers to think about the elegiac Lucretia of Ovid and the republican Lucretia of the Roman historians side by side, and clearly applied the political argument of the latter to his own circumstances. This set of reading practices is very likely to explain the presence of two discrepant versions of the story in the volume which Field printed, and may well indicate that for Shakespeare, as for Marsus, the story was two things at once: a poem which was partly about how to give suffering a voice, and a republican prose history. The ‘wiser sort’ of Shakespeare's readers would have not been surprised to be invited to think about the story in two distinct ways by the physical form of a book.

Does the presence of the Argument and the likelihood that it is by Shakespeare mean, though, that Lucrece is a republican poem? Ovid's poem and the historians' prose versions have distinct and complementary emphases. Ovid emphasizes moments at which Lucretia is unable to speak, when her voice sticks in her throat, and Marsus's annotations frequently draw attention to Lucretia's hesitations and stammerings (and Shakespeare's Lucrece repeatedly breaks off or rethinks sentences as passions draw her mind another way).17 But Marsus is also keen to quote from the historians extensive passages of exhortative rhetoric by men: whereas Brutus's speech persuading the Romans to banish Tarquin is passed over in indirect speech in Ovid, Marsus's commentary quotes an extensive digest of Dionysius Halicarnassus, in which Brutus's rhetoric stirs the populace to action.18 The relationship between text and commentary presses for both a generic distinction between different versions of the story, and for a gendered differentiation between modes of speech: passion chokes a woman's voice in Ovid's poem; men, meanwhile, speak out to transform the state into a republic.

This aspect of the commentary alerts us to the fact that Shakespeare's response to the versions of Lucretia's story which came down to him is in one respect extraordinarily radical. Shakespeare's Lucrece is astonishingly, unstoppably, all-but endlessly eloquent. She has her moments of elegiac choking of the voice, of the pathetic silence of the Ovidian heroine (e.g. ll. 1604-8); but she has also taken over the eloquence of the men who speak so loudly and so long from the margins of the Renaissance Ovid. And one moment when Shakespeare allows his heroine to speak, and speak like a man, has a massive bearing on the question of the poem's politics. Unlike any other Lucretia before her, Shakespeare's Lucrece urges Tarquin not to rape her, and she does so using a vocabulary which is distinctively male, and for readers in 1594 distinctively political:

This deed will make thee only loved for fear,
But happy monarchs still are feared for love.
With foul offenders thou perforce must bear,
When they in thee the like offences prove.
If but for fear of this, thy will remove.
          For princes are the glass, the school, the book,
          Where subjects' eyes do learn, do read, do look.
‘And wilt thou be the school where lust shall learn?
Must he in thee read lectures of such shame?
Wilt thou be glass wherein it shall discern
Authority for sin, warrant for blame
To privilege dishonour in thy name?
          Thou back'st reproach against long-living laud,
          And mak'st fair reputation but a bawd.

(ll. 610-23)

This builds on, but goes far beyond, the transposition of a male voice of seduction to a female voice in Venus and Adonis. Lucrece speaks here with the voice of a Renaissance royal counsellor, and echoes Cicero's injunction that it is better to be loved than feared.19 The last couplet of the first stanza here quoted was excerpted in W. B.'s The Philosopher's Banquet of 1633 under the heading ‘Of Princes’,20 and the lines are themselves a culling of commonplaces. Antonio Guevara in his Dial of Princes, for example, insists that Princes should govern themselves before they can govern their state. He claims too ‘that if the miserable Tarquin [whom Guevara conflates with his father the king] had been beloved in Rome, he had never been deprived of the realm, for committing adultery with Lucretia’.21 The advice which Lucrece gives to Tarquin here is a textbook example of political oratory in this period: the civic aspect of rhetoric in Elizabethan England was not displayed by speaking to the Senate, but by giving counsel. Early readers of the poem would have heard behind the voice of Lucrece at this point that of Erasmus (‘The tyrant strives to be feared, the king to be loved’),22 or any one of a dozen contributors to the genre of humanist prince-books. Her words would have won an easy nod of assent from early readers, who would instinctively feel that princes should seek to be feared through love, and should provide exemplary government. They should ‘govern all’, or regulate their appetites. These comfortable, and, by the 1590s decidedly old-fashioned,23 Erasmian orthodoxies then abruptly end:

‘Have done,’ quoth he. ‘My uncontrollèd tide
Turns not, but swells the higher by this let.’

(ll. 645-6)

Tarquin will not be counselled. Shakespeare takes a paradigm instance of what should be politically effective rhetoric within the tradition of humanist political thought, and he puts it into the place where readers familiar with Ovid would expect either silence from Lucrece or a pathetically ineffective lament. The result of this hybridization of elegy and the discourse of humanist prince-books is an explosive piece of rhetorical cross-dressing: the forms of counsel which should prevent monarchy sliding into tyranny simply do not work in this poem. They become the words of a woman who is about to be raped. And she is raped by a man who cannot govern his own passions.

Jonathan Bate has suggested that ‘Shakespeare's poem … is more interested in desire than in politics’. Ian Donaldson has suggested that ‘Shakespeare cannot have wished to be thought to be questioning, even in a very indirect way, the system of monarchical government under which he lived and to which he owed allegiance’.24 Michael Platt and Annabel Patterson have, conversely, seen Lucrece as either overtly republican or as a work which is rooted in the discourse of republicanism.25 The variety of these judgements testifies to the complexity of the poem, and all may have their truths. But the widespread analogy between the supremacy of the reason over the passions and of the just monarch over a nation made the passions of a prince and their regulation an inescapably political matter in this period. ‘Government’—Lucrece urges Tarquin to ‘govern all’—meant both the regulation of passions and of the nation. The poem is not ‘royalist’ if that is taken to mean that it is founded on a belief in the absolute supremacy of the will of the prince. It is also not likely to be a ‘republican poem’, in the sense of one which advocated the abolition of monarchy, since such a thing was not a publishable, perhaps not even a fully thinkable, thing in the England of the 1590s. So what is it?

For many of the most influential political thinkers of the late Elizabethan period England was a form of mixed monarchy, in which the Queen in parliament interacted with the Queen in Council in ways which could attribute considerable power to any one of these three elements. The moment of the rape in Lucrece dramatizes a collapse in the complex interrelationship between monarch and counsel. In the context of what Patrick Collinson has described as ‘the Elizabethan monarchical republic’ this is a terrifying event. The ideal tempering of a monarch's passions by reason and counsel is shown only in a state of radical dysfunction. Theoretical formulations of mixed monarchy in the Elizabethan period are thin on the ground; but even Lord Burghley, who was by no means a radical thinker, could envisage formal measures for ensuring that the Privy Council would continue to govern during the interregnum which might follow the death of Elizabeth; others, such as Thomas Digges, could imagine Parliament remaining in session after the Queen's death in order to determine the succession.26 By the end of Elizabeth's reign the Queen's femininity was shifting traditional views of what counsel should be, and the voices of female members of the privy chamber might often have almost as much influence on her actions as male members of her Privy Council.

Lucrece does not directly comment on these aspects of the political scene, nor does it provide a viable republican alternative to conciliar monarchy. It transposes the rhetorical trick which Shakespeare had learned in writing Venus and Adonis into a political key: it puts the discourse appropriate to one kind of speaker—a male counsellor—into the mouth of another kind of speaker—a victim of rape—and in doing so raises unanswered and urgent questions about both gender roles and politics. A woman who speaks like a counsellor, and then is raped—this subject-matter darkly intimates that a polity founded on the notional ability of counsellors to curb the will of the prince encounters a black and insoluble problem if the prince cannot control himself. And Shakespeare's method of raising this insoluble problem makes any political radicalism in the poem immediately deniable, even when its critical position is most apparent to its readers. If Lucrece's words to Tarquin were quoted out of their context (and Shakespeare, as we have seen, had learned to allow printed words to drift free of their context in Venus and Adonis) they would become a commonplace of impeccable orthodoxy—as they duly became when quoted by W.B. in The Philosopher's Banquet. In their original context, in a poem in which even a prince is unable to persuade himself not to follow the ‘worser course’, and in which a woman is destroyed as a result of her failure to persuade him, and in which a prose argument intimates that there are alternatives to monarchy, Lucrece's words ask awkward and unanswerable questions about unregulated monarchy. Rhetoric once again, as in Venus, fails to persuade. But here it cannot persuade to good, nor can it save a state from decline towards tyranny.


Shakespeare learnt from and ingeniously transformed what he read. One of the things he read and from which he learnt most was Shakespeare. Lucrece is part complement, part sequel to Venus and Adonis. Where the action of Venus and Adonis had spread itself in a leisurely way across two days, Lucrece spins almost twice as many lines from a single night and morning. Venus had shrunk and expanded time with a delicious wantonness: in Lucrece the only thing that happens quickly is travel to and from Collatium. Tarquin arrives at the poem's start in a flash of dark fire; Collatine and the other Roman lords enter abruptly at its end with ‘But now’ (l. 1583). Lucrece's body is ‘published’ on the streets of Rome with such ‘speedy diligence’ (l. 1853) that it takes only a single line to accomplish. Once characters are within the domestic space into which Lucrece is herself oppressively locked, however, time is forced into slow motion. Tarquin's long slow passage to Lucrece's chamber makes every tiny object become an obstacle: the wind blows him back, a needle tries heroically to become a sword. It is as though the poem's slow expansiveness is the chief guarantee that it is indeed the ‘graver labour’ promised in the dedication to Venus and Adonis: just as its rhyme royal stanza extends and slows the brisk six-line form of Venus and Adonis, so its treatment of time delays action and forces its characters to reflect on what they are doing, and on what has been done to them. This poem cannot flit lightly through the woods, as Venus and Adonis could, nor does it fleetingly compress the complaints of a woman at night as Venus and Adonis had done (ll. 829-52): Lucrece spends lines 747-1078 filling the hours of darkness with complaints, and repeatedly seeks new means of making moan. Even the sound of morning birdsong coming in from the outside world is transformed inward into lament (ll. 1107 ff.), as Lucrece weaves the notes of her sad song into the melancholy tale of the raped Philomel. The fleeting moment of sexual consummation which was missing from Venus and Adonis becomes, in the slow-motion domestic spaces of Lucrece, a source of pained reflection and regret, and all but endless eloquence.

Although Lucrece radically decelerates Venus and Adonis, its imaginative starting-point is the final section of the earlier poem, when Venus complains against death, curses love, and time seems to stand still as the body of Adonis melts beside her. The final phase of Venus and Adonis also moves towards a physically inward setting, as Venus's eyes shrink back into her head like the tender horns of cockled snails, and the goddess finally flits off, meaning to (though perhaps not actually performing her intention) ‘immure herself and not be seen’. Lucrece spends her poem immured within her house, until her body is finally displayed in Rome. And throughout the poem Tarquin's assault on her is represented as a raid on the inner regions of a domestic space. As he hovers over the sleeping Lucrece, her body becomes a castle under siege:

Whose ranks of blue veins as his hand did scale
Left their round turrets destitute and pale.
They, must'ring to the quiet cabinet
Where their dear governess and lady lies,
Do tell her she is dreadfully beset,
And fright her with confusion of their cries.
She, much amazed, breaks ope her locked up eyes,
          Who, peeping forth this tumult to behold,
          Are by his flaming torch dimmed and controlled.
Imagine her as one in dead of night,
From forth dull sleep by dreadful fancy waking,
That thinks she hath beheld some ghastly sprite,
Whose grim aspect sets every joint a-shaking.
What terror 'tis! But she in worser taking,
          From sleep disturbèd, heedfully doth view
          The sight which makes supposèd terror true.

(ll. 440-55)

At the centre of Venus and Adonis a goddess discovers that ‘all is imaginary’, and at the end of the earlier poem Venus's mind and perceptions are thrown into rebellious tumult by the sight of Adonis dead. Those passages lie behind the extract from Lucrece quoted above, but are rewritten in a darker key that suits the claustrophobic interiority of Lucrece. Her veins become desperate servants scrambling to wake their governess as she sleeps in her ‘quiet cabinet’. It places Lucrece in a tiny, intimate room within a castle, surrounded by walls within walls. Then the real and the imaginary blend, as a reader is first asked to imagine her imaginings, and then to realize that she awakes and finds her imagination truth. A dreaming queen within a simile of siege who is really a woman under attack: the effect is of claustrophobia within claustrophobia, of truth within a dream within a siege. Lucrece never lets its readers forget that it is a chamber work in a literal sense of being set in a chamber: the word ‘chamber’ is rung on in lines 302, 337, 365, 1626.27 Here she occupies a ‘cabinet’, an intimate inner room designed for private occupation, to which only personal servants and family would have access. This image of a little room hems in the heroine: at the end of the poem Lucrece herself recalls and attempts to purify her violated inner regions by insisting that her mind ‘Doth in her poisoned closet yet endure’ (l. 1659), as a clean inhabitant within a polluted, private room.28 The rape is figured as a violation of domestic spaces, and in this respect feeds off widespread late sixteenth-century anxieties about burglary and theft.29

But the attempt at violation of the domestic sphere rebounds on the rapist. In a passage which is designed to make its readers do a double-take, it is Tarquin's soul, rather than that of Lucrece, which is exposed to a siege and ravished:

Besides, his soul's fair temple is defacèd,
          To whose weak ruins muster troops of cares,
          To ask the spotted princess how she fares.
She says her subjects with foul insurrection
Have battered down her consecrated wall,
And by their mortal fault brought in subjection
Her immortality, and made her thrall
To living death and pain perpetual,
          Which in her prescience she controllèd still,
          But her foresight could not forestall their will.

(ll. 719-28)

‘She’: the pronoun matters acutely. Tarquin becomes a rebel against himself, who destroys his own soul's private and consecrated places, and his invasive male pride forces on him a feminine sense of violation.30 This detail illustrates how in this poem Shakespeare was not just building on, but going far beyond the ending of Venus and Adonis. Lucrece generates a slow-moving interior realm where all action seems violent and abrupt, and in which men of action have to readjust themselves to the reflective pace and expansive volume of female rhetoric, and find themselves becoming victims of interiority. Tarquin and Collatine are men at war who are suddenly plunged into a setting and a pace of life with which they are occupationally unable to cope. Lamenting, thinking on consequences, debating the pros and cons of actions—these things are forced on the men in the poem, and make their rhetoric seem inadequate to the domestic realm. The way Lucrece deliberately brings warriors and images of warfare into a domestic sphere marks it as one of the seminal moments in Shakespeare's career. The long slow pause after, or in anticipation of, or in the midst of a battle is a setting to which he recurs again and again. The awkwardness of men, especially martial men, misplaced in domestic environments for which neither their language nor their conduct quite suits them becomes the substance of many of the tragedies: Macbeth begins after a battle, forcing its hero to reflect about action rather than act; the oppressive domestic closeness of...

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Criticism: Character Studies

SOURCE: Kietzman, Mary Jo. “‘What is Hecuba to Him or [S]he to Hecuba?’ Lucrece's Complaint and Shakespearean Poetic Agency.” Modern Philology: A Journal Devoted to Research in Medieval and Modern Literature 97, no. 1 (August 1999): 21-45.

[In the following essay, Kietzman analyzes the character of Lucrece and her role as a female complainant—a poetic trope that originated in classical verse. The critic argues that Lucrece uses her complaint to redefine herself and to come to terms with her ethical dilemma, noting that Shakespeare used this same device in Hamlet.]

In his 1598 marginalia to Thomas Speght's edition of Chaucer, Gabriel Harvey differentiated...

(The entire section is 10756 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

SOURCE: van Gelder, Lawrence. “A Still Resonant Tale of Power and Violation.” New York Times (26 May 2000): E3.

[In the following review, van Gelder offers an assessment of the Willow Cabin Theater Company's production of Lucrece, a play adapted from Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece, noting that the play's message is a timely one for modern society.]

Heartbreak but not tragedy is to be found in the Willow Cabin Theater Company's production of Lucrece. Earnest and interesting, this production revives the 1932 play adapted by Thornton Wilder from Le Viol de Lucrece by the French playwright Andre Obey, who in turn was inspired by...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Rolf Soellner (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Soellner, Rolf. “Shakespeare's Lucrece and the Garnier-Pembroke Connection.” Shakespeare Studies (1982): 1-20.

[In the following excerpt, Soellner examines the similarities between The Rape of Lucrece and several works written or inspired by French writer Robert Garnier. The critic emphasizes the manner in which Shakespeare's poem echoes Garnier's depictions of women who assert their integrity against powerful male figures.]

Shakespeare's dedication of Lucrece (1594) to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, raises two major questions, for which the answers given may have been too simple. First, why did Shakespeare dedicate to the Earl...

(The entire section is 9644 words.)

Heather Dubrow (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Dubrow, Heather. “A Mirror for Complaints: Shakespeare's Lucrece and Generic Tradition.” In Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, edited by Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, pp. 399-417. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Dubrow contends that The Rape of Lucrece contains an implicit criticism of the values and conventions of the complaint poem style.]

Scholars typically dismiss both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece as mere literary samplers, works in which an undiscriminating preoccupation with rhetorical display precludes a sustained concern for other issues, be...

(The entire section is 6301 words.)

Linda Woodbridge (essay date fall 1991)

SOURCE: Woodbridge, Linda. “Palisading the Elizabethan Body Politic.” Texas Studies in Language and Literature 33, no. 3 (fall 1991): 327-54.

[In the following essay, Woodbridge examines the subject of bodily violation as a symbol for military invasion and conquest in The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus and Cymbeline. Woodbridge asserts that all three works reflect England's fear of foreign conquest and its identification with ancient Rome.]

That island of England breeds very valiant creatures.

Henry V

To island dwellers like the Elizabethan English, Shakespeare's...

(The entire section is 11433 words.)

Sara E. Quay (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: Quay, Sara E. “‘Lucrece the Chaste’: The Construction of Rape in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece.Modern Language Studies 25, no. 2 (spring 1995): 3-17.

[In the following essay, Quay explores the patriarchal social constructs implicit in The Rape of Lucrece and examines how they “promote and permit” rape.]

The notions of integrity and closure in a text are like that of virginity in a body. They assume that if one does not respect the boundaries between inside and outside, one is ‘breaking and entering,’ violating a property. As long as the fallacies of integrity and closure are upheld, a desire to penetrate...

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Mercedes Maroto Camino (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: 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. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Camino draws parallels between The Rape of Lucrece, Renaissance practices of mapmaking, and colonial conquest. The critic contends that the poem can be viewed as an expression of the “imperial ‘achievement’ of patriarchy” that resulted in the sublimation of both colonized populations and women in general.]

When Lear placed the map before him,...

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Further Reading


Belsey, Catherine. “Tarquin Dispossessed: Expropriation and Consent in The Rape of Lucrece.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 3 (2001): 315-335.

Suggests that the treatment of rape in The Rape of Lucrece reflects a cultural and political change wherein consent replaced possession as the basis of marriage.

Montgomery, Jr., Robert L. “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, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1967.


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