The Rape of Lucrece Essay - Subjectivity, Exemplarity, and the Establishing of Characterization in Lucrece

William Shakespeare

Subjectivity, Exemplarity, and the Establishing of Characterization in Lucrece

A. D. Cousins, Macquarie University

As might be expected, much of the more recent commentary on Lucrece has focused on the interrelated matters of politics, gender, and subjectivity. The poem's representation of the Roman world and its politics, especially its sexual/gender politics, has been studied; how Lucrece emerges from the variously political discourses of later Elizabethan society, and its negotiations with them, have been considered; the poem's representations of subjectivity in relation to patriarchy and rape have been widely discussed.1 In focusing on such matters, most commentary has inevitably centered on the characterization of Lucrece herself. But as a result, the mutually constitutive nature of the characterizations of Tarquín, Collatine, and Lucrece has received insufficient attention.2 Here I want to propose that by examining the reciprocal formation of consciousness and role among Tarquín, Collatine, and Lucrece as far as the beginning of the poem's rape scene,3 one sees that the characterizations established early in Lucrece are more complex in their discursive relations than has been previously acknowledged. Recognition of their being so helps to illuminate not only subsequent happenings in the poem such as Lucrece's insistent denial of her own innocence and her decision to suicide, but also crucial concerns of the poem such as its skeptical interrogation of exemplarity, and the interaction between exemplarity and historical process.

In particular, I shall argue here that while Tarquín is a tyrant figure—and distinctly a Platonic type of the tyrant—he is also a demonic parody of the Petrarchan lover, insofar as he pursues a lady, Lucrece, who is portrayed as at once an exemplar of the chaste Roman matron and an incarnation of the Petrarchan mistress. Violating her, Shakespeare's Tarquín sexually heightens and violates the Petrarchan discourse of love. Yet it is not Lucrece's primary misfortune that, in her guise as Petrarchan mistress, she attracts a tyrant figure (in fact, a proto-tyrant) who defines himself specifically as tyrant in relation to her via the role of grimly parodic Petrarchan lover. Rather, as is argued here, it seems that Lucrece's primary misfortune lies in the hubris of her husband, Collatine. When part of the Roman army besieging Ardea, Collatine tries to gain a personal victory over the king's son, his superior and kinsman: Collatine's boastful vying with the proto-tyrant redirects Tarquin's violence and desire from the enemy/foreign/public to the kindred/Roman/private. The poem registers that redirection of Tarquin's violence and desire not only in terms of Petrarchan discourse, but also in terms of the myths of the Golden Age and of Eden. Tarquín becomes an analog to Satan; Lucrece, indicated as embodying both Tarquin's and Collatine's notions of the absolute good on earth, becomes an analog to the earthly paradise and (an incorruptible) Eve; and Collatine thus figures as a self-betraying Adam who tempts the serpent into—and into violating—his earthly paradise, his (unwilling) Eve.

Perceived in light of these Platonic, Petrarchan, and Golden Age/Edenic discourses, the intricate interactions among Tarquín, Collatine, and Lucrece in the early part of Shakespeare's poem are elucidated as follows. Tarquin's mutually reinforcing, interconnected roles, read in conjunction with Lucrece's mutually reinforcing and interconnected roles, antithetic to Tarquin's, explain Lucrece's comprehensive sense of violation, of contamination, and also her deep sense of defacement, of her innermost self's having been stolen. This reading, in turn, illuminates her decision to commit suicide and, moreover, sheds light on the skeptical questioning of exemplarity in Lucrece, both discrediting and validating the poem's reliability as a means of interpreting history.

The most expedient way to undertake the reading I have outlined in the preceding paragraph is probably to begin, as the poem begins, with the narrator's characterization of Tarquín. Tarquin's historical role as proto-tyrant seems to be his basic one in the poem. Shakespeare's narrator may also picture Tarquín in the roles of parodic Petrarchan lover and of Satan, but it is indicated that they are Tarquin's expressions of his tyrannical role in relation to Lucrece. At the beginning of the "Argument," the narrator indicates that Tarquin's immediate role model is his father, whose pride, treachery, violence, and violations (of custom, laws, and family bonds) manifest his will to power, his will to tyranny (lines 1-6). The poem reveals, of course more thoroughly than does the "Argument," that Tarquín is certainly his father's son (likewise implicit in Ovid's narrative)—and that he is not merely in his father's image.

The opening of Lucrece predominantly characterizes Tarquín in terms of desire. The "Argument" emphasizes his underlying role to be that of proto-tyrant (lines 1-8),4 and the opening stanzas do so as well (lines 20-1 and 36-42); but as proto-tyrant he is initially and chiefly characterized in the poem by the "desire" (line 2) that informs the expressions of his tyrannical role in relation to Lucrece (lines 3-7). The narrator implies several things about the nature of that desire: its treachery ("trustless" and "false," in line 2, suggest that it betrays Tarquín while impelling him to betray Collatine and Lucrece); its possession of Tarquín (he becomes "[l]ust-breathed," the narrator says in line 3); its sinister, even demonic, energy (lines 4-7)—its violence which displaces the military violence directed by Tarquín against Ardea. Desire, treachery, and violence are, according to Plato's Republic, marks of the tyrannical character. In fact, desire and the need to gratify it tyrannize over the tyrant: he becomes driven by a "master passion" in whose service he will violate even domestic sanctities.5 The characterization of Tarquín as proto-tyrant accords in these respects, then, with Plato's characterization of the tyrant in his Republic.6 And it does so in others as well. According to Plato's text, desire possesses the tyrant, but the tyrant is also vulnerable to fears: "He is naturally a prey to fears and passions of every sort."7 Tarquín's soliloquy in his chamber dramatizes the compelling force of his desire in conflict with the constraining power of his fears (lines 190-280).8 Plato also describes the tyrant as bestial and, more specifically, as a wolf to his fellow citizens.9 Shakespeare's narrator compares Tarquín, just before the rape of Lucrece, to a "cockatrice" (line 540), a "gripe" (line 543; that is, to a vulture or an eagle), and a "foul night-waking cat" (line 554). Tarquín is thereafter compared to a "wolf when he rapes Lucrece (line 677).10 Subsequently he is figured as a "full-fed hound or gorged hawk" (line 694), and as a "thievish dog" (line 736). In his primary role as proto-tyrant, Tarquín seems deliberately represented in accord with Plato's account of the tyrannical character: he may be, as Ovid had indicated and as Shakespeare apparently accepted from Ovid, truly his father's son; but he is also more than a reincarnation of his tyrannical father.

The extent to which the proto-tyrant is more than simply an imitation of his father is evident in his relation to Lucrece. The ways in which Tarquín perceives Lucrece and defines himself in response to his understanding of her express, of course, his desire for her and thus his role as Platonic tyrant figure in relation to her. As I have suggested previously, one such expression of his role as tyrant in relation to her is his role as parodic Petrarchan lover. When first the narrator describes Tarquín, characterizing him predominantly in terms of desire, it seems that "[l]ust-breathed" Tarquín (line 3) is as a man possessed. What tyrannizes over the proto-tyrant is desire for a woman depicted to him, by her husband, in a way that anachronistically celebrates her as a type of the Petrarchan lady: "Collatine unwisely did not let / To praise the clear unmatched red and white / Which triumph'd in that sky of his delight" (lines 10-2). The narrator confirms that image of Lucrece by adding to his report of Collatine's imprudent eulogy. He praises Lucrece's eyes, identifying them with the stars. They are, he says, "[M]ortal stars as bright as heaven's beauties" (line 13). Reworking the Petrarchan motif of the lady's eyes being, or resembling, stars, Shakespeare's narrator confirms what his report of Lucrece's public celebration by Collatine has previously, and likewise metonymically, indicated through Petrarchan allusion ("red and white," line 11): Lucrece's role as Petrarchan object of desire. So Tarquín, the Platonic tyrant figure tyrannized by desire for a woman delineated to him as virtually prefiguring Laura, becomes in relation to her a counterpart to the Petrarchan lover. But the differences between Tarquín and, say, Petrarch's speaker in "Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio" are more important than the similarities. In particular, the latter's desire for his lady seems ambiguous, alternating between the erotic and the spiritual. Tarquin's desire for Lucrece is, however, solely unspiritual, a "lightless fire" (line 4) concerned only with the body and with violation: "lurk[ing] to aspire, / And girdle with embracing flames the waist / Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste" (lines 5-7). Expressing his will to tyranny, his proto-tyrannic role, Tarquin's desire makes him a brutal parody of the Petrarchan lover as a species and his pursuit of Lucrece a sexual heightening/violation of the Petrarchan discourse of love. As might be expected, this parodic characterization of Tarquín is implied very distinctly and emphatically in the narrator's account of Lucrece's rape.

The interaction between this parodie role and Tarquin's other main roles in relation to Lucrece is intriguing; but before it can be examined those roles through which her subjectivity is chiefly fashioned in the poem must be considered. Lucrece's primary role in the poem is, almost inevitably, that of chaste Roman matron: the narrator first identifies her as "Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste" (line 7). Her subsequent guise of Petrarchan lady complements her initial one by heightening the reader's sense of both her chastity and her beauty (lines 12-4). The two roles also have a less obvious harmony, for they can be seen—though in different ways—as culturally imposed. Lucrece's initial role gives her selfhood in terms of a conventional category of the female in her society. In that sense the basic role given to her in the poem, a role that concurs with her own self-image, appears to be socially constructed. Lucrece not only recognizes the role of chaste Roman matron as essential to her self-image, but also acknowledges her feeling or consciousness of its being imposed from without (by implication, socially). Her most explicit acknowledgment occurs just after her three long complaints, when she is pondering suicide: "I was a loyal wife: / So am I now,—O no, that cannot be! / Of that true type hath Tarquín rifled me" (lines 1048-50).11 The reader may not agree with Lucrece's refusal to accept her own innocence but, that aside, it is clear that Lucrece thinks of herself primarily as a chaste Roman matron and as having received that role from without.

Lucrece's externalized self-image thus appears to be inseparable from, and explanatory of, both her profound consciousness of herself as an exemplar of chastity and her profound fear of becoming an exemplar of unchastity. She recognizes that others have established her as the former and that they can turn her into the latter: she recognizes her vulnerability as an exemplar, and how indifferent to her inner life and beyond her control that aspect of her existence is (lines 519-39 and 806-40). Her consciousness of herself as exemplar clarifies, in turn, her sense of being immersed in historical process. Rape impels Lucrece to look anxiously to the future and also anxiously to the past, as well it might.12 But for her, as exemplar, there is a special reason for its doing so. Exemplarity in her world, as of course in Shakespeare's, is a means of illuminating and stabilizing historical process, of defining subjectivity within it. Anticipating misrepresentation of her role as exemplar, its unjustly parodic inversion, Lucrece concurrently anticipates the falsification of history (lines 813-26). To preserve her existence as an exemplar of chastity is likewise, for Lucrece, significantly if partly to save the present from future misinterpretation, to protect history from false tradition. The case is similar yet interestingly different when she turns to the past. Looking to a picture of the Trojan past for comfort, Lucrece seeks consolation in discovering an exemplar of misery (lines 1443-56), not only to find a companion in her distress but also to find another self—one whom she may vindicate and so, through whom, amend history (lines 1457-98).

In order to further explore the subject of Lucrece's preoccupation with her exemplarity and with control of meaning and subjectivity in interpretation of the past, it is necessary to address what seem to be her other main roles in the poem. These other roles are, much like the ones previously considered, imposed from without. That is to say, while the narrator reveals them to be consonant with personal appearance and impulse in Lucrece, they are also shown to derive from Collatine's devotion to her and from Tarquin's perception of her via the celebratory picture drawn by her husband. They connect with and complement her roles as chaste Roman matron and Petrarchan lady, just as they evoke from Tarquin roles linked to his guises of Platonic tyrant figure and parodic Petrarchan lover. They are, moreover, syncretic and in part anachronistic: as was indicated earlier, they figure Lucrece as a type of the earthly paradise and as an innocent, incorruptible Eve; Tarquin therefore comes to figure as a type of Satan (and later, of course, he becomes an analog to Sinon); and Collatine thence comes to figure as a self-betraying Adam who unwittingly tempts the serpent to violate, to steal. It is a powerful mingling of discourses—Platonic, Petrarchan, Golden Age/Edenic—that combines with what is chiefly an Ovidian historical discourse to characterize the three main actors in Shakespeare's narrative and thereby re-present the rape of Lucrece.

The representation of Lucrece in terms of Golden Age/ Edenic discourse begins with the narrator's initial depiction of her as an ideal Petrarchan lady. When the narrator first mentions Collatine's unwary celebration of Lucrece, he affirms her husband's reported and summarized speech by describing her face as the "sky of [Collatine's] delight; / Where mortal stars as bright as heaven's beauties, / With pure aspects did him peculiar duties" (lines 12-4). The Petrarchan allusions in these lines have already been discussed; what I wish to emphasize here is that the Petrarchan imagery suggests Lucrece to be Collatine's heaven on earth ("lent" to him by "the heavens," as the narrator subsequently remarks in another context [line 17]). With the initial use of Petrarchan discourse in the poem, then, another discourse also emerges, the Golden Age/Edenic: from that signifying of Lucrece to be Collatine's heaven on earth follows imaging of her as the earthly paradise and as Eve. In fact Lucrece's face, "that sky of [Collatine's] delight" (line 12), is soon after described twice by the narrator as a "fair field" (lines 58 and 72). The elaborate, conventional trope seems important for several reasons. First, it suggests that Lucrece's face is an ideal landscape and so it complements the preceding image of her face as Collatine's "sky of . . . delight" (line 12). Further, the trope forms part of a compressed allegory that, in emphasizing the fusion of beauty and virtue in Lucrece, indicates her to be a Golden Age innocent living in a world far removed from the "world's minority" (line 67).13 Moreover, it pictures Lucrece so attractively (and as so vulnerable) at the moment when she is welcoming Tarquin into her home. Finally, the trope derives from Petrarchan tradition—as lines 71-2 signal—and thus hints at the extent to which Golden Age/Edenic discourse in the poem is generated by Petrarchan discourse. The latter also initiates the former, as it happens, in what is the last identification of Lucrece as an earthly paradise before she is raped.

That moment of identification, which deserves closer attention than it is often given, occurs in the report of Tarquin's long, intense gazing on the sleeping Lucrece (lines 365-71 and 386-420), the visual assault that precedes his more directly physical one. The narrator starts his account as follows:

Her lily hand her rosy cheek lies under,
Cozning the pillow of a lawful kiss;
Who therefore angry, seems to part in sunder,
Swelling on either side to want his bliss:
Between whose hills her head entombed is,
Where like a virtuous monument she lies,
To be admir'd of lewd unhallowed eyes.

Without the bed her other fair hand was,
On the green coverlet; whose perfect white
Show'd like an April daisy on the grass,
With pearly sweat resembling dew of night.
Her eyes like marigolds had sheath'd their light,
And canopied in darkness sweetly lay,
Till they might open to adorn the day.

(lines 386-99)

Petrarchan images of "lily" and of "ros[e]" (line 386), used recurrently to describe Lucrece, introduce the passage. They serve immediately to eroticize the picture of the sleeping woman in terms of propriety and of impropriety ("Coz'ning," "lawful," line 387). The "[c]oz'ning"/ "lawful" conceits, in themselves, obliquely contrast with the playfully imagined, innocent, frustrated desire of the "pillow" which may rightfully "kiss" Lucrece, to Tarquín's unlawful, violent, and as yet unfulfilled desire to possess her physically. However, insofar as these conceits are at once suggestive of conflict (the mock conflict between "hand" and "pillow") and linked to Petrarchan imagery, they serve also to remind the reader that it is especially the Petrarchan images used to describe Lucrece throughout the poem that identify her as a site of conflict. The first instance of Petrarchan imagery, for example, identifies her as the embodiment of perfect beauty through whom Collatine can vaunt his superiority over Tarquín, but through whom, likewise, Tarquín will assert his tyrannical will, and his tyrannical role, over Collatine (lines 7-14). According to the narrator, moreover, a struggle between "beauty and virtue" (line 52) as to which "should underprop [Lucrece's] fame" (line 53) can be seen in the "silent war of lilies and of roses" (line 71) occurring "in her fair face's field" (line 72). If is interesting and significant, too, that the Petrarchan images beginning the passage lead subsequently to the notion of Lucrece as monument, a notion connecting with her sense of herself as an exemplar of chastity (lines 390-2). But it seems most interesting and most significant that then, only after associating her with conflict and emphasizing her role as exemplar (an emphasis with overtones of death), the Petrarchan images introduce the picture of her as an earthly paradise.

There is a striking contrast between the playful, ominous, reverential prelude to that picture and the picture itself. An unspoiled, tranquil, natural richness is suggested by the picture's vivid detail: the "perfect[ly] white" hand (line 394) lying on "the green coverlet" (line 394), which is likened to an "April daisy on the grass" (line 395); the "pearly sweat resembling dew of night" (line 396); the "eyes like marigolds" that have "sheath'd their light" (line 397). Metonymically that detail associates the inviolate, perfectly beautiful Lucrece with an inviolate, perfectly beautiful nature. And one sees Petrarchan images both introducing that picture of Lucrece and helping to create it. Lucrece's "other fair hand," like the one beneath her head, is of "perfect" whiteness; further, the narrator celebrates the splendor of her eyes (lines 397-9) in terms that form a counterpart to those used by him near the poem's beginning (lines 13-4). Lucrece thus appears as both an earthly paradise and a Golden Age innocent; but such representations alone do not establish her role as a type of Eve. Her husband and Tarquín chiefly impose that role on her.

In his account of Collatine's "boast of Lucrece' sov'reignty" (line 36), the narrator tells of him

[r]eck'ning his fortune at such high proud rate
That kings might be espoused to more fame,
But king nor peer to such a peerless dame.

(lines 19-21)

In a moment when military conflict with a foreign enemy is deferred, Collatine uses his wife as a means of seeking personal victory over his superior and kinsman; the result of his hubris (line 19) is that he redirects Tarquín's violence and desire from the enemy/ foreign/public to the kindred/Roman/private. His overreaching pride—an aggressive, patriarchal vanity that firmly links him with the otherwise dissimilar Tarquin—leads him to flaunt the wife who is his heaven on earth, his earthly paradise, and, in effect, an innocent from the Golden Age, before the proto-tyrant who, then perceiving her as "the heaven of his [own] thought" (line 338), quickly resolves to disposses him. So, as I have suggested earlier, Collatine unknowingly tempts Tarquín (lines 36-8) to violate and thus to steal the woman represented by the narrator as an embodiment of Golden Age/Edenic discourses. In doing that, he also unwittingly refigures both himself as a self-betraying Adam (an Adam who falls through pride) and Lucrece as an innocent, unfallen Eve. Simultaneously and appropriately, of course, he thereby helps to refigure Tarquín as a type of Satan, Tarquín's subsequent actions reinforcing his own role and that imposed on Lucrece.

The process of characterization I have outlined is not merely the result of some simple, male rivalry. It derives from Collatine's attempt to impose over Tarquin's will to illegitimate power—as proto-tyrant and son of a tyrant—Collatine's own will to illicit power, functioning within and expressed through the notionally unthreatening and not-to-be-threatened sphere of the domestic (functioning and expressed safely, as he is apparently to be taken as thinking, if he is to be taken as thinking at all). In that attempt, of course, Lucrece is objectified and so Tarquín perceives her; on the other hand, the end of the poem suggests that Lucrece has always been objectified by her husband and by her father (see especially lines 1751-806). Tarquín, moreover, could arguably never have perceived her except as "an object of consciousness,"14 although he may not have seen or particularly considered her at all had not Collatine set her image compellingly before him. The end of that struggle between wills to illicit power, between domestic and public regimes (respectively Collatine's and Tarquin's), seems immediately to be the mutual constitution of the subjectivities of its participants, including Lucrece as an unknowing participant. The struggle of wills generates, in short, refigured subjectivities for each participant and thence a comprehensively refigured myth of the Fall.

One can now consider, I suggest, Tarquin's role as Satan. That role seems implicit from virtually the moment he enters Lucrece's home. The narrator says, referring initially to Lucrece and subsequently to Tarquín:

This earthly saint adored by this devil,
Little suspecteth the false worshipper;
For unstain'd thoughts do seldom dream on evil,
Birds never lim'd no secret bushes fear:
So guiltless she securely gives good cheer
And reverend welcome to her princely guest,
Whose inward ill no outward harm express'd.

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

(lines 85-95)

The allusion to Lucrece as "[t]his earthly saint" (line 85) evokes her connected roles as chastity's exemplar and Petrarchan lady; it harmonizes, too, with the notion that she is Collatine's heaven on earth. More to the point, however, the trope allows the narrator to characterize Tarquín antithetically to her as a "devil" (line 85), a "false worshipper" (line 86), and agent of "evil" (line 87), who conceals from her his "inward ill" (line 91), his "base sin" (line 93). That insistently demonic representation of Tarquín is elaborated upon by the narrator's subsequent references to his "parling looks" (line 100), which are likened to "baits" and "hooks" (line 103). But it is specifically an emphasis on innocence in the characterization of Lucrece—and allusion to her as an embodiment of the earthly paradise—that indicate Tarquín to be Satanic rather than merely demonic, here and subsequently in the narrative.

As I have argued, the opening description of Lucrece as "[t]his earthly saint" develops into a representation of her as someone naturally innocent. "[U]nstain'd thoughts do seldom dream on evil, / Birds never lim'd no secret bushes fear," the narrator says (lines 87-8),15 explaining her "guiltless" (line 89) and unsuspecting reception of her visitor. The images initiating the perception of Lucrece as naturally innocent point back to the image of "her fair face's field" (line 72),16 with its connotations of an ideal landscape and of Golden Age virtue, and forward to the description of her, just prior to Tarquin's assault, as a type of the earthly paradise, of uncontaminated nature (lines 386-99). And it is precisely her natural innocence which the narrator proceeds to emphasize in describing how she responds to the intense, erotic gaze of Tarquin—the "inordinate" (line 94) stare that she necessarily notices but cannot decipher. According to the narrator:

[S]he that never cop'd with stranger eyes,
Could pick no meaning from their parling looks,
Nor read the subtle shining secrecies
Writ in the glassy margents of such books;
She touch'd no unknown baits, nor fear'd no hooks:
Nor could she moralize his wanton sight,
More than his eyes were open'd to the light.

(lines 99-105)

Unable to read, much less to interpret, the language of seduction in Tarquin's eyes, Lucrece perceives no harm in his gaze. In being unaware of the artifice of seduction, she is like a fish that neither recognizes enticement nor fears to be snared (line 103; an allusion to the familiar Petrarchan motif of hooks and ensnarement). Thus Lucrece, represented predominantly in terms that both suggest her natural innocence and evoke her recurrent presentation as a type of the earthly paradise (which thereby refigures her as Eve), is unwittingly betrayed by her husband (in effect, an overreaching Adam) to temptation by the demonized (Satanized) Tarquin. He, moreover, disguised as his apparent self (lines 90-4), knowingly falls from high estate in pursuing her (lines 190-301, 491-504; in lines 362-4 he is compared to a "serpent"). The poem's narrator puts before the reader a Romanized, Petrarchized, re-visioned story of the Fall—and in doing so arguably generates much of the intellectual intricacy, as well as emotive power, in Shakespeare's version of the Lucretia story.

Lucrece seems to be no simple Eve figure; certainly, she becomes a quite complex one as the poem progresses. Lucrece/Eve fights back, so to speak, and makes Tarquin/Satan experience not just a fall from the dignity of high estate, from the honor code of the Roman aristocracy, but a fall from high estate itself in Rome. Tarquín, likewise, appears not to be simply refigured as, and refiguring of, Satan. To begin with, his nocturnal soliloquy on whether or not to rape Lucrece shows him pondering in effect whether to abandon or to deepen his Satanic role (lines 127-301, especially lines 181-2, 190-245, 253-80) What seems particularly relevant at this point, however, is that the Petrarchan discourse used recurrently throughout the earlier part of the poem to construct Tarquin's subjectivity appears strikingly at the end of his speech to signal his consciously imperfect resolution of his inner conflict. Near the very end of his soliloquy, he declares:

Affection is my captain, and he leadeth;
And when his gaudy banner is display'd,
The coward fights, and will not be dismay'd.

(lines 271-3)

And the final words of his speech are:

Desire my pilot is, beauty my prize;
Then who fears sinking where such treasure lies?

(lines 279-80)

The lines first quoted evoke Petrarch's sonnet "Amor, che nel penser mio vive et regna, " translated by Wyatt and Surrey; Tarquin's words offer a desperately pugnacious reworking of the love-as-warfare allegory in Petrarch's poem.17 Tarquin's concluding words perhaps likewise evoke Petrarch's "Passa la nave"; if so, they offer an aggressive reworking of the love-as-a-perilous-sea-voyage allegory in that poem. There is a Petrarchan finale, as it were, to Tarquin's soliloquy—and appropriately so. Tarquin's acute self-consciousness in his soliloquy can be seen in his sensitivity to history: paradoxically enough, like Lucrece he is all too aware of how he may be officially represented, of how his existence may be constructed (but not in his case misconstrued), in years to come (lines 202-10, 223-4). Exemplarity is a concern for him as it is for Lucrece. His acute self-consciousness can also be seen in his sensitivity to his own speechmaking, in his politician's sense of the rhetorical nature, the theatricality, of his moment of decision (lines 225-7, 267-8).18 A Petrarchan finale certainly befits such a speech, but it seems especially suitable because Petrarchan discourse acknowledges, notionally with regret, reason's incapacity to govern desire (as in the reference to passion's defeat of reason in "Passa la nave").19 Petrarchan discourse can be used, therefore, to legitimize one's denial of constraint by reason. So, in effect, it is used here by Tarquín. The proto-tyrant making up his mind to commit rape is shown de facto to misappropriate and, likewise, desperately to rework Petrarchan discourse (lines 248-52).20 He is thus represented in order for the reader to perceive the dishonesty of his characterizing himself as the warrior compelled now to fight in the service of passion, as the lover overwhelmed by desire.21 The Petrarchan ending to the soliloquy signals his consciously specious resolution of his dilemma.

That ending signals, of course, other things as well. It confirms how thoroughly parodic a Petrarchan lover Tarquín is. Yet arguably, too, it confirms something about Tarquín as a Platonic tyrant/Satanic figure: he can possess—and then momentarily—"the heaven of his thought" (line 338) only by violation (line 348), which he knows to be also self-violation because it is a violation of the aristocratic Roman code of conduct by which he, at any rate, thinks his existence primarily defined (lines 197-224). Moreover, Tarquin's final, mock-Petrarchan characterization of himself as love's warrior leads to what can be perceived, after his piously inaccurate remark about the gods' abhorrence of rape (lines 349-50), as his committing a rape which distantly parodies the myth of Mars's rape of Rhea Silvia. Certainly, the rape of Lucrece does seem an ironic counterpart to that myth. The ancient myth tells of a rape which is an originary event for Rome—the chaste Rhea Silvia, raped by the god of war, conceives Romulus and Remus. The rape of Lucrece is, likewise, an originary event for Rome, but in a significantly different way: the Roman Republic is unwittingly and indirectly engendered by a warrior/parodic "warrior of love," a self-confessed enemy to the gods (lines 344-57), who in doing so initiates the overthrow of the monarchy and hence his own downfall.

From the discussion of Tarquín as concurrently a type of Satan and an antithesis to Pater Mavors, one might consider what a study of the reciprocal formation of consciousness and role among Tarquín, Lucrece, and Collatine would reveal about the establishing of characterization in Shakespeare's second narrative poem. To begin with, such an analysis strongly suggests that the characterizations established early in Lucrece are more complex in their discursive relations than has been previously acknowledged. The three main figures in the poem are not merely translated from the pages of Ovid: they are at once Ovidian and comprehensively transformed. In particular, they become actors in a Romanized, Petrarchized, re-visioned myth of the Fall—a version in which the Eve figure is innocent and betrayed, not betraying (and in which she ultimately gains her revenge on the counterpart to Satan).

Moreover, thus perceiving the characterizations of Tarquín, Lucrece, and Collatine early in the poem illuminates not only the subsequent happenings in it, but some of its main concerns as well. When one recognizes that Tarquin's sexual assault involves his forcing on Lucrece his mutually reinforcing, interconnected roles, antithetic to hers, then the scope of his violence is elucidated: his assault appears to involve unusually comprehensive psychic violence in conjunction with extreme physical violence.22 Lucrece's profound sense of contamination seems, therefore, even more understandable. So too does her decision to commit suicide. Yet this reading illuminates not only these later occurrences in the poem, but also the issues that are arguably its main concerns. The mutually constitutive nature of characterization early in the poem indicates that Lucrece's interactive roles are variously imposed on her from without and, further, that she knows her basic role as chaste Roman matron to have been externally imposed and to be removable. The externality of Lucrece's selfhood, and her awareness of its being so, explains her feeling of contamination and her decision to commit suicide, for it becomes apparent that she thinks of Tarquin's assault as having stolen her main role in her world. And Lucrece's sense that her role as chaste Roman matron derives from without also sheds light on her insistent denial of her innocence. In her mind, apparently, Tarquin's assault has erased her basic self and thus she is no longer chaste and hence not completely innocent.23

More important, Lucrece's awareness of the externally imposed nature of her basic role is linked to her consciousness of herself as an exemplar of chastity, a connection that raises questions about exemplarity in, and beyond, the poem. Well aware that her role of exemplar, like her role as chaste Roman matron, derives from without, Lucrece believes that her rape immediately deletes the latter and will subsequently make ambiguous or cancel out the former. To regain the one, and to preserve the other, she resolves upon suicide. Her perception of who she ultimately is, and the self-negating decision that results from it (to lose herself in order to save herself), raises several major questions about exemplarity. First, if one's role as exemplar is imposed from without, in light of external circumstance and with no—or little—precise knowledge of one's inner life, then how reliable can exemplarity be as a means of defining subjectivity, of identifying an incarnation of an ideal? Further, how can exemplarity therefore be regarded as a reliable means of interpreting history, of clarifying and stabilizing it? This question has a special relevance, I think, because the intertextual relations of Shakespeare's narrative suggest how often and how variously Lucrece's role as exemplar has been reconstructed: continuity, variation, and contradiction all mark its descent. Moreover, what does it indicate about exemplarity if Lucrece has to kill herself to preserve its/her integrity and hence the integrity of historical tradition? Lucrece successfully preserves her exemplarity, preserves historical tradition, and seemingly reveals the hermeneutic limitations or incapacity of exemplarity. There are of course other questions implicitly raised; but my primary concern here is to emphasize that exemplarity is not merely subverted in the poem, though aspects of it certainly are—such as what some sixteenth-century writers considered to be its unquestionable interpretative authority; rather, it is subjected to close and skeptical examination. Shakespeare's narrative suggests that exemplarity is both reliable and unreliable as a means of defining subjectivity and interpreting history. In Tarquin's case, for instance, exemplarity is more or less simply accurate; but because of its contingency upon externals and hearsay, it has to be made accurate in the case of Lucrece (by means of her suicide). Hence, Lucrece shows exemplarity to be concurrently efficient and deficient—a skeptical approach towards exemplarity that might lead one to find Lucrece more akin to the essays of Montaigne than to the writings of Shakespeare's English contemporaries.24 Ultimately, examining the intricately interactive establishing of characterization in Lucrece leads one to encounter a transformation of myth, and an examination of exemplarity and its interpretative function, that make one reconsider the poem as a whole.


1 For examples of the critical approaches and concerns mentioned, see: Coppélia Kahn, "The Rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece," ShakS 9 (1976): 45-72; Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare's Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1983), pp. 18-41; Nancy J. Vickers, "This Heraldry in Lucrece Face,'" PoT 6 (1985): 171-84; Heather Dubrow, Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 80-168; Georgina Ziegler, "My lady's chamber: female space, female chastity in Shakespeare," TexP 4,1 (Spring 1990): 73-90; Linda Woodbridge, "Palisading the Elizabethan Body Politic," TSLL 33, 3 (Fall 1991): 327-54; and Annabel Patterson, Reading Between the Lines (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 297-312. I am grateful to one of SEL's readers for some astute and helpful comments on an earlier form of this essay.

2 In fact, none as far as I am aware.

3 That is, approximately lines 1-441 (William Shakespeare, Lucrece, in The Poems, ed. F. T. Prince [London: Methuen, 1976]). Further references to Lucrece will appear parenthetically in the text by line number.

4 Cf. lines 30-4.

5 Plato, The Republic, trans. David Lee (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), 9.572-5. On the genre of tyrant tragedies, see Rebecca W. Bushnell, Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990).

6 See also lines 652-65, spoken by Lucrece.

7 Plato, 9.579b.

8 Cf. lines 120-89.

9 Plato, 8.569b and 565d-6a.

10 Cf. line 676.

11 Cf. lines 519-39, 806-40, 1184-211, and so on.

12 On the Renaissance discourse of exemplarity, see Timothy Hampton, Writing from History: The Rhetoric of Exemplarity in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990). See also Larry Scanlon, Narrative, Authority, and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 27-54.

13 See also lines 52-73. "Field" is also, of course, a heraldic reference.

14 The phrase is Mikhail Bakhtin's (from the appendix of Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans. Caryl Emerson [Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1984], p. 293).

15 Cf. lines 386-99.

16 Cf. line 58.

17 See lines 9-14 of "Amor, che nel penser mio vive et regna" (in Petrarch's Lyric Poems: The Rime Sparse and Other Lyrics, ed. and trans. Robert M. Durling [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976], p. 285); and lines 13-4 of "Passa la nave mia colma d'oblio," (in Petrarch's Lyric Poems, p. 335).

18 Cf. line 278.

19 Petrarch, "Passa la nave," line 13.

20 Cf. lines 271-3 and 279-80.

21 Cf. lines 197-201 and 271-3.

22 Lucrece clearly does not understand the full extent of Tarquin's imposition of psychic violence; she understands, however, that he is forcing his antithetic role(s) on her.

23 See lines 1048-50, 519-39, 806-40, and 1184-211.

24 See "Of Cruelty," for example, and Hampton's interesting discussion of it and other of Montaigne's essays in Writing from History, pp. 134-97.

Source: "Subjectivity, Exemplarity, and the Establishing of Characterization in Lucrece," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 45-60.