The Rape of Lucrece Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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In William Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, is it possible that Tarquin's act of rape was a symbol for the plague in some way, a tale of warning about letting strange people into your house. Instead of rape, the plague attacked her and caused her death...maybe she killed herself to prevent the shame and spread of the disease? 

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Walter Fischer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Intriguing though the notion that William Shakespeare’s poem “The Rape of Lucrece” is somehow a metaphor for the plague and a warning against complacency, there is nothing that this educator has found that supports such a thesis.  On the contrary, “The Rape of Lucrece” is an adaptation of the histories of ancient Rome in which the story originated.  Additionally, in neither Shakespeare’s note to The Right Honorable Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield, which constitutes a sort of dedication for the poem that follows, nor in the author’s preface to the beginning of poem does Shakespeare allude in any way to the plague.  His poem should be accepted at face-value as an ode to the late, lamented wife of Collatinus, who made the tragic mistake of discussing his wife’s “incomparable chastity” in the presence of an apparently sociopathic superior, specifically, Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son:

“For he the night before, in Tarquin's tent,
Unlock'd the treasure of his happy state;” 

The story of the rape of Lucrece can be considered a manifestation of the perverse desire on the part of some males to “deflower” a virgin, particularly one of demonstrable beauty.  Thus, in the first stanza, Shakespeare begins his poem with the following:

“Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.”

What follows is a story about the ramifications of one brief, violent act perpetrated against a woman who believed her only recourse was to commit suicide.  Inasmuch as those ramifications entailed the fall of a king – a not insubstantial outcome for a scandal, especially in the period in question – it can be concluded that the gravity of the situation, on its own merits, was sufficient to inspire the poem.

There are, of course, references to “plague” in the poem, most notably the line “Why should the private pleasure of someone become the public plague of many more?”  In other words, should the many suffer for the acts of the few?  It is possible that, in writing this line, Shakespeare was alluding to the plague that was devastating England, and which had killed millions across Europe during its multiple occurrences.  In such case, however, the use of the plague as a metaphor seems very limited to the issue of justice for which those who mourned Lucrece’s fate agitated.  The plague does not, though, appear to have any other relevance with respect to “The Rape of Lucrece.”

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