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In “The Rape of Lucrece” the character Tarquin is the perpetrator of the rape that is named in the poem’s title. There is a definite imbalance of power between Tarquin and his victim, Lucrece.
The type of “power” that Tarquin did not possess was self-control. In fact there are several passages that mention his internal struggle with his conscience as well as fear of getting caught and fear of eternal ruination of his soul. For example, in lines 155-161, Tarquin struggles with idea that he is “pawning his honor to obtain his lust”. He is furthermore “madly toss’d between desire and dread” (171), and he feels that he is “fancy’s slave” (200) when it comes to being unable to resist temptation. In the final line of the poem he will lose all of his power when he ends up banished by everybody after they find out about his attack on Lucrece (1855).
But these deficits of power, one imagined by Tarquin and the other imposed by the knights who have sworn to avenge Lucrece, pale in comparison to the terrible power that Tarquin has held over Lucrece during the time he spends in her house. Tarquin is automatically in a position of power because he is a male and Lucrece is a female. Societal expectations of women have traditionally been that women are subservient and weaker than men. Physical strength makes Tarquin unstoppable even if Lucrece had felt worthy enough to fight him. But perhaps even more tragically, Lucrece was betrayed in that she regarded Tarquin as a friend of her husband and had no reason to expect that he was premeditating her rape the entire time he was visiting with her on the day he arrived. Lines 85 – 90 describe her innocence thus:
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:
After Tarquin arrives, he intentionally grooms Lucrece in a predatory fashion as he praises her beloved husband’s fame and makes excuses for coming to visit (106-114). Eventually they both retire to their separate bedrooms. Tarquin then forces his way into her bedroom, and seems emboldened by her helplessness and innocence as he gazes at her sleeping. However, “she, sound sleeping, fearing no such thing, lies at the mercy of his mortal sting” (363-264). And when he at last lays his hands upon her, she reacts with confusion because she has been sleeping soundly, and has furthermore never been groped like this before. In lines 463-469, the poem describes how feeling Lucrece’s heart beating in panic only makes Tarquin feel all the more aroused rather than pitying. Lucrece is also helpless against his rhetoric as Tarquin explains to her in lines 477-501 how this rape is all her fault and threatens to kill her and frame her eternally as a harlot from lines 512-525 if she should try to resist him. With no previous experience in violent treatment such as this, Lucrece feels unable to do anything but accept her fate. After Tarquin satisfies himself, he flees in a fit of “sadness” about what he has done. One might speculate that he probably goes on to live for at least a few more days in freedom and relatively unharmed by the guilt he knows he ought to feel. His power will only be ended by Lucrece’s later disclosure of Tarquin’s crime, which leads to his banishment and loss of right to become king.
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