The Poem

At Ardea, where the Romans are fighting, two Roman leaders, Tarquin and Collatine, speak together one evening. Collatine describes his beautiful young wife, Lucrece, in such glowing terms that Tarquin’s passions are aroused. The next morning, Tarquin leaves the Roman host and journeys to Collatium, where the unsuspecting Lucrece welcomes him as one of her husband’s friends. As Tarquin tells her many tales of Collatine’s prowess on the battlefield, he looks admiringly at Lucrece and decides that she is the most beautiful woman in Rome.

In the night, while the others of the household are asleep, Tarquin lays restless. Caught between desire for Lucrece and dread of being discovered, to the consequent loss of his honor, he wanders aimlessly about his chamber. On one hand, there is his position as a military man who should not be the slave of his emotions; on the other hand is his overwhelming desire. He fears the dreadful consequences that might be the result of his lustful deed. His disgrace would never be forgotten. Perhaps his own face would show the mark of his crimes and the advertisement linger on even after death. He thinks for a moment that he might try to woo Lucrece but decides that such a course would be to no avail. She is already married and is not mistress of her own desires. Again he considers the possible consequences of his deed.

At last, emotion conquers reason. As Tarquin makes his way to Lucrece’s chamber, many petty annoyances deter him. The locks on the doors have to be forced; the threshold beneath the door grates under his footstep; the wind threatens to blow out his torch; he pricks his finger on a needle. Tarquin ignores these omens of disaster. In fact, he misconstrues them as forms of trial that only make his “prize” more worth winning.

When he reaches the chamber door, Tarquin begins to pray for success. Realizing, however, that heaven will not countenance his sin, he declares that Love and Fortune will henceforth be his gods. Entering the room, he gazes at Lucrece in sleep. When he reaches forward to touch her breast, she awakens with a cry of fear. He tells her that her beauty has captured his heart and that she must submit to his will....

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Bullough, Geoffrey. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1957. Reprints the sources and analogues Shakespeare used, or may have used, in creating the poem; provides an intelligent introduction to how those sources pertain.

Donaldson, Ian. The Rapes of Lucretia. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1982. Thorough study of the Lucretia story in Western art and literature. Describes how Shakespeare’s version of the story redirects the meaning of the myth to apply to late sixteenth century English culture.

Kuhl, E. P. “Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece.” Philological Quarterly 20, no. 3 (July, 1941): 352-360. A seminal article interpreting the poem as a political narrative to warn Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton, of the dangers of abusing power.

Prince, F. T., ed. Introduction to The Poems, by William Shakespeare. New York: Methuen, 1960. Classic introduction to the poem and its background, sources, and text. Although sometimes uncritical by contemporary standards, it remains a good starting point for study of the poem, especially for Prince’s appreciation of the poem as poetry.

Stimpson, Catharine. “Shakespeare and the Soil of Rape.” In The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift-Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Nealy. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1980. Excellent introduction to feminist responses to the poem. Examines Lucrece’s position in the patriarchy.