The story of Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece is an ancient Roman legend that has been presented in many versions, including in this poem by William Shakespeare. The Elizabethans were especially fond of this legend, so Shakespeare had numerous sources upon which to draw. Compared with his other writings, this poem is far more conventionally Elizabethan, yet its passages of great emotion and its consistently beautiful poetry rank it above other interpretations of the story known in his day.
The Rape of Lucrece was entered at the Stationers’ Register on May 9, 1594. Like Venus and Adonis which had been published the previous year, it was finely printed by Richard Field and dedicated to the earl of Southampton. Both of these narrative poems had been written while the theaters were closed because of the plague, but these companion pieces are not the idle products of a dramatist during a period of forced inactivity. Rather, as the dedications and the care in publication indicate, they are efforts at what, in Shakespeare’s day, was a more serious, more respectable type of composition than writing plays.
Longer and graver in tone than Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece was extremely popular, going through many editions, and was quoted frequently by contemporaries. The stern Gabriel Harvey, a Cambridge fellow and friend of Edmund Spenser, enthusiastically approved of the poem and paired it with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) for seriousness of intent. The poem may be the “graver labor” that Shakespeare promises Southampton in the dedication to Venus and Adonis. Whether or not Shakespeare intended to pair the poems, The Rape of Lucrece does provide a moralistic contrast to the view of love and sexuality expressed in the earlier poem.
The genre of The Rape of Lucrece is complaint, a form popular in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and particularly in vogue in the late 1590’s. Strictly speaking, the complaint is a monologue in which the speaker bewails his or her fate or the sad state of the world. Shakespeare, however, following the example of many contemporaries, took advantage of the possibilities for variety afforded by dialogue. The poem includes the long set speeches and significant digressions that had become associated with the complaint. The poetic style is the highly ornamented sort approved by sophisticated Elizabethan audiences.
The rhyme royal stanza may have been suggested by its traditional use in serious narrative or, more immediately, by Samuel Daniel’s use of it in his popular Complaint of Rosamond (1592). The Rape of Lucrece shares with Daniel’s poem the Elizabethan literary fascination with the distress of noble ladies. The poem is not sensual, except in the lushness of its imagery. The rape scene is attenuated by a grotesquely extended description of Lucrece’s breasts, but the long, idealized description of the heroine is a rhetorical tour de force, not sexual stimulation. The theme of heroic chastity is always paramount, and readers are never distracted by action. Indeed, the prose “argument” that precedes the poem describes a story with enormous possibilities for action and adventure, but Shakespeare, consistent with his higher purpose, chooses to focus, reflectively and analytically, on the moral and psychological issues. Although the result is sometimes boring, there are occasional signs of Shakespeare’s dramatic ability, especially in the exchanges before the rape.
The characters are static and stylized, but the revelation of the characters is skillfully done. As Tarquin’s lust wrestles with his conscience, he is portrayed in an agony of indecision. The main medium of his internal conflict is the conventional theme of the antagonism of...
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passion and reason. This section is a compendium of reflections on and rationalizations for the destructive power of lust. Tarquin thinks in terms of conventional images, but the contrasts and antitheses, as he is tossed back and forth between commonplaces, effectively represent his inner struggle. When Lucrece appeals to the very concerns that have bedeviled Tarquin, there is a dramatic poignancy that most of the rest of the poem lacks. After the rape, the change in Tarquin’s thoughts from lust to guilt and shame is striking.
Lucrece’s complaint is also wholly conventional in substance, but contrast and antithesis again give a vitality to her grief as she rationalizes her suicide as not the destruction of her soul but the only way to restore her honor. The imagistic alternations from day to night, clear to cloudy, reflect her anguish and the difficulty of her decision.
The poem’s structure suggests that the exploration and decoration of conventional themes concerning lust and honor are the main intent. The Rape of Lucrece centers on the mental states and moral attitudes of the characters immediately before and after the crucial action. The rape is a premise for the reflections, the suicide a logical result. The set speeches are reinforced by free authorial moralizing. Significant digressions, like the long physical description of Lucrece and her extended apostrophe to Opportunity, further elaborate the main themes. The longest and most effective digression is Lucrece’s contemplation of the Troy painting. The opportunities for finding correlatives are fully exploited. The city of Troy is apt, because it has been brought to destruction by a rape, and Paris is the perfect example of the selfishness of lust. Sinon, whose honest exterior belies his treachery, reminds Lucrece of the contrast between appearance and reality, nobility and baseness, that she had noted in Tarquin. The whole digression, which repeats by means of allusion, is ornamental rather than explanatory.
The severe paring of the plot further reveals Shakespeare’s main concern. Collatine, the offended husband, appears only briefly, suffers silently, and does not even personally initiate the revenge; he does not intrude on the crucial issues. The bloodthirstiness of Lucrece’s plea for revenge is another sign that elucidation of character is unimportant compared to the beautiful expression of moral imperatives. The revenge itself is, mysteriously, instigated by Brutus (an action that makes more sense in other versions of the tale) and is carried out perfunctorily in a few closing lines, because it is secondary to the themes of the poem.
Regardless of its moral earnestness and occasional tedium, The Rape of Lucrece is gorgeously ornamented with figures of speech, especially alliteration and assonance, and with figures of thought that please more for their brilliance of execution than their depth of conception. The Rape of Lucrece is, like Venus and Adonis, a rhetorical showpiece.