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...
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