The Rape of Lucrece Lucrece's Gaze
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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Lucrece's Gaze

Stephen J. Carter, York University


(Shakespearean Criticism)

In Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece Tarquin's and Lucrece's acts of seeing precede their speaking. I shall argue that a specific, constructed experience of social space produces their ability to speak through a sequence of narratable actions. This spatial figuration projects along gender lines. How vision is socially put together reveals the linguistic means by which Lucrece, Tarquin, 'their' narrator, and the narrative's audience come to be screens for the imaginai projection of gender.

A useful beginning may be to investigate the phenomenological acquisition of sight as documented in clinical situations. When patients who had been blind from birth first started receiving cataract operations, records of the doctors' reports on the patients' progress were collected in a study by Marius von Senden.1 As it turned out, such "newly sighted" patients were not merely confronting a surfeit of new, different data. Their task was to learn a thoroughly new intellectual skill: how to put together the vast sensory experience contained in even the simplest, smallest movement of one's body through space. Their experience constitutes persuasive evidence that we are "taught" to posit not only an objective world outside ourselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a curiously objective gender inside, inseparable from our experience of being subjects. "I showed her my hand," wrote one of the doctors of a patient,

and asked her what it was; she looked long at it, without saying a word; I then took her own hand and held it before her eyes, she said with a deep sigh: 'That's my hand.' A blind person has no exact idea even of the shape of his own body; so that I first had to hold her own hand before her in order for her to recognize mine as a hand also.2

The patient could be described as passing through Lacan's mirroring ego-ideal stage; she emerges on this side of what she sees, as a subject—opposite to and abstracted from a constructed tableau. To see, in a sense, is to be the author of oneself. Another patient described seeing

an extensive field of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, and in motion. He could not distinguish objects.3

In the course of time, however, by trial and error s/he learns to pick out such static patterns of nonmovement from the swirling of forms and colors: objects. This, as noted above, can be interpreted as the initiating, establishing event in subjectivity, setting in motion all of a life's subsequent events. Like vision, then, being a subject is an acquired mental process, a process of mirroring. A subject/object grid is deployed between observer and observed, such that vision does not merely interpret, but organizes, in effect produces, our social, gendered reality.

This process of linking with one's reality effects a cognitive "lack of being," the recognition that one's "realization lies in another actual or imaginary space."4 Such a patient, like Lacan's infant,

only sees [his] form as more or less total and unified in an external image, in a virtual, alienated ideal unity [ … ]5

—in a mirror. The "gendered Other" gazes at his/her untouchable virtuality. Male/female as Other only knows itself by the mediating image(s) it has of the mirror-subject. It knows what it is by what it is not. This "lack of being" is initiated by, produced, and grows with one's capacity for sight. A patient's lack—this "rushing in" of gender—occurs in the act of making himself real in an imaginary space.

In The Rape of Lucrece this spatial metaphorizing of gender is apparent in the linguistically partitioned actions, and therefore the identities, of the two primary characters, Lucrece and Tarquin. I shall focus primarily, though not exclusively, on the scene of Lucrece "reading" the wall painting in which Troy's defeat is depicted. I shall argue that in her surveying of the painting—in her return from a journey into sightedness—she constructs herself as a rhetorical, gendered...

(The entire section is 3,951 words.)