The Rape of Lucrece
Although widely popular during Shakespeare's lifetime, The Rape of Lucrece (1594), his second narrative poem, fell into critical disfavor in the ensuing years, to a certain extent overshadowed by the vitality of his dramatic works. In the twentieth century, a renewed interest by scholars in the topics of sexuality, cultural studies, and gender roles has made the poem once again an important topic of critical commentary. In addition, modern critics have reevaluated the work in terms of its formal merits, noting that the sophistication of its imagery and narrative technique contribute to its overall aesthetic value.
Scholars place the primary sources of The Rape of Lucrece in the writings of classical antiquity, specifically in Ovid's Fasti and Metamorphoses as well as Livy's Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), among others. Likewise, Shakespeare had access to certain medieval and Elizabethan sources for the Lucrece legend, including Geoffrey Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (c. 1386) and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen (c. 1590). The narrative, which Shakespeare outlines in the prose Argument that proceeds the poem, follows the legend as it was told by Ovid and Livy. Sextus Tarquinius, son of the Roman king, hears Collatinus proclaim the incomparable chastity of his wife, Lucrece. Later seeing the woman in the presence of Collatinus, Tarquinius is smitten with her beauty, but for the time being hides his passions. While staying in Collatium at Lucrece's residence, however, Tarquinius steals into her chambers and rapes her, ignoring her desperate appeals for mercy. After Tarquinius has fled, Lucrece dispatches messengers to her husband and her father, who arrive along with Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius. Lucrece tells the men what has happend to her and makes them swear revenge on her attacker, then stabs and kills herself. Witnessing this, the men vow to exile the Tarquin family from Rome, and in so doing overthrow the monarchy and institute a government of consuls.
While the Argument summarizes the plot, critics acknowledge that the true action of Shakespeare's poem occurs in relation to character and motivation. Most commentators split the narrative into two (or possibly three) parts. The first deals with Tarquin's lustful thoughts, his guilt, and concern with his own honor as a warrior. The second, following the rape—which Shakespeare does not describe, since his audience would have been familiar with the story—treats Lucrece's thoughts in the aftermath of her attack, and is occupied with her lament of the intangibles Night, Time, and Opportunity. The last portion of the poem concerns Lucrece's contemplation of a scene from the Trojan War, and her thoughts on the violence inherent in the human condition.
One of the primary lines of commentary on the poem focuses on the character of Lucrece. J. W. Lever (1971) saw her as inauthentic, and more an embodiment of the virtue of chastity than a real human being. As such, when her virtue has been assailed by Tarquin, she is left with no other alternative than to end her life in order to preserve her honor. Ian Donaldson (1982), maintained a similar stance on the subject of Lucrece. Asking the question of whether Shakespeare's portrayal of Lucrece is admiring or critical, he argued in favor of the latter, while noting that the issue is problematized by the question of moral standards. In The Rape of Lucrece, Donaldson maintained, Shakespeare portrays both Roman and Christian standards of conduct. On the question of suicide these worldviews differ considerably—what is acceptable in ancient Rome is a sin in the Christian ethos. In contrast, however, several critics have contended that the character of Lucrece is displayed favorably. Laura Bromley (1983) viewed her as a heroic figure who overcomes Tarquin's transgression, and Richard Levin (1981) claimed that the ironic readings of her character that paint her as flawed are spurious in light of the socio-political contexts in which Shakespeare drew her.
Many critics have put aside the specific questions of character in order to examine the issues of language, gender, and politics in The Rape of Lucrece. Katharine Eisaman Maus's formal analysis of language in the poem (1986) revealed the prevalence of violence as a psychological and linguistic fact embedded in the metaphors that both Lucrece and Tarquin, as well as the narrator, employ. Likewise, Joyce Green MacDonald (1994) saw the ideological frames surrounding woman's speech as contributing to the victimization of Lucrece. Other feminist critics have also identified elements of patriarchal repression in the poem. Scholarly interest in gender roles have also been closely associated with the political motif in The Rape of Lucrece. Richard A. Lanham (1979) observed that Shakespeare dramatizes the rape as primarily a power relationship and interprets to the work as a political allegory. According to Lanham the rape represents a radical change in perception—a shift that is mirrored by the power shift from an outdated chivalric monarchy, represented by the now deposed Tarquins, to the political exchange of the new consular government formed by Brutus.
Yet another area of critical interest focuses on the narrative structure of The Rape of Lucrece. Long believed to be inferior to his plays, Shakespeare's narrative poems have suffered from critical disdain since the seventeenth century. Many scholars have attributed the aesthetic flaws of this poem, such as Lucrece's almost rambling digressions, to Shakespeare's artistic immaturity and youthfulness. R. Rawdon Wilson, in his 1988 evaluation of the poem, however, noted Shakespeare's narrative mastery, subtle characterization, and the poem's aesthetic self-reflexivity (highlighted by Lucrece's contemplation of the Trojan painting). Likewise David Willbern (1991) argued that the poem displays an aesthetic of narrative invention that surpasses the limitations of character and reveals a transcendent commentary on the nature of human desire.