(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Ian Donaldson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "'A Theme for Disputation': Shakespeare's Lucrece," in The Rapes of Lucretia: A Myth and Its Transformation, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1982, pp. 40-56.

[In the following overview of The Rape of Lucrece, Donaldson contends that Shakespeare's depiction of the Lucrece story is morally ambiguous because it vacillates between Roman and Christian viewpoints.]

What goes wrong with Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece? Despite many local subtleties and felicities, the poem never quite adds up to a coherent whole, or to a totally compelling human drama. There is a sense—so rare in Shakespeare's work as to be doubly remarkable—that the central moral complexities of the story are in some ways curiously evaded, while the simpler outlying issues are decoratively elaborated. The poem repeatedly begins to analyse the nature of a moral predicament, only to break off abruptly, diverting us into an extended metaphor, lament, or topical digression. Like its two principal characters, the poem seems alternately to scrutinize and retreat from problems, to debate and to grow weary of debate. The issues are talked around, but seldom through. Yet there are frequent reminders of how complex these issues are:

'Let my good name, that senseless reputation,
For Collatine's dear love be kept unspotted;
If that be made a theme for disputation,
The branches of another root are rotted,
And undeserv'd reproach to him allotted
That is as clear from this attaint of mine
As I ere this was pure to Collatine.'

"'If that be made a theme for disputation …"': by Shakespeare's day, 'a theme for disputation' is precisely what the classical Lucretia's reputation had become, her conduct with Sextus Tarquinius and her decision to take her own life being matters that were sometimes formally debated pro and contra.1 Casting apprehensively into the future, Shakespeare's Lucrece unwittingly forecasts the fate thatwas indeed to overtake her own 'good name'. Her words have something of the same ironically prophetic force as those of Troilus and Cressida when they exchange their vows ('true swains in love shall in the world to come/ Approve their truth by Troilus …' etc. III.ii.l69ff.), reminding us of the ways in which hopes and reputations are affected by the passage of time. Yet where Shakespeare's poem stands in relation to the familiar 'disputation' about the classical Lucretia, whether his own Lucrece is intended to be seen as a wholly admiring or as a partly critical portrait, are matters which are far from clear.

In one sense, perhaps, this open-endedness might be thought not to matter very much; it might even be said to be the poem's strength. The processes of a poem are not identical with the processes of logical argument, and it should not surprise us if Shakespeare does not approach the moral problems of the Lucretia story in the unremittingly logical manner of an Augustine. Shakespeare seems in fact to be less interested in arguing a particular case within the poem than in exploring the states of mind from which argumentation springs. More specifically, he dramatizes the difficulties which people have in pursuing their thoughts logically and consecutively while under the stress of suffering or sexual passion—stress that creates dilemmas which (ironically particularly demand the elucidation of steady thought. Tarquin and Lucrece, both separately and together, try to argue through their predicaments, and are constantly frustrated. The questions that Tarquin puts to himself before the rape seem circular, incapable of resolution, scarcely even questions so much as signs of internal agitation:

Thus, graceless, holds he disputation
'Tween frozen conscience and hot-burning
will …

Tarquin's 'disputation' is something less than disputation, a wretched worrying to and fro, ultimately shortcircuited by a blind decision to act. 'I have debated, even in my soul', Tarquin announces to the hapless Lucrece (498), but the debate has in fact long since been abandoned: 'Then, childish fear avaunt! debating die!' (274). The debate has been between rational and sub-rational forces (represented by 'will', and the memory of Lucrece's sighs and graces: 'All orators are dumb when beauty pleadeth' (268)). After the rape, Lucrece also 'holds disputation', attempting forlornly to debate her way out of her dilemmas:

So she, deep-drenched in a sea of care,
Holds disputation with each thing she views,
And to herself all sorrow doth compare;
No object but her passion's strength renews,
And as one shifts, another straight ensues.
Sometime her grief is dumb and hath no
Sometimes 'tis mad and too much talk

This disputation is (again) a state of anxiety, not a process of ratiocination. Lucrece is unable to think things through, unable also to cease from thought. Whether she is speechless, whether she is garrulous, language is inadequate to express her grief.

'Out, idle words, servants to shallow fools!
Unprofitable sounds, weak arbitrators!
Busy yourselves in skill-contending schools,
Debate where leisure serves with dull
To trembling clients be you mediators.
For me, I force not argument a straw,
Since that my case is past the help of

Yet though Lucrece dismisses 'idle words', it is to idle words that she constantly returns: talk is her main solace and occupation. Unlike the sorrowing Hecuba in the painting of fallen Troy ('so much grief and not a tongue' (1463)), unlike the raped and tongueless Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, Lucrece talks of her griefs, but her talk seems to get her nowhere.2

In Livy's and Ovid's versions of the Lucretia story, Shakespeare may well have noticed a recurring stress on the superiority of deeds to words. In Livy's narrative the initial argument amongst the men concerning the virtue of their wives is cut short by Collatinus, who tells his companions that there is no point in sitting about debating the issue when they can resolve their differences by the simple action of riding off to Rome: Collatinus negat verbis opus esse. Ovid develops this sentiment: Non opus est verbis credite rebus ait: 'No need of words! Trust deeds!' cries Collatinus, and the men take to their horses. One of the larger ironies of the story is of course the fact that the deeds which follow this confident cry are more various and more complex than the innocent Collatinus realizes: they are to include the rape and suicide of his own wife and the later expulsion of the Tarquins. Brutus in Livy's account urges the Romans to leave their idle lamentations (inertium querellarum) and act like men. The Romans respond by rising against the Tarquins and driving them from Rome, at last abandoning speech for action. In Shakespeare's poem, this climax is very subdued, as is the entire political dimension of the story. The banishment of the Tarquins is mentioned briefly in the final stanza of the poem, almost as a narrative afterthought. Shakespeare does not give us a story of tirumphant action. Whenever in Shakespeare's poem deeds seem preferable to words, it is only as the lesser of two evils. Tarquin decides to rape Lucrece, and Lucrece decides to take her own life, yet neither of these actions seems to have been proved to be logically or morally defensible; they are undertaken rather out of a kind of despair, because they seem the only effective way of ending the whole wearisome and seemingly interminable processes of debate:

This helpless smoke of words doth me no
The remedy indeed to do me good
Is to let forth my foul defiled blood.

It is a typical irony in the poem that these words initiate in Lucrece's mind a further series of doubts about the wisdom of suicide and a further 'smoke of words' before she finally puts an end to her own life. Longing for the simplicity of action, Shakespeare's characters find themselves entangled in a web of words.

Shakespeare's achievement in dealing with the traditional story is to have opened up a new interior world of shifting doubts, hesitations, anxieties, anticipations, and griefs. No other version of the Lucretia story explores more minutely or with greater psychological insight the mental processes of the two major characters, their inconsistent waverings to and fro, before they bring themselves finally and reluctantly to action. Yet this subtlety is achieved at a certain cost. In so vividly dramatizing Tarquin's and Lucrece's moral uncertainties, Shakespeare introduces a fatal element of moral uncertainty into the poem itself. It is not simply a matter of Shakespeare allowing us to feel (as he does, say, with Antony and Cleopatra) that the characters' behaviour may in some way transcend or invalidate common standards of moral judgement, or that a purely adjudicative response to their actions is somehow beside the point. There is instead a deeper feeling of irresolution in the poem, a wavering between different criteria for judgement, a sense that Shakespeare, while sharing some of his contemporaries' doubts about the way in which Lucrece chose to act, is attempting— not altogether successfully—to retell Lucrece's story in a manner which is by and large approbatory. The poem veers from incipient criticism of Lucrece towards a muted celebration of her actions, yet the treatment of the story remains curiously problematical. For all the poem's delicacy of psychological insight, Shakespeare has not quite managed to achieve what elsewhere he so often achieves with such arresting effect: he does not take moral repossession of the older story, confidently charging it with new depth and intricacy of significance.


The post-Augustinian debate about the character of the classical Lucretia turned essentially upon one point. How was Lucretia to be judged: by the moral standards of ancient Rome, or by those of Christianity? The most thorough-going critics of Lucretia, such as William Tyndale, took a very severe line, condemning her as a woman who had sadly failed to live up to the standards of Christianity. 'She sought her own glory in her chastity, and not God's,' wrote Tyndale sternly, as if to imply that, if only she had made a decent effort, Lucretia ought to have been able to anticipate the wishes and precepts of the Christian God.3 Others took a more tolerant and relativistic view of the matter, conceding that Lucretia did not behave in the manner to be expected of a modern Christian, but arguing none the less that she behaved courageously and unexceptionably according to the highest moral standards of her time. This was the attitude, for example, of Pierre Bayle, and many writers before him. One of the difficulties of Shakespeare's poem is that it is never made clear whether we are to judge the actions of the characters by Roman or by Christian standards; nor is it even clear what kind of moral universe they inhabit. Christian terminology and Christian thinking constantly recur throughout the poem. There is talk of heaven and hell, of saints and sinners and angels and devils, of grace and gracelessness. 'The blackest sin is clear'd with absolution,' says Tarquin (354), as he finally decides to rape Lucrece, and both Tarquin and Lucrece express anxiety about the salvation of their immortal souls. It is tempting to say that such Christian references do not affect the coherence of the poem, but merely enlarge its suggestive power; that only a literal-minded reader would baulk at Shakespeare's 'timeless' fusion of Roman and Christian worlds. 'It is not a Roman thought', noted an early twentieth-century editor of the poem dutifully against a stanza in which Lucrece meditates the possible perdition of her soul, and the comment is swept aside as unimaginative quibbling by the recent Arden editor: 'It is indeed a Christian thought; but Shakespeare's whole procedure precludes historical accuracy, and we would rather have his Elizabethan interpretations of Roman character and thought than reconstructions by more scholarly minds.'4 Yet the matter is not quite as simple as that. The Christian references in the poem are not casual anachronisms like the chiming clock in Julius Caesar, nor can they be said to amount to anything as systematic as 'Elizabethan interpretations of Roman character and thought'. What Shakespeare actually gives us is an alternation between Roman and Christian viewpoints, which generates constant uncertainty as to the way in which the poem is to be read.

Some of the difficulties can be seen in a passage such as the following:

He thence departs a heavy convertite,
She there remains a hopeless castaway;
He in his speed looks for the...

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Contemporary Reception

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard Levin (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Ironic Reading of The Rape of Lucrece and the Problem of External Evidence," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Production, Vol. 34, 1981, 85-92.

[In the following essay, Levin counters modern negative and ironic interpretations of Lucrece's character with analyses written during Shakespeare's own time.]

For some time now we have watched the ironic critics working their way through Shakespeare's canon, demonstrating that his major characters must not be 'taken at face value', which invariably means that they must be taken at a good deal less than face value. One...

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Language And Imagery

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Katharine Eisaman Maus (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Taking Tropes Seriously: Language and Violence in Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 66-82.

[In the following essay, Maus analyzes The Rape of Lucrece as Shakespeare's literalization of a violent metaphor.]

Around 1601 Gabriel Harvey, writing in the margin of his copy of Chaucer, remarked that Shakespeare's "Lucrece, and his tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them, to please the wiser sort." His remark suggests that The Rape of Lucrece helped establish Shakespeare's seriousness as a poet, a...

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Narrative Technique

(Shakespearean Criticism)

R. Rawdon Wilson (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Shakespearean Narrative: The Rape of Lucrece Reconsidered," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 28, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pp. 39-59.

[In the following essay, Wilson surveys critical attempts to redeem The Rape of Lucrece from critical disapproval by examining the richness of its narrative technique.]

The Rape of Lucrece occupies an uncertain position in Shakespeare's canon. Generally neglected by students of the plays, and seemingly lacking the verbal magic of the sonnets, Lucrece most commonly has been relegated to the immeritorious categories of early,...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Richard A. Lanham (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Lucrece," in Hebrew University Studies in Literature, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 66-76.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a speech in 1979, Lanham examines The Rape of Lucrece as a commentary on one of its sources, Livy, and as an allegory on the nature of political development in history.]

The Rape of Lucrece has long been considered, when considered at all, only as a warm-up for future dramatic greatness. Tarquin contemplating rape reminds us of Macbeth contemplating murder. Tarquin rape completed reminds us of Othello with "his reputation gone."...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Baldwin, T. W. "The Literary Genetics of 'Lucrece'." In On the Literary Genetics of Shakespere's Poems and Sonnets, pp. 97-153. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950.

Offers a detailed study of the classical and contemporary sources that Shakespeare likely relied on in composing The Rape of Lucrece.

Bromley, Laura G. "Lucrece's Re-Creation," in Shakespeare Quarterly 34, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 200-11.

Interprets the character of Lucrece as an heroic figure, one who undergoes moral struggle and transformation, emerging as a fully integrated self.

Carter, Stephen J. "Lucrece's Gaze." Shakespeare Studies XXffl (1995):...

(The entire section is 507 words.)