(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Rape of Lucrece

Although The Rape of Lucrece has traditionally been taken as one of Shakespeare's earlier and less sophisticated works, twentieth-century scholars have become interested in Lucrece as a figure of responsibility in the face of moral conflict, and in the complex representation of violence in the narrative poem. Recent critics have argued that the poem is deeply insightful and well-structured and represents a Renaissance exploration of the psychological encounter between reason and emotion, and of the relation of the individual to the larger social context.

The violence that lies at the heart of the poem results from what A. Robin Bowers (1981) calls "a traditional, Augustinian sequence of the fall into temptation," in other words, the conflict between the rational intellect and the passionate will. Tarquin, who violates both the strongly marked chastity of Lucrece and her status as a married woman, not only threatens Lucrece physically but her social integrity as well. The violence of the rape itself, as Jonathan Crewe (1990) emphasizes, is less of a singular event than part of a continuum of violence which envelops the male characters of the play and ends with Lucrece's own suicide. Both Crewe and Joel Fineman (1987) indicate the significance of Lucrece's invocation of Helen as both the originary victim and as one who unchastely succumbs to her own temptations and is therefore implicated in the violence that her abduction engenders. Elizabeth Truax (1980) examines what Shakespeare might have had in mind as he described the painting of Troy, against which Lucrece establishes her own position, and claims that Shakespeare's understanding of the power and role of art informs his own intent in writing, which is to capture the human experience honestly. Lucrece's narrated encounter with the painted representation of the Trojan war adumbrates the literary fascination with and repetition of the figures of both Helen and Lucrece—the latter appears in Livy's history of Rome, as well as in Ovid, Augustine, Chaucer, and Machiavelli.

The figure of Lucrece has traditionally been scrutinized for evidence that Shakespeare depicted her as a character of questionable virtue. Some commentators have suggested her complicity in the rape is evidenced by her subsequent suicide. However, more recent critics have seen in the poem a typically Renaissance struggle between reason and emotion, and have considered Lucrece's decision to kill herself neither an admission of guilt nor an over-reaction, but an assertion of her rational will. John Roe (1994) contends that the rape is "of Lucrece" not because she has willed it but because it comes to control her destiny, and her suicide before the witness of Tarquin and Collatine indicates her status both as the victim of rape and as the "victim of murder and agent of revenge." The desperation Lucrece experiences can only be successfully resolved by her suicide, but her suicide is a willful accusation rather than a silent submission to her fate. Laura G. Bromley (1983) also argues that Lucrece, in the aftermath of the rape, attempts to re-establish a sense of identity in full recognition of the historical and social context of her own position; this recuperation of her own will and self-possession transforms Lucrece into a figure of honor and integrity.

An element of The Rape of Lucrece that continues to command the attention of scholars is Shakespeare's representation of gender relations, and his potentially critical portrayal of the ideal of chastity. Roe suggests that the poem gestures towards the duplicity of this ideal, as the innocence and purity of Lucrece (at least in the minds of Collatine and Tarquin) itself causes the temptation that leads to the annihilation of those qualities. Nancy Vickers (1985) examines the extent to which Lucrece's body is used as a site of a conflict of male wills, and how Lucrece's own voice is subordinated to the telling "display" of her body.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Elizabeth Truax (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Lucrece! What Hath Your Conceited Painter Wrought?," in Shakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches, edited by Harry R. Garvin, Bucknell University Press, 1980, pp. 13-30.

[In the essay that follows, Truax discusses the painting that Lucrece describes immediately before her suicidea painting that depicts the Trojan war, launched in order to revenge the rape of Helen.]

Midway through Shakespeare's narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (1593), shortly following the brutal assault by Tarquin, comes a passage about a uniquely crafted painting. Although references to painting and sculpture are frequent in Shakespeare's plays and poems, this one passage contains by far the longest and most complex allusion to art. It consists of two hundred lines (1366-1568), about one ninth of the entire poem, and therefore affords the best opportunity to investigate how Shakespeare may have perceived painting as an art form and to hypothesize to what extent he was influenced either directly or indirectly by the achievements of Renaissance artists whose work he saw in England or on some unrecorded visit abroad.

At this moment Lucrece, obviously under intense emotional stress, has sent for her husband, Collatine, and has already determined that once she has told him of her horrid misfortune and he has vowed revenge, she will affirm his honor by committing suicide. As she waits, she recalls a panoramic picture of the sack of Troy by a "conceited painter," an artist of such extraordinary skill that to "A thousand lamentable objects there, / In scorn of nature, art gave lifeless life" (1373-74).

The imagery Shakespeare uses in the succeeding lines to evoke this painting is so vivid that readers have often felt compelled to think that Shakespeare may have had an actual picture in mind, and an exhaustive hunt has proceeded over the centuries.1 Sir Sidney Colvin writes: "There are cases, and this is one, where the particularity of the description and the insistence on technical details make it certain that actual and interested observation has furnished the original material, however much imagination may have been added to or vivified it."2

Not every scholar, however, agrees with Colvin's thesis. Margaret Farrand Thorp, for example, argues that Shakespeare derived his images through reading, discussion, and experience—not the visual arts.3 And, in this instance, Shakespeare did have literary sources available to him. From Virgil's Aeneid, he could have adopted the device of the picture on the wall (1. 456-95) and the Sinon incident (2. 76 ff.); other fragments could have been derived from a variety of literary sources.4 But, Shakespeare's interest in music and literature, to say nothing of the abundance of visual imagery in his poetry, confirms, I believe, that he almost certainly had some knowledge of the visual arts from which he draws here. Shakespeare often tricks us into accepting the reality of imagination for the illusion of reality. If he had a specific picture in mind we can feel certain that he moulded it, modified it, and so presented a rich new image that has become a work of art in its own right. Such was the habit of Renaissance artists, translators, and poets, as we see again and again. Accepting for the moment, then, that Shakespeare intended Lucrece to visualize a picture, albeit an imaginary picture, what assessments can be made about it? What form did it take and in what style was it rendered? Medieval? Renaissance? Arthur Fairchild thinks the picture may have been suggested to Shakespeare by any of the numerous tapestries he had seen in Kenilworth and elsewhere in England, but does not speculate on the rendition.5 Colvin, however, believes that Shakespeare had a specific tapestry in mind, one of medieval design—and he cites several sketches that survive in the Louvre, and fragments of tapestry that can be found in England, Spain, and France. He argues for medieval treatment because of the multiplicity of Troy scenes depicted on a single canvas and the large number of figures that are jumbled in masses, not ordered by perspective as would be the case in a Renaissance work.6

But Colvin's argument for a medieval rendition of this imagined painting does not preclude Renaissance interpretation that can be applied just as admirably, if not more appropriately. After all, Shakespeare was writing during the Renaissance—his interest was in exploring new concepts, not restating old ones. The Troy story was told throughout the Middle Ages, but the incident of Sinon that Lucrece describes was not known by medieval tapestry makers, as Colvin himself observes. Also, during the Renaissance stories on a central theme were often painted in series as frescoes or wall paintings (and there is nothing in Lucrece's descriptions that excludes such a design). The jumbled arrangement of figures Colvin mentions could in fact be evidence not of ignorance of perspective technique, but rather a characteristic of sixteenth-century Mannerist style, which emphasized distorted figures in strange postures. Finally, Colvin admits that the expressive qualities that Shakespeare attributes to the faces could not have been rendered in a medieval tapestry, but only in a Renaissance work.7

If, then, the painting may have been of Renaissance inspiration, could Shakespeare have had in mind the frescoes from the Sala di Troia in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua designed by Giulio Romano (1492-1546), who was apparently the only Italian Renaissance artist Shakespeare knew by name? The answer here is most probably not. In The Winter's Tale (1601), Giulio Romano is acclaimed as the sculptor of Hermione's statue, an error that has frequently been taken to indicate Shakespeare knew very little about Romano other than his name, as he was in fact a painter, not a sculptor.8 Furthermore, in order for Shakespeare to have seen the Sala di Troia he must have made a journey to Italy and we have no evidence that he ever ventured abroad. Finally, the frescoes deal with different incidents than those of Lucrece's painting, and the style, although similar in some respects, cannot be easily compared.

Where could Shakespeare have seen a work of art that might have provided the inspiration behind Lucrece's painting? In the most likely place: England.9 After Henry VIII met François Ier in 1520 at the glorious Field of the Cloth of Gold at Calais—a festival to celebrate an alliance of European monarchs for perpetual peace (that lasted only a few months)—Henry, possibly in emulation of the French king who built the magnificent Palace of Fontainebleau, sought to set himself up as a Renaissance Prince and looked toward the arts as a mode of enhancing his own political stature. He sent first to Italy for artists to redecorate medieval castles and build the palace of Nonsuch, but few artists came to England and most of those who did made a speedy retreat to the warmer climate of Italy.10 No painting by a major Italian artist is known to have been present in England prior to the seventeenth century. Henry then imported northern European artists, the most distinguished of whom was Hans Holbein (in England 1526-28 and 1532-42). But the main body of artists who stayed in England to decorate Henry's great palaces at Hampton Court, Whitehall, and Nonsuch, as well as build the manor houses and paint the stately portraits of the newly enriched nobility in the days of Elizabeth, were artists from Flanders who had developed Italianate skills they may have learned from artists trained in Italian painting and decorative techniques in France at the school of Fontainebleau of Francois Ier11

How much Shakespeare knew firsthand about sixteenth-century European art we do not know. But he cannot have been unaware of it any more than he was ignorant of the literature from the Continent that everybody was reading in translation. He saw the manor houses of the nobility being built. He entered Whitehall and Hampton Court Palaces when Lord Strange's men gave command performances for the Queen, and he may have had access to private picture galleries through his acquaintance with Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton, to whom he dedicated both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Another and more likely way in which Shakespeare could have become acquainted with sixteenth-century Renaissance art is through etchings and engravings. He almost certainly saw John Harington's translation of Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1591), as he appears to have used the work as a source for several incidents in his plays.12 Among the intelligentsia in England Harington's translation was one of the bestsellers of the day and its forty-six engraved illustrations made it the most ambitious book to be printed before the end of the century.13 The plates were copies made by an English artist, Thomas Coxom, from plates engraved by an Italian artist, Girolamo Porro, who illustrated the 1584 edition by Franceschi upon which Harington based his translation. The subject matter is not parallel with Lucrece's painting, but scenes of countryside, walled cities, men and horses in spectacular battles abound. The style has some characteristics that Lucrece's picture also seems to possess: delineation by perspective, distortion, tension, and violent action. Perhaps Shakespeare molded portions of these engravings into a monumental painting of the sack of Troy scene for Lucrece to survey.

Among the engravings and etchings executed by Fontainebleau artists between 1533 and 1544 is a set of etchings attributed to Jean Mignon (based on drawings by Luca Penni preserved in the Louvre) that treat the Troy story in a manner strikingly similar to Lucrece's conceited painter. We have no assurance Shakespeare saw these etchings; the printing was probably small. But there is evidence that trade in French prints had been established in London at this time. Louis Dimier has located a few examples of biblical subjects dated 1566 in the Cabinet de Dessins in Paris, lettered "Imprinted at London by Gilles Godet in the Blackfriars."14 And the possibility also exists that one of Shakespeare's prominent friends such as the Earls of Southampton or Essex, both of whom had extensive collections of paintings, may have owned etchings in their personal portfolios. The possibility that Shakespeare did see the Mignon etchings therefore deserves serious consideration.

Before we can begin a comparison between Lucrece's painting and Mignon's etchings one further bit of background information is required. What was the style of art pervading Northern Europe at this time? And to what extent do Mignon's etchings and Lucrece's painting express this style? In brief, after 1520, the art in Italy that spread to the north of Europe was no longer the calm, lyrical, idealized, harmoniously balanced art of the earlier period of the Renaissance. Now it had become increasingly complex, dramatic, distorted, and dynamic. The term most frequently used to characterize this period in art history is Mannerism, a term derived from Giorgio Vasari's word for superlative style, la maniera. In the third portion of his long account of Renaissance artists (1550), Vasari tells of recent artists who, in his opinion, by studying the work of earlier artists have attained the summit of perfection in style and surpassed the achievement of the ancients. "Style is improved," he writes, "by frequently copying the most beautiful things, and by combining the finest members, whether hands, heads, bodies, or legs to produce a perfect figure which, being introduced in every work and every figure, forms what is known as fine style." These artists, Vasari adds, have achieved "boldness of design, the subtlest imitation of Nature in trifling details, good rule, better order, correct proportion, perfect design and divine grace, prolific and diving to the depth of art, endowing . . . figures with motion and breath."15 It should be noted, however, that twentieth-century critics see Mannerist style in very different terms from what Vasari saw. Vasari praises "motion and breath," but he fails to notice the tension and stress characteristic of Mannerist art that, to the modern mind, signal the malaise of a troubled time.16

Among the artists whom Vasari considers most distinguished in their achievement of la maniera he lists Raphael, Giorgione, Andrea del Sarto, Correggio, Parmigianino, and the "divine" Michelangelo. In conclusion Vasari asks; "How many are there among the dead whose colors have endowed their figures with such life as imported by Il Rosso, Frà Sebastiano, Giulio Romano, Perino del Vaga, not to speak of the celebrated living men?"17

Vasari's good-better-best approach is no longer accepted by art critics, but most of his contemporaries would have agreed with him. The greater the skill, the greater the artist. In England, Henry Peacham, in The Art of Drawing (1606), gives a long list of artists (apparently culled from Vasari) who, he stresses, possessed superlative skills. Shakespeare, in the aforementioned passage from A Winter 's Tale, also praises "the sculptor" Julio Romano (the same Giulio Romano Vasari celebrates) for his extraordinary achievement of lifelikeness in the portrayal of Hermione.

The Second Gentleman describes the status as:

—a piece many years in doing and now newly performed by that rare Italian Master, Julio Romano; who had he himself eternity and could put breath into his work, would beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of an answer. (5.2. 95-105)

Unquestionably, by 1610 Shakespeare knew Romano's style, even if he did not know his media and had never seen his work.

This rare Italian Master, called Raphael's heir, became known throughout Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, even though he never left Mantua once he settled there after Raphael's death. Other artists, among them Vasari, went to visit him. He was a prolific Mannerist who made countless engravings and tapestry cartoons commissioned by François Ier and others, and was praised for the remarkable achievement of the Palazzo de Tè, a complex structure that combined architecture, sculpture, and painting (and it may be from reports of this achievement that Shakespeare assumed Romano was capable of sculpture). Romano's fame was so great that François Ier wrote to him in Mantua requesting an artist to work at the Palace. In 1531 Romano sent his most brilliant student, Primaticcio, who succeeded Il Rosso as primary architect and designer. These artists were commissioned to decorate the palace in a grand and a glorious manner and did so through the design of complex manneristic schemes (analogous to the Palazzo de Tè) that combined painting, sculpture, and stuccoes. For subject matter they also drew on stones from Greek and Roman mythology—stories of gods and heroes such as Achilles, Hercules, Diana, Venus and Adonis, Helen of Troy, and even poor Lucrece—which were treated with quasi-allegorical significance. The figures from mythology came, in some respects, to signify qualities of the patron himself. The allegorical implications of these paintings, however, frequently extended beyond the ennoblement of great persons to include comments upon themes and concerns of court life. In particular, they often illustrated ambiguous unresolved tensions between hot and cold, passionate and idealized love, a conflict that often as not led to tragic consequences. As Henri Zerner points out, the designs of Fontainebleau were not intended for decoration alone, for "the gods and heroes of Fontainebleau are more than the enciphered descriptions of contemporary society, more than a gallant metaphor... for they became representations charged with a degree of demonic energy."18

This concept of allegorical representation charged with extraordinary energy (Vasari's "motion and breath") is central to Jean Mignon's Troy series of etchings and to the imaginary painting in Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece.19 In both works the allusions to the Trojan war point toward the ultimate devastation that occurs when individuals driven by passion use deceit and betrayal to achieve their own ends. In both works these allegorical implications are suggested in a manner that is often ambiguous or paradoxical, utilizing imagery that is both violent and erotic, rendered by artists of extraordinary skill. That Mignon's drawings demonstrate virtuosity is clearly apparent to any viewer. The artist of Lucrece's painting, we are told time and again, is "conceited," a word that today implies a pompous and inflated ego, but which in Shakespeare's day had a different connotation. A conceit was a fanciful, ingenious, or witty expression (Oxford English Dictionary), which if applied to art implies extraordinary facility and expertise—much in the sense that Vasari means when he writes of la maniera, a style of perfection.

Jean Mignon's series of six etchings illustrating the Troy story begins with a calm, pastoral, faintly erotic scene that leads directly to scenes of brutality and violence and thereby makes an ironic statement on the consequences of unbridled passion. Mignon's first etching, Le Jugement de Paris, Plate 40, depicts the three fateful goddesses—Juno, Venus, and Minerva—nude, arranged in a manner suggestive of the traditional grouping of the Three Graces (two facing forward, one facing away), which in Neoplatonic terms signifies, according to Edgar Wind, Beauty, Love, and Pleasure who stand in this relationship to each other "because one benefit issuing from us, two are supposed to return."20 The irony of this seemingly charming, relaxed scene is further enhanced by suggestions of hot and cold, passionate and idealized love, peace and war.21 Venus, with Eros clutching at her knee and holding an arrow, accepts the golden ball from an earnest, straightforward, seemingly innocent Paris. The setting appears tranquil, but tension is evident in the twisted arrangement of the nude bodies (which are elongated and distorted in shape as well as posture), and the dynamic torsion of the trees and grasses. The sacred geese whose cries signal war lie sleeping now at Juno's feet, but their presence foreshadows the violence to come when Venus fulfills her promise to give Paris the most beautiful woman in the world for his sexual gratification. Here Paris chooses passion—and the subsequent etchings demonstrate that the triumph of passion brings disaster.

The second etching, L'Enlèvement d'Hélène, Plate 41, depicts the violent abduction of Helen, who is shown staring passively as hordes of soldiers drag her, helpless, to Paris's ship. Here again, innocence shines from her face as she succumbs to passion. The dramatic impact of the scene is intensified by the large number of figures caught and frozen in straining positions that form strong diagonal lines stretching off into deep space. The background is rendered in extraordinary detail; we see the outline of the ship and in the distance a mountain, a village, and a prophetic ruined building. Against this panorama of twisting, straining motion, Helen appears like an island of strange and poignant calm.

The passage on the Trojan war in Shakespeare's poem also begins with contrasting images of seeming quiet in the midst of lust and violence. Lucrece, alone, waiting patiently for the arrival of Collatine, is reminded of a painting depicting the Greek revenge of the rape of Helen, which of course she must associate in her mind (as we do in ours) with the brutality of her own rape earlier in the poem. The picture she sees is described as a complex and elaborate treatment of the rape of Troy, rendered by an artist who achieves dramatic impact through extraordinary virtuosity in drawing and repeated violations of natural order.

Shakespeare's sympathetic narrator begins:

At last she calls to mind where hangs a piece
Of skilful painting, made for Priam's Troy;
Before the which is drawn the power of Greece,
For Helen's rape the city to destroy,
Threat'ning cloud-kissing Ilion with annoy;
Which the conceited painer drew so proud,
As heaven, it seem'd to kiss the turrets bow'd.

(11. 1366-72)

Mignon's subsequent plates depict scenes from the story of the conquest and the sack of Troy. In Plate 42, Bataille sous Troie, a preliminary battle between Greeks and Trojans is under way. Here masses of figures, each one intricately drawn, are piled one upon the other. Crowds of soldiers and citizens, aggressors and victims, are caught and frozen into position, often a contorted position, in the midst of violent action. A sword is about to penetrate a living body; a horse has fallen upon his luckless rider; faces appear in the midst, openmouthed in agony, their bodies lost from sight under a massive heap of men and animals. In the distance a landscape of rolling hills and fields and trees recedes behind the massive outline of the city of Troy. The tall towers of Troy, which reach to touch the heavens, are of Renaissance conception—rustic stonework, arches, and windows—windows large enough so that we can sense the presence of the silent Trojan spectators Lucrece imagines she sees peering through them:

And from the towers of Troy there would appear
The very eyes of men through loop-holes thrust,
Gazing upon the Greeks with little lust:
Such sweet observance in this work was had,
That one might see those far-off eyes look sad.

(11. 1382-86)

In Lucrece's picture, too, the scene is a crowded one, "A thousand lamentable objects there": heroes, peasants, cowards, widows, betrayers fill the scene. Far too much, it seems, to include in a single picture, all pushing and crowding against one another. Here Shakespeare conveys in words much of the tension Mignon demonstrates visually. On the eve of battle Nestor addresses the Greek warriors and, as in the etchings, these figures are caught and frozen into awkward, uncomfortable positions, held captive by his words. As they listen their rage grows until they yearn to break their restraints and begin the slaughter. In this early work Shakespeare's attempt to translate a visual image into poetic form may seem clumsy, almost comical at times, but the elements that suggest perspective, tension, and deliberate distortion are graphically described:

About him were a press of gaping faces,
Which seem'd to swallow up his sound advice;
All jointly listening, but with several graces,
As if some mermaid did their ears entice,
Some high, some low, the painter was so nice;
The scalps of many, almost hid behind,
To jump up higher seem'd, to mock the mind.
Here one man's hand lean'd on another's head,
His nose being shadow'd by his neighbour's ear;
Here one being throng'd bears back, all boll'n and red;
Another smother'd seems to pelt and swear;
And in their rage such signs of rage they bear,
As, but for loss of Nestor's golden words,
It seem'd they would debate with angry swords.

(11. 1408-21)

Shakespeare's intention is clearly to show deliberate crafting on the part of a skilled artist, so skilled that he could create the impression of a human figure by drawing only isolated parts:

For much imaginary work was there;
Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,
That for Achilles' image stood his spear,
Grip'd in an armed hand; himself behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind;
A hand, a foot, a face, a leg, a head,
Stood for the whole to be imagined.

(11. 1422-28)

The battle scenes are described in general terms in Lucrece's picture, but the impact of war is as grim and horrible as Mignon's rendering. A bizarre nightmare. Lucrece sees waves of bloody violence that rise and fall like the waves of the river Simois:

And from the strand of Dardan, where they fought,
To Simois' reedy banks the red blood ran,
Whose waves to imitate the battle sought
With swelling ridges; and their ranks began
To break upon the galled shore, and then
Retire again, till meeting greater ranks
They join, and shoot their foam at Simois' banks.

(11. 1436-42)

In the poem, as in the series of etchings, all descriptions are finely crafted—evidence of the style Vasari calls la maniera. At times the rendering is so intense that it becomes hyperbolic in its naturalism. The faces of victims express the agony of their suffering through violent protest or passive acceptance. In Plate 44, Les Troyens introduisent le cheval de bois, a seemingly quiet moment is set against a background of slow, concentrated movement. Old men and women pray on their knees while doomed warriors strain with open eyes and open mouths as they pull the fatal horse within the gates of Troy which, with grim irony, other warriors struggle to dismantle. Lucrece, in her solitude, is brought close to frenzy as she imagines Hecuba weeping over the bloody corpse of aged Priam, her face echoing her pain, for

In her the painter had anatomiz'd
Time's ruin, beauty's wrack, and grim care's reign:
Her cheeks with chaps and wrinkles were disguis'd:
Of what she was no semblance did remain:
Her blue blood chang'd to black in every vein,
Wanting the spring that those shrunk pipes had fed,
Show'd life imprison'd in a body dead.

(11. 1450-56)

Now Lucrece's compassion for the raped Helen suddenly changes to hatred as she questions why the pleasure of one should lead to the suffering of many. She resolves with her tears to quench the fire that burns Troy, with her knife to attack the Greek warriors, and with her nails, to disfigure "the strumpet that began this stir" (1. 1471). Then her mood changes once again, as she sadly, impotently views the ruined scene.

Mignon's Plate 45, Pillage de Troie, depicts the most brutal, most catastrophic moment in the destruction. Here the grim horror of the brutality of war is intensified by the vivid portrayal of men engaged in a struggle to the death contrastd with helpless, paralyzed victims. An arrow is poised in readiness the moment before it is loosed to penetrate a human body. A battleax is held high by an invisible warrior, thrashing spasmodically as it seeks a target. Frightened, transfixed young women look on helplessly. They have no place to go, no escape. A strange figure stands watching, spear in hand, in an unearthly calm.

Bizarre color is also characteristic of Mannerist painting, and although this etching, like the others, is rendered without color, Mignon achieves a suggestion of the bizarre through use of flickering light and dark patterns. The color red is suggested by the bloody slaughter and by the outlines of devouring flames. Lucrece's picture also is characterized by bizarre color imagery and by ironic reference to light and dark images.

Nestor's beard is silver, his words gold; Hecuba's blue blood is changed to black; doomed warriors march to battle with bright weapons. The predominant color red—bright red of fire, blood, passion, violence—is contrasted always with pale, somber shades:

The red blood reek'd, to show the painter's strife;
And dying eyes gleam'd forth their ashy lights,
Like dying coals burnt out in tedious nights.

(11. 1377-79)

These paradoxical reversals of fire and water, light and dark, hot and cold imagery—Mannerist in feeling and intent—produce dramatic tension that builds to a climax when Lucrece sees the traitor Sinon who is brought to the Trojans by shepherds to whom he has told the false tale invented by the Greeks as a ruse to gain entry into the city. Here Shakespeare has deliberately altered the sequence of the narrative for its dramatic impact upon Lucrece.

Mignon's etching, Plate 43, Le Perfide Sinon Introduit par les Bergers, illustrates graphically what Shakespeare writes. When she sees Sinon, Lucrece chides the painter for his "wondrous skill" in rendering Sinon so real that his false story is believed. Then she remembers that Tarquin, like Sinon, came to her with seeming honesty, and she cries out in a vain effort to warn Priam about this deceitful man:

"Look, look, how listening Priam wets his eyes,
To see those borrow'd tears that Sinon sheds!
Priam, why art thou old and yet not wise?
For every tear he falls a Trojan bleeds:
His eye drops fire, no water thence proceeds:
Those round clear pearls of his, that move thy pity,
Are balls of quenchless fire to burn thy city.

"Such devils steal effects from lightless hell;
For Sinon in his fire doth quake with cold,
And in that cold hot-burning fire doth dwell;
These contraries such unity do hold,
Only to flatter fools and make them bold:
So Priam's trust false Sinon's tears doth flatter,
That he finds means to burn his Troy with water."

(11. 1548-61)

By now Lucrece is so caught up in the seeming reality of the picture that she loses rational self-control and "tears the senseless Sinon with her nails." Then suddenly the mood is broken. And, totally unexpectedly, comes one of those solid, comfortable, marvellous Shakespearean moments that bring us from illusion to down-to-earth reality. Now she "smilingly with this gives o'er; / 'Fool, fool' quoth she, 'his wounds will not be sore'"(ll. 1567-68).

This entire passage, then, like Mannerist art, is full of paradox. The scene is not real—it exists only in Lucrece's perception of it—and yet she temporarily accepts it as real when she tries to scratch it. She acknowledges that the painter is so skilled he should be praised for his remarkable talent, but she also recognizes that his "conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind" is in fact an illusion of reality, a trompe l'oeil which can be used to trick others into believing what is not true and lead them, so deceived, to tragic misfortunes like her own.

Shakespeare's attitude to art has always seemed perplexing to students of his work. The statement about Lucrece's picture, "A thousand lamentable objects there, / In scorn of nature, art gave lifeless life" (11. 1373-74), appears to be an indictment of the painter's efforts. But despite this oxymoron, a Mannerist device if there ever was one, Shakespeare is not condemning artists. Nor is he treating art in the Neoplatonic sense as twice removed from the ideal. Shakespeare, by instinct if not by education, knew and understood the basic concepts of Renaissance love of beauty and concord. Lucrece does not criticize the conceited artist for creating beauty, but for using art to deceive, to mislead by substituting illusion for reality. By implication, then, the Mannerist artist whose skill is so facile that he uses art to distort truth is like the actor whose gestures are so flamboyant that he too distorts truth by exceeding the limits of nature and, by so doing, "out-Herods Herod."22

No conclusion is possible here. In his early narrative poems, as in a play written toward the end of his career, Shakespeare shows acquaintance with Renaissance art in a style analogous to that of Giulio Romano, the one painter he calls by name, and of the School of Fontainebleau he was instrumental in founding. The influence may have come directly—he could have seen Mignon's etchings in England, or Giulio Romano's frescoes in Mantua. What is most significant is the fact that Shakespeare is working in the mode of Renaissance artists and, judging by what he writes about art, appears to demonstrate a strong sense of understanding and appreciation. He, too, is an artist at work. In The Rape of Lucrece he is still learning his craft—a craft he intends to use honestly and openly to express the human experience—not to delude or deceive.


1 For a comprehensive survey of scholarly opinion on the nature and source of Shakespeare's Lucrece painting see A New Variorum edition of Shakespeare, The Poems, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1938), pp. 224-28, and the Arden edition of the Works of William Shakespeare, The Poems, ed.F. T. Prince (London: Methuen, 1960), p. 128.

2 Sir Sidney Colvin, "The Sack of Troy in Shakespeare's 'Lucrece' and in some Fifteenth-Century Drawings and Tapestries," A Book of Homage to Shakespeare, ed. Israel Gollancz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1916), pp. 91-92.

3 Margaret Farrand Thorp, "Shakespeare and the Fine Arts," PMLA 46 (1931): 687.

4 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961), p. 181.

5 Arthur H.R. Fairchild, Shakespeare and the Arts of Design (1937; reprint ed., New York: Benjamin Blom, 1972), p. 145.

6 Colvin, "The Sack of Troy," p. 97.

7 Ibid., p. 99.

8 Frederick Hartt, in Giulio Romano (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958), 1: 193, n.i. points out that we do not have a single record of a work of sculpture by Giulio Romano and suggests Shakespeare may have had another Giulio Romano in mind, as described by Fillippini. However, Hartt's argument notwithstanding, Shakespeare most likely did know Romano's reputation, if not his work. See Sala di Troia plates in Hartt, vol. 2.

9 Among the most useful studies of Renaissance painting in England are: Roy Strong, The English Icon: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969); John Buxton, Elizabethan Taste (London: Macmillan, 1963); Edward Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England: 1537-1837, vol. 1 (London: Country Life, 1962); Francis Reader, "Tudor Domestic Wall-Paintings," Archaeological Journal 92, Part 1 (1935): 243-79, and 93, Part 2 (1936): 220-62; Erna Auerbach, Tudor Artists (London: University of London Press, 1954); J. R. Hale, England and the Italian Renaissance (London: Faber & Faber, 1954); Malcolm Airs, The Making of the English Country House: 1500-1640 (London: The Architectural Press, 1975).

10 Croft-Murray, Decorative Painting in England, p. 17, gives a list of the Italian painters and sculptors who worked for Henry VIII. Of particular interest is Bartolomeo Penni, brother of Luca Penni - an important Fontainebleau artist whose tapestry cartoons became the basis for Jean Mignon's sketches to be discussed later.

11 Strong, The English Icon, p. 41; Louis Dimier, FrenchPainting in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Harold Child (1904; reprint ed., New York: Arno Press, 1969), p.232. The connection is generally accepted by most art historians.

12 Selma Guttman, The Foreign Sources of Shakespeare 's Work (New York: Octagon Books, 1963), p. 101.

13 R. B. McKerrow, "Booksellers, Printers, and the Stationers' Trade," Shakespeare's England, vol. 2 (1916; reprint ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926); and Arthur Hind, Engraving in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Part 1: The Tudor Period (Cambridge University Press, 1952).

14 Dimier, French Painting in the Sixteenth Century, p.233.

15 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, trans. William Gaunt (London: Dent, 1927), 2: 151, 153.

16 Selected studies of Renaissance art, as well as books with particular emphasis on Mannerism, are: Heinrich Wolfflin, Principles of Art History, trans. M. D. Hottinger (1915; reprint ed. New York: Dover, 1932) and Renaissance and Baroque, trans. Katherine Simon (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966), written at the end of the nineteenth century; Erwin Panofsky,Studies in Iconography: Humanistic Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1937; reprint ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1962); E. H. Gombrich, Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London: Phaidon Press, 1966) and Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance (London: Phaidon Press, 1971); John Shearman, Mannerism: Style and Civilization (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1967); Frank Warnke, Versions of the Baroque (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1972); Wylie Sypher, Four Stages of Renaissance Style (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1955); Arnold Hauser, Mannerism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965); Bernard Berenson, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance (1894-1907; reprint ed. London: Phaidon Press, 1956).

17 Vasari, Lives, 2: 154.

18 Henri Zerner, The School of Fontainebleau: Etchings and Engravings, trans. Stanley Barons (London: Thames & Hudson, 1960), p. 12. For additional studies on the School of Fontainebleau see: Louis Dimier, French Painting in the Sixteenth Century: Otto Benesch, The Art of the Renaissance in Northern Europe (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1947); Sylvie Béguin, Fontainebleau: La Manièrisme à la Cour de France (Paris: Seghers, 1960); L'Ecole de Fontainebleau (Paris: Editions de Musée Nationaux, 1972); Mannerism and Northern European Tradition: Prints from c. 1520-1630 (London: Golmaghi, 1974); Jacques Bosquet, Il Manierismo en Europa (Milan: Gramante, 1963); Fontainebleau: Art of France 1528-1610, vol. 2 (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1973); Anthony Blunt, Art and Architecture in France: 1500-1700 (London: Penguin Books, 1953).

19 The Mignon etchings discussed in the text may befound in Zerner, The School of Fontainebleau, Jean Mignon Plates 40-45. It should also be noted that Jean Mignon based his plates on drawings by Luca Penni (now in the Louvre), which in turn were inspired by compositions by Raphael.

20 Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (London: Faber & Faber, 1958), p. 30.

21 Zerner writes that the dialogue between Venus and Diana, representing hot and cold, passionate and ideal love, was a persistent Fontainebleau topic. The School of Fontainebleau, p. 12.

22 Shakespeare's treatment of art and nature is explored by Edward William Taylor in Nature and Art in the Renaissance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964). The terms were used variously during the Renaissance and a clear-cut definition cannot be readily affirmed. Shakespeare, as I suggest here, writes of art as skill or craft. The conceited artist, the bombastic but nonetheless skilled actor (for a contemporary analogy, the highly trained method actor) should be wary lest he permit his craft to exceed nature.

Laura G. Bromley (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Lucrece's Re-Creation," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 200-11.

[In the essay below, Bromley claims that, as a figure of her time, Lucrece successfully represents honor and integrity, rather than symbolizing a passive submission to the will of others.]

Lucrece presents some special problems for modern readers because it is about a chaste woman who, having been forcibly raped by the king's son, a friend and comrade of her husband, concludes that she is impure and that she must therefore kill herself. A considerable amount of critical energy has been expended in trying to determine whether Lucrece was defiled and whether she should have reacted differently. It is difficult for many readers to forgive Shakespeare and Lucrece for what they take to be the creation of a false dilemma from which the only release is self-destruction.

It seems to me that Lucrece's corruption by Tarquin's act is a simple fact, accepted by Lucrece and her society and by Shakespeare and his society. If we accept that Lucrece has lost her purity, it follows that she is faced with a real moral dilemma. I believe that Lucrece resolves this dilemma successfully, in a way that simultaneously satisfies her own demands and those of her society. But however we finally judge Lucrece's resolution of her dilemma, we must be certain that we understand it as she understood it and as it is presented in the poem, and this is what many readers have failed to do.


The need to account for what is taken to be Lucrece's mistaken response to her situation has led critics to interpret her motives and behavior in ways consistent with their own political or religious views. St. Augustine argued that Lucrece's feelings of guilt suggest that she was a willing victim of the rape.1 He is followed by a long line of critics who read the poem in a Christian context, including D. C. Allen2 and A. C. Hamilton.3 They see Lucrece as condemned by Shakespeare for being too Roman in her values, a woman who confuses guilt and shame and is, in St. Augustine's words, "too greedy of praise." Roy Battenhouse goes even further along these lines, asserting that Lucrece resists Tarquín "as if subconsciously she wished force to work his way, but only after she has had time to excuse herself from responsibility."4 According to Battenhouse, Shakespeare's irony exposes both Lucrece's lust for Tarquín and the lust for revenge which leads her to manipulate her husband and other men into actions which will bring her glory.

Though she puts the poem in a very different context, Coppèlla Kahn also finds irony in Shakespeare's attitude toward Lucrece's Roman values and the suicide motivated by them.5 The values which Kahn emphasizes are those of a patriarchal, patrilinear society; they force Lucrece to see herself as a devalued possession of her husband and prevent her from seeing herself as innocent and pure, as she would in a society in which the Christian ethic prevailed. Like other critics, Kahn refuses to accept Lucrece on her own terms. In my view, the dominant impression created by the poem is not of Lucrece as a pawn in the struggles of men for power and possession, but of Lucrece as a woman who, in the face of the loss of her personal honor and integrity, declares, "I am the mistress of my fate."

Bickford Sylvester6 and, more recently, Jerome Kramer and Judith Kaminsky7 have seen Lucrece, and her suicide, as heroic. But they view Lucrece primarily in opposition to the villain Tarquín, as a figure of virtue in contrast to Tarquin's vice, rather than as a complete, separate, and independent being. Therefore, they fail to perceive that Lucrece undergoes a process of development, that she is an individual capable of purposely creating a new, integrated self to transcend her corruption. They emphasize the ways in which the differences between Lucrece and Tarquín are reflected in the structure and imagery of the poem, rather than Lucrece's own awareness of these differences and the uses she makes of them in understanding and working out her destiny.

Hallett Smith also finds that "the artistic qualities of the poem depend on the contrast between guilt and innocence, and the dramatic and rhetorical means by which the contrast is emphasized."8 He argues that "Shakespeare is not interested in the philosophical and psychological nature of chastity. . . ." Smith has made a major contribution to our understanding of Lucrece by placing it in its literary context as a "complaint" poem. He has provided much of the background information (which I will discuss later) that enables us to appreciate the qualities that set Shakespeare's poem apart from the "complaints" of his contemporaries. This makes it all the more surprising that Smith does not see what is most remarkable about Shakespeare's poem. Through Lucrece, Shakespeare does indeed explore the philosophical and psychological nature of chastity. Far from being a mere mouthpiece for the rhetorical embellishment of an abstract ideal, Lucrece is a complex character who engages in a moral struggle and finds a way to oppose and overcome the evil that entraps her.

Underlying the poem is the common Renaissance belief, expressed repeatedly in patterns of words and images, that all things are balanced against their opposites, which are held in check, and the corollary, that corruption and death are waiting to overbalance virtue and life. There is imperfection and impermanence within man as well as without. Weakness, passion, and evil are always poised to overpower strength, reason, and virtue. Order—within oneself, and in the realms of nature and society—depends on the maintenance of a fragile equilibrium. When Lucrece is raped, she loses the balance of her self. There is never any doubt within the terms set by the poem that she is overwhelmed and corrupted by evil. She responds by an act of suicide which is a rational and successful attempt to restore order within and outside herself.


When Lucrece begins, a state of disorder or imbalance already prevails. Tarquin has left his post and neglected his responsibilities to satisfy his lust. Coliatine has unwittingly tempted him by ignoring the restraints of prudence and boasting of Lucrece's superiority over all other women. Like a careless warder, he has "Unlock'd the treasure of his happy state" (1. 16) and dazzled Tarquin, who is impelled to steal his wealth.9 The introductory stanzas end with a paradigmatic couplet: "O rash false heat, wrapp'd in repentant cold, / Thy hasty spring still blasts and ne'er grows old!" (11. 48-49). Real and immediate as the fire within Tarquin is, it is "false," a "lightless fire" (I. 4). Its "embracing flames" (1. 6) will destroy as they ignite, in the instant that potential becomes act and lust is fulfilled. To satisfy lust is to destroy virtue.

Because disorder implies an underlying order, and unruled passion implies moral restraints that have been broken, there are immediate consequences to such an act. There are no neutral moral states; good cannot come from evil. Evil can only destroy, never be fruitful: "Thy hasty spring still blasts and ne'er grows old!" (1. 49). It is not the absence of evil to which one must aspire, however, but restraint, the counterbalancing or overbalancing force of virtue. As the destructive outcome is inherent in Tarquin's plan, so is the need for repentance inherent in the destruction: the "rash false heat" is "wrapp'd in repentant cold" (1. 48).

The balance of opposites is illustrated on the verbal level by the prevalent oxymoron. Tarquin thinks that Collatine was a "niggard Prodigal" (1. 79) in his praise of Lucrece; he is "poorly rich" (1. 97) in her presence, fed by it but still unsatisfied. As he approaches her, Tarquin is "full of foul hope and full of fond mistrust" (1. 284). At times appearances are so deceptive that things are taken to be their opposites, as when life and death are confounded in the sleeping Lucrece "As if between them twain there were no strife, / But that life liv'd in death and death in life" (11. 405-6). When appearances are deceptive, it is easy to deceive oneself. When paradoxes like "loss in gain" and "death in life" are incorporated into propositions, the opportunities for equivocation increase. In a universe of opposites, it is only too easy to take advantage of the dual perspectives that are made possible by equivocation and rationalization, and this is what Tarquin chooses to do. Tarquin argues about his projected act in this way: "Shameful it is,—ay, if the fact be known, / Hateful it is,—there is no hate in loving" (II. 239-40). By the end of the same stanza, Tarquin has abandoned reason altogether: "My will is strong past reason's weak removing: / Who fears a sentence or an old man's saw / Shall by a painted cloth be kept in awe" (II. 243-45).

The poem seems to comment, indirectly, on the dangerous power of language in a world where good and evil are so precariously balanced. Tarquin is enflamed not by the sight of the woman Lucrece, as in Shakespeare's sources,10 but by the idea of her, the idea of her chastity, and by the image of her created by Coliatine when he did not "let" to praise Lucrece (1. 10) but was the "publisher" of her beauty (I. 33). Like all virtues, chastity is precarious, and to name it is to suggest its opposite: "Haply that name of 'chaste' unhapp'ly set / This bateless edge on his keen appetite" (II. 8-9).

But men can reason, consequences can be foreseen, and it is apparent to everyone that "Honour and beauty in the owner's arms / Are weakly fortress'd from a world of harms" (11. 27-28). Tarquin ignores many signs that could serve to guide him. His abandoning of reason in favor of rationalization is emphasized in the stanza that follows the "painted cloth" quotation above (II. 246-53), and this theme occurs repeatedly. Tarquin chooses not to see, not to understand. He ignores the evidence of his senses: the grating of the locks, the shrieks of weasels, the opposing wind, the prick of the needle. "But all these poor forbiddings could not stay him; / He in the worst sense consters their denial" (II. 323-24). His mind's eye, which imagines Collatine and his right, appeals to his heart, but his heart "once corrupted takes the worser part" (I. 294). In denying the better part of himself, in giving up rational control or...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Nancy Vickers (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "'The Blazon of Sweet Beauty's Best': Shakespeare's Lucrece" in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, Methuen, 1985, pp. 95-115.

[Below, Vickers examines the rhetoric of The Rape of Lucrece as depicting male political struggles enacted on the female body.]

When, in Sonnet 106, Shakespeare's speaker alludes to "the blazon of sweet beauty's best" (5) he identifies "blazon" with "descriptions of the fairest wights" (2), with poetic portraits "in praise of ladies dead and lovely knights" (4).' He then goes on to qualify "blazon," to suggest that...

(The entire section is 33239 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Jerome A. Kramer and Judith Kaminsky (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "'These Contraries Such Unity Do Hold': Structure in The Rape of Lucrece" in MOSAIC: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. X, No. 4, Summer, 1977, pp. 143-55.

[In the essay below, Kramer and Kaminsky consider the "apparent dualities " that govern the structure of Lucrece, and claim that the poem has been too quickly dismissed as a flawed and overly rhetorical work.]

Post-Coleridgean criticism of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece has accepted as axiomatic the view that this poem, both in itself and as forecast of greater tragic writing, is...

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The Violence Of Rape

(Shakespearean Criticism)

A. Robin Bowers (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Iconography and Rhetoric in Shakespeare's Lucrece," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. XIV, 1981, pp. 1-21.

[In the following essay, Bowers argues that Shakespeare demonstrates Lucrece's virtue by employing rhetorical techniques and an omniscient narrator which emphasizes "the violence of rape and Lucrece's consequential disturbance of mind and ultimate despair. "]

Lucrece has not fared well at the hands of critics. Though obviously an admired and popular work when it was published in no fewer than six editions during Shakespeare's lifetime, it...

(The entire section is 17388 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Dubrow, Heather. "Full of forged lies': The Rape of Lucrece." In Captive Victors: Shakespeare's Narrative Poems and Sonnets, pp. 80-168. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Discusses the primary rhetorical devices of The Rape of Lucrece and compares the poem with several Shakespearean dramas.

Newman, Jane 0. '"And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness': Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece" Shakespeare Quarterly 45, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 304-26.

Examines the ways in which Lucrece complexly invokes the narrative of Philomela.

Schmitz, Götz. 'The Matron of Rome: Lucrece in Medieval...

(The entire section is 161 words.)