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.