(Shakespearean Criticism)

The Rape of Lucrece

The Rape of Lucrece—Shakespeare's narrative poem and companion piece to the lighter Venus and Adonis—tells the story of Lucrece, the chaste wife of Collatine, whose rape by the Roman prince, Tarquin, leads to suicide, revenge, and the founding of the Roman Republic. Although not generally as well known as Shakespeare's plays, The Rape of Lucrece has inspired significant discussion among scholars. Critical interest surrounds the poem's structure, its Roman and medieval sources, and its rich imagery, as well as its relationship to Shakespeare's plays. Also of interest are the poem's characters, specifically Lucrece and her role in and reaction to her patriarchal society.

After comparing The Rape of Lucrece's more formal structure with that of Venus and Adonis, Kenneth Muir (1973) comments that a preoccupation with rape and female virtue recurs in several of Shakespeare's plays, such as Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida. Muir notes a parallel between Angelo's lust for the virgin Isabella in Measure for Measure and Tarquin's arousal by Lucrece's purity. He concludes that Shakespeare wisely chose not to turn the story of Lucrece into a play because “the long period between the rape and the suicide … is pathetic rather than tragic, and static rather than dramatic.”

Closely connected to the focus on structure and theme is scholarly assessment of the vivid imagery that pervades the poem. Sarah Plant (see Further Reading), for example, observes that there are references to bees and their behavior sprinkled throughout the The Rape of Lucrece. Plant remarks that bees had been regarded as symbols of chastity since classical times, and that Shakespeare's use of this image to organize his poem reflected a growing interest during the Renaissance period regarding the virtues of “modesty and temperance” and their link to the nation's governance by a female monarch. The invasion of dwellings forms another insistent image in the poem, according to Heather Dubrow (2000). Dubrow focuses on an ironic twist embedded within this image: as a Roman homemaker, Lucrece is also keeper of the family hearth, but when Tarquin rapes her in a fiery passion, he subverts the warmth and safety of the home fire into the horror of a family-destroying blaze.

Lucrece and her interactions with the two other principal characters in the poem have received scrutiny from feminist critics. Catharine R. Stimpson (1980) avers that in The Rape of Lucrece as well as in several of his plays, Shakespeare revealed genuine sympathy rather than “titillation” concerning rape. Nevertheless, Stimpson concludes that for all his sympathy, Shakespeare insisted that the patriarchal status quo must be maintained, and that therefore women who are raped must bear it stoically, or, as in the case of Lucrece, end their lives with dignity. In fact, Lucrece's resort to suicide has been much debated. While several scholars have blamed Lucrece for her passivity and her decision that death is preferable to living with what she and her society regard as the stigma of rape, several recent critics have by contrast emphasized her strength and independence. Philippa Berry (1992), for instance, acknowledges Lucrece's victimization by the Roman patriarchy but notes that, whether inadvertent or not, Lucrece has the final word when her suicide destroys the monarchy in which her husband, Collatine, wields influence. Jane O. Newman (1994) goes farther; she refers to the fact that the myth of Philomela is mentioned twice in Shakespeare's poem. Newman points out that when Philomela is raped and mutilated by her brother-in-law, she chooses not to commit suicide but to conspire with her sister for revenge. While Newman admits that the image of Philomela occurs only briefly in the poem, she contends that it continues to “haunt” the reader as an example of the will and ability of women to rely upon themselves rather than men for justice. Finally, A.D. Cousins (2000) takes a completely different approach with regard to the characters in The Rape of Lucrece. He sees the chaste Lucrece, her adoring husband, Collatine, and the lustful Tarquin as parodic types. In this scenario, Cousins describes Lucrece as the Petrarchan mistress pursued by the ardent Petrarchan lover, Tarquin, whose desire is accidentally manufactured by the “hubris” of Collatine when he boasts about his wife's virtues.

Kenneth Muir (essay date 1973)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Rape of Lucrece,” in Shakespeare the Professional and Related Studies, Heinemann, 1973, pp. 187-203.

[In the following essay, Muir briefly describes the structure of The Rape of Lucrece, connects the poem to such later Shakespearean plays as Measure for Measure, and reviews the scholarly responses to the poem's themes and imagery.]

Lucrece was the ‘graver labour’ promised by Shakespeare in the Dedication to Venus and Adonis. It is written in rhyme royal, the stanza form employed by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde and by Sackville in his Induction to the Mirror for Magistrates, and it has a slower,...

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John Roe (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle, The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover's Complaint, by William Shakespeare, edited by John Roe, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 22-41.

[In the following excerpt, Roe looks at the range of interpretations—from Christian to feminist—of The Rape of Lucrece, cites several sources for the poem, and assesses Shakespeare's relationship to his patron, Southampton, for whom he wrote the poem.]


The Rape of Lucrece is the antithesis of Venus and Adonis. Sexual desire, which aggressively yet also...

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Philippa Berry (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Woman, Language, and History in The Rape of Lucrece,” in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 44, 1992, pp. 33-39.

[In the following essay, Berry asserts that Lucrece is not simply a victim of patriarchal power, but that she more importantly functions as a strong voice for action and political change.]

Recent feminist criticism of Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece (or Lucrece, as it was titled in its first five quartos) has stressed the extent to which the idea of woman which it represents is one overdetermined by patriarchal ideology, and has typically interpreted Lucrece herself as a sign used to mediate and define men's relationships to...

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A.D. Cousins (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lucrece,” in Shakespeare's Sonnets and Narrative Poems, Longman, 2000, pp. 63-81.

[In the following excerpt, Cousins argues that Tarquin and Lucrece can be seen as parodies of Petrarchan lovers and that Lucrece's husband, Collatine, is a braggart who unwittingly turns Tarquin's violent attention towards Lucrece.]


As might be expected, much of the more recent commentary on Lucrece has focused on the interrelated matters of politics, gender and subjectivity. The poem's representation of the Roman world and its politics, especially its sexual/gender politics, has been studied; how...

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Catharine R. Stimpson (essay date 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare and the Soil of Rape,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely, University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 56-64.

[In the following essay, Stimpson demonstrates that Shakespeare's portrayals of rape in works such as The Rape of Lucrece indicate his sympathy towards women; nevertheless, Stimpson concludes that Shakespeare uses rape as a plot device to emphasize the primacy of patriarchy and the loss that men endure when rape occurs within their own family.]

Shakespeare's sympathy toward women helps to create an attitude toward rape that is more generous...

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Jane O. Newman (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness’: Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 45, No. 3, Fall, 1994, pp. 304-26.

[In the following essay, Newman remarks that on first examination, The Rape of Lucrece appears to be a poem about the patriarchal victimization of women. However, Newman proposes that a closer look reveals the poem's subtext of Philomela's violent revenge against her rapist—a story which presents an independent response from women to the male society that dominates them.]

In Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, as all readers of the poem know, the...

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Stephen J. Carter (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lucrece's Gaze,” in Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 23, 1995, pp. 210-21.

[In the following essay, Carter argues that once Tarquin has defined Lucrece in traditional, patriarchal terms by raping her, she redefines herself by placing her consciousness within the painting of Troy on a wall in her home, identifying with the painting's subjects and thereby preparing herself for her suicide at the close of the poem.]


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...

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Criticism: Language And Imagery

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘This blemish'd fort’: The Rape of the Hearth in Shakespeare's Lucrece,” in Form and Reform in Renaissance England: Essays in Honor of Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, edited by Amy Boesky and Mary Thomas Crane, University of Delaware Press, 2000, pp. 104-26.

[In the following essay, Dubrow observes that the invasion or destruction of public and private dwellings occurs repeatedly as an image in The Rape of Lucrece; she notes that this imagery is particularly poignant when it directly represents the fire of Tarquin's passion destroying the home that Lucrece has created and that her husband, Collatine, is meant to protect.]

[The soul's] house is...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Camino, Mercedes Maroto. “‘Smoke of Words’: Lucrece and The Voicing of Rape.” In “The Stage Am I”: Raping Lucrece in Early Modern England, pp. 50-64. Lewiston, N.Y.: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995.

Describes Lucrece as a representative of the silenced female that functioned merely as an object of economic exchange in Renaissance society.

Freund, Elizabeth. “‘I See a Voice’: The Desire for Representation and the Rape of Voice.” In Strands Afar Remote: Israeli Perspectives on Shakespeare, edited by Avraham Oz, pp. 62-85. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Compares the use of the...

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