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.