The Rape of Lucrece
One of Shakespeare's lesser known works, The Rape of Lucrece was quite popular during Shakespeare's lifetime. The narrative poem focuses on Lucrece, wife of Collatine, who is raped by the Roman prince Tarquin. The first quarter of the poem details Tarquin's struggle, and ultimate failure, to contain his lust. After the assault, the poem focuses on Lucrece and the personal and political aftermath of her rape, which includes Lucrece's suicide as well as the founding of the Roman Republic. Modern critics often concentrate on the poem's language and rhetoric, the characters of Tarquin and Lucrece, the poem's treatment of gender issues, and the Renaissance understanding of rape as well as Shakespeare's treatment of it.
Analyses of the characters of Tarquin and Lucrece are almost inextricably woven into any study of the poem as a whole. In Ted Hughes's study of The Rape of Lucrece (see Further Reading), Lucrece's chastity is identified as the poem's primary subject. Hughes argues that Shakespeare's concern with Lucrece's chastity is reflective of a larger metaphysical concern with the sacredness of the soul. Carolyn D. Williams (1993) examines Lucrece's rape, as well as the rape of Lavinia from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, and finds that Shakespeare's treatment of rape reflects the confusion of his time, when there existed a deep conflict between the shame and guilt associated with the act of rape. In conclusion, Williams observes that Lucrece may be best understood as Shakespeare's portrayal of the archetypal rape victim. Edward T. Washington (1994) contends that Tarquin, understood to be the poem's villain, serves to emphasize a complex pattern of meaning at work in The Rape of Lucrece. Washington maintains that Lucrece is not just a rape victim, but is a personification of an outdated mode of literary expression, that of the Petrarchan ideal of beauty and virtue. Tarquin may then be understood, Washington stresses, not just as the villain, but as one who commits a transgressive but necessary purging of literary hegemony.
After Lucrece's rape, her reflections and emotions are expressed in a lengthy soliloquy often criticized as overabundant and extravagant. Mercedes Maroto Camino (1995) studies this section of the poem in order to better understand the negative reactions to it, and to challenge those who have argued that Lucrece's language here erases her claims of innocence. Camino analyzes Lucrece's attitude within the context of Renaissance discursive practices, and demonstrates that throughout this section of the poem Lucrece abolishes the power of Tarquin's lines—Lucrece effectively silences him with words in the same way that Tarquin silenced her physically. Like Camino, Robert L. Montgomery, Jr. (1967) explores the abundant use of formal, patterned rhetoric that Shakespeare employed in The Rape of Lucrece. Montgomery maintains that through this extravagant rhetoric Shakespeare shifted the reader's perspective, established mood, explored the psychology of his characters, moralized, and suggested a philosophical framework for the poem. Mark Breitenberg (1996) examines the ways in which honor, publication, and desire serve as the bases for Shakespeare's depiction and criticism of masculinity in The Rape of Lucrece, and emphasizes that this exploration is undertaken within the context of early modern rhetoric concerning the nature of masculinity. The role of desire within the poem plays an important part in Catherine Belsey's 2001 study of The Rape of Lucrece. Belsey explores the prevalent Renaissance concept of women as the possessions of their fathers or husbands and the endorsement of this notion by the poem. Belsey observes, however, that while the text endorses this notion of possession, it also identifies the instability of this conception of human relationships. For Collatine and Tarquin, Belsey demonstrates, possession fails to gratify desire, as they never truly own what they take into their possession.