The Rape of Lucrece
Shakespeare's narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594) recounts the tale of Lucrece, the chaste wife of Collatine, whose rape by the Roman prince Tarquin causes her suicide and—ultimately—the founding of the Roman Republic. The poem has been subject to a wide range of critical reactions over the centuries. Although quite popular during Shakespeare's own lifetime, it was largely disregarded until the early twentieth century. Early critics tended to regard the poem as a flawed work, citing its lack of unity and inconclusive nature, and attributing its deficiencies to Shakespeare's artistic immaturity. Many modern scholars, however, have focused on the poem's merits, including its masterful use of language and rich imagery. Colin Burrow (2002) defends the poem against its detractors, maintaining that its primary distinction is its willingness to explore “dark but profound questions.” The renewed critical interest in The Rape of Lucrece has sparked significant discussion on the poem's sources, structure, and style, as well as of its treatment of such topics as gender roles, rape, and colonialism.
The sources that influenced The Rape of Lucrece have long been debated, with a host of authors being cited as models for the poem. Rolf Soellner (1982) points to the works of French author Robert Garnier as possible sources, arguing that English translations of two of Garnier's “closet tragedies” and a similar work by Samuel Daniel helped inspire The Rape of Lucrece. The critic contends that Shakespeare made use of these works' basic premise—a woman struggling heroically against a powerful male antagonist—but that his poem surpassed its sources in complexity and ingenuity. Mary Jo Kietzman (1999) focuses on the tradition of the complaint poem, a poetic style popular in the 1590s that features a woman voicing her grief. Kietzman contends that Shakespeare's poem pushes the boundaries of this genre because Lucrece—unlike the heroines of other complaint poems—uses her complaint to transform herself and resolve her feelings about the rape. Heather Dubrow (1986) likewise acknowledges the influence of the complaint genre on The Rape of Lucrece, but posits that Shakespeare's poem contains an implicit criticism of the values and conventions of this poetic style. Sara E. Quay (1995) adds her voice to the many feminist assessments of The Rape of Lucrece. Quay addresses the patriarchal social constructs depicted in the poem and examines how these “promote and permit” rape. Linda Woodbridge (1991) views the rape as a symbol of military invasion that reflects England's fear of foreign conquest. Woodbridge asserts that Lucrece's rape can be interpreted as a metaphor for military conquest by foreign enemies, an especially urgent subject in the period following the failed attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Looking at the subject of conquest in a different way, Mercedes Maroto Camino (1996) draws parallels between The Rape of Lucrece and the practices of mapmaking and colonial conquest that became prominent during the Renaissance. She asserts that the poem can be regarded as an expression of the “imperial ‘achievement’ of patriarchy” that resulted in the sublimation of both colonized populations and women in general.