The Reading Room
Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece
Disturbed and compelled by the power of storytelling that it exemplifies, The Rape of Lucrece gives its heroine not only physical beauty and chastity but formidable rhetorical skills.
The most celebrated episode in Livy’s History of Rome is the rape of Lucrece by Tarquin, son of the Roman king. That crime leads first to his expulsion and then to the foundation of the Roman republic. Shakespeare’s version of a story that is at once painfully intimate and a public spectacle has Lucrece demonstrate political insight and an extraordinarily sympathetic imagination—both of which serve, in the end, not to save her, but to enforce the necessity of her suicide.
An ‘Argument’ heads the poem, introducing the Tarquins as a turbulent, murderous clan, prone to ignore Roman laws and customs—whether at home or abroad—and simply to take by force whatever they want. It is in this context, during the siege of Ardea, that the Roman general Collatine unwisely boasts to an assembled company, including young Tarquin, of his wife Lucrece’s fidelity. When the soldiers decide to swoop collectively on their spouses, only Lucrece is discovered in a wholly innocent activity (spinning with her maids). Tarquin, provoked by the fact that she belongs to another man at least as much as he is by her loveliness and purity, determines to return and possess her.
It is at this point in the narrative that the poem’s action begins. Tarquin, sneaking off from Ardea to Collatium, intends to keep his desires and their fulfilment a private affair, just as (the poem suggests) Collatine should have kept his wife’s virtues to himself. Some tales are best left untold. But Lucrece, safe at home, has no reason to know or think about any of this, or indeed to consider stories other than as a delight. She welcomes Tarquin’s visit with undisguised and unsuspecting pleasure, not least because of the reports he is able to pass on of ‘her husband’s fame’.
Later that night, Tarquin is plagued by the sin he has yet to commit. Like Macbeth, he must repeatedly talk himself into it and in the process talk himself out of his better instincts. He has good cause to fear not only the dishonour that his rape will incur, but the scandal that will cling to his name long after he has died. He knows he is hunting for excuses and that such a pursuit is worse than futile. The best he can summon as his final justification for rape is that dark night will cover both his crime and its consequences. He is hoping that Lucrece will give in without a struggle and thereafter share both in his shame and in keeping quiet.
She does nothing of the kind. Awaking to find her marital bed ‘a wilderness where are no laws’, she tries to remind her aggressor of what belongs to his royal status. We hear from the narrator before we read Lucrece’s own words that she has ‘modest eloquence’, ‘oratory’, and ‘grace’. Even if her ‘accent breaks’, she remains able to reason and argue with passion, invention, and conviction. In a passage that is unique to Shakespeare’s version of the tale, she appeals to the rules of hospitality and friendship, and above all to the actions that befit a monarch. Four lines, sounding like a self-contained song, culminate in the word ‘me’:
‘My husband is thy friend; for his sake spare me.Thyself art mighty; for thine own sake leave me;
Myself a weakling; do not then ensnare me.Thou look’st not like deceit; do not deceive me.’
Lucrece then appears to move from suggesting that a king’s power is limitless and divine—that it is, in other words, accountable to no-one—to a sense that it is at least partly reliant on the loving, cooperative will of the people. She appears at some level to be anticipating the political consequences of Tarquin’s brutality: ‘Thou seem’st not what thou art, a god, a king; / For kings like gods should govern everything … Then kings’ misdeeds cannot be hid in clay. / This deed will make thee only loved for fear, / But happy monarchs still are feared for love’.
As a speaker, Lucrece occupies a horribly authoritative—that is to say, fatally compromised—position from which to comment on the relationship of fear to love, and this is one of many moments in the poem when it seems at once essential and meaningless to differentiate between the personal and the political. She and Tarquin are both depicted in terms of their ‘state’, a word suggesting even at the most private juncture that there is a broader, public stage on which the aftermath of this incident will inevitably be felt. The rape is described by turns as a ‘forcèd league’, the invasion of a city, and the ransacking of a citadel or castle. One of the most arresting and peculiar images to be conjured shortly before it happens is that of the ‘blue veins’ in Lucrece’s bare breast, which are described as helpless soldiers, arrayed in ‘ranks’ as if attempting to defend her while Tarquin’s hand scales ‘their round turrets destitute and pale’.
The language summoned by Lucrece herself shifts from the calmly rational to the desperately resourceful, returning time and again to the briny realms of tears, floods, puddles, and the sea. But, as we already know (for this is an old story), there is nothing she can do to change his mind.
Despite its title, the poem does not dwell on the act of rape itself. Indeed, it would be difficult to say exactly when the sexual violation of Lucrece takes place: Shakespeare moves, eyes averted, from the conditional lament ‘O that prone lust should stain so dear a bed!’ to bewailing the cost of Tarquin’s illicit desire: ‘But she hath lost a dearer thing than life, / And he hath won what he would lose again’. Then again, as the poem repeatedly shows, rape in this context means violation of many different kinds, from the most intimate invasion of domestic privacy to the abuse of regal and political power. In that broader, Elizabethan sense, ‘rape’—understood as the seizure of any property or person by force—remains directly in view throughout.
After she has been ruined, Lucrece, the heroine and innocent victim of a story about herself that she never asked to be broadcast, must now herself narrate the story of what has happened to her. And this despite her feeling ‘more … than one hath power to tell’. If she doesn’t speak up, she will not be able to name the perpetrator or seek reparation for his crime, and the suicide on which she has resolved will lack any meaning.
The capacity to narrate her own sad tale is denied to her sister in suffering, Lavinia in Titus Andronicus (perhaps written less than a year before Lucrece), whose tongue, like that of the mythical Philomel, is cut out to prevent her from identifying her rapists. (Lavinia also has her hands cut off.) Lacking speech, too, is the grieving Hecuba, whose despairing figure in an old painting or tapestry affords Lucrece some consolation and fellowship in her grief as she awaits the return of Collatine. Imagining the wrongs done to Hecuba, victim of an older story of rape (that of Helen of Troy), and her long-dead friends, Lucrece recoups her own strength. ‘She lends them words, and she their looks doth borrow’; in so doing, she comes for a time to forget herself. The ‘sad attention’ that Lucrece affords these companions will shortly be paid to her by an audience of powerful men, as will a promise of vengeance.
We do not see a new republic rise at the end of the poem, the last of whose words is ‘Tarquin’s everlasting banishment’. The Rape of Lucrece closes, as it begins, with the villain’s departure. Only this time, that departure is eternal. In a poem that has persistently refused to disentangle the political from the personal, it is a conclusion that may be taken to imply the overthrow of monarchical tyranny, too.