The story of Lucrece, found in both Ovid and Livy, has inspired scores of famous depictions. Britten, Rembrandt, Chaucer, Titian, Gower, Dante, Raphael and Richardson all used the story in their work, but none as famously as Shakespeare in his long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece (1594).
The poem shares its theme with Venus and Adonis, but is a “graver labour”, lacking comedy and playfulness. Here, “Lust-breathèd Tarquin” succeeds in raping “Lucrece the chaste”, and the language is that of brutal military conquest: “She says her subjects with foul insurrection / Have battered down her consecrated wall”. A sense of conflict is also conveyed by the fact that the poem is structured around a series of stark absolutes – light and dark, male and female, guilt and innocence, purity and lust, “Beauty’s red and Virtue’s white”. Beauty is, in this poem, a dangerous thing, speaking louder than words of reason and restraint: “All orators are dumb when beauty pleadeth”. Vision, however, is privileged, and the poem’s insistence on the language of sight has been linked by Christopher Tilmouth to Renaissance concepts of shame as a sensation that occurs when sins are witnessed. Guilt, shame, sight and voyeurism are all important concerns for the critical conversations that surround the poem.
The first section of the poem gives voice to Tarquin, as he contemplates an act which he knows will ruin him. He claims that no “excuse can my invention make” to justify “so black a deed”, and yet he still chooses to sneak into Lucrece’s chamber. Once the deed is done, the narrative then gives voice instead to the reaction of the innocent victim, as she considers whether she must share the guilt for the deed. After considering at length a painting of the Trojan war, she becomes sure that her only choice is, “To clear this spot by death”. Lucrece’s suicide has baffled such commentators as St Augustine who wish to argue for her innocence, but it is this action that constitutes the concluding tragedy of the poem. Tarquin has marred “the thing that cannot be amended”; Lucrece kills herself and her husband Collantine decrees Tarquin’s “everlasting banishment”. The poem has attracted particular attention from feminist critics such as Jane Newman, who is interested in the simultaneous eloquence and powerlessness of the wronged female.
This poem seems to be closely linked with a number of Shakespeare’s other works. The setting means that it is naturally compared to the other Roman plays, most obviously Titus Andronicus (because of this play’s interest in the powerlessness of words, especially as regards the raped and mutilated Lavinia). The theme of rape also sets it alongside Venus and Adonis and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tarquin’s fears about the moral implications of his intended action are related to the monologues in Macbeth. The description of the innocent Lucrece as she sleeps is reminiscent of the descriptions of Desdemona in Othello and Imogen in Cymbeline. Shakespeare also mentioned Lucrece in As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
Contributed by Rachel Thorpe