Shakespeare wrote “The Rape of Lucrece” in the plague year of 1594. Approaching thirty years of age, he was little-known as a playwright, but famous as a poet, the celebrated author of “Venus and Adonis”, written the year before, one of the best-loved poems of the age.
But whereas “Venus and Adonis” is light-hearted and at times satirical, “The Rape of Lucrece” (as its title implies) is a sobering and serious read. Set in around 500 BCE, it tells the story of Tarquin, heir to the King of Rome, and his attack on the wife of Collatine, a fellow soldier and a friend.
Essentially the poem divides into two broad sections. In the first, Tarquin weighs up the pros and cons of what he proposes to do before he goes through with his plans. In the second, Lucrece reflects on her ordeal and her prospects now. The poem is introduced by a summary of the narrative (“The Argument”).
Shakespeare was evidently much preoccupied with this story. Having originally read its outline in work by the Roman poet Ovid, he subsequently refers to it in at least five separate plays. Perhaps the best-known example is “Macbeth”, where Tarquin’s “ravishing strides towards his design” are compared with Macbeth’s own anxious approach to Duncan’s bedroom.
Stage by Stage
Lines 1 – 13 (“Dedication”):
The author dedicates his poem to his patron and sponsor The Earl of Southampton.
Lines 14 – 51 (“The Argument”):
Writing in prose the narrator gives the background and preamble to the story he will tell.
A number of Roman generals once compared with one another the chastity of their wives.
Returning to Rome unexpectedly, they find their wives with one exception “dancing and revelling”.
The single exception is Lucrece. Tarquin, son and heir to the king, resolves to test her chastity.
He “violently ravishe[s] her” – at which she recalls her father and husband from military duties.
Revealing the detail of the rape, she calls on them to avenge, before she stabs herself to death.
The people, informed of these events, rise up and overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic.
Lines 52 – 100:
The narrative opens with Tarquin heading for Collatium to test the virtue of “Lucrece the chaste”.
Maybe he was motivated by Collatine’s evident pride in his wife – which he might have concealed.
Lines 101 – 170:
Tarquin finds Lucrece so beautiful and virtuous, it seems her husband understated her attraction.
Her mind is so virtuous that she has no idea why the “wanton” Tarquin has paid this visit to her.
But she delights in his stories of the bravery and success on the battlefield of her husband.
Lines 171 – 212:
The narrator laments that humans often care more for what they lack than for what they have.
Tarquin will have to reckon with the damage he is doing to himself if he proceeds with his plan.
Lines 213 – 296:
Tarquin, his feelings divided between lust and fear, reflects on the reasons to abandon his plans.
He will be cursed for ever, he will gain nothing lasting, his betrayal will be avenged by Collatine.
Besides Collatine is his “kinsman, my dear friend” and Tarquin admits he is motivated by evil.
Lines 297 – 387:
At the same time, Tarquin prefers to leave reason till he is older (326) and act on instinct now.
His lust displaces doubt and “heedful fear” (332), as weeds overwhelm a field of corn if not resisted.
He sets out on the walk from his room to her chamber, determined not to be distracted.
Lines 388 – 471:
He lifts the latch to her bedroom to find her sleeping on the bed, her “lily hand” on her “rosy cheek”.
Further details reflect on her hair (“like golden threads”) and her breasts (“like ivory globes”).
Lines 472 – 555:
Looking at her lying half-naked below him, he stretches out his hand to caress her breast (490).
She awakes, and as he assaults her, she demands to know why “he commits this ill” (527).
He blames her for the rape (“the fault is thine”), because her beauty made her irresistible to him.
He accepts that there will be consequences, he tells her, “the honey guarded with a sting” (544).
Lines 556 – 625:
Tarquin explains his plan: if she refuses him, he will murder a servant and place him in her arms.
He tells her it is better she accept him and keep the incident secret than that she divulges it.
Lucrece pleads with him, and her “eloquence with sighs is mix’d”, but “Tears harden lust” (611).
Lines 626 – 695:
She argues that she has not deserved this fate. She reminds him that the act cannot be undone.
She points out that he is her husband’s friend. She adds that she is weak and should be protected.
Moreover it is not in his interests to continue. The crime will remain with him permanently.
She urges him if he is to command others he must control himself, so that “thou shalt see thy state”.
Lines 696 – 737:
Tarquin is unmoved – in fact his lust intensifies, an “uncontrolled tide” that “swells the higher”.
She adds further arguments but he cuts her short and repeats his threat to frame her.
He stamps out the torch, and wraps her linen around her head to stifle her cries.
Lines 738 – 807:
Tarquin “surfeit-taking” (749) commits his crime against Lucrece and “against himself” (768).
In doing so he has left her “thrall / To living death and pain perpetual” (776 – 7).
He creeps away from the scene, loaded with self-hatred, chiding himself for his crime.
He craves the morning, while Lucrece by contrast “prays she never may behold the day”.
Lines 808 – 898:
She realises that she must be alone with her grief, her shame revealed by daylight.
In future her name will be held up by nurses, orators and minstrels to ridicule and shame.
She feels shame towards her husband whose “honour” (885) has been bereft by this event.
Yet, though “guilty of thy honour’s wrack” she only trusted Tarquin as a friend of Collatine.
Lines 899 – 1017:
Lucrece reflects that everything, no matter how good, contains negative and evil elements.
She calls to mind a large number of phenomena where good and bad are mingled.
But “Opportunity” (925) is most to blame – time or chance, co-incidence or bad luck.
Opportunity is responsible for numerous ills – why does it never bring positive results?
The “poor, lame [and] blind” have equal need for opportunity but are never helped.
Equally guilty is Time, which, along with Opportunity, enabled her rapist to destroy her.
True, Time does have some positive effects, she believes, listed in lines 990 – 1010.
Lines 1018 – 1130:
She wishes Tarquin to be afflicted with unhappy events and frightening experiences.
She wishes him restlessness, misery, loneliness, regret and the disdain of others.
She hopes that he will be mocked by friends and subjected to the slow movement of time in sorrow.
His crimes are particularly egregious, she believes, because he is of royal blood (1053).
Lucrece concludes that she has no option but to “let forth my foul-defiled blood” (1080).
She resolves to make sure that Collatine is fully informed of what has happened.
Lines 1131 – 1262:
Sensing the day breaking outside, she resents the “piercing light” intruding to find her weeping.
The dawn underlines the fact that to be close to happiness when one is unhappy is doubly hard.
Lucrece uncertain whether to live or die is compared to a deer in a dilemma which way to run.
She confirms that she will not kill herself until her husband knows “the cause of my untimely death”.
Moreover she ordains that her example should be followed in identifying Tarquin’s punishment.
Lines 1263 – 1347:
She summons her maid, who dares not ask why her mistress looks so distressed.
But seeing her mistress crying, the maid begins to do the same, as women often do (line 1288).
Men and women have different minds but men should not blame women for being their victims.
Lucrece asks after Tarquin, to be told that he left before the break of day.
Lines 1348 – 1418:
She writes a letter to Collatine asking him to return to her without delay.
She resolves not to write out the whole story but to save that until they can speak face to face.
She senses her servant looking at her inquisitively, though no words are spoken.
Lines 1419 – 1549:
The messenger despatched, she now reflects on a painting of the siege of Troy.
The picture describes the battle in great detail, but also engages the imagination (1479).
In this painting Lucrece’s attention is particularly drawn to Hecuba staring at Priam’s wounds.
Hecuba’s careworn appearance (1501 – 7) suggests the suffering the queen of Troy has endured.
She rails against those who for private individual pleasure cause untold suffering to many.
Lines 1550 – 1619:
Her eye is caught by Sinon, whose advice to the Trojans cleared the wooden horse as safe.
She fixes on his expression and concludes that “so much guile” cannot “lurk in such a look”.
She perceives a parallel between Sinon and Tarquin, and another between herself and Troy.
She scratches at the painting of Sinon, but then realises that she cannot harm him this way.
Line 1620 – 1710:
Collatine returns to find his wife visibly distressed and to be told that his bed has been violated.
She summarises the blackmail and trickery the intruder intended to use to cover his tracks.
Her body has been “stain’d with this abuse” but her mind remains “still pure” (1709).
Lines 1711 – 1773
At first Collatine finds it difficult to speak, only making her pain seem worse (1728).
It can’t change anything, she admits, she tells her husband, “yet let the traitor die”.
Before she identifies the rapist, she enjoins the knights attending her husband to revenge.
Finding speech difficult she names Tarquin, then plunges the knife into herself (1773).
Lines 1774 – 1906:
Her father Lucretius throws himself on her body, and Brutus pulls the knife from the wound.
Lucretius laments the unnatural situation, where he sees his own child dead before him.
Collatine is so undermined by grief and “vexation” that he is unable to speak.
Father and husband dispute Lucrece’s ownership and contest their misery at her death.
Brutus, who had a reputation for folly hitherto, now demands the knights avenge Lucrece.
The knights swear to do so. They will bear the body back to Rome to publish and punish the offence.
“The Argument” describes a playful competition between a number of Roman generals boasting about the modesty and chastity of their wives: Lucrece is admired as the winner. A similar competition underwrites the closing scenes of “The Taming of the Shrew” (c. 1592), though in this play, the issue is not chastity but obedience: Petruchio lays a bet with two associates that if each calls for his wife, Katherina (his partner) will be the only one to appear. He wins his bet, provoking innocent admiration on the part of his companions. Tarquin’s respect for Lucrece is less innocent.
“The Rape of Lucrece” opens with a “Dedication” to the Earl of Southampton (a supporter and possible lover of Shakespeare’s) and proceeds to the summary (“The Argument”). The poem itself picks up events roughly half way through the summary – thus skating over the story’s background – by extending a metaphor of fire: Tarquin, we are told, was “inflamed with Lucrece’s beauty” and now, it seems, he “bears the lightless fire” (line 55) of his lust to Collatium. The same metaphor recurs elsewhere in the poem – for example the “coal” of line 98.
Throughout the poem, the particular experiences of Tarquin and Lucrece are routinely compared to more general phenomena often to be seen in nature. In line 136 for example, we read that Lucrece is not suspicious of Tarquin because she has no experience of being deceived. This is then generalised: “unstain’d thoughts do seldom dream on evil; / Birds never limed no secret bushes fear”. The use of natural phenomena to reflect human characteristics is also a prominent feature of “Venus and Adonis” (1593).
In the verse mentioned above, Lucrece is implicitly compared to a bird. Elsewhere in the poem the comparison is made more explicit and becomes a familiar motif. As Tarquin enters Lucrece’s chamber, for example, “The dove sleeps fast that this night-owl will catch”. Later Lucrece is compared to a nightingale (1130) and later still a swan (line 1662).
The narrator invests a great deal of time throughout the poem reflecting on human psychology. As Tarquin weighs up his plans, the narrator suggests that it is a general rule of human nature never to be satisfied. Tarquin, for example, is described as a man who, “having all, all could not satisfy” (144). This poem has a great deal in common with “Macbeth”, and Tarquin’s psychology anticipates Lady Macbeth’s observation that “Nought’s had, all’s spent, / When our desire is got without content”. This will be Tarquin’s fate.
In a similar vein, the narrator reflects on the way greed makes people focus on what they lack rather than on what they have: “Those that much covet are with gain so fond / For what they have not,” he suggests, “that which they possess / They scatter and unloose it” (185 – 187). Once again the narrator generalises his narrative while discussing its key moments in terms of human nature (and the natural world in general).
“Venus and Adonis” (which might be called a companion piece, written the year before) derives its momentum from a dialogue between the two central characters. In “The Rape of “Lucrece” by contrast, there has been no dialogue between the two principals so far, and there will be precious little. The structure of the poem is essentially binary: initially it focuses on Tarquin, his fears and desires. Then it focuses on Lucrece, her regrets, anger, bitterness – and her decisions.
In contrast with Tarquin’s scandalous actions, there is evidently a quasi-Arthurian code of honour among the Roman warrior elite. This is first mentioned in line 248, when Tarquin reflects that his intentions constitute a “shame to knighthood and to shining arms”. The sense of a chivalric code of honour is developed in greater detail later in the poem.
Long before he commits the rape, Tarquin knows full well the stupidity (among other things) of what he proposes to do: “What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?” he asks. “A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy” (262 – 3). He offers an analogy for his poor bargain: “For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?” Like Macbeth about to kill Duncan, who knows full well that what he is about to do is a self-harming mistake, Tarquin is powerless before his own instincts and desires.
Further parallels with “Macbeth” (whose central character is himself aware of Tarquin, and mentions him at a crucial moment) are pervasive in this poem: for example the lengthy exploration of the criminal mind immediately before the crime, and the reflection that this is a particularly gross betrayal because Collatine is “my kinsman, [and] my dear friend” (line 288). These terms will later be used by Macbeth about Duncan.
Early on, the poem dramatizes Tarquin’s struggle with his own conscience (once again one thinks of Macbeth), as he wrestles with his instincts and desires – essentially a “disputation / ‘Tween frozen conscience and hot-burning will …” (298). The metaphor is an echo of the inflamed / fire / embers / flames / coal sequence referenced earlier.
As mentioned above, nature is a rich source of metaphors for the poem. For example, the locked doors that separate Tarquin from his prey are said to be “Like little frosts that sometime threat the spring, / To add a more rejoicing to the prime / And give the sneaped birds more cause to sing.” “Sneaped” means “discouraged”, and the effect of the word is to underline the predatory spirit of Tarquin’s assault on Lucrece.
As in “Macbeth”, night acts as a cover for the kind of crime that daylight would not countenance: as Tarquin creeps to Lucrece’s chamber, “The eye of heaven is out, and misty night / Covers the shame that follows sweet delight.” Further exploration of the associations of night and day is a prominent feature in the second half of the poem.
Tarquin surveys Lucrece’s naked body – and the narrator does likewise, almost imitating Tarquin’s lust as he gazes at “Her breasts, like ivory globes circled with blue, / A pair of maiden worlds unconquered …” (460). Ten lines later, Tarquin is seen admiring “Her azure veins, her alabaster skin, / Her coral lips, her snow-white dimpled chin.” At this stage she is asleep, incidentally (474). These descriptions of the nocturnal intruder, distasteful in themselves because predatory, are a reminder of the behaviour of Iachimo in “Cymbeline” (1608), an intruder who hides in a box to gain entry to a bedroom where he would not be welcome.
Lucrece is variously compared to a “city” (520) and her virtue to a “never-conquer’d fort” (533). It is a striking metaphor, but later in the poem, exploring a painting of the Trojan wars, she identifies with Troy itself, penetrated and then conquered because too trusting.
Tarquin’s plan (563 – 90) to kill a servant and put him in Lucrece’s arms in order to suggest that she had been easy with her virtue with the servants is a particularly odious plan. It anticipates Lady Macbeth’s plan to frame the guards and arraign them for Duncan’s murder – the difference lies in the fact that Lady Macbeth carries through on her plan, and Macbeth supplies the cold steel.
Before Lucrece has had a chance to speak, Tarquin “replies” in lines 528 to 555, explaining that he knows there will be consequences for what he means to do. Then in line 626, one third of the way through the poem, Lucrece speaks her own words in her own voice for the first time. Hitherto she has been absent, or silent, or reported through indirect speech. For example in line 595, she “pleads”, we are told, but we are not given her words. Here she speaks until line 695, whereupon Tarquin cuts in: “’Have done,’ quoth he,” and so to the rape.
The rape itself is described allusively, beginning at line 724 and concluding at line 786. At this point we are told that Tarquin “like a thievish dog creeps sadly thence”, and from this point the narrator’s focus is entirely on Lucrece.
Reflecting on the rape, Lucrece follows the example of the narrator in moving from the particular to the general, in a way that is realistically a touch unconvincing. Imagining herself addressing Collatine, she believes herself to be “guilty of thy honour’s wrack” though in fairness she entertained Tarquin because it would have been “dishonour to disdain him” (895). This is a concrete problem to do with Roman codes of hospitality and hierarchy, a practical dilemma. But it abruptly becomes a matter for metaphysical speculation: “Why should the worm intrude the maiden bud” she enquires, “Or hateful cuckoos hatch in sparrows’ nests?” Difficult to answer these questions – difficult too to believe that they reflect the practical urgency of Lucrece’s situation.
These speculations are followed by further abstract reflections on the nature of time and chance – characterised here as “Opportunity”. Again Lucrece’s insights are surely right – as she says, the “poor, lame, blind, [and] halt” are often less than lucky in life. But again one wonders whether, faced with urgent and practical considerations, including suicide, this is the moment for philosophical reflection.
Finally, in line 1018, over two hundred lines since the rape, she turns her anger on Tarquin, wishing him to “curse this cursed crimeful night” and much else besides. In this respect her curse will be granted since (as “The Argument” points out at the start of the poem), his family was ousted from Rome as punishment for the events described here.
In many respects “the Rape of Lucrece” might be described as an amalgam of two dramatic monologues, but it does have its narrative element, and in the final quarter of the poem this begins to gain ground. It starts, perhaps, when Lucrece writes the letter to Collatine (1355) that will bring him and his knights post-haste home to hear what has happened in his absence.
From line 1418 to 1620, she reflects on a painting that depicts the fall of Troy, a subject Shakespeare would return to in “Troilus and Cressida” (1602). She focuses on this painting for two reasons. First because she discerns in the faces depicted there (in Hecuba, for example, the queen of Troy) signs of suffering with which she finds it easy to identify. Second because she feels that her own plight reflects that of Troy itself, which fell because it trusted too much and was deceived. The key figure here is “perjured Sinon” (1572) who persuaded the Trojans to take in the wooden horse which caused their downfall. Her reaction to seeing this figure depicted is unambiguous: “She tears the senseless Sinon with her nails” (1615) – though reflecting that no purpose is served by this impulse.
Her husband Collatine arrives with his band of warriors, invested with Arthurian virtues and obligations. They listen to her story, which ends with the chivalric call to arms, “Knights, by their oaths, should right poor ladies’ harms” (1745). They respond as one would expect – “Each present lord began to promise aid, / As bound in knighthood to her imposition, / Longing to hear the hateful foe bewray’d.” Further quasi-Arthurian gestures emerge at the end of the poem, when Brutus insists Lucrece be avenged, and “Then jointly to the ground their [the Roman warriors’] knees they bow; / And that deep vow, which Brutus made before, / He doth again repeat, and that they swore.” The poem ends on this note, though “The Argument” has already explained that later, the monarchy falls as a result of the rape.
Lucrece commits suicide (or as Macbeth puts it, “plays the Roman fool”) by stabbing herself and thus enabling her “soul [to be] unsheathed” (1775). Her body, like that of Adonis in the companion piece, is surrounded by blood, vividly described. The use of a knife to commit suicide recurs in Shakespeare’s work, in (among other places) “Romeo and Juliet” – also written in 1594; Juliet, with Romeo’s dagger – and in “Othello” (1604).
The poem closes incongruously on a dispute between Lucretius (Lucrece’s father) and Collatine as to who has precedence in mourning Lucrece (1824). The question of whether the father or the husband has first call on a woman’s loyalty is a familiar theme in Shakespeare, featuring in plays too numerous to mention.
Son of a man described in “The Argument” as being of “excessive pride”, Tarquin is presented as secretive and deceitful. He is seen “smothering” his interest in Lucrece before “privily” withdrawing himself from the company of his peers to visit her. Once at Collatium, he maintains his furtive approach, “treacherously” (line 35) attacking Lucrece and then vanishing from the scene of the crime like a “dog” (787). True, he does briefly allow his “conscience” to engage with his “hot-burning will” (298), but his victim’s tears evoke not pity but desire (611), and his threat of blackmail is particularly shocking. The esteem in which he is held by his peers may be judged by the fact that the rape leads not to a criminal conviction but to the collapse of the monarchy and the founding of the Republic.
At first it seems that she is limited by the conventions of the times: she is dutiful, honourable, loyal – a perfect wife (as indeed “The Argument” implies), a fate which will be her downfall. After the assault, however, she emerges as something more fiery, retaining her vivid interior life (her musing on the painting of Troy, for example), while developing as a decisive and forceful figure. It is her determination to kill herself in response to the crime that triggers the fall of the monarchy, and the dramatic impact of her stabbing rivals that of Othello.
- Which city region of Italy is the Roman army besieging when the story begins?
- What is the name of the place where Lucrece lives?
- Which word is used to indicate the sword Tarquin brings to Lucrece’s bedroom?
- What else apart from his sword does Tarquin bring with him to the scene of his crime?
- What is the colour of the “coverlet” or blanket on the bed where Lucrece is sleeping?
- What colour is Lucrece’s hair?
- Who is Lucrece’s first visitor after Tarquin elopes?
- What is the name of the traitor who persuaded the Trojans to accept the wooden horse?
- How does Lucrece react when she sees his face in the painting?
- Give the name of the knight who proposes that they avenge the death of Lucrece.
In the plague years of 1593 and 1594, Shakespeare composed his two epic poems “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” – over 3,000 lines of poetry overall. The theatres were closed and the time was well spent, if only because the labour he invested made him among the best-known and wealthiest poets of the age.
Yet he never wrote anything similar on such a scale again. Why not? His biographer Peter Ackroyd suggests that Shakespeare’s love of the theatre was simply too intense to abandon the stage for the lonelier consolations of poetry; “he loved the work of acting and play-writing at the heart of his own company,” says Ackroyd. “Otherwise he would not have chosen to continue it”.
But one feature of this poem was not abandoned: the interest in Classical Rome. Among his plays set in this time and place are ”Titus Andronicus” (1593), “Julius Caesar” (1599), “Antony and Cleopatra” (1606) and “Coriolanus” (1607) – and Classical Greece is represented too, in “Troilus and Cressida” (1601) and “Timon of Athens” (1607). It says much about the impact of the Classical world on Europe and beyond over the succeeding centuries that one in six of Shakespeare’s plays should return to it, to mull over its central personalities and events.