The Rape of Lucrece

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Not to be confused with The Rape of Lucretia.

The Rape of Lucrece (1594) is a narrative poem by William Shakespeare about the legendary Lucretia. In his previous narrative poem, Venus and Adonis (1593), Shakespeare had included a dedicatory letter to his patron, the Earl of Southampton, in which he promised to write a "graver work". Accordingly, The Rape of Lucrece has a serious tone throughout.

Publication and title[edit]

Title page of the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece with Mr. prefixing Shakespeare's name.
Title page of the sixth edition of The Rape of Lucrece (1616).

The Rape of Lucrece was entered into the Stationers' Register on 9 May 1594, and published later that year, in a quarto printed by Richard Field for the bookseller John Harrison ("the Elder"); Harrison sold the book from his shop at the sign of the White Greyhound in St. Paul's Churchyard. The title given on the title page was simply Lucrece, though the running title throughout the volume, as well as the heading at the beginning of the text is The Rape of Lucrece. (The Arden edition of Shakespeare's [The] Poems, ed F. T. Prince, London and New York, Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1960), from which this information is taken, calls the poem Lucrece. Harrison's copyright was transferred to Roger Jackson in 1614; Jackson issued a sixth edition (O5) in 1616. Other octavo editions followed in 1624, 1632 and 1655.[1] The poem went through eight editions before 1641.

Historical background[edit]

Lucrece draws on the story described in both Ovid's Fasti and Livy's history of Rome. In 509 BC, Sextus Tarquinius, son of Tarquin, the king of Rome, raped Lucretia (Lucrece), wife of Collatinus, one of the king's aristocratic retainers. As a result, Lucrece committed suicide. Her body was paraded in the Roman Forum by the king's nephew. This incited a full-scale revolt against the Tarquins led by Lucius Junius Brutus, the banishment of the royal family, and the founding of the Roman Republic.

Allusions to Lucrece in other works by Shakespeare[edit]

Shakespeare retains the essence of the classic story, incorporating Livy's account that Tarquin's lust for Lucrece sprang from her husband's own praise of her.[2] Shakespeare later used the same idea in the late romance Cymbeline (circa 1609–1610). In this play, Iachimo bets Posthumus (Imogen's husband) that he can make Imogen commit adultery with him. He does not succeed. However, Iachimo convinces Posthumus otherwise using information about Imogen's bedchamber and body. Iachimo hid in a trunk which was delivered to Imogen's chamber under the pretence of safekeeping some jewels, a gift for her father, King Cymbeline. The scene in which he emerges from the trunk (2.2) mimics the scene in The Rape of Lucrece. Indeed, Iachimo compares himself to Tarquin in the scene: "Our Tarquin thus, / Did softly press the rushes ere he waken'd / The chastity he wounded" (2.2.12–14). Lucrece is also closely related to the early Roman tragedy Titus Andronicus (circa 1590–94). In this revenge play, when the raped and mutilated Lavinia reveals the identity of her rapists, her uncle Marcus invokes the story of Lucrece to urge an oath to revenge the crime: "And swear with me—as, with the woeful fere / And father of that chaste dishonoured dame, / Lord Junius Brutus swore for Lucrece' rape-- / That we will prosecute by good advice / Mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths, / And see their blood, or die with this reproach" (4.1.89–94). The rapist Tarquin is also mentioned in Macbeth's soliloquy from Act 2 Scene 1 of Macbeth: "wither'd Murther . . . With Tarquin's ravishing strides, towards his design / Moves like a ghost" (2.1.52–56). Tarquin's actions and cunning are compared with Macbeth's indecision – both rape and regicide are unforgivable crimes. In Taming of the Shrew Act 2, Scene 1, Petruchio promises Baptista, the father of Katherine (the Shrew), that once he marries Katherine "for patience she will prove second Grisel, / And Roman Lucrece for her chastity" (2.1.292-3). In Twelfth Night, Maria's letter in Olivia's handwriting designed to gull Malvolio reads: "I may command where I adore; but silence, like a Lucrece knife, With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore: M, O, A, I, doth sway my life." As Malvolio interprets the "fustian riddle," Olivia's inability or unwillingness to speak of her love for him is killing her, like the literal knife of Lucretia's suicide.

The raped woman[edit]

The suicide of Lucretia, by Jörg Breu the Elder

Lucrece is described as if she were a work of art. Tarquin's rape of her is described as if she were a fortress under attack—conquering her various physical attributes. Although Lucrece is raped, the poem offers an apology to absolve her of guilt (lines 1240–1246). Like Shakespeare's other raped women, Lucrece gains symbolic value: through her suicide, her body metamorphoses into a political symbol.

Analysis and criticism[edit]

In a post-structuralist analysis of the poem, Joel Fineman argues that The Rape of Lucrece, like Shakespeare's sonnets, deconstructs the traditional poetics of praise.[3] Fineman observes that the tragic events of the poem are set in motion precisely by Collatine’s hyperbolic praise of Lucrece; it is his “boast of Lucrece' sov’reignty” (29) that kindles Tarquin’s profane desire.[4] It is not the fact of Lucrece’s chastity, but rather the fact that her husband praises her with the “name of ‘chaste’” that inspires Tarquin's crime: “Haply, that name of ‘chaste’ unhapp’ly set / This bateless edge on his keen appetite” (8–9). Collatine’s praise paradoxically creates the circumstances that will ruin both the woman that he praises and the integrity of the rhetoric of praise itself.[5] Furthermore, the poem itself draws attention to its own complicity in Collatine’s fatal rhetoric of praise: “the poem itself performs or activates this same praising word of which it speaks.”[6] by citing, in the first line of the second stanza, its own use of “chaste” in the last line of the first stanza: “Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste” (7). To Fineman, the poem’s initial self-citation is just one example of how the “poem’s own rhetoricity is... performatively implicated in the rape it reports”.[7] In other words, the opening of the poem highlights an intrinsic link between the language of poetic praise and sexual violence. In these same opening stanzas, The Rape of Lucrece also acknowledges how its own poetic rhetoric is part of this larger literary tradition which yokes praise and violence.

Jane Newman's feminist analysis of the poem focuses on its relationship to the myth of Philomel and Procne from Book VI of the Metamorphoses by Ovid.[8] In Newman's reading, the tradition of violent female revenge for rape represented by the myth of Philomel is repressed in Shakespeare's Lucrece. Shakespeare's poem faintly alludes to Ovid's myth, but does not present Procne and Philomel's method of revenge as an authentic option for Lucrece. Although Lucrece maintains the ability to speak after the rape (in contrast to the mutilated Philomela who loses all speech), Newman argues that the poem actually limits Lucrece's ability to act precisely by celebrating her self-sacrifice: "The apparent contrast of a silent Philomela, robbed of the potential for such an impact on the political moment to which she belongs, effectively casts Lucretia's suicide as the only form of political intervention available to women."[9] Ironically, Lucrece's rhetorical eloquence blocks the possibility that she herself could seek out a more active, violent retribution on Tarquin, her rapist, and the monarchical regime that he represents. Instead, her revenge must be carried out by male agents acting in her name, particularly Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic, who imitates Lucrece's self-sacrificing rhetoric as he leads the rebellion against Tarquin's father, the king of Rome.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Halliday, p. 402.
  2. ^ Titus Livius. Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome), Book I. 49–60.
  3. ^ Fineman, Joel (1991). "Shakespeare's Will: The Temporality of Rape". The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition: Essays Toward the Release of Shakespeare's Will. Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 170–171. ISBN 0-262-06136-8. 
  4. ^ Fineman 172.
  5. ^ Fineman 172–173.
  6. ^ Fineman 173.
  7. ^ Fineman 178.
  8. ^ Newman, Jane (1994). "And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness': Philomela, Female Violence and Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece". Shakespeare Quarterly. 45 (3): 304–326. doi:10.2307/2871233. JSTOR 2871233. 
  9. ^ Newman 308


  • Charney, Maurice (2000). Shakespeare on Love & Lust. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10429-4. 
  • Halliday, F. E. (1964). A Shakespeare Companion 1564–1964. Baltimore: Penguin. 

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