Rape of Lucrece is a narrative poem (one that tells a story) focusing
on the rape and tragic death of the title character and on the revenge
time is immediately before the establishment of the Roman republic in 509
BC. The places are Ardea, twenty-four miles south of Rome; Collatium, ten
miles east of Rome; and Rome.
May 9, 1594, the poem was entered in the Hall Book of the Worshipful
Company of Stationers, the English government's pre-publication registry.
Later in the same year, John Harrison of London published the poem in quarto
form, and it became highly popular with educated readers. The poem was
listed in the Hall Book under the title of The Ravyshement [Ravishment]
of Lucrece but was published with the title Lucrece. The
Rape of Lucrece was substituted as a title at a later date.
History of Rome, by Livy (full name, Titus Livius), was one of Shakespeare's
most important sources for The Rape of Lucrece . Livy (59 BC-AD
17) wrote about early Rome—from its legendary founding in 753 BC to the
age of Caesar Augustus, down to about 9 BC. Livy's History—told
in 142 volumes, of which thirty-five survive intact and others survive
in fragments or in references to his History in works of other writers—is
a masterpiece and required reading for all historians. However, Livy was
a moralist who wrote history as a reformer. He was also a
layman who had little experience in the day-to-day workings of government.
When writing, he sometimes accepted undocumented accounts—accounts more
properly categorized as legend than as history. Such is his account of
the rape of a woman named Lucretia (the Lucrece of Shakespeare's poem).
The account is taken as fact by some, fiction by others. Thus, Livy—a rich
source of information about early Rome during the age of kings—was not
(Calendar) by the Roman poet Ovid (full name, Publius Ovidius Naso)
was another important source of information. Shakespeare may have used
an English translation of Fasti by Arthur Golding, although it is
just as likely that he used an original Latin text. Of course, he may have
paged through both texts while writing his poem. Ovid (43 B.C.-18 A.D.)
is famous for his love poems, but Fasti was a twelve-volume account
of the Roman calendar that listed special events and festivals on a given
day. Book II of Fasti tells the story of the rape of Lucretia, or
Lucrece, because of its importance as a significant turning point in Roman
history. Used as evidence of the corruption of the reigning King of Rome
(his son was the rapist), the incident led to the overthrow of the king
and the establishment of the Roman republic.
dedicated The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl
of Southampton. Wriothesley (1573-1624) was a patron of Shakespeare and
other writers of the time. Although a favorite at the court of Queen Elizabeth
I, his association with the headstrong Robert Devereux, the Second Earl
of Essex—another fixture at court—led him to take part in Devereux’s 1601
rebellion against the queen. Wriothesley was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Scheme and Meter
format of the poem is rhyme royal. In this format, each stanza has seven
lines in iambic pentameter, and each stanza
has a rhyme scheme of ababbcc. Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury
Tales, pioneered this format in England in his works Troilus and
Criseyde and The Parlement of Foules. Rhyme royal was going
out of fashion when Shakespeare wrote Lucrece, although later poets—including
John Milton in the seventeenth century and John Masefield in the twentieth—revived
it. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the iambic-pentameter scheme:
and upright woman of great beauty.
husband, a Roman soldier who boasts about his wife's beauty.
Tarquin (Sextus Tarquinius):
Roman soldier who steals into Collatine's house when Lucrece is alone and
vulnerable to his advances.
Junius Brutus: Friend
of Collatine and Lucretius.
who delivers a message from Lucrece to Collatine.
Lucius Tarquinius (Tarquin
the Proud): Father of Tarquin and king of Rome. His name appears in
the Argument (introduction).
Father-in-law of Lucius Tarquinius. His name appears in the Argument (introduction).
Friend of Collatine and Lucretius. His name appears in the Argument (introduction).
an introduction called "The Argument," Shakespeare summarizes the historical
events recounted in the poem. Here is the Argument:
Tarquinius, for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus, after he had caused
his own father-in-law Servius Tullius to be cruelly murdered, and, contrary
to the Roman laws and customs, not requiring or staying for the people's
suffrages, had possessed himself of the kingdom, went, accompanied with
his sons and other noblemen of Rome, to besiege Ardea. During which siege
the principal men of the army meeting one evening at the tent of Sextus
Tarquinius, the king's son, in their discourses after supper every one
commended the virtues of his own wife: among whom Collatinus extolled the
incomparable chastity of his wife Lucretia.
that pleasant humour they posted to Rome; and intending, by their secret
and sudden arrival, to make trial of that which every one had before avouched,
only Collatinus finds his wife, though it were late in the night, spinning
amongst her maids: the other ladies were all found dancing and revelling,
or in several disports. Whereupon the noblemen yielded Collatinus the victory,
and his wife the fame. At that time Sextus Tarquinius being inflamed with
Lucrece' beauty, yet smothering his passions for the present, departed
with the rest back to the camp; from whence he shortly after privily withdrew
himself, and was, according to his estate, royally entertained and lodged
by Lucrece at Collatium. The same night he treacherously stealeth into
her chamber, violently ravished her, and early in the morning speedeth
away. Lucrece, in this lamentable plight, hastily dispatcheth messengers,
one to Rome for her father, another to the camp for Collatine.
came, the one accompanied with Junius Brutus, the other with Publius Valerius;
and finding Lucrece attired in mourning habit, demanded the cause of her
sorrow. She, first taking an oath of them for her revenge, revealed the
actor, and whole manner of his dealing, and withal suddenly stabbed herself.
Which done, with one consent they all vowed to root out the whole hated
family of the Tarquins; and bearing the dead body to Rome, Brutus acquainted
the people with the doer and manner of the vile deed, with a bitter invective
against the tyranny of the king: wherewith the people were so moved, that
with one consent and a general acclamation the Tarquins were all exiled,
and the state government changed from kings to consuls.
the mid-Sixth Century, BC, Lucius Tarquinius murders his father-in-law
to become King of Rome. He is an arrogant, despotic ruler, fully deserving
his epithet, Tarquin the Proud, or Tarquinius Superbus. Because
he covets the town of Ardea, twenty-four miles south of Rome, he orders
troops there to lay siege. .......While
encamped at Ardea, officers gather after supper at the tent of the king’s
son, Tarquin, to socialize and tell stories. By and by, they begin extolling
the virtues of their wives. One officer, Collatine, boasts that his wife,
Lucrece, is by far the most beautiful and virtuous woman of all. His accounting
of her excellent qualities arouses lust in the heart of young Tarquin;
he must see this wonder for himself. So it is that he steals away to Collatine's
home in Collatium, ten miles east of Rome, where Lucrece manages the household
in the absence of her husband. .......When
he presents himself at her door as a comrade of her husband, she receives
him hospitably. Her beauty and innocent charm astound him. Collatine’s
praise of her, generous as it was, was not generous enough. He resolves
to have her. Lucrece believes him honorable and upright, a fine and noble
gentleman like her husband; she is trusting to a fault. The narrator draws
back the curtain of her mind:
earthly saint, adored by this devil,
suspecteth the false worshipper;
unstain'd thoughts do seldom dream on evil. (85-87)
clever Tarquin ingratiates himself with guileless Lucrece, praising her
husband’s soldierly valor and “manly chivalry" (109).He also invents excuses
for his visit, deciding to restrain his libido until nightfall. After supper,
they while away the evening in conversation. When they retire to separate
chambers, the omniscient narrator interprets Tarquin’s motives and, in
doing so, preaches a lesson:
that much covet are with gain so fond,
what they have not, that which they possess
scatter and unloose it from their bond,
so, by hoping more, they have but less;
gaining more, the profit of excess
but to surfeit, and such griefs sustain,
they prove bankrupt in this poor-rich gain. (134-140)
deepest night silences all living things, save for the howling wolf and
the screeching owl, Tarquin steals forth to plunder his treasure. He lifts
a latch. He knees open the door. Before him, Lucrece lies fast asleep.
“Into the chamber wickedly he stalks, / And gazeth on her yet unstained
bed" (365-366). Under his groping hands, Lucrece awakens and "Wrapp'd and
confounded in a thousand fears, / Like to a new-kill'd bird she trembling
lies" (456-457). She must submit to him willingly, he tells her, or he
will take her by force. 'Lucrece,' quoth he,'this night I must enjoy thee:
/ If thou deny, then force must work my way" (512-513). Lucrece begs him,
by all that is right and good, to leave her alone.
conjures him by high almighty Jove,
knighthood, gentry, and sweet friendship's oath,
her untimely tears, her husband's love,
holy human law, and common troth,
heaven and earth, and all the power of both,
to his borrow'd bed he make retire,
stoop to honour, not to foul desire. (568-574)
deafens his ears to her pleadings—and takes her. “The wolf hath seized
his prey, the poor lamb cries" (677). Then he leaves her, a wretched, heartbroken
woman, polluted to the deepest fathom of her soul. “She hath lost a dearer
thing than life" (687). With her nails, she tears her flesh. She says:
Night, thou furnace of foul-reeking smoke,
not the jealous Day behold that face
underneath thy black all-hiding cloak
lies martyr'd with disgrace!" (792-802)
handwritten messages, she summons Collatine from Ardea and her father,
Lucretius, from Rome. While awaiting their arrival, she reflects on a painting
of the Trojan War and recalls the suffering that resulted in Troy from
the event that caused it: the abduction of the beautiful Helen, wife of
King Menelaus of Greece, by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy.
friend by friend in bloody channel lies,
friend to friend gives unadvised wounds,
one man's lust these many lives confounds:
doting Priam cheque'd his son's desire,
had been bright with fame and not with fire." (1487-1491)
compares Tarquin with Paris, and herself with Priam.
me came Tarquin armed; so beguiled
outward honesty, but yet defiled
inward vice: as Priam him did cherish,
did I Tarquin; so my Troy did perish." (1544-1547)
her husband and her father arrive with friends, Lucrece—now dressed in
mournful black—tells them the shocking news, that she has been raped. "Mine
enemy was strong, my poor self weak, / And far the weaker with so strong
a fear" (1646-1647). Then, before naming the rapist, she asks them to avenge
the terrible crime:
ere I name him, you fair lords," quoth she,
to those that came with Collatine,
plight your honourable faiths to me,
swift pursuit to venge this wrong of mine;
'tis a meritorious fair design
chase injustice with revengeful arms:
by their oaths, should right poor ladies' harms." (1688-1694)
But when she names Tarquin,
she plunges a knife into her own breast. Astonishment paralyzes Collatine.
But her father throws himself in grief upon her, and Brutus withdraws the
knife, releasing small rivers of blood. Brokenhearted Lucretius cries out
to her, “That life was mine which thou hast here deprived" (1752). Collatine
falls on his wife and in her blood “bathes the pale fear in his face" (1775)
until “manly shame bids him possess his breath and live to be revenged
on her death." Brutus holds out the bloody weapon, saying, “By this bloody
knife we will revenge the death of this true wife" (1840-41). His compatriots
fall to their knees and swear they will. .......They
then bear the body of Lucrece through the streets of Rome and inform the
people of Tarquin’s “foul offence" (1852). At the same time, they denounce
the tyrannical rule of Lucius Tarquinius. The entire Tarquin family is
rooted out, deposed, and banished. And in 509 BC, Rome establishes a republic
ruled by representatives of the people. There will be no more Tarquins,
no more kings. .
climax of the poem occurs when Tarquin forces himself upon Lucrece.
Objectification of Women
brags to his fellow soldiers that he has a wife of surpassing beauty. If
a king possessed her, he says, he would surely increase his fame. It is
as if she is a priceless painting or sculpture that must be seen to be
believed. The narrator then says, "[W]hy is Collatine the publisher / Of
that rich jewel he should keep unknown?" But the blabbermouth babbles on
about Lucrece after "some untimely thought did instigate / His all-too-timeless
speed." He succeeds in whetting the sexual appetite of Tarquin, who visits
Lucrece when she is alone and, against her remonstrations to save her virtue,
rapes her and flees. Both men thus use Lucrece as a mere object, Collatine
to bolster his proud male ego and Tarquin to satisfy his lust. Tarquin,
to be sure, commits the greater wrong; but he would never have forced himself
upon Lucrece if Collatine had not unwittingly incited him.
his pride to control his tongue, Collatine boasts that he has a more desirable
wife than any other soldier. Allowing his passion for Lucrece to gain sway,
Tarquin rapes her.
entirely innocent of wrongdoing, Lucrece experiences intense shame after
Tarquin rapes her--so intense that she wishes to die by her own hand, as
the following passage indicates:
"Poor hand, why
quiver’st thou at this decree?
Honour thyself to rid me
of this shame;
For if I die, my honour
lives in thee,
But if I live, thou liv’st
in my defame;
Since thou couldst not defend
thy loyal dame,
And wast afeard to
scratch her wicked foe,
Kill both thyself
and her for yielding so." (lines 1030-1036)
begins to hound Tarquin the moment he leave's lucrece's house--guilt that
he knows will never leave him.
Even in this thought
through the dark night he stealeth,
A captive victor that hath
lost in gain;
Bearing away the wound that
The scar that will despite
of cure remain;
Leaving his spoil perplex’d
in greater pain.
She bears the load
of lust he left behind,
And he the burden
of a guilty mind.
He like a thievish dog creeps
She like a wearied lamb
lies panting there;
He scowls and hates himself
for his offence,
She desperate with her nails
her flesh doth tear;
He faintly flies, sweating
with guilty fear,
She stays, exclaiming
on the direful night;
He runs, and chides
his vanish’d, loath’d delight. (lines 729-742)
language and imagery in the poem are elegant and accomplished, demonstrating
great technical skill. Shakespeare was attempting to establish his reputation
when he wrote the poem. If there is a weakness, it is that Lucrece sometimes
resembles an automaton expressing emotions rather than feeling them. Following
are examples of figures of speech in the poem.
challenge that fair
virtue claims from beauty beauty’s red,
age to gild
doth yield 75
joy with heav’d-up
she doth express, 111
the world dim darkness doth display, 118
state (line 45)
moved with my
groans (line 588)
princes are the
subjects’ eyes do
look. (lines 614-615)
him have time to tear his curled hair,
him have time against himself to rave,
him have time of Time’s help to despair,
him have time to live a loathed slave,
him have time a beggar’s orts to crave"
more saw the blood his cheeks replenish,
more she thought he spied in her some
he [Collatine] the night before, in Tarquin’s tent,
the treasure of his happy state;
priceless wealth the heavens had him lent
the possession of his beauteous mate (lines 15-18)
of Lucrece to "treasure" and "priceless wealth"
why is Collatine the publisher
that rich jewel he should keep unknown? (lines 33-34)
of Lucrece to a jewel
Night, mother of Dread and Fear (line 117)
of night to a mother
folded up in blind concealing night,
most unseen, then most doth tyrannize. (lines 675-676)
of shame to a tyrant
broken glass, I often did behold
thy sweet semblance my old age new born;
now that fresh fair mirror, dim and old,
me a bare-boned death by time out-worn:
from thy cheeks my image thou hast torn,
shivered all the beauty of my glass,
I no more can see what once I was!
of Lucrece to a mirror in which her father, Lucretius, can look to see
a likeness of himself
saint (line 85)
rich (line 97)
wilt thou be the school where Lust shall learn?
he in thee read lectures of such shame? 617-618
of lust to a student
sighs, like whirlwinds, labour hence to heave thee (line 586)
of sighs to whirlwinds
Desire, all recreant, poor, and meek, 710
to a bankrupt beggar wails his case (lines 710-711)
of desire to a beggar
He like a thievish dog creeps
She like a wearied lamb
lies panting there (lines 736-737)
of Tarquin to a dog and Lucrece to a lamb
is a device in which part or all of a literary work describes, comments
on and/or analyzes a painting or another graphic work of art. In The
Rape of Lucrece, ekphrasis occurs from line 1366 to 1533, when Lucrece
contemplates a tapestry painting of a scene from the Trojan War. In it,
she sees the Greek army bearing down on the defeated Trojans. It was a
Trojan, Paris, who caused the war, provoking the Greeks by abducting Helen,
the wife of the Greek king Menelaus. In line 1369, the narrator refers
to the abduction as a rape. Lucrece, who has just been raped by Tarquin,
no doubt compares herself to Helen. She also no doubt compares Tarquin
to Sinon, a Greek who used to deceit to gain the Greeks entry to Troy,
which they pillaged and burned. For more about the Trojan War, see the
Iliad and the Odyssey.
Questions and Essay Topics
Lucrece is innocent of wrongdoing,
yet she kills herself. Why?
Write an essay describing how
a rape victim typically reacts the next day.
Write an essay describing how
the husband of a rape victim typically reacts the next day.
Why does Collatine brag about
the beauty of his wife?