Rape of Lucrece
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Revised in 2010.©
.......The 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 that follows.
.......On 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.
.......The 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 Romefrom its legendary founding in 753 BC to the age of Caesar Augustus, down to about 9 BC. Livy's
Historytold in 142 volumes, of which thirty-five survive intact and others survive in fragments or in references to his History in works of other writersis 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
accountsaccounts 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, Livya rich source of information about early Rome during the age of kingswas not always reliable.
.......Shakespeare 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 Essexanother fixture at courtled him to take part in Devereuxs 1601 rebellion against the queen. Wriothesley was sentenced to life imprisonment.
.......The 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 poetsincluding John Milton in the seventeenth century and John Masefield in the twentiethrevived it. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the iambic-pentameter scheme:
Lucrece: Honorable and upright woman of great beauty.
.......In an introduction called "The Argument," Shakespeare summarizes the historical events recounted in the poem. Here is the Argument:.......Lucius 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.
.......In 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.
Including Implied Historical Background
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003.......In 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 kings 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. Collatines 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:
..............This earthly saint, adored by this devil,
The clever Tarquin ingratiates himself with guileless Lucrece, praising her husbands 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 Tarquins motives and, in doing so, preaches a lesson:
..............Those that much covet are with gain so fond,
.......When 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.
..............She conjures him by high almighty Jove,
.......Tarquin deafens his ears to her pleadingsand 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:
.............."O Night, thou furnace of foul-reeking smoke,
In 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.
.............."Here friend by friend in bloody channel lies,
Lucrece compares Tarquin with Paris, and herself with Priam.
.............."To me came Tarquin armed; so beguiled
.......After her husband and her father arrive with friends, Lucrecenow dressed in mournful blacktells 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:
..............But ere I name him, you fair lords, quoth she,
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.
.......The climax of the poem occurs when Tarquin forces himself upon Lucrece.
Objectification of Women
.......Collatine 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.
.......Allowing 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.
.......Although 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 quiverst 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 livst 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)Guilt
.......Guilt 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 nothing healeth,
The scar that will despite of cure remain;
Leaving his spoil perplexd 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 sadly thence,
.......The 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.
AlliterationFrom Venus doves doth challenge that fair field;
Then virtue claims from beauty beautys red,
Which virtue gave the golden age to gild (lines 58-60)
The coward captive vanquished doth yield 75
Be moved with mytears, mysighs, mygroans (line 588)
For princes are theglass, theschool, thebook,
Where subjects eyes dolearn, doread, dolook. (lines 614-615)
"Let him have time to tear his curled hair,
The more saw the blood his cheeks replenish,
Unlockd the treasure of his happy state;
What priceless wealth the heavens had him lent
In the possession of his beauteous mate (lines 15-18)
Comparison of Lucrece to "treasure" and "priceless wealth"
Or why is Collatine the publisher
sable Night, mother of Dread and Fear (line 117)
Shame folded up in blind concealing night,
'Poor broken glass, I often did behold
poorly rich (line 97)PersonificationAnd wilt thou be the school where Lust shall learn?
Must he in thee read lectures of such shame? 617-618
Comparison of lust to a studentSimileMy sighs, like whirlwinds, labour hence to heave thee (line 586)
Comparison of sighs to whirlwinds
Feeble Desire, all recreant, poor, and meek, 710
He like a thievish dog creeps sadly thence,
.......Ekphrasis 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.
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