Lacey, Robert. Sir Walter Ralegh. 1973. Reprint, London:
Phoenix Press, 2000. Raleigh, Sir Walter. The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh. Edited and translated by Agnes M. C. Latham and Joyce A. You-ings. Exeter, U.K.: University of Exeter Press, 1999.
rape of lucrece, the William Shakespeare (ca. 1593) This is a long narrative poem composed of seven-line stanzas in rhyme royal, with the rhyme scheme of ababbcc. Although the poem comes complete with its own plot summary ("The Argument"), virtually every educated person of the 16th century knew the story of the virtuous Roman wife Lucretia (Lucrece). In "Publishing Shame: The Rape of Lucrece," Coppelia Kahn even calls it "a founding myth of patriarchy," a social structure in which men had virtually total control over women. The Roman social structure was patriarchal, and patriarchy existed, in a somewhat modified form, in early modern England.
The poem's action centers on events that occurred around 509 B.C.E., when Rome was still only a citystate ruled by a tyrant named Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). His son, Tarquinius Sixtus, raped Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus (Collatine in Shakespeare), who was his friend and kinsman. Lucretia revealed her rape to her family, demanded they revenge her honor, named Tarquin the rapist, and committed suicide. Lucrece's kinsmen brought her body to the Roman Forum to show the citizens, and Lucius Junius Brutus, a nephew of the king and friend of Collatinus, led a revolt against the Tarquins. They were exiled, and the Roman people began a republican government, ruled by a senate and elected consuls.
This story was important in early modern England for two reasons: It provided historical justification for the expulsion of an unjust ruler and the foundation of a new government (in this case the Roman republic), and, it provided an exemplum (example) of the correct, chaste behavior all wives in a patriarchal society should practice. William Shakespeare's concise version of the tale, however, focuses primarily on the rape and its aftermath, as well as on Lucrece's behavior.
The poem can be broken down into the following sections: (1) Tarquin's journey to Rome, his reflection upon Lucrece's beauty and chastity, the decrip-tion of events after he arrives (ll. 1-189); (2) Tarquin's thoughts before the rape, his entering Luc-rece's bedchamber, and his view of the beautiful, sleeping Lucrece (ll. 190-448); (3) Lucrece's discovery of Tarquin, her pleas to be spared, Tarquin's theoretical justification of his actions, the rape, and his departure (ll. 449-749); (4) Lucrece's lament, her blaming of Night, Time, and Opportunity for the crime, and her reflection on whether her honor has been compromised (ll. 750-1211); (5) Lucrece's writing to Collatine to demand his immediate return (ll. 1212-1365); (6) Lucrece's reflection upon the painting of the fall of Troy (ll. 1366-1582); (7) Coll-atine's arrival, Lucrece telling her tale and committing suicide, her kinsmen avenging her death, and the exile of the Tarquins (ll. 1583-1855). Despite the focused nature of the tale, it does raise many issues regarding what constitutes chastity and how and when a woman's honor is compromised.
To understand these issues, we need to consider the nature of the society Shakespeare presents in Lucrece. While ancient Rome was clearly not 16th-century England—and we therefore cannot assume Roman cultural mores were English ones—Rome was often used as a metaphor for England. Early modern English writers could be arrested for sedition if the government decided their political critiques were too harsh. As a result, they often set poems or plays in a country other than England so as not to risk arrest. A generic "Rome" was often chosen to symbolize England, so we can consider the "vision" of Rome presented in literary works to be actually a picture of England. Since both ancient Rome and early modern England were patriarchal social structures that legally considered women to be property—owned by their fathers until they married and by their husbands after—it is easy to see how Lucrece's behavior could, or should, suggest the correct behavior of an English wife.
English women were expected to remain virginal until marriage and to be "chaste" after marriage. This meant that they were to engage in sexual relations only with their husbands and behave at all times as though they were chaste. Such behavior meant they were to remain at home, enclosed and protected within the walls of their home. They were also to be virtually silent, speaking only when necessary and only on serious subjects. If their doors and mouths were literally closed, people—including their husbands—assumed that their vaginas were equally "closed." Chaste sexual behavior, therefore, was reinforced by chaste social behavior.
The Rape of Lucrece begins with Collatine, Tarquin, and their comrades camped outside Ardea, where they amuse themselves by bragging about their wives' beauty and chastity. Anxious to see whose boasts are true, they ride off to Rome to check on each wife. Not surprisingly, Lucrece is the only one engaged in chaste activity; she is sitting at home spinning with her servants. This discovery not only allows Collatine to win the competition but indicates how women were viewed in patriarchal society: as objects consistently in need of control. This scene also calls to mind the end of the poem after Lucrece's suicide. Her father and her husband each declare he suffers more grief. But in the course of this "grieving," they both dwell upon their "ownership" of Lucrece: one as the man who "gave her birth," the other as the man who "owned" her after marriage. According to their arguments, Lucrece does not "own" her own body. As a woman, she is denied a self (agency) in patriarchal society. The only power women retain is the power to kill themselves, and when they do that, their right is challenged by the men who own them.
The idea of male ownership of women permeates all patriarchal societies, and is the impetus for reading rape as a crime of power, not passion—and in premodern England, as a property crime too. Thus, even a man who does not have legal ownership of Lucrece—
Tarquin—feels that he can rape her with impunity. Despite the rhetoric of Lucrece, which seems to indicate that Tarquin raped Lucrece because her beauty and chastity inflamed his lust, in truth, he rapes her simply because he can. Moreover, by raping Lucrece, Tarquin not only proves his (physical) male dominance over her but also demonstrates his (social/political) power over Collatine.
Her rape places Lucrece in a strange social position. She knows that her society equates her chastity with Collatine's and their family's honor. If she is "stained" by Tarquin's rape, she equally stains her husband's honor. Motivated by this, she would rather die than dishonor her family, yet Tarquin has devised a way to make her live with her shame. He threatens to kill her and then an innocent servant whom he will place in bed with her, swearing to her husband that he found the two engaged in sexual intercourse. This is an ingenious and ironic plan: If Lucrece is raped, the violation stains Collatine's honor; if she has voluntarily slept with a servant, the act primarily stains her honor. Interestingly, Lucrece does not consider that her husband might believe in the chastity that he has so proudly boasted about—and proved—to his friends. This bizarre situation regarding women in patriarchal Roman society damns them not only if they are really sexually loose, but also if a man says they are. Lucrece reflects on this when she ponders that, even though she did not consent to Tarquin's attack, she still feels "stained" by it. Granted that women do feel "dirtied" by the physicality of rape, Lucrece is obsessed by the metaphorical "stain" upon her honor—and Collatine's. The only way she can remove the stain is to get her husband to agree to avenge their honor and then kill herself, the physical representation of dishonor, even though she never consented to the dishonorable event. Literally and socially, then, a totally chaste woman is a totally dead one.
Shakespeare uses the colors red, white, and black as images to describe Lucrece's and Tarquin's physical and emotional states. Red and white allude to the early modern period's standard of female beauty: pale white complexion and red lips and cheeks. Gems like rubies and coral could double for the red color, while silver, ivory, alabaster, and pearl for the white. Hair was gold, and the truly beautiful and virtuous woman seemed to actually shine. As the scholar Nancy Vickers points out, Shakespeare uses a blazon when describing Luc-rece's beauty. The blazon was a figure that was used to describe the device on a hero's shield. Shakespeare describes Lucrece using this figure as though she were an object, the shield with which to defend her virtue against Tarquin's attack.
As the attacker, Tarquin is described as dark and black (evil), the opposite of the light and white (pure) Lucrece. It is important to remember that, during the early modern period, devils were perceived to be black. The normal arrangement of red and white on Lucrece's face would confine the red to her lips and cheeks and the white to the rest of her complexion. Yet in the course of her negotiations with her rapist, the act itself, and her subsequent behavior, the colors exceed their normal bounds and her face becomes completely white with fear or red with shame. The color coding appears even as Tarquin uncovers Lucrece's body just prior to the rape. In addition to commenting on her face, he looks at her white breasts, like globes, with blue veins running around them like rivers. Here begins the metaphor of Lucrece's body as a land newly discovered by Tarquin, soon to be its conqueror. The woman is again an object, one that is designed to be conquered by men, just as the New World was being explored and conquered by England. Tarquin's hand on Lucrece's breast is a sign of the power of his conquest of her body as though it were a new piece of real estate. This idea of conquest reinforces how the Tarquins came to power in Rome and acts as a precursor to how they lost power.
While waiting for her husband to return to Rome, Lucrece meditates on a picture of the fall of Troy, which serves to call attention to both her rape and the forthcoming change in Roman government. The Trojan War began because Paris, a son of Priam, king of Troy, "raped" Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. In this sense, rape means "carried off." The kings of the Grecian city-states supported Menelaus in his war to regain Helen, and many died on both sides. The Greeks won by using a wooden horse to enter Troy and burning the city to the ground. According to Roman myth— recounted by Virgil in The Aeneid—the Trojan prince
Aeneas escaped the burning city and eventually founded Rome. Thus, Helen's "rape" foreshadowed the founding of Rome itself, while Lucrece's rape foreshadows the expulsion of the tyrant Tarquin and the founding of the Roman Republic. Perhaps not as many will die in this endeavor as did in the Trojan War, but Lucrece presciently connects herself with Helen as a "cause," while rejecting any connection between herself and the "strumpet" Helen. While Tarquin claimed a new land in Lucrece's body, that very body will be used to claim a new body politic in the Roman republic to come.
Lucrece is also concerned with other possible consequences of her rape, especially how to protect her husband's honor as regards any children she has or might have. According to early modern law, any child born to a woman while she was married was legally her husband's child. If Lucrece became pregnant by Tarquin, people would scorn Collatine for raising his wife's rapist's child as his own. And if Lucrece were in the early stages of pregnancy before the rape—or became pregnant by her husband after the rape—people would still believe the child to be Tarquin's, thus again compromising her husband's honor. The paternity of any existing children would also be suspect: If Lucrece were raped by Tarquin, she may have been raped earlier by someone else, a standard perception for a culture that saw women as basically dishonorable and lustful.
Suicide was an honorable way for Romans to end their lives or protect their honor. Thus, even though Collatine and Lucretius, her father, mourn Lucrece's death, they laud her for protecting their collective honor in the ultimate way. Despite the Rome-England connection in this poem, suicide in early modern England was not viewed in the same way; it was a major sin. Indeed, those who committed it were guilty of the cardinal sin of despair. Similarly, the Christian view held Lucrece sinless—blameless—for the rape, although socially she was condemned. By Roman law, she was guilty because she invited Tarquin in.
Thus, some sort of stain can be perceived in Lucrece. After her death, when her blood pours out of her body, it separates into the red of true blood and the black matter of a stain, finally leaving her now-bloodless body chaste. Thus, the last red and white dichotomy in The Rape of Lucrece is the red of her honorable blood contrasted to the white of her bloodless and chaste body.
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