William Shakespeare’s – The Rape of Lucrece – Essay

William Shakespeare’s – The Rape of Lucrece – Essay
General introduction: On May 9, 1594, ‘a booke intituled The Ravyshement of Lucrece’ was registered in the Hall Book of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, the English government’s pre-publication registry. The poem printed in Quarto by Richard Field for John Harrison was published the same year under a new title: Lucrece.

Therefore we have to mention that the name ‘William Shakespeare’ only appeared within the dedication.
The Rape of Lucrece became the final and official title in 1616, the year Shakespeare died.
The first Quarto edition is well-known for its accuracy. As regards the four following editions -Q2 in 1598, Q3 and Q4 in 1600 and Q5 in 1607– the editors took too much liberty with the original work. Furthermore Roger Jackson printed what he claimed to be a ‘Newly Revised’ edition in 1616. The fact is that there is no evidence at all that what was added or removed would have been approved by Shakespeare himself.

The Rape of Lucrece and Venus and Adonis –registered one year before, on May 18 (1593)– were both dedicated to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. As these two poems were something on which Shakespeare was intending to base his reputation with the public and to establish himself with his patron, they were meant to be displays of his virtuosity. Both poems demonstrated great technical skill. What is more they were certainly the most popular of his writings with the reading public and impressed everybody with his poetic genius. On the one hand, Venus and Adonis was licentiously erotic (though its sensuality was often rather comic); on the other hand, The Rape of Lucrece might seem to be tragic enough; the treatment of the poem is yet somewhat cold and distant. In both cases however the poet seemed to be displaying incredible dexterity rather than being ‘sincere’.

The Rape of Lucrece is composed of three different parts: a dedication, an argument and the poem itself.
The argument aims not just at giving the plot of the poem, as John Milton did for instance in Paradise Lost. The plot is present, of course, but the argument resemble more a summary of the Roman sources.
As to the poem, it is a narrative one. It is made of 1,855 lines and written in rhyme royal, that is to say each stanza is seven lines long and the rhyme scheme is ababbcc. Geoffrey Chaucer, the outstanding English poet before Shakespeare and author of The Canterbury Tales, pioneered this rhyme scheme in England in his works Troilus and Criseyde and The Parlement of Foules. Rhyme royal was going out of fashion when Shakespeare wrote The Rape of Lucrece in spite of later poets including Milton in the 17th century.
The first stanza of the poem, for instance, aptly displays the rhyming pattern and even epitomizes Shakespeare’s systematic use of pentameters:

…………..a…’From the besieged Ardea all in post,
…………..b…Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
…………..a…Lust-breathèd Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
…………..b…And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
…………..b…Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
…………..c… And girdle with embracing flames the waist
…………..c… Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste.’

The argument introduces the reader to a pseudo-historical background. Indeed Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was, in legend, the son or grandson of Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of Servius Tullius. He supposedly murdered Tullius, became afterwards the seventh and last king of Rome and established an absolute despotism—hence his name Superbus, meaning “the proud”. In the reign of terror that followed, many senators were put to death. Eventually a group of senators led by Lucius Junius Brutus raised a revolt, the immediate cause of which was the rape of a noblewoman, Lucretia, by Lucius Tarquinius’ son Sextus. As a result the Tarquin family was expelled from Rome, and the monarchy at Rome was abolished (traditionally in 509 BC).
The argument takes all that story for granted.
Furthermore Shakespeare sort of “rebaptized” his main characters within the poem. Actually he just shortened their names: Sextus Tarquinius would be simply called Tarquin, Lucretia Lucrece, and Collatinus Collatine.

Nevertheless we may add that Shakespeare re-centered his work on the rape by Tarquin, on Lucrece’s committing suicide, too, but he also gave himself over to huge internal monologues. Indeed the fact is that there is no exordium and that the poem begins in medias res. For example Lucrece ushers Tarquin in on line 50:

‘When at Collatium this false lord arriv’d,
Well was he welcom’d by the Roman dame’

The passage we have to deal with is situated approximately in the beginning of the second part of the poem, from line 1072 to line 1190. Lucrece has already been raped and, now, she is wondering what to do; could she possibly continue to live in infamy or should she stab herself in order to ‘clear this spot by death’ (l.1053)?


In order to elucidate both the reasons of Lucrece’s decision and what Shakespeare may have intended to demonstrate our exposé will centre on three different parts:
Firstly, we will focus on the many primary sources and verify if, by any chance, our passage would not just have been some literary invention.
Then, on making a close-reading of the excerpt, we will study it through the perspective of a complaint –be it a literary or musical genre- and see how sound-pattern and rhyming evoke the central themes of love, death and resurrection.
Finally, in our third part, we will make a comparative study of our passage with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI which includes the story of Philomel; we will be able to draw a parallel between the two women and, at last, will understand how on using an ancient myth Shakespeare created a new one.

I – The Primary Sources:

We will now tackle the different sources Shakespeare used. We have found at least three important texts.

The original story of the rape of Lucrece was first mentioned in The History of Rome, written by Livy, in full Titus Livius. The man was born in 59 BC in Italy and died in AD 17. Titus Livius, with Sallust and Tacitus, was one of the three great Roman historians. His History of Rome became a classic in his own lifetime and exercised a profound influence on the style and philosophy of historical writing down to the 18th century.
Livy began by composing and publishing in units of five books. His material becoming more and more complex, it finally reached a total of 142 books. Furthermore it approximately encompassed a period of four hundred years -from 386 BC, that is to say the foundation of Rome until the sack of the city by the Gauls, to 9 BC, thirty-five years after the Battle of Actium. To be precise the story of Sextus Tarquin and a woman named Lucretia is to be found in books 57, 58 and 59 and it is supposed to have occurred before the Social War of 91 BC. However Livy was not always reliable. On writing, he sometimes accepted undocumented accounts, more properly categorized as legend than as history. Such is, as we have just said, this story of the rape of Lucretia. The account is taken as fact by some, as fiction by others.
Has Shakespeare based his work directly on the Latin version entitled Ab urbe condita or on William Painter’s translation in The Pallace of Pleasure published in 1566? We can logically assume he used both.

The second important source of information is Ovid’s Fasti that is to say the Roman Calendar. Likewise, Shakespeare may have used an English translation of Fasti by Arthur Golding or just the original Latin text. Of course, he may also have paged through both texts while writing his poem. Fasti was a 12-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 because of its importance as a significant turning point in Roman history and because it used as evidence of the corruption of the reigning King of Rome; after all the incident led to the overthrow of the king and to the establishment of the Roman republic.

The third major source is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, from line 1680 to 1886. It was written in the 1380s and was Chaucer’s final dream-vision poem. The stories—concerning such women of Antiquity as Cleopatra and Lucrece—are brief and rather mechanical, with the betrayal of women by wicked men as a regular theme; consequently, the whole is often considered more as a legend of bad men than of good women.

Let’s now focus more specifically on Livy’s History of Rome. As we have just said the original events are related in three books. On trying to compare them with Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece we noticed that the argument was a summarize of the whole story which started ‘at that time in possession of Ardea’ and ended up with a huge description of the rebellion of the Roman citizens and ‘a banishment against Tarquin with his wife and children’. Therefore our passage appears to be a creation. As a matter of fact it is a 200-line development of the phrase ‘Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief at such a frightful outrage’ found in the middle of Book 58.
William Painter’s Second Novell, which is extracted from The Pallace of Pleasure, was the official translation of Livy’s three books. There is even less mentioning of Lucrece’s reaction in it. In fact there is none. ‘…[Tarquin] departed. Then Lucrece sent a post to Rome…’.

As for Ovid’s Fasti we have only been able to work on John Gower’s translation published in 1640 but Shakespeare is likely to have used another English translation of it by Arthur Golding. Ovid seemed not to be interested in a political perspective. The end of the translation of his poem is four lines long and Shakespeare finished his work similarly. Indeed the last stanza encapsulates Livy’s original and very long description of the overthrow of the Tarquins. If we take a look at the required excerpt in John Gower’s translation we see that four lines –from number 91 to 94- are devoted to Lucrece’s moral and physical decay:

‘Why triumph’st thou? Thy conquest is thy fall:
Ah, what a price bought’st thou that night withall!
Now day appear’d: with scatter’d hairs she lies,
As doth a mother when her deare sonne dies.’

The first two lines are actually the first occurrence of interior monologue and the first time we are allowed to share Lucrece’s sorrow. Then, thanks to a zero focalization, Ovid introduced elements such as the ‘scatter’d hairs’ and the mother-and-son relationship that Shakespeare will revisit.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s version of the story –from line 1680 to 1885 in The Legende of Good Women- explicitly refers to the primary sources: line 1684 we can read ‘as sayth Ovyde, and Titus Lyvius’. Thus, Chaucer’s text already mixed both narratives and his own commentaries. Nonetheless there are once more no allusions to Lucrece’s mental suffering. Chaucer preferred to depict the heroin’s physical decline with details such as ‘dysshelvelee with hir heere clere’ (l.1829).

As a conclusion we can therefore state that our passage in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece is nothing but an invention, a personal and exaggerated development –we could even say a magnifying- of Lucrece’s torment.
Besides we can draw a parallel between Shakespeare’s poem and The Complaint of Rosamond written by Samuel Daniel in 1592. The latter text may have brought the complaints of afflicted women into fashion. Rosamond was Henry II’s mistress and was poisoned by the queen. The question of dishonour is at stake in both stories. If Rosamond’s purity was corrupted, her descendants would also be dishonoured. For example both poems sharpen the false idea that shame is reflected on their faces:

– in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece, from line 1342 to 1344
‘But they whose guilt within their bosoms lie,
Imagine every eye beholds their blame,
For Lucrece thought he blushed to see her shame’

– in Daniel’s Complaint of Rosamond, from line 283 to 285
‘Thou must not fondly thinke thy selfe transparent,
That those who see thy face can judge the fact;
Let her have shame that cannot closely act.’

II – A Complaint :

Thus we will now try to analyse the poem through the perspective of a complaint as a literary and musical genre. We will have recourse to a close-reading of the lexical fields, of the musicality via rhythm, and also to the rhyming and sound pattern.

By definition a complaint, also called plaint in literature, is a formerly popular variety of poem that laments or protests unrequited love or tells of personal misfortune, misery, or injustice. Though Philomel is said to be ‘lamenting’ (l.1079) The Rape of Lucrece cannot be called a lament -a lament being a nonnarrative poem expressing deep grief or sorrow over a personal loss. The form developed as part of the oral tradition along with heroic poetry.

In short, our passage is composed of seventeen stanzas and as we have said in the introduction; each stanza is seven lines long in rhyme royal. Each line being at least a pentameter, that means that the rhythm and the unfolding of the text are based on excess. What is more the rhyming pattern is quite regular. Indeed except of a few false rhymes which are called eye rhyme or sight rhyme, Shakespeare remained extremely respectful of the musical pattern. In fact there are only four eye rhymes in our passage

Sometime her grief is dumb and hath no words;
Sometime ‘tis mad and too much talk affords.
1117 – 1118
Great grief grieves most at that would do it good;
Deep woes roll forward like a gentle flood,
So I at each sad strain will strain a tear,
And with deep groans the diapason bear;
Revenge on him that made me stop my breath.
My stainèd blood to Tarquin I’ll bequeath,

Those false rhymes are not haphazard since the speaker lays an extremely strong emphasis on metatextual elements –‘no words’ or ‘too much talk’- and overdoes in using alliteration -‘great grief grieves’- or diacope –‘sad strain will strain’. Those excesses foretell Shakespeare’s ridiculing his own work and his distancing from it.

The speaker also plays on clichés and conventions in our last eye rhyme, line 1181:

‘Revenge on him that made me stop my breath.
My stainèd blood to Tarquin I’ll bequeath
Which by him tainted shall for him be spent,
And as his due writ in my testament.’

The testament was a poetical convention well-known in England such as The Will or The Legacy written by John Donne.

As far as clichés are concerned the tear is another element which cannot be skipped out. On identifying herself with Philomel, on line 1076, Lucrece says or thinks:

…‘mine eyes like sluices,
As from a mountain-spring that feeds a dale,
Shall gush pure streams to purge my impure tale.’

Throughout the whole passage tears seem to be a means to purify the outraged woman. They embody a fundamental mode of expression to convey the concept of inner suffering. Despite the ‘flood’ of tears and the expression of alienation Lucrece seems to find no remedy. There is nothing to soothe her. As a consequence we may say that it is the beginning of the end. The hyppalage ‘my impure tale’ which follows an alliteration in ‘p’ is all the more important since it deepens Lucrece’s distress.

This conventional procedure is maybe so much emphasized that even the birds scoff at her (l.1121 – 1127):

‘“You mocking birds,” quoth she, “your tunes entomb
Within your hollow-swelling feathered breasts,
And in my hearing be you mute and dumb;
My restless discord loves no stops nor rests;
A woeful hostess brooks not merry guests.
Relish your nimble notes to pleasing ears;
Distress likes dumps when time is kept with tears.”’

This stanza hinges round musical terms and allusions. Surprisingly enough all these elements imply silence:
‘Hollow-swelling’ suggests hollow-sounding. ‘Discord’ relies, on the one hand, on a combination of musical sounds that strikes the ear harshly and, on the other hand, on a lack of harmony between two persons; ‘relish’ can be interpreted as another musical term, meaning “to appreciate with taste and discernment”.
What is more the last two lines of the stanza have an asymmetrical stress pattern. The first one beginning with a trochee, the second one with an iamb. Hence the whole stanza displays a range of technical terms and gives a sheer contrast between what poetry could be all about –a literary contrivance meant to ‘abuse our ears’ (All’s Well that ends Well V.3.325)- and what the heroin is expecting.
In short, Shakespeare debunks his own outstanding literary technique.
Moreover line 1108 the poet introduces intertextual hints referring to his own work. Indeed ‘Make her moans mad with their sweet melody’ echoes with ‘This music mads me’ taken from the tragedy Richard II, V, 5,61.

We may also point out the particular ending of lines 1140 and 1141:

‘These means, as frets upon an instrument,
Shall tune our heart-strings to true languishment’

We obviously remark that both ‘instrument’ and ‘languishment’ – which stand for metatextual elements – are dactyls. This conjures up the characteristics of the tone of the complaint for those complaints were recited like incantations.

Moreover the supernatural is present within the text. Line 1147, Shakespeare alludes to Orpheus’ magical powers: ‘To creatures stern sad tunes to change their kinds.’
Orpheus was an ancient Greek legendary hero endowed with superhuman musical skills. According to some legends, Apollo gave Orpheus his first lyre. Orpheus’ singing and playing were so beautiful that animals and even trees and rocks moved about him in dance.
The second interesting aspect of Orpheus’ legend relies on his love towards Eurydice. The latter had been killed by a snakebite. Overcome with grief, Orpheus had ventured himself to the land of the dead to attempt to bring Eurydice back to life. His music and grief so moved Hades, king of the underworld, that Orpheus was allowed to take Eurydice with him back to the world of life and light. There was just one condition both Orpheus and Eurydice were forbidden to look back. On climbing up towards the opening into the land of the living, Orpheus, seeing the Sun again, turned back to share his delight with Eurydice. In that moment, she disappeared.

This omnipresent and omnipotent watching over mortals is experienced as an ordeal by Lucrece. Nevertheless sexual innuendoes crop up and reveal Shakespeare’s constant irony:

….‘O eye of eyes!
Why pry’st thou through my window? Leave thy peeping,
Mock with thy tickling beams eyes that are sleeping’ (l.1088-1090)

Irony is also present in the term chosen by the poet to foreshadow Lucrece’s death. The ‘merciless conclusion’ (l.1160) is reminiscent of Cleopatra’s suicide after she had ‘pursued conclusions infinite / Of easy ways to die.’
(Antony and Cleopatra V, 2, 353)

Since The Rape of Lucrece had been written in the perspective of a complaint it had to end up with the protagonist’s death. Here again however the poet undermined the literary canon and conveyed the rebirth of his heroin at the very end of our passage:

‘For in my death I murder shameful scorn;
My shame so dead, mine honour is new born’.

Lucrece can be equated to the mythical phoenix which was a fabulous bird worshipped in ancient Egypt. It was said to be as large as an eagle, with brilliant scarlet and gold plumage and a melodious cry. Only one phoenix existed at any time. Furthermore the Egyptians associated the phoenix with immortality since it rose from its ashes. This idea of eternal regeneration will be developed in the following and last part via the process of rewriting.

III – Philomel’s myth undone and knitted again:

First of all we will summarize the original myth of Philomela.

In Greek mythology, more precisely in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book VI, Tereus was the king of Thrace and had married Procne, daughter to Pandion, king of Athens. Procne asked him to go and bring her sister back to her because she had not seen her since their union. Tereus seduced by Philomela’s beauty decided to rape her. In order to hide his guilt, he cut out Philomela’s tongue. But she revealed the crime to her sister by working the details in embroidery. Procne sought revenge by killing and serving up her son Itys for Tereus’ supper. On learning what Procne had done, Tereus pursued the two sisters with an axe. But the gods took pity and changed them all into birds, Tereus into a hoopoe, Procne into a nightingale (or swallow), and Philomela into a swallow (or nightingale).

Let’s now focus on the elements of our passage that are taken from the original myth and used in different ways. We have been working on Arthur Golding’s translation.

It seems that our passage in The Rape of Lucrece is a rewriting and a subversion of Philomela’s myth.

Both stories are adopting the same point of view concerning the rape in itself and the rapist’s attitude. In both stories we can underline an isotope of war. In Book VI, line 578:

‘When (see the chaunce) came Philomele in raiment very rich,
And yet in beautie farre more rich, even like the Fairies which
Reported are the pleasant woods and water springs to haunt,
So that the like apparel and attire to them you graunt.
King Tereus at the sight of hir did burne in his desire’

This passage is the first encounter between Procne and Tereus. Right from the start lust is overwhelming Tereus. Philomel’s beauty is compared to the one of a fairy. All the senses are abnormally heightened. King Tereus burned in his desire and nothing could dissuade him from raping her. We have to mention that both Tarquin and Tereus resort to violence and more especially to the use of a sword to assuage their lust: ‘To take hir, and in maintenance thereof by sword to stand.’ (l.594)
Both Philomel and Lucrece are referred to female enemies that are to be ‘vanquisht’. In Ovid’s Book VI, line 664, we see:

‘… There waxing pale and trembling sore for feare,
And dreading all things, and with teares demaunding sadly where
Hir sister was, he shet hir up: and therewithall bewraide
His wicked lust, and so by force bicause she was a Maide
And all alone he vanquisht hir.’

In The Rape of Lucrece the lexical field of war and battle is echoing the original myth. The psychological reactions of Lucrece are described in terms of rebellion, and inner fights.
‘So with herself is she in mutiny’ (l.1153)
Moreover this image of a besieged stronghold is reinforced from line 1170 to 1174:

‘Her house is sack’d, her quiet interrupted,
Her mansion batter’d by the enemy;
Her sacred temple spotted, spoil’d, corrupted,
Grossly engirt with daring infamy:’

Lucrece suffers from a total invasion of privacy, which is reinforced by the anaphora on ‘Her’. Those few lines prove that, in Lucrece’s view, it is a personal, physical and spiritual outrage but it also reveals a military dimension of the rape.

Nonetheless the use of military words as a running metaphor pervading the two narratives is not the only link between them.

Both stories turn around silence, mutism and more generally around the voice of the victim.

In the first stanza of our passage, line 1076, Lucrece declares ‘My tongue shall utter all’ which is a reaction similar to the one of Philomela following her rape. In the original myth we can read line 697:

‘As prisoner in these woods, my voice the verie woods shall fill,
And make the stones to understand’

It seems that for the victim there is a necessity to reveal the outrage and explain their own attitude not to be morally condemned. But the main difference between those two stories is that while Lucrece can speak and will discuss with her husband and father, Philomel is savagely reduced to silence by Tereus.

‘But as she yirnde and called upon hir fathers name,
And strived to have spoken still, the cruell tyrant came
And with a paire of pinsons fast did catch hir by the tung,
And with his sword did cut it off.’ (l. 707 to 710)

On one hand we have Philomel who is kept prisoner on the woods by the rapist, who cannot escape and is weighted down by worries. On the other hand, Lucrece does not want to be alive at sunrise and chooses to withdraw into total silence.

‘But cloudy Lucrece shames herself to see,
And therefore still in night would cloister’d be.’ (ll. 1084-1085)

Let’s now focus on the presence or non-presence of tears. What is particular to The Rape of Lucrece is the Lucrece’s attitude and the mourning of her integrity. In the original myth, line 746, we can read: ‘And weepe she could not’. It seems that tears have taken a new dimension in Shakespeare’s poem. As if they were in themselves a way to communicate, to express one’s feeling. Tears can be as important as monologue or direct speech.
Throughout the whole poem and especially in our passage Lucrece is described as an outraged woman who cannot help weeping. Shakespeare mixed up several elements to reinsert them in a different way.

Moreover, in the original myth Philomela is described with scattered hair, on line 674:

‘Anon when that this mazednesse was somewhat overpast,
She rent hir haire, and beate hir brest.’

Shakespeare re-uses some elements on line 1128. Lucrece interprets in her own way Philomel’s myth. We must underline that, to some extent, Lucrece will also ‘beate hir brest’ using a knife. She identifies herself with that outraged woman and at the same time changes Philomel’s story into her own.

‘Come, Philomel, that sing’st of ravishment,
Make thy sad grove in my dishevelled hair.’

We can draw another parallel between those two stories concerning colour and the meaning of red and white. In the original myth Philomel cannot talk since she had her tongue cut but she succeeds to inform her sister of what had happened to her by weaving a message in red letters on a white cloth, line 736:

‘A warpe of white upon a frame of Thracia she did pin,
And weaved purple letters in betweene it.’

Those two colours are extremely significant in Shakespeare’s poem since they represent Lucrece’s feelings. Lucrece often blushes and many allusions are linked to the colour of her face, as if we could read her thoughts, as if we could see her impurity.
Moreover there are references to children, childhood, and mother-and-son relationship. As we have said earlier Procne killed her own child in the original myth in order to revenge her sister. We can maybe draw another parallel between Itys’ death and this passage:

‘That mother tries a merciless conclusion,
Who having two sweet babes, when death takes one,
Will slay the other and be nurse to none.’ (l.1160-1163)

We could say that Procne felt responsible of the outrage made to her sister and having lost her sister’s confidence, she decided to kill her son. One can object that the sisters’ relationship is still very strong but something has happened that will change their relationship into a mutual suffering. In that way we can say that their sisterhood is spoiled. Procne becomes Philomel’s fellow sufferer such as Philomel becomes Lucrece’s.

All those incessant coming and going eventually illustrate the second meaning of Lucrece’s craft. Indeed she was an expert weaver and would have been capable of remodelling the old to create something new.


As a conclusion we may say that this remodelling could also have been Shakespeare’s deepest purpose on writing The Rape of Lucrece. Actually the study of this passage enabled us to dig out the tremendous mythological, historical and literary background the poet used. And what we have been attending came to be the creation of a new myth.