The Rape of Lucrece
Washington State University
This poem, published first in 1594 as Lucrece (The Rape of Lucrece becomes standard later), no doubt the “graver labor” promised in the dedication of Venus and Adonis the previous year, is accompanied by an affectionate dedication to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. The rime royal stanza was conventional for tragic and grim material, such as this plot from Livy’s history of Rome and Ovid’s Fasti. This Ovid was not translated into English, so it’s another grain-merchant miracle but no surprise from the Oxfordian perspective.
After a summary called “The Argument” which includes an army men’s boasting scene about their wives reminiscent of the last act of The Taming of the Shrew, we plunge in medias res: “Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host” (3) to visit Collatine’s wife, “Lucrece the chaste” (7). He recalls Collatine’s praise of her and the narrator speculates on motive: envy? arrogant class issues? It’s left undetermined (43-44). Meeting Lucrece brings on another study in white and red (e.g., 54-71) — connecting this character with Queen Elizabeth, another supposed paragon of chastity. The unsuspecting Lucrece is compared to a bird (88) and a fish (103). Tarquin tells her of her husband’s glories before it’s time for everyone to retire for the night.
Tarquin cannot sleep and several stanzas oddly apply commentary regarding risk and the sacrifice of honor. The Shakespearean theme of the “self” emerges: “When he himself himself confounds” (160; cf. 157). A stanza concerning the ominous night is reminiscent of a passage in Macbeth (162ff; cf. Macbeth II.i.49f). With his scimitar against flint, Tarquin lights a candle which paradoxically brings a kind of darkness (190f): “As from this cold flint I enforc’d this fire, / So Lucrece I must force to my desire” (181-182). Tarquin considers the “shame to knighthood” (197), his reputation, the disgrace to his family name and posterity. He ponders why he would lose all this for “a froth of fleeting joy” (212). He wishes this intention were the result of a justified impulse of vengeance against Collatine (an especially twisted logic). But his “hot burning will” (247) and thoughts of her beauty lead him onwards, past locked doors and “Night-wand’ring weasels” (307) who keep down the vermin population. The obstacles just heighten his desire. Like Claudius in Hamlet, he tries to pray, but recognizes the ludicrous hypocrisy in it, and enters Lucrece’s chamber.
Tarquin gawks at the sleeping Lucrece for a while before placing a hand on her breast. She awakens and he tries to blame her beauty for this. He threatens her with his sword and we get appropriate “raptor” imagery. He says that if she complies all will be secret and well; if not, he’ll kill a slave in her bed and frame him for an affair with her. Then broadside ballads and children’s songs will commemorate her fallen reputation in the future. She tries to dissuade him, but “Tears harden lust” (560). She appeals to hospitality etiquette, her husband’s friendship, Tarquin’s future kingship, and the ignominy of having a low slave hide his deed. But Tarquin stomps out the light, “For light and lust are deadly enemies” (674).
The rape is tactfully related in abstract terms: Chastity, Lust, Desire, etc. Tarquin creeps off “like a thievish dog” (736), burdened by guilt, we are assured. Lucrece delivers a grim aubade and dreads this story being told — even to children and babies (813f)! She characterizes herself as a ransacked castle, apostrophizes to Collatine, and delivers some very curious stanzas (e.g., 855ff). She rails against Opportunity at length before realizing it’s “In vain” (1023) and searching for a knife with which to commit suicide: “I am the mistress of my fate” (1069). She decides she will explain why to Collatine first. She finds out from her maid that Tarquin left before dawn. She writes a short note asking Collatine to come home and is paranoid that the messenger can read her shame in her face.
Lucrece then examines a “skillful painting, made for Priam’s Troy” (1367), the long description of which critics generally dismiss as a digression and a flaw, filler to the tune of one ninth of the entire length of the poem, so that time may pass. But it contains this:
For much imaginary work was there,
Conceit deceitful, so compact, so kind,
That for Achilles’ image stood his spear,
Grip’d in an armed hand, himself behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind:
A hand, a foot, a face, a leg, a head
Stood for the whole to be imagined.
You’d think Oxfordians would have made more of this by now. In a tribute from Gabriel Harvey to Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, at Audley End, 1578, Gratulationes Valdinenses, libri quatour, Harvey had exuded: “Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes a spear; who would not swear that Achilles had come to life again” (qtd. in Ward 65-66).
Lucrece is wrathful about Helen and Paris, but Sinon comes off as truly evil, and neither red nor white: “That blushing red no guilty instance gave, / Nor ashy pale the fear that false hearts have” (1511-1512). Sinon looks too fair, so Lucrece decides that the painting lies (1530) and “chid the painter” (1528) — in other words, she doesn’t want to believe art and the artist. Priam, the head of state, lamentably believes Sinon.
Collatine and others arrive and Lucrece commissions them as avengers (1690f). Their perspective is that “Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears” (1710), but she disagrees. She cannot bring herself to name Tarquin and stabs herself. Old Lucretius laments and he and Collatine play tug-of-war for abstract ownership of the late Lucrece. Tarquin’s name comes up. Brutus removes the knife from Lucrece’s body and offers an encouraging speech to Collatine, drumming up an avenging spirit among the men, who vow to escort Lucrece’s body through Rome “And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence” (1852). The Roman people support “Tarquin’s everlasting banishment” (1855).
The Brutus who emerges at the end of the poem is a character who had apparently adopted a Hamlet-like “antic disposition” for his own political survival.
He with the Romans was esteemed so
As seely jeering idiots are with kings,
For sportive words, and utt’ring foolish things.
Began to clothe his wit in state and pride
Burying in Lucrece’ wound his folly’s show.
Brutus was known for folly before,
But now he throws that shallow habit by,
Wherein deep policy did him disguise,
And arm’d his long-hid wits advisedly,
To check the tears in Collatinus’ eyes.
“Thou wronged lord of Rome,” quoth he, “arise,
Let my unsounded self, suppos’d a fool,
Now set thy long-experience’d wit to school.”
This sounds like de Vere and it is an element of self-portrayal seen in Hamlet’s adopted “antic disposition,” and his inhabiting the characters of Feste and other clowns: “someone in Court who is permitted to take great liberties of speech” (Clark 370), an “allowed fool” — “an expression Elizabeth probably applied to Oxford” (370).
Delahoyde, Michael. “De Vere’s Lucrece and Romano’s Sala di Troia.” The Oxfordian 9 (2006): 50-65.