William Shakespeare: The Rape of Lucrece
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

Veronese (Paolo): Lucretia Stabbing Herself, 1583-84 (detail)
Paolo Veronese: Lucretia Stabbing Herself, 1583-84 (detail)

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is well written and moving poetry.

Per Bevington: This poem followed Venus and Adonis and is closely related. Both are dedicated to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. It is reliant on Petrarchan ornament and rhetorical showmanship and steeped in Ovidian pathos. Whereas V & A is light-hearted and dealing with sensual pleasure, R of L is about heroic chastity. It uses a seven-line "rhyme royal" stanza as was used with Chaucer in "Troilus and Criseyde" and others. Ovid is the chief source ("Fasti"), and it also draws on Livy's "History of Rome", Chaucer "The Legend of Good Women", Painter "The Palace of Pleasure", "A Mirror for Magistrates", and Daniel's "The Complaint of Rosamond". Plot and character are secondary to attitudes especially of the two protagonists. It makes much use of rhetorical disputations presented as debates or formal declamations around antitheses such as honor vs. lust, rude will vs. conscience, etc. It contrasts pairs: owl and dove, daylight and darkness, clear and cloudy weather, red and white. It contains several apostrophes: to marital fidelity, kingship, Night, Opportunity, Time. It uses elaborate comparisons ("conceits"), such as the various meanings of "will". It also uses extended military metaphors. WS explores the ability of art to deceive (via the depiction of Sinon in the tapestry about Troy). 


The composition begins with a dedication to the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, and is followed by " The Argument", a historical prose summary provided here verbatim:

"Lucius Tarquinius [a legendary Etruscan king], for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus [The Proud], 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 [Lucrece]. 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. They 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 [509 BC], and the state government changed from kings to consuls [Roman Republic]."

1) The lust-driven Sextus Tarquinius (called "Tarquin" in the poem) sneaks away from the siege at Ardea (and Lucrece's husband) to Collatium where the chaste Lucrece and her husband Collatine live. Collatine should have kept his treasure to himself and not bragged about her so much. Tarquin was welcomed hospitably at her home, since he is the son of the king and seemed to bear news about her husband. 57) Sextus contrasts her white purity and red beautiful blushing. Collatine has actually underpraised her virtues and beauty. She suspects nothing in him, and he gives no sign of his intentions that her inexperienced eyes can detect. He praises Collatine and makes excuses for being there at her home. 114) He goes to bed, pretending weariness. He lies awake debating the risks of obtaining his will with her. He worries that he will pawn his honor to satisfy his lust. 162) It is dead of night, and he is tormented between desire and dread of its consequences. He lights a torch using flint against his falchion (curved sword), and continues the debate with himself between "frozen conscience and hot-burning will". Should he instead quench his unhallowed thoughts and just go to sleep? 200) How can a martial man be slave to soft fancy (infatuation)? Collatinus has been his friend, so he can not even have the excuse of enmity to go after his wife. 241) Perhaps he can beg for her love--but no, she is not free to grant hers even if she were so inclined. 253) She had been so concerned about her husband's welfare. 267) Why hunt for a justification, "desire is my pilot and beauty my prize." 

283)  He steals toward her room. He must force the many locks that stand in the way. The wind tries to blow out his torch. 316) He sees her glove lying on the floor, still holding a needle in it which pricks his finger. He arrives at her chamber door. His will is backed by firm resolution. He thinks about praying for success, then realizes that the eternal powers are opposed to his act, resolving finally that only "Love and Fortune be my gods". The blackest sin is cleared with absolution. 358) He enters and sees the "dove" that this owl will catch. He gazes on her enclosed within her curtain. Drawing her curtain, he is blinded by her beauty or his shame. He sees her lily-white hands, her closed eyes, her golden hair playing wantonly with her breath, her breasts, her veins, her alabaster skin, her coral lips. 421) He fawns over her as a lion over her prey, and his lust is temporarily moderated. His beating heart gives the charge. 435) He places his hand on her bare breast, the nipple like a turret flanked by ranks of blue veins. She knows she is beset and opens her eyes in fright. He feels her heart beating. He begins his parley with her. She wants to know why he is there. It is her fault, her beauty has ensnared her. He tells her how he has debated whether to do this, but nothing can control affection's course. He shakes his falchion at her, telling her that either she give in or he will kill her and one of her slaves and claim that he caught the two together embracing. He recounts how history will be unkind to her reputation, and for the sake of her husband and children, she should give in without resistance. 558) He is immune to her appeals. She appeals to his honor, to the rules of hospitality, to his friendship for her husband, to his sense of pity, to the shame he will endure, to his need as a prince to set a good example, the need to be in control of his passions, how it would look to him to see another man behave this way, etc. 645) But he cannot ignore the huge fire within him. Yield or suffer the consequences. 673) He puts the torch out and rapes her, muffling her voice with her own nightwear, cooling his hot face in her tears. 

687) She has lost a dearer thing than life, Chastity, and Lust is no richer for the theft--as like digestion souring after an excess of eating. 718) He knows he is eternally disgraced. She is thrall now to living death and perpetual pain. 736) Like a dog he creeps away. He hopes for day, she prays to never again see the day, hoping to have her unseen guilt remain hidden. She invokes Night: "Muster thy mists against the day". She thinks ahead to when her story will be told by nurses to children and by orators. She thinks of sparing her husband the shame by suicide. 841) She did not resist the attack for the sake of her husband's honor. 874) She apostrophizes Opportunity [chance or circumstance], the series of events that improbably have led to this attack, and to other tragic circumstances. 925) She addresses Time, whom she wants to murder her. 941) She wants Time to allow her attacker time to tear his hair, rave, despair, see his friends turn to foes. She wants to learn how to curse Sextus. The law cannot help her case. 1029) Her only recourse is suicide, and she wants her hand, that could not resist the prior attack on her, to perform this act. How can she kill herself? 1058) She imagines a conversation with her husband. She will tell him the full story first. 

1079) Day is breaking: the nightingale (Philomel) has stopped singing. The joyful singing birds seem to mock her. She wishes Philomel would resume singing her descant on Tereus' rape. Which is better, to live or die after life is shamed? 1156) She worries that her suicide will add to the pollution of her soul, as the rape has polluted its temple, her body. But she will in any event wait until her husband has come. She has lost her dear jewel (her chastity). 

1214) She calls her maid, who weeps in sympathy though ignorant of the cause of Lucrece's despair--the weaker sex is often willing to weep. Men are marble, women waxen; men can conceal their crimes while "women's faces are their own fault's books". She asks when Sextus left, and the maid says it was before she was up. She asks for paper and pen and prepares a letter to her husband. She hoards further expression of her feelings until he arrives. 1338) A messenger takes the letter, and she suspects he can discern her shame. 

1366) Awaiting her husband, she contemplates a tapestry wall hanging depicting the fall of Troy, an event which was also prompted by a rape. She views Ajax's rage and Ulysses' slyness, sober Nestor, bold Hector, the despairing Hecuba, her life imprisoned in a dead body, Priam and his murderer Pyrrhus. 1483) Why should so many fall for one man's offense, one man's lust? At last she discerns Sinon, the Greek who deceived the Trojans and thereby won admission for the horse to the city. The painter has skillfully hidden his deceit and his evil, just as Sextus hid his to her. How could the Trojans have been so unwise as to believe him? She tears the image of Sinon with her nails.

1583) The messenger returns with her husband, her father and Lucius Junius Brutus. Why is she attired in mourning, he wonders. 1618) She tells her sad tale briefly, how she was threatened if she did not comply. Her mind was immaculate though her body violated. Collatine strives in vain to speak, simply sighing and breathing in and out speechlessly. She notes his sorrow and says it adds further sorrow to her own [and seem to depict his concern for his own violated honor]. She demands revenge on her foe: let him die. The assembled men pledge to do this. 1700) She asks how the stain can be wiped from her, how can she be acquitted? They answer that her mind is untainted. 1717) She names Sextus Tarquinius as the rapist, then stabs herself to death. The men are astonished. Brutus draws the knife out and her father throws himself on her body. Her body is surrounded by a pool of blood, and the tainted blood is black. Her father mourns her death; she was his image, the means by which he would have lived on past his death. Collatine asks the father to grant the right to his own sorrow over her death. He falls to her blood, then rises to swear vengeance. He and her father weep equally, and compete for the right to be the greater mourner. Brutus plucks the knife, throws off the mantle of feigned madness he had been forced to affect (after his brother had been put to death by Sextus' father), and rallies them to action. Lucrece should have slain Sextus. He asks them to kneel and pledge themselves to rouse the Roman gods, revenge her death, and chase the Tarquins from rule. They subsequently bear her body to Rome to prove the foul offense and cause the Tarquin's banishment.