First Impressions on "The Rape of Lucrece"
Updated: Jun 9
**CW: Please bear in mind that the subject matter may be triggering for victims of assault or those with close ties to victims of assault.**
“The Rape of Lucrece” is, as the title suggests, a heartbreaking story. It does not need Shakespeare’s poetic language and literary flair to be such. In its simplest form, the story is of an innocent woman whose hospitality is taken advantage of by the reigning sovereign. She is threatened and abandoned by him, left alone in her sorrow and shame until she resolves vengeance through her husband. Confiding the violation to her husband cannot relieve her spirit and she slays herself upon receiving the promise that she will be avenged and her rapist killed. Literary craft heightens every moment of this poem, from character descriptions and attributions to emotional responses and musings. The climax such craft creates builds a narrative rife with anticipation and greater expansive meaning. Lucrece’s story is tragically not unique. It reflects the countless injustices of those suffering from assault such as hers, including victim blaming and traumatizing psychological effects. Perhaps the only positive moment of the story is her husband and his companions’ immediate belief of her story. Many women in her situation are not so fortunate. Despite this, Lucrece is unable to overcome her sense of guilt and shame for having been raped, and she stabs herself.
In the current world it seems too dark to delve more deeply into Lucrece’s story; nevertheless, it is a story that must at least be acknowledged. It is too important. Every moment leading up to the rape highlights the unnaturalness of the act. Nature senses the impending danger—“no noise but owls’ and wolves’ death-boding cries” (line 165) are heard, “night-wand’ring weasels shriek to see [Tarquin] there” (line 307), and “wind wars with [Tarquin’s] torch to make him stay,/And blows the smoke of it into his face” (line 158). Even the doors “as they open […] all rate [Tarquin’s] ill” (line 304) and “the threshold grates the door to have [Tarquin] heard” (line 306). Nature and the house itself seek to protect Lucrece but are unable to do so. Rather than understand these signs as enemies to his purpose, Tarquin “in the worse sense consters their denial” (line 324) and “takes [them] for accidental things of trial” (line 326) he must overcome to achieve his goal. Tarquin’s act defies all that by which Lucrece implores him: “knighthood, gentry, and sweet friendship’s oath […] her untimely tears, her husband’s love […] holy human law and common troth […] heaven and earth and all the power of both” (line 569-572), and the rules of hospitality (line 575). He cares not that he ”pawn[s] his honour to obtain his lust,/And for himself himself forsake[s]” (line 156-157) until after the face, when “he faintly flies, sweating with guilty fear” (line 740) “like a thievish dog creeps sadly thence” (line 736). Tarquin’s cowardly escape “ere the break of day” (line 1280) before even the maid demonstrates that he understands the egregious violation he has just performed and that it is irrevocable. Lucrece, however, must bear the burden of facing the day (line 800-808) and attempting to process what happened to her. Her fear turning to shock turning to fear turning to paranoia turning to lamentation turning to self-loathing turning to indignation turning to anger turning to rage turning to sorrow and turning
to cold resolution is heartbreaking. Lucrece comes to the conclusion that “the remedy indeed to do [her] good/Is to let forth [her] foul defiled blood” (line 1029). The one condition of this decision is that “die [she] will not till […] Collatine/[Has] heard the cause of [her] untimely death,/That he may vow in that sad hour […] revenge on him that made [her] stop [her] breath” (line 1177-1183). The sense of shame is too great, unfounded or not. The night’s trauma alters her entire identity, and it is “for she that was Lucrece” (line 1682) that she beseeches her husband to “let the traitor die” (line 1687). In revealing the culprit and procuring promise of his demise Lucrece accomplishes all but the final phase of the only way forward she sees. It is only after this moment that “she sheath[s] in her harmless breast/A harmful knife […] That blow [does] bail it from the deep unrest/Of that polluted prison where it breathed” and “her contrite sighs unto the clouds [bequeath]/Her wingèd sprite” (line 1723-1728). Death becomes her liberation, though it brings her husband and father great sorrow. Destroying herself is something Lucrece would never have considered were it not for Tarquin. Thus, Tarquin’s unnatural act brings an unnatural end, and, just as he convinced himself of the righteousness of his actions, Lucrece convinces herself of hers. Even in what Lucrece sees as liberation from the trauma now defining her she therefore remains stained by Tarquin’s deed. Brutus raises this point, telling Collatine not to lose himself in his sorrows the same way his “wretched wife mistook the matter so/To slay herself, that should have slain her foe” (line 1826-1827). Lucrece had Collatine, her father, and Brutus to revenge her death (line 1841), but too many women have no one.