I’d like to think of myself as well-read, but I’m afraid that’s just not true. It is something I need to work on. After all, it is a common attribute of all the writers I most admire. They read not only quantity, but quality, and from a wide variety of sources.
Most of us are familiar with at least some of Shakespeare’s work. He is credited with inventing many household words and phrases still in use in the English language today (including the phrase ‘household words’). Even those who haven’t watched or read one of his plays (and if you went to an English-speaking high school you probably studied at least one) have probably seen one of the many movie adaptions, or heard someone quote (or misquote) one of his many famous lines. I’ve read a fair bit of Shakespeare myself, but up to now I’ve focused mostly on his better known plays, and a few of the sonnets.
The Rape of Lucrece is a narrative poem first published in 1594, the year after Romeo and Juliet, and the same year as
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- King John
- King Richard II
- Titus Andronicus
Based on a story from Ovid, it tells how Collatinus boasted of the purity of his beautiful wife Lucrece in front of Sextux Tarquinius, the son of the king of Rome. Tarquin goes to Collatium to see for himself and, inflamed by passion, threatens to murder Lucrece and disgrace her family if she does not give herself to him. Having taken his prize, he flees the house, leaving Lucrece to lament the circumstances which allowed Tarquin to conquer her. She sends for her husband, but although he does not blame her for what happened, he is unable to console her…and in case you decide to read it I don’t want to spoil the ending.
This was one of the longest poems I have ever read – almost as long as any of Shakespeare’s plays. I will say that the section dealing with the rape itself was mercifully brief, the bulk of the stanzas being taken up firstly with Tarquin’s moral dilemma, and afterwards with Lucrece’s emotional turmoil.
Lucrece is portrayed from the beginning as a precious jewel, one that Collatinus should, at all cost, have kept hidden from the world.
Beauty itself doth of itself persuade
The eyes of men without an orator;
What needeth then apologies be made,
To set forth that which is so singular?
Or why is Collatine the publisher
Of that rich jewel he should keep unknown
From thievish ears, because it is his own?
As she curses Opportunity, Night, and Time for allowing Tarquin into her bedchamber, it becomes clear that she, too, has valued herself only as long as her ‘virtue’ has remained the property of her husband.
‘Dear Lord of that dear jewel I have lost,
What legacy shall I bequeath to thee?
My resolution, love, shall be thy boast,
By whose example thou revenged mayest be.
How Tarquin must be used, read it in me:
Myself, thy friend, will kill myself, thy foe,
And for my sake serve thou false Tarquin so.’
Tarquin is portrayed at first as having some moral qualms. He is well aware of the consequences that will result if he chooses to continue on his course, but although many hindrances cross his path, he chooses to continue on his course.
But all these poor forbiddings could not stay him;
He in the worst sense construes their denial:
The doors, the wind, the glove that did delay him,
He takes for accidental things of trial;
Or as those bars which stop the hourly dial,
Who with a lingering slay his course doth let,
Till every minute pays the hour his debt.
‘So, so,’ quoth he, ‘these lets attend the time,
Like little frosts that sometime threat the spring,
To add a more rejoicing to the prime,
And give the sneaped birds more cause to sing.
Pain pays the income of each precious thing;
Huge rocks, high winds, strong pirates, shelves and sands,
The merchant fears, ere rich at home he lands.’
In assuring Lucrece that no blame should attach to her for Tarquin’s actions, Collatinus and his followers demonstrate a very enlightened view for the time period – especially when compared with the Victorian view demonstrated in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, where Tess is held almost entirely responsible for Alec’s actions towards her.
With this, they all at once began to say,
Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears;
While with a joyless smile she turns away
The face, that map which deep impression bears
Of hard misfortune, carved in it with tears.
There is probably much more to be learned from the poem (did I mention that it’s really long?) but I’m not really interested in that kind of deep analysis. If you, like me, are trying to extend your knowledge of classic literature, Shakespeare is a good place to start, but I wouldn’t recommend The Rape of Lucrece for a beginner. Start with one of the comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing, instead.