A Study Guide
Shakespeare Study Guides in Kindle Format
With Complete Texts That Define Difficult Words and Explain Difficult Passages
Table of Contents
Type of Work Setting Publication and Title Sources Dedication Rhyme Scheme, Meter Shakespeare's Introduction
Summary of the Poem Climax Themes Figures of Speech Ekphrasis Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings © 2003
Revised in 2010, 2016.©
The Rape of Lucrece is a narrative poem (one that tells a story) focusing on the rape and tragic death of the title character and on the revenge that follows.
On May 9, 1594, the poem was entered in the Hall Book of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, the English government's pre-publication registry. Later in the same year, John Harrison of London published the poem in quarto form, and it became highly popular with educated readers. The poem was listed in the Hall Book under the title of The Ravyshement [Ravishment] of Lucrece but was published with the title Lucrece. The Rape of Lucrece was substituted as a title at a later date.
The History of Rome, by
Livy (full name, Titus Livius), was one of
Shakespeare's most important sources for The
Rape of Lucrece. Livy (59 BC-AD 17)
wrote about early Rome—from its legendary
founding in 753 BC to the age of Caesar
Augustus, down to about 9 BC. Livy's History—told
in 142 volumes, of which thirty-five survive
intact and others survive in fragments or in
references to his History in works of
other writers—is a masterpiece and is required
reading for all historians. However, Livy was
a moralist who wrote history as a reformer. He
was also a layman who had little experience in
the day-to-day workings of government. When
writing, he sometimes accepted undocumented
accounts—accounts more properly categorized as
legend than as history. Such is his account of
the rape of a woman named Lucretia (the
Lucrece of Shakespeare's poem). The account is
taken as fact by some, fiction by
Shakespeare dedicated The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton. Wriothesley (1573-1624) was a patron of Shakespeare and other writers of the time. Although a favorite at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, his association with the headstrong Robert Devereux, the Second Earl of Essex—another fixture at court—led him to take part in Devereux’s 1601 rebellion against the queen. Wriothesley was sentenced to life imprisonment.iambic pentameter, and each stanza has a rhyme scheme of ababbcc. Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, pioneered this format in England in his works Troilus and Criseyde and The Parlement of Foules. Rhyme royal was going out of fashion when Shakespeare wrote Lucrece, although later poets—including John Milton in the seventeenth century and John Masefield in the twentieth—revived it. The first two lines of the poem demonstrate the iambic-pentameter scheme:
Honorable and upright woman of great beauty.
In an introduction called "The Argument," Shakespeare summarizes the historical events recounted in the poem. Here is the Argument:
Lucius Tarquinius, for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus, 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.Summary of the Poem
Including Implied Historical Background
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
In the mid-Sixth Century BC, Lucius Tarquinius murders his father-in-law to become King of Rome. He is an arrogant, despotic ruler, fully deserving his epithet, Tarquin the Proud, or Tarquinius Superbus. Because he covets the town of Ardea, twenty-four miles south of Rome, he orders troops there to lay siege to the town.
While encamped at Ardea, officers gather after supper at the tent of the king’s son, Tarquin, to socialize and tell stories. By and by, they begin extolling the virtues of their wives. One officer, Collatine, boasts that his wife, Lucrece, is by far the most beautiful and virtuous woman of all. His accounting of her excellent qualities arouses lust in the heart of young Tarquin; he must see this wonder for himself. So it is that he steals away to Collatine's home in Collatium, ten miles east of Rome, where Lucrece manages the household in the absence of her husband.
When he presents himself at her door as a comrade of her husband, she receives him hospitably. Her beauty and innocent charm astound him. Collatine’s praise of her, generous as it was, was not generous enough. He resolves to have her. Lucrece believes him honorable and upright, a fine and noble gentleman like her husband; she is trusting to a fault. The narrator draws back the curtain of her mind:
This earthly saint, adored by this devil,
The clever Tarquin ingratiates himself with guileless Lucrece, praising her husband’s soldierly valor and “manly chivalry” (109). He also invents excuses for his visit, deciding to restrain his libido until nightfall. After supper, they while away the evening in conversation. When they retire to separate chambers, the omniscient narrator interprets Tarquin’s motives and, in doing so, preaches a lesson:
Those that much covet are with gain so fond,When deepest night silences all living things, save for the howling wolf and the screeching owl, Tarquin steals forth to plunder his treasure. He lifts a latch. He knees open the door. Before him, Lucrece lies fast asleep. “Into the chamber wickedly he stalks, / And gazeth on her yet unstained bed" (365-366). Under his groping hands, Lucrece awakens and "Wrapp'd and confounded in a thousand fears, / Like to a new-kill'd bird she trembling lies" (456-457). She must submit to him willingly, he tells her, or he will take her by force. 'Lucrece,' quoth he, 'this night I must enjoy thee: / If thou deny, then force must work my way" (512-513). Lucrece begs him, by all that is right and good, to leave her alone.
She conjures him by high almighty Jove,Tarquin deafens his ears to her pleadings—and takes her. “The wolf hath seized his prey, the poor lamb cries” (677). Then he leaves her, a wretched, heartbroken woman, polluted to the deepest fathom of her soul. “She hath lost a dearer thing than life” (687). With her nails, she tears her flesh. She says:
In handwritten messages, she summons Collatine from Ardea and her father, Lucretius, from Rome. While awaiting their arrival, she reflects on a painting of the Trojan War and recalls the suffering that resulted in Troy from the event that caused it: the abduction of the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Greece, by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy.
"Here friend by friend in bloody channel lies,
Lucrece compares Tarquin with Paris, and herself with Priam.
"To me came Tarquin armed; so beguiled
After her husband and her father arrive with friends, Lucrece—now dressed in mournful black—tells them the shocking news, that she has been raped. "Mine enemy was strong, my poor self weak, / And far the weaker with so strong a fear" (1646-1647). Then, before naming the rapist, she asks them to avenge the terrible crime:
“But ere I name him, you fair lords,” quoth she,
when she names Tarquin, she plunges a knife into
her own breast. Astonishment paralyzes
Collatine. Her father throws himself in grief
upon her, and Brutus withdraws the knife,
releasing small rivers of blood. Brokenhearted
Lucretius cries out to her, “That life was mine
which thou hast here deprived” (1752). Collatine
falls on his wife and in her blood “bathes the
pale fear in his face” (1775) until “manly shame
bids him possess his breath and live to be
revenged on her death.” Brutus holds out the
bloody weapon, saying, “By this bloody knife we
will revenge the death of this true wife”
(1840-41). His compatriots fall to their knees
and swear they will.
climax of the poem occurs when Tarquin forces
himself upon Lucrece.
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Objectification of Women
Collatine brags to his fellow soldiers that he has a wife of surpassing beauty. If a king possessed her, he says, he would surely increase his fame. It is as if she is a priceless painting or sculpture that must be seen to be believed. The narrator then says, "Why is Collatine the publisher / Of that rich jewel he should keep unknown?" But the blabbermouth babbles on about Lucrece after "some untimely thought did instigate / His all-too-timeless speed." He succeeds in whetting the sexual appetite of Tarquin, who visits Lucrece when she is alone and, against her remonstrations to save her virtue, rapes her and flees. Both men thus use Lucrece as a mere object, Collatine to bolster his proud male ego and Tarquin to satisfy his lust. Tarquin, to be sure, commits the greater wrong; but he would never have forced himself upon Lucrece if Collatine had not unwittingly incited him.
Allowing his pride to control his tongue, Collatine boasts that he has a more desirable wife than any other soldier. Allowing his passion for Lucrece to gain sway, Tarquin rapes her.
Although entirely innocent of wrongdoing, Lucrece experiences intense shame after Tarquin rapes her—so intense that she wishes to die by her own hand, as the following passage indicates:
"Poor hand, why quiver’st thou at this decree?Guilt
Guilt begins to hound Tarquin the moment he leave's lucrece's house—guilt that he knows will never leave him.
Even in this thought through the dark night he stealeth,Figures of Speech
The language and imagery in the poem are elegant and accomplished, demonstrating great technical skill. Shakespeare was attempting to establish his reputation when he wrote the poem. If there is a weakness, it is that Lucrece sometimes resembles an automaton expressing emotions rather than feeling them. Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, click here.
From Venus’ doves doth challenge that fair field;Anaphora
His honour, his affairs, his friends, his state (line 45)Metaphor
For he [Collatine] the night before, in Tarquin’s tent,Oxymoron
earthly saint (line 85)Personification
And wilt thou be the school where Lust shall learn?Simile
My sighs, like whirlwinds, labour hence to heave thee (line 586).
Ekphrasis is a device in which part or all of a literary work describes, comments on and/or analyzes a painting or another graphic work of art. In The Rape of Lucrece, ekphrasis occurs from line 1366 to 1533, when Lucrece contemplates a tapestry painting of a scene from the Trojan War. In it, she sees the Greek army bearing down on the defeated Trojans. It was a Trojan, Paris, who caused the war, provoking the Greeks by abducting Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus. In line 1369, the narrator refers to the abduction as a rape. Lucrece, who has just been raped by Tarquin, no doubt compares herself to Helen. She also no doubt compares Tarquin to Sinon, a Greek who used deceit to gain the Greeks entry to Troy, which they pillaged and burned.