Themes in Shakespeare's 'The Rape of Lucrece'

Pencil sketch showing the rape of Lucretia.

The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 1.0

Shakespeare's greatest poem is "The Rape of Lucrece." Explore some of the key themes in this classic text.

The Plague

It has been suggested that this poem reflects fears about the plague, which was rampant in Shakespeare’s England. The dangers of inviting a stranger into your home could result in your body being ravaged by disease, as Lucrece is ravaged.

She kills herself to save her family from shame, but if the rape signifies the plague might she kill herself to prevent the disease from spreading? The play was written at a time when the theaters would have been closed to prevent the spreading of the plague and may, therefore, have informed Shakespeare’s writing. The story would have been familiar to Elizabethans and various versions of it were already available.

Love and Sexuality

"The Rape of Lucrece" serves as an antidote to Venus and Adonis in that it provides a moral contrast to how it deals with the idea of love and sexuality. Tarquin is unable to subdue his desires despite misgivings and he suffers for this, as does the undeserving Lucrece and her family. It is a cautionary tale of what can happen if you let your desires run free.

Tarquin, Lines 267-271

"Why hunt I then for colour or excuses?
All orators are dumb when beauty pleadeth
Poor wretches have remorse in poor abuses;
Love thrives not in the heart that shadows dreadeth;
Affection is my captain, and he leadeth"

This play is a contrast to the romantic comedy of "As You Like It," for example, where the pursuit of love and affection is treated in a light, though hard-won, way.

This poem highlights the dangers of self-satisfaction and pursuing the wrong person. The pastoral is replaced by the military and instead of a game; the pursuit of a woman is seen as the spoils of war but in the end, it is seen for what it is which is a kind of a war crime.

The poem comes under the genre known as the "complaint," a type of poem which was popular in the late middle ages and Renaissance. This style was particularly popular at the time when this poem was written. A complaint is usually in the form of a monologue in which the narrator laments and bewails their fate or the sad state of the world. "The Rape of Lucrece" fits the complaints’ highly elaborate style, which uses digressions and long speeches.

Themes of Rape

Violation often takes Biblical images in "The Rape of Lucrece."

Tarquin takes on the role of Satan in the garden of Eden, violating an innocent and incorruptible Eve.

Collatine takes on the role of Adam, who lures Satan in with his boastful discourse about his wife and her beauty. When he takes the apple from the tree, the Snake enters Lucrece’s bedchamber and violates her.

Lines 85-87

"This earthly saint adored by this devil
Little suspecteth the false worshipper,
For unstained thoughts do seldom dream on evil."

Collatine is responsible for inciting Tarquin’s desires and redirecting his rage from the enemy in the field to his own wife. Tarquin becomes jealous of Collatine and instead of vanquishing an army, his desires are redirected towards Lucrece as his prize.

Lucrece is described as if she is a work of art;

Lines 27-28

"Honour and beauty in the owner’s arms
Are weakly fortressed from a world of harms."

Tarquin’s rape of her is described as if she is a fortress under attack. He conquers her physical attributes. Through her suicide, Lucrece’s body becomes a political symbol. As feminism later coined, the "personal is political" and the King and his family are finally overthrown to make way for the Republic to be formed.

Lines 1849-1855

"When they had sworn to this advised doom
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And to publish Tarquin’s foul offence;
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin’s everlasting banishment."


Shakespeare, William. "The Rape of Lucrece." Paperback, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, March 11, 2018.

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Jamieson, Lee. "Themes in Shakespeare's 'The Rape of Lucrece'." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Jamieson, Lee. (2020, August 28). Themes in Shakespeare's 'The Rape of Lucrece'. Retrieved from Jamieson, Lee. "Themes in Shakespeare's 'The Rape of Lucrece'." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).