Themes in The Rape of Lucrece

Rape of Lucretia
Rape of Lucretia, by Titian, 1488/90. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Shakespeare's greatest poem is The Rape of Lucrece. This analysis explores some of the key themes in this classic text.

Theme: 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, which 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 she might 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 available.

Theme: 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.

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”
(Tarquin, Lines 267-271)

In 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.

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 poem fits the ‘complaints’ highly elaborate style which uses digressions and long set speeches.

Theme: Violation

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 uncorruptable Eve.

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

This earthly saint adored by this devil
Little suspecteth the false worshipper,
For unstained thoughts do seldom dream on evil.
(Lines 85-87)

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;

Honour and beauty in the owner’s arms
Are weakly fortressed from a world of harms.
(Lines 27-28)

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.

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.
(Lines 1849-1855)