Like his Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s Lucrece belongs to the genre of the minor epic. But unlike Venus, Lucrece incorporates a second genre, the complaint. As a minor epic, Lucrece draws upon the legendary history of a great empire, the moment when Rome ceases to be a kingdom ruled by the Tarquins and becomes a republic governed by elected consuls. Yet, again as a minor epic, Lucrece employs as its chief characters figures of seemingly secondary historical or political importance. The poem gives us Tarquin (the king’s young son) and Lucrece (the wife of one of Rome’s first consuls, Collatine). Lucrece focuses initially on Tarquin’s overwhelming desire for the beautiful wife of his kinsman and friend. From the moment of Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece through the remainder of the poem, the focus shifts to the sexual shame felt by Lucrece, a much more disturbing emotion than that felt by Adonis as he is ardently wooed by Venus.
Shakespeare found the incidents for his poem in the accounts of a Roman historian (Livy) and a Roman mythographer (Ovid), as well as in Chaucer and contemporary English writers. He transformed this story of rape and political innovation by introducing into it two extended interior monologues in the form of complaints. Tarquin’s complaint presents him as divided against himself, driven by the torment of his lust for Lucrece but aware of his betrayal of Collatine and of the shame her rape will bring upon himself and the honor of his royal family. Until Tarquin commits the rape and feels the bitter disappointment that follows it, Shakespeare writes the poem from the perspective of the rapist-to-be, whose sensitivity to the monstrosity of his projected crime is reminiscent of Macbeth’s in his soliloquies contemplating the assassination of his cousin King Duncan.
Almost as soon as the rape is over, Shakespeare drives Tarquin from the poem. Thereafter he appears only in Lucrece’s characterizations of him in her own much longer complaint. As she struggles with the shame she feels as Tarquin’s victim, she begins with apostrophes to Night, Opportunity, and Time, in which she blames the circumstances attending Tarquin’s attack on her. Following these apostrophes comes her long description of a painting of the Trojan War, through which Shakespeare introduces the subject matter of Homer’s Iliad, a major epic, into his minor epic. Only seemingly a digression, the painting provides Lucrece with a figure whose suffering matches her own—that of Hecuba, the queen of Troy, who has endured the total destruction of her family and her city.
Throughout her complaint Lucrece strives to find a remedy for the defilement she has suffered from Tarquin’s attack, deciding finally on suicide. Few acts have proved as enduringly controversial (and as appealing to artists) as Lucrece’s self-destruction. While suicide was in Roman culture a hero’s death in the face of humiliation or defeat, Christianity has been intolerant of it. The early church fathers Ambrose and Augustine decried Lucrece’s chosen death. They argued that if she had indeed been forced by Tarquin, then, no matter the fate of her body, she had kept her soul pure by withholding consent. If she was therefore free of guilt, it was sinful and prideful of her to destroy herself. Although Lucrece briefly argues that she is innocent of what has been done to her, the poem in general concentrates on her overarching view that despite the chastity of her mind, she herself has been rendered unchaste by Tarquin’s rape of her body. In other words, mind and body, in her reading of the situation, are not really separable.
After you have read this poem, we invite you to read “Venus and Adonis and Lucrece: A Modern Perspective,” written by Professor Catherine Belsey of Cardiff University.