T’was a plague that gave birth to William Shakespeare’s long narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece.” Between June 1592 and May 1594, acting companies were banished from London and the theater essentially became non-existent. The reason for this was an outbreak of the Plague and in the absence of actors prepared to spout his lines from the stage, Shakespeare shut the doors and stayed inside to avoid the ravages of unlucky contact with another and set his creative mind to composing the titular tale of assault, violation, vengeance and the rise of a republic.
Published in 1594, “The Rape of Lucrece” became the latest addition to historical tradition of artistic rendering of the canonization of Lucrece as an almost mythical heroine who rape set forth an avenging army with Brutus at the head that concludes with the banishment of the Tarquin monarchy from Rome.
Shakespeare adopted a seven-line stanza form called the rhyme royal for “The Rape of Lucrece” in which each line is written in iambi pentameter. The poem was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, who was a patron of the Bard as well as other writers of the era. Ultimately, Wriothesley’s part in Robert Devereux’s 1601 insurrection against Queen Elizabeth I would seem him live out the rest of his life in prison.
Composer Benjamin Britten based a chamber opera on the poem in 1946.