Rape of Lucrece

Analysis and criticism

In a post-structuralist analysis of the poem, Joel Fineman argues that The Rape of Lucrece, like Shakespeare's sonnets, deconstructs the traditional poetics of praise.[3] Fineman observes that the tragic events of the poem are set in motion precisely by Collatine’s hyperbolic praise of Lucrece; it is his “boast of Lucrece' sov’reignty” (29) that kindles Tarquin’s profane desire.[4] It is not the fact of Lucrece’s chastity, but rather the fact that her husband praises her with the “name of ‘chaste’” that inspires Tarquin's crime: “Haply, that name of ‘chaste’ unhapp’ly set / This bateless edge on his keen appetite” (8–9). Collatine’s praise paradoxically creates the circumstances that will ruin both the woman that he praises and the integrity of the rhetoric of praise itself.[5] Furthermore, the poem itself draws attention to its own complicity in Collatine’s fatal rhetoric of praise: “the poem itself performs or activates this same praising word of which it speaks”[6] by citing, in the first line of the second stanza, its own use of “chaste” in the last line of the first stanza: “Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste” (7). To Fineman, the poem’s initial self-citation is just one example of how the “poem’s own rhetoricity is... performatively implicated in the rape it reports”.[7] In other words, the opening of the poem highlights an intrinsic link between the language of poetic praise and sexual violence. In these same opening stanzas, The Rape of Lucrece also acknowledges how its own poetic rhetoric is part of this larger literary tradition which yokes praise and violence.

Jane Newman's feminist analysis of the poem focuses on its relationship to the myth of Philomel and Procne from Book VI of the Metamorphoses by Ovid.[8] In Newman's reading, the tradition of violent female revenge for rape represented by the myth of Philomel is repressed in Shakespeare's Lucrece. Shakespeare's poem faintly alludes to Ovid's myth, but does not present Procne and Philomel's method of revenge as an authentic option for Lucrece. Although Lucrece maintains the ability to speak after the rape (in contrast to the mutilated Philomela who loses all speech), Newman argues that the poem actually limits Lucrece's ability to act precisely by celebrating her self-sacrifice: "The apparent contrast of a silent Philomela, robbed of the potential for such an impact on the political moment to which she belongs, effectively casts Lucretia's suicide as the only form of political intervention available to women".[9] Ironically, Lucrece's rhetorical eloquence blocks the possibility that she herself could seek out a more active, violent retribution on Tarquin, her rapist, and the monarchical regime that he represents. Instead, her revenge must be carried out by male agents acting in her name, particularly Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic, who imitates Lucrece's self-sacrificing rhetoric as he leads the rebellion against Tarquin's father, the king of Rome.

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