Friday, March 11, 2011

The Rape of Lucrece

This earthly saint, adored by this devil,
Little suspecteth the false worshipper;
For unstain'd thoughts do seldom dream on evil;
Birds never limed no secret bushes fear:
So guiltless she securely gives good cheer
And reverend welcome to her princely guest,
Whose inward ill no outward harm express'd:

For that he colour'd with his high estate,
Hiding base sin in plaits of majesty;
That nothing in him seem'd inordinate,
Save something too much wonder of his eye,
Which, having all, all could not satisfy;
But, poorly rich, so wanteth in his store,
That, cloy'd with much, he pineth still for more.

(The Rape of Lucrece, 136-149)

We continue with Shakespeare's exploration of the theme of unrequited desire turning to force with another narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece. (See my post on Titus Andronicus for a rationale as to the value of works dealing with this ghastly and shocking theme of violence against women.) Lucrece is even longer than Venus and Adonis, but whereas...
 ...the silly V & A was a bit of a weary slog for me, I thought The Rape of Lucrece was a totally fabulous poem!

What's going on here?

Well, Shakespeare conveniently lays it all out for us in a little 25ish line long prose intro to the poem, "The Argument." Read this and you will get the whole story of the poem (*SPOILER ALERT*), to wit: there is an evil ruler in ancient Rome named Tarquin. Having heard of the beauty of Lucrece, the virtuous wife of one of his captains, Collatine, he comes up with a scheme to go to her house and rape her! Villain! So then Lucrece tells her husband what happens, he swears revenge, and Lucrece stabs herself. :( This sad incident leads to political change - no more tyrants like Tarquin.

Okay, sounds miserable. Why should I read almost 2000 lines of poetry when I get the whole story  right at the beginning before the poem even starts?

First, the poetic artistry of the work is admirable. The whole poem is written in rhyme royal, a complicated rhyme scheme (seven lines of iambic pentameter, rhymed at ababbcc) that was introduced into English poetry by Chaucer. As I remember from studying the Canterbury Tales, use of rhyme royal signals serious subject matter, so this stately meter fits with the tone Shakespeare is creating in this poem. Also, the technical virtuosity required to write a 2000 line poem in accomplished, smooth, expressive rhyme royal is pretty amazing!

Also, check out all the angles that Shakespeare explores in the poem (some of which I'll be looking at more closely in future posts). Rather than just looking at all the discussion of lust and gender and power structures, also read the poem looking at these other themes: moral corruption and deliberately choosing evil against the the protests of concience (like Richard III!); physical attractiveness reflecting - or not - the condition of the mind (Richard III again!); division vs. unity of the body and soul; incredible animal imagery and metaphors, especially related to birds; the treatment of time; the cathartic role of art; and the ultimate, final question - is it permissible to take control of your own destiny and take your own life? In addition to all this, the story of an individual tragedy is given a larger significance by placing it in a larger political context.

Don't be like me and shy away from the poem because of the title, blazoning forth as it does all the trauma of the contents. It's worth the reading.

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