'Lucrece the Chaste': The Construction of Rape in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece

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Author: Sara E. Quay
Editor: Michelle Lee
Date: 2004
From: Shakespearean Criticism(Vol. 82)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,352 words

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[(essay date spring 1995) In the following essay, Quay explores the patriarchal social constructs implicit in The Rape of Lucrece and examines how they "promote and permit" rape.]

The notions of integrity and closure in a text are like that of virginity in a body. They assume that if one does not respect the boundaries between inside and outside, one is 'breaking and entering,' violating a property. As long as the fallacies of integrity and closure are upheld, a desire to penetrate becomes a desire for rape.Jane Gallop, The Daughter's SeductionEven there he starts: quoth he, 'I must deflow'r ...'William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece

On the level at which it is most frequently read, Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece is about an act of rape. The poem begins as the Roman prince Tarquin, "From the besieged Ardea all in post" (1), rides to the city of Collatium, after listening to his army companion, Collatine, boast of his wife "Lucrece the chaste" (7), whose "peerless beauty" (21) outshines any other. In doing so, Tarquin has set out to "girdle with embracing flames" (6) the woman he has just heard described. After arriving in Collatium, Tarquin dines with Lucrece under the pretense of bearing news about her husband, and later retires to bed where he debates whether or not to commit the intended rape. In the end, his lust wins out. As the poem's opening Argument presents it, Tarquin "treacherously stealeth into her chamber, violently ravished her, and early in the morning speedeth away."1 The remainder of the poem is turned over to Lucrece, who, in a lengthy monologue, contemplates and mourns the consequences of the rape. After much deliberation, Lucrece sends for her husband and father, secures an oath from them that the wrong done to her will be revenged, and then fatally stabs herself. The tale ends with the Tarquin family "exiled [from power], and the state government changed from kings to consuls" (The Argument), inaugurating, in and through the rape, Roman democracy.

Feminist scholars have been especially interested in The Rape of Lucrece because of the extent to which Shakespeare develops Lucrece and explores the impact the rape has on her. Recent essays, for example, have focused on the degree to which Lucrece participates in or resists the rape and whether or not her suicide could have been avoided.2 Yet, while The Rape of Lucrece is part of a feminist rethinking of sexual violence in literature, one question has frequently been left unasked in these important analyses.3 In addition to addressing the circumstances of the rape, and thereby accepting that act as a fait accompli, it seems important to consider what makes the rape possible to begin with. What, in other words, makes Lucrece able to be raped?

"To be rapable," Catharine Mackinnon argues, "a position which is social, not biological, defines what a woman is."4 Positing gender categories as socially produced, this definition is startling for it assumes that...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420063521