By Colleen T.
In Renaissance society, men held a position of power over women. However, male anxieties about women gaining an independent voice in society reflected the fear that women would no longer be under male control. To prevent this, men developed ways of dehumanizing and Othering women to ensure that they remained inferior. In Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin accomplishes this as he rapes Lucrece, dehumanizing and silencing her, ultimately showing the ways that men in Renaissance society could control female independence with dominant and animalistic behavior.
Interestingly, as Sara Quay says in her article, “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” (3). Despite Tarquin’s success in dehumanizing and raping Lucrece, she spends almost half of the poem speaking independently. In an attempt to stop Tarquin, she uses rhetoric to persuade him not to ruin his own honor or set a sinful example for future generations: “wilt thou be the school where lust shall learn? / Must he in thee read lectures of such shame? / Wilt thou be glass wherein it shall discern / Authority for sin, warrant for blame” (617-620). Strategically, she attempts to prevent the loss of her own honor by showing concern for his instead.
However, as Katharine Eisaman Maus’ article mentions, the poem has an “insistent concern with the relationship between sex and power” (66). The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare describes what happens when Lucrece tries to regain power and stop Tarquin from raping her: “Challenged, he tells her, drawing his sword, that if she refuses him he will kill her and a slave, making it appear he caught them in bed together, whereas if not she can keep his violation a secret” (Dobson n.pag). He threatens her reputation, using violence and domination to silence her. He then takes Lucrece’s chastity, the quality of humanness which serves as her only real social power, allowing him to dehumanize her and assert his superiority as a man.
Despite Lucrece’s opinionated, educated, rhetorical voice throughout the poem, she still allows Tarquin to silence her in many ways. Rather than blaming Tarquin for her rape, Lucrece remains silent, and instead blames many other factors. She blames Night for her rape when she says, “[v]ast sin-concealing chaos […] O hateful, vaporous, and foggy Night, / Since thou art guilty of my cureless crime” (767-772). She blames the Night’s darkness for concealing the beast within man. She also blames Opportunity and Time, saying, “O opportunity, thy guilt is great: / ‘Tis thou that execut’st the traitor’s treason; / Thou sets the wolf where he the lamb may get; / Whoever plots the sin, thou point’st the season” (876-879). She implies in these lines that men are not expected to control themselves if they have the opportunity to rape a woman, as Opportunity makes it simple for the man who “plots the sin.” Worst of all, Lucrece blames herself, not for losing her own honor, but for losing her husband’s; she says to Collatine, “Yet I am guilty of thy honour’s wrack” (841). To rid her husband of this shame, Lucrece finally decides to kill herself, allowing Tarquin’s actions to permanently silence her.
Although Lucrece challenges Tarquin’s power through her rhetoric in the poem, she allows him to silence and dominate her through his animalistic, violent behavior, ultimately making this a poem reflective of male dominance and female silence the face of it.
Colleen is a recent graduate of Ball State University with a major in literature and a minor in creative writing.
Dobson, Michael, and Stanley Wells. “Rape of Lucrece, The.” The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare.Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference, 2003. Web. 29 Apr. 2014.
Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “Taking Tropes Seriously: Language and Violence in Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece.” Shakespeare Quarterly 37.1 (1986): 66-82. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
Quay, Sara E. “’Lucrece the chaste’: The Construction of Rape in Shakespeare’s ‘The Rape of Lucrece.’”Modern Language Studies 25.2 (1995): 3-17.
Shakespeare, William. “The Rape of Lucrece.” The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems. Ed. Colin Burrow. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 237-338. Print.