The Rape of Lucrece
Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Complete template (Sonnet numbers)
After he had completed Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare set about writing the
‘graver labour’ he had promised Southampton in its dedication. The ‘graver
labour’ meant turning the legendary tale of Tarquin and Lucrece into a more
thoughtful expression of his mythic philosophy than he had achieved with
Venus and Adonis.
InVenus and Adonis, Shakespeare used the logic of his mythic philosophy
to correct the inconsistencies in the Ovidian version of the myth. Now, to
demonstrate the utility of his mythic logic he chose a legendary story of a
type similar to his early history-based plays. Most of the plays written before
1594 were history based: 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, 3 Henry IV, and Richard
III were sourced from a combination of historical chronicles and traditional
literature. Titus Andronicus written around 1593 is also of interest because,
like Lucrece, its backdrop is the Roman world.
Volumes of academic energy have been expended comparing
Shakespeare’s history plays with the historic records. However, the Sonnet
philosophy was written to present the mythic philosophy behind all his plays
and poems (as argued in Volume 1), then the historic records provide no
more than stories upon which Shakespeare developed his philosophic
content. So Shakespeare’s ‘graver labour’ in adapting the original rape of
Lucrece to his mythic philosophy provides an opportunity to note philosophic
distance between his Lucrece and the historical account.
If, following Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare penned Lucrece in 1594 as
the second intentional expression of his already maturing natural logic, then
Lucrece should provide evidence of his philosophic intent. If Shakespeare
intended to give a more rigorous expression to his philosophy in Lucrece,
then there should be a significant use of the themes based in Nature, increase,
and truth and beauty. There should also be a greater awareness of the logical
conditions for mythic expression, and a correspondingly devastating critique
of traditional apologetics.
The critique of traditional mythologies, begun in the two long poems,
was later made definitive in the Sonnets. When the philosophic intent in
Lucrece is revealed using the Sonnet logic, it will be evident that Shakespeare’s
‘history’ plays were also written primarily to express his philosophy. From
around 1590 when he wrote 1 Henry IV to 1613 when he wrote Henry VIII
his intention was to use historical events to demonstrate the ubiquity of
Explicit in Shakespeare’s mythic reworking of Lucrece is a critique of the
traditional contradictions involved in sanctifying chastity with its logical
implications for sexuality. The contradiction is manifested in the way Tarquin
experiences an uncontrollable sexual urge when Colatine makes chastity an
object of excessive pride. Consistent with the logical status of the poem as
erotic, the mythic consequence for Tarquin and Lucrece, as well as for
Colatine, is the death of the procreative opportunity.
The banishment rather than death of Tarquin at the end of the poem
points to the mutual culpability of Colatine and Tarquin in providing the
logical conditions for sexual excess. The suicide of Lucrece is the consequence
of her inability to assess Tarquin’s intentions because of her
unworldly naiveté. Her lengthy deliberations on the logical consequences
of innocent chastity, and her identification with the mythological events in
the Trojan painting, are precursors to her mythic fate.
Shakespeare reconstructs the story of Tarquin and Lucrece as a consistent
expression of mythic logic. Implicit throughout is a devastating critique of
traditional mythological inconsistencies in the biblical representation of the
status of myth. By using the mythic logic articulated so precisely in the
Sonnets it is possible to appreciate the intent in Venus and Adonis and Lucrece
in a way not before achieved. Moreover, it is possible to get a measure of
the way Shakespeare’s corpus stands against traditional contradictions and
how it presents at the mythic level a consistent expression of the natural logic
Analysis of Lucrece
The first stanza of Lucrece is preceded by an ‘Argument’ in prose. It was
inserted by Shakespeare to indicate his logical concerns and to background
the events described in the poem.
The ‘Argument’ identifies two types of idealised self-regard critiqued by
the mythic logic of Shakespeare’s poem. The ‘excessive pride’ of Lucius
Tarquinius, the usurping King of Rome who was responsible for the murder
of his father-in-law, is contrasted with the ‘incomparable chastity’ of
Colatine’s wife, Lucrece.
Lucius Tarquinius (for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus), after
he had caused his own father in law Servius Tullius to be cruelly
murdered, and contrary to Roman laws and customs, not requiring or
staying for the peoples suffrages, had possessed himself of the kingdom:
went accompanied with his sons and other Noble men of Rome, to
besiege Ardea. During which siege, the principal men of the Army
meeting one evening at the Tent of Sextus Tarquinius, the King’s son,
in their discourses after supper everyone commended the virtues of his
own wife: among whom Colatinus extolled the incomparable
chastity of his wife Lucretia …
The ‘excessive pride’ manifested at the level of kingship is the canker
that infects the expectations of Colatine and Tarquin. Excessive pride is
identified as the fault that leads to the tragedy of Lucrece’s rape and death.
The abrogation of responsibility at the level of kingship corrupts the respect
for degree in the society. Shakespeare, throughout his works, is consistent
in attributing guilt to the powerful when social order disintegrates. Ulysses’
speech in Troilus and Cressida lays the blame for the malaise in the Greek
camp firmly on Agamemnon’s inability to marshal the respect of Achilles
and hence the rest of the Greeks.
Because the poem begins when Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the King,
departs on a secret mission to seduce Lucrece in Colatium, Colatine’s
hometown, the Argument describes the trial by ‘chastity’ that takes place
earlier. During an after-dinner discourse, Tarquin, Colatine and other nobles
decide to ride to Rome to determine who has the most virtuous wife. The
‘avouched trial’ was judged a ‘victory’ for Colatine. But Colatine’s gamble
on his wife chastity ‘inflames’ Sextus Tarquinius’ passion for ‘Lucrece’s
beauty’. So he sets off secretly with an uncontrollable desire to ‘ravish her’.
The remainder of the ‘Argument’ summarises the events in the poem
and closes with Brutus’ ‘bitter invective against the tyranny of the King’. It
records that at the end of the poem the absolute power of the King is revoked
and replaced by the rule of ‘consuls’.
Shakespeare’s poem not only considers the personal failures that lead to
the death of Lucrece and the exile of Tarquin but, with the banishment of
the ‘King’, also addresses their public culpability. The correlation between
the judgments of personal and public actions is a consequence of
Shakespeare’s consistent natural logic. The correlation is expressed even more
explicitly in Coriolanus, also sourced from Roman history.
In the first stanza of Lucrece, Shakespeare introduces the opposing characteristics
that determine the illogical actions of the protagonists Colatine,
Tarquin and Lucrece. At the same time Shakespeare’s overview of their
actions initiates a poem that is a consistent expression of mythic logic.
From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Tarquin hastens from Ardea ‘borne by the trustless wings of false desire’.
He brings to the house of Colatine a ‘lightless fire’, or fruitless desire, for
‘Lucrece the chaste’. Tarquin’s ‘false desire’ is a direct consequence of
Colatine’s selfish pride generated in a culture of excessive pride.
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Colatium bears the lightless fire,
Which in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire,
And girdle with embracing flames, the waist
Of Colatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste. (1-7)
In these early lines, Shakespeare signals his intent to critique inconsistent
mythologies that replace the priority of human increase in Nature with the
false desire for heavenly pleasures. The ‘lightless fire’ of Tarquin’s desire represents,
mythically, the logical inability of Shakespeare’s poem, or any poetry,
to substitute for the sexual dynamic in Nature. Tarquin’s inability to
consummate his lust when he eventually rapes Lucrece is consistent with
the fallacy of idealistic expectations, and represents Shakespeare’s awareness
of the logical limitations of mythic expression.
Colatine’s decision to test his wife’s virtue, by riding to Rome to verify
his claim, shows an immaturity of judgment. His misjudgment reveals the
immaturity of his relationship with Lucrece. Moreover, the implications of
his immaturity are again brought to light after Lucrece’s rape. First, when
Lucrece agonises about her incapacity to anticipate and resist Tarquin’s evil
intent and then, at the end of the poem, when Lucretius (Lucrece’s father)
and Colatine fight for the love of the dead Lucrece.
In the Sonnets, Shakespeare argues that chastity should not be considered
an end in itself. Its value is always conditional on a regard for
natural logic. If natural logic is not respected then ‘Lucrece’s chastity’ is a
So in the first stanza, the three principal protagonists are characterised
as having a lack of ‘trust’ in the logical conditions for life. Shakespeare is
clear, even in the early 1590s, about the logical conditions for life he later
articulates in the philosophy of the Sonnets. After Venus and Adonis he applies
them in a poem about an historic event to demonstrate his early mastery of
the logical conditions. The mythic consistency of Lucrece shows how
Shakespeare systematically used natural logic in his early plays.
The seriousness of the misjudgments by Colatine, Tarquin and Lucrece
in the first stanza is confirmed in the second.
Haply that name of chaste, unhapp'ly set
In Lucrece, Shakespeare does not argue against the value of chastity. Rather
he argues against the illogical idealisation of it. So being chaste, which can be
the cause of happiness becomes, ‘unhappily’ in Lucrece, the cause of all the
drama. It was Lucrece’s illogically valued chasteness that set the ‘bateless edge’
on Tarquin’s ‘appetite’. The blame is attached then to Colatine who
‘unwisely’ could not resist the opportunity to ‘praise the clear unmatched’
resolution of opposites, or ‘red and white’, in Lucrece. In the commentary on
Venus and Adonis, it was observed that the interrelation of red and white is
symbolic of the logical derivation of the dynamic of truth from beauty.
This bateless edge on his keen appetite:
When Colatine unwisely did not let,
To praise the clear unmatched red and white,
Which triumph'd in that sky of his delight:
Where mortal stars as bright as heaven's Beauties,
With pure aspects did him peculiar duties. (8-14)
The stanza also makes a connection between Colatine’s confusion of ‘red
and white’ and his preference for heavenly over mortal ‘stars’. In the Sonnets
Shakespeare is at pains to dismiss heavenly ‘stars’ as logically inappropriate
as a means to determine truth and beauty. Instead, he identifies the ‘eyes’ as
the ‘constant stars’ from which he derives his knowledge and art, or truth
and beauty (sonnet 14). It is not surprising, then, that in Lucrece he identifies
Colatine’s lack of judgment with his confusion between the heavenly stars
and the ‘mortal stars’ that are his wife’s eyes.
The third stanza specifically connects Colatine’s heavenly conceit with
the rousing of Tarquin’s desire.
For he the night before in Tarquin’s Tent,
Colatine attributes to the ‘heavens’ the ‘priceless wealth’ or ‘treasure’ that
was Lucrece. He proudly ‘unlocked’ the ‘treasure’ in the face of Tarquin ‘the
night before’. (Not insignificantly, in the Sonnets and plays, ‘treasure’
frequently refers to the vagina.) Colatine exacerbates the effect on Tarquin
by asserting that no ‘King’ could have such a ‘dame’. The illogicality of
Colatine’s heavenly conceit is compounded by the taunt to Tarquin, the son
of the imperial Roman King.
Unlock’d the treasure of his happy state:
What priceless wealth the heavens had him lent,
In the possession of his beauteous mate.
Reck’ning his fortune at such high proud rate,
That Kings might be espoused to more fame,
But King nor Peer to such a peerless dame. (15-21)
For Shakespeare, Colatine’s claim that his ‘possession’ (23) of a ‘priceless’
beauty was beyond the ‘peer’, even of kings, is the logical error that leads
to his wife’s rape.
O happiness enjoy’d but of a few,
Consistent with the arguments in the Sonnets, regarding the ill consequences
of the over-valuation of the ideal, the idealisation of Lucrece creates
the fertile ground for the incitement of its contrary. Colatine claimed he
‘possessed’ a ‘heaven’ sent wife, but such ‘heavenly’ standards of ‘Honour and
Beauty’ are logically susceptible to ‘the world of harms’.
And if possess’d as soon decay’d and done:
As is the morning’s silver melting dew,
Against the golden splendour of the sun.
An expir’d date cancell’d ere well begun.
Honour and Beauty in the owner’s arms,
Are weakly fortress’d from a world of harms. (22-8)
Shakespeare’s clarity as to the logical status of beauty, which is precisely
articulated in the first 10 Mistress sonnets, was already formed by the early
1590’s. In the next stanza, he gives a disquisition on the logic of beauty.
Beauty itself doth of itself persuade,
Beauty is defined as any ‘singular’ (32) sensory effect associated archetypically
with the ‘eyes’. Beauty is logically distinct from the process of
‘saying’, as typified by an ‘orator’ or ‘publisher’. The logical distinction in
this stanza between ‘beauty’ and ‘orating’ is the same as that presented in the
Mistress sonnets between beauty as ‘seeing’ (sonnets 127 to 137) and truth
as ‘saying’ (sonnets 137 to 152).
The eies of men without an Orator,
What needeth then Apologies be made
To set forth that which is so singular?
Or why is Colatine the publisher
Of that rich jewel he should keep unknown,
From thievish ears because it is his own? (29-35)
Because Shakespeare’s poem is also an attack on idealist contradictions,
he critiques the tradition of ‘Apologies’ (31) (or arguments made in defense
of the inconsistencies in the Christian ideal). Apologetic arguments for the
existence of a monotheistic God who is capable of wisdom and judgment
are inherently illogical. A ‘singular’ God can only be a sensation of the mind.
A sensation cannot be ‘proved’ so the desire to prove the existence of a
sensation leads to further inconsistencies.
Colatine’s desire to publicise his pride over Lucrece’s chastity misconstrues
the logic of beauty and truth, with the contrary effect of exciting
‘thievish ears’ (35). (Ironically, just after Shakespeare had articulated his
appreciation of natural logic in the Sonnets, Rene Descartes took it on
himself to prove the existence of the idealised male God, the illogical ramifications
of which are still being addressed by philosophers such as Ludwig
The next stanza continues the examination of culpability in the rape of
Lucrece. It suggests that either Colatine’s ‘boast’ instigated Tarquin’s actions,
because on ‘hearing’ the praise of Lucrece his ‘heart’was tainted, or that his
envy was incited by his ‘high pitched thoughts’ being stung by the ‘meaner’
Colatine boasting of his ‘golden’ fortune.
Perchance his boast of Lucrece’s sov’reignity,
The following stanza concludes that ‘some untimely thought’ (43) must
have turned Tarquin’s mind for him to ‘speed’ off leaving ‘honour, affairs,
friends, his state’ (45) behind.
Suggested this proud issue of a King:
For by our ears our hearts oft tainted be:
Perchance that envy of so rich a thing
Braving compare, disdainfully did sting
His high pitch’d thoughts that meaner men should vaunt
That golden hap which their superiors want. (36-42)
It is not the intention of this commentary to make more than passing
reference to earlier versions of the story of Tarquin and Lucrece. Even a
casual glance at their content, though, reveals a logical gulf between
Shakespeare’s opening and theirs. The first six stanzas in Lucrece do not limit
the fault to Tarquin, as do the older versions. In Shakespeare’s version they
implicate Colatine, and by association Lucrece. The examination of culpability,
initiated in these stanzas, then becomes an underlying theme for the
Shakespeare begins Lucrece with an examination of the logic of truth and
beauty, or wisdom and appetite, out of the conflict of chastity and desire.
The root logic behind the faults of Colatine and Lucrece is not given precise
expression, however, until the end of the poem when, in their reasons for
the fight over Lucrece’s body, Colatine and Lucretius reveal their ignorance
of the increase logic. So in Lucrece, Shakespeare reverses the order in the
presentation of his argument from Venus and Adonis. There he established
the logic of the increase argument out of Nature, and then considered the
consequent effects if it is ignored and abrogated.
Shakespeare demonstrates, by the opposing strategies in the two long
poems, that whichever way his philosophy is used its consistency does not
depend on formal considerations. His natural philosophy, being the basic
logic for human existence, needs only be adhered to for it to be felt in poems
or plays. The history-based plays, for instance, are as much written from the
foundation of natural logic as is a play such as Love’s Labour’s Lost, which
was conceived expressly by Shakespeare to present his philosophy.
When Tarquin arrives at Collatium, Lucrece, ‘within whose face Beauty
and Virtue strived’ (52), welcomed him. For the next three and a half stanzas,
Shakespeare continues to characterise beauty as sensation, logically derived
from the face and eyes. Tarquin can only ‘gaze’ as the colour of Lucrece’s
face gives rise to an interplay of sensations.
When Virtue bragg’d, Beauty would blush for shame,
The ‘silent’ nature of the ‘war’between the ‘Lilies and the Roses’ typifies
the battle of the senses. The ‘war’ is characterised as ‘silent’ because beauty
in Shakespeare’s logic is any unworded sense. This is consistent with the
characterisation of beauty in sonnet 137 as the inability of the ‘eyes’ to know
whether ‘what they see’, is the ‘best’ or the ‘worst’. By contrast, in 1 Henry
IV the argument between York and Somerset, amongst red and white roses,
ends in clearly declared differences.
When Beauty boasted blushes, in despite
Virtue would stain that o’er with silver white.
But Beauty in that white entituled
From Venus’ doves doth challenge that fair field;
Then virtue claims from beauty beauty’s red,
Which Virtue gave the golden age, to gild
Their silver cheeks, and call’d it then their shield,
Teaching them thus to use it in the fight,
When shame assail’d, the red should fence the white.
This Heraldry in Lucrece’s face was seen,
Argu’d by Beauty’s red and Virtue’s white,
Of either’s colour was the other Queen:
Proving from world’s minority their right,
Yet their ambition makes them still to fight:
The sov’reignity of either being so great,
That oft they interchange each other’s seat.
This silent war of Lilies and of Roses,
Which Tarquin view’d in her fair face’s field,
In their pure ranks his traitor eye encloses,
Where lest between them both it should be killed.
The coward captive vanquished, doth yield
To those two Armies that would let him go,
Rather than triumph in so false a foe. (54-77)
When Colatine’s ‘shallow tongue’ (78) is called a ‘niggard prodigal’,
Shakespeare re-confirms the reason for Tarquin’s lust. Colatine’s ‘praise’
was excessive for the meanest of reasons, boastful pride. Tarquin’s awe at
the war of beauty and virtue in Lucrece’s face would not of themselves
have led to lust. Instead, it was Colatine’s impossibly ‘high task’ (80) of
doing justice to his wife that does her beauty wrong. Colatine has ‘barren
skill’ because the praise he owes his wife falls short and further incites
Tarquin to do justice to the ‘silent wonder’ (84) he considers Colatine is
unable to appreciate.
Now thinks he that her husband’s shallow tongue,
Shakespeare then turns the full force of his irony on Lucrece.
The niggard prodigal that prais’d her so:
In that high task hath done her Beauty wrong.
Which far exceeds his barren skill to show.
Therefore that praise which Colatine doth owe,
Enchanted Tarquin answers with surmise,
In silent wonder of still gazing eyes. (78-84)
This earthly saint adored by this devil,
Lucrece is characterised as a Christian-like living ‘saint’ who ‘little
suspecteth the false worshipper’ (86) and who gives a ‘reverend’ welcome
to her ‘princely’ guest. By contrast, the ‘devil’Tarquin hides his ‘inward ill’
(91) in princely status.
Little suspecteth the false worshipper:
For unstain’d thoughts do seldom dream on evil.
Birds never lim’d no secret bushes ear:
So guiltless she securely gives good cheer,
And reverend welcome to her princely guest,
Whose inward ill no outward harm express’d. (85-91)
For that he colour’d with his high estate,
Not only is Colatine guilty of bragging of his wife’s beauty for selfish
male driven ends, his ‘possession’ of her has kept her from maturing into a
woman capable of assessing the evil intent in others. Near the end of the
poem, her father also reveals his role in keeping her innocent of insight into
the minds of men. Her obedience to authority, especially that of her husband
and her father, blinds her to the possibility that men of rank are as capable
of evil as other men.
Hiding base sin in pleats of Majesty: (92-3)
The illogical consequences of the idealised good and evil, epitomised in
the saintliness of Lucrece and the devilry of Tarquin, is a constant theme in
the plays, and particularly Measure for Measure. There, Angelo’s goodness
reveals its hidden evil, and Isabella’s intention to be a nun is rendered
redundant as she becomes more worldly wise.
The logical relationship between good and evil is defined in the Mistress
sequence of the Sonnets, where Shakespeare presents the Poet in a mature
and robust relationship with the Mistress. This is particularly evident in
sonnet 138, which articulates the logic of truth, or the dynamic of right
and wrong. The Mistress and the Poet ‘lie’ together fully conscious of the
logic of avowed intent.
Lucrece’s failure to anticipate Tarquin’s desire is attributed to her inability
to ‘moralise’ (104). She is unable to consciously decide between right and
wrong because she cannot articulate her concerns using language or words.
As Shakespeare associates truth logically with saying, her incapacity to discuss
such matters leaves her vulnerable.
But she that never cop’d with stranger eyes,
When she is told of Colatine’s fame by Tarquin, as part of his deception,
she does not converse with him but, as a trained female possession, she
Could pick no meaning from their parling looks,
Nor read the subtle shining secrecies,
Writ in the glassy margents of such books,
She touch’d no unknown baits, nor fear’d no hooks,
Nor could she moralise his wanton sight,
More than his eyes were open’d to the light. (101-5)
Her joy with heav’d-up hand she doth express,
The Sonnets are explicit in acknowledging the status of Nature as the
sovereign mistress or the logically prior state of existence. They then derive
the female from Nature as the Mistress, establishing the priority of the female
over the male, or Master Mistress. So these lines, written 15 years before
the Sonnets were published, are poignant in their witness to the logical fault
of male priority that leads to Colatine’s boast, Tarquin’s hot desire, and
thence to Lucrece’s rape and suicide.
And wordless so greets heaven for his success. (111-2)
When Tarquin has been greeted and feted, Tarquin and Lucrece retire
to their respective beds. While she sleeps innocently, he lies awake aroused
by the anticipation and the implications of his intended crime. As Tarquin
ponders his assault, his thoughts express both his resolve and his doubts about
achieving his goal.
Shakespeare, consistent with the erotic logic of his mythic level of
expression, invests Tarquin’s first thoughts with the eroticism inherent in
language. Tarquin’s ‘will’ (128) rises and falls as he contemplates Lucrece’s
‘treasure’ (132). Shakespeare’s continual use of double entendre in his plays,
poems and sonnets is an inalienable consequence of his awareness that all
writing is logically erotic and not sexual.
Before Tarquin speaks his thoughts aloud in line 181, Shakespeare characterises
his intended crime as the result of taking to ‘excess’ (138) the naturally
viable conditions for life. Those who wish to ‘surfeit’ (139) themselves will
‘prove bankrout in this poor rich gain’ (140). The ‘aim of all is but to nurse
the life’ each has, rather than cause the ‘death of all, and (be) altogether lost’
(147). In his attack on the excesses of idealistic ambitions, with their illogical
implications for ‘life’, he says,
So that in vent’ring ill, we leave to be
Colatine’s idealistic glorification of his wife leads Tarquin to the same
logical error, but with negative consequences. Colatine’s possessive ‘love’
leads to Tarquin’s obsessive ‘lust’ (156).
The things we are, for that which we expect:
And this ambitious foul infirmity,
In having much torments us with defect
Of that we have: so then we do neglect
The thing we have, and all for want of wit,
Make something nothing, by augmenting it. (148-54)
Shakespeare’s expression of a pre-Sonnet appreciation the logic of ‘truth’
is evident in the next stanza. Truth is associated with the language-based
dispositions of thinking and slandering. If there is no ‘self-trust’ then the
natural logic of ‘truth’ (158) is confounded. ‘Thinking’ becomes unjust and
‘tongues’ become slanderous. For Tarquin to pursue his lust, his natural ‘self ’
must be forsaken.
When Tarquin rises from bed, his desire is evoked in a continuous
barrage of erotic puns. They serve to delineate the logical divide between
the sexual as biological and poetry as fashioned with words. From the introductory
‘his Falchon on a flint he softly smiteth’, to ‘his lustful eye’ (179),
to ‘his naked armour of still slaughter’d lust’ (188), and the ‘fair torch burn
out thy light’ (190) the early stanzas are replete with such puns.
Then later, ‘with his knee the door he opens wide’ (359), ‘a greater
uproar tempts his veins’ (427), ‘his flaming torch dimm’d’ (448), ‘this sweet
City’ (469), ‘my uncontrolled tide’ (645), and ‘in her lip’s sweet fold’ (679)
are some of the many examples. Even at the end of the poem with its, ‘Thy
eye kindled the fire that burneth here’ (1475), and ‘A creeping creature with
a flaming light’ (1627), Shakespeare never forgets that logically a poem is a
poem in which things are eroticised with words.
After rising, Tarquin’s first words reaffirm Shakespeare’s determination
to explore his consistent natural logic in this remodeled version of the old
tale. Tarquin addresses the relation of his ‘fair torch’ and ‘unhallow’d
thoughts’ to the ‘divine’ (190-4). Because of Colatine’s possessive pride,
Lucrece represents both the ‘fair’ and the ‘unhallowed’ in his mind.
Lucrece does not exist as a person for Tarquin. Rather, he is more
concerned he will ‘spot’ her ‘modest snow-white weed’ or shame his
‘knighthood’, ‘household’s grave’, ‘martial valour’, or ‘golden coat’ and incur
posterity’s ‘curse’ (196-209). His concerns complement Colatine’s, because
together they manifest the contradiction in traditional idealistic expectations.
Tarquin, Colatine and Lucretius are united in their ignorance and
disregard for natural logic. While Tarquin is the one who enacts most graphically
the evil consequences of their conceits, Colatine and Lucretius also
sell ‘eternity’ to get a ‘toy’ (214). Their grotesque fight over Lucrece’s body
at the end of the poem is an indictment of the excessive idealism. In
Shakespeare’s natural logic, as the Sonnets reinforce, the only viable ‘eternity’
for humankind is the persistence of humankind. By comparison, the mirage
of a heavenly eternity is a ‘toy’.
As he considers his reasons for raping Lucrece, Tarquin dismisses a
number of possible causes.
‘Had Collatinus kill’d my son or sire,
If Colatine had done him a palpable wrong, Tarquin would not be at a
loss for a reason for his deadly lust. But Tarquin cannot see the underlying
offence to natural logic that is the ‘excuse’ or ‘end’ for his ‘shame and fault’
(238). His male-driven idealism prevents him from appreciating that he is
drawn to Lucrece firstly because of Colatine’s representation of her as
incomparably divine, and secondly because she is Colatine’s flaunted
possession. Tarquin recognises that ‘she is not her own’ (241), but out of
envy rather than sympathy for her social position.
Or lain in ambush to betray my life,
Or were he not my dear friend, this desire
Might have excuse to work upon his wife:
As in revenge or quittal of such strife.
But as he is my kinsman, my dear friend,
The shame and fault finds no excuse or end. (232-8)
His capture by the divine and by societal prejudices means that his ‘disputation’
inverts logic to create a ‘frozen conscience’ and a ‘hot burning will’.
The result is that ‘what is vile, shows like a virtuous deed’.
Thus graceless he holds disputation,
The potential for a logical derivation of truth and beauty is available in
Lucrece’s face, with her ‘colour’ rising, ‘first red as Roses’ and then ‘white
as lawn’ (258-9). But Tarquin’s unintended pun that ‘Colatine lies’ (256),
combined with his overestimation of her ‘sweet’ (264) smile leads to the
inversion of truth and beauty from their logical roles as ‘saying’ and ‘seeing’.
’Tween frozen conscience and hot burning will,
And with good thoughts makes dispensation,
Urging the worser sense for vantage still;
Which in a moment doth confound and kill
All pure effects, and doth so far proceed,
That what is vile, shows like a virtuous deed. (246-52)
‘All Orators are dumb when Beauty pleadeth’. (268)
In the Sonnets, the youth is the immature male who has not accommodated
himself to the requirements of natural logic. In a graphic image of
Tarquin’s confusion, Shakespeare has Tarquin wish to be rid of ‘childish fear’
but still want to remain a ‘youth’. Tarquin rejects the ‘respect and reason’
that waits on ‘wrinkled age’, (275) or the status of the mature Poet in the
‘Then childish fear avaunt, debating die,
Lucrece’s idealised beauty is the irresistible prize for Tarquin. When ‘fear’
and ‘lust’ are said to ‘cross him with their opposite persuasion’ (281-4),
Shakespeare uses an allusion to the cross of Christ to indicate the true
motivation behind the crime. The next stanza identifies the cause of
Respect and reason wait on wrinkled age:
My heart shall never countermand mine eie;
Sad pause, and deep regard beseems the sage;
My part is youth, and beats these from the stage.
Desire my Pilot is, Beauty my prize,
Then who fears sinking where such treasure lies?’ (274-80)
Within his thought her heavenly image sits,
Tarquin’s lack of maturity is matched only by the self-interest of Colatine
who, with his subservient Lucrece, are the divine couple. Colatine’s ‘self
same’ pride is the component that tips the balance in Tarquin’s mind.
Shakespeare parodies the biblical moment in which the pride of God
attempts to cast out the erotic pride of Satan. But the mythologies of Genesis
and the New Testament show by their intense eroticism the logical
irreducibility of the erotic. By adding the role of a woman to the heavenly
fall out, Shakespeare restores the logical component missing from the
juvenile biblical version. The restoration allows him to sustain a consistent
And in the self same seat sits Colatine,
That eye which looks on her confounds her wits,
That eye which him beholds, as more divine,
Unto a view so false will not incline,
But with a pure appeal seeks to the heart,
Which once corrupted takes the worser part. (288-94)
Tarquin’s ‘corruption’, inherent in the overvalued ideal, ‘heartens up his
And therein heartens up his servile powers,
Tarquin’s sexual response to Lucrece is linked unequivocally to the
‘reprobate desire’ or the desire that ejects itself out of the ‘heavenly divine’.
Shakespeare makes his point even more explicit by referring to Tarquin as
the Roman Lord, a possible reference to the self-serving infallibility of the
Vicar of Rome.
Who flatter’d by their leader’s jocund show,
Stuff up his lust: as minutes fill up hours.
And as their Captain: so their pride doth grow,
Paying more slavish tribute than they owe.
By reprobate desire thus madly led,
The Roman Lord marcheth to Lucrece’s bed. (295-301)
As Tarquin breaks his way into Lucrece’s ‘chamber’ (302), his progress is
recorded in a series of erotic metaphors. Even Lucrece’s glove, an otherwise
innocent emblem of her dutiful service, hides a ‘prick’ (319). If the chasteness
of the ‘mistress’ ornaments’ are apt to play ‘wanton tricks’, Tarquin’s
mind is now so affected by her flaunted beauty he interprets the prick in
the ‘worst sense’ (324).
Tarquin is barely aware of the forces that are acting on him. He has
inverted the relation of good and evil because the nature of the heavenly
good has elicited from him a diabolically evil response. His desire for Lucrece
has become the heaven, as heaven is the source and cause, Satan like, of his
sin. In his mind though, as with all reprobate idealists, he is still a good
‘Roman’ free to call on the ‘eternal power’.
Now is he come unto the chamber door,
His expectation, that the ‘Heavens should countenance his sin’ and that
‘the blackest sin is clear’d with absolution’ because ‘Love and Fortune’ are
his ‘Gods’, arises when the pride of the ideal trips completely into the
‘deflowering’ of the ideal. Tarquin cannot help himself because he is logically
in the ‘night’ that the day, or idealised ‘eye of Heaven’, ‘abhors’. Tarquin’s
faith in the ideal allows the ‘blackest sin’ because it also provides ‘absolution’.
His blind entrapment in the contradictions of heavenly power is recognised
at the end of the poem when he is exiled but not executed for the rape of
Lucrece. As the guilt is only partly his, Lucrece and Colatine must also pay
part of the price.
That shuts him from the Heaven of his thought,
Which with a yielding latch, and with no more,
Hath barr’d him from the blessed thing he sought.
So from himself impiety hath wrought,
That for his prey to pray he doth begin,
As if the Heavens should countenance his sin.
But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,
Having solicited th’eternal power,
That his foul thoughts might compass his fair fair,
And they would stand auspicious to the hour.
Even there he starts, quoth he, ‘I must deflower;
The powers to whom I pray abhor this fact,
How can they then assist me in the act?
‘Then Love and Fortune be my Gods, my guide,
My will is back’d with resolution:
Thoughts are but dreams till their effects be tried,
The blackest sin is clear’d with absolution.
Against love’s fire fear’s frost hath dissolution.
The eye of Heaven is out, and misty night
Covers the shame that follows sweet delight’. (337-57)
Tarquin uses his knee to open the last door and enters to see Lucrece
asleep. His eyes are (again) ‘dazzled’ by her brightness (376-7). Her eyes are
closed or blind in keeping with the blindness of Colatine. If Colatine had
been by Lucrece’s side, and not in the camp where his bragging had incited
Tarquin to lust, she would not have to ‘sell her joy, her life, her world’s
delight’. The logical inevitability of the rape and death of Lucrece is captured
in the ‘must’ of lines 383 and 385.
But they must ope this blessed league to kill,
After the rape, Lucrece will reflect at length on the fatal trap of her ‘holythoughted’
delusions. In Shakespeare’s mind, as evident in the complete
structure and principal themes of the Sonnets, the worst evil is the evil that
inevitably follows on overwrought idealism. It was the greatest evil in his
day where Christian sects killed and raped in the name of God and it persists
as the greatest evil in nearly all the theatres of war in the twenty-first century.
No evil is excusable, but the evil consequent on idealism is an abomination
because it corrupts the human mind from within. Shakespeare’s Lucrece is a
‘graver labour’ because it addresses more precisely than Venus and Adonis the
illogical consequences of beliefs based in the old mythologies.
And holy-thoughted Lucrece to their sight,
Must sell her joy, her life, her world’s delight. (383-5)
The description of Tarquin gazing on the body of Lucrece is repleat with
erotic puns. Her ‘pair of maiden worlds’ (408) and his ‘willful eye’ controlled
by his ‘will’ (417) characterise the rape as a conflict between the world
outside and its misrepresentation in the human mind. Her body is the ‘world’
that will be violated because of a sickness of the mind. Shakespeare’s natural
logic, even at this early stage in his career, provides a clear overview of the
conflict. He uses mythic logic to generate a state of mind where there is no
‘strife, but that life liv’d in death, and death in life’ (405-6).
When Lucrece opens her eyes, she begins the agonised awakening from
the innocence of her subjection to the ‘possessive’ authority of Colatine and
Imagine her as one in dead of night,
The ‘error’ that before was ‘supposed’ not even to be possible is now
made the ‘worser’ for becoming ‘true’. Tarquin’s threatening presence in her
bedchamber not only awakens her instincts to the possibility of rape, but
also awakens her to her ignorance of its existence as a possibility.
From forth dull sleep by dreadful fancy waking,
That thinks she hath beheld some ghastly sprite,
Whose grim aspect sets every joint a shaking.
What terror ’tis: but she in worser taking,
From sleep disturbed, heedfully doth view
The sight which makes supposed error true. (449-55)
When Tarquin replies to Lucrece’s ‘prayers’ to explain ‘under what colour
he commits this ill’ (476), he immediately draws the logical connection
between the sexual eyes of the body and the eyes of the mind. He contrasts
the lily white of her face with the ‘red rose’ of her sexual organs, which
‘blush at her own disgrace’.
Thus he replies, ‘the colour in thy face,
Shakespeare uses the conflict of colours to characterise the logical relation
between beauty as sensation and truth or the dynamic of words. Tarquin
tells Lucrece that the ‘pale’ and the ‘rose red’ colour in her face ‘plead’ for
him and ‘tell his tale’. He needs no argument outside the evidence in her
face to decide that the ‘fault’ is hers. The response in her face tells him that
her innocence hides its opposite, which he ‘has come to scale’. Tarquin sees
in Lucrece’s ‘eyes’ the consequence of her ignorance of the logic of the ‘eyes’,
which is both sexual and visual. Her fault ‘betrays’ the suppressed response
of her natural logic to his sexual eye (‘mine’).
That even for anger makes the Lily pale
And the red rose blush at her own disgrace,
Shall plead for me and tell my loving tale.
Under that colour am I come to scale
Thy never conquer’d Fort, the fault is thine,
For those thine eyes betray thee unto mine. (477-83)
Her ‘beauty’, which has been sold cheap by Colatine, has ‘newly bred’
the ‘will’ or penis of Tarquin as he is driven to redress the imbalance in her
and Colatine’s attitude to life.
‘Thus I forestall thee, if thou mean to chide,
In these stanzas, where Tarquin tells Lucrece the apparent reasons behind
his assault, Shakespeare logically underpins the relation between the ‘singularity’
of Lucrece’s beauty and the ‘debate’ of truth with the metaphor of
the increase argument. In line 490 with ‘bred’, and 499 with ‘What wrong,
what shame, what sorrow I shall breed;’ Tarquin tacitly acknowledges the
primacy of increase and tacitly admits his offence against it by way of rape.
Thy beauty hath ensnar’d thee to this night,
Where thou with patience must my will abide,
My will that marks thee for my earth’s delight,
Which I to conquer sought with all my might.
But as reproof and reason beat it dead,
By thy bright beauty was it newly bred. (484-90)
But, Tarquin cannot ‘stop the headlong fury of his speed’ (501). He
‘shakes aloft his Roman blade’ (505) to put the fear of sex into Lucrece.
Then, speaking for the second time, he again invokes aspects of the increase
‘So thy surviving husband shall remain
The arguments recall the logic of the early increase sonnets. He returns
to the theme in the following stanza.
The scornful mark of every open eye,
Thy kinsmen hang their heads at this disdain,
Thy issue blurr’d with nameless bastardy;
And thou the author of their obloquy,
Shalt have thy trespass cited up in rhymes
And sung by children in succeeding times. (519-25)
‘Then for thy husband and thy children’s sake,
Shakespeare explicitly identifies the cause of the rape with human
constructs such as a heavenly God and imagined idealised qualities. The last
few lines clearly distinguish between such unconscionable mind-based faults
and readily mitigated ‘faults’ which occur in the general course of Nature.
Tender my suit, bequeath not to their lot
The shame that from them no device can take,
The blemish that will never be forgot:
Worse than a slavish wipe, of birth hour’s blot,
For marks descried in men’s nativity,
Are nature’s faults, not their own infamy’. (533-9)
As Tarquin faces the inconsistencies of human love in extremis, he
automatically attempts to establish a consistent basis from which Lucrece and
he can both act out the logical consequences of their offences against natural
law (497). In the first words between Tarquin and Lucrece, Shakespeare
allows Tarquin to express thoughts that draw on his previously suppressed
natural logic. While Tarquin does not comprehend the logic of the interrelation
between increase and truth and beauty in Nature, he seeks answers
to the intensity of his unanticipated lust. Venus and Adonis was explicit in
presenting the logical consequences of the offence against natural law and
by the time Shakespeare published the Sonnets he had articulated the logic
with exquisite precision.
For Lucrece, as a ‘picture of pure piety’ (542) who is protected from the
ways of Nature by ‘gentle’ laws, there seem to be no laws for the ‘rough
beast’. She responds with ‘prayer’ (558) to his ‘foul appetite’, without appreciating
its cause in her ‘pure piety’. Her inadequate pleas or words can only
delay his unholy ‘haste’ (552). She uses her ‘modest eloquence’ mixed with
‘sighs’ to add grace to her ‘oratory’.
Her modest eloquence with sighs is mixed,
Her inability to express her thoughts is a consequence of her sheltered
piety, and the authoritarian ‘possession’ of her mind by her husband. When
Shakespeare has her appeal to Tarquin’s sense of honour, she unwittingly
excludes the reason that instigated his desire. The reasons she gives are a
measure of her circumscribed existence. Unlike Tarquin, who has broken
through the barrier of idealistic expectations, not one of her reasons
acknowledges the logical interrelation between Nature, increase and truth
and beauty basic to a consistent philosophy of life.
Which to her Oratory adds more grace.
She puts the period often from his place,
And midst the sentence so her accent breaks,
That twice she doth begin ere once she speaks. (563-7)
She conjures him by high Almighty Jove,
She appeals, pitifully, to ‘all the host of heaven’ (598) and to her previous
inflated image of Tarquin as ‘as God, a King’. Her unquestioning respect
for ‘Kings’ and ‘Gods’, in which ironically she is ignorant of the logically
corrupt condition of divine rule in Ancient (and Renaissance) Rome, is
symptomatic of her malaise under Colatine.
By knighthood, gentry, and sweet friendship’s oath,
By her untimely tears, her husband’s love,
By holy human law and common troth,
By Heaven and Earth, and all the power of both:
That to his borrowed bed he make retire,
And stoop to Honour, not to foul desire. (568-74)
‘Thou seem’st not what thou art, a God, a King.
In Shakespeare’s version of the legend, Lucrece suffers rape and death
because she is her husband’s dupe. In Sonnet terms, and in terms of all the
plays, she has been untrue to her logical status as a female as prior to any male.
Appropriately, at the end of the poem, the right of a male to divine rule is
overthrown and replaced with a more democratic system of responsibility.
For kings like Gods should govern everything’. (601-2)
Then through lines 603 to 644, Lucrece continues her unwittingly
useless appeal to Tarquin’s sense of majesty and God (‘by him that gave it
thee’, 624). Shakespeare’s natural logic obviates the orthodox understanding
of ‘degree’ as allegiance within a hierarchy of power. In Troilus and Cressida,
Shakespeare has Ulysses reject the traditional hierarchies obedient to degree
and to replace it with an unhierarchical logic of responsibility. Ulysses does
so eloquently, but in Lucrece Shakespeare has Lucrece reveal her gullibility
when she plays on Tarquin’s hopes for the imperial throne.
Tarquin responds curtly, saying she has only increased his desire by
parading the very causes of it in Colatine’s overstretched ideal and his boastful
challenge to Tarquin’s kingly pride.
‘Have done’, quoth he, ‘my uncontrolled tide
But, like any idealist not disabused of their conceits, Lucrece returns to
the same arguments. Ironically, again, she makes the argument turn on the
nobility of ‘Kings’ over ‘slaves’ (652, 659), not appreciating that Tarquin has
forsaken her ‘heaven’ for an elementary course in Shakespeare’s natural logic
which ‘vizards’ degree. In the plays, no character is inherently more worthy
than another simply because of their station. A fool and a peasant have same
dignity as a ruler and the same human responsibilities. Many of his plays
focus on rulers to capitalise on the dramatic distance they fall when they
are unseated by natural logic.
Turns not, but swells the higher by this let. (645-6)
With erotic economy, Shakespeare conveys the double entendre of the
rape. The silencing of Lucrece’s ‘outcry’ is conflated with his sexual attack.
Entombs her outcry in her lips’ sweet fold. (679)
Because both Tarquin and Lucrece are victims of the heavenly conceit
and its supporting social order, the rape leaves her ‘rifled of her store’ and
leaves him ‘far poorer than before’.
But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
Lucrece loses ‘a dearer thing than life’ because ‘pure chastity’, after
Tarquin’s ‘forced’ rape, leads not to ‘store’, or future increase, but ‘breeds
months of pain’. Tarquin has ‘won’ her, but because he has raped her, he
loses his right to the ‘store’. His violent response, instigated by her flaunted
idealised chastity and Colatine’s taunts, leads not to a re-storation of Nature’s
balance, but to a worse state ‘far poorer than before’.
And he hath won what he would lose again
This forced league doth force a further strife,
This momentary joy breeds months of pain,
This hot desire converts to cold disdain;
Pure chastity is rifled of her store,
And lust the thief far poorer than before. (687-93)
Both Lucrece and Tarquin, before the events leading to the rape, were
at odds with natural logic. She because her husband considered her chastity
a possession and being possessed she was unable to develop into a mature
woman capable of making judgments on God and King. He because, as a
prince intended to be a divine King and willing to subject his own wife to
the test of possession, was fatally tempted by the seeming ideal of Lucrece
and Colatine’s excessive pride.
While both protagonists were at odds with natural logic, neither was in
a position to do more than suffer the consequences of their ignorance.
Hence, the rape is an anathema to increase as conveyed by her chastity being
bereft of its capacity to ‘store’ or the persistence through increase to posterity.
His lust is a thief because, by subjecting her to ‘months of pain’, he loses
any right to her ‘store’.
Tarquin, to his selfish sense of shame, is unable to take ‘delight’ in an
act, which is otherwise normal in ‘nature’. His lustful attack on Lucrece falls
short of consummation.
Look as the full-fed Hound of gorged Hawk,
Tarquin’s expectations are so great, his lust so ‘full-fed’, that his long
anticipated attack slows and stops ‘altogether’. He balks before a ‘prey’, which
in ordinary circumstances he would expect to enjoy. By going against
‘nature’, even though he is reacting blindly against the unnatural idealism
he shares with Colatine and Lucrece, he ‘tastes’ the prey but has no stomach
for it. His ‘will’ or mind ‘devours’ his willy before he consummates the deed.
Unapt for tender smell, or speedy flight,
Make slow pursuit, or altogether balk,
The prey wherein by nature they delight:
So surfeit-taking Tarquin fares this night:
His taste delicious, in digestion souring,
Devours his will that liv’d by foul devouring. (694-700)
The non-consummation of the sex act has parallels in Marcel Duchamp’s
Large Glass where the Bride and the Bachelors do not consummate their
ballet of desire. The eroticism of the non-consummation is a logical precondition
for mythic expression. This is true of biblical or any other mythology.
Tarquin’s ‘conceit’ is so ‘bottomless’ (without consummation), that his
‘sin’ seems deeper because of the failure of his ‘still imagination’.
O deeper sin than bottomless conceit
Because he approached Lucrece ‘drunken with desire’, his desire is vomited
back in his face before he can witness the execution of his ‘abominable’ crime.
While ‘lust’was in his ‘pride’ no ‘exclamation’ by Lucrece could prevent the
assault but, put to the task, his ‘self-will’ fails like a jade or old horse.
Can comprehend in still imagination!
Drunken Desire must vomit his receipt
Ere he can see his own abomination.
While Lust is in his pride no exclamation
Can curb his heat, or rein his rash desire,
Till, like a Jade, self-will himself doth tire. (701-7)
Having embarrassed his own pride beyond disgrace, Tarquin turns to
Lucrece, ‘prays for remission’ and, submissive because his ‘proud’ flesh is in
‘weak ruins’, even asks how she feels.
And then with lank, and lean discolour’d cheek,
Both Tarquin’s penis and his bottomless conceit or soul have been
‘defaced’. His ‘soul’s fair temple’, or the imaginary structure erected to
idealised expectations, is in ‘weak ruins’.
With heavy eye, knit-brow, and strengthless pace,
Feeble desire all recreant, poor and meek,
Like to a bankrout beggar wails his case:
The flesh being proud, Desire doth fight with grace,
For there it revels, and when that decays,
The guilty rebel for remission prays.
So fares it with this faultful Lord of Rome,
Who this accomplishment so hotly chased;
For now against himself he sounds this doom,
That through the length of times he stands disgraced:
Besides his soul’s fair temple is defaced,
To whose weak ruins muster troops of cares,
To ask the spotted Princess how she fares. (708-21)
To Tarquin’s self-abasing pity she responds with her own self-pity, recognising
that the loss of her ‘consecrated wall’, or ‘married chastity’ as
Shakespeare calls it in The Phoenix and the Turtle, ruins her hope of heavenly
She says her subjects with foul insurrection,
The deluded birds in The Phoenix and the Turtle have their precursor in
Lucrece who has been taught that ‘mortal life’ is a living death and pain
perpetual. But, even she admits that, with ‘prescience’ or foreknowledge,
mortal life was quite ‘controllable’. The only threat to her life was the
‘foresight’ that her death could not be forestalled.
Have battered down her consecrated wall,
And by their mortal fault brought in subjection
Her immortality, and made her thrall,
To living death and pain perpetual.
Which in her prescience she controlled still,
But her foresight could not forestall their will. (722-8)
Tarquin departs like a ‘thievish dog’ (736) who ‘chides his vanish’d loath’d
delight’ (742). Lucrece remains and prays she will never again see the light
‘For day’, quoth she, ‘night’s ’scapes doth open lay,
Lucrece’s first words after the shock of the rape capture a momentary
insight into the illogicalities of her previous understanding of life. Her slavish
idealism, enforced by Colatine’s pride, has kept her from seeing the ‘true’
nature of the world. Because her idealism was so extreme, Shakespeare has
to rape her figuratively to destroy its false sense of immortality.
And my true eyes have never practic’d how
To cloak offences with a cunning brow. (747-9)
Shakespeare puts into Lucrece’s mouth words that express an instantaneous
recognition of natural logic. When she is forced to recover her
feminine insights she recognises that she has never been able to ‘practice’
how her ‘true eyes’ (in the Sonnets the source of truth and beauty) could
protect her with ‘cunning’. Shakespeare’s use of the word cunning, with
its double reference to the body and the mind, conveys her admission that
she was not mentally prepared to defend her ‘cunt’ from Tarquin’s attack.
The effect on her mind of the contradictions of idealism has its logical
counterpart in the dissociation of the mind from the body, which renders
her body vulnerable to attack from Tarquin’s idealism gone mad.
Lucrece’s enlightenment, her realignment with her ‘true eyes’, allows her
to see for the first time that no one with ‘true eyes’ thinks otherwise.
Everybody else can see the same disgrace that their eyes behold.
‘They think not but that every eye can see,
But the reality is too fresh for Lucrece. She would rather the ‘true eyes’
were still in darkness so that their ‘sin’ remained ‘untold’. The logical
function of the ‘eyes’ that Shakespeare identifies as the source of truth and
beauty in sonnet 14, at the juncture between body and mind, dawns
momentarily on Lucrece. But her obedience to Colatine’s idealist proscriptions
is too inured in her behavior to save her from a death by her own hand.
The same disgrace which they themselves behold:
And therefore would they still in darkness be,
To have their unseen sin remain untold.
For they their guilt with weeping will unfold,
And grave like water that doth eat in steel,
Upon my cheeks, what helpless shame I feel’. (750-6)
Shakespeare allows Lucrece a short-lived insight into the logical cause
of her disgrace. Then, for the remainder of the poem, he uses Lucrece’s
plight to provide an extended study of the illogical rationale of apologetics
or arguments for the primacy of the ideal. For the next forty or more stanzas
Lucrece, blinded by an unwitting adherence to the ideal, ‘exclaims against’
(757) night, opportunity, and time, she confuses body and soul, she defends
Colatine, and then contemplates suicide.
Lucrece’s refusal to see what ‘true eyes’ see, leads her to remain ‘blind’
to the ‘unseen secrecy of night’ (758-63). However, by not facing the light
afforded by ‘true eyes’, night provides not comfort but greater anguish.
‘O comfort-killing night, image of Hell,
Lucrece’s blames ‘night’ for the difficultly she has articulating the true
cause of her rape. She calls night a ‘blind muffled bawd’ (768) and
‘whispering conspirator, with close-tongued treason’ (771-2) as she transfers
her ‘guilt’ (772) to its ‘poisonous clouds’ (777). With words such as ‘bawd’,
‘tongued’, ‘his wonted height’, ‘noontide prick’, Shakespeare ironically
injects into Lucrece’s complaint the erotic sensibility, based in the increase
out of Nature, of which she is fatally bereft. She is unable to appreciate how
the ‘life of purity, the supreme fair’ (780), when over valued, leads to a
‘Tarquin night’ (785).
Dim register, and notary of shame,
Black stage for tragedies, and murders fell,
Vast sin-concealing Chaos, nurse of blame.
Blind muffled bawd, dark harbour for defame,
Grim cave of death, whispering conspirator,
With close-tongued treason and the ravisher. (764-70)
The ideal of purity and its consequence in inarticulateness lead Lucrece
to feel ‘alone, alone’ (795). The phrase occurs in Love’s Labour’s Lost
(4.3.1734) (and the word ‘alone’ occurs in sonnet 84.2) where it characterises
the condition of being alone, or sundered from the natural logic of
increase in Nature. The editors of modern editions of Love’s Labour’s Lost
reveal their gross misunderstanding of Shakespeare’s philosophy when they
amend this sense of ‘alone’ to the meaningless exclamation ‘allons, allons’.
Lucrece ironically attributes Colatine’s possessiveness (803), which has
kept her innocent, to the ‘sepulcher’ (805) of night, or the death-orientated
idealism of Christ. And, in the next stanza, she projects her inability to articulate
the vision of her ‘true eye’ onto illiterates. Even though they cannot
read, they sense intuitively that the eyes or ‘looks’ cannot conceal the
evidence of her ‘decay’.
‘Make me not object to the tell-tale day,
‘Sweet chastity’ decays because the vow of ‘holy wedlock’ is not sufficient
to prevent a breach of its overvalued piety. As in The Phoenix and the Turtle,
where ‘married chastity’was the ‘infirmity’that led the two birds to a deluded
death, Lucrece’s faith in her obedient marriage to Colatine is her undoing.
Her ignorance of the logic of truth and beauty, which Shakespeare articulates
in the Sonnet sequence to the Mistress, limits her to the illiteracy of ‘looks’
(beauty) without the capacity to read what is in ‘learned books’ (truth).
The light will show character’d in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow.
Yea the illiterate that know not how
To cipher what is writ in learned books,
Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks. (806-12)
Having railed against night for the last few stanzas, Lucrece now turns
to defend Colatine against any attribution of blame. She sums up her fatal
confusion by exonerating him completely.
‘…Tarquin wronged me, I Colatine’. (819)
Her ‘holy wedlock vow’ (809) has blinded her to the correct allocation
of fault. King Lucius Tarquinius’ excessive pride, and murderous deeds,
led to Colatine’s excessive pride over Lucrece and his taunting of Tarquin
with a wife ‘too good for a prince’. Provoked, Tarquin goes mad with
desire and rapes Lucrece. And, to complete the circle, her inability to anticipate
the crime is a direct consequence of her obedience to Colatine’s
Shakespeare shows, in his choice of words for Lucrece, her ignorance of
the logic of truth and beauty or words and sensations, and her suppression
of her deepest intuitions.
‘Let my good name, that senseless reputation,
Lucrece intuitively appreciates that Colatine bears some of the blame,
yet her ‘good name’ will lead her to sacrifice herself for Colatine’s reputation.
Her ‘good name’ is a ‘senseless reputation’ because it is based not on the
natural logic of truth and beauty, but on the convention of ‘holy wedlock’.
Colatine’s ‘dear’ love has to be ‘kept unspotted’ not because it is precious
but because it is costly. At least twice in the Sonnets Shakespeare when
critiquing idealism uses the word ‘dear’ with the meaning of ‘costly’.
For Colatine’s dear love be kept unspotted:
If that be made a theme for disputation,
The branches of another root are rotted;
And undeserv’d reproach to him allotted,
That is as clear from this attaint of mine
As I ere this was pure to Colatine. (820-6)
Lucrece’s doubt surfaces again in the suggestion that Colatine’s dear love
might be a ‘theme for disputation’. She counters such thoughts with a
metaphor from Nature. Instead of shifting the blame elsewhere, however,
it merely casts deeper doubt on her faith in Colatine. The ‘undeserv’d
reproach’, which leaks from her attempts to exonerate Colatine, leads her
to a greater depth of self-rebuke. Her abjectness is a logical consequence of
her previously blind obedience to his pride.
Her troubled insecurity about Colatine’s and her own guilt inclines her
to lay all the blame on Tarquin again.
‘Yet am I guilty of thy Honour’s wrack;
The triple litany on ‘honour’ and the double litany on ‘virtue’ are an
involuntary confession of the true source of the ‘evil’. Colatine’s pride, which
Lucrece sees as his honour and her virtue, leads to a consequence she does
not anticipate, but for which Tarquin is characterised as the ‘devil’. Lucrece’s
possession by male-based honour and virtue voids her priority as woman.
Shakespeare uses the word ‘wrack’ again in sonnet 126, where the ‘sovereign
mistress over wrack’ has control over the immature male who is responsible
for the type of illogicalities Lucrece takes upon herself.
Yet for thy Honour did I entertain him,
Coming from thee I could not put him back,
For it had been dishonour to disdain him,
Besides of weariness he did complain him,
And talk’d of Virtue (O unlook’d-for evil,)
When Virtue is profan’d in such a Devil! (841-7)
Shakespeare, having made Lucrece unwittingly state her illogical rationale
for attributing blame solely to Tarquin, has her present the argument that
should lead her to appreciate the error of her judgment. For four stanzas
she extemporises on Nature and the increase argument without realising that
the examples she uses hold the key to resolving her logical dilemma. As a
female, she intuitively evokes natural logic but as a wife possessed by a proud
husband she is unable to access its implications.
‘Why should the worm intrude the maiden bud?
Lucrece’s belief in her own ‘perfection’, which has been fostered by
Colatine, has been so ‘absolute’ that her appreciation of Nature, and of
human nature, is awry. She vilifies aspects of Nature, which in the natural
context are simply a part of life. Her inability to anticipate the tyranny of
kings arises from the same over-dependency on an idealised view of life.
Shakespeare uses Lucrece to express his critique of the excessive idealism of
the Churches and politics of his day.
Or hateful Cuckoo’s hatch in Sparrows’ nests?
Or Toads infect fair founts with venom mud?
Or tyrant folly lurk in gentle breasts?
Or Kings be breakers of their own behests?
But no perfection is so absolute
That some impurity doth not pollute. (848-54)
The mention of ‘Kings’ in line 852 recalls the combined reference to ‘a
God, a King’ in line 601. Because the next two stanzas have no direct relation
to a particular character in the poem, it is tempting to read them as a
rejoinder to Lucrece’s lack of empathy with the forces of Nature in the
‘The aged man that coffers up his gold,
In the context of Shakespeare’s critique of excessive idealism, the ‘aged
man’ who useless barns the harvest of his ‘wits’ and leaves it to be mastered
by his ‘young’may be a parody of the relationship between a heaven-bound
God and Christ his earth-bound son. The promised ‘sweets’ turn to ‘loathed
sours’ when the elevated ideal fails to deliver on its promises.
Is plagu’d with cramps, and gouts, and painful fits,
And scarce hath eyes his treasure to behold,
But like still pining Tantalus he sits,
And useless barns the harvest of his wits:
Having no other pleasure of his gain,
But torment that it cannot cure his pain.
‘So then he hath it when he cannot use it,
And leaves it to be master’d by his young:
Who in their pride do presently abuse it;
Their father was too weak, and they too strong
To hold their cursed-blessed Fortune long.
The sweets we wish for, turn to loathed sours,
Even in the moment that we call them ours. (855-68)
Lucrece again draws unfair comparisons from Nature to bolster the
contradictions in her proud virtue.
‘Unruly blasts wait on the tender spring,
The idealism ‘virtue breeds’ leads logically to ‘iniquity’. This is a constant
theme in the sonnets to the Master Mistress and in the plays. The inversion
of breeding from its natural role in life to the fostering of virtue points to
the corruption of natural logic in the Christian myth and in the relation of
Colatine and Lucrece.
Unwholesome weeds take root with precious flowers,
The Adder hisses where the sweet birds sing,
What Virtue breeds Iniquity devours:
We have no good that we can say is ours,
But ill annexed opportunity
Or kills life, or else his quality. (869-75)
Instead of appreciating the implications of her irrational attitude toward
Nature, because of her ingrained self regard, Lucrece distances the inconsistencies
by expiating on an abstract entity she calls opportunity. Because
she is unable to seriously address Colatine’s guilt and her own gullibility,
Shakespeare has her deliver a self-addressed sermon based in self-pity. She
presents a litany of complaints that ironically reflect her over-dependency
on the suppressive values of traditional male gods.
‘O opportunity thy guilt is great, (876)
Lucrece’s language is replete with Christian imagery ironically implicating
the inadequacies of biblical theology in the question of opportunity.
‘Sits sin to seize the souls that wander by him. (882)
‘Thou mak’st the vestal violate her oath, (883)
‘The poor, lame, blind, halt, creep, cry out for thee, (902)
‘When Truth and Virtue have to do with thee,
A thousand crosses keep them from thy aid: (911-2)
‘An accessory by thine inclination.
To all sins past and all that are to come,
From the creation to the general doom. (922-4)
Shakespeare now puts into Lucrece’s mouth 12 stanzas on time. Having
incorrectly identified night, Nature and opportunity as the cause of her grief
Lucrece turns to the favourite abstraction of those who would obviate the
natural logic of life. Shakespeare has her project her culpability, and the fault
of king, god and Colatine, onto the abstraction time, which she calls the
‘servant opportunity’ (932). She avoids facing the intuition of her true eye
and its natural logic by using the classic conceit of time as a disingenuous
‘Mis-shapen time, copesmate of ugly night,
In sonnet 126 Shakespeare affirms the priority of Nature over time, the
logic of which he emphasises throughout the sequence to the Master
Mistress. The temporal structure in the Sonnets is based on 12 groups of 12
sonnets beginning at sonnet 10 and ending at sonnet 153. The positioning
of the structure for time within the bounds of the 154 sonnets indicates the
subservience of time to Nature.
Why hath thy servant opportunity
Betray’d the hours thou gav’st me to repose? (925-33)
Lucrece, in imitation of inadequate philosophies which consider time
the determiner of all things (along with God), berates time both for not
fulfilling its duty as the protector of innocents such as herself, and for its
perpetration of the evils that have afflict humankind. The ambivalence is
symptomatic of her illogical attitude to the forces of life. She calls time,
‘Eater of youth, false slave to false delight:
But within a few lines she says,
Base watch of woes, sin’s pack horse, virtue’s snare. (927-8)
‘Time’s glory is to calm contending Kings,
Although Lucrece has just been cruelly raped, Shakespeare has her
address immediately the consequences of being a woman who has foregone
her birthright natural logic under the behest of a system dominated by proud
males. He begins by having her recite a litany of excuses that prevent her
from recovering her true relationship to Nature. From her mouth issue all
the inconsistencies about Nature, truth and beauty typical of overwrought
idealism. All these issues are given their definitive redress in the Sonnets.
To unmask falsehood, and bring truth to light,
To wrong the wronger till he render right, (939-43)
Throughout the Sonnets the importance of the ‘content’ of Shakespeare’s
philosophy is prioritised over the book in which it is written. In 1594, he
was already aware of the priority of content over book.
‘To blot old books and alter their contents, (948)
Shakespeare again has Lucrece paraphrase the increase argument in terms
of her crazed logic.
‘To show the beldam daughters of her daughter,
Lucrece asks time ‘thou ceaseless lackey to Eternity’ (967), to ‘devise
extremes beyond extremity’ (969) to punish Tarquin, and she prays,
To make the child a man, the man a child,
To slay the tiger that doth live by slaughter,
To tame the Unicorn and Lion wild,
To mock the subtle in themselves beguil’d,
To cheer the Ploughman with increaseful crops,
And waste huge stones with little water drops. (953-9)
‘O time thou tutor both to good and bad,
She turns to time to acquire the evil she has experienced at the hands
of Tarquin without appreciating that time is an abstract concept. Because
she is sundered from her natural priority over the male and so her innate
ability to determine good from bad she ironically resorts to asking time to
teach her those skills.
Teach me to curse him that thou taught’st this ill: (995-6)
To complete her lament Lucrece addresses the fundamental issue of the
poem. The excessive pride of Lucius Tarquinius was identified as the source
of all the events that followed. The poem will end with the overthrow of
kingly rule, and its replacement with a form of shared responsibility. Lucrece
expresses Shakespeare’s constant theme throughout the plays regarding the
abrogation of degrees of responsibility.
‘The baser is he, coming from a King,
But, in the end Lucrece realises that her whole lament has been a ‘straw
argument’ or one that has not addressed the real issue. Because she does not
understand the logic of Nature and her position as a woman in the priorities
of Nature, her only recourse is to take her life. The extremity of her act is
equivalent to the distance she is removed from the philosophy Shakespeare is
presenting through the agency of the poem.
To shame his hope with deeds degenerate,
The mightier man the mightier is the thing
That makes him honour’d, or begets him hate:
For greatest scandal waits on greatest state.
The Moon being clouded presently is mist,
But little stars hide them when they list. (1002-8)
‘Out idle words, servants to shallow fools,
Lucrece, unable to find a knife to end her life returns to her pathetic
lament. The misconceptions she has lived under surface again as a bulwark
against the reality she dimly perceived in her long rumination.
Unprofitable sounds,weak arbitrators,
Busy yourselves in skill-contending schools,
Debate where leisure serves with dull debaters:
To trembling Clients be you mediators,
For me, I force not argument a straw,
Since that my case is past the help of law.
‘In vain I rail at opportunity,
At time, at Tarquin, at uncheerful night;
In vain I cavil with my infamy,
In vain I spurn at my confirm’d despite,
This helpless smoke of words doth me no right:
The remedy indeed to do me good
Is to let forth my foul defiled blood. (1016-29)
‘In vain’ (quoth she) ‘I live, and seek in vain
Her costly obedience to Colatine’s possessive pride, which has led to her
rape, produces a bastard of increase.
Some happy mean to end a hapless life.
I fear’d by Tarquin’s falchion to be slain,
Yet for the self same purpose seek a knife;
But when I fear’d I was a loyal wife.
So am I now, O no, that cannot be,
Of that true type hath Tarquin rifled me. (1044-50)
‘Well well, dear Colatine, thou shalt not know
Typical of the privileged ‘truth’ that falsifies the conditions for correctly
determining fault and excuses, Lucrece believes that blaming Tarquin will
purge her ‘tongue’ and return her to her original pure state. Her delusion
The stained taste of violated troth:
I will not wrong thy true affection so,
To flatter thee with an infringed oath.
This bastard graff shall never come to growth,
He shall not boast who did thy stock pollute,
That thou art doting father of his fruit. (1058-64)
‘I will not poison thee with my attaint,
A stanza later she unwittingly re-identifies the logical condition that
would resolve her difficulties as a female who has had her priority denied
by a possessive husband. She is fearful of the ‘eyes’ that seek to reveal to her
the light of natural logic.
Nor fold my fault in cleanly coin’d excuses,
My sable ground of sin I will not paint,
To hide the truth of this false night’s abuses.
My tongue shall utter all, mine eye like sluices,
As from the mountain spring that feeds a dale,
Shall gush pure streams to purge my impure tale’. (1072-8)
Revealing day through every cranny spies,
Lucrece’s divorce from Nature leads her to ‘cavil’ with ‘everything she
sees’ (1093). Her blindness to the logic of the eyes makes things seem
vexatious. Her lament over the next few stanzas concludes with another
statement that indicates her remove from natural judgment. She finds it
difficult to accept that all men are capable of evil and that all beasts are
capable of gentleness.
And seems to point her out where she sits weeping,
To whom she sobbing speaks, ‘O eye of eyes,
Why pry’st thou through my window: leave thy peeping,
Mock with thy tickling beams, eyes that are sleeping;
Brand not my forehead with thy piercing light,
For day hath naught to do what’s done by night’. (1086-92)
‘Since men prove beasts, let beasts bear gentle minds’. (1148)
Lucrece’s inclination to take her life raises the quandary as to whether
living or dying would be better. Should she live in shame, or be reproached
for committing suicide.
So with her self is she in mutiny,
Lucrece then turns her concern to the relation of soul and body. When
she attempts to resolve the mutiny, Shakespeare demonstrates through her
that the traditional division of the ‘body’ and ‘soul’ is the cause of all her
agonising. By giving unnatural priority to her ‘soul’ over her ‘body’, she
draws the illogical conclusion that the rape of her body irredeemably
corrupts her soul. The argument of the poem, and the argument of the
Sonnets and plays, is that the corruption is due to the over-idealisation of an
imaginary faculty of the human mind, called the soul, and leads to the
corruption of the bodily relation to Nature through rape.
To live or die which of the twain were better,
When life is sham’d and death reproach’s debtor. (1153-5)
For Lucrece, the rape has polluted the supposed a priori purity of the
soul. Because both her body and soul, rather than one or the other, are
‘swallowed in confusion’ she feels justified in taking her life.
‘To kill my self’, quoth she, ‘alack what were it,
Shakespeare illustrates Lucrece’s perversion of natural logic in her explanation
that a mother who loses one baby will feel driven to slay the other
and so nurse none. Lucrece’s capacity to entertain the idea, that a mother
might kill her child to recover her equanimity, is indicative of her divorce
from her natural status as a female. In one stanza Shakespeare presents the
illogicality of prioritising the soul over the body in Platonic/Christian
thought and, its logical counterpart, the inversion of the natural relation of
female and male out of Nature.
But with my body my poor soul’s pollution?
They that lose half with greater patience bear it,
Than they whose whole is swallowed in confusion.
That mother tries a merciless conclusion,
Who having two sweet babes, when death takes one,
Will slay the other, and be nurse to none. (1156-62)
The next stanza identifies the source of the error precisely. The divine
male and his mortal representative Colatine are exonerated by Lucrece from
the crime for which they are logically responsible.
‘My body or my soul which was the dearer?
Again, the corruption of Lucrece’s mind, with its belief that the divinity
of the soul can only be corrupted by the defilement of the body, prevents
her from seeing the role in her rape of the king Tarquinius and Colatine’s
possessive pride. The metaphor of the tree that dies because it loses its bark
inverts the natural relation of life in which the sap and leaves are the fresh
forces of life and the bark the outer covering, more like the role of the
imaginary soul of the mind.
When the one pure, the other made divine,
Whose love of either to myself was nearer,
When both were kept for Heaven and Colatine:
Ay me, the Bark pill’d from the lofty Pine,
His leaves will wither, and his sap decay,
So must my soul her bark being pill’d away. (1163-9)
Since her ‘sacred temple’ is ‘spotted’ (1172), Lucrece decides it would
not be ‘impiety’ to ‘make some hole, through which I may convey this
troubled soul’ (1175-6). Where she should be questioning the idea of ‘soul’
that has given rise to her possession and ignorance, her decision to commit
suicide seeks to free her ‘soul’.
But she will wait until she tells Colatine of her rape to ensure he takes
‘revenge’ (1180) on Tarquin. She wants Tarquin to be ‘used’ (1195) like her,
little realising that her desire for revenge on Tarquin is partially misplaced.
Colatine will admit his complicity in the crime by not heeding his wife’s
dying wish. He does not carry out her desire to have Tarquin killed, but
will rather simply banish him.
Lucrece emphasises her sundering from her natural priority over the male
by inverting the expectations for the rebirth of her ‘honour’. In a stanza full
of the expectation of honour she applies the terms of increase to the vain
prospect of being honoured for her suicide. The Phoenix and the Turtle points
up the irony even more poignantly when the deluded birds are mocked for
their expectation of immortality without posterity.
‘My Honour I’ll bequeath unto the knife
Lucrece’s blind faith in her husband and his values leads her to a
concluding comment of self-deceit.
That wounds my body so dishonoured,
’Tis Honour to deprive dishonour’d life,
The one will live, the other being dead.
So of shame’s ashes shall my Fame be bred,
For in my death I murder shameful scorn,
My shame so dead, mine honour is new born. (1184-90)
‘Thou dead, both die, and both shall victors be’. (1211)
When Lucrece calls her maid, true to their ‘gentle sex’ (1237) and despite
the maid’s inferiority, they weep together. The maid’s show of ‘modesty’
(1220) toward her mistress, though, belies a sinister dimension in women’s
subservience to men.
For men have marble, women waxen minds,
Shakespeare clearly identifies the male as the instigator and perpetrator
of the ill to which women, through a gentler disposition, succumb. Male
pride and possession has its counterpart in female servility.
And therefore are they form’d as marble will,
The weak oppress’d, th’impression of strange kinds
Is form’d in them by force, by fraud, or skill.
Then call them not the Authors of their ill,
No more than wax shall be accounted evil,
Wherein is stamp’d the semblance of a Devil. (1240-46)
Their smoothness; like goodly champaign plain,
Lucrece’s inability to detect Tarquin’s intent and her incapacity to see
through her husband’s ‘honour’ is attributed to the difficulty women have
in hiding their ‘cave keeping evils’. The pride of Colatine and the other
nobles is barely recognised as the source of Lucrece’s shame.
Lays open all the little worms that creep,
In men as in a rough-grown grove remain.
Cave-keeping evils that obscurely sleep.
Through crystal walls each little mote will peep,
Though men can cover crimes with bold stern looks,
Poor women’s faces are their own faults books. (1247-53)
With men’s abuses, Those proud Lords to blame,
But Lucrece is conscious only of Tarquin’s assault, and the possibility that
her death may ‘do her husband wrong’ (1264). She is not able to see the
larger pattern of blame.
Make weak made women tenants to their shame. (1259-60)
Unable to share her grief with her maid she asks her to bring paper, pen
and ink, and then fetch one of her husband’s men. When she tries to write,
her inarticulateness before her husband’s pride causes a combat of ‘conceit
and grief ’ (1298) in her will. Because she cannot articulate her thoughts she
sends a perfunctory note hoping instead to use the only form of communication
she has learnt to wield with confidence in his presence, the power
Here folds she up the tenure of her woe,
Lucrece reveals the level of distrust between her and Colatine because
of the pride and honour which rules their relationship. Intuitively she cannot
trust a husband who was prepared to a wager his complete trust in her. Her
resort to emotions will hide her inadequacy with ‘words’ (1323). In Lucrece
Shakespeare was already exploring the logical relation between sensations
and words or beauty and truth as they were to be called definitively in the
Her certain sorrow writ uncertainly,
By this short Schedule Colatine may know
Her grief, but not her grief ’s true quality,
She dares not thereof make discovery,
Lest he should hold it her own gross abuse,
Ere she with blood had stain’d her stain’d excuse. (1310-16)
Lucrece’s unwillingness to use words to articulate her thoughts even leads
her to round on the ‘homely villain’ who takes her letter to Colatine.
The homely villain cur’sies to her low,
Not only does Lucrece falsely think the ‘villain’ sensed her shame, she
makes a mockery of her own letter to Colatine. How can she expect to
convince Colatine of her innocence and her faith in him if she cannot hide
her shame from a servant? Worse, she is immediately suspicious of a ‘harmless’
creature (1347) while sustaining her unnatural trust in kings and lords.
And blushing on her with a steadfast eye,
Receives the scroll without or yea or no,
And forth with bashful innocence doth hie.
But they whose guilt within their bosoms lie,
Imagine every eye beholds their blame,
For Lucrece thought, he blush’d to see her shame. (1338-44)
When Lucrece pauses for a ‘means to mourn some newer way’ (1365),
she turns to a painting of Troy. Shakespeare devotes 31 stanzas of his poem
to an ancient story of mythological dimensions to emphasise the mythic
elements in his version of the rape of Lucrece. The characters in the poem
resemble the characters in the painting because they are logically removed
from the natural dynamic of life.
In the ‘skillful painting’ (1367) by the ‘conceited Painter’ (1371) Shakespeare
illustrates the logical relation between Nature and art. He demonstrates
how Lucrece’s understanding of the world is like a work of art because like a
work of art it is based on conceits and illusions. Her inability to correctly
determine the basis of fault, because her values are disconnected from natural
logic, corresponds to the difference between Shakespeare’s awareness that
myth presents the logical conditions for the operations of the mind in relation
to Nature, but cannot be a substitute for the natural logic of life.
The painting of ‘Priam’s Troy’ embodies a fundamental conceit.
A thousand lamentable objects there,
At the beginning of the description of the painting, Shakespeare states
his philosophic position. If art scorns Nature, then art will only convey
‘liveless life’. Art can be lifelike (editors incorrectly change the liveless to
lifeless) through imitation but it can only be alive if it respects the logic of
the relation between Nature and art.
In scorn of Nature,Art gave liveless life. (1373-4)
In the Sonnets, this insight provides the pivotal structural point in the
presentation of natural logic. The overall structure of the Sonnets as Nature,
with its division into female and male sequences and the consequent increase
argument of the first 14 sonnets, is logically prior to truth and beauty or
any form of expression. Shakespeare presents in Lucrece not only a story that
has mythic implications but a story that corrects the inconsistencies of traditional
mythologies by incorporating a painting in which the mythological
conceits are at odds with natural logic. The inclusion of Lucrece’s musings
before the image of Troy incorporates an essential component of
Shakespeare’s logic and not, as many think, an extraneous addition to give
his story the added benefit of a famous Homeric legend.
As Lucrece examines the painting she observes the painter’s skill at
evoking sentiment from a weeping wife and traditional types such as ‘great
commanders’ (1387) and ‘heartless peasants’ (1392). She notes the difference
between Ajax, with his ‘blunt rage and rigour’, and ‘sly Ulysses’ whose ‘mild
glance…show’d deep regard and smiling government’ (1399-1400). Ulysses
speech in Troilus and Cressida on degrees of responsibility expresses the values
Tarquinius, Colatine, Tarquin, and consequently Lucrece, disregard.
The artistic effect, despite its skill, cannot help but reveal its artificial
For much imaginary work was there,
But Lucrece is not concerned with the implications of the picture as a
whole. She has not been allowed to develop an understanding that would
make sense of the imagery she admires. Instead she seeks out a face ‘where
all distress is steld’ (1444). She sees Hecuba, Priam’s wife, affected by ‘time’s
ruin, beauty’s wrack’ (1451). Her response echoes her own frustration at not
being able to easily express herself in words to her husband.
Conceit deceitful, so compact so kind,
That for Achilles’ image stood his spear
Gripp’d in an Armed hand, himself behind
Was left unseen, save to the eye of mind,
A hand, a foot, a face, a leg, a head
Stood for the whole to be imagined. (1422-8)
On this sad shadow Lucrece spends her eyes,
Lucrece offers not only to speak on Hecuba’s behalf to ‘rail on Pyrrhus’,
(1467) who wounded Priam, but to use her knife to scratch out the eyes of
all the Greeks. In her rash judgment of the situation she blames Helen’s ‘lust’
for the temptation of ‘fond Paris’ (1473). Shakespeare has her ironically state
the logic of her mythic crisis when she connects Helen’s sexual ‘eye’ with
the death of increase.
And shapes her sorrow to the Beldam’s woes,
Who nothing wants to answer her but cries,
And bitter words to ban her cruel Foes;
The Painter was no God to lend her those,
And therefore Lucrece swears he did her wrong,
To give her so much grief, and not a tongue. (1457-63)
‘Thy eye kindled the fire that burneth here,
In an inversion of her own plight, where she was unable to recognise
that a public plague had became her private woe, she questions why
Helen’s private pleasure should become a public plague. Ironically, she asks
that ‘guiltless souls be freed from guilty woe’ (1482) when one person is
And here in Troy for trespass of thine eye,
The Sire, the son, the Dame and daughter die. (1475-7)
‘For one’s offence why should so many fall?
But then in an ironical twist she includes Priam in the pattern of blame.
The desire to accuse just one for the fault of many cannot be sustained in
the face of the disaster for the families of Troy.
To plague a private sin in general. (1483-4)
And one man’s lust these many lives confounds.
Once she begins to weep for ‘Troy’s painted woes’ (1492), she cannot
stop the impetus of her desire to ‘lend(s) them words’ and ‘borrow’ (1498)
their looks to her own ends, despite the evidence to the contrary. Like any
person sundered from their natural logic, her reasoning cannot be logical
but is led by the distortion of her understanding.
Had doting Priam check’d his son’s desire,
Troy had been bright with Fame, and not with fire’. (1489-91)
Again, rather than face the possibility of evil in kings and gods, she
projects onto the story of Sinon (1501-68) her newborn awareness of deceit.
The confusion of ‘red’ and ‘pale’ in his face emphasises her previous inability
to determine the truth of her own situation.
In him the Painter labour’d with his skill
The lengthy account of Sinon’s relation to Priam and the Trojans
expresses the depth of irony in the deception that Lucrece was subjected to
by Tarquin and Colatine.
To hide deceit, and give the harmless show
An humble gait, calm looks, eyes wailing still,
A brow unbent that seem’d to welcome woe,
Cheeks neither red, nor pale, but mingled so,
That blushing red, no guilty instance gave,
Nor ashy pale, the fear that false hearts have. (1506-12)
But like a constant and confirmed Devil,
Now that Lucrece has been woken to the possibility of evil in any person,
she can admire the ‘well-skill’d workman’ able to paint a face of seeming
innocence for a character as ‘perjur’d’ as Sinon. And, more significantly, she
is aware of the stupidity of innocence exhibited by ‘the credulous old Priam’,
who can believe any ‘enchanting story’.
He entertain’d a show, so seeming just,
And therein so ensconc’d his secret evil,
That Jealousy itself could not mistrust,
False creeping Craft and Perjury should thrust
Into so bright a day, such blackfac’d storms,
Or blot with Hell-born sin such Saint-like forms. (1513-9)
The well-skilled workman this mild Image drew
The internal collapse of the Trojan hierarchy, epitomised by the stupidity
of King Priam, was triggered by the ‘words’ of Sinon. The narcissistic mirror
of self-deceit that was ‘rich-built Ilion’ shot the stars inevitably from their
‘fixed places’. Sonnet 14 is explicit in ruling out an astrology based on the
fixed stars because they do not have the correct logical multiplicity to
account for the range of truth and beauty exhibited by human beings.
Shakespeare, in 1594, is already aware of the logical conditions for a
consistent philosophy, and so a means to provide a consistent account of
human nature not subject to the ‘credulousness’ of old Priam.
For perjur’d Sinon, whose enchanting story
The credulous old Priam after slew.
Whose words like wildfire burnt the shining glory
Of rich built Ilion, that the skies were sorry.
And little stars shot from their fixed places,
When their glass fell, wherein they viewed their faces. (1520-6)
Lucrece’s divorce from the ‘truth’ leads her to ‘chide’ the painter for
representing a mind so ‘ill’ in a form so ‘fair’. She projects her inability to
see beyond appearances onto the artist who merely represents Sinon for
This picture she advisedly perus’d,
Because she does not appreciate the logic of truth and beauty, Lucrece
is unable to do more than exercise the prejudices fostered in her by her idealising
And chid the Painter for his wondrous skill:
Saving, some shape in Sinon’s was abus’d.
So fair a form lodg’d not a mind so ill,
And still on him she gaz’d, and gazing still,
Such signs of truth in his plain face she spied,
That she concludes, the Picture was belied. (1527-33)
‘it cannot be, I find,
Again all the blame is shifted to Tarquin, and not to the idealised expectations
of Priam, or of her husband Colatine.
But such a face should bear a wicked mind. (1539-40)
‘To me came Tarquin armed to beguild
With outward honesty, but yet defil’d
With inward vice, As Priam him did cherish:
So did I Tarquin, so my Troy did perish. (1544-7)
‘Look, how list’ning Priam wets his eyes,
Lucrece’s confusion between the guilt of Sinon and her ingrained respect
for authority leads her to sense the inadequacies in Priam but not be able
to articulate them. Shakespeare then has her reiterate the relation between
the inconsistencies in her understanding of the world and the inconsistencies
of the biblical worldview if taken literally.
To see those borrow’d tears that Sinon sheds,
Priam why art thou old, yet not so wise? (1548-50)
‘Such devils steal effects from lightless Hell,
Shakespeare sardonically represents the illogicality of Lucrece’s complaint
when she physically attacks the painting to exact revenge on Sinon (1564).
The extended episode of the Trojan painting has been constructed to point
out the contradictions in idealist expectations, whether Roman or biblical.
Because Lucrece has not advanced her understanding of the culpability of
Colatine, the ‘time’ she has spent in front of the painting does not ‘cure’
her ‘dolour’ (1581-2).
For Sinon in his fire doth quake with cold,
And in that cold hot burning fire doth dwell,
These contraries such unity doth hold,
Only to flatter fools, and make them bold,
So Priam’s trust false Sinon’s tears doth flatter,
That he finds means to burn his Troy with water’. (1555-61)
Appropriately, her thoughts are interrupted by the return of Colatine
and his friends. He finds her dressed for ‘mourning’ (1585) but is initially
unable to ask the cause of her terrible grief. When he does ask, she in turn
has difficulty finding ‘words’ (1605 and 1610) to express her feelings. When
she does find a ‘few words’ because her ‘woes’ are more than ‘words’ can
express, she briefly recounts the events of the night before and adds her
reasons for not resisting.
‘Mine enemy was strong, my poor self weak,
Throughout the poem, Shakespeare has made it clear that Lucrece’s
inability to anticipate Tarquin’s intentions and her unwillingness to heed the
signs of Colatine’s blame is the cause of her muteness and defenselessness.
Because the logical problem has been the over-idealisation of human
propensities, Tarquin as the representative of the imperial King is godlike
in his role as Lucrece’s ‘Judge’. He epitomises the role of a God who, when
tripped into a logical reaction to idealised claims, becomes evil. Shakespeare’s
argument against the excesses of idealism is a general one of which the poem
represents a particular instance.
(And far the weaker with so strong a fear)
My bloody Judge forbod my tongue to speak,
No rightful plea might plead for justice there.
His scarlet Lust came evidence to swear
That my poor beauty had purloin’d his eyes,
And when the Judge is robb’d, the prisoner dies. (1646-52)
The next stanza emphasises the critique of Christian conceits. Lucrece’s
representation of her ‘mind’ as ‘immaculate and spotless’ is a parody on the
‘O teach me how to make mine own excuse,
Having allowed Lucrece to identify the conceit that causes her rape,
Shakespeare immediately states the true reason for her loss. He identifies
Colatine as the ‘hopeless Merchant of this loss’ (1660). The ‘pride’ (1669),
that causes his guilt and grief, ‘damm’d’ up his ‘voice’ (1661).
Lucrece notices his ‘untimely frenzy’ but, typically, misinterprets it as
Or (at the least) this refuge let me find,
Though my gross blood be stain’d with this abuse,
Immaculate, and spotless is my mind,
That was not forc’d, that never was inclin’d
To accessory yieldings, but still pure
Doth in her poison’d closet yet endure’. (1653-9)
Which speechless woe of his poor she attendeth,
Again there are echoes of Shakespeare’s critique of biblical contradictions
with Lucrece’s address to her ‘Lord’ and its attendant ‘sorrow’.
And his untimely frenzy thus awaketh,
‘Dear Lord, thy sorrow to my sorrow lendeth
Another power…’ (1674-7)
Ironically, Lucrece calls on Colatine’s friends to act as ‘knights’ who will
‘chase injustice with revengeful arms’ (1693-4) and put Tarquin to death.
She has little idea that they will not carry out the oaths of their ‘knighthood’
because effectively Tarquin was part of the trial by chastity of which they
are all guilty. She is still unable to see the true nature of the crime.
‘What is the quality of my offence
Lucrece’s sense of ‘honour’ is tied to her conceit that her fate will be
remembered hereafter. Unfortunately for her it will be for opposing reasons.
Once the idealist reading of the poem is rejected because it is inadequate as
a representation of the Poet’s insights, she will be seen as Colatine’s unfortunate
dupe, estranged from her natural rights as a woman.
Being constrain’d with dreadful circumstance?
May my pure mind with foul act dispense,
My low declined Honour to advance?
May any terms acquit me from this chance?
The poisoned fountain clears itself again,
And why not I from this compelled stain?’ (1702-8)
She reveals Tarquin’s name to the assembled lords and then plunges a knife
into her breast. With ‘contrite sighs’ she bequeaths her soul to the clouds.
Even here she sheathed in her harmless breast
By bequeathing her soul to the ‘clouds’, Lucrece acknowledges the
darker consequences of ‘self-slaughter’ (1733), and the inherent illogicality
of her conceits.
A harmful knife, that thence her soul unsheathed,
That blow did bail it from the deep unrest
Of that polluted prison, where it breathed:
Her contrite sighs unto the clouds bequeathed
Her winged sprite, and through her wounds doth fly
Live’s lasting date, from cancell’d destiny. (1723-9)
Lucretius, her father, then throws himself on her body as, after Brutus
removes the knife, her blood forms a black, red and watery pool (1732-50).
Lucretius grief at the death of his daughter brings not the expected concern
about honour, pride, or the fate of her soul, but a lament on the theme of
‘Daughter, dear daughter’, old Lucretius cries,
Shakespeare has Lucretius deliver the increase argument because as the
father he more keenly recognises, even if for selfish reasons, the logical
priority of increase over all other conditions for life. He calls on time to
‘last no longer’, so that all can perish. In sonnet 11, Shakespeare gives the
definitive form of the argument when he says that the whole world would
be done away if all ceased to increase. The immediacy of death also brings
the conceit about souls down to earth when death might leave the ‘feeble
‘That life was mine which thou hast here deprived,
If in the child the father’s image lies,
Where shall I live now Lucrece is unlived?
Thou wast not to this end from me derived.
If children predecease progenitors,
We are their offspring and they none of ours.
‘Poor broken glass, I often did behold
In thy sweet semblance,my old age new-born,
But now that fair fresh mirror dim and old
Shows me a bare bon’d death by time out-worn.
O from thy cheeks my image thou hast torn,
And shiver’d all the beauty of my glass,
That I no more can see what once I was.
‘O time cease thou thy course and last no longer,
If they surcease to be that should survive:
Shall rotten death make conquest of the stronger,
And leave the foultring feeble souls alive?
The old Bees die, the young possess their hive,
Then live sweet Lucrece, live again and see
Thy father die, and not thy father thee’. (1751-71)
Colatine in turn lies on her body but finds his ‘inward soul’ incapable
of working his tongue to say ‘heart-easing words’ (1782). His ‘weak words’
are not ‘pronounced plain’ (1784-6). He mutters vengeance on Tarquin but
seems unable to reflect on his contribution to the tragedy.
Then, in the most revealing exchange of the whole poem, Lucretius and
Colatine fight for the possession of dead Lucrece. In the plays, Shakespeare
has Desdemona and Cordelia state the increase proposition when they tell
their fathers that they owe their love half to them and half to their husbands.
The blindness of Othello and Lear to natural logic is the cause of the ensuing
tragedy. In Lucrece, father and husband demonstrate the logical error for
Then son and father weep with equal strife
Lucretius’ late reversion to the basic logic of life and his fight with
Colatine for the ‘possessive ownership’ of Lucrece, bring to bear on the poem
the natural logic that provides Shakespeare with his overview of the drama.
His overview contextualises the excessive pride of Lucius Tarquinius and the
murder of his father-in-law, the idealised selfishness of Colatine and Tarquin,
with its damning consequences in the repression of Lucrece’s female intuitions
under honour, virtue, and holy wedlock. The locks that Tarquin breaks
are the locks that Colatine has imposed on her natural priority as a female.
Who should weep most for daughter or for wife.
Then one doth call her his, the other his,
Yet neither may possess the claim they lay.
The father says, ‘she’s mine’, ‘O mine she is’
Replies her husband, ‘do not take away
My sorrow’s interest, let no mourner say
He weeps for her, for she was only mine,
And only must be wail’d by Colatine’.
‘O’, quoth Lucretius, ‘I did give that life
Which she too early and too late hath spill’d’.
‘Woe. Woe’, quoth Colatine, ‘she was my wife,
I owed her, and ’tis mine that she hath kill’d’.
‘My daughter’ and ‘my wife’ with clamours fill’d
The dispers’d air, who holding Lucrece’s life
Answer’d their cries, ‘my daughter’ and ‘my wife’. (1791-1806)
Brutus, who removed the offending knife/penis from Lucrece, reveals
circumspection not expected of one who has been considered a fool by his
noble friends. He realises that the fight over the body of Lucrece ‘emulates’
the conditions that caused her death. He calls on Colatine not to increase
his woe by furthering the conceit that gave rise to it.
‘Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
But even Brutus’ insight is limited by the constraints in his Roman
culture. He appeals to the ‘courageous Roman’ in Colatine to rouse with
him the ‘Roman Gods’ (1831) and take the body of Lucrece to the Capitol
where her ‘chaste blood’, the ‘heaven’s fair sun that breeds the fat earth’s
store’, and by ‘all our country rights in Rome’ to revenge Lucrece’s wrongs
‘by this bloody knife’.
To slay her self that should have slain her Foe. (1826-7)
Now by that Capitol that we adore,
The confusion in Brutus’ reasoning betrays a partial insight into the error
Shakespeare identifies as the logical crux behind the tragedy. His incorporation
of the increase argument in terms of the breeding of ‘earth’s fat store’
indicates an awakening to natural logic, but not sufficient to attach the
required blame to Colatine for his possessive ownership of Lucrece. Despite
the bloody resolve to punish Tarquin with the knife, he is merely sentenced
to ‘everlasting banishment’ (1855).
And by this chaste blood so unjustly stained,
By heaven’s fair sun that breeds the fat earth’s store,
By all our country rights in Rome maintained,
And by chaste Lucrece’ soul that late complained
Her wrongs to us, and by this bloody knife,
We will revenge the death of this true wife. (1835-41)
The relation of Lucrece to the Sonnet template
The commentary on Venus and Adonis examined the way Shakespeare articulated
his philosophy in a long poem early in his career as a playwright. The
consistency of the themes of Venus and Adonis with the logic of the Sonnets
shows he was already in possession of his life-long philosophy in the early
1590s and that the Sonnets were written specifically to give a definitive
expression to the philosophy.
When Shakespeare wrote Lucrece as a ‘graver labour’ in 1594, he was
seeking to express the philosophy with greater depth and precision. The
commentary has shown that Lucrece focused more intently on the psychology
of the male. It is also clear that, whereas Venus was in complete command
of her role as the female prior to the male, Lucrece was the naive victim of
the consequences of idealistic male pride.
Venus and Adonis presented the argumentative structure that 16 years later
was to provide the Sonnets with its logical foundation based in Nature, the
sexual division in Nature, and the increase dynamic. Adonis’ refusal to
acknowledge the logic of Venus’ arguments led him (and by implication
human nature) to extinction, or at best to be a flower rising from the soil
of Nature. Adonis died because he could not forgo his adolescent idealism.
If Venus and Adonis took a female-eye view of the logical relationship
based on the sexual dynamic, then Lucrece takes a male-eye view. It is as if
Adonis, with his friends who are mentioned only fleetingly in the poem,
are revived as Tarquin and his noble friends at Ardea. The crime against
humanity that Adonis commits through his selfish idealism in Venus and
Adonis, is revisited in Lucrece. In Lucrece, Shakespeare presents what would
have happened if Adonis’ idealistic self-regard had prevailed in Venus and
Adonis. It represents a ‘graver labour’ because it shows more exactly the
logically corrupt state of the world when the male preempts the priority of
the female. Tarquin and his friends reduce the female to an idealised chattel
who dies by her own hand because she is caught in the illogical spiral of
their overwrought idealism.
Adonis’ death returned the world to a state of Nature before the
derivation of the sexual human. Venus could persist because as the female
principle of Nature she lost merely the overwrought delusion of the male.
When Lucrece dies the males gain nothing but the blindness to repeat
endlessly their domination over natural logic. Tarquin’s survival is symbolic
of the male’s inability to address the cause of Lucrece’s rape. Tarquin’s
punishment tacitly acknowledges their guilt and fails to redress the illogicality
of their male pride.
In Lucrece, Shakespeare attacks the state of mind that in his day was
leading to the grossest form of gratuitous violence, that of male-based egotistical
idealism. By examining the psychology of the male mind, he makes
his first serious attempt to articulate the logical dynamic of truth and beauty.
Lucrece represents a more exacting examination of the natural logic of the
mind. While the dynamic of truth and beauty was considered in Venus and
Adonis it does not get its complete articulation until the Sonnets, where it
occupies over nine tenths of the 154 sonnet set.
If the relation between Venus and Adonis and Lucrece is compared with
the Sonnet template, then the earlier poem more fully articulates the part of
the template that represent the logic of the body and the later poem more
fully articulates the part of the diagram that represents the logic of the mind.
The focus on the increase argument in the final pages of Lucrece brings the
logic of the template to bear on the idealism of the Roman males.
Complete template (Sonnet numbers)
But by far the greater part of Lucrece is preoccupied with articulating the
state of mind of both Tarquin and Lucrece. Shakespeare recognised when
he wrote Venus and Adonis that giving expression to the natural logic of the
body is relatively easy compared with successfully representing the truth and
beauty dynamic of the mind. Lucrece’s long deliberation in front of the
Trojan painting shows how concerned he was to give greater emphasis to
the dynamic of truth and beauty.
Not only was Shakespeare conscious of the need to explore more fully
the dynamic of the mind, he was also conscious of the implications of the
relation between the sexual or biological and the erotic or conceptual. As
his poems are products of the mind, then they would have to acknowledge
their erotic status. As in both poems the sexual engagement between the
protagonists was not consummated, his choice of story with which to express
his philosophy also served to express the logical relation between the sexual
and the erotic.
As the relation between female and male, in terms of the erotic, provides
the logical condition for mythic expression in both poems, Shakespeare was
adhering to his logical principles that any product of the human mind is
inherently erotic. In these early poems he demonstrates the mythic awareness
he articulates more precisely in the Sonnets and which forms the basis of the
mythic achievement of the plays.
Shakespeare achieves a number of objectives in Lucrece with his version
of the Roman legend. He demonstrates the inconsistencies in the idealisations
of the original event. He sets the stage for a lengthy consideration by
Lucrece of the inconsistencies in her life. And, by recounting the story of
an act of sexual aggression that does not lead to progeny because of Tarquin’s
failure to ejaculate, he ensures his version of the story conforms with the
erotic logic of myth. Shakespeare accepts the logical impossibility of substituting
the poem for the processes of Nature, a contradiction that invalidates
a literal belief in a mythological God.
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Roger Peters Copyright © 2005
Venus and Adonis
Rape of Lucrece
The Phoenix and the Turtle
A Lover's Complaint
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure