Shakespeare wrote four plays and one narrative poem dealing with Roman history, real, legendary, or fictional. Of these, it is the poem, The Rape of Lucrece, that deals with the earliest event, the legendary fall of the Roman monarchy in 509 b.c.
If I were treating all Shakespeare's works in a single chronological grouping, The Rape of Lucrece would be placed between Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens. However, since I am segregating the Greek and Roman works, The Rape of Lucrece appears as the first of the Roman group.
The Rape of Lucrece was published about May 1594, a year after Venus and Adonis. This later poem is both longer and more serious than the earlier, and makes for harder reading too. Like the earlier poem, it is dedicated to Southampton (see page I-3), and the additional year seems to have increased the intimacy between Shakespeare and his young patron. At least the dedication begins:
The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end;
The first stanza of the poem plunges the story into action at once:
From the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host
– lines 1-3
The year, according to legend, is 509 b.c., and Rome is still no more than a city-state. It had been founded about two and a half centuries before (753 b.c. is the traditional date) and has been governed by a line of kings. Ruling in the city now is the seventh king to sit on the Roman throne. His name is Lucius Tarquinius (better known in English as Tarquin) and he has been given the surname Superbus, meaning "proud," because of his arrogant tyranny.
Tarquin forced the senatorial aristocracy into submission by executing some on trumped-up charges and by refusing to replace those who died a natural death.
He kept himself in power by gathering an armed guard about himself, and ruled as a military despot. Nevertheless, he maintained a kind of popularity with the common people by a program of public works and by an aggressive foreign policy that brought in loot from surrounding tribes.
The aristocracy could only wait and hope that some particular event would take place to alienate the populace generally from the despotic monarch.
It is not, however, King Tarquin who is referred to in the third line of the poem, but his son, Tarquinius Sextus, the heir to the throne.
The Roman army is engaged in a war against the Volscians, a tribe who occupied territory just south of Rome. The Romans were at this time laying siege to Ardea, one of the Volscian cities, just twenty miles south of Rome, and it is from this siege that Tarquin Sextus is hurrying.
… Lucrece the chaste
The incident Shakespeare is about to relate is to be found in the first book of the History of Rome by Titus Livius (better known as Livy to English-speaking people), and also in the Fasti (Annals), written by Shakespeare's favorite ancient writer, Ovid.
Despite the fact that the incident is taken from ancient writers, it is not at all likely that it is historically accurate. In 390 b.c., a little over a century after the time of Tarquin, Rome was taken and sacked by the barbarian Gauls and the historical records were destroyed. All of Roman history prior to 390 b.c. is a mass of legends based on uncertain kernels of fact.
The legends narrated by Livy and others were, however, accepted as sober fact right down to modern times, and certainly Shakespeare accepted this tale as such. He goes on for the remainder of the first verse to tell the reason for the prince's haste:
And to Collatiun bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.
– lines 4-6
Prince Tarquin has a cousin, also named Tarquin, whose estates are near Collatia (which Shakespeare calls "Collatium"), a small town ten miles east of Rome. He was therefore Tarquin of Collatia, or in Latin: Tarquinius Collatinus. In order to distinguish him from Tarquinius Superbus, the King, and from Tarquinius Sextus, the prince, he may be called simply Collatinus, or, in English, Collatine.
At the siege of Ardea (and a siege is usually a boring occupation) the Roman aristocrats, it seems, fell to discussing their wives, each boasting of the virtue and chastity of his own. This is the sort of thing one would scarcely think men would seriously do, yet it is common in romances. Shakespeare uses such a discussion as the mainspring of part of the action in Cymbeline (see page II-58), for instance.
In fact, the unreal romanticism of this discussion is part of what causes historians to suspect the account of the Rape of Lucrece to be a fable. It is very likely a tale made up long after Tarquin's reign to account for the establishment of the Republic; a historical romance, to begin with, later taken as sober history.
But, history or fiction, this is the tale. Of the Roman aristocrats, Collatine was most emphatic in maintaining the chastity and sobriety of his wife, Lucretia, a name of which Lucrece is a shortened version.
It came down to a wager eventually, and the Romans decided to leave the siege temporarily so that they might dash home to Rome to check on their wives' activities. Doing so, they found that all the wives but Lucrece were having a good time; dancing, laughing, gossiping, feasting. Lucrece, however, was at home, alone except for her maids, and was gravely engaged in the housewifely task of spuming.
Collatine had won his wager, but in a deeper sense, he had lost, for Prince Tarquin, having seen Lucrece's beauty and chastity, conceived a powerful desire to make love to her. Once all the aristocrats were back at the siege, he left again, this time alone, in order to gratify that desire.
… had Narcissus seen her …
Tarquin is not at ease. He is not an utterly abandoned villain and he feels the guilt and disgrace of the reprehensible thing he is doing-yet he cannot help himself. After having arrived, he is treated as a welcome guest and Lucrece asks for news of her husband. Tarquin muses on her beauty and says to himself that, on hearing her husband was well
… she smiled with so sweet a cheer
That, had Narcissus seen her as she stood,
Self-love had never drown'd him in the flood.
– lines 264-66
Narcissus is the young man in Greek myths who loved only himself, and drowned trying to kiss his reflection in water (see page I-10).
… a cockatrice' dead-killing eye
When night comes, Prince Tarquin invades Lucrece's bedroom and tells her that if she will not yield, he will take her anyway and kill a slave, whom he will accuse as her lover. The situation paralyzes Lucrece with horror, which the poem indicates by stating:
Here with a cockatrice' dead-killing eye
He rouseth up himself and makes a pause;
– lines 540-4l
Tarquin's words have the effect on her that a cockatrice's eye would have. The legendary cockatrice, the infinitely poisonous snake, kills with a mere glance (see page I-150).
A similar metaphor from the other direction is then used:
So his unhallowed haste her words delays,
And moody Pluto winks while Orpheus plays.
– lines 552-53
The reference is to Orpheus' descent into the underworld to win back his wife Eurydice (see page I-47). His music charmed even Pluto, and as the harsh king of the underworld was made captive by beauty, so chaste Lucrece was paralyzed by evil.
… still-pining Tantalus. ..
Tarquin rapes Lucrece, then hastens away, miserable and guilty, leaving her behind, miserable and innocent.
To Lucrece, all the world is now fit only for cursing. There is no comfort anywhere or in anything. What good is wealth, for instance? The aged miser, having accumulated his hoard, finds his health gone, and cannot buy youth back with his gold:
But like still-pining Tantalus he sits
And useless barns the harvest of his wits,
– lines 858-59
Tantalus is always the very personification of punishment through frustration (see page I-13).
… Fortune's wheel
Nor does time heal matters in her now utterly pessimistic view. It but makes matters worse; merely serving to
… turn the giddy round of Fortune's wheel.
– line 952
Fortune (Tyche), an important goddess to the later Greeks (see page I-135), was often pictured with a turning wheel. That represented the manner in which men's fortunes rose and fell in indifferent alternation.
… lamenting Philomele. ..
One thing she determines. She will tell her husband the truth, so that he might not imagine his desecrated wife to be whole, and so that Tarquin might not be able to smile secretly at Collatine's ignorance. This conclusion brings her solace and she ends her wailing for a while:
By this, lamenting Philomele had ended
This well-tun'd warble of her nightly sorrow,
– lines 1079-80
Philomela was a young woman in the Greek myths who (in Ovid's version of the tale) had undergone an even crueler rape than that of Lucrece, and who was eventually turned into a nightingale which nightly sang the sad song of her misery. Philomela is therefore a poetic synonym for "nightingale" and is frequently used in this way by Shakespeare.
Indeed, Shakespeare used this particular myth in detail in Titus Andronicus (see page I-405), which was written shortly before The Rape of Lucrece.
The rapist in Philomela's case was a Thracian king named Tereus, and Lucrece sees the comparison, for she says to the nightingale she imagines before her:
For burthen-wise I'll hum on Tarquin still,
While thou on Tereus descants better skill;
– lines 1133-34
She then makes use of the legend of the nightingale leaning against a thorn to keep awake all night (see page I-64) to hint at suicide:
… wretched I
To imitate thee well, against my heart
Will fix a sharp knife…
– lines 1136-38
… Pyrrhus' proud foot…
She will not kill herself, however, until Collatine finds out the truth, and she writes a letter, begging him to hasten home. While she waits she has a chance to study and comment on an elaborate painting of the Greek siege of Troy, which had taken place seven centuries before her time.
(Actually in 509 b.c. Rome was completely under Etruscan cultural influence and was far removed from the world of Greek art and literature. It is extremely unlikely that the real Lucrece would be so knowledgeable of Greek mythology or have an opportunity to study paintings of the Trojan War. However, Shakespeare's high-flown style in this poem made such abundant classical allusion necessary.)
The painting is described. It is
… made for Priam's Troy
Before the which is drawn the power of Greece,
For Helen's rape the city to destroy,
– lines 1367-69
The Trojan War had had its cause, according to legend, in the rape (i.e., abduction) of Helen by Paris (see page I-76), and there is, therefore, an analogy to Lucrece's situation.
The individual Greek heroes are mentioned:
In Ajax' eyes blunt rage and rigour roll'd;
But the mild glance that sly Ulysses lent
Show'd deep regard and smiling government.
There pleading might you see grave
Nestor stand, As 'twere encouraging the
Greeks to fight,
– lines 1398-1402
Ajax was, next to Achilles, the strongest of the Greeks; Ulysses (Odysseus) the craftiest; Nestor the wisest. All play important parts in Troilus and Cressida (see pages I-86, I-91, and I-92) and their listing here symbolizes Troy being assailed by strength, cunning, and wisdom.
Beyond that, Troy is confronted also by irresistible fate, as epitomized by the transcendent hero Achilles:
… for Achilles' image stood his spear,
Grip'd in an armed hand; himself behind
Was left unseen. ..
– lines 1424-26
The spear was symbol enough; the obscured hero was more an impersonal and relentless force than a man. He too plays his part, in an all-too-human fashion, in Troilus and Cressida (see page I-114).
What's more, the picture shows the Trojan War in its various stages. At another place, Lucrece sees Troy fallen and finds in it a face with sorrows to match her own:
… she despairing Hecuba beheld,
Staring on Priam's wounds with her old eyes,
Which bleeding under Pyrrhus' proud foot lies.
– lines 1447-49
This incident is past the ending of Homer's Iliad and of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. It represents the tendencies of the later mythmakers to pile horror on horror and to multiply the tragedy of Troy's final destruction.
The Trojan King, Priam (see page I-79), had witnessed his city besieged for ten years and, one by one, nearly every one of his fifty sons killed. Now at last the Greeks were gone, but they had left behind a large wooden horse (see page I-188). Priam and the Trojans are persuaded to drag the horse into the city and the Greek warriors hidden within emerge at night, open the gates for the remainder of the army, and begin their slaughter.
Priam and his aged wife, Hecuba (see page I-85), flee to an altar of Zeus where they might be safe. Polites, one of Priam's very few surviving sons, comes running madly toward the altar too. Behind him is Pyrrhus (or Neoptolemus) (see page I-115), the son of Achilles.
Pyrrhus has been brought to the field of Troy after his father has been killed by an arrow in the heel from the bow of Paris. He quickly proves himself as brave and as cruel as his father.
Now it is his cruelty that is predominant. He kills Polites even at the altar and in the presence of his parents. Priam, driven mad at the sight, feebly casts a spear at Pyrrhus, who promptly kills him as well.
… perjur'd Sinon…
Lucrece sadly views the depicted miseries of falling Troy:
Lo, here weeps Hecuba, here Priam dies,
Here manly Hector faints, here Troilus sounds [swoons]
– lines 1485-86
Hector was the greatest of the Trojan warriors (see page I-188), but in the medieval versions of the story of Troy, it is his younger brother, Troilus, who rises to prominence, and it is Troilus who is the titular hero of Troilus and Cressida.
Lucrece finally concentrates, however, on a Greek captive, taken by the Trojans after the Greeks had built their wooden horse. This captive, Sinon, who pretended to be a refugee from the Greeks, told a false story that the wooden horse was an offering to Athena and would forever protect Troy from conquest if brought within the city. He is therefore described as:
… perjur'd Sinon, whose enchanting story
The credulous old Priam after slew;
– lines 1521-22
The story which Priam believed brought about the death of the old king. It is to Sinon, the very symbol of treachery in aftertime, that Lucrece compares Tarquin.
… Brutus drew
Finally Collatine arrives home from the siege, anxious to know what emergency had caused his wife to write. With him are other men of senatorial rank. To them all, Lucrece tells the story, and while they stand there horrified, she draws her knife and kills herself.
For a moment, all stand transfixed. Lucretius, her father, throws himself in sorrow on her body:
And from the purple fountain Brutus drew
The murd'rous knife…
– lines 1734-35
This is the first mention of Lucius Junius Brutus, an aristocrat who had escaped the deadly attentions of King Tarquin by pretending to be a moron and therefore harmless. ("Brutus" means "stupid," and this name was, supposedly, given to him because of his successful play acting. However, the truth may be the reverse. It may have been known that one of the destroyers of the Tarquinian kingdom was named Brutus and for lack of other hard details after the Gallic sack in 390 b.c., the meaning of the name was allowed to inspire the tale of his pretending to be a moron.)
Brutus had good reason to play it safe in any way he could, for according to the legend, his father and older brother had been among those executed by Tarquin-something which did not cause him to love the king either.
Now, seeing the shock, horror, and hatred sweeping the spectators, Brutus feels that he will be able to head a popular movement against the kingdom. He no longer needs his pretense of stupidity:
Brutus, who pluck'd the knife from Lucrece' side,
Seeing such emulation in their woe,
Began to clothe his wit in state and pride,
Burying in Lucrece' wound his folly's show.
– lines 1807-10
Brutus rouses the crowd and the poem ends with a final (and 265th) verse:
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence,
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin's foul offence;
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly [with applause] did give consent
To Tarquin's everlasting banishment.
– lines 1850-55
Thus did the Roman kingdom come to an end. In its place was established the Roman Republic, which five centuries later was to rule all the Mediterranean world.