The Rape of Lucrece - William Shakespeare
Appropriation of ancient narrative for our times
The inaugural production for the newly formed Auckland Shakespeare Company was
somewhat of a brave choice, given it's a piece that is rarely performed, as the subject
matter makes it a risky financial endeavour - punters wont necessarily make rape
plays their first choice for an entertaining night out, and secondly it was not written as
a play but as a narrative poem, so it's not the easiest piece to stage. But full credit to
ASC who have intelligently reworked the text, 'distributing the narration and dialogue
in the poem among a tight ensemble of four', to create their own version of the
narrative, fit for purpose. The result is vivid, elucidating and deserving of praise.
The story is this: One evening, at the town of Ardea, where a battle is being
fought, two noble-born Roman soldiers, Tarquin and Collatine, retire to discuss the
virtues of their respective wives. Collatine describes his wife, Lucrece, as beautiful
and chaste, in such glowing terms that so enchant Tarquin, that he sneaks away from
battle and travels to Collatine’s home, to acquaint himself with this creature of
loveliness. Lucrece bids him welcome as befits his office and friendship to Collatine,
thinking that her Lord has sent him forth. Tarquin entertains her with stories of her
husband’s deeds on the battlefield and together in good company they pass several
Tarquin is invited to spend the night, but can no more sleep than extinguish his ardent
desire for Lucrece. Overcome with lust, he goes to Lucrece’s chamber, where she lays
sleeping. He tells her that she must submit to his desire, or else pay with her life.
Lucrece pleads with him, rebuking his trespass, reminding him of his friendship with
Collatine and of his honour as a nobleman, but to no avail. He rapes her.
Full of shame and guilt, Tarquin sneaks away. Lucrece is devastated, furious and
suicidal. When Collatine returns home, Lucrece tells him the whole story, but denies
saying who did it until all the assembled gathering of soldiers, noblemen and kin have
sworn to avenge this crime. Finally she tells her husband it was Tarquinius, then
reveals a blade and plunges it into her own breast and dies. The soldiers carry
Lucrece’s body through the streets of Rome, where the citizens are so moved
and angered, that Tarquin and his entire family are banished to live beyond the gates
of Rome forever more.
The audience settle and the play begins: The set is an innocent playground replete
with swing and climbing ropes (fashioned into question marks where the ropes coil
onto the ground) an interesting and creative departure from convention. A projected
clock on the upstage wall represents ‘Unnatural time’ its hands running counter
clockwise, unnatural as befits this deed. There is a restrained palette in costume and
stage that in the heat of this trespass is suffused with red.
Anthea Hill plays the role of Lucrece and gives it her all. Even in full flight as the
hardest emotional scenes demand, her technique is steadfast and post rape she is a
woman determinedly manipulating outcomes and choosing her own destiny.
Calum Gittins's Tarquin, the protagonist and perpetrator, is not all rude beast, but
equipped with an intelligence and sophistication that befits a member of the powerful
ruling Roman monarchy of late sixth century BCE.
As the maid and Collatine respectively, Sheena Irving and Daniel Watterson turn in
fine performances. A small chorus bring scale and support the core cast. Director Rita
Stone has worked with an assured hand to create strong performances and bring fresh
life to the text. Choreographer Brigitte Knight brings movement and line to the piece,
including a lovely pas de deux with protagonist and victim that in another play would
well pass for a bridal waltz.
And what of ASC's purpose? Director Rita Stone, in her program notes writes of
'developing our own unique voice with this timeless story' scrutinising and
questioning the text and executing 'judicious edits' to arrive at the story they wanted to
tell - 'of a woman who should not be blamed for her attack, attacked by someone who
should have prevented his own actions.'
At its heart this piece is about the abuse of power and in these times we are very much
aware that rape and sexual assault are perpetrated as often by educated and powerful
men of public standing, who seem to believe that their positions of privilege allow
them to behave outside the law and in the most base and brutish of manners. Rape is a
brutal crime that leaves victims traumatised and can cast a dark shadow over the rest
of their lives and in some instances lead to suicide.
'When hurts are greater than one has tongue to speak.' I'd left the theatre with this
phrase rattling around in my head. I've experienced trauma in my life, but to
comprehend the terrifying actions of being pinioned and brutalised is something else
again. Anyone who has experienced such hurt, will know that giving voice - talking to
someone else about it is incredibly difficult, but also essential to the healing process
and getting through.
I'll state at the outset that I'm no Shakespearean scholar, but having performed it as a
young actor at Court Theatre in Christchurch, under the direction of Elric Hooper, it
instilled in me a lifelong love for the plays and has certainly informed my love of
words and writing ever since.
The Rape of Lucrece was first published in 1594 as an 'epic poem' - a narrative form
that was popular at the time and given that theatres were closed due to the plague, it's
tone as a serious piece could be said to reflect the mood of the day.
The year earlier Shakespeare had written Venus and Adonis (also an epic poem) and
had prefaced the text with a dedication to his sponsor the Earl of Southampton, in
essence apologising for the frivolous nature of the text and promising to 'take
advantage of all idle hours till I have honoured you with some graver labour' - The
Rape of Lucrece being that graver labour.
If you wonder about the veracity of the story and how Shakespeare become aware of
it as I did, the answer is that it is likely to be the most highly publicised rape in the
history of the world and has been accounted as the spark that ignited the transition of
state government from monarchy to the Roman Republic at the close of sixth century
There have been many iterations of this story by different authors over the last few
millennia, among them the Roman poet Ovid in Fasti, published in 8CE and the
historian Titus Livius, in Livy's History of Rome, 17CE. As to historical authenticity
they may be questionable, as both were writing many centuries after the event and
with scant historical record to reference, given that much of recorded Roman history
was destroyed by the Gauls in 390BCE.
Closer to Shakespeare's time (100 years earlier), Niccolo Machiavelli adapted the
story of Lucrecia to bolster the Florentine Republic. Appropriation for political
advantage seems to have been a common occurrence, as nascent republics utilised the
rape narrative as validation for current political change. 'Many employed variations
on this story as a way to identify their enemies as rapacious tyrants, and themselves as
the vanguards of morality and defenders of a just new order' writes Amanda C. Pipkin
in Rape in the Republic, 1609-1725: Formulating Dutch Identity. 2013.
It's certainly an ironic vault-face now given the Republican candidate Donald Trump
emerging victorious in the recent American Presidential campaign, despite the moral
furore over his boasting disrespect for women and the many accusations of sexual
assault levelled against him.
What I found interesting in Shakespeare's text was Lucrece's concern that she may be
blamed for the rape and her honour extinguished. In writing to Collatine to request his
immediate return she is considered and circumspect around being too emotional.
'The life and feeling of her passion she hoards, to spend when he is by to hear her;
when sighs and groans and tears may grace the fashion of her disgrace, the better so
to clear her from that suspicion which the world might bear her.' It's suggestive of
'victim blaming' and hints at the existence of a rape culture. The behaviours of both
Lucrece and Collatine come under some inspection as potential instruments of blame.
Lucrece questions the time she spent with Tarquin leading up to the rape: "In thy
weak hive a wand'ring wasp hath crept, and suck'd the honey which thy chaste bee
kept. Yet am I guilty of thy honour's wrack- yet for thy honour did I entertain
him..." And even Tarquin on route to Lucrece's bed chamber, is keen to mitigate his
actions and shift the blame for his impending treachery: "why is Collatine the
publisher of that rich jewel he should keep unknown...for by our ears our hearts oft
And if rape culture did exist was it in 6th century BCE Rome or was Shakespeare
borrowing from his own or another time? It's hard to know, without having access to
the earlier texts of Machiavelli, Ovid and Livius. Shakespeare would certainly have
devoured Machiavelli (an expert observer of Ceasare Borgia's murderous career) so
these scenes that explore victim blaming and finding fault beyond the perpetrator,
may well be borrowed. Or is it possible that there is another reason for victim
blaming? It's sometimes reported that women are the worst in damning victims, with
harsh conceits of "she must have deserved it", "she probably led him on", "look at
what she was wearing" and "that'll teach her to drink like that." And in these attacks it
seems the only rational reason is that this is a coping mechanism - distancing
themselves from the victims, because it is too awful to think that something so vicious
and horrific could happen at any time so randomly to anyone. It seems preferable, by
these reactions, to believe that the victims must have had some agency in their rape.
Well known American author and columnist Jessica Valenti puts it best 'If you run a
story exploring the reasons why rape happens, focus on the perpetrator, not the
victim’s behaviour. Because the common denominator in rapes is not young women
drinking or how they dress, the common denominator is rapists.' And so too it is here,
where of course the blame fully rests with the perpetrator, Tarquinius
Sextus Tarquinius is a man of considerable power and entitlement; from a waring
family who are well used to applying the greatest of unnatural force to take whatever
they wanted. Tarquinius we are told is the son of a ruthless king who possessed his
kingdom by murdering his father-in-law. At this time Rome was just beginning to
amass it's great wealth, due largely to rape and pillage of neighbouring regions, where
Romans proved their metal by their barbarous deeds with sword in hand upon the
battlefield. Sixth Century BCE was before the birth of the Roman Republic, and 200
years before Socrates and Plato in neighbouring Greece, where Romans derived their
sophistication and enlightenment from. It was still a time of men on the tented field,
where heated blood leads to battles won and even generals entered the fray with
bloodied swords to smote the enemy. We can assume then that Sextus Tarquinius
was well used to negotiating physically for advancement.
But great power we know corrupts and this rape of Lucrece is not a reactive deed,
impulsive and committed in the heat of the moment, but one that is given considered
gestation and irrespective of consequences rashly executed. Tarquinius presents his
own cogent argument against his base intent, on-route to Lucrece's bedchamber -
"What win I if I gain the thing I seek? A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy. Who
buys a minute's mirth to wail a week? Or sells eternity to get a toy?" - and judiciously
as a Roman noblemen, knowing right from wrong, he rules against the action, but still
he gives head to his lust.
Of Lucrece we know only that she is a wife, married to a powerful man (who just
happens to be away in Ardea killing people). We know that she is virtuous, chaste, an
impeccable hostess, possessing all of the admired qualities of a good Roman patrician
wife. And upon this goodly person a terrible violence is committed. But post rape she
is changed, she has experienced the violent trespass of man. Now she is on her own -
she is no longer wife, she is woman hell-bent on dictating action, salvaging her
reputation and determining her own destiny: " For me, I am the mistress of my fate,
And with my trespass never will dispense, Till life to death acquit my forc'd offence."
And " My honour I'll bequeath unto the knife 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 murther shameful scorn. My
shame so dead, my honour is new born."
She seeks reference for her misery in a painting hanging on the wall (the sacking of
Troy) and finds it in Hecuba's suffering - only her face reflects the depths of despair
when all is lost (there is strength in numbers). And of all the players in this Trojan
scene it is Sinon who receives her violent out lash - his painted face scratched with
her fingernails - though he is not the engineer of so much wasteful death, he's on
hateful Helen's side ("the strumpet that began this hateful stir"). He is the deceiver
that breeches the Trojan walls and lets the worm in, like to the wolf in sheep’s
clothing or Tarquin in the night, it is he that she most despises.
With new resolve and her plan of death, she calls back her husband, and in that
gathered attendance of father, nobility and soldiers, she accounts them with what has
happened, marshals them to revengeful action, then draws forth a dagger and
dispatches her life.
Lucrece's body is carried forth and the crime and subsequent suicide are published in
the streets of Rome. Her final oration and act of self-determination so powerful that
all of Tarquins family are banished, nobles no more but outcasts thereafter. Romans
were not averse to killing, in fact quite the contrary, so for you who thinks Tarquin
should have been killed, his punishment of banishment was worse to a Roman by far.
What Shakespeare does best is hold a mirror up to nature. He gives us the internal
dialogue, the stream of consciousness, the processes by which man navigates his way
through life - 'his weary hour upon the stage'. And the share volume of his work, the
incredible number of characters and situations and their internal workings is the
reason why his plays remain so popular four hundred years after his death. They allow
us to understand ourselves and by understanding we can strive to do better, to be
better, to be more empathetic towards others, to inspire, to achieve, to be passionate,
to love, to cry, to be all that is human. Like all good literature it opens the mind of
those who are present to it.
That ASC appropriates Shakespeare's text for their own purpose seems perfectly in
keeping with tradition. It's a worthy appropriation of the Lucrece narrative, and as the
original led to the abolition of an abusive Roman Monarchy, so too do the Director,
cast and crew of this production, hope to invigorate conversation around sexual
assault, rape and rape culture in our times, in the hope that it will bring change and
Abusive power is no longer acceptable - rich over poor, strong over weak, one race
over another, male over female, discriminative sexual orientation.
Women it seems have had to change a heck of a lot throughout civilisation. Is it
possible that they have changed more than men? Not only have they had to bare and
raise the children and run the household, but also they've had to move into business
for their own financial security, to have choices outside of marriage. They've had to
fight for human rights - the right to vote, the right to determine what happens with
their own bodies, labour rights, pay equity, the right to not be relegated to a second
class 'other' as determined by outdated laws and institutions. They've been on the
front line as suffragettes, reformists, abolitionists, and they're still fighting to smash
the glass ceiling. In New Zealand, in our history we are proud of and list among our
greatest achievements, being the first country in the world to give women the vote.
Women have had to fight for every gain they've made. In contrast, men because of
their physical strength have pretty much followed the initial assignment as
breadwinners, from ape, through hunter-gatherer's until today.
But we live in a world where we no longer need warriors with swords and muscles.
Our strength needs to come from our minds, through education and raising our
consciousness, as we desperately need to move beyond greed, dominance, and
superiority. It's only through creating happiness within and welcoming inclusiveness
without that humanity can rise beyond the murder and slaughter of children, mothers
and families in Syria, or the impending apartheid in Palestinian territories, or family
violence in good old New Zealand homes.
For the love of women and for the love of mankind, come on men, hurry up and
This production deserves to return, to tour and to be fully funded by government as
the more people that get to see it the better!