top of page

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

tainted be'

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!


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page