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  • The Elizabethan Cipher in Shakespeare’s Lucrece
  • Miriam Jacobson

I. Ciphers and the Rape of Lucrece

The prologue to Henry V (1600) contains perhaps the most famous Shakespearean use of the word cipher, the Elizabethan word for zero, but The Rape of Lucrece (1594) predates both the performance and publication of Henry V by six years and contains not one but three different uses of cipher.1 All three occur at crucial dramatic moments in the poem, when Tarquin contemplates violating Lucrece, when Lucrece imagines the rape writing itself on her body, and when Lucrece confronts her inability to have forseen the rape by examining a painted wall hanging of the Trojan war. In The Rape of Lucrece, the cipher is inextricably linked with rape. Rape—both imagined and real—impresses ciphers upon and around Tarquin’s and Lucrece’s bodies; rape publishes streams of Os in its wake.2 But Tarquin’s tyrannical attempt to silence Lucrece backfires: the knowledge of the rape surfaces repeatedly throughout the text in circular and cryptic ciphers, configuring Lucrece’s body as a succession of Os and as a secret text constantly revealing [End Page 336] itself. The many senses of cipher in the poem—to embody absence, to suggest a mercantile economy, to multiply, to signify cryptically, and to generate meaning—combine with imagery of circular figures to demonstrate that rape, like murder, “will out,” in this case profusely and productively. Moreover, by making Lucrece the author and publisher of this plethora of ciphers, the poem dissolves the tawdry Renaissance commonplace that compares a woman’s body and genitalia to a nothing or an empty O: this woman’s body is productive, generative, and will not stop until its story of violation is told.3 Unlike Ophelia’s voiceless body that represents, according to Elaine Showalter, “the cipher of female sexuality to be deciphered by feminist interpretation,” Lucrece’s body and speech decipher themselves.4 Current critical analyses of The Rape of Lucrece tend to emphasize the poem’s investment in metaphors of reading, writing, and rhetoric.5 What I will argue instead is that the poem’s use of material textuality to tell the story of rape is tied up with its interest in the polysemic figure of the cipher. The poem uses the cipher graphically and metaphorically to configure economically, write, print, and publish the story of Lucrece’s rape. The cipher’s Eastern origins have been occluded by its use in a “Roman” poem, but the very presence of this Eastern import is what allows for The Rape of Lucrece to imagine rape as a force that repeatedly writes Os onto violated bodies and texts, in effect, as a kind of violent printing press.6 Before turning [End Page 337] to The Rape of Lucrece, I will first establish the generative economics of the Elizabethan cipher through its etymology and examine in detail an early modern association of the cipher with rape in the mythological figure of Zephyrus.

II. Etymology

A curious letter can be found in the final pages of Champfleury, Geofroy Tory’s 1529 illustrated treatise on the graphic proportion of the Roman alphabet. Tory concludes his book with a series of ornamental typefaces and foreign alphabets. The final letter of Tory’s Arabic alphabet is not an Arabic letter at all but a quasi-circular figure (more of an oval) that Tory labels nulla in the accompanying text.7 It appears opposite, in the bottom left hand corner of figure 1.

Reading this alphabet in the Arabic order as Tory advises, right to left, top to bottom, places the ovoid figure at the alphabet’s end. The letter might represent the Arabic letter ’, third from the end in modern Arabic. However, nulla is one of the Latin words for nothing, which suggests that the circular symbol also represents the Renaissance symbol for zero. Tory grounds his argument about the proportion of Roman lettering on the perfection of the circular letter “O,” but nowhere in his text does a comparison between the letter “O” and the number zero arise. The only evidence of zero’s presence and its resemblance to “O” lies hidden in the back...


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