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Tarquin Dispossessed: Expropriation and Consent in The Rape of Lucrece

From: Shakespeare Quarterly
Volume 52, Number 3, Fall 2001
pp. 315-335 | 10.1353/shq.2001.0037

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Shakespeare Quarterly 52.3 (2001) 315-335


Lucrece tells a story about possession. The woman at the center of the story is treated as the proper possession of her husband -- or perhaps her father: propriety evidently defines women as property in Shakespeare's Rome. But possessions can be expropriated and property-owners may be dispossessed. Tarquin, driven to lawless violence by an irresistible desire, takes improper possession of the wife of his comrade-in-arms. Thus possessed, however, in the sense that he is impelled to act against his own judgment, Tarquin loses his self-possession and, in the process, his identity as friend, kinsman, prince, Roman lord. Publicly exposed, shamed by Lucrece's suicide, and driven from his proper place in Rome, along with the entire royal family that had taken possession of the city, Tarquin is thus doubly dispossessed by a woman's constancy.

Recent criticism is divided on the sexual politics of the poem. Reacting incisively against those male readers who had followed St. Augustine to find Lucretia guilty of vainglory or, worse, colluding with her own rape, critics influenced by feminism have predominantly seen Shakespeare's Lucrece as instead the victim of patriarchal values, whether the passive object of a struggle between men or in her suicide complicit with masculine misogyny. A minority of other equally feminist arguments, however, powerfully defend her as an exemplum of female virtue or hold her up as a model of resistance to patriarchy. Since each of these opposed but still broadly feminist cases can seem remarkably persuasive, is it possible that Shakespeare's text is less univocal in its project or less stable in its signifying practices than the existing arguments have been inclined to acknowledge?

To a degree, the opposition between the two possible feminist readings is built into the term rape itself. So apparently categorical, so decisive as condemnation of the perpetrator, in relation to the person injured the word equivocates. On the one hand, victims of rape are the helpless objects of outside violence; on the other, they actively resist the rapist, demonstrate by their behavior that the act is perpetrated against their will. Indeed, it is the contradictory combination of passivity and resistance that defines the event as rape, at least in modern Western usage, if less certainly in 1594, when the term included abduction as well as sexual violation. To the extent that equivocation is a precipitating element in cultural change, as meanings shift, give way, or narrow to specify alternative ways of interpreting the world, perhaps we can also read Lucrece in its historical difference, as marking a moment of early modern cultural redefinition, which is registered in the story of possession and dispossession it recounts.

The text does not appear to equivocate, however, in its endorsement of woman as property. Collatine, the proud husband, cannot contain his own conjugal happiness but is evidently compelled to tell his fellow soldiers "What priceless wealth the heavens had him lent, / In the possession of his beauteous mate" (ll. 17-18). And if the narrative voice reproaches him here, the reason is neither his proprietary attitude toward his wife nor, indeed, his identification of her as a precious asset but his public announcement of the value of the goods he possesses: "why is Collatine the publisher/ Of that rich jewel he should keep unknown / From thievish ears, because it is his own?" (ll. 33-35). Meanwhile, Lucrece herself does not challenge these mercantile comparisons, though after the rape she understandably narrows their reference. Lucrece twice alludes to her body as her husband's "'interest,'" figuring it as his investment or share in a company (ll. 1067, 1619); she also describes her chastity as stolen "'treasure'" (l. 1056), a lost "'jewel'" (l. 1191). And the narrative itself confirms her account, defining the betrayed Collatine as "the hopeless merchant of this loss" (l.1660). While these images do not necessarily imply any lack of tenderness between the couple -- on the contrary, the marital relationship is depicted as warmly affectionate -- they seem to take for granted that wives belong to their husbands. Tarquin himself perceives that, while she is not lawfully his to possess, she is also "'not her...

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