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Public Wounds: Sexual Bodies and the Origins of State in Nathaniel Lee's Lucius Junius Brutus JOYCE G. MacDONALD The story of the rape of the modest Roman matron Lucrèce by TarquÃ-n, the prince of the reigning oligarchy, and her subsequent suicide has had a long and varied life in western historiography, mythology, literature, and visual art. Ian Donaldson, the foremost historian of this story, believes that it can sustain at least two major threads of interpretation: one which focuses on the heroine's private, ethical dilemma, and a "public aspect... relating to the exercise of public office."1 In retellings of the myth focused on this latter aspect, Lucrèce 's rape and suicide—the momentous events which the Roman historian Livy regarded as the occasions which forced Rome's change from monarchy to republic—recede into the background. Nathaniel Lee's play Lucius Junius Brutus, which takes up events in the city immediately following the public revelation of Lucrèce 's rape and suicide, clearly belongs among these political approaches to the story.2 In Lee's hands, Lucrèce 's story becomes Brutus' story, a fevered account of his leadership of the overthrow of the Tarquins and his attempts to enforce a new model of governmental probity. And yet, I will be arguing in this paper that despite Lee's interest in Brutus' leadership of the Roman revolution, his play does not—cannot—neatly distinguish between the private, familial and sexual on one hand, and the public, magisterial, and governmental on the other. In fact, the play's obsession with bodily behaviors—particularly the sexual 229 230 / MacDONALD conduct of Brutus' son Titus as he falls in love with Tarquin's daughter Teraminta—is what makes its rigidly patriarchal politics visible. To date, most discussion of the politics of Lucius Junius Brutus has focused on its factional affiliations during the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis of the late 1670s and early 1680s. One critical consensus held that the play is strongly anti-monarchical and proto-Whiggish in its sympathies, and thus aligned with the faction insisting on the exclusion of King Charles II's openly Catholic brother James Duke of York from the succession.3 That it was cancelled three days into its first run because of what the Lord Chamberlain's office characterized as its "Scandalous Expressions & Reflections upon [the] Government" provided powerful evidence in favor of such views.4 Noting the difficulty the play seems to have in portraying its politics in a consistent and unconflicted manner, however, other readers of the play have been more reluctant to index its polemical style to contemporary affairs; Antony Hammond, for example, characterizes the external evidence for its Whiggism as "largely wanting."5 Victoria Hayne argues that the "textual and political instability" inhering in the figure of Lucius Junius Brutus was such as to make him equally available to markedly different interpretations, and that his presence in Lee's play points to a radical "cultural suspicion of language" as a vehicle of coherent meaning.6 A recognition of the methodological difficulties attending the assignment of a particular set of political convictions to a literary text has sometimes seemed to result in readings of the play from which any kind of Restoration politics has been evacuated, so that it has been characterized as a dramatic projection of "personal anxieties and aggressions on to a socio-political backdrop," in a "process" which destroys "potential political messages and idealistic constructs."7 I share the perception of such readers as Hammond and Hayne that it is extremely difficult to discern a consistent party politics in Lucius Junius Brutus; the feverish extremity of the action seems designed to elicit more than a mere establishment of correspondences between dramatic characters and the participants in the Popish Plot or Exclusion Crisis as the stable meaning of the play.8 Paying closer attention to the play's perception of the body as civic signifier may offer the advantage of breaking this allegorical bottleneck. The relationship between bodies and states is, after all, a central point of disagreement in interpretations of the story of Lucrèce; among those early modern philosophers who read the story...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1938-6133
Print ISSN
0360-2370
Pages
pp. 229-244
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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