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  • Confusion of Tears: The Deadened Oedipal Couple and Predatory Identifications in The Rape of Lucrece
  • Christopher W. T. Miller (bio)

“[The] extraordinarily violent instincts whose aim it is to bring about sexual union would be repeating something that had once occurred by chance and had since become established as being advantageous.”

—S. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle

“For men have marble, women waxen, minds,And therefore are they formed as marble will;The weak oppressed, the impression of strange kindsIs formed in them by force, by fraud, or skill.Then call them not the authors of their ill,No more than wax shall be accounted evilWherein is stamped the semblance of a devil.”

—Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece


The story of Lucretia and her brutal rape by prince Sextus Tarquinius (aka Tarquin), the son of the last of the Roman kings, has permeated the collective mythos over a span of centuries. Having taken place approximately in 509 BCE, one of the first descriptions of the event was by the Roman historian Livy in his work Ab Urbe Condita, written between 29 and 9 BCE. Since then, it has been revisited and examined by numerous historians, theologians, novelists, and playwrights. Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece, a narrative poem from 1594, may have been a complementary piece to Venus and Adonis, written the previous year. These were years during which the large number of plague deaths in London resulted in long periods of public theaters being closed, leading the playwright to turn to poetry. While both poems touch profoundly upon the theme of a [End Page 489] dyadic interchange where one party is romantically interested and the other is not, how the subject matter is treated is strikingly different. In Venus and Adonis, Venus playfully pursues Adonis, who resists and succumbs, avoids and approaches, discovering the bounds of his inexperience, innocence, and curiosity. It takes place out in the open, during the day. The rhyming structure is mellifluous, written in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter, rhyming ababcc. On the other hand, in The Rape of Lucrece, events take place at night, in an enclosed, claustrophobic environment. The reader feels suffocated and blinded by the intensity of the action, as well as by the denseness of the poetic elaborations Lucrece utilizes in her attempts to gain cognitive footing. The rhyme structure is different, and arguably creates more of an asymmetry, utilizing “rhyme-royal” stanzas—seven pentameter lines rhyming ababbcc. While both poems employ predator-prey character metaphors, these gain an unsettling incisiveness in Lucrece, intimating the catastrophic encounter of the fearsome perpetrator and the hapless victim. Indeed, the terms are resorted to consistently throughout the poem, in reference to Tarquin (e.g., falcon, serpent, lion, night owl, cat, gripe, wolf, vulture, thievish dog, and wasp) and to Lucrece (e.g., fowl, bird, dove, doe, hind, wearied lamb, mouse, pale swan, and bee). We are reminded that the world to which we are bearing witness is not one which allows for events to be limited to the realm of cognition and speech. Rather, as quoted below, we are exposed to a lawless wilderness, where a cornered and cowering prey is mercilessly attacked by a predator stripped of any human trappings.

[H]e shakes aloft his Roman blade,Which like a falcon towering in the skiesCoucheth the fowl below with his wings’ shade,Whose crooked beak threats if he mount he dies.So under his insulting falchion lies  Harmless Lucretia, marking what he tells  With trembling fear, as fowl hear falcons’ bells.


Regarding the outline of events, Tarquin is the son of the murderous and tyrannical king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, [End Page 490] who had caused the assassination of his father-in-law Servius Tullius and taken over the kingdom. One night, on respite from a military campaign to siege Ardea, Collatine, the husband of Lucrece, along with Tarquin and other high-ranking Roman military and noblemen, are carousingly discussing which of them has the most true and chaste of wives. When the men (in “pleasant humor”) post to Rome to collectively visit each of their abodes, they discover that all but one of the women...


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