The Captive Victor

In Lucrece, the political allegory and the reality of the rape are connected through the language of the poem from the very first stanza:

From the besieged Ardea all in post,

Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,

Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire

Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire

And girdle with embracing flames the waist

Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste. (1-7)

Here, we see Tarquin heading for Collatium from Ardea as if on a warpath, moving from one conquest to another, from the military to the domestic, carrying the language of the further directly into the latter. This is the image one expects when embarking on this poem – that of the rapists as an insensitive brute who cannot distinguish the deeds of the battlefield from the deeds of the bedroom, going off to ruin the chaste union between a valiant warrior and his ideal wife. Yet the very next thought blurs this clean dichotomy: “Haply that name of ‘chaste’ unhapp’ly set/This bateless edge on (Tarquin’s) keen appetite” (8-9).

The rape to come is clearly no typical deed of passion, inspired by the flesh. At these lines, Tarquin has not even seen Lucrece, yet he is determined to have her, and in this metaphor, his determination is not a ramification of his own free will. On the contrary, he has been hooked. Here, Tarquin, the rapist, the military victor set to conquer another captive, is himself viewed as the captive. Yet to what he is captive is unclear.

If we follow the metaphor of the word ‘chaste’ as a type of bait used to hook Tarquin, Collatine has set the hook by bragging about his wife, which inevitably leads to her rape, robbing him of the very thing about which he bragged. Yet Tarquin is not Collatine’s captive, because Collatine does not control the bait, so one could read further into the metaphor, and conclude that Tarquin and Collatine are both acting as any agents would near the catalysts of purity that is Lucrece – a conclusion that Shakespeare does not shy away from just one stanzas later, with the lines, “Beauty of itself doth itself persuade/The eyes of men without an orator.” (29-30) As if it took no effort, action, words, or participants to put this series of events into motion; as if they would have happened by and because of Lucrece’s very nature.

Yet as we witness later on, Lucrece is extremely active and thoughtful about maintaining her status as pure – indeed, she is willing to sacrifice her life for it. However, she clearly cannot be held accountable for being raped because she has cultivated an image of purity. Instead, the reader is lead to feel that all of these characters are caught up in a constant mutability of roles, from captive to victor, depending on how they’re viewed, which takes us right back to the language of the poem, the language of both politics and domestics, and the dangers of that linguistic ambiguity – the danger that one can talk themselves into anything, even the most heinous acts (in this poem, rape and suicide) and feel justified.

Shakespeare first explores this through Tarquin’s inner-debate about whether or not to rape Lucrece. Though he desires her throughout, he cannot justify the rape while considering himself a victor in the deed. In fact, he goes to great length to explain that he is sacrificing far more than he stands to gain:

What win I if I gain the thing I seek?

A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.

Who buys a minutes mirth to wail a week,

Or sells eternity to get a toy?

For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy,

Or what fonder beggar, but to touch the crown,

Would with the scepter straight be strucken down? (211-217)

Yet these questions are tricky, rhetorical devices. While he does not answer them, they imply what is inevitable. It is obviously impossible to quantify what he will gain, so he searches in words like dream and breath, both of which, in other places, Shakespeare uses to describe the entirety of human experience; yet he knows what the rape is worth to him – a minute’s mirth – but he cannot be straightforward with himself about this fact, no, with his ambiguous language, he inserts that phrase into a rhetorical question of its own: Who buys a minutes mirth to wail a week? The answer is, of course, everyone, playing up the natural tendency behind his unnatural deed. And this is the logic that motivates him to leave his bedchamber:

‘Affection is my captain and he leadeth

And, when his gaudy banner is displayed,

The coward fights, and will not be dismayed. (271-283)

Here, he uses political language not only to make himself seem like the captive of some nominative emotion, but also equates his following that emotion’s commands to the loyalty of a soldier.

Yet his deed is unnatural, in that it goes against so many of the orders considered natural by the society in which it occurs: it is the guest rising up against the host, it is a friend betraying a friend, it is a violation of the sanctity of marriage, and it is the defilement of purity; none of which would have been lost on Shakespeare’s Ptolemaic-era readership. And neither would the fact that he, Tarquin, a prince, blurs the political and domestic boundaries by raping Lucrece, his subject. In fact, it takes no stretch of the imagination to read this as a commentary on the domestic-political line-blurring abuse of power that was feudal rights.

As the argument points out, long before this poem takes place, Tarquin’s family seized the kingdom, a political move which Tarquin seems to be reliving domestically in seizing Lucrece’s body, imagining it as a castle under siege: “Whose ranks of blue veins as his hands did scale/Left their round turrets destitute and pale.” (440-442) This parallel allows the allegorical and literal readings of the rape to inform one another: it condemns the seizing of the kingdom by implying that the justification for doing so was as self-satisfying and harmful to others as rape, and in turn condemns the rape as more than just a lustful sin – as the type of sin that harms all of society. It is indeed both at the same time, and Lucrece points it out as such when she tries to talk Tarquin out of raping her:

‘This deed will make thee only loved for fear,

But happy monarchs still are feared for love.

With foul offenders thou perforce must bear,

When they in thee the like offences prove.

If but for fear of this, thy will remove.

For princes are the glass, the school, the book,

Where subjects’ eyes do learn, do read, do look. (610-617)

But as we have seen, he made himself believe such restraint was beyond his power, that he was doomed to ruin his life, and that of all of his heirs. And while the reader may have believed this was a form of self-deception he used to justify taking that which would harm another, while actually making himself happy, when he leaves her bedchamber with the following lines, we are left feeling like he has been the abused captive in some sort of war:

(Ev’n in this thought) through the dark night he stealeth,

A captive victor that hath lost in gain,

Bearing away the wound that nothing healeth,

The scar that will despite the cure remain;

Leaving his spoil perplex’d in greater pain:

She bears the load of lust he left behind,

And he the burden of a guilty mind. (729-735)

This equation of Tarquin and Lucrece’s feelings immediately after the rape does not sit well with the reader, yet the rhetoric disturbs further as it begins exploring Lucrece’s thoughts toward suicide.

Immediately after the rape, the reader hopes Lucrece will offer the perspective on the deed that we feel Tarquin has been avoiding with his logic; we expect and anticipate her to curse him for his infamy. Yet we are not given that relief. Instead, we see her feeling “shame(ful)” (756), and “impure” (761). As we see after her tirade against night, her first concern, preparatory to anything else, is for her image, both now, and in the future:

‘Make me not object to the tell-tale Day.
The light will show, charactered in my brow,
The story of sweet chastity’s decay,
The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;
Yea, the illiterate, that know not how
To cipher what is writ in learned books,

Will quote my loathsome trespass in my looks. (806-813)

While “sweet chastity’s decay,” and “The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;” can easily be read as her comments on Tarquin’s deed, these infamies will be read on her brow, not his, and the possessive pronoun in “my loathsome trespass,” plays right into the obscured agency of Tarquin’s logic, also confusing it because of its political language, which here leaves the question of who trespassed against who unclear. As Katherine Maus points out in her essay, “Taking Tropes Seriously,” for Lucrece, these moral ambiguities have literally fatal consequences.

They become fatal consequence not only because Lucrece feels impure, but because she has built her entire life around her purity. After the rape, Lucrece feels entirely powerless because Tarquin made her consent, in a way, to the deed (a war time political allegory in itself). Because of this, she believes that she could potentially be pregnant with Tarquin’s child. If she is, society will truly judge her impure, which to her, is worse than death. So she believes that the only way to save her purity, and Collatine’s reputation, and thus her eternal reputation, is to kill herself.

This conclusion, like Tarquin’s conclusion to rape Lucrece, though thought-out for many pages, and logically well-justified, is unsettling to the reader, because with her language, Lucrece cannot firmly assert and believe that she was a victim, nor use that knowledge to enact revenge on Tarquin for the right reason – to take back her life. Instead, she condemns herself to death, showing the reader that she values her narrow, fragile reputation more than her own life. This surely makes her a less sympathetic character than she was immediately after the rape, yet we cannot judge her alone for her reaction, because through Lucrece, Shakespeare is not only defining his character’s values, but the values of the society about which he’s writing, and therein lies his harshest criticism.

It is not entirely Lucrece’s fault that she sees no other road to glory than purity, which results in her death. That Lucrece can only live by her reputation, and only build that reputation on the word ‘purity,’ which is inevitably taken from the bedroom and used on the battlefield, and then inevitably taken back from the battlefield to the bedroom, bloodied, is the true tragedy of this poem. And that tragedy is the result of a flaw greater than that of any single character, it is the flaw of their society, and its rhetoric. Every time the political language of battle is used by these characters to frame their emotions in this very personal story, agency is skewed, as it is in war, and the affect is very off-putting.

This is because war, and thus the language that represents it, is by its very nature morally ambiguous in that there are always at least two perspectives thereon; thus it will always appear a victory for one side, and an equal and opposite defeat for the other side. And, as both Lucrece and Tarquin acknowledge, only future history’s glory can finally crown the victor; yet it is impossible to predict how history will judge any deed, and how long that judgment will last, a point exemplified by the representations of politics and rape in this very poem, which proves that the line between captive and victor can be forever re-evaluated, and is thus never fully framed. And never will be fully framed as long as political language is applied to the domestic: there is no way to substantiate an argument for singular agency in this poem.

Shakespeare brings all of this together quite masterfully in the digression near the end of Lucrece, in which he takes his poem’s ideal of domesticity, Lucrece, and, as she’s waiting to kill herself, in a poem where the language of war resounds, has her contemplate a painting of the greatest historical war scene of all, the fall of Troy. This detailed digression, from line 1366 to 1561, is one of the finest of its form. It not only comments on the themes and characters of the complaint, but also further explores Lucrece’s inner-turmoil, while artfully covering the time that elapses between her messenger’s departure and return, and, with its subject matter and placement in the poem, it allows the reader to mull over the bulk of the poem and the relationship of its action to its political allegory – to regroup, if you will – just before the final scene.

Of this digression, Katherine Maus says,

(Lucrece) turns to a representation of the Trojan war for relief, not because it offers her the possibility of consolation, but because its novelty inspires her with new ways to describe and understand, and thus to experience her despair. (Bloom, 84)

This is true of the way Lucrece frames the painting: she begins by likening herself to her most obvious literary parallel, Helen, the raped treasure of Troy, and goes on to liken herself to more and more disenfranchised women. She draws conclusions the poem has been leading to, like that pure verbalization is her only means of striking back. Yet her framing of the painting is not the greatest one this digression offers.

In her book, Captive Victors, Heather Dubrow points out that there is a,

narrowness of vision symbolized by the fact that (Lucrece) focuses so much attention on Hecuba and so little on the other characters in the Troy tapestry and what they represent (Dubrow, 128).

While Lucrece uses what she can see to frame the rape for herself, Shakespeare uses what Lucrece cannot see to frame the rape for us, the readers. We see that the events the raping of Helen inspires far outweigh the rape itself, we see that Hecuba’s reaction to Priam’s wounds was grotesquely disproportionate, and we see that Philomel gains an eternal voice through her agony. So it is with the final image of the painting on which Lucrece focuses – that of Sinon, one of the most morally mutable characters in all of literature – the original captive victor – who won a war with his words and tears.

Lucrece naturally equates Sinon with Tarquin, because she notes that they both deceived their hosts. She curses him and proclaims the calm depicted in his brow to be a lie on the part of the painter. Yet his calm can also be seen as a masterful rendition of an actor who contains his terrified emotions, and plays a part to win a war with tears.

And when we see Lucrece win her battle against Tarquin This can be applied to almost every character and level of this poem. Surely Tarquin was deceptive, and we could also read his sadness as he leaves her bedchamber as an act to inspire future history to pity him. But also, in the very next scene, when Lucrece, bent on revenge, wins her war against Tarquin with highly calculated words and tears, we see that she is as much of a Tinon as Tarquin. With this parallel to the painting, and the ambiguity of the painters rendition just called into question, we become acutely aware that a new interpretation of the entire poem is being brought forth to the surface, and that the artists, Shakespeare, through this self-reflective moment, is trying to make us understand that the whole truth can only be understood when both contrary truths are simultaneously, fully embraced, in life, and in death. For when Lucrece kills herself, she terminates any pregnancy that might have been, washing away any ambiguities there might have been, and sealing both her and Tarquin’s fate, if it were not for this re-viewing through the eye of the poet, who finds a deeper guilt in the atrocities of this poem than any character involved in this history can perceive.


Works cited:

The Oxford Shakespeare Complete Sonnets and Poems, Series Editor: Stanley Wells,

General Editor: Colin Burrow; Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., (2002)

Bloom, Harold, Bloom’s Major Poets, Chelsea House Publishers, Broompall, PA (199)

Maus, Katherine Eisaman, “Taking Tropes Seriously: Language and Violence in

Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece,” (pp. 84-86)

Dubrow, Heather, Captive Victors: Shakespeare’s Narrative Poems and Sonnets. (Ithaca,

NY: Cornell University Press, 1987)

Works referenced:

Bate, Johnathan, Shakespeare and Ovid, Clarendon Paperbacks, Oxford University Press,

Oxford, U.K., (1993)

Fineman, Joel, Shakespeare’s Perjured Eye, University of California Press, Berkley and

Los Angeles, California (1986)

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