Masculine Honor and the Fetish of Chastity in Shakespeare’s “Rape of Lucrece”

August 6, 2019 by Essay Writer

Lucrece’s tragic downfall in Shakespeare’s “Rape of Lucrece” can be largely blamed on male competition. Her hapless story begins with a contest to determine which man possesses the chastest wife, “among which Collatus extolled the incomparable chastity of his wife Lucretia” After Lucrece is proclaimed the most dutiful, Sextus Tarquinius, a Tarquin prince and friend of Collatine, becomes “inflamed with Lucrece’s beauty…treacherously stealeth into her chamber, violently ravished her, and early in the morning speedeth away.” In the rhetoric of Early Modern masculinity, the chastity of women is a cause for great anxiety, because though it is the basis of male honor, female chastity is ultimately outside of male control. Men resolve their anxiety by rendering chastity a public virtue and the basis of a woman’s social reputation; women are given a stake in their own chastity. Because of chastity’s public significance, it is both a figure of approbation and attack – and, as such, becomes a preciously guarded resource in the world of male rivalry. Collatine’s honor is contingent upon Lucrece’s ability to withhold her body from other men. “Lucrece” is a text both literally and metaphorically – like the body of the poem, the body of the character Lucrece is also intended for publication. Shakespeare’s poem, written from a male perspective, suggests male readership in lines such as “their gentle sex to weep are often willing” (1237). Likewise, Lucrece’s chastity, the basis of Collatine’s masculine identity, is written on her body and is used in “Lucrece” as an exchange between men. In addition to being a woman, Lucrece is also a commodity in the masculine economy, where masculine competition plays out in the form of desire and the metaphors of invasion and conquest are symbols of male power. Lucrece’ body is her currency in this commodity exchange.In “Rape of Lucrece”, the chaste wife brings honor and prestige to her husband. Men are judged by other men by their ability to maintain control over their wives and keep them chaste. This is a contradictory standard, for part of it stems from the men’s ability to please their wives sexually so that their wives will abstain from finding sexual gratification elsewhere. Part of it also stems from their ability to enforce a code of behavior on their wives, in which chastity is a moral value that women must somehow also embody: it is a standard written on and carried out by the female body. Men are expected to maintain control over their wives’ bodies and to have the power to turn female sexuality on or off like a switch. To exercise power over the female body, men must maintain strict transparency in their relations with their wives. To prove whose wife is the most virtuous, Tarquin’s men surprise their wives with visits “late in the night”, as if the only method of validating a woman’s honesty is to catch her while her guard is down – which already hints at an intense distrust. If men viewed women as innately chaste, female chastity would not even be a matter of discussion, must less something that needed to be tested or proven. Women, when left alone and outside of male control, could easily be found “in several disports”. Early Modern gender relations were deeply complex, and the complexities stemmed in part from the misogynistic notion that women would adhere to chastity only if their husbands imposed it upon them. It was unthinkable for women to have the free will to decide whether or not to follow societal mores. Collatine is considered exceptionally lucky “In the possession of his beauteous mate; / Reckoning his fortune at such high-proud rate / The kings might be espoused to more fame, / But king nor peer to such a peerless dame” (18-21). Shakespeare’s pun on the word “peer” indicates the pervasiveness of this notion: Lucrece is without “peer”, because her husband does not need to constantly “peer” into his wife’s private space to gauge her honesty. Her incomparable value and Collatine’s fortune both derive from Lucruce’s intrinsic virtue. Fear of female mystery, of what women do when left alone in their feminine space, causes men much anxiety, and men are constantly invading the female space to “check” female behavior.The metaphor of invasion is omnipresent in “Rape of Lucrece”, as the story is set during the Tarquin invasion of Ardea. The meta-narrative of “Lucrece” is already a story of conquest; Lucrece, a nobleman’s wife, lives under and within the grand narrative of a male power struggle. For the men in “Lucrece”, invasion is the natural method of asserting power. When Tarquin invades Collatine’s home and Lucrece’s feminine space, he is depicted as a soldier, and Lucrece is represented as his battleground, whose beauty is a “a silent war of lilies and of roses / Which Tarquin viewed in her fair face’s field” (71-71). As the battleground, the violence of conquest is carried out upon and through her, but though the war is fought over her, she is not its cause. The rape is not a sexual act, but an exercise of power – and as women in Roman and Early Modern times had little power of their own, Tarquin’s rape of Lucrece is essentially an exercise of power over Collatine. Tarquin threatens Lucrece with Collatine’s dishonor to acquire her submission, stating that if she fails to acquiesce, “thy surviving husband shall remain / The scornful mark of every open eye; / Thy kinsmen hang their heads at this disdain.” Mark Breitenberg explains:In short, Tarquin gains honor by raping the wife of someone as powerful as Collatine at the same time as he destroys his own honor. This contradiction is certainly made explicit in the poem through Tarquin’s tortured psychomania between the preservation and corruption of his own honor…it seems…that his overwhelming inescapable desire is really standing in for the inherent contradictions of a system in which men receive honor from their peers in reciprocal relationships…yet also receive honor in their conquest of the same peers.The idea of public versus private dishonor is essential to “Lucrece”, and the ways in which different characters address this conflict is representative of their virtue and integrity. Whereas Tarquin is content in his assumption that the rape will remain undisclosed, Lucrece cannot live with the idea that she is somehow reduced as a person, and she views her ultimate suicide as her only hope of redemption. “My blood shall wash the slander of mine ill; / My life’s foul deed, my life’s fair end shall free it” (1207-1208). Though Lucrece only causes pain to herself and others by publicizing her rape, her courageous honesty is portrayed as righteous, while Tarquin’s furtiveness is an act of cowardly disgrace. The importance of transparency in between-sex relationships is once again highlighted in Lucrece’s disclosure. Public acknowledgement is crucial because women can only bring their husbands honor if their chastity is advertised, but extolling a wife’s virtue commoditizes her and makes her an object of desire in the eyes of other men. This simultaneously brings men power while making them vulnerable to an usurpation of power. This paradox presents an underlying glitch in the system. Shakespeare writes, “Or why is Collatine the publisher / Of that rich jewel he should keep unknown / From thievish ears, because it is his own” (33-35)? Though he writes within a patriarchical system, Shakespeare seems to offer a critique of that patriarchy, for perhaps if Collatine did not feel the need to assert Lucrece’s chastity, if only he had recognized it as inherent, he would not have provoked Tarquin’s desire and the tragic rape could have been circumvented. Shakespeare describes how, if revealed, Lucrece would be like the morning dew under the sun, an “expired date canceled ere well begun. / Honor and beauty in the owner’s arms / Are weakly fortressed from a world of harms” (26-28). Though seemingly delineated, the notions of “public” and “private” space share fuzzy boundaries within an ideology that so closely links chastity to honor. Precisely because female chastity is so preciously guarded, it becomes a prime target for invasion and conquest.The concept of Lucrece’s personal, guarded space is evoked in Tarquin’s invasion into her private chambers. When he seeks her, even the supernatural comes to Lucrece’s aid in the guise of wind, locks, and closed doors, and Tarquin is continually deterred. The constant deferral of pleasure, however, only excites Tarquin more, and he proclaims, “These lets attend the time, / Like little forsts that sometime threat the spring, / To add a more rejoicing to the prime / And give the sneaped birds more cause to sing” (330-333). Lucrece captivates Tarquin because she is denied to him. She is in her personal chamber, a space where only her husband is permitted to enter, and Tarquin’s excitement arises not so much of his desire for Lucrece, but in his desire to penetrate a space where he is expressly forbidden. Shakespeare does not linger on the act of the rape itself, but focuses instead on the chase: Lucrece is the hunted, Tarquin is the hunter, and the thrill – for both Tarquin and the reader – is in the hunt. Michael Hall writes:The long description of Tarquin’s movement to Lucrece’s bedroom is full of martial images and suggestions of stealth, power, and mastery. These images ensure that Tarquin’s assault will be seen within the traditional conquest-narrative form and that there will be the resulting thrill of the chase. After Tarquin rapes Lucrece, it is as if she has lost the entirety of her appeal; he has satiated his desire, committed the ultimate act of power, and has nothing left to prove. Hall elaborates:The basic form through which hunting, battle, and rape were all represented is both straightforward and familiar: a man or group of men select and attack and object…which resists and is eventually defeated…Individual men could play out conquest narratives, but the reason the stories needed to be told at all was to establish group identity, and to assert the values associated with masculinity. So when the stories are about individuals, the point is to reinforce male group identity.Tarquin’s singular act of rape is an assertion not of just his power over Collatine, but also of his superiority to other men, who are denied the thrill of the chase because Tarquin deflowered Lucrece’ marital chastity. In this sense, rape is a profoundly social act. In the male economy, Lucrece’s commodity value derives from the forbidden nature of her chastity. Once she has been conquered by Tarquin, once the lines have been broached, her value plummets – not simply for Collatine, but for all men.Lucrece is fundamentally caught up in the patriarchy of her time. Her moral system is centered on two conflicting patriarchical ideologies: Roman and Christian theological notions of morality. The Roman ideology states that if a woman is raped, she is somehow reduced as person, that she has been defiled as a result. There is no duality of mind and body, for a woman is her body, and though her mind may be innocent of the rape, her body bears its pollution. A woman can, however, regain her virtue by literally purging herself of her dishonor; she can kill herself. The Christian theological ideology states that it is immoral for Lucrece to commit suicide, because suicide is a sin against God. Despite her tainted body, Lucrece’s mind is free of sin, and thus she is free from blame. Shakespeare gives Lucrece a choice in how to view herself after the rape, but it is a choice based on masculine terms. Lucrece’s agency is limited by two conflicting partriarchical discourses: she must adopt one of two incompatible notions, and her inner conflict is evident in lines such as, “If, Collatine, thine honor lay in me, / From me by strong assault it is bereft: / My honey lost, and I, a dronelike bee, / Have no perfection of my summer left” (834-837) and “Though my gross blood be stain’d with this abuse, / Immaculate and spotless is my mind” (1655-1666). Lucrece realizes that she is trapped in a paradox, but she cannot escape it: “My body or my soul, which was the dearer, / When the one pure the mother made divine” (1163-1166)? Breitenberg writes, “Although Shakespeare clearly intends to show the emptiness and self-destructiveness of Tarquin’s rapacity, there is little suggestion of a way out of the wolfish marketplace in which masculine desire is spurred to violent extremes by the fetishization of chastity.” Lucrece’ misery, in part, stems from her lack of agency, but it also stems from the agony of choice, from the fact that her only recourse is to adopt an ideology she does not understand. Lucrece spends the last half of the poem literally figuring out what to do with herself. Though she decides almost instantly after Tarquin leaves that she must kill herself, her internal monologue is fundamentally conflicted to the very end. In fact, she goes as far as to ask Collatine and his men, “May my pure mind with the foul act dispense, / my low-declined honor to advance? May any terms acquit me from this chance” (1704-1706). She does not commit suicide until after “they all at once began to say / Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears” (1709-1710).Despite her awareness that she is a victim and not a perpetrator, Lucrece eventually commits suicide because she cannot live with her body. Lucrece’s mind may be pure, but she is convinced that the evidence of the rape has permanently branded her person, and consequently Collatine’s honor. Lucrece’s failed chastity and Collatine’s compromised honor is written on her body, and this knowledge causes Lucrece so much distress that she chooses to die. Lucrece’s body is, throughout the play, a symbol that is not her own, one that she does not control. In Early Modern gender politics, the body of women was a political symbol, and women’s cares were flouted on their bodies like emblems. Lucrece relates to the figure of Hecuba in the tapestry depicting the fall of Troy, because “In her, the painter had anatomized / Time’s ruin, beauty’s wrack, and grim care’s reign; / Her cheeks with chops and wrinkles were disguised, / Of what she was no semblance did remain” (1450-1453). Hecuba, like Lucrece, registers her sorrows physically. But as Jonathan Crewe clarifies, “She cannot fully identify with old Queen Hecuba as tragic victim, and does not want to be identified with the suspect Helen…The figure on whom she surprisingly yet revealingly fixes is that of Sinon, the traitor who brought about Troy’s downfall.” Lucrece feels as if she has somehow betrayed Collatine, though she knows that her soul is blameless. It is as if the transparency that men enforce in their relations with their wives somehow externalizes the female psyche on their bodies, perpetuating the myth that a wife cannot hide anything from her husband; her body is not her own, but his. Lucrece’s body is viewed as a text, and she laments: Make me not object to the telltale day;The light will show charactered in my browThe story of sweet chastity’s decay,The impious breach of holy wedlock vow;Yea, the illiterate that know not howTo cipher what is writ in learned booksWill quote my loathsome trespass in my looks. (806-812) The female body is never merely a body; it always represents a resource for male exchange. At the beginning of “Rape of Lucrece”, her body serves as a token of Collatine’s honor, but after she is raped it wears the badge of scandal and shame. At the end of the poem, Lucrece’s body becomes a symbol of the unification of Rome, when Collatine and his men appeal to the Roman people to banish the Tarquins.To the modern reader, Collatine and his men appear appallingly unsympathetic in their decision to use Lucrece’s suicide as an excuse to unite Rome. However, this decision is not surprising, for the political significance of the body is a pervasive theme throughout the play. Another indication of Lucrece’s position as a politicized male object is in her importance as the carrier of Collatine’s lineage. She is his vessel: her duty is to reproduce, and the male child that Lucrece is expected to birth will act as an extension of Collatine’s power. Lucrece’s place in the household and in society is as her husband’s wife and her son’s mother. A woman’s importance as the carrier of paternal lineage is a cause of great unease in Early Modern literature. Women, not men, are the determiners of lineage, because though women bear children, men cannot prove legitimacy – it is a matter of faith. The importance of chastity is greatly heightened because the chaste wife cannot bear children other than her husband’s, and chastity is the only virtue that ensures rightful patriarchic lineage. Tarquin is fully aware that by raping Lucrece he might impregnate her: “I have debated even in my soul/ What wrong, what shame, what sorrow I shall breed” (498-499). Rather than being a deterrent, this is a source of sadistic pleasure: “Yet strive I to embrace mine infamy” (504). To abort the possibility of bearing Tarquin’s child and polluting Collatine’s family line, Lucrece’s suicide is a virtual necessity. “This bastard graff shall never come to growth; / He shall not boast who did they stock pollute / That thou art doting father of his fruit” (1062-1064). Margo Hendricks uses the analogy of race, stating: The ironic paradox, of course, is that this sign is invisible except as it affects the imaginative threads of that locus of racial identity – heraldry. In Lucrece’s mind, once the rape has been committed its inscription becomes indelibly etched on her body and, by extension, on Collatine’s lineage. Where this sign becomes visible, as both Lucrece and Tarquin make clear, is in the heraldic depiction of their individual racial history. This illustrative signifier of race is understood to be the site where a nobleman’s lineage, honor, and, importantly, acts of dishonor are publicly displayed. Lucrece’s chaste mind is prized because her chastity materializes as a “pureP body, and her worth as a woman derives from the value of that body.At her death, Collatine mourns the loss not so much of a woman, but of a possession: “Let no mourner say / He weeps for her, for she was only mine, / And only must be wailed by Collatine” (1797-1799). She is mourned for by her father as a possession too, for Lucretius laments: That life was mine which thou hast here deprived;If in the child the father’s image lies, Where shall I live now Lucrece is unlived? Thou wast not to this end from me derived:If children predecease progenitors,We are their offspring, and they none of ours. (1752-1757)Lucretius grieves for the loss of his line. Lineage is deeply connected with notions of male honor, and Lucrece’s rape has corrupted the bloodlines of three men – Tarquin, Collatine, and Lucretius – corrpution that only her death can effectively erase. The very blood that spills from Lucrece’s dead body shows the corruption of her line, for “Some of her blood still pure and red remained, / And some looked black, and that false Tarquin stained” (1742-1743). Junius Brutus appeals to revenge Lucrece’s death by saying, “And by this chaste blood so unjustly stained” (1836): because of her stained bloodline, the men have the duty to overthrow the Tarquin king and instill a Republic in Rome. The Tarquins are driven out because they have lost the right to rule; the honor of their lineage is undone with Sextus’ abominable actions. When Lucrece pleads with Tarquin to spare her, she says, “Thou art not what thou seem’st; and if the same, / Thou seem’st not what thou art, a god, a king, / For kings like gods should govern everything” (600-602). Tarquin disgraces his family line when he rapes Lucrece, and is no longer worthy of becoming king. His punishment, however, does not directly fit the crime of rape. Instead, it fits the social consequence of rape: dishonor. Tarquin dishonors himself by raping Lucrece, and Collatine and his men punish Tarquin simply by carrying out that dishonor on the political stage. Lucrece’s suicide is carried out on terms borrowed from the masculine ideology, and her revenge is executed through the field of male politics. Her body is, through the entirety of the poem, the possession of a patriarchic system.A woman’s body exists under the constant scrutiny of the male gaze, and “Rape of Lucrece” is rife with references to male eyes. Tarquin has a “traitor eye” (73), “still-gazing eyes” (84), “stranger eyes” (95), a “lustful eye” (179), “greedy eyeballs” (368), a “willfull eye” (417), a “burning eye” (435), and “a cocatrice’s dead-killing eye” (540). Lucrece is fully aware of the male gaze, because she knows that her death will redeem her honor. Her suicide means nothing to her once she is dead; her worth can only redeem her in the eyes of the living. This constant surveillance is a cause of distress for Lucrece, because there is nothing she can hide, no semblance of privacy for what is her own:Revealing day through every cranny spies,And seems to point her out where she sits weeping, To whom she sobbing speaks: “O eye of eyes, Why pry’st thou through my window? Leave they peeping;Mock with they tickling beams eyes that are sleeping.(1086-1090) When Lucrece mourns for Hecuba in the tapestry of the burning Troy, she states “And with my knife scratch out the angry eyes / Of all the Greeks that are thine enemies” (1469-1470). Lucrece’s commodity value in the masculine economy is determined by the male gaze, and despite her misgivings, she finds solace in knowing that her value will rise when the men see her dead body. In fact, after she dies, Collatine and his men “show her bleeding body through Rome, / And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offense” (1851-1852). Like “Lucrece” the poem, Lucrece the person is a text written in a masculine language, experienced through male eyes. And like a text, Lucrece expresses herself through the publication and circulation of her chaste body.

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