Word and Action in Shakespeare’s ‘The Rape of Lucrece’

The two things that I find most compelling in William Shakespeare’s work are his use of language, his rhetoric that is at once beautiful, captivating and often heartbreaking, and the violence that permeates so many of his texts. Today I’d like to discuss exactly that: word and action in two of my favourite works by Shakespeare. This discussion will be split into two parts. This post will discuss Shakespeare’s narrative poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, and the second will be concerned with his play, Titus Andronicus. In both of these texts, William Shakespeare seems to suggest the inherently problematic nature of rhetoric — of figurative rhetoric in particular. In the realm of each of these narratives, it seems as though there must be a clear distinction between language and action, that there is delicate balance between the two that must not be toyed with, and when that balance is tipped, violence erupts as a consequence. Characters across the two texts frequently use metaphor to help them to make sense of the situation that they find themselves in, but oftentimes, this rhetoric overwhelms them; it becomes authoritative and the balance between word and action is upset. Rhetoric and action must stay entirely separate in Shakespeare’s work; if rhetoric is allowed too much authority, it begins to incite, and will go on to engender, horribly violent acts.

Metaphor sits confidently within the realm of language as ‘a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable’. It is often used as a rhetorical device in attempt to articulate something difficult or incomprehensible and, perhaps for this reason, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ is a heavily figurative poem. Shakespeare applies metaphor a great deal in the narrative, particularly when adopting the perspective of Tarquin. As he stands over Lucrece’s sleeping body before he violently rapes her, Tarquin sculpts the slumbering woman into a piece of land, untouched as he imagines Lucrece’s breasts as ‘a pair of maiden worlds unconquered’. In this application of metaphor, it seems that Shakespeare depicts Tarquin, who is violently aroused by the sight of Lucrece’s beauty, attempting to cohere that which he sees by comparing something overwhelmingly evocative, her body, to something that seems much more palpable. It is clear, in these lines, that we are in the realm of metaphor, of language; we know that Tarquin is looking at Lucrece’s body and that the ‘maiden worlds’ metaphor is just that, a metaphor. Slightly later in the scene, however, Shakespeare blurs the boundary between language and action. Shakespeare illustrates Tarquin’s first crude caress of Lucrece: ‘Smoking with pride, [he] marched on to make his stand | On her bare breast, the heart of all her land’. Once again, Shakespeare uses figurative language to turn Lucrece’s body into a piece of land to be conquered, but this time, Tarquin acts upon that body and the careful balance between word and action is disrupted. Shakespeare writes that Tarquin ‘make[s] his stand’ on Lucrece’s breast. To ‘make a stand’, is to ‘hold one’s ground against or halting to resist an opposing force’ (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and so Shakespeare’s metaphor is implicative of military force; Lucrece’s body is assailable land and Tarquin will be the one to conquer it. The metaphor is no longer simply rhetorical; it is a complicated fusion of language and action and it is no longer clear that the two are separate entities.

It is not just this fusion that is significant in these lines, it is also important to note the context into which these lines are borne. Tarquin is a Roman soldier, the son of the last king of Rome. In Shakespeare’s ‘Argument’, he reveals that Tarquin, alongside Collatine and other Roman soldiers, had travelled to Ardea to lay siege to the city. It is Tarquin’s duty, as it is the duty of all Roman soldiers, to conquer unoccupied land, to acquire all untouched land for Rome. Lucrece is Collatine’s wife, and so it may be assumed that she is not a virgin, but when Tarquin begins to image Lucrece’s body as land, waiting to be conquered, he, as a solider, does what he imagines to be his ‘duty’ by ‘seizing’ that land. Through his employment of the phrase, ‘make his stand’, by applying the metaphor, not only to Lucrece’s body, but to Tarquin’s actions as well, Shakespeare suggests that the metaphor may have become literal in Tarquin’s mind. Katharine Maus writes that ‘Tarquin’s literal-minded application of a trope’ in this moment ‘helps him convince himself to commit a crime with full awareness of its gravity and its consequences’; he knows that his crime will ruin Lucrece but it does not matter, for Lucrece, in his mind, is a thing to be violated. The balance between word and action is upset in the moment that Shakespeare uses metaphor to describe action; the boundary between word and action is destroyed and the barbaric rape of Lucrece is the consequence. To give rhetoric absolute authority over physical action is to tip the balance between the two, something that proves to be horribly dangerous in Shakespeare’s work.

The unsettling of the balance between rhetoric and action in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ does not end with the rape. Lucrece, as well as Tarquin, allows the balance to tip; word and action momentarily intertwine and a sudden, energetic and horribly violent act arises as a consequence. Maus notes that Lucrece thinks about her body in ‘metaphors [that] emphasise the protective and enclosing function of the body – the way the body surrounds the soul and wards off danger. Once the house is sacked and battered, the inhabitant suffers […]’. Lucrece pines for her tarnished soul:

Ay me, the bark pilled from the lofty pine,

His leaves will wither and his sap decay;

So must my soul, her bark being pilled away.

She imagines her soul entombed within her body, and so an attack on her body is an irreversible attack on her soul; because of this, when Tarquin attacks her, she thinks of her soul, as well as her body, as something damaged beyond repair. Maus points to John Milton’s Lady in his masque, Comus, who, when threatened with sexual assault, asserts that an attack on her body will not ruin her soul (or, ‘mind’). ‘Why does Lucrece not adopt the kind of imagery available to the Lady in Comus? Why is she drawn to metaphors that imply the dependence of the soul upon the body?’. Shakespeare presents Lucrece, struggling to understand how the horrible violation that she has suffered affects her soul; to do this, she uses metaphor and Lucrece, like Tarquin, begins to take the metaphor that she choses to implement, literally. As I have previously established, metaphor should not be ‘literally applicable’; it is firmly within the realm of language, and because Lucrece does take her metaphor literally, because she seems to really think of her body as ‘bark pilled from the lofty pine’, she takes action; she elects to kill the thing that she decides has already been polluted.

It may be argued that Lucrece settles upon taking her own life, not because of the way that she thinks about her body, but for another reason entirely, but it seems as though Shakespeare suggests that the decision arises directly from the metaphorization of Lucrece’s body. Prior to the aforementioned stanzas, heavy with figurative rhetoric, Lucrece asks: ‘To live or die, which of the twain were better | When life is shamed and death reproach’s debtor’; Lucrece, at this moment, is undecided whether to live or to die, but after the implementation of these metaphors, she is resolute. Upon concluding that the battering of her body is also the ruin of her soul, Lucrece makes her decision to die: ‘”Yet die will I not, till my Collatine | Have heard the cause of my untimely death […]”’. The issue here is not whether she should die, it is when she should die; she is resolved. By implementing metaphors and allowing those metaphors to become truth, Lucrece is impelled to commit the poem’s final act of violence. Once again, the consequences of allowing figurative rhetoric that kind of authoritative power are horrific. At the end of his heartbreaking poem, Shakespeare further suggests the dangers of allowing rhetoric to have absolute authority. To take metaphor literally, to apply figurative rhetoric, something that should not be ‘literally applicable’ to circumstance and to allow it to incite action is to allow the boundary between action and rhetoric to blur, resulting in an outburst of violence.

Shakespeare does something very similar in his play, Titus Andronicus, which I will talk about in part two of this discussion, only in this play, the disruption of the balance between word and action is not only tipped every now and again, as it is in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, the balance is completely capsized; authoritative figurative language doesn’t only impel violence, it engenders it. The world of Titus Andronicus is a world in which language has too much power, enough to make Titus the bloodiest of all Shakespeare’s plays.

Part two will (hopefully!!) be up next week!

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