Monday, January 31, 2011

Early Modern Verse

8. The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare

This is not a book nor is it a play, it approaches the length of the latter and I feel like I deserve the credit of the former for reading it. This is a lyric poem, one of two attributed to Shakespeare including Venus and Adonis in my ginormous edition of The Collected Works of Shakespeare (the second Riverside edition, if you want to know). I'd read Venus and Adonis before, and found it amusing, this was my first read of Lucrece, which was predictably not amusing.

I did learn that the Rape of Lucrece is the founding myth of the Roman Republic, after the chaste Lucrece was raped by Tarquin, last king of Rome (that is, before the Caesars), and then killed herself, the people of Rome overthrew and banished him. Pretty cool that a woman had that power. Of course, not cool how she gets it.

This is in some ways a very standard lyric poem, it's got the iambic pentameter and the tiring repetition and descriptions of things that would appear to be meaningless in a modern novel (my professor would abhor it) but provide lots of fancy foreshadowing, metaphors, and allusions, which is the point. Shakespeare's poem is more dramatically-driven than most, I think, though I'm no expert. We get into Tarquin's head as he contemplates the deed, back and forth, then he sees Lucrece and goes completely evil on us. The innocent lamb of a Lucrece afterward becomes more interesting. We watch her go through realistic stages of feeling filthy, thinking everyone can see her shame, and then distracting herself with a painting of Troy. I really liked this ekphrastic device, especially about Troy, so reminiscent of Achilles' shield, and relevant to Roman history. She understands the traitor Sinon now and Helen and hates them, crying for Priam's wife Hecuba. Finally, her husband and father arrive, she reveals what occurred and stabs herself.

Lucrece may be a technically better work than its predecessor, but it's not my cup of tea. I still prefer the comedies over the tragedies in Shakespeare every time, though it's more to do with my preference to laugh than cry more than anything else, I suppose.

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