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Shakespeare’s «The Rape of Lucrece»: the wound that cannot heal

Par Clifford Armion : Professeur agrégé d'anglais - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Marion Coste le 17/09/2010

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In Shakespeare's works, the assaults on the body and the marks they leave in the flesh constitute a complex form of language. The shape of the wound, its seriousness, its position on the body, the situation in which it was inflicted, the terms and metaphors used to describe it: all these elements contribute to its semantic load.


Hans Sebald Beham (German, 1500-1550)

In Shakespeare's works, the assaults on the body and the marks they leave in the flesh constitute a complex form of language. The shape of the wound, its seriousness, its position on the body, the situation in which it was inflicted, the terms and metaphors used to describe it: all these elements contribute to its semantic load. The key, or the code, to this language is to be found in the culture which Shakespeare shared with his first audiences. Among other elements, this shared culture includes religious and secular imagery, medical practices and artistic conventions. I would like to focus here on one particular wound: the wound of rape and the symbolic scar which results from the loss of chastity. In The Rape of Lucrece, rape is described as a wound which cannot heal, a wound which corrupts the inner body of a woman, in turn threatening her soul with corruption.

The phallus and the blade

In The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare develops the image of rape as a form of wound or mutilation of Lucrece's flesh. That symbolic wound of rape is closely associated to the self-inflicted stab wound which puts an end to Lucrece's life. Through the lexical field of war, weapons and blades, Tarquin's sex is recurrently equated with a dagger or sword piercing through Lucrece's flesh. When Tarquin starts contemplating the rape, his sexual impulses are compared to the spirit of a soldier marching on his enemy: « By reprobate desire so madly led / The Roman lord marcheth to Lucrece' bed »(300-301). The verb 'to march', used to describe Tarquin's progression towards Lucrece's bedroom, evokes military movements and the violence of armed combat. The association between the phallus and the blade later becomes quite obvious when Tarquin enters Lucrece's chamber and threatens the young woman with his drawn sword:

This said, he shakes aloft his Roman blade,
Which like a falcon tow'ring in the skies
Coucheth 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.(505-511)

In this stanza announcing the rape, the blade brandished by Tarquin clearly suggests his lustful intentions. By comparing the sword of the Roman soldier to the beak of falcon, Shakespeare associates the weapon to a crooked part of the bird's anatomy which could be an allusion to the phallic shape. Moreover the sword is referred to as an insulting 'falchion'. According to the OED, the word 'falchion' denotes a sword with a curved blade which again evokes the phallic shape. Finally, the adjective 'insulting', which qualifies this 'falchion', seems to apply to Tarquin's reprehensible nakedness rather than to his sword.

This evocation of Tarquin's violent sexual impulses through the prism of swords and battle imagery contributes the reader's perception of rape as a wound, a physical, damaging assault on the female body.

The architectural metaphor

Within Shakespeare's narrative poem, this image of the wound of rape is the object of complex developments. One of these developments is an association between Lucrece's body and the house which Tarquin must break into. Indeed, the assaulted body of Collatine's wife is compared to a building which is being battered down or breached, while the house of Collatine is in turn described as a female body. Tarquin's assaults on Lucrece are thus preceded and announced by his breaking into the personified house:

The locks between her chamber and his will,
Each one by him enforced, retires his ward (...) (302-303)

As each unwilling portal yields him way,
Through little vents and crannies of the place
The wind wars with his torch to make him stay (...) (309-311)

The unwilling portals suggest that the house has a will of its own. The doors and walls of the house are paralleled with the flesh and openings of the female body. Thus, the enforced locks and the yielding portals can be read as an evocation of the violent breaking of chastity which had so far been kept as a treasure in a safe. As far as the vents and crannies are concerned, they could also refer to the female sex. The word cranny in particular assumed sexual connotations in Tudor English. It is used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream during the Pyramus and Thisbe episode to introduce sexual equivoque. In The Rape of Lucrece, the wind blowing through the crannies of the house struggles against the fire of Tarquin's torch; a torch which is obviously fraught with phallic symbolism.

The house thus appears as a virginal or chaste female body trying to resist the male intrusion. But when Tarquin finally reaches Lucrece's bedroom, it is her body which turns into another stronghold which the Roman soldier will have to breach. There is here an effect of anamorphosis between the house, which is personified as a chaste woman, and the female body, which then becomes a protective wall surrounding her soul:

His hand yet remain upon her breast -
Rude ram, to batter such an ivory wall -
May feel her heart, poor citizen, distressed,
Wounding itself to death, rise up and fall,
Beating her bulk, that his hands shake withal.
      This moves in him more rage and lesser pity
      To make the breach and enter this sweet city.(463-469)

Tarquin's hand is compared to a battering ram trying to breach the ivory walls of a city, the sole inhabitant of which is Lucrece's heart and soul. The skin of Collatine's wife, which earlier in the poem was compared to alabaster, is here described as an ivory wall. Let us note that the terms 'ivory' and 'alabaster' both refer to a perfectly white and smooth surface, which was an outward sign of virtue in the eyes the Elizabethans. The architectural metaphor is taken up after the rape has been committed, to qualify its result : « She says her subjects with foul insurrection / Have battered down her consecrated wall (...)» (722-724). The notion of sacredness is here associated to Lucrece's body to underline the irreligious and criminal nature of Tarquin's intrusion; an intrusion which will result in an incurable wound, a stain of sin.

The metaphor of the body as a building is also applied to Tarquin after he has raped Lucrece, to suggest that he too will be permanently changed by this crime: « Besides, his soul's fair temple is defaced, / To whose weak ruins muster troops of cares / To ask the spotted princess how she fares »(719-721). The reader is led to understand that like Lucrece, Taquin must also suffer in his flesh from the corruption related to rape.

An endogenous corruption

Within the lyrical poem, the wounding of the female body through rape and the various images which are related to it, including the architectural metaphor, express the contagious nature of bodily corruption. One has to remember that according to Elizabethan religion, the female womb was the place of the evils inherited from the original sin. That corruption could contaminate the soul when the seal of chastity was broken. Virginity was of course the only way to remain pure. Unlawful sexual intercourse, on the other hand, was bound to unleash the endogenous corruption. The following text is an excerpt from a sermon by Godfrey Goodman, who was an Anglican preacher. The sermon is entitled The Fall of Man, and it offer's a fine overview of the church's position on women and conception :

For many months the soule is kept prisoner in the wombe, a place noysome for sent, uncleane for situation, a dungeon for darknesse. As man himself is conceived in sinne, so is the soule concealed in shame: the eyes will not dare to behold; chaste eares would be offended to heare; let not any tongue presume to speake, the uncleannesse of mans birth; see how he crouches with his head on his knees like a tumbler, wallowing in his own excrements, feeding upon the impurest blood, breathing through the most uncleane passages; in so much that Christ, who came to be spit upon, to bee whipt, to bee troden, to bee crucified onely for mans sake, yet would never endure the basenesse of his conception. (Godfrey Goodman, p. 36)

According to the Elizabethan preacher, the female womb is the source of all corruption. It is described as a dark and ignominious dungeon where man is imprisoned before he is born. For Goodman, the human soul is kept in this unclean and shameful place, its body 'feeding on the impurest blood'. By the term 'impurest blood', the preacher probably alludes to menstrual blood, which is thick and dark, and which was still considered in Renaissance England as a reminder of Eve's sin.

Let us note that the impurity related to conception is mentioned by Shakespeare in The Rape of Lucrece. Tarquin, who wants his victim to remain silent, tells her that if his crime is made public, she and her family will have to bear a stain which is even worse than that received by each newborn child:

Then for thy husband and thy children's sake
Tender my suit; bequeath not to their lot
The shame that from them no device can take,
The blemish that will never be forgot,
Worse than a slavish wipe or birth-hour blot;
      For marks described in men's nativity
      Are nature's faults, not their own infamy. (533-539)

In this stanza, the impurity of the female womb is seen as the cause of a blot or mark inscribed on all men when they are born. Conception is here associated to the corruption of the female body.

The permanence of this corruption born from sexual intercourse and the physical changes it was supposed to entail in the female body are clearly illustrated in Shakespeare's poem. One of the stanzas describing Lucrece after the rape expresses the metamorphosis of the chaste body into a foul prison from which the soul can only be freed by death:

In her the painter had anatomized
Time's ruin, beauty's wreck, and grim care's reign.
Her cheeks with chaps and wrinkles were disguised;
Of what she was no semblance did remain.
Her blue blood turned black in every vein,
      Wanting the spring that those shrunk pipes had fed,
      Showed life imprisoned in a body dead.(1450-1456)

The allusion to dissection in the first line of the stanza, "In her the painter had anatomised", announces a description of Lucrece's inner body along with that of the outward marks of corruption. Let us observe as well that the word anatomised suggests that Tarquin's rape turns Lucrece into a criminal. In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, only the corpses of criminals sentenced to death were anatomised. Tarquin has committed rape, but Lucrece has unwillingly committed adultery and is therefore a criminal. The black blood, the shrinking veins, the chaps and wrinkles on Lucrece's skin, which used to be as smooth as alabaster, are all signs of the corruption of her body through rape. The last line of the stanza, 'Showed life imprisoned in a dead body', suggests that Lucrece's corrupted body has now become a prison to her living soul. Wounded and altered by rape, the body of Collatine's wife is turned into the wrinkled corpse of a criminal. The corruption which was contained and sealed deep into the chaste body of Lucrece is now for everyone to see, just like the entrails of an anatomised corpse.

A contagious wound

Throughout the poem, the rape of Lucrece is depicted as a wound that cannot heal. Adultery, the crime which the young woman has unwillingly committed, is a cureless one: « O hateful, vaporous, and foggy night, / since thou art guilty of my cureless crime (...) »(771-772). Later in the poem, Lucrece underlines the permanent nature of the stain of sin: « Why hath thy servant opportunity / Betrayed the hours thou gav'st me to repose, / Cancelled my fortunes, and enchainèd me / To endless date of never-ending woes ? »(932-935). The association of the terms 'endless' and 'never-ending' suggest the indelible nature of the blot left on her body. Just as a mutilation, rather than a wound, the surrendered chastity appears as an assault on the body which neither time nor medicine can heal.

This mark of corruption seems to spread, by symbolic contagion, to Tarquin's body. Let us note that in the folklore of medieval and renaissance England, the wounds remained physically related to the object which had caused them. For instance, it was common belief that a wound would heal faster if the sword which had caused it was later cleaned and oiled, or if the hand which had inflicted it was treated as well. This association, which is rooted in popular belief, results in a symbolic relation between the body of the criminal and the body of the victim, as well as between the weapon and the wound. In The Rape of Lucrece, the signs of the corruption caused by rape can be read both on Lucrece's body and Tarquin's. Just as the raped woman, Tarquin bears the burden of sin and the indelible scar of rape:

Ev'n in this thought through the dark night he stealth,
A captive victor that hath lost in gain,
Bearing away the wound that nothing health,
The scar that will, despite of cure, remain;
Leaving his spoil perplexed with greater pain.
      She bears the load of lust he left behind,
      And he the burden of a guilty mind. (729-735)

The second verse of the stanza, "A captive victor that hath lost in gain", suggests the oxymoronic notion of a soldier who is victorious and yet has been defeated. Just as Lucrece, and although he has satisfied his lust, Tarquin bears the incurable wound of rape, the "wound that nothing health".

Let us note, however, that the contagion which seems to reach Tarquin has different consequences than those suffered by Lucrece. As far as Tarquin is concerned, there is no physical transformation resulting from rape or adultery. Rape will leave a symbolic scar on his body and soul: "The scar that will, despite of cure, remain." In Shakespeare's works, scars always tell us of the qualities and faults of men. When they are born on the arms and on the front, they signify bravery, when they appear on the back they suggest cowardice. Scars constitute an inscription, a language written in the flesh, the meaning of which is intrinsic to the character who bears them. Just as the wounds received in combat, the scar left on Tarquin, who is soldier of Rome, is an indelible inscription adding a feature to his character, that of crime and rape.

One could go even further by saying that the contagion caused by the wound of rape spreads not only to Tarquin, but also to Lucrece's husband whose reputation has also been stained by adultery. The result of the rape on Collatine is compared to an invisible wound which Tarquin alone will be able to see: « O unseen shame, invisible disgrace! / O unfelt sore, crest-wounding private scar! / Reproach is stamped in Collatinus' face, / And Tarquin's eye may read the mot afar, / How he in peace is wounded, not in war » (827-831). Collatine, whose body is united to that of Lucrece through the bonds of marriage, also receives the symbolic mark of rape. The scar left on him by Tarquin's crime is compared to a form of writing through the use of the words 'stamped', 'read' and 'mot'. Just as a sentence written on Collatine's face, the 'private scar' assumes a linguistic dimension. As any language, it can only be understood or deciphered by those who share its code: only Tarquin and those of his followers who know his secret will be able to read the humiliation of adultery on Collatine's face.

Shakespeare clearly associates the scar left by rape to the characteristics of written language. The meaningful scars mentioned in the poem can be related to the common penal practices of Renaissance Europe. Just as the criminals were sometimes branded with a letter corresponding to their crime, such as for instance 'A' for adultery, the protagonists of the poem receive an inscription in their flesh which signifies rape, or adultery. The chaste body of Lucrece, similar to a white page, carries a message written by Tarquin. Within this linguistic relationship, Collatine appears as the addressee of the message: he is neither the author nor the witness of the act of writing, and yet he receives its meaning. The symbolic meaning of the wound of rape, that of the irreparable loss of chastity and honour, thus seems to assume all the characteristics of written language.

Finally, let us observe that in the course of the poem the mark of rape is twice compared to an ink stain, a blot on the body and reputation of Collatine and his wife (192-193, 537). Through this metaphor of the stain or blot, the wound of rape appears as a destructive element. Contrary to the wounds received on the battlefield, which add honour and loyalty to the list of a man's essential features, the stain of rape and adultery obliterates, or blots out the qualities originally associated to the characters of the poem: Tarquin's honour is lost, and so is Lucrece's chastity. That image of the blot can also be related to the notion of contagion. Like an ink stain on a book, which can spread by capillarity to a number of pages, the mark of rape, which stains the immaculate body of Lucrece, also spreads to the male characters who are physically bound to her.


To conclude, the image of the wound of rape is used by Shakespeare to suggest the violence of a forced sexual intercourse which cannot be described as such in a poem. If the female sex can appear as a wound to signify Tarquin's aggressiveness, leading to the destruction of chastity, the image of the wound of rape and the scars it leaves in the flesh also apply to the male protagonists of the poem. The infection or corruption which emanates from the wound of rape is indeed a contagious one, and its contagion spreads to all those who are bound, willingly or unwillingly, by the union of the flesh. Finally, the invisible brands left on the bodies and souls of the protagonists are similar in most respects to the scars born by the soldiers of Shakespeare's plays, as they constitute a written and indelible message, the meaning of which cannot be altered or dispelled.


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Pour citer cette ressource :

Clifford Armion, "Shakespeare’s «The Rape of Lucrece»: the wound that cannot heal", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), septembre 2010. Consulté le 14/06/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/litterature-britannique/Shakespeare/shakespeare-s-the-rape-of-lucrece-the-wound-that-cannot-heal