Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Rape of Lucrece: 'Conscience, how dost thou afflict me'

I can't find the right title for this blog post. Why is that? Is it because I've waited to long before actually pen this down? The thing is, it's not easy to review this particular narrative poem. It's simple, and yet, it's a lot of things.

Longer than his other work, Venus and Adonis, Lucrece tells the darker shade of love - lust. It talks about a man's reaction to a sudden and strong desire and the aftermath of his decision.

The argument of the poem actually spoils everything out. Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin) wanted to prove for himself the virtue of Collatine's wife, Lucrece, of whom her husband had boasted a lot. He went to Collatine's house just to find Collatine's praise of Lucrece "hath done her beauty wrong, Which far exceeds his barren skill to show." Tarquin, unable to resist the temptation, raped Lucrece. He left her devastated in the morning, ashamed of what he had done, but too proud to actually admit it. Lucrece sent word to her husband, requested his immediate return, and, in front of everyone, killed herself - but not before relating all Tarquin had done.

Nothing so interesting in the plot. Shakespeare's beauty, after all, is rarely in the cheesy plot. His strength is in the characters, the human beings. Now the two main characters here have an interesting trait of humanity - conscience. But these two work it out differently.


Tarquin was a nobleman. He might not be the prince charming or gentle knight in shining armour, but he was at the top of the social caste. He was the son of the king himself.

Shakespeare's Tarquin was not a stupid, ignorant, or drunk soldier, nor was he a ruthless, unfeeling, wicked monster. It's actually interesting to read what was inside Tarquin's head when he premeditated his crime.

'O shame to knighthood and to shining arms!
O foul dishonour to my household's grave!
O impious act, including all foul harms!
A martial man to be soft fancy's slave!
True valour still a true respect should have;
Then my digression is so vile, so base,
That it will live engraven in my face.

He thought about his reputation, his family's reputation, the scandal that would occur.  Not so surprising from a proud prince. Next, he counted the profit and the loss of his crime, like a good accountant. Would he trade all that he had only for "a dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy"? Still so selfish.

But then, he thought about the merit of his action. He found it so inexcusable to sleep with Collatine's wife because Collatine had never done anything that would justify this act.

'Had Collatinus kill'd my son or sire,
Or lain in ambush to betray my life,
Or were he not my dear friend, this desire
Might have excuse to work upon his wife,
As in revenge or quittal of such strife:
But as he is my kinsman, my dear friend,
The shame and fault finds no excuse nor end.

Well, it would be a great leap to think that Tarquin actually was Collatine's friend in a personal way. It's more like social-political sort of friendship, I guess. But Tarquin realised that his act would violate the 'honour code' between men, and that's a serious thing. His conscience told him to stop, I bet his brain tried too, but here's the thing: what he had in him were a 'frozen conscience and hot-burning will'. He froze his conscience and marched into the lady's chamber.

How could he 'froze' his conscience? Of course, he tried to find an excuse, a justification, for his act. The lady was beautiful, how could he resist? He assured himself that it's worth it.

'Desire my pilot is, beauty my prize;
Then who fears sinking where such treasure lies?'
What's in it for him in the end?

But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
And he hath won what he would lose again:
This hot desire converts to cold disdain:
Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,
And Lust, the thief, far poorer than before.

I love Shakespeare. Isn't that just beautiful?

I would not comment on the end of the story, where Lucrece's death at last turned into a revolution. But the immediate effect of a wrongdoing, is just guilt. Tarquin found nothing. He got what he wanted, but it's not satisfactory. It was not as he thought it would be. Like a coward he sneaked out of the house, leaving Lucrece to weep behind.


If Tarquin's heart tried to find excuses to justify his deeds, well, Lucrece's was at the other end of the spectrum. Her heart couldn't forgive her for a sin she didn't commit. We can't fully understand how it was for here, or how her position was in ancient Rome.  At that time, I suppose, women were expected to be chaste and unblemished, although the same standard didn't really apply to men. What happened to Lucrece was a great tragedy for a woman.

(Even today, in some parts of the world, thousands of women still get the blame for rapes and domestic violence, claiming that beautiful women are just 'asking for it' by being attractive. Even in countries where women get more legal protection, some women still think that it's partly their fault when they are abused by their partners of family members.)

The worst thing of it for Lucrece was of course, her reputation. What her husband loved most and praised most about her was her chastity, and now she lost it. Even if she revealed what happened that night, she still couldn't stand her own self. And could she ever see her husband the same way again, or rather, could Collatine ever see her the same way again? She could see only one thing that would restore her honour - her death. And hopefully, his too.

'Dear lord of that dear jewel I have lost,
What legacy shall I bequeath to thee?
My resolution, love, shall be thy boast,
By whose example thou revenged mayest be.
How Tarquin must be used, read it in me:
Myself, thy friend, will kill myself, thy foe,
And for my sake serve thou false Tarquin so.

Lucrece wanted to find something to relate to. She wanted to share her grief. A wrong painting at the wrong time, Lucrece saw the image depicting the Trojan War. As we all know, it all started thanks to a woman: Helen.

'Why should the private pleasure of some one
Become the public plague of many moe?
Let sin, alone committed, light alone
Upon his head that hath transgressed so;
Let guiltless souls be freed from guilty woe:
For one's offence why should so many fall,
To plague a private sin in general?

She saw another too - Sinon. In Sinon she saw Tarquin himself, who 'With outward honesty, but yet defiled
With inward vice' deceived her.

It was not easy for anybody to end his or her own life. Besides, Lucrece, in fact, got forgiveness from her husband, and from the people because after all, it was not her fault. But the only person she needed forgiveness from was herself, and she couldn't give it. 

'No, no,' quoth she, 'no dame, hereafter living,
By my excuse shall claim excuse's giving.'

What a contrast. Tarquin's conscience was so easy on him, readily finding an excuse for his shameful act. Lucrece's conscience punished herself too bad. It blamed her for something she wasn't responsible for. Both didn't work as it's supposed to be.

Conscience is a judge within ourselves. It makes laws for us, it applies those laws in everything that we do. It reminds us to do and not to do things, it accuses us when we do or don't do things. But it's not perfect. Like a car alarm, it could be insensitive, or too sensitive. Both poles are dangerous. 

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