Enjoying Lucrece - Shakespeare versus Heywood



Unlike Shakespeare's poem, Heywood's play The Rape of Lucrece has had a history of hostile critical comment, though the play was acted repeatedly in Jacobean times. To give two examples of earlier readings, Charles Baldwyn saw it as "a sort of dramatic monster, in the construction of which every rule of propriety is violated, and all grace and symmetry are set at defiance…The author…must have produced it when in a state of inebriety" and J.A. Symonds classified it as "the most striking instance of the license with which the poets of the time were forced to treat their subjects for the sake of the gallery".[1] More recent critics have hardly been more favorable towards the play: Ian Donaldson thinks that the play "slithers disconcertingly between high rhetorical lament and low facetiousness…." Donaldson qualifies Heywood's humour as "ruinous", it "demolishes whatever pretensions to seriousness the tragedies may originally have had." (Donaldson, 12)

What is particularly distasteful to modern sensibility is the notorious catch Valerius delivers after Lucrece's rape and in which, seconded by the clown and Horatius, he gives a salacious version of the act of violence. Leaving the ethical issues related to the treatment of rape aside, critics have not been able to assimilate the catch to the general tenor of the play, which is not designed as a parody on the Lucretia myth but as a Roman tragedy with a strong political anti-absolutist message.[2]

Coppelia Kahn has considered Valerius's bawdy songs to be "designed specifically as English entertainment, diversions from Romanness", where Romanness/romanitas is understood in ethical terms as images of what was held up as Roman virtues.[3] Shakespeare, of course, is vindicated in this respect, since he "in contrast [to Heywood], creates particularized, coherent social worlds for his Romans; no bawdy balladeers or suicidal knaves break their consistency."

I will employ Heywood's play as a gloss in the reading of Shakespeare's poem in order to investigate the possibility whether the "monstrous" mixture in the play might be also detected in the more seamless texture of the poem. I will also relate the jarring co-existence of contradictory views on rape that has been so unsettling to modern critics to early modern modes of sight. While the first part of the paper will insist on the objectification of Lucrece, the latter part will concentrate on the spaces of agency that Heywood and Shakespeare offer to Lucrece.

© Universitatea din Bucuresti, 2002. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Mãdãlina NICOLAESCU
Last update: August 2002
Text editor: Raluca OVAC
Web design: Monica CIUCIU