Durer's Lucretia is shown to thrust the dagger into her body with a strong, vigorous hand, the sketches for which were initially meant for a male body. Such a strong hand would reinforce Lucretia's phallic position that some of the re-workings of the myth insist on, though not failing to re-inscribe her in the patriarchal discourses that have initiated her undoing. Ovid, for example, calls her anima matrona virilis - a matron of manly courage, though his description of her before her suicide makes her an inarticulate rather helpless victim. (In Ovid's version Lucretia does not request her kinsmen to pledge revenge). The phallic position has not proved particularly useful to feminist critics trying to recover an empowering sense of agency from Lucrece's suicide. They have chosen to focus upon her "private use of language" and upon the voice that Shakespeare lends to the almost mute Ovidian heroine in the middle part of the poem. I would suggest that a closer look at Lucrece's address to her hand could also be helpful.
Having reached the conclusion that "the smoke of words" (1027) of her railing at Time, Opportunity, Night and Tarquin can be of no avail to her, Lucrece reaches the decision that the only remedy "is to let forth my foul defiled blood" (1029). Consequently she turns to her hand:
`Poor hand, why quiver'st thou at this decree?
Honour thyself to rid me of this shame;
For if I die, my honour lives in thee;
But if I live, thou liv'st in my defame.
Since thou couldst not defend thy loyal dame,
And wast afeard to scratch her wicked foe,
Kill both thyself and her for yielding so" (1030-1036)
The hand becomes the locus of a second, almost externalised self, which is active in opposition to the passive one that Lucrece seems to acknowledge as her own. This second self can be held responsible and scapegoated for failures and sins, thereby absolving the other self from such faults. At the same time, being the active self, it is assigned a difficult mission: it has to rid Lucrece of her shame and save her honour. Lucrece translates the relation between the two selves into a romance script in which she casts herself in the role of a lady who asks her knight to perform a service. The action required of the knight will secure and enhance his honour - "Honour thyself to rid me of this shame"this feat being both hobourable in itself and involving a transfer of honour from the lady to the knight "my honour lives in thee". Failure to perform the chivalric task would involve "defame" both for the knight and for the lady. The gist of the "romance script" is, of course, the fact that the chivalric feat involves killing the lady.
It is interesting that the task Lucrece sets her knight is at the same time a punishment for his previous failure, albeit a punishment that extends to herself as well. The fault of having "yielded" for which both are punished is, however, exclusively attributed to the knight. Lucrece clearly dissociates herself from it and will later on insist that her mind " never was inclined/ To accessory yieldings." (1657-8) (my emphasis).
Both the pursuit of honour and the act of punishment, which are thus conflated, are delegated to the autonomous, chivalric self. Shakespeare's skilful rhetoric indirectly enables Lucrece to clear herself both of any doubts concerning her resistance to Tarquin and of the blame of pursuing honour and glory that Tyndale vehemently charged her with as reasons for her suicide. The strategy of scapegoating the active self enables her to adopt an unambiguously masculine position in line with the chivalric code.
In her final speech to Collatine and her kinsmen Lucrece once again adopts the role of a lady appealing to chivalry. This time the knight is her husband. The service this knight is required to perform is also to designed to "right poor ladies' harms" (1694). Like the first knight (her hand), Collatine, too, has failed to defend his lady: " suppose thou dost defend me/From what is past. The help that thou shalt lend me /comes all too late," (1684-85). This time the act requested of the failing knight no longer involves his punishment, but the action is directed against the perpetrator. Lucrece once again invokes the concept of knighthood and the idea of justice associated with it to vindicate her request:
For `tis a meritorious fair design
To chase injustice with revengeful arms:
Knights by their oaths should right poor ladies' harms" (1692-1694)
What can we make of the fact that Lucrece's two knights are her right hand and her husband? What should we mention first - the fact that she blames her husband for having failed to secure her protection? That her other, active self is figured in the same terms and in the same kind of discourse as her husband, a rhetoric move which has as side effect the blurring of gender distinctions? That the acts of revenge and of suicide are related in more insidious and complex ways than we might expect?
Heywood's Lucrece does not address her hand in any way. She does, however, clearly and publicly incriminate her husband: Collatine is held responsible for having given Sextus Tarquin the ring that made Lucrece open the gates of her house to him: "This Ring, oh Collantine! This ring you sent/Is cause of all my woe, your discontent." (2560-61). Her final speech is less the confession of sins of a guilty wife to her husband as in Shakespeare's poem and more a public statement designed to vindicate her claim to innocence. She begins it as if she were in a public situation addressing a wider audience: "Father, dear husband, and my kinsman, Lords,/ Hear me, I am dishonour'd and disgrac'd" (2548-49) and sometimes even uses the royal we. Her powerful performance contradicts her husband's reiterated statements about the helplessness and limitations that inhere to her female nature. ("I quit thy guilt for what could Lucrece doe/More than a woman?" (2579-80)) Heywood's Lucrece punishes her body partially because she feels this is inevitable and mainly because she wants the world to learn "of a Roman dame,/ To prise her life less than her honor'd fame" (2603-4) This Lucrece seems to be unambiguously and un-dividedly inscribed in the chivalric discourse of the pursuit of honour and glory.
Lucrece's statement echoes the words, which according to Tit Livy, Gaius Mucius Scaevola uttered when burning his own hand for his/its failure to assassinate the enemy, the Etruscan king Porsenna. While Heywood relies upon Livy in the dramatization of Scaevola's much celebrated self-sacrifice, he puts the hero's words in the mouth of the dying Lucrece.
Michael Neill has argued that in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period Scaevola's mutilation of his right hand was deemed an impressive demonstration of Roman virtus and at the same time resonated powerfully with recent events. Neill mentions Protestant martyrologies such as Foxe's account of Cranmer, "where the Archbishop punishes the hand that has written his recantation, thrusting it into the flames in a gesture that rewrites Gaius Mucius' heroism in the language of Christian bodily discipline: `And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off (Mark 9: 43)". (Neill, 40) Other severed hands that created a great stir in that period were those of the Protestant polemicist John Stubbs and of his publisher William Page, who were punished for a pamphlet attacking Queen Elizabeth's prospective marriage to the duke of Allencon.
It is my belief that in Heywood's play Scaevola's voluntary mutilation and Lucrece's suicide are linked. Scaevola's act is designed to exemplify the restorative effect of Lucrece's suicide on the Romans. The play is organized around Lucrece's death, as a before and after this event. Brutus's action, Horatius's single-handed defence of the bridge and last but not least Scaevolla's sacrifice of his hand all rehearse Lucrece's heroic act. Scaevolla's deed is more relevant to the purposes of our analysis, as it involves the punishment of a body that has failed to perform its duty. The resonance he had in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period enables us to adduce new arguments in support of Lucrece's claim to agency and the status of a subject.
I would like to add a caveat to this up-beat conclusion: the integration of Scaevola's act of heroism within the context of Lucrece's suicide, while pleading in favour of Lucrece's participation in the Roman virtus, glosses over the fact that Scaevola punished his hand for its failure to act adequately whereas Lucrece punishes her body for a blame which is not her own, but which for various reasons she chooses to internalise.
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