The most explicit sex in the writings of Shakespeare takes place in his most conventionally moralizing work: “The Rape of Lucrece.” This is hardly surprising. To be didactic, literature relies on the seductiveness of evil: first it needs to entice readers in order then to be able to scold them for their impurity. Milton’s Paradise Lost is the crowning achievement of this technique: generations of readers were sold on the allure of Satan, but the perspicacious realized later that they’d fallen for a siren song. Like Eve, you’re supposed to resist the viper; if you are unable, then you open yourself up to moral coaching.
The story of “The Rape of Lucrece” works in a similar fashion. Told and retold by Livy, Ovid, Chaucer and Shakespeare, it is a classic Trojan horse, wrapping sex appeal in a cloak of moral propriety and political history. Ostensibly recounting the central events that caused the Romans to banish the Tarquin kings and elect public consuls, “The Rape of Lucrece” clearly remained popular more for its sexual narrative than its historical one. (A similar situation took place with the movie The Accused, where droves of cretins went to the cinema just to see Jodie Foster get raped.)
I say this as if I was immune to the poem’s power, but the sad truth is that it’s hard not to get aroused by the representation of rape. One doesn’t need to believe in the Freudian id or the Jungian shadow to know that we all have a dark side, and violence often creeps up in our fantasies no matter how far it is from our daily lives.
Which leads to a difficult question: Does literature encourage rape by portraying it in a titillating way, or does the fact that the representations are fictional allow one’s violent impulses a safe and victimless outlet? I’ve found myself persuaded by both sides of this debate, and I think it’s very hard to say. It is true that over time my sexual fantasies have gotten more involved and elaborate as has my waking sex life but this doesn’t seem to have brought me closer to trying to merge the most extreme discrepancies between the two. I hope the same is true for other men, though I fear it is not always so.
The other difficult question, then, is whether literature like “The Rape of Lucrece” is actually didactic, or whether the ersatz morality is but a front to permit a lot of licentious versifying. I have to think the latter. The moral that one takes away from Shakespeare’s poem is so banal and obvious it would hardly be informative to anyone. And if you wanted to recount the fall of Tarquin, you could simply say he was a rapist and a murderer and eventually the people got fed up. The details are unnecessary to the story and seem to be there just to please the reader.
But how explicit is “The Rape of Lucrece”? Both more and less than one might expect. In order to maintain the veil of propriety, the physicality of the rape itself had to be underplayed, but that only directed Shakespeare’s descriptive efforts elsewhere. It’s the set-up that creates the excitement, drawing itself out by a long series of stanzas dedicated to Lucrece’s beauty, in extended internal monologues by Tarquin on the lust and will that drive him forward, and, finally, in a long debate between Lucrece and Tarquin over whether or not he would rape her. I have often noted how suspense seems relatively under-utilized as a device in pre-modern literature; here is the reverse: an early modern example of plot sequencing at its most nailbiting.
Not innocently or guiltlessly do I excerpt the lines below the most physically explicit part of the poem. They concern Lucrece’s breasts, which Tarquin sees and gropes while Lucrece is sleeping. In doing so, he wakes her, but also wakes a certainty that he will carry out his treacherous plan. My selection is not an endorsement, it is a chronicle. And if you find it arousing, let it remind you of the twin-edged power of the pen and the need to retain separation between reality and the outer corners of the imaginable.