The theme of rape in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Lucrece

Essay, 2005

11 Pages, Grade: 67% (grade B)


Throughout history rape can be seen as one of the most hideous crimes since human beings began to commit offences against other people’s lives and possessions. One of the most difficult problems however is to prove or deny consent to rape, especially when the raped woman became pregnant by the offender. In these cases she would have been regarded as clearly having consented and having enjoyed it. Although the ‘droit du seigneur’ was not in use in medieval and Renaissance England a practice existed which equally denied women a genuine choice. When we keep in mind that women, from the Middle Ages onwards, were regarded as men’s possessions and used for men’s interests, it does not surprise us to learn that raped virgins were allowed by the King and the Church to marry the offenders. That saved rapists from death penalties if the wives consented, but most women were always manipulated by their relatives either to accept or to deny the marriage, depending on the would-be outcome for the respective male authority.[1] There is something interesting about this option: it is the fact that it only applied to raped virgins. What about the rights of wives and widows if they were raped? According to Bracton, one of the leading legal authorities in Renaissance England, there were only two things in his time for which a woman could sue: the rape of a virgin or the murder of her husband lying in her arms. After the Statutes of Westminster were introduced by Edward I, the Crown began to take an interest in rape suits and now even women who were no longer virgins were protected under the new law. Despite this few women sued for rape, although the possibilities had been created by the Statutes. But what can be said about the religious, emotional side of such an serious offence? Based on the religious aspect, the influence of Augustine’s The City of God was still prevalent in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Augustine clearly states that, although the victim may have felt pleasure during the rape, this is not an indication of consent. But he also admits that this pleasure can trouble the emotions, feelings and thoughts of the victim. Many of them would feel ashamed of having felt a forced ‘pleasure’ during an act of violence. It ‘allows for, as the worst-case scenario, the possibility that the woman who experiences an involuntary carnal pleasure will doubt her own resolution, her refusal of consent’.[2]

As shown above, rape in reality was an offence which, already from an early period, evoked several different problems and arguments. They did not apply to every rape, as each situation posed different challenges. In a patriarchal society the victim’s place was always set in advance. Their emotions after the assault were not regarded as important as the subsequent social status of their husbands or fathers or their feelings towards their wives or daughters. Men dealt with them in patriarchal terms and the women in general could not do anything to change their behaviour, although exceptions to this practice were possible as we can see in The Rape of Lucrece, the poem William Shakespeare promised to the Earl of Southampton in the dedication to the earlier Venus and Adonis. This long narrative poem, consisting of 268 stanzas composed in rhyme royal and set in ancient Rome, depicts a strong woman who deals with her rape in her own way, whereas Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, written around the same time as the poem, is merely at the mercy of men’s desires and when she tries to regain her former position in her family, she is pitilessly murdered by her own father.

Even though these two women suffer the same assaults, the motives and reasons behind them are different. After Saturninus is elected emperor by Titus Andronicus, Lavinia’s father, his first wish is to make her his wife. But she is already promised to Bassianus and, as not only to foreshadow, but also to oppose the later private man against man-fight by the Goths Chiron and Demetrius, the two Roman brothers quarrel about her publicly. Lavinia is regarded as to be ‘surprised’ (1.1.288), but the Tribune Marcus Andronicus supports Bassianus’ claim when he says that ‘this prince in justice seizeth but his own’ (1.1.285). These lines allude to something mentioned already above: women were regarded as men’s possession and as mere objects. This might be in line with Saturninus’ decision to make her his wife: Titus has mentioned Lavinia’s virtue (1.1.171) before the emperor utters his wish (1.1.244), and although the former’s speech can be seen as well as a reason why he kills his daughter in the end[3], it seems also possible that the emperor likes to have a beautiful object he can boast of. Saturninus and Bassianus even mention the word rape[4] (1.1.409 and 410) and this incident as well as Bassianus’ lines ‘My lord, what I have done, as best I may,/ Answer I must, and shall do with my life.’ (1.1.416-17) implicate that only one of the two brothers can succeed in this quarrel as two men and one woman cannot fit together in marriage. One is simply too much. Both Demetrius and Chiron, however, are winners because they only want to satisfy their lust on Lavinia and, together with their mother Tamora, to revenge their brother Alarbus. Indeed, this is the second reason behind the rape. The Queen of the Goths supports her sons and even urges them on (2.2.166-67). As Titus has refused her pleas for Alarbus’ life, she now turns a deaf ear to Lavinia’s pleas for mercy (2.2.179-80).

Lucrece, on the contrary, is not raped by Tarquin out of revenge[5], but out of lust and desire. This lust, however, is not primarily founded on a beast-like sexual drive within Tarquin himself, but rather aroused by Collatine’s rash and excessive description of his wife’s virtue and chasteness during a bait between the Roman generals while besieging Ardea, followed by a visit to Collatium which proves these true. Tarquin is enflamed with Lucrece’s beauty and plans to ravish her. Yet, he is not sure of himself and weighs the pros up against the cons of his evil deed: he is not the mad ravisher with only that one thing in his head. Nevertheless, his lust is stronger than his fear of discovery and his pride to preserve his honour and the action takes its course. Tarquin forces his way to Lucrece’s bedchamber and stands in awe at her beauty. Her body is described like a city or fortress which is, in fact like Ardea in the Argument or Troy in Lucrece’s tapestry, under siege and has to be conquered. Although Tarquin seems to be depicted sometimes as a more gentle ravisher then Demetrius and Chiron in Titus Andronicus, he sees the conquest of that fortress, that is to say the rape, as a challenge to be mastered, which lets him forget all care.[6] This urges him on. Collatine’s wife lies there as if dead and the most obvious difference between the two rapes is perceptible: Lucrece is raped in her bed which she shares with her husband, a fact which is used by Tarquin to coerce Lucrece to give up her resistance (l. 514-518). His threat implies not only rendering Collatine and herself honourless, but also desecrating this holy place where marriage is, usually by mutual consent, consumed. Tarquin’s suggestion to consent without letting Collatine know later (l. 525), is finally dismissed when Lucrece decides to kill herself. Although she is raped in the most private part of their house[7], she cannot act afterwards as if nothing has happened, cannot hide it in her closet. She is in mental turmoil. Whereas she has preserved her husband’s honour in one respect, namely by giving up resistance, she has violated it in another sense: it might be possible that she has conceived by Tarquin and this would signify that Lucrece had consented to the rape. She cannot bear the thought that Collatine might raise a child which is not his own and is thereby, though not knowingly, constantly mocked and cuckolded (l. 1058-1064). In her opinion she has committed adultery and has to punish herself by suicide. By a very rational, male way of thinking and reasoning after moments of female outbursts of emotions and addresses to Night, Opportunity, Time and Collatine, she recovers her strength and acts independently from her husband.

Lavinia cannot achieve this after she has lived through the assault. Demetrius and Chiron do not have a conscience and Tarquin’s sense of guilt in the poem (l. 736, 738, 740, 742) is completely lost on them. They treat Lavinia like a piece of meat or someone to provide services and only satisfy their lust.[8] This last interpretation would be in line with the wounds inflicted on her by the two brothers, as these were normally used as brutal punishment for disobeying or misbehaving slaves in the ancient world. It can only be guessed whether the Goths know about this practice but Titus and the rest of the Andronici as a patrician family are surely aware of it. This fact humiliates the family honour gravely and the subsequent scene, in which Demetrius and Chiron are killed, could rely in one respect on that as well: Lavinia is marked as a slave, ergo she can behave accordingly, helping the pater familias with one of his duties.


[1] Cp. Brownmiller (1991), p. 25.

[2] Cp. Baines (1998), p. 81.

[3] Through the rape, her virtue is irreversibly stained: the family honour has received a heavy slur and Titus as the almighty Roman patronus and patriarch has to restore it through killing her.

[4] But here its meaning is slightly different from one might expect at first. J. Bate explains it in the respective comment as a word ‘applied to the act of carrying away a woman by force, not necessarily to forcible sexual intercourse’. Yet, the punning effect cannot be underestimated.

[5] He even ponders a while about his wish to have a motive of revenge in lines 232-238.

[6] He does not even silence her that she cannot name him as her ravisher. This can be a sign of actual carelessness or Tarquin is already so deeply convinced of his guilt that he is sure someone is going to find out, whatever he does with her.

[7] For a detailed description of private rooms in a household, although described for another purpose, compare T. Jankowski’s article ‘…in the Lesbian Void: Woman – Woman Eroticism in Shakespeare’s plays’.

[8] Tamora calls her ‘this trull’ and urges their sons to ‘deflower’ her (2.2.191). This sounds even more horridly as it is uttered by a woman.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


The theme of rape in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Lucrece
University of Cambridge  (English Department)
Independent Learning Module
67% (grade B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
396 KB
This essay was written during my semester abroad in England for an Independent Learning Module. Its main focus is Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus" with a side-glance at his narrative poem "Lucrece". It analyses the rape, its consequences for the victims and their families, as well as the interaction between the characters.
Shakespeare, Titus, Andronicus, Lucrece, Independent, Learning, Module
Quote paper
Stephanie Schnabel (Author), 2005, The theme of rape in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and Lucrece, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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