Sunday, April 08, 2018

towards Collatia

Castello di Lunghezza

[Image source: . You can have your wedding reception there!]

The medieval Castello di Lunghezza, on a hill just south of the river Aniene (Latin Anio), is generally thought to occupy the site of the ancient town of Collatia, though no traces have been found.

Shakespeare called it Collatium.

FROM the besieged Ardea all in post,
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire,
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host,
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire
And girdle with embracing flames the waist
Of Collatine's fair love, Lucrece the chaste.

(Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece Stanza 1)

Shakespeare's sources were Livy Ab Urbe Condita Bk I (which he may have encountered at school) and Ovid's Fasti Book II (February). His poem (written c. 1593) pre-dated the first complete English translation of Livy (by Philemon Holland in 1600). Thomas Heywood's tragedy The Rape of Lucrece dates from 1608.

No poet of Shakespeare's time was interested in pace. Chaucer had been such a master of it, but now the object of narrative verse was quite changed. Shakespeare's poem, after that thrill of an opening stanza, switches almost immediately to the static elaborate musical figuration of Tarquin's thoughts (pre-rape) and Lucrece's thoughts (post-rape).


The story can be given in Shakespeare's own words. This is The Argument to his poem. It always gives me a funny feeling when I read it.  I find myself thinking that here, almost uniquely, is Shakespeare writing merely  as himself,  not in the role of another character, nor as part of an elaborate social ritual (as, very obviously, in the preceding dedication to Henry Wriothesley). I might well be mistaken. Maybe these long Latinate sentences with their suspended clauses are just another mask: Shakespeare in the role of historian. Maybe the switching between past tense and historic present tense isn't unreflecting and spontaneous, but is part of the assumed garb of a storyteller. Maybe "writing as oneself" did not even exist in those days. Whatever, it's intriguing to see Shakespeare so far off his usual patch.



Lucius Tarquinius, for his excessive pride surnamed Superbus, after he had caused his own father-in-law Servius Tullius to be cruelly murdered, and, contrary to the Roman laws and customs, not requiring or staying for the people's suffrages, had possessed himself of the kingdom, went, accompanied with his sons and other noblemen of Rome, to besiege Ardea. During which siege the principal men of the army meeting one evening at the tent of Sextus Tarquinius, the king's son, in their discourses after supper every one commended the virtues of his own wife: among whom Collatinus extolled the incomparable chastity of his wife Lucretia. In that pleasant humour they posted to Rome; and intending, by their secret and sudden arrival, to make trial of that which every one had before avouched, only Collatinus finds his wife, though it were late in the night, spinning amongst her maids: the other ladies were all found dancing and revelling, or in several disports. Whereupon the noblemen yielded Collatinus the victory, and his wife the fame. At that time Sextus Tarquinius being inflamed with Lucrece' beauty, yet smothering his passions for the present, departed with the rest back to the camp; from whence he shortly after privily withdrew himself, and was, according to his estate, royally entertained and lodged by Lucrece at Collatium. The same night he treacherously stealeth into her chamber, violently ravished her, and early in the morning speedeth away. Lucrece, in this lamentable plight, hastily dispatcheth messengers, one to Rome for her father, another to the camp for Collatine. They came, the one accompanied with Junius Brutus, the other with Publius Valerius; and finding Lucrece attired in mourning habit, demanded the cause of her sorrow. She, first taking an oath of them for her revenge, revealed the actor, and whole manner of his dealing, and withal suddenly stabbed herself. Which done, with one consent they all vowed to root out the whole hated family of the Tarquins; and bearing the dead body to Rome, Brutus acquainted the people with the doer and manner of the vile deed, with a bitter invective against the tyranny of the king: wherewith the people were so moved, that with one consent and a general acclamation the Tarquins were all exiled, and the state government changed from kings to consuls.

(Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece)


"...Give me your solemn promise that the adulterer shall be punished -- he is Sextus Tarquinius. He it is who last night came as my enemy disguised as my guest, and took his pleasure of me. That pleasure shall be my death -- and his too, if you are men."

The promise was given. One after another they tried to comfort her. They told her she was helpless, and therefore innocent; that he alone was guilty. It was the mind, they said, that sinned, not the body: without intention there could never be guilt.

"What is due to him," Lucretia said, "is for you to decide. As for me I am innocent of fault, but I will take my punishment. Never shall Lucretia provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve." With these words she drew a knife from under her robe, drove it into her heart, and fell forward, dead.

Her father and husband were overwhelmed with grief. While they stood weeping helplessly, Brutus drew the bloody knife from Lucretia's body, and holding it before him cried: "By this girl's blood -- none more chaste till a tyrant wronged her -- and by the gods, I swear that with sword and fire, and whatever else can lend strength to my arm, I will pursue Lucius Tarquinius the Proud, his wicked wife, and all his children, and never again will I let them or any other man be King in Rome."

(Livy, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)


She called her aged father and her loyal husband
    From the camp, and both came without delay.
Seeing her condition, they asked why she mourned,
    Whose rites she prepared, what ill had befallen her?
She was silent for a long time, and hid her face in her robe
    Out of shame: her tears flowed in a running stream.
Her father here, her husband there comforted her tears
    And begged her to tell, wept, and trembled in blind fear.
Three times she tried to speak, three times desisted,
    And a fourth time, gaining courage, still couldn’t raise her eyes.
She said: ‘Must I owe this to a Tarquin too? Must I speak,
    Speak, poor wretch, my shame from my own mouth?’
What she could, she told. The end she suppressed:
    She wept, and a blush spread over a wife’s cheeks.
Her husband and her father forgave her being forced:
    She said: ‘I deny myself the forgiveness that you grant.’
Then she stabbed herself with a blade she had hidden,
    And, all bloodied, fell at her father’s feet.
Even then she took care in dying so that she fell
    With decency, that was her care even in falling.
See, the husband and father throw themselves on her body,
    Regardless of appearances, grieve for their mutual loss.
Brutus approached, and at last, with spirit, belied his name,
    Snatching the weapon from the dying body,
Holding the blade dripping with noble blood,
     Fearlessly he uttered these menacing words:
‘I swear by this chaste blood, so courageous,
    And by your spirit that will be a divinity to me,
I will be revenged on Tarquin the Proud and his lost brood.
    I have concealed my virtue for too long.’
At these words, lying there, she moved her sightless eyes,
    And seemed to witness the speech by a stirring of her hair.
They carried her to her funeral, a woman with a man’s courage,
    And tears and indignation followed after her.

(Ovid Fasti II, about February 24, day of  the Regifugium.)

[Translation by A.S. Kline. The whole of this translation is available online: . I had never read any of the Fasti before:  it turns out to be a rather wonderful poem. ]


The words of Lucretia are still incandescent. But this is a myth cultivated by men. In the story the men-folk themselves are specifically exculpated from having approved or wished for Lucretia's self-sacrifice. Yet the myth itself does exactly that. It promotes Lucretia as a woman hero (exemplifying the key womanly virtue,i.e. chastitiy). And it sees her as an inspiring and unsparing exemplum of zero tolerance for (female) unchastity.


Shakespeare, to his credit I think, can't quite bear to stick with this myth. His Brutus points out that Lucrece's suicide, far from being a noble exemplum, is after all a dreadful mistake.

'Thou wronged lord of Rome,' quoth be, 'arise:
Let my unsounded self, supposed a fool,
Now set thy long-experienced wit to school.
'Why, Collatine, is woe the cure for woe?
Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds?
Is it revenge to give thyself a blow
For his foul act by whom thy fair wife bleeds?
Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds:
Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
To slay herself, that should have slain her foe.

But no, that isn't the total judgment of the poem: in fact Shakespeare was not in the business of judging, but of imagining how the Lucrece he had read about must have felt.

'In vain,' quoth she, 'I live, and seek in vain
Some happy mean to end a hapless life.
I fear'd by Tarquin's falchion to be slain,
Yet for the self-same purpose seek a knife:
But when I fear'd I was a loyal wife:
So am I now: O no, that cannot be;
Of that true type hath Tarquin rifled me.


'Few words,' quoth she, 'Shall fit the trespass best,
Where no excuse can give the fault amending:


'O, teach me how to make mine own excuse!
Or at the least this refuge let me find;
Though my gross blood be stain'd with this abuse,
Immaculate and spotless is my mind;
That was not forced; that never was inclined
To accessary yieldings, but still pure
Doth in her poison'd closet yet endure.'


But she, that yet her sad task hath not said,
The protestation stops. 'O, speak, ' quoth she,
'How may this forced stain be wiped from me?

'What is the quality of mine offence,
Being constrain'd with dreadful circumstance?
May my pure mind with the foul act dispense,
My low-declined honour to advance?
May any terms acquit me from this chance?
The poison'd fountain clears itself again;
And why not I from this compelled stain?'

With this, they all at once began to say,
Her body's stain her mind untainted clears;
While with a joyless smile she turns away
The face, that map which deep impression bears
Of hard misfortune, carved in it with tears.
'No, no,' quoth she, 'no dame, hereafter living,
By my excuse shall claim excuse's giving.'

So the poem turns over and over Lucrece's feeling of violation and shame, a feeling of something as irrevocable as Lady Macbeth's guilt, although Lucrece is not guilty.

Brilliant as this psychological poetry is, the object of violation is still seen, predominantly, as chastity, the role of a wife. So reading it is a bit too comfortable. When all's said it's still a man's poem, its rape is distanced in time, distanced too in the high social status of criminal and victim. Stating the obvious, it's an idealized picture, and after a time that makes me feel a bit uneasy, so this post ends with a corrective of sorts.    

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