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Shakespeare Matters: “The Rape of Lucrece”

Many people don’t know it, but William Shakespeare first achieved fame as a poet.

His long narrative poem Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, followed a year later by a second one, The Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare dedicated both poems to Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, a young, popular nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. Southampton is widely viewed as the Fair Youth adored in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

“What I have done is yours, what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours,” Shakespeare wrote to Southampton in the dedication of Lucrece.

Renowned American stage actress Katherine Cornell (1893-1974) starred in “Lucrece” on Broadway in 1932. Her performance put her on the cover of Time Magazine.

While Venus and Adonis tells an amusing story of seduction, Lucrece presents the grim tale of Lucrece’s rape by Sextus Tarquinius, the lust-driven son of the reigning Roman king, and her subsequent feelings of shame and self-blame that lead to suicide. Her death causes the ouster of the Tarquins from power in Rome, after which the “state government changed from kings to consuls.”

In a 1964 biography of Shakespeare, A.L. Rowse writes of Lucrece, “There is clearly a deepening experience behind this poem, a greater knowledge of the shadowy side of life, the exploration of sin and remorse, the full realization of consequences, as always with [Shakespeare].” David Bevington, in his 1997 introduction to the poem, says that “Shakespeare’s real interest is not in the characters themselves so much as in the social ramifications of their actions.”

Drawing parallels in the poem to the abduction of Helen and the Trojan War, Shakespeare’s Lucrece shows how outrageous behavior that’s unbecoming of nobility makes not only for personal tragedy, but also takes down the royal powers that be.

Charles Beauclerk, author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, extends this idea, arguing that Lucrece represents Queen Elizabeth I, the mythical Virgin Queen who, in truth, was anything but chaste.

“[T]he piercing of the virgin’s veil or exposure of the queen as a whore – symbolized by the rape of Lucrece – could lead to the end of Elizabeth’s reign, even to the end of monarchy itself,” writes Beauclerk.

It’s a startling interpretation, but then again Shakespeare most often wrote about nobility, particularly the English nobility in his numerous history plays. A poem dedicated to a nobleman that attempts to symbolize Queen Elizabeth through the veil of verse seems an undertaking befitting of Shakespeare, an artist who liked to take risks. One shouldn’t forget the trouble his Richard II  stirred when it was publicly performed — with the incendiary scene of the King’s deposition — on the eve of the Essex Rebellion against Queen Elizabeth.

Taffety Punk Theater Company is performing Shakespeare’s Lucrece as a “concert poem” at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. (metro: Eastern Market) through October 6.

I caught the opening show last night and recommend seeing this creative melding of Shakespeare and rock music. You’ll need to act quickly, there’s just five more performances.

Backed by original music performed by Marcus Kyd on guitar (Kyd also directed), Kimberly Gilbert on bass, and Dan Crane on drums, Tonya Beckman is an engaging narrator of Lucrece. Joel David Santner is compelling as the rapist Tarquin, and the physical struggle between him and Lucrece, played by Gilbert, is skillfully handled by the actors as they stay in synch with the part-dialogue, part-narration story-telling.  Katie Murphy dances gracefully as “Lucrece’s shadow” under the choreography of Erin Mitchell.

Gilbert is outstanding as Lucrece. I found her singing quite moving (“In vain I rail at Opportunity/At Time, at Tarquin, and uncheerful Night”). Like the notes of her bass guitar, Gilbert’s words don’t miss a beat.

Taffety Punk is to be applauded for their bold yet faithful adaptation of Lucrece and infusing Shakespeare with new energy. I hope the company continues on their unique path.

William Shakespeare, rock thee on!

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