Being constrain'd with dreadful circumstance: The Violence of Identity in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece
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In the catalogue of William Shakespeare’ s female characters, one critical attribute (perhaps surprisingly) can be found among nearly all of them: a consistent identity (Paulina’ s assertive determination and Desdemona’ s docile passivity both exemplify this constancy). However, in Shakespeare’ s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, Rome’ s Lucretia, perhaps the most historically famous of all Shakespeare’ s heroines, never exhibits a coherent self. On the contrary, her capacity to adopt so many varying objects of identification results in a struggle with feminine identity that is not seen anywhere else in Shakespeare’s works. This paper aims to explore why Lucrece’ s extraordinarily disparate self cannot find solace or security in any of the identifications she pursues, and how ultimately it is the tangible union established when the “harmful knife” is “sheathed in her harmless breast” that yields the only unaffected identity she has ever asserted. Not by adopting others’ imagined sorrow in her head, but by forcing her flesh to absorb the material actuality of the knife, can Lucrece both allow her incongruent identity to acquit itself, and behold her soul finally “unsheath’d” from the “deep unrest” in which it had been trapped.
SubjectScholarship Sewanee 2011; University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee; Undergraduate research; Shakespeare, William; Violence; Rape of Lucrece; Identity; Femininity; Suicide
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