The Mirror Cracked: Femininity and the Rhetoric of Castration in Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece"

Corey M. Werner
Department of English
Bloomsburg University

During the Renaissance, a paranoid sense of masculinity arose from men's inability to completely master their spouses. In Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece," both the structure of the complaint and its subject matter emphasize this imaginary physical dominance, and its source from castration anxiety. Jacques Lacan, in his Mirror Stage, discusses the ego's attempt to find an ideal version of itself by projecting a unified image of itself onto an object. However, this form of identification inevitably leads the subject to recognize its own castration. The drama of the mirror stage gives the reader insight into the predicament of the renaissance husband who is unable to totally control his wife. The Rape reveals that without the feminine other to underprop the masculine subject, masculinity's imaginary understanding of itself as autonomous and unified is threatened.

Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece" presents the dialectical struggle for dominance between the genders. Through metaphor, the complaint mediates the aggressive and ultimately narcissistic bond of heterosexual masculinity and femininity. In the course of the lament, masculine figures employ the phallic rhetoric of metaphor to assert themselves as dominant only to experience self-consumption at the end of the poem. This occurs when femininity removes itself from the masculine-feminine symbiotic relationship.

Although it seems self-evident that some kind of connection exists between the genders, during the Renaissance the bond between them was socially regulated through the publication of masculine honor and feminine chastity. In the 16th century, the chastity of a man's wife was considered an integral part of his honor and necessary in ensuring the lawful line of offspring, who would inherit their father's name and property. This, however, presented a problem for the men of the Renaissance, since their reputation (and their very identity) relied on something over which they had no power. As Mark Breitenberg asserts: "Husbands [were] dependent on their wives' reputation for chastity- that is, dependent on something ultimately beyond their control, despite considerable effort to the contrary" (98).

In order for men to retain their masculinity, it was necessary for them to prevent their gender opposites from committing adultery. This was often achieved through the subjugation of women, and much of the literature of this period reflects men's desire to regulate femininity and female sexuality. As George Puttenham suggests in his Art of English Poesy, poetry (which connotes masculinity) has the ability to pacify and persuade; it brings order to the words of the mother tongue (207). Shirley Sharon-Zisser agrees that:

Early modern treatises on the art of rhetoric anasemically bespeak an underlying conception of language as a perilous and far from neutral medium. Anxiously associating language with the archaic, oceanic, engulfing maternal body, such treatises struggle to re-produce it as a differentiated, partitioned symbolic economy gravitating to a phallicized general equivalent. (55)

Both action and rhetoric subjugate femininity [in order to preserve chastity]. But as Breitenberg suggests, "Lucrece" relies on the "mutuality and rivalry" (110) of opposites. The opening of the poem presents rivalry in the form of Lucrece, a woman who turns her chastity into the chastisement of men. Lucrece, whose fidelity ensures Collatine's honor, robs her husband of his masculinity by refusing sexual intercourse; she thereby castrates him. Throughout the poem, Lucrece is referred to as a "maiden," a woman who has not yet experienced sex. This characterization suggests that Lucrece's and Collatine's marriage has not been consummated. It is true, however, that during the Renaissance the word "maiden" also connoted marital fidelity (chastity). In "Puritanism and Maenadism in A Mask," Richard Halpern discusses "the replacement of the Catholic ideal of female virginity with the Protestant ideal of chastity, that is, of a monogamous marital relationship" in the early modern period. Appropriately enough, Halpern asks whether "Christian liberty allows the virgin girl to refuse her seducer," and "the married woman to refuse her husband."

Though Halpern's argument is concerned with the role of virginity and chastity in Milton's "Comus," it can nevertheless give the reader insight into the dilemma of Shakespeare's complaint. "The virtuous resistance of the Lady may become revolt if not relinquished at the proper moment. In excess, both virginity and sexuality overturn domestic rule," contends Halpern. If Lucrece denies not only other men, but also Collatine sexual intercourse, then this act is castrating. The lament supports Halpern's contention when it describes Lucrece's breasts "like ivory globes circled with blue,/ A pair of maiden worlds unconquerèd" (163). Her figure remains unmolested, suggesting that she has not yet had sex. Lucrece is therefore presented as a woman barring Collatine from his masculinity.

Castration imagery is also pervasive at the very opening of the complaint. In the second verse, the reader learns of "lust-breathèd Tarquin" (143) who is "borne by the trustless wings of false desire" (143) on his way to rape Lucrece. He is so overwhelmed with passion that he practically flies to Lucrece's chambers. The reference to flight ("trustless wings") and the emphasis on desire, however, also mythologically allude to Uranus, the castrated father of the gods and ruler of the sky, from whose severed penis sprung the goddess of love. The verb "borne," then, not only serves to describe the way in which Tarquin is carried by his lust, but also to iterate and connect Tarquin to the genesis of desire. From castration, from demand, desire is born.

Arguably, the "false desire" which carries Tarquin has two meanings as well. The desire is "false" not only because it is not Collatine who is about to have sex with Lucrece, but also because the desire springs from a married woman's unwillingness to perform sexually for her husband. The desirous Collatine must channel his frustration into words. He tells his comrades of his wife's beauty, the act that initially drives Tarquin to rape Lucrece:

For he [Collatine] the night before, in Tarquin's tent,
Unlocked the treasure of his happy state:
What priceless wealth the heavens had him lent
In the possession of his beauteous mate;
Reck'ning his fortune at such high proud rate
     That kings might be espousèd to more fame,
     But king nor peer to such a peerless dame. (144)

It is socially necessary that Lucrece be made to perform for some male figure. Collatine's frustration compromises masculinity, and marriage, that which ensures the subjugation of femininity, is rendered nonsensical. Sharon-Zisser asserts that:

Lucrece's beauty is blazed or "boast[ed]" (1.36) in a homosocial context not prior to her matrimonial confinement and her construction as "that name of chaste" (1.8)- the very embodiment of the gynecologized signifier of a phallus-affirming illustrative collatio- but after them. This blazoning takes place within the setting of matrimony rather than the exchange of women, and that may be considered the traumatic "primal scene" that drives the text at least as much as the usually foregrounded rape […] (59)

Collatine recites his effictio in the presence of his comrades. He holds his wife up as an idealized object of desire, assigning himself the role of desirous lover—one whose love remains unrequited. But why would a married man need to pine over what he already should possess? Because Collatine exhibits Lucrece as a desired object in a situation devoid of women (and therefore devoid of the subjectivity needed to define what is masculine), he not only reveals his own desire to consummate his marriage, but also the desire to reinstate femininity as a bolster for the masculine subject. Sharon-Zisser goes on to explain that the blazon offered during the opening lines of the complaint does not, as some might believe, attempt to reaffirm masculinity, but rather signify its absence:

It [the blazon] then uses that non-phallicized, maternally-charged "augmenting" to hollow out an ontologically present "something": the plenitude of phallic authority that is affirmed in the patriarchal marriage link rhetorically inscribed into the illustrative collatio. (59)

The blazon represents unrequited love (since Lucrece seems to refuse her husband intercourse), yet it transfers the emptiness of the Petrarchan scenario onto masculinity. Despite the marriage between Collatine and Lucrece, the marriage's unconsummated status gives precedence to unrequited love, turning the blazon into what Sharon-Zisser terms "the Petrarchan mutilation of the body of the female love-object [which is] used to re-erect, re-collate the phallic sovereignty threatened (conceptually castrated) by an excess of unrequited sexual attraction" (59).

But rhetorical re-assembly of a castrated masculinity is not enough to subjugate femininity so long as the actual feminine object is not physically subdued, and so Tarquin must rape Lucrece. The masculine subject, whose seeming physical dominance springs from a castration anxiety repeatedly and accidentally revealed in the complaint, uses Lucrece's violation to re-establish masculine identity. In a way, femininity must act as a mirror in which masculinity can view itself and be identified. Jacques Lacan postulates in his "Mirror Stage" that identification is dependent on viewing the self through other objects (reflections): "We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image […]" (2). The ego, in an attempt to end desire, projects a unified ideal of itself onto an object with which it makes an identification. But what exactly does this identification entail?

The ego identifies with an object in so far as it searches in the object for that piece of itself, which will complete the ego's sense of autonomy. Lacan, however, acknowledges that "this form situates the agency of the ego […] in a fictional direction […]" (2), since no object can fulfill the demand of the ego. The insufficiency of the object to absolutely gratify the ego emphasizes the alienation of the subject from the object. The ego, too, must realize that in looking for an absolute version of itself, it reveals its own lack-in-being that requires paranoid forms of compensation. As Lacan states: "the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation" (4). The ego's endeavor to manipulate objects into being ideal versions of itself leads to alienation and subsequent anxiety over its own lack; egoic demand for completion can only ever end in desire.

The masculine subject perceives itself as unified, since it is not physically "castrated."1 So, when the masculine subject seeks an ideal version of itself via object-relations, it recognizes that its understanding of itself as absolute is a lie. In order to compensate for this realization, the subject publicizes its masculinity, in Collatine's case, by holding up the chastity of his wife. Collatine depends on Lucrece to show him an ideal version of himself, but since Lucrece has removed herself from the economy of marriage, she reveals Collatine's lack-in-being. Lucrece, the mirror in the complaint and the representation of femininity, challenges the idea of woman-as-narcissistic mirror/metaphor for masculinity by withdrawing herself from the function of reflection. Whether from unrequited love, or the fact that Collatine and Lucrece are physically separated (Collatine is in "Ardea" and Lucrece is in "Collatium"), the opening of the poem presents masculinity without a mirror by which to measure itself, castrated. Without a narcissistic reflection with which the masculine subject can identify, masculinity cannot exist.

With Lucrece removed from the masculine/ feminine dialectic, masculinity, now frustrated by the hyper-chaste Lucrece, needs to reinstate its corresponding other in order to affirm its identity. The frustration Collatine rhetorically articulates, Tarquin sets out to end in an attempt to reassert (reflect) masculinity. Tarquin rushes to Collatium "with all too timeless speed" (158) in order to violate Lucrece, and in line 295, begins the journey to her chamber:

And their heartens up his servile powers,
Who, flattered by their leader's jocund show,
Stuff up his lust, as minutes fill up hours;
And as their captain, so their pride doth grow,
Paying more slavish tribute than they owe.
     By reprobate desire thus madly led,
     The Roman lord marcheth to Lucrece' bed. (158)

The imagery of the army and the Roman nobility in this stanza, imagery that connotes masculinity and conquest, heralds the rape of Lucrece. These images suggest an aggressive masculinity on the way to subdue the enemy.

As this section progresses, the allusions to rape and conquest become increasingly vivid. The images, however, do not vilify Tarquin as a rapist, but idolize him as a questing epic hero:

The locks between her chamber and his will,
Each one by him enforced retires his ward;
But as they open, they all rate his ill,
Which drives the creeping thief to some regard.
The threshold grates the door to have him heard;
     Night-wand'ring weasels shriek to see him there;
     They fright him, yet he still pursues his fear. (305)

Tarquin must literally fight the house in order to get to his foe, "his fear," (or unbridled femininity). The fact that he is in an enclosed space (the house), symbol of the womb, archetypally connotes the struggle of the hero with suffocating/ devouring femininity. Tarquin seems first to prevail as the "unwilling portal yields him way" (159). The constant shrieks of the house and the force Tarquin expends opening the doors also anticipates the central theme of the poem: rape. The poem does not only invest physical action in Tarquin in order for him to succeed, but also rhetorical power. The house, the realm of femininity, consequently, is turned into a metaphor for bodily violation.

Metaphor, which brings obscurity into clarity, links metaphorization to phallic masculinity, the visible heterosexual gender. The western tradition has always associated clarity with the penis because of the penis's seemingly unified form. The female genitalia, however, are internal, unseen, and, as such, cannot be as easily defined or described as the penis. In "The Sex Which Is Not One" Luce Irigaray agrees "woman has sex organs more or less everywhere. This is doubtless why she is said to be […] incomprehensible […]" (28). The feminine subject, therefore, connotes confusion because of the internalized structure of her genitals. And as Aristotle asserts in his Rhetoric, "metaphor must always apply reciprocally to either of its co-ordinate terms" (174). Metaphorization, then, functions to phallicize that which has been gynocologized. The use of metaphor as a copulation of parts, which, in the complaint, presents the feminine subject as a mirror/metaphor for the masculine one, also reiterates the need for the consummation between gender opposites.

Even though Lucrece does not appear in this section of the lament, the rape of the feminine space turns Tarquin's journey to Lucrece's bed into a metaphor for her own eventual violation. It anticipates the violence against Lucrece and reinstates phallic dominance through metaphorical rape of an enclosed area. Metaphor, here, is employed to reaffirm masculinity.

In the end, however, Lucrece's rape remains purely rhetorical. The actual, physical rape is not recorded in the poem. The epic quest, the conquest of the enemy, ends anticlimactically with Tarquin fleeing: "He [Tarquin] thence departs a heavy convertite; […] He in his speed looks for the morning light" (179). Masculinity has almost been reestablished, but the lack of climax signifies another castration, one that Lucrece will make reality at the end of the complaint, destroying any chance for reflection.

After Tarquin leaves, Lucrece summons Collatine back to Collatium, in order for him to witness the final castration. Any attempt to reestablish the symbiosis between femininity and masculinity is destroyed when Lucrece finally kills herself:

Even here she sheathèd in her harmless breast
A harmful knife, that thence her soul unsheathèd:
That blow did bail it from the deep unrest
Of that polluted prison where it breathèd. (224)

Once again the effort to reassert masculinity over femininity is undercut by Lucrece's ability to chastise. She takes her life, symbolically reenacting bodily rape, but it is she who penetrates her body with a phallic object. In doing so, Lucrece reveals that the phallus can be wielded by either a man or a woman, and thereby dissociates the anatomical penis from the symbolic phallus. What she makes Collatine desire at the beginning of the poem, Lucrece robs from him in the end.

Collatine and Lucrece's father fall on top of her lifeless body and lament the loss of their feminine other: "Then son and father weep with equal strife/ Who should weep most, for daughter or for wife" (227). Both Collatine and Lurcetius complain about Lucrece's death. The role of lamenting, initially assigned to the complainant Lucrece, is now invested in her masculine relatives, further demasculinizing husband and father. Lucretius's lamentations also reveal the requirement of a narcissistic mirror for masculinity: "If in the child the father's image lies,/ Where shall I live now Lucrece is unlivèd?" (225). With Lucrece dead, Lucretius has no way of identifying what he is. He goes on to compare his daughter to a "poor broken glass" (225). He holds his daughter up, not as a metaphor for his own masculinity, but as an object unable to fulfill its function. "I can no more see what I once was," (226) exclaims Lucretius. Without the necessary narcissistic reflection, masculinity cannot define itself, and metaphorization becomes a tool of masculine castration, rather than affirmation.

According to Sharon-Zisser, the death of Lucrece symbolizes the final castration of the masculine characters: "What the poem ends with is not Collatine's reerection but his castrative ‘fall' (1.1775) into Lucrece's blood, a necrophilic coupling with a gynecologized substance that, as consequence of a woman's self-empowering act, is nevertheless depleted of the gynecologized function usually inscribed into it" (64). The poem, however, does attempt to reinstate the dialectic between the genders after Lucretius and Collatine complain.

Brutus, who watches Lucrece commit suicide, advises her husband and father not to bemoan their loss, but to use it as a catalyst for action, to turn it into a metaphor. In a last ditch attempt to salvage masculinity, "Brutus […] pluck[s] the knife from Lucrece' side," and states:

Now by the Capitol that we adore,
And by this chaste blood so unjustly stainèd,
By heaven's fair sun that breeds the fat earth's store,
By all our country rights in Rome complainèd
     Her wrongs to us, and by this bloody knife,
     We will revenge the death of this true wife. (229)

Brutus, in picking up the dagger, tries to regain the phallus stolen by Lucrece. He urges his compatriots to turn Lucrece into a metaphor for action, to pacify femininity with the rules of rhetoric, and to reassemble castrated masculinity by using femininity to produce movement. He also tries to reestablish Collatine's honor by publicizing his wife's chastity. But as so often has been the case in this poem, Lucrece is able to undermine the intentions of men. Despite Brutus's urgency for remetaphorization and publication of honor, his attempts fall short of their intended mark.

Throughout the complaint, masculinity tries to assert its dominance over femininity via a living object reduced to playing the role of a narcissistic reflection (a metaphor). This metaphorization allowed the affirmation of the masculine subject, and a way through which honor and feminine subjugation could be guaranteed. At the end, however, Lucrece is dead. The mirror for masculinity has been shattered. Without femininity present so that masculinity can understand itself, masculinity becomes nonsensical and gender is undermined. The only possible metaphor at the end of the poem is catachretic, and thereby insufficient. This catachretic decline of metaphor leads the soldiery to attack royal Tarquin, symbolizing the destruction of the quintessential masculinity of Rome, its Father-King:

They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence,
To show her bleeding body through Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin's foul offence;
Which being done with speedy diligence,
     The Romans plausibly did give consent
     To Tarquin's everlasting banishment. (230)

The absence of a living Lucrece destroys the metaphoric underpinnings of gender, and foregrounds it as a lie. It insists that woman-as-guarantee of an uncastrated masculinity can only ever be a misrepresentation. The subject, whether masculine or feminine, remains separated from the Real, and the use of a narcissistic mirror to define existence reveals this separation. The imaginary function of metaphorization, which, in the complaint, is used to reaffirm masculinity, inevitably presents the masculine subject with his own castration, and thereby introduces him to the law of desire beyond the bar of reflection.


1. For an extended discussion on egoic castration and the misrecognition of the penis for the phallic, see Lacan's "The Signification of the Phallus."

Works Cited

Aristotle. "Rhetoric." Aristotle's Rhetoric and Poetic. Ed. Ingram Bywater. New York: Random House, 1954. 19- 218.

Breitenberg, Mark. Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Halpern, Richard. Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourse of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Eds. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Lacan, Jacques. Ècrits: A Selection. Ed. Alan Sheridan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1977.

Puttenham, George. "The Art of English Poesy." Renaissance Debates on Rhetoric. Ed. Wayne A. Rebhorn. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 200. 204- 218.

Sharon-Zisser, Shirley. "Re(de)-Erecting Collatine: Castrative Collatio in 'The Rape of Lucrece.'" Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 29 (1999): 55-70.

Shakespeare, William. "The Rape of Lucrece." The Poems. Ed. John Roe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 140-230.