Venus and Adonis was published with a dedication to the Earl of Southampton in which Shakespeare promised to follow up his light-hearted and erotic poem with a “graver labor.” This almost certainly refers to The Rape of Lucrece, which was published a year after Venus and Adonis in 1594, and was also dedicated to the Earl of Southampton. The Rape of Lucrece was almost as popular as the earlier poem, going through at least six editions in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The poem is a “graver labor” than Venus and Adonis because it is neither humorous nor erotic, and it tackles troubling moral and political themes. However, like Venus and Adonis, Lucrece is also interested in the uncontrollable power of desire. The 1,855 line poem is written in iambic pentameter, and opens with a prose section titled “The Argument,” which, much like the prologues in Shakespeare’s plays, describes what’s happened before the poem begins.
The Rape of Lucrece retells a story from Roman history which was well-known in Shakespeare’s England. Many authors had composed versions of this story before Shakespeare, including the Roman writers Ovid and Livy and the great medieval English poets Chaucer and Gower. Shakespeare was probably familiar with all of these versions. In the poem, Lucrece is the wife of the Roman nobleman Collatine. After Collatine boasts about his wife’s beauty and faithfulness in front of another Roman noble, the king’s son Tarquin, Tarquin travels to Lucrece’s house and rapes her. Afterwards Lucrece sends her family a message telling them what has happened, but not naming her attacker. Collatine returns home, where Lucrece tells him who raped her, then commits suicide. The story of Lucrece was particularly important to the Romans because her suicide lead directly to the banishment of the royal family and the establishment of the Roman Republic by Collantine’s friend, Lucius Junius Brutus, whose ancestor, Marcus Junius Brutus, would play a significant role in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar . This anti-monarchical significance made Lucrece a potentially risky story to tell in Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare’s version of Lucrece’s story casts a skeptical eye on Elizabethan ideas about power. In Renaissance politics, monarchs were supposed to be restrained by the advice and arguments of their courtiers. Shakespeare’s Lucrece pleads with Tarquin not to rape her with the kind of language Renaissance courtiers used to urge monarchs to practice political caution: “This deed will make thee only loved for fear/But happy monarchs still are feared for love.” However, Lucrece’s pleading is not only unsuccessful, it actually makes Tarquin’s determination “swell the higher.” Lucrece also casts doubt on the commonplace Elizabethan idea that women were the property of their male family members. Tarquin wants to “possess” Lucrece, but ends up causing her death. Lucrece’s husband and father both claim ownership of her body after she dies, but the poem mocks them: “The one doth call her his, the other his/Yet neither may possess the claim they lay.” Shakespeare returned to the story of Lucrece in several of his plays, referencing either the character, her attacker, or her death in Cymbelline, Twelfth Night , Titus Andronicus, Macbeth , and The Taming of the Shrew .