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“Immortal Longings:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare and Mishima”


She believes that the violation of her body no longer allows her to be called “a loyal wife.”  But in so believing, she makes no distinction between adultery, in which presumably there is equal complicity, and rape.  In a seminal discussion of Lucretia’s suicide in Book I of The City of God, St. Augustine raises these and related topics as he analyzes whether or not she should have killed herself.  He is explicit that when a woman is physically violated, “then the guilt attaches only to the ravisher, and not at all to the woman forcibly ravished without any consent on her part.”  Citing an anonymous speaker on this subject, he continues his analysis with this illuminating insight: “A paradox! There were two persons involved, and only one committed adultery...The speaker observed in the union of two bodies the disgusting lechery of the one, the chaste intention of the other, and he saw in that act not the conjunction of their bodies but the diversity of their minds.”


If Lucretia, he continues, is not guilty of a serious crime—i.e., adultery—then she was in the wrong to find herself guilty and be her own executioner. (Thomas Aquinas would later expand on this idea by asserting that no person may be judge, jury, and executioner of himself/herself.)


St. Augustine concludes that there is one of two ways of evaluating her case: 1) either her self-punishment results from her awareness that there was some “hidden consent” to this “adulterous” act, and “then she did not kill an innocent; or 2) she was completely chaste and therefore committed gratuitous murder against herself.  We are aware, of course, that Augustine is writing as a Christian theologian about a pre-Christian suicide, and that his influential view that the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” refers to oneself as well as others helped establish suicide as a cardinal Christian sin in subsequent theology.  Nonetheless, his comments on Lucretia’s suicide are incisive and useful for Shakespeare’s readers.


Shakespeare’s Lucrece is neither philosopher nor theologian but a woman overwhelmed by the atrocity perpetrated against her.  She considers the damage irreparable; she applies words like “stained” and “polluted” to herself, conjuring up not merely the literal sexual nature of the crime but the ruin of her most prized physical possession:  her unspotted body, referred to as stolen “treasure” and “that dear jewel I have lost.”  She fears for her husband Collatine’s reputation as well as her own, envisioning with horror a boastful Tarquin telling his comrades with a smirk at some time in the future that a newly born child of Lucrece’s was actually sired by him, not by Collatine. (She seems to asume that she may have impregnated her, but that even if he hasn’t, he is likely to tell others that Collatine is “doting father of his [i.e., Tarquin’s] fruit.”


Shakespeare, who understands the human psyche so well, provides legitimate concerns for Lucrece, and unlike Lucrece herself, the poet holds her entirely guiltless: “Not that devoured, but that which doth devour / Is worthy blame O, let it not be hild [i.e., held] /  Poor women’s fault that they are so fulfilled [i.e., filled] / With men’s abuses...”


At first, torn between living and dying, she is momentarily deterred by the thought that suicide might jeopardize her soul, but the anguish of guilt and shame is so great that she is determined to die and expresses her wish in an appropriate military metaphor: “Then let it not be called impiety / If in this blemished fort I make some hole / Through which I may convey this troubled soul.”  But she is resolved to have her revenge on Tarquin, and so “die I will not,” she insists “till my Collatine / Have heard the cause of my untimely death,” and to that end she pens a somewhat distracted note to him to be delivered by one of her faithful servants.


When Collatine finally arrives, accompanied by fellow soldiers (anachronistically called knights) and by her father Lucretius, she begins slowly and cautiously:  “Dear husband, in the interest of thy bed / A stranger came and on that pillow lay / Where thou wast wont to rest thy weary head.” Then she introduces the violent details: the brandishing of his sword; the threat that if she resists, he will kill not only her but one of her slaves, tie them together and declare that he caught them in the act of adultery; and finally, after overpowering her, the consummation of his “scarlet lust.”  But not until she has made all the men swear to avenge her dishonor does she identify the “stranger” as Tarquin.


Just before she kills herself, she proclaims that if physically she is “stained with this abuse, / Immaculate and spotless is my mind; / That was not forced”—a key concept in St. Augustine’s analysis of the innocence of a rape victim.  And Lucrece’s male spectators echo her sentiments: “they all at once began to say, / Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears.”  But even their collective agreement of her guiltlessness is not enough to keep her from stabbing herself in order to free her troubled soul from the “polluted prison” of her body.



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