Testament, Gender and Agency in Early Modern Revisions of the ‘Lucretia’ Narrative

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The Lucretia narrative, also known as the (mythohistoric) founding story of the Roman Republic, has been an inspiration for artwork and literature across the European continent over the past two millennia. Although popular throughout history, this narrative is extremely prolific in early modern literature and artwork, where she is frequently used as a character against which the subverted and subversive agency of other figures – both within the text and as writers, painters, viewers and readers – is articulated. My thesis examines the way in which early modern artists and writers present a subverted system of power relations following the rape, within the Lucretia narrative. In this revised system, epitomised by the rhetorical and political force of Lucretia’s rape testament, the rapist is repeatedly characterised as lacking the qualities of political and vocal agency, demonstrated prior to the rape, whilst Lucretia’s expression of these qualities highlights their absence in the rapist. Rape repeatedly functions as a ‘change’ point for Tarquin in which his weakness is both emphasised by, and results in, an effeminising characterisation located in Lucretia’s powerful testament.

My thesis takes the form of a case study analysis, to demonstrate the diversity of early modern representations of the Lucretia narrative, as I draw on texts and images from across a period spanning almost 150 years (1521-1664) and a wide variety of genres and artistic backgrounds. Through this analysis, my thesis concerns itself with the political and textual power of Lucretia’s testament as a means by which the agency of other figures – within and external to the text – can be mapped. Within texts including Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and Middleton’s The Ghost of Lucrece (1600), Lucretia’s act of making testament is repeatedly represented as emphasising Tarquin’s subjectivity to, and synonymity with, the raped female body. Testament articulates an erasure of masculinity and associated patriarchal power, predominantly in the case of the fictional rapist but also over other fictional male characters and the audience. Conversely, a number of early modern women including Aemilia Lanyer, Margaret Cavendish and Artemisia Gentileschi, who are representing Lucretia within both literary and artistic fiction, interact the early modern notion of Lucretia as exempla, in order to justify their own position as writers and artists, and to challenge patriarchal standards of female behaviour. This thesis aims to demonstrate the widespread nature of these themes of within Lucretia narratives and artworks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and questions why the Lucretia narrative functions in this way.

Date of AwardJun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorAilsa Grant Ferguson (Supervisor)

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