Song, Political Resistance, and Masculinity in Thomas Heywood’s The Rape of Lucrece
Thomas Heywood’s The Rape of Lucrece (first printed in 1608) is indebted to Shakespeare’s poem of the same title, particularly in its characterization of a complex and conflicted Sextus Tarquinius, but it also draws heavily from Livy; it is considerably broader than Shakespeare’s poem in its historical scope. Lucrece’s rape takes place two thirds of the way through a play that begins with the elder Tarquin’s decision, abetted by Tullia, to usurp the throne from his predecessor. Although Sextus’s crime remains the climactic moment of the play, Heywood shifts the focus to his parents’ tyranny, vividly summarized in an early speech by Tarquin:
All capital causes are by us discust, Traverst, and executed without counsell, We challenge too by our prerogative, The goods of such as strive against our state, The freest Citizens without attaint, Arraigne, or judgement, we to exile doome, The poorer are our drudges, rich our prey, And such as dare not strive our rule obey. (809-16)1
Heywood’s play proved immensely popular, going through five editions in 30 years. Neither the historical material nor the Shakespearean connections, however, seem to have been the primary reason for the play’s appeal to seventeenth-century audiences. The play mingles historical subject matter about the birth of the Roman republic with popular entertainment: boisterous and bawdy songs and musical jokes at the expense of the tyrannical Tarquin and his domineering wife, Tullia, which provide an irreverent counterpoint to the main action. The title page of the 1638 quarto suggests that these elements were one of the play’s selling points: “A true Roman Tragedy. With the severall Songs in their apt places, by Valerius the merry Lord among the Roman Peeres.” Successive quartos of Lucrece incorporate an increasing number of songs, a few of them evidently added by an actor rather than by Heywood, but they were included by the printer at the end of the play “[b]ecause we would not that any mans expectation should be deceived” (2991-2). Valerius the merry lord-destined to become Valerius the sober Roman consulwas evidently popular with theatrical audiences and book-buyers alike.