W.B. Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan' is probably the most famous literary rape of the twentieth century:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? And how can body, laid in that white rush, But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
In the original edition, published in The Dial in June 1924, Yeats noted: 'I wrote Leda and the Swan because the editor of a political review asked me for a poem.... My fancy began to play with Leda and the Swan for metaphor, and I began this poem; but as I wrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it.' (1) That Yeats views politics and rape as mutually exclusive is hardly surprising. On the one hand, an offence so clearly directed at the person and so intimately executed seems worlds away from the larger social structures that constitute the political. Even though Jove's rape of Leda is shown to unleash the violence of the Trojan war--as the reference to 'the burning roof and tower' makes plain--the painful focus on the 'terrified vague fingers', the seized nape, breast and thighs implants the poem with a physicality which has the effect of evoking the sadistic act rather than exploring the ideological implications of the moment. Moreover, the final lines ask a dangerously leading question--was Leda in some way empowered by her forcible coupling with a god? Did she, in other words, profit by the act? In 1968 William Empson infamously made the same suggestion of Lucrece: 'She was no virgin, having several children; and it is a basic fact about the young Shakespeare that he considers young men in general overwhelmingly desirable to women, let alone brave young lords. Thus she took an involuntary pleasure in the rape, though she would have resisted it in any way possible; that is why she felt guilty, and why some of her blood turned black'. (2)
The fact that Yeats could have seen such questions as apolitical or that Empson could have viewed the episode in terms of personal blame is a sign of the shift in sensibility between 1924/1968 and the present day. For contemporary feminist critics, rape is an act of the most profoundly political nature and it would seem that this view of rape is shared by Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece. As Sara E. Quay has argued, 'Lucrece is not able to be raped because she is a woman, but because she is constructed as a woman who is able to be raped.' (3) The feminist rationale is not difficult to see. In cultures in which rape is accepted as an albeit abnormal part of sexual behaviour, it is naturalised and the circumstances that produce it remain unquestioned and therefore dangerously unchallenged. If, on the other hand, rape is viewed as a social or political construction, the reasons for its acceptance and perhaps even its existence are available for interrogation. It is my contention that Shakespeare's poem sets out to display the 'constructedness' of rape and that its concentration on the political aspects of the crime are not due to a shying away from the horror of the act itself, but rather reveal the social and cultural organisations that allow rape to occur in the first place. In such a way this essay takes issue with Coppelia Kahn's assertion that criticism of The Rape of Lucrece 'has so far failed to confront' the rape in the poem. (4) While she may be right that it is 'painful to confront the poem squarely', the poem's stress on the political consequences of the crime and the political circumstances that led to it, …