Academic journal article Early Theatre

Rape, Massacre, the Lucrece Tradition, and Alarum for London

Academic journal article Early Theatre

Rape, Massacre, the Lucrece Tradition, and Alarum for London

Article excerpt

What does it mean when Thomas Heywood's raped Lucrece upbraids the gods for permitting the 'inhuman massacre' of her 'harmless virtue'? 'Wherefore take you charge', she asks, 'On sinless souls to see them wounded thus / With rape or violence?' (Hlv). (1) The association is apposite: rape and massacre are frequently understood as masculine enterprises in which perpetrators capitalize upon their structural capabilities to exploit the structural vulnerabilities of their victims. (2) Lucrece does not primarily refer to the gendered nature of the violence she has suffered, however. What is most striking about her pronouncement is that while acts of rape often accompany acts of massacre, Heywood's heroine synonymizes the two: to perceive the one is to understand the other.

The rhetorical force of Lucrece's declaration is devastatingly emphatic. Less certain are the semantic and phenomenological implications of this interchange. The terms rape and massacre give rise to problems of definition. Both can comprise a broad category, as well as specific forms, of violence. And contrary to, or perhaps because of, this semantic capaciousness, each act can be understood as such without employing rape or massacre. Indeed, forced coition has a long history of being described indirectly. The Latin, stuprum, memorably inscribed into the ground by Shakespeare's Lavinia to alert her male relatives to the sexual violence inflicted upon her, denotes illicit or immoral sexual intercourse, encompassing a wide range of offences including incest and adultery as well as forced intercourse. The Ancient Greek hybris, a variant of hubris, followed similar moral codings, sometimes referring to acts of rape, but also to any act that damaged the sexual honour of a person or family. (3) Rape, from the Latin raptus, also designates a variety of meanings: abduction, forced coition, sexual assault, and assault more generally upon a woman. The term's ambiguous etymology reinforces this variety: its root, rapere, denotes abduction, and more broadly, the action of carrying, dragging, or plucking off. By 1155, a shift in usage saw these actions become more explicitly associated with forced coition; the acknowledged purpose of this kind of abduction was sexual assault. (4) But this meaning was not immediately adopted by legal definitions: medieval rape laws like the Westminster statutes of 1275 and 1285 continued to define rape as a property crime or abduction of male property. (5) By 1576, Elizabethan law books and statutes defined rape as unlawfully and carnally to know and abuse women; but, following earlier attitudes, the word still retained a secondary denotation of abduction. This semantic slippage reflected competing rape cultures: the female body could be viewed both as male property and human agent. (6) For Carolyn D. Williams, 'the former view typifies the values of a shame culture, the latter a guilt culture'. The guilt standard defined rape by lack of consent, focusing on the attacker's culpability. By contrast, the 'shame code' considered the rape victim's refusal of consent irrelevant; rape contaminated her entire family and her shame redoubled if the attack was made public. (7)

Like rape, massacre--a French word which became embedded into English after the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris (1572), the sacks, sieges and slaughters of the Dutch Revolt (1566--1648), and the domestic terror posed by the Gunpowder Plot (1605)--encompassed a range of denotations. Phonologically, 'mass' suggests greatness in size and scale; an implication that English intensifies through the connotations of 'acre' as a unit or space of land. Unlike these quantitative associations, however, the early French word is thought to have the same root as 'mace', the spiked club used in battle, or an ornamental version of the same used as a sceptre or staff of office carried by some officials--including monarchs--as an outward sign of their station and authority. …

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