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Britten's opera about rape



Lucretia's principal virtue is her undoing. Her chastity is vaunted as the guarantor of Collatinus's honour and standing, as the trigger for Tarquinius's lust, and its brutal loss as the symbol of the corruption of the Etruscans and thus the catalyst for Junius's ascent to power. She is established in a patriarchal system as a desexed woman, as innocent as a child, who can only exist as a chaste wife. When her virtue is polluted by rape, she has no choice but to kill herself in an attempt to restore her function as chaste wife.

Britten's opera encodes the naming of Lucretia in terms redolent of the oppressive ‘speech-acts’ of Peter Grimes. Through tonal and motivic association the projection of her innocence and the ‘stain’ introduced by her rape are worked into the opera's design at the level of long-range musical structure. Through analysis of the thematic implications of musical process in the work, this article opens to view the complex and at times conflicting moral hermeneutics of the work.



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1 I am grateful to Mervyn Cooke, Barbara Heldt, Patrick Hunt, Elizabeth Eva Leach, Alan Munton, G. S. Smith, Beate Willma, delegates at the conference on The Rape of Lucretia in Copenhagen in March 2009, and the journal editors and two anonymous Cambridge Opera Journal readers for comments on earlier versions of this article.

2 They were compelled to include this nod to Obey, in exactly these words, after a stressful correspondence with the playwright, mediated by lawyers, concerning possible allegations of plagiarism on the part of Duncan. I am grateful to Alan Munton for bringing this information, which is held in the Duncan archive at the University of Plymouth, to my attention.

3 Irene Morra, Twentieth-Century British Authors and the Rise of Opera in Britain (Aldershot, 2007).

4 In this it resembles Peter Grimes, as Arnold Whittall notes (Arnold Whittall, The Music of Britten and Tippett: Studies in Themes and Techniques (Cambridge, 1982), 114).

5 Lucius Junius Brutus, the traditional founder of the Roman Republic, is uniformly referred to in all other sources as Brutus, i.e. ‘the stupid one’, and his transformation to intelligent potentate is occasioned miraculously by Lucretia’s suicide. Duncan’s libretto, however, never calls him Brutus, always preferring Junius.

6 Even if she had strong sexual longings for Tarquinius from time to time it would, of course, still be possible to refuse consent on a given occasion: for audiences today, comparison with the crime of spousal rape, which was outlawed in England by the House of Lords in 1991, may be instructive.

7 Lucia’s earlier remark that ‘Lucretia is sleeping heavily’ may be taken as a further indication that she was unmoved by the sexual events of the night before, but it may be that Lucia is mistaken, and that her mistress is lying immobile, frozen by terror, in her bed as she reflects on the enormity of her experience.

8 Although some commentators have implied that the Christian message appears only in the Epilogue, Whittall rightly points out that it pervades the opera, providing an ‘ideological “otherness”’ as vivid as that in Peter Grimes (Arnold Whittall, ‘The Chamber Operas’, in The Cambridge Companion to Benjamin Britten, ed. Mervyn Cooke (Cambridge, 1999), 95–112, at 97).

9 I shall return to the other influences listed in the programme note in a later section.

10 ‘Rhyme-royal’ or ‘rime-royal’ is a seven-line stanza form with an ababbcc rhyme, used for narrative poetry in English in every century since Chaucer. A modern edition of The Rape of Lucrece can be found in Katherine Duncan-Jones and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds.), Shakespeare’s Poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Shorter Poems (London, 2007).

11 Joel Fineman, ‘Shakespeare’s Will: The Temporality of Rape’, Representations, 20 (1987), 25–76, at 31. The lines in question read: ‘From the besieged Ardea all in post, / Borne by the trustlesse wings of false desire, / Lust-breathed Tarquin, leaves the Roman host, / And to Colatium beares the lightlesse fire, / Which in pale embers hid, lurkes to aspire, / And girdle with embracing flames, the wast / Of Colatines fair love, Lucrece the chast. // Hap’ly that name of chast, unhap’ly set / This batelesse edge on his keene appetite.’

12 Lucretia is mentioned before Fig. 17 by Tarquinius in the narrative of the men’s visit to Rome (‘we found Lucretia safe at home’) but not in a focused manner till now.

13 Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten (London, 1979), 131.

14 It is ironic, given his careful presentation of Lucretia’s identifying motif, that the motif Britten writes for Collatinus sets the latter’s name with the incorrect stress – kə̍;latinəs (col-LAT-in-us) rather than the correct ̩;kɒla̍;ti:nəs (col-la-TEEN-us).

15 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York, 1990), 33.

16 In the first version she had sung instead, in her original incarnation as a sexually aware woman, of woman’s ‘double appetite’.

17 Coppélia Kahn, ‘The Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrece’, Shakespeare Studies, 9 (1976), 45–72, at 49.

18 Kahn, 50.

19 Kahn, 51.

20 Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, trans. Robert Baldick (New York, 1962). A summary of the current state of research on childhood can be found in Margaret King, ‘Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go’, Renaissance Quarterly, 60/2 (2007), 371–407.

21 James R. Kincaid, Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (New York and London, 1992) and idem, Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting (Durham, NC, and London, 1998).

22 Kincaid, 6.

23 Kahn, ‘The Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrece’, 60.

24 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York, 1966), 23, cited in Kahn, ‘The Rape in Shakespeare’s Lucrece’, 60.

25 Kahn, 62.

26 ‘If death will not move you . . . dishonour shall. I will kill you first, then cut the throat of a slave and lay his naked body by your side. Will they not believe that you have been caught in adultery with a servant – and paid the price?’ (Livy, The Early History of Rome, trans. Aubrey de Sélincourt (Harmondsworth, 2002), 101). Strikingly, in Livy’s telling of the tale Tarquinius first attempts to woo Lucretia, and it is only after he has ‘urged his love, begged her to submit, pleaded, threatened, used every weapon that might conquer a woman’s heart’ (ibid.) that he resorts to the threat of death. It is clear that he is motivated at least in part by the fact that ‘he is blazing with love, or at least with amor, the Roman concept that most closely corresponds to “love” (amore ardens)’ (Rebecca Langlands, Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, 2006), 90).

27 Livy, The Early History of Rome, 101–2.

28 Livy, 95.

29 Nathaniel Lee, Lucius Junius Brutus; Father of his Country (London, 1681), 12.

30 Jane O. Newman, ‘“And Let Mild Women to Him Lose Their Mildness”: Philomela, Female Violence, and Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 45/3 (1994), 304–26.

31 Obey makes reference to Shakespeare’s ‘poor bird’ in his play, but if she survives at all in the opera it is only in symbolic form in the wordless melismas insistently given with Lucretia’s identifying motif.

32 Newman, 305.

33 Philomela fascinated Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and Newman offers several examples of their enthusiasm for her (316). She notes that Shakespeare adds the issue of pregnancy, which is not present in Livy or Ovid. Lucrece considers that a child would be a ‘visibile testimony to her violation’ (ibid., 323.) and vows that ‘This bastard graff shall never come to growth. / He shall not boast who did thy [i.e. Collatine’s] stock pollute / That thou art doting father of his fruit’ (Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, ll. 1062–4).

34 Newman, 312.

35 See Edith Hall, ‘Medea and British Legislation Before the First World War’, Greece & Rome, 46/1 (1999), 42–77, at 42.

36 Hall, 43.

37 Hall, 45.

38 Hall, 47, citing Cicely Mary Hamilton, Marriage as a Trade (London, 1909), 210–13.

39 The traditional British focus on Classical education also contributed to the discourse of homosexuality in the first half of the twentieth century, as, in their different ways, the works and public statements of Wilde, Auden and E. M. Forster demonstrate. The homosexual apologia from Greek love has even had a recent resurgence in Britten studies in the work of a product of a twentieth-century Classical education, Clifford Hindley. His discussions of Peter Grimes, The Burning Fiery Furnace, Billy Budd and Death in Venice all draw heavily on the tone of Forster and others in an attempt to intellectualise and purify various forms of homoeroticism in these works.

40 Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991 (London, 1994), 318.

41 The Weiningerian fin-de-siècle misogyny that Lawrence Kramer relates to Strauss’s Elektra, with its polymorphically perverse women who ‘fuse’ with the other people around them, may still have been relevant for Britten nearly half a century later. See Lawrence Kramer, ‘Fin-de-siècle Fantasies: Elektra, Degeneration and Sexual Science’, Cambridge Opera Journal, 5/2 (1993), 141–65.

42 This is part of the argument of a sophisticated Freudian reading of Henry James’s novella: Shoshana Felman, ‘Turning the Screw of Interpretation’, Yale French Studies, 55/56 (1977), 94–207.

43 In Albert Herring the protagonist’s mother is a powerful influence, but only negatively, as in The Turn of the Screw. The story hinges on Albert’s mother-rejecting self-discovery: ‘You squashed me down and reined me in, / Did up my instincts with safety-pins, / Kept me wrapped in cotton wool, / Measured my life with a twelve-inch rule, – / Protected me with such devotion / My only way-out was a wild explosion!’. He is in a sense the Miles who rebels and so lives.

44 Eric Walter White, Benjamin Britten, His Life and Operas (Berkeley, 1970), 126.

45 White, 129–30. White’s sensitivity here to the musical imagery makes his earlier dismissal of the importance of that rape seem curious. For him, the opera is about ‘spirit defiled by fate or, more prosaically, Lucretia ravished by Tarquinius’. It is clear that the rape bores him, and that he wants the reader to switch attention as soon as possible to abstract considerations. This is, one need hardly point out, the privilege of the unoppressed male.

46 Evans, Britten, 127.

47 White, Benjamin Britten, His Life and Operas, 125.

48 Kincaid, Erotic Innocence, 16.

49 Philip Rupprecht, Britten’s Musical Language (Cambridge, 2001), ch. 2.

50 One of Austin’s examples of a speech-act is ‘“I do (sc. take this woman to be my lawful wedded wife)” – as uttered in the course of the marriage ceremony’. See J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Oxford, 1962), 5.

51 Rupprecht, 33.

52 See J. P. E. Harper-Scott, ‘Being-With Grimes: The Problem of Others in Britten’s First Opera’, in Art and Ideology in European Opera, ed. Clive Brown, David Cooper and Rachel Cowgill (Woodbridge, in press). E♭ is also the note of Aschenbach’s subjective ‘I’ in Death in Venice. On its involvement in the tonal drama of that opera, see J. P. E. Harper-Scott, ‘Made You Look!: Children in Salome and Death in Venice’, in Benjamin Britten: New Perspectives on his Life and Music, ed. Lucy Walker (Woodbridge, in press).

53 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York, 1993), 232.

54 Ibid.

55 Britten effects a similar penetration, albeit in reverse, in Death in Venice, where Tadzio’s modal diatonicism overwhelms Aschenbach’s serial-tinged language. See Harper-Scott, ‘Made You Look!’.

56 Philip Brett, Music and Sexuality in Britten: Selected Essays, ed. George E. Haggerty (Berkeley and London, 2006), 68–9.

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