Lucretia: Self, Loss, and the Shadow in Britten’s Opera


There is much to find problematic in Benjamin Britten’s (1913–1976) The Rape of Lucretia, and much that needs extensive work to understand and find a way into in as part of our process as performers. The audience is no better off – it is a difficult subject, and one that is not softened in its treatment.

The tale depicts, just as so many ancient stories from the classics, that which is monstrous in human nature. Once again, the victims are those without human rights at this time in history. Women in ancient Rome were not deemed citizens; they were considered property, however highranking: without the right to self. But what is often forgotten is that the story of The Rape of Lucretia depicts a (theoretically) historical event, not an Ovidian tale or fictional tragedy. In classic literature, the story is often presented principally a political story; here, through the presence of the Choruses, it is pressed into an uncomfortably Christian dogmatic/moral setting. This discomfort is perhaps deliberate, highlighting the gap between real-life tragedies and, in some cases, common responses that aim to comfort, but ultimately can miss the mark when it comes to creating lasting change.

Love, “Moiety”, and the Loss of Self

Tarquinius’s boundless “sinful” lust, envy, and greed are, in Britten’s opera, juxtaposed with the purity of Lucretia’s and Collatinus’ love. Like so much in this opera, the authenticity of this depends greatly on the individual choices of the cast and director. However, to me, whether or not Collatinus’s love is honest and his “forgiveness” well-intentioned, one of the internal factors that contributes to Lucretia’s eventual suicide lies with her understanding of love, and the sublimation of her personness into the all-consuming, unforgiving, “pure” oneness that she describes – that is at the same time incredibly fragile and dependent upon the external view. “To love as we love was to be never but as moiety”, she and Collatinus sing in unison; “moiety” here refers to either a scientific term, part of the functional group of a molecule, or a technical term of kinship. Either way, such a strong love is unbearablly fragile, so easily “broken,” as she describes it. Once she has diverted her sense of self entirely into this love, this understanding of love rather, it encompasses all of her; once it has been “broken,” she can no longer exist.

From this perspective, the primary tragedy of Lucretia is loss of self. Before Tarquinius enters the her home, she focuses all her identity and essence solely on her relationship with Collatinus, defining herself also only in relation to him. Therefore, whether Lucretia is “virtuous” in thought, feeling and choice, it does not really matter: the male presences around are only too happy to interpret her for the audience; her initial, inward tragedy is that of taking on what is said of her, of losing herself to this false ideal of love, of what is acceptable to be, and that is heartbreaking.

Tragedy and the Shadow

One issue that I am working with, in my own process as a performer who must find her way into this opera, is how to transform this "shadow" that Lucretia talks about, into something that is not destructive, not annihilating, but that can be used with purp sometimes misses the mark. For if we see only despair, over and over again, it can become meaningless. Alongside the shadow, we must also see the possibility of life – in real, practical terms.

Shadow and Substance

For it is so easy, in art and in life, to allow something to trickle down into destruction. It is much more difficult to find the blocks with which you can build something up. To be broken, and to fight for healing and true love, which admits complexity and individual personness. In that respect, alongside tragedies such as this, I feel that we as humans desperately, desperately need anti-tragedy. We need to delve deep into the shadow, and then look for solutions that affirm and create life out of loss.

Visible/Invisible: Fame, Honor, Erasure

Lucretia’s status and identity for the other characters is largely symbolic; only Bianca, who has known her since she was a child, appears to know her for more than the model “chaste” wife and noble, patrician lady. Even Lucia, who we are told idolizes Lucretia, is constantly misinterpreting the situation and projecting a kind of inhuman virtue onto her. In keeping with this, the character herself says surprisingly little during the course of the opera; her name is repeated over and over, and she is constantly talked of, yet she spends a large amount of time silent on stage, either spinning, sleeping, or dead. When she does her thoughts and words are mostly either about her love for Collatinus or death. Within the libretto, she does not display much of an identity outside of this. The extent to which she is dehumanized – even by those who appear to love her – seem to be part and parcel with her violation and subsequent suicide. The crucial scene when Tarquinius arrives at her house is presented, strikingly, in tableau, the actions and words of many characters sung by the Male and Female Chorus. This echoes countless visual representations of the story in European art history, and also contributes to the character’s continual erasure throughout the opera. Lucretia is only allowed to speak for herself at a few moments -- waiting for Collatinus, during the rape scene itself, and afterwards. This emphasises the extent to which others have told and retold her story, taking it as something of their own. It also positions the character further and further in the tragedy, making her complete disappearance virtually inescapable. It is worth noting that in other versions of this story, Lucretia deliberately positions her death in a way that implicates the dissolute, corrupt monarchy, making sure that her sacrifice prompts the Romans to revolt. This could be, in some ways, a more empowered position than what we see in this opera, which is an utter erasure and annihilation of self. But, as always, it depends upon who is telling the story.

The Historic Lucretia

Lucretia herself was most likely, at some point, a real person. The first surviving reference to her tale is in Livy’s History of Rome, several centuries after she would have lived. Her story at that point was thus already at the point of legend; European authors, clerics, commentators and artists have retold it throughout the centuries, placing Lucretia among arious canons. Christian medieval commentators including Dante and Chaucer ranked her among the “virtuous pagan” women, often presented alongside Christian martyrs; generations of painters depicted the scene of her suicide in vivid, near-erotic ways. The story that remains to us is indeed that of a symbol. Yet somewhere in history, there was a Lucretia, who was a person of her own, an inner life. We cannot know the real events of her story beyond what is told to us by historians and authors – each with their own agendas. She, like so many rape victims today, is only known because of the atrocity that occurred, and because of what her death sparked. Essentially, in this summation, without the Roman uprising following her suicide, she would be as so many other victims of violence and/or suicide throughout the ages: unknown, unremembered.

Honoring with Presence

I would like to somehow remember, even as we take the bones of this story to create something in the present day, that she was real, and that she was more than anything presented here. That behind this tale, before the crime by which we remember her, there was a person who lived a life in full. Who had an individual, unique identity. Most of her life was not about her final moments, and the way in which she would like to be known is most likely not the way in which we recognize her, however obliquely it is that we do. The real Lucretia had thoughts and feelings of her own, she made choices of her own, within the restrictions of her time. We cannot know what she felt, thought, wanted, feared, in her life. But for any human, there is so much that is unknowable to an outside observer. It is worth recognizing, and witnessing, that this is so. 

Text: Isabella Shaw


Benjamin Britten: The Rape of Lucretia 

Performances: November 16th to 23rd, Helsinki Music Centre, Sonore hall 
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Sibelius Academy Opera and orchestra

Markus Lehtinen, conductor
Victoria Newlyn, director
Sampo Pyhälä, set designer
Sofia Pantouvaki, costume designer
Riina Laine, make-up designer
Eero Erkamo, lighting designer

Further information: Mirka Rättyä, 050 526 2005,