“Ere She with Blood had Stained her Stained Excuse”: Graphic Stains in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece and Middleton’s The Ghost of Lucrece

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This essay examines the conflation of blood stains, blots and blemishes, and graphic allusions in William Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and Thomas Middleton’s The Ghost of Lucrece (1600), to suggest that both poets embrace the material, and particularly the staining, qualities of blood in their versions of the Lucretia narrative. It interrogates the role that Lucrece’s tainted and staining blood performs in exposing her rape; by translating the stain in Lucrece’s blood into the typographic marks of blots and stains, Shakespeare challenges the representational limitations of both. It will suggest that Lucrece’s blotting and staining blood crosses the borders between the animate, medicalised body and the written text. By reading Lucrece’s contamination as ‘infection’ (907, Lt. infectus, inficere, to corrupt, dye, stain, imbue), it draws humoral interpretations of Lucrece into conversation with the poem’s rich matrix of textual and typographic images. Indeed, in sixteenth century usage, to distain and, in its aphetic form, to stain is always both to colour and discolour: to mark, blemish and defile (OED 4.a), but also to remove or deprive of colour (OED 1.a, †2). In this sense, Lucrece’s stained and staining blood is simultaneously destructive and creative. In addition to being blot, blemish and stain, Lucrece’s blood provides ‘testament’ (1183) and ‘excuse’ (1316); whilst blood is cause and symptom, it is also always readable and articulate. Accordingly, Lucrece’s bloody suicide makes public her internal, sanguineous stain - reading Lucrece and Lucrece, we undertake a diagnostic reading of blood. Finally, it examines Thomas Middleton’s The Ghost of Lucrece, and the way in which Shakespeare’s contemporary appropriates and amplifies the image of the bloody, graphic stain.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEtudes Epistémè
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2018


  • Shakespeare
  • Middleton
  • Authorship
  • Lucrece
  • History of Medicine
  • Blood

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