The Metamorphoses of Lucretia

Three Eighteenth-Century Reinterpretations of the Myth: Carlo Goldoni, Samuel Richardson and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

by Anna Livia Frassetto (Author)
©2016 Monographs 248 Pages


The virtuous Roman matron Lucretia killed herself in 509 b. C. Her death is considered the cause of the Roman revolt against the Tarquins and the mainspring of the passage from the monarchic to the republican age. It is a myth about private and public dimensions: it tells about woman and revolution. Its themes, permanent features and variations are infinite. The metamorphoses of Lucretia are innumerable. Nonetheless, she has always preserved her essence and profound meaning, thus confirming her strength and her being a true myth. Lucretia has crossed the centuries, she has been told, painted and sung by artists from 509 b. C. until today. She reached the Eighteenth Century, Italy, Great Britain and Germany and she met three great authors: Carlo Goldoni, Samuel Richardson and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. They chose her and decided to tell her story, each in his own peculiar manner. Goldoni wrote a dramma giocoso in musica, Lugrezia Romana in Costantinopoli, Richardson a novel, Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady and Lessing a bürgerliches Trauerspiel entitled Emilia Galotti. One myth, three authors, three different literary genres: this work would like to investigate and verify the connection among them and the meaning of it. The comparative analysis of the metamorphoses of Lucretia will disclose new concepts of private and public, of woman and revolution, sprung from an old but perpetual reviving myth.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • Acknowledgements
  • Part I The Myth of Lucretia and its Components
  • Chapter 1 The Myth of Lucretia
  • Chapter 2 Constants and Thematic Cores in the Myth of Lucretia
  • Part II Three eighteenth-century Lucretias
  • Chapter 1 Carlo Goldoni, Lugrezia romana in Costantinopoli (1737)
  • Chapter 2 Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1747–48)
  • Chapter 3 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Emilia Galotti (1772)
  • Chapter 4 A Comparison of the Three Authors: Conclusions
  • Part III Appendices
  • Appendices
  • List of illustrations
  • Bibliography

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[…] we will discover that mythology, the body of inherited myths in any culture, is an important element of literature, and that literature is a means of extending mythology. That is, literary works may be regarded as ‘mythopoeic’, tending to create or recreate certain narratives which human beings take to be crucial to their understanding of the world.

Laurence Coupe, Myth (1997).

Roman Lucretia, daughter of Tricipitinus, wife of Collatinus and exemplary matron, died in 509 BC. She committed suicide after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. The revolt guided by Brutus which led to the expulsion of the Tarquinii and the start of the Republican Era, is seen to be a direct result of her act. The historian of religions Eliade Mircea wrote:

Myths do not refer only to the origins of the world, of the plants and of man, but also of all those primordial events due to which man has become what he is today, i.e. a mortal, sexual being, organised in society […].1

The myth is a symbol, an explanation, a foundation or a justification. Yet, it is also the idealization of an event or a historical person that takes on proportions that are oftentimes legendary, exercising a strong power of attraction on the fantasy and emotions of a people or an epoch. Roman Lucretia is all these things: she is a myth.

Her story strikes chords deep within us, such as the notion of mortality, the concept of men divided in genders and organised within a community, as it narrates the death of Lucretia, the brutality of Sextus Tarquinius and of a society, which is tangible is all its weight and power. Lucretia is the symbol of a female figure, the instigator of a political sea-change and a justification for deeply-rooted ideologies, ethics and morals.

Lucretia is an exemplum. The force, the authentic energy of the myth, springs forth from the clash between the exemplification of the message it ← 9 | 10 → bears with its ‘lasting sway over the collective conscience and the tendency to reinvent and continually transform itself’;2 from the permanence of a recognisable identity, a core of meaning with great potential for flexibility and a ‘wealth of virtuality and hence of metamorphosis’.3 Its essence, solid and fluid at the same time, finds its lifeblood in its being polysemic and polyvalent.

This is what the myth of Lucretia is like: immortal, yet at the same time, bearing an inclination towards metamorphosis that allows it to reinvent itself, to be reborn each time in a different way, while being ever faithful to the meaning and deep sense that may perhaps be veiled, but can never be wholly eclipsed. Hans Blumenberg writes:

The mythological tradition appears to base itself on the variation and on the inexhaustible nature of the heritage on which it is based, which is manifested precisely thanks to its variation, somewhat like the theme of musical motifs which can be modified to a point in which they are no longer recognisable. Being ever in variation, remaining recognisable, without insisting on the intangibility of the formula of departure, it displays itself as a specific mode of its validity.4

The richness of subjects, suggestions, tonalities and undertones that originate in the story of the Roman matron inspired an infinite quantity of those variations that Blumenberg recognises, together with the inextinguishable archetypical origin, as the foundations of the myth itself. Artistic works generate or regenerate stories that are fundamental for human life, in which the myth narrates a truth that may be only partially true, but that finds its very strength in the recognition of this limit, or rather in its renouncing the concept of absolute truth.5 ← 10 | 11 →

The variations of the myth reveal its dynamic and evolutionary nature and the study of materials – a Stoffgeschichte no longer based on cataloguing and documentary-geneological methods, but on a historical-hermeneutic approach – leads to reflection on the modalities and causes of its ‘continuous palingenesis’6, of the continuous rebirth and renewal of the myth, which involves not only literature, but the arts in general.

Μεταμόρϕωσις: the mutations of Lucretia are infinite. The myth is transformed, it is renewed, it changes country, genre, style and epoch, but it is always alive. The artists that over the centuries have narrated, represented, painted and composed the story of the Roman matron have created a kaleidoscopic image of the character in which the meanings and messages add to, overlay or contrast each other, while ever referring to a core of coherent, intense and profound meaning. In the choice of highlighting or backgrounding one theme or another, the polysemy of the myth is revealed, as are fundamental aspects of the authors who are narrating the story, perhaps more that they themselves would ever imagine.

Amongst the themes, the subjects and suggestions that the story of Lucretia includes, there are unvarying units defining a permanent mythological scenario, ensuring the transmission of the identity of the myth and its resistance to different versions. The constants in the myth of Lucretia – woman and family, woman and violence, woman and death – are the components of a dramatic system that affects the myth, suffusing it with pain, suffering and significance. The Roman institution of the family emerges with all its severe rules, which defines all spheres: be they moral, juridical or social. The status of daughter, wife or mother rotates around that of the patria potestas, which constitutes the foundation of the family group, the fulcrum which attracts with vehemence the two other great themes in the myth of Lucretia: violence and death. It is a chain reaction in which the constants display all their power and tragedy.

Alongside the constants are the variations of the myth, amongst which, for example, there are those relating to the presumed pregnancy ← 11 | 12 → which was the result of the rape: as a variation which returns in several reinterpretations, this in particular is of importance as it is useful for the interpretation of the constants, hence the themes of family, violence and death.

However, constants and variations aside, there is another peculiar element in the myth of Lucretia: the dualism public/private. Two great thematic cores characterize the story of Lucretia: the first refers to the historical-political consequences of the events, i.e. the change from monarchy to republic; the second concerns the more familiar and intimate dimension, that of the victim of sexual violence who commits suicide because of the injury suffered and the fear of the shame that the act may bring not only on her own head, but also on the whole family. From this dualism descend other dichotomies: woman/man, individual/collective, ethical/political, virtue/vice, good/evil and many others, eventually leading to the opposition life/death. Everything rotates around these two dimensions: the exemplary nature of Lucretia, the constants, the variations, the characters and – widening the perspective – the complete reinterpretation of the myth by the authors.

The metamorphoses of a myth can also be ‘lateral’ when a change of genre takes place: the myth of Lucretia is, even in this sense, an authentic example. The myth has taken form as a dramma giocoso per musica, an epistolary novel and a tragedy. The metamorphoses of Lucretia examined in the present work are: Lugrezia Romana in Costantinopoli (1737) by Carlo Goldoni, Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady (1747–48) by Samuel Richardson and Emilia Galotti (1772) by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. These are three eighteenth-century metamorphoses that were conceived in a period in which the myth underwent a complex and contradictory phase, and was the subject of much discussion. Yet it was also a period in which, according to Coupe, the very fact of wanting to demystify traditional myths led the Enlightenment to ‘its own mythic enterprise’: the ‘myth of mythlessness’.7 It is precisely in this absence that the three Lucretias are to be found, having been placed there in a decisive and very particular way.

The three authors write about their personal Lucretias setting their tales in very different locations, dressing her up in new clothes, while ← 12 | 13 → conserving the fundamental and ineluctable traits that are necessary for the survival of the myth. Hans Blumenberg writes:

The main aim of this work is hence to identify those elements that make the myth of Lucretia dense and a bearer of meanings, in order to relate it to the three eighteenth-century authors and the historical-literary constellations in which Goldoni, Richardson and Lessing, together with their Lucretias, are placed, arriving at a final enquiry concerning the links between the three reinterpretations. The personal way of approaching the myth in each work will be sought, questions will be asked as to which themes, constants and variations may have been favoured by the author and what position was adopted regarding the inescapable dualism in the myth of Lucretia, that between public and private. The common thread that links each reinterpretation of the Roman matron, and hence the three authors and their three Lucretias, will be unravelled to show how the myth of Lucretia is alive, persevering, solid, bewitching, but also flexible, and if shaped by the right hands, capable of uncovering unpredictable and surprising connections.

The work is divided into two parts: the first, of a general nature, presents the history of Lucretia in its traditional form. An overview is provided, which does not purport to be complete, of the numerous reinterpretations and variations of the myth, from those that are literary, to those from the fields of music and painting. The first part will conclude with a more specifically structural analysis of the myth through the identification of its constants, some variations and the two great thematic cores, precious allies in the analysis of the three literary texts that will be successively examined.

The second part is composed of three monographic chapters, each dedicated to one of the three authors. On the basis of the premises and ← 13 | 14 → by way of the strategies adopted in the first part of the research, the three eighteenth-century works in which Lucretia is brought back to life again will be analysed. Attention will be focussed also on their reception, if it be true that this is fundamental for the life of every literary work, by way of it being a crossroads between texts, historical-literary and biographical contexts and for that aperture of the senses that is born with the reading of a composition. The work terminates with a comparison between the three authors and their Lucretias with the aim of identifying the link that joins them.

The appendices propose a series of pictorial and musical suggestions that have accompanied, stimulated and encouraged this study, confirming yet again the polysemous nature of the myth and its being a crucial connection between history and literature and, more in general, with arts. As Creuzer writes, the myth is like a large tree:

1 Eliade Mircea, Mito e realtà, (Rome: Borla, 1993), 33.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (April)
Roman Lucretia Goldoni Richardson Lessing Myth Eighteenth century authors
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2017. 247 pp., 3 b/w ill., 12 coloured ill.

Biographical notes

Anna Livia Frassetto (Author)

Anna Livia Frassetto has a PhD in Comparative Literature and collaborates with the Chairs of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Sassari. She is book reviewer for several literary periodicals and journals. Her research interests include Comparative Literature, German, English and Italian Literature as well as Classical Reception Studies.


Title: The Metamorphoses of Lucretia
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