Show Less
Open access

Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

Show Summary Details
Open access

Sam McCracken: Anna Livia Frassetto. The Metamorphoses of Lucretia. Three Eighteenth-Century Reinterpretation of the Myth: Carlo Goldoni, Samuel Richardson and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Bern: Peter Lang, 2017. Pp. 247. ISBN: 9783034320580.

←160 | 161→

Anna Livia Frassetto. The Metamorphoses of Lucretia. Three Eighteenth-Century Reinterpretation of the Myth: Carlo Goldoni, Samuel Richardson and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Bern: Peter Lang, 2017. Pp. 247. ISBN: 9783034320580.

As its title suggests, this critical text provides a cross-cultural, panoramic exploration of the Roman Lucretia, a matron whose tragic death by suicide in 509BC prompted the advent of Rome’s Republican Era, as an object of myth, making particular note of her reconfiguration in eighteenth-century European literature. Frassetto’s study is as systematic as it is insightful.

Beginning with the early narrativization of Lucretia’s life and death in classical, myth-rich works by writers such as Livy, Ovid, and Petronius, Frassetto examines Lucretia’s near-ubiquitous presence and manifold transformations throughout the ages. She nods toward the matron’s consecration not only in literary artifacts, but also in the visual arts, music, and in a film as recent as Kinugasa Teinosuke’s Gate of Hell (Jigokumon, 1953). Leaning upon this wider base, Frassetto’s book carefully examines three key writings of the eighteenth century, each of which belonging to distinct linguistic and cultural contexts: Carlo Goldoni’s Lugrezia romana in Constantinopoli (1737); Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1747–1748); and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Emilia Galotti (1772).

Of seminal import to Frassetto’s text are what the author identifies as two “thematic cores” (12) common to Lucretia’s myth throughout its metamorphoses: the public and the private. These twin cores relate to the historico-cultural circumstances of Lucretia’s passing during the time of Rome’s monarchical rule under Tarquinius Superbus, as the figure’s suicide came as the direct result of her rape by Superbus’ son, Sextus Tarquinius, and concomitant feelings of matronly duty as a married woman of Rome, wed to her assailant’s cousin, Tarquinius Collantinus. ←161 | 162→Using this binary – along with a number of other dichotomies pent up in it – Frassetto’s book charts the myth of Lucretia’s adaptation. The critic surveys the various ways by which the narrative’s importation into new temporal and geographical contexts has led to the modification of its larger dynamics. However, Frassetto finds that the story’s re-tellers have maintained the public/private dualism as a thematic constant. In terms of structure, Frassetto divides her text into two discrete parts.

The first, “The Myth of Lucretia and its Components,” provides a detailed overview of the myth’s origins and outlines a number of its transformations. In the second, “Three Eighteenth-Century Lucretias,” Frassetto concentrates on the aforementioned case studies and concludes with a comparative analysis of the three texts.

Following the text’s introductory remarks on the functions of myth and metamorphosis, the first chapter of Part I, “The Myth of Lucretia,” addresses the historical context surrounding Lucretia’s assault and suicide, paired alongside the cultural and political impacts her death soon prompted. The author then places the story of Lucretia in conversation with that of Virginia – briefly describing the ways in which they both resemble and importantly differ from one another – and surveys Lucretia’s varied appearances in classical and European literatures, musical compositions, theatre pieces, and works of art. Significantly, this panoramic point of departure also acknowledges the myth of Lucretia’s widespread presence in eighteenth-century literary writings apart from the triad Frassetto’s text discusses in greater detail, positioning the three works in a larger network of the myth’s exchange across media and milieux.

Chapter II of the book’s first half, “Constants and Thematic Cores in the Myth of Lucretia,” introduces the critical text’s guiding framework. Frassetto invites us in scholarly commentary on the function of myth and foregrounds the comparative hermeneutic method by which her study of Lucretia will proceed. The critic then further contextualizes Lucretia’s position within the Roman social structure of her day, noting the prevailing legal and cultural ideals relevant to the circumstances that befall the matron. From this vantage, Lucretia’s ultimate suicide, Frassetto reasons, is an act that, while tragic, allowed her to exercise autonomy and preserve her dignity.

The chapter closes with a short discussion of the myth’s flexibility, in the context of the aforementioned cores Frassetto finds pivotal to Lucretia’s narrative. Frassetto underscores how individual deviations can ←162 | 163→reveal their respective authors’ “personal and original approach to the myth” and “reason” for retelling Lucretia’s narrative (47).

The three initial chapters of the book’s Second Part address successively the literary (and theatrical) trio of her argument’s central constellation, beginning with Goldoni’s Lugrezia romana in Constantinopoli (1737). Foretelling the formula that will guide the text’s following sections, Chapter I, “Carlo Goldoni, Lugrezia romana in Constantinopoli (1737)” opens with a summary of the author’s life, any documented, presumed, or potential influences on his delivery of the narrative, the state of the writing’s genre – the drama giocoso per musica – at the time of his work’s composition, and a broad-strokes account of the writer’s national context, Italy, during the same period.

Frassetto, having established this sketch of Goldoni’s background, then turns to a more formal, structural critique of Lugrezia romana in Constantinopoli. The critic then brings the writer’s use of language, perceived tone, and overall “style” to the fore, all the while deftly navigating the stark transformation of Lucretia’s mythical narrative in Goldoni’s hands (78). The opera Goldoni weaves from the myth’s foundations, per Frassetto, inevitably proves a densely parodic and meta-mythical retelling. The original story’s hallmarks (Lucretia’s rape and subsequent suicide), for example, are conspicuously ellipted or purposefully upended, leading the critic to describe Goldoni’s Lugrezia as one who “intends to rebel against the role assigned to her by history, by legends, by tradition and by the many that have told her tale” (88).

The following chapter, “Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady (1747–1748),” adopts the same argumentative structure as the text’s preceding case study. The author principally positions Richardson and his reworking of Lucretia’s myth within a relatively detailed contextual frame. When dealing with the writer’s biography, Frassetto underlines the high esteem in which Richardson was held among the English writers of the eighteenth century. An epistolary novel of England’s Enlightenment era, Clarissa, as Frassetto highlights, emerged during the birth of the literary production as a commercial field in the country, being situated between the rise of the novel proper and the decline of the more aristocratic romance.

This contextual consideration, Frassetto makes clear, weighs upon – and is likewise reflected in – Richardson’s handling of Lucretia’s myth at the levels of genre and theme alike. What is more, the critic also detects ←163 | 164→in Richardson’s novel elements of the larmoyante, a comedic genre of the French and Italian stage that often pandered to the middle class through a certain sentimentality toward their social station. These features are blended with the author’s trademark realism. The combination of these two generic components makes of Clarissa a sort of bridge between the reinterpretations of Lucretia’s myth encountered in the work of both Goldoni and Lessing.

Frassetto ultimately finds in Richardson’s Clarissa an “efficient” mode of retelling the myth of Lucretia within the norms unofficially ordained by the author’s social milieu and concomitant context of literary production, as it appears “almost silently” throughout the novel, as an understated thread that runs the course of Richardson’s narrative and enriches it (136).

Chapter III of the book’s second part, “Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Emilia Galotti (1772),” contains the final of Frassetto’s case studies. It explores the return of Lucretia’s myth to the stage, this time as a piece of bourgeois tragedy. Frassetto draws attention to Lessing’s rather unique approach to dramaturgy, as she charts the writer’s biography alongside an abbreviated history of German stagecraft at the time of his formal education. For some time of the mind that Mitleid (“compassion,” “sympathy”) was the highest, most palpable tragic sentiment a dramatic work could convey, as evidenced by the overarching themes at play in his Miss Sara Sampson (1755) and Minna von Barnhelm (1767), Lessing progressively shifted toward a theatrical approach informed by Verfremdung (“alienation,” “distancing”), and his reconfiguration of the myth of Lucretia in Emilia Galotti betrays a curious mix of each thematic-cum-stylistic principle.

As Frassetto lays bare, Lessing’s interpretation of Lucretia’s tale carries the myth’s most salient narrative elements, while also endowing it with a variety of renovations appropriate for the sociocultural context of its first production and new aesthetic. Significant to this adaptation, too, is Lessing’s drive to prompt reflection on the part of the spectator/reader. Encoding the Lucretia material into the larger fold of his piece, Lessing invites his audience to mull over the range of ethical values the base story presents, Frassetto notes, chiefly through the use of a far more ambiguous ending than that of the myth’s original.

←164 | 165→

Frassetto’s book reaches its greatest heights in its final chapter, “A Comparison of the Three Authors,” in which the author skillfully contends with the three texts that she has, to this point, considered individually. To accomplish the task, the critic structures her argument around a trio of key themes – “Family,” “Violence,” and “Death” – which appear in varying forms and under respectively unique circumstances, depending on the new contexts (cultural and medial) into which each author imports the myth. The comparative perspective allows Frassetto to delineate how the three reinterpretations of the myth harmonize and depart from one another, revealing through the process the texts’ unique features.

Frassetto’s analysis concludes with a discussion of the above-mentioned pair of thematic cores she finds common to every retelling of Lucretia’s tragic tale: that of the public and the private. In this respect, the critic characterizes the figure as a “rebel” in the eighteenth-century context, a woman who shirks the restraints placed upon her by both society (the public) and family (the private) alike (204). While the myth of the Roman matron certainly exhibits this same feature, it assumes a considerably larger scale, as her rape and ultimate suicide – a relatively radical expression of agency for her time, to be sure – occasioned a historico-political paradigm shift within one of the world’s most expansive and enduring empires to date. Frassetto’s closing remarks thus point to Lucretia’s lasting presence in the transnational, mythical cultural imaginary of the eighteenth century as proof of her story’s import across time and space. This is made abundantly clear in the myth’s mutability in the hands of writers such as Goldoni, Richardson, and Lessing.

In sum, Anna Livia Frassetto’s The Metamorphoses of Lucretia is a compelling and perceptive study of the myth of Lucretia as it surfaces throughout the work of three eighteenth-century European writers. The text’s variegated critical framework, structured upon biographical considerations, medium-specific insights, and more general understandings of myth as a cultural property endowed with an array of potential functions, provides a well-reasoned foundation for Frassetto’s central argument, in many ways free from the theoretical jargon that might characterize other interpretations. The book’s only discernable blemishes take the form of minute, inconsequential grammatical errors, which in no way inhibit the reader’s comprehension of its arguments. ←165 | 166→This work is a must-read for students of Lucretia’s myth, of course, and would likely be of great assistance to those interested in the three texts Frassetto analyzes in detail as well.


Sam McCracken

University of Michigan