Ekphrasis and historical materiality in Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece
In his 1594 narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare uses ekphrasis to explore a shift in the early modern understanding of history. Of the many changes he made to the Lucrece story, he added a 200-line ekphrasis of a picture depicting the fall of Troy. While appearing at first glance to celebrate the idea of an illusionistic experience that makes the past seem fully alive, Shakespeare’s ekphrasis draws our attention to the fragmented things that supposedly evoke this fantasy – the ‘thousand lamentable objects’. In so doing, Shakespeare explores a new notion of history that is built from material fragments. These fragments are silent, but in a manner that is paradoxically expressive. In Shakespeare’s ekphrasis, Lucrece relates to the image of Hecuba not despite its brokenness and objectness, but rather because of them. The poem in this way constructs an early modern encounter where broken subject meets broken object.