Shakespeare’s long poem Lucrece takes place as Rome becomes a republic. As a minor epic (a popular genre in Shakespeare's time), it centers on figures of seemingly secondary importance: Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son, and Lucrece, the wife of his friend.
The poem focuses initially on Tarquin's desire for Lucrece, whom he rapes. Afterward, he feels bitter disappointment. Shakespeare then drives him from the poem, which shifts to Lucrece and her sense of sexual shame.
Shakespeare found these incidents in Roman history and myth, as well as Chaucer and contemporary English writers, but he incorporated another genre, the complaint, to supply interior monologues for both characters. Tarquin's complaint presents him as divided against himself, lusting for Lucrece but aware that raping her would, as he sees it, betray his friend and shame Tarquin and his family.
In her complaint, Lucrece struggles with the shame she feels, ultimately choosing suicide. Few acts have proved as controversial. In Roman culture, suicide could be a hero’s death, but Christianity has not agreed. Lucrece's view is that, despite the chastity of her mind, she has been rendered unchaste—that mind and body, in her reading, cannot be separated.
(Adapted from the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets and Poems, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2004, 2006 Folger Shakespeare Library)