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(Re)Calling Philomela: Cultural Perceptions, Community Incorporation, and Collective Memory in Shakespeare’s Lucrece and Trussell’s Helen Open Access

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(Re)Calling Philomela: Cultural Perceptions, Community Incorporation, and Collective Memory in Shakespeare’s Lucrece and Trussell’s HelenWilliam Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and John Trussell’s Raptus I. Helenae. The First Rape of Faire Hellen (1595) intersect through not only their difficult subjects, but also their sympathetic representations of two legendary victims. Both poems question early modern English views about violated women, particularly highlighting the influence of cultural perceptions, community incorporation, and collective memory on a victim’s chances of survival. While Shakespeare’s Lucrece reveals how Renaissance notions isolate assaulted women and drive them toward honor-focused suicide, Trussell’s Helen shows how those ideas silence victims and force them into communally constructed secrecy. The degree to which Lucrece and Helen align with widespread anti-victim perceptions corresponds with the degree to which they self-destruct. Lucrece’s full internalization appears through both her vehement reactions and her suicide. On the other hand, Helen’s partial acceptance motivates less permanent – though still disturbing – responses, including deathly silence. Another significant factor in these victims’ struggles is (lack of) community incorporation. When Lucrece does not find companionship, even with the mythological character Philomela, she cannot see a way to simultaneously live and participate in her community. By contrast, when Helen finds support from maternal women around her, she can re-join society. Finally, critiques of collective memory’s power arise in each poem. In Lucrece’s Rome and Helen’s Greece, women cannot live without their reputations, which depend upon physical chastity. Though the two works differ in the timeframe of the victim’s focus – Lucrece thinking about her future exemplum and Helen about her present position – both texts reveal the negative results of a societal emphasis on public opinion: enabling rapists and stealing victims’ voices. Yet, in a culture where honor is everything, what other options are available besides death and silence? Neither Shakespeare nor Trussell offers an answer. Lucrece and Helen present the reader with stories of women in untenable positions, placed there by cultural conditions resembling those in early modern England. Such situations, the poems suggest, prevent vindication for violated women and create the need for someone to restore their voices, even if only through belated ventriloquism.

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