For all practical purposes, the narrative of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s importance to theatrical history is the tale of The Cenci. However, Prometheus Unbound was the first of his substantial literary undertakings to be cast in dramatic form and is thematically related to The Cenci.
Prometheus Unbound considers on the ideal level what The Cenci examines on the level of gritty reality, the relationship between good and evil, between benevolent innocence and that which would corrupt it. Shelley’s Prometheus is the traditional fire-giver redefined, as his preface tells us. The primary change that Shelley makes in his subject is a reworking of the events leading to Prometheus’s release. In the lost Aeschylean play from which Shelley borrowed his title, there occurred a “reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim” at “the price of the disclosure of the danger threatened to his empire by the consummation of his marriage with Thetis.” In Shelley’s version, Prometheus earns his freedom more nobly, by overcoming himself, by forswearing hatred and the desire for revenge, embracing love, and achieving, through extraordinary fortitude, a merciful selflessness.
In a sense, Prometheus combines a Christ-like forbearance with the traits the Romantics often admired in Satan. Shelley says Prometheus is like Satan in that “In addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement.” By contrast with Satan, Shelley described Prometheus as “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.”
This perfection is absent as the play begins, but when, in act 1, Prometheus relents in his hatred and says, “I wish no living thing to suffer pain,” his ultimate triumph and Jupiter’s defeat are inevitable. Evil can succeed only if it is allowed access to one’s innermost being, only if one allows it to re-create oneself in its own vile image. With “Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,” a person can win out, though the success of goodness requires a great deal of him as is shown in the play’s final lines:
To suffer woe which Hope thinks infinite;To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;To love, and bear; to hope till Hope createsFrom its own wreck the thing it contemplates;Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;This, like thy glory, Titan, is to beGood, great and joyous, beautiful and free;This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
In The Cenci, Beatrice exhibits the necessary defiance of evil, but she lacks the fortitude to resist hatred. She confuses physical violation, which any person with sufficient opportunity can inflict on any other, with spiritual violation, which requires willful complicity. By hating, she comes partially to resemble the thing she hates.
The object of Beatrice’s hatred is her father, Count Francesco Cenci, the embodiment of everything the Romantics distrusted in those possessed of power. In characterizing the count, Shelley had a rich gallery of gothic and melodramatic villains on which to draw, and among them all, few can match the count for wickedness. The count is a plunderer, a murderer, and an incestuous rapist. He takes delight in destroying the lives of those around him, and he especially enjoys inflicting spiritual torture. He will only “rarely kill the body,” because it “preserves, like a strong prison, the soul within my power,/ Wherein I feed it with the breath of fear/ For hourly pain.”
Like many a villain of the period, the count commits his vilest crimes against the holy ties of sentiment. His egomania destroys his capacity for fellow-feeling, and out of the horror of his isolating selfhood, he performs deeds of unnatural viciousness against those who most deserve his love. He abuses Lucretia, his wife, and Bernardo, his innocent young son. He prays for the deaths of two other sons, Rocco and Cristofano, and invites guests to a banquet of thanksgiving when their deaths occur. He refuses to repay the loan of his daughter-in-law’s dowry, which he had borrowed from the desperately poor Giacomo, his fourth son. After taking Giacomo’s job away and giving it to another man, he alienates this son from his wife and children by claiming that Giacomo used the lost dowry for licentious carousing. He reserves his greatest cruelty, however, for Beatrice. Beatrice possesses the courage to denounce him and to seek redress for the injustices inflicted on herself and her family. She goes so far as to petition the pope for aid in her struggle. In order to break her rebellious spirit, to crush her will to resist him, the count rapes his daughter and threatens to do so again.
The count’s unnatural cruelty inspires unnatural hatred in Lucretia, Giacomo, and Beatrice. As Giacomo tells us, “He has cast Nature off, which was his shield,/ And Nature casts him off, who is her shame;/ And I spurn both.” The son, “reversing Nature’s law,” wishes to take the life of the man who “gave life to me.” He wishes to kill the man who denied him “happy years” and “memories/ Of tranquil childhood,” who deprived him of “home-sheltered love.” Beatrice and Lucretia share this wish to destroy the perverter of love. When Count Cenci proves impervious to their pleas that he relent, and when every external authority refuses to intervene, the family members take action against this most unnatural of men.
Because Beatrice is strongest and most sinned against, she becomes the prime mover of her father’s murder. Giacomo refers to her victimization as “a higher reason for the act/ Than mine” and speaks of her, in lines ironically recalling the biblical injunction against vengeance, as “a holier judge than me,/ A more unblamed avenger.” In becoming the avenger, though, Beatrice must steel herself against those qualities of innocence and compassion that have rendered her superior to her persecutor. She thinks, in fact, that exactly those qualities that militate against the murder can be twisted around to give the strength needed to commit it. She advises Giacomo to
. . . Let piety to God,Brotherly love, justice and clemency,And all things that make tender hardest heartsMake thine hard, brother.
When assassins have been recruited to do the deed, Giacomo utters a momentary hope that the assassins may fail. When the first attempt does fail, Lucretia takes the opportunity to urge Francesco to confess his sins so that, if a second attempt succeeds, at least she will have done nothing to condemn his soul to eternal torment. Beatrice, by contrast, is as relentless in pursuing revenge as her father had been in pursuing evil pleasures. At a key moment, when even the assassins quail at taking the life of “an old and sleeping man,” Beatrice takes up the knife and shames them into performing the murder by threatening to do it herself.
Beatrice is like her father, too, in claiming that God is on her side. Francesco had seen the hand of God in the deaths of his disobedient sons; the ultimate Father had upheld parental authority by killing the rebellious Rocco and Cristofano. Similarly, as Beatrice plots her father’s death, she feels confident of having God’s approval for her actions; as his instrument, she is permitted, even obligated, to wreak vengeance on this most terrible of sinners. Neither character is right. Both are appealing to the silent symbol of all external authority to justify the unjustifiable, to second the internal voice that has turned them toward evil.
The dangers of religion are further embodied in the machinations of Orsino and the unconscionable actions of the pope and his representatives. Orsino is God’s priest, but his priestly garb merely wraps his lustfulness in the hypocritical guise of sanctity. In order to eliminate Count Cenci, the greatest obstacle to his possession of Beatrice, Orsino urges the conspirators on at every turn. When the conspiracy is discovered, he is the only participant in the count’s murder to slink safely away. The pope’s role in the play’s events is even more reprehensible. For years, he has allowed the count’s depredations at the price of an occasional rich bribe. He refuses to intervene to end the count’s crimes because it is in his self-interest to allow them to continue. When he finally does take action, apparently because he can now achieve more by eliminating the count than by keeping him alive, the pope is too late; the count is already dead. He then turns on those who have accomplished, outside the law, what he would have done with the full authority of the papal office. As the earthly representative of ultimate power, he orders the deaths of those who have become a threat to all power; the conspirators are to be executed. The irony of this situation is that the force behind the papal authority is the same false notion that lured his victims to act as they did, the assumption that everything, even the shedding of human blood, is allowed to those who have God on their side.
In a world as corrupt as the one in which Beatrice Cenci finds herself, her fall is all the more terrible because it is so easy to sympathize with. The most perceptive comments concerning the nature of Beatrice as a tragic heroine and the appropriateness of her life as a tragic subject are Shelley’s own:Undoubtedly, no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner, she would have been wiser and better; but she would never have been a tragic character. . . . It is in the restless and anatomizing casuistry with which men seek the justification of Beatrice, yet feel that she has done what needs justification; it is in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge, that the dramatic character of what she did and suffered, consists.
In her capacity to endure evil and to forgive the evildoer, Beatrice is no Prometheus, but in her very understandable human frailty, she is a far superior subject for dramatic representation.
Inspired at least in part by the squealing of pigs near Shelley’s rooms in the vicinity of Pisa, Italy, Oedipus Tyrannus is a raucous burlesque of events surrounding George IV’s attempt to divorce his estranged wife, Caroline. Its virulent mockery of commoners, cabinet ministers, and members of the royal family alike brought about its quick suppression.
The last of Shelley’s dramatic works to be published during his lifetime, Hellas, was written in support of the Greek revolutionaries under the leadership of Prince Alexander Mavrocordato, to whom the play is dedicated. Like Prometheus Unbound, Hellas has affinities to Aeschylean tragedy. Aeschylus’s Prometheus desmts (date unknown; Prometheus Bound, 1777) provided much of the inspiration for the earlier work, while his Persai (472 b.c.e.; The Persians, 1777) gave impetus to the writing of Hellas. The play’s most familiar lines, from the concluding choral song, are an eloquent cry of hope for the regeneration of the world:
The world’s great age begins anew,The golden years return,The earth doth like a snake renewHer winter weeds outworn:Heaven smiles, and faiths and empires gleam,Like wrecks of a dissolving dream.