The Cenci begins with Cardinal Camillo talking with the powerful Count Cenci about a murder in which Cenci is implicated. Camillo threatens to publicly proclaim the crime unless Cenci gives a third of his possessions to the Pope, but Cenci refuses, jeers at the Church, and stresses his desire to “practice evil.” When Camillo leaves, Cenci expands on his desires, suggesting that he wants to kill his wife and two of his sons, as well as rape his daughter Beatrice.
In the next scene, Beatrice is with her lover Orsino in a moonlit garden in the Cenci palace. Beatrice laments that her father is keeping them apart, but when Orsino vows to overcome all obstacles for their love, Beatrice tells him that their love is doomed because of her duty to her family. She then expresses her loathing for her father and departs for dinner.
At the dinner, Cenci frightens his guests by telling them that two of his “rebellious” sons have been killed and that he wishes his entire family doom and destruction. Beatrice begs the guests not to leave, and Cenci threatens to kill anyone’s offspring who says anything about what has happened at dinner. Cenci orders everyone away except Beatrice, whom he approaches and tells that he knows the “charm” to make her “meek and tame.” Beatrice flees and Cenci says that now she cannot escape him.
The second act begins with Lucretia telling Bernardo that she loves him, at which time Beatrice enters and asks for help in escaping from Cenci. Beatrice describes how Cenci is torturing her and her brother. Cenci enters and seizes Beatrice by the arm, but Lucretia steps between them and Bernardo drags his sister out of the room. Cenci tells his wife that his family is a wound, that they have “corrupted everything,” and that they are plotting against him. Lucretia protests, but Cenci tells her he is taking the family to a silent fortress.
In act 2, scene 2, Camillo attempts to persuade Giacomo Cenci to plot against his father, but Giacomo retorts with criticism of the Church. Camillo then urges him to listen to Orsino, who reveals to the audience that he has abandoned his hopes to marry Beatrice and that he desires to see the Cenci family destroyed. Orsino describes Cenci’s tyranny to Giacomo and persuades him to plot a scheme against the count.
Act 3 begins with Beatrice rushing onstage to tell Lucretia that her father has raped her. Lucretia attempts to return her to her senses, and Beatrice describes a recurring dream from her childhood in which she is lying naked and hungry in a room until a wild animal appears and chases her through the cellars. Lucretia says that the dream signifies that “no one can escape his fate,” and she appeals to Orsino for help when he enters with Giacomo. Orsino suggests that they appeal to secular justice, or justice outside of papal authority, but Beatrice says that she can believe only in the justice that she chooses. Orsino suggests that Giacomo publicly denounce his father and that they employ two mute assassins to kill Cenci.
In the next scene, Orsino, Giacomo, and the assassins wait outside the fortress for Cenci and his family to cross the bridge. When the family appears, the assassins descend upon Cenci and fire two pistol shots, but they fail to kill him.
The final act opens with Cenci ordering Lucretia to find Beatrice. Cenci withdraws, and Beatrice sends the assassins into his room with daggers. They come out and mime...
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to Beatrice that they have failed. She calls them cowards, sending them back in again. After Cenci’s death cry is heard, the assassins return to Beatrice, who gives them money and gold.
After Bernardo warns that soldiers are coming, Camillo enters telling them that he represents the Pope. When he asks to see Cenci, Lucretia and Beatrice tell him that the count is sleeping, but Camillo says that he must wake Cenci so that Cenci can be confronted with grave charges against him. After Camillo finds Cenci dead, he has his guards arrest the family. Lucretia blurts out that she is the only one with keys to Cenci’s apartment, and Camillo questions Beatrice about her relationship with her father. The guards remove Bernardo from his sister, and he punches at them, screaming.
The next scene is inside a papal prison in which Beatrice is attached to a torture wheel. Bernardo laments their fate and Beatrice tells him not to despair. Camillo enters and tells Beatrice to confess, and Lucretia urges her to repent. Giacomo agrees, telling her that Orsino has escaped in disguise, and Camillo hands her a death warrant to sign. Beatrice compares the Pope’s cruelty to her father’s, and Camillo tells her that she is already condemned. After Camillo makes her sign the death warrant, Beatrice tells him never to mention the name of God to her again. Camillo tells Bernardo that his life is spared, and Beatrice and Lucretia alternate segments of a speech about morality, religion, destiny, and their impending deaths.