The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

Count Cenci is a cruel and brutal man whose greatest delight is to make people suffer. He sends two of his sons to Salamanca in the hope that they will starve. His daughter, Beatrice, was in love with Orsino, who enters the priesthood. She does not know where to turn for solace. Her father is worse than cruel to her, while her lover became a priest. Orsino promises to present to the pope a petition in which Beatrice begs relief from the sadistic abuses she and the rest of her family are suffering from her father. Beatrice tells Orsino of a banquet her father is giving that night in celebration of some news from Salamanca and says that she will give him the petition at that time. After they part, Orsino reveals his lust for her and resolves not to show the pope her petition, lest she be married by the pope’s order and Orsino be left without a chance of winning her outside wedlock. He resolves also not to ask for special permission to marry lest he lose his own large income from the Church.

At the banquet that night, Cenci announces the purpose of his celebration: His two sons were killed by accident in Salamanca. Since they defied his tyranny, Cenci feels that this is well-deserved punishment. At first the guests cannot believe their ears. Beatrice boldly begs that the guests protect her, her stepmother, and her remaining two brothers from further cruelties at the hands of her father. Cenci, telling them she is insane, asks the guests to leave. Then he turns on his daughter, threatens her with a new cruelty, and orders her and his wife to accompany him to his castle in the Apennines on the following Monday.

At the Cenci palace, Beatrice discloses to her stepmother that Cenci committed a crime against her that she dare not name. Orsino comes to the women and proposes a plan for the assassination of Cenci. At the bridge on the way to the Apennines he will station two desperate killers who will be glad to murder Cenci. Giacomo enters to announce that he loaned his father his wife’s dowry and was not able to recover it. In fact, Cenci suggests to Giacomo’s wife that her husband is a wastrel who spent the money in riotous living. Orsino assures Giacomo that the pope, sympathizing with fathers, not children, will not restore his money. Egged on by Orsino, Beatrice and Giacomo conspire with him to murder their father.

Later Orsino comes to report to Giacomo that his father escaped from the plot and is safe within his castle in the Apennines. Giacomo then resolves to kill his father by his own hand, but Orsino says that he knows two men whom Cenci wronged who would be willing to rid the earth of their persecutor. At the castle in the Apennines, Cenci rages against the insolence of his daughter and confesses to Lucretia that he tried to corrupt the soul of Beatrice. While he is sleeping, the two murderers, Olimpio and Marzio, appear. Lucretia says she put a sleeping potion in Cenci’s drink to make him sleep soundly. The two men are hesitant. Olimpio reports that he cannot kill an old man in his sleep. Marzio thinks he hears the ghost of his own dead father speaking through the lips of the sleeping Cenci. Beatrice snatches a dagger from them and crisd out that she will kill the fiend. Shamed into action, the assassins strangle Cenci and throw his body over the balustrade into the garden.

The papal legate, Savella,...

(This entire section contains 776 words.)

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arrives with a warrant for the immediate execution of Cenci for his crimes. When Savella and his followers discover that Cenci is already dead, they begin an investigation. The guards seize Marzio, on whose person they find Orsino’s note introducing the two murderers. Lucretia and Beatrice deny knowledge of the handwriting, but Savella arrests them to make them appear before the court in Rome. Giacomo, tricked by Orsino, falls into the hands of the Roman police. Orsino escapes in disguise.

Under torture, Marzio confesses, implicating the others. Threatened with torture herself, Beatrice swears to her purity and innocence, convincing Cardinal Camillo but not the judge. Marzio, confronted by her impassioned plea, denies that Beatrice is guilty of parricide. The judge sends him back to the wheel, but he dies with no further words. Camillo’s pleas against further torture are futile, and Lucretia and Giacomo soon confess. Beatrice, to avoid torture, ceases denying her guilt. As they await execution, she reasserts her family leadership, comforting the others, even the distressed Camillo.