The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Last Updated July 2, 2024.


The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts, written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, is a dark and powerful play belonging to the genre of tragic drama. The story is based on the true events surrounding the noble Cenci family of late 16th-century Rome.

The plot centers on the ruthless Count Francesco Cenci, who commits heinous acts of cruelty, including the abuse of his daughter, Beatrice. Finally pushed to her breaking point, Beatrice conspires with her stepmother and brothers to murder her father.

Shelley, a prominent Romantic poet, wrote this play in 1819 during a stay in Italy. The Cenci reflects his interest in exploring themes of power, moral perversion, corruption, and rebellion against tyranny, which were prevalent in his other writings. The play was first published in 1819, but due to its controversial content, it did not go on stage until many years later.

Plot Summary

Count Francesco Cenci is cruel, tyrannical, stingy, and abusive toward his wife and children. He is deeply in debt and unwilling to provide for his family. He sends his two sons to Salamanca to die because they dare to question his management of the household.

He keeps his wife, Lucretia, and remaining children, Beatrice, Giacomo, and Bernardo, in isolation. Beatrice, a smart and beautiful young woman, has many suitors, but Francesco forbids her from marrying to avoid paying a dowry.

Francesco organizes a banquet and invites his family and friends. When the guests arrive, he reveals that the banquet is to celebrate terrific news. However, the real reason for the gathering is to celebrate the deaths of his two sons in Salamanca. The guests are shocked and uncomfortable.

Beatrice begs the guests to help her and her family escape their father's tyrannical and abusive control. Francesco claims she has gone insane from living in isolation and ends the celebration. After everyone leaves, he sexually assaults his daughter.

Beatrice has had enough and decides to take action to save herself and her family. Desperate but determined, she turns to her brothers, stepmother, and love interest, Orsino, for help. First, she asks Orsino, a priest, to deliver a petition she will sign to the Pope explaining her situation. Orsino initially agrees but ultimately decides against it, fearing the Pope will marry Beatrice to her best suitor if she is no longer controlled by her father.

Instead, he proposes a plan to murder the count. Beatrice and her brother Giacomo develop the logistics of the plan, while Orsino introduces two men, Olimpio and Marzio, who are willing to kill Francesco.

Lucretia, knowing about her husband's assault on Beatrice, decides to help. She tells them she put sleeping drugs in her husband's drink that evening, so Cenci is basically unconscious. Olimpio and Marzio hesitate at first, thinking of their own fathers and feeling sorry for killing a helpless older man. Beatrice, furious, threatens to grab a knife and do it herself if they do not hurry. The men then strangle Cenci in his sleep and throw his body over the balcony.

Suspicion around Count Cenci's death arises when the papal legate and guards investigate and notice strange wounds on Cenci's body, along with a lack of grief from family members. They conclude something is amiss and arrest the Cenci family, Olimpio, and Marzio, while Orsino escapes in disguise. The family denies involvement, and Marzio and Olimpio claim they are innocent, but everyone confesses under torture.

The defense argues that the family suffered abuse and that Beatrice was sexually assaulted. However, the judge asserts that murder remains a crime punishable by death. He sentences the family to execution, sparing Beatrice's younger brother Bernardo, who is innocent but forced to witness his family's demise.

Ultimately, Lucretia, Beatrice, and Giacomo accept their fate calmly, bravely facing death. The only comfort is knowing that Bernardo will have a better life, free from his father's abuse.

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