The Cenci is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetic tragedy of the moral depravity that he believed tyranny fosters. It treats Shelley’s favorite theme: the moral imagination as the faculty that awakens, through its capacity to empathize with others, sympathetic love, which defeats despotism. In this play, however, Shelley renounces his typical visionary idealism wherein love conquers unjust power. Instead, he presents the realism, as he sees it, of a world in which victims of absolute power have no recourse to mitigating moral sympathies. The drama, in blank verse, follows Elizabethan tragic form.
As did Shakespeare and other tragedians, Shelley took his plot from historical events. The sordid tale of the Cenci family in late sixteenth century Rome was a well-known legend through its many retellings. The story often is structured to represent a political struggle for liberty from feudal and papal tyranny. Converting history to art, Shelley minimizes the sensationalism of his source, emphasizing not the brutish details but the conflict between moral evil, which delights in the mental agony of its victims, and spiritual innocence, which can be violated by that evil. The play suggests that paternal tyranny succeeds only with the support of institutionalized powers of church and state. These powers were the causes, to Shelley, of a corrupt society. The Cenci is therefore a realistic representation of the same conflict that Shelley developed concurrently in the idealistic Prometheus Unbound (1820). Beatrice, the figure of defeated liberty erring tragically by seeking vengeance and perpetuating the cycle of violence, represents, mythically, a good that is helpless to overcome evil.
Dramatizing his revolutionary claim that power causes immoral abuse and only loving sympathy creates the conditions for justice, Shelley develops a rather bare historical account into fully motivated action. The tyranny of church and state produces the sadistic personal despot Francesco Cenci and the self-interested manipulator Orsino. The same unjust powers produce the weak, vacillating Giacomo; the helpless Lucretia; the broken-spirited Bernardo; the desperate hired killers; and the brutally victimized Beatrice. The kind Cardinal Camillo is Shelley’s addition, for dramatic purposes, to history. The cardinal’s fruitless appeals to Cenci show the limits of religion to convert diabolism, as his announcements of punishing...
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