Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
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 fines enact Shelley’s belief that the Church tolerated abuses to increase its wealth. Furthermore, Camillo’s empathy for Beatrice balances the self-referential attitudes of Pope Clement VIII, who sees the murdered Cenci as another wronged father, justified in demanding total obedience. The dramatic contrast emphasizes Shelley’s distinction between true empathy and sympathy, which extends only to others perceived as like oneself.
Unlike many closet dramas of the period, The Cenci was originally intended for stage production. Shelley sent detailed instructions to his friend Thomas Love Peacock concerning choices of actors for presentation at Covent Garden. He expected that the play’s factual base would justify its content to the prudish and that its argument for liberty would appeal to revolutionary sympathies in England. However, he reckoned without the strength of idealistic literary taste and reactionary Tory censorship, which, missing the moral tragedy, decreed incest and parricide unfit subjects. The play was first produced in 1886, privately, by the Shelley Society. Since then, post-Victorian responses to several productions have affirmed that The Cenci is among the best verse dramas since Elizabethan times. Although the ascendancy of literary realism made the subject acceptable, it also made verse drama become less popular.
Apart from early censorship, the major critical question the play evokes concerns whether Beatrice’s claims of innocence against the charge of conspiracy to murder her father are consistent with the character of a tragic protagonist, who, by classical standards, should assume responsibility for her actions. A related issue bears upon the larger question of tragedy in the modern world, in which human beings are often defined as helpless products of the circumstances that molded them instead of creatures who freely make their tragic choices. Since Shelley’s revolutionary politics led him to define social evil as resulting from tyrannical power and to present character as formed by conditions that surround it, the question is whether Beatrice, as a brutalized victim, can possess tragic stature. Most post-Victorian critics and reviewers agreed that she can. Shelley carefully portrays her in the early acts as innocent and righteous, attempting every available solution for her family’s protection from the fiendish paternal sadism that is known to church officials, including her former beloved, and to the social circle attending the banquet. All but the pope fear Cenci too much to check his despotism, and Shelley motivates the pope’s inaction by the fines for Cenci’s crimes that feed the Church coffers. When Beatrice’s appeals fail and Cenci rapes her, his act temporarily deranges her natural nobility to a state of hysterical despair in which she chooses murder instead of believing, as Shelley did, that the act of another person cannot dishonor her. That she maintains her innocence to the papal court is consistent with the moral conflict between her goodness and Cenci’s hatefully wanton will to corrupt. Her sense that she is a divine instrument ridding the world of monstrous evil is her tragic hubris. Shelley adds to the historical source Savella’s sudden appearance with a warrant for Cenci’s death, contrasting papal power with the family’s helplessness. That Beatrice regains her self-possession and goes to her execution expressing loving care for Bernardo and Lucretia demonstrates her reassertion of a dignity that rises above her vengeful hysteria induced by her father’s perverted violence. This self-possession is consistent with the character of a tragic heroine.
Some scholars conjectured that a biographical impulse underlies the parent-child conflict. Cenci’s unpaternal avarice and tyranny toward his children echoes, one may argue, Shelley’s experience with his father, Sir Timothy Shelley. Certainly Shelley’s early experiences with a demanding father and an unaccepting society gave impetus to his works, which extol individual liberty of the spirit and argue for an end to social cruelties.