The Cenci Percy Bysshe Shelley
The following entry presents criticism of Shelley's play The Cenci (1819). See also, Percy Bysshe Shelley Criticism.
Philosophically complex and controversial in its subject matter, The Cenci conveys Shelley's Romantic ideas on patriarchal authority, religion, and morality. Written in blank verse as a five-act tragedy, the play relates the infamous true story of Beatrice Cenci, who was executed for the murder of her father, Count Cenci, in sixteenth-century Italy. Although generally considered a closet drama, The Cenci was written with the explicit intent of being staged. Shelley believed that by avoiding political didacticism, incorporating Gothic motifs, and reducing the purely poetic elements of his style in The Cenci, he could communicate more broadly the themes he was developing for his less-accessible lyrical drama, Prometheus Unbound (1820). However, Shelley miscalculated the critical response to such taboo subjects as incest and parricide in the play; The Cenci was never performed during the poet's lifetime, receiving its first staging in 1866 when the Shelley Society presented it privately with amateur actors. It was not publicly presented in England until 1922, upon the centenary of Shelley's death. Although it remains a rarely performed work, The Cenci continues to generate considerable critical interest and debate, with scholars remarking on the play's structural merits, historical origins, literary influences, characters, and its thematic relation to Shelley's oeuvre.
Plot and Major Characters
The lurid story of a young woman put to death for the assassination of her tyrannical father was a well-known Roman legend, passed down through oral tradition and documented in the Annali d'Italia, a twelve-volume chronicle of Italian history written by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1749. Shelley was initially inspired to dramatize the tale after viewing Guido Reni's portrait of Beatrice Cenci, a painting that captivated Shelley's poetic imagination and that of many nineteenth-century writers. Shelley drew upon volume ten of Muratori's manuscript for his story line, translating “The Relation of the Death of the Family of the Cenci” into English in 1818, and altering it to suit Romantic sensibilities and English audience expectations. The expository scenes of Shelley's play establish Count Cenci as an embodiment of evil, revealing that he has sent two of his sons to Salamanca in the hope that they might starve. The Count's virtuous daughter, Beatrice, and Orsino, a prelate in love with Beatrice, discuss petitioning the Pope to relieve the Cenci family from the Count's vicious reign. However, Orsino withholds the petition, revealing himself to be disingenuous, lustful for Beatrice, and greedy. Upon news that Cenci's sons have been violently killed in Salamanca, the Count holds a feast in celebration of their deaths, commanding his guests to revel with him. During the feast, Beatrice pleads with the guests to protect her family from her sadistic father, but the guests refuse, in fear of Cenci's brutality. In Act II, Cenci torments Beatrice and her stepmother, Lucretia, and announces his plan to imprison them in his castle in Petrella. A servant returns Beatrice's petition to the Pope, unopened, and Beatrice and Lucretia despair over the last hope of salvation from the Count. Orsino encourages Cenci's son, Giacomo, upset over Cenci's appropriation of Giacomo's wife's dowry, to murder Cenci. In Act III, Beatrice unveils to Lucretia that the Count has committed an unnameable act against her and expresses feelings of spiritual and physical contamination, implying Cenci's incestuous rape of his daughter. Orsino and Lucretia agree with Beatrice's suggestion that the Count must die. After the first attempt at parricide fails, Orsino conspires with Beatrice, Lucretia, Giacomo, and Cenci's youngest son, Bernardo, in a second assassination plot. Orsino proposes that two of Cenci's ill-treated servants, Marzio and Olimpio, carry out the murderous task. In Act IV, Olimpio and Marzio enter Cenci's bedchamber to conduct the murder, but hesitate to kill the sleeping Count and return to the conspirators with the deed undone. Threatening to kill Cenci herself, Beatrice shames the servants into action, and Olimpio and Marzio strangle the Count. Shortly thereafter, a papal legate arrives with a murder charge and execution order against Cenci. Upon finding the Count's dead body, the legate arrests the conspirators, with the exception of Orsino, who escapes in disguise. The suspects are taken to trial in Rome in Act V. Marzio is tortured and confesses to the murder, implicating Cenci's family members. Despite learning that Lucretia and Giacomo have also confessed, Beatrice refuses to do so, steadfastly insisting on her innocence. At the trial, all of the conspirators are found guilty and sentenced to death, except for young Bernardo, who is permitted to serve a prison sentence. Bernardo attempts a last-minute appeal to the Pope to have mercy on his family. The play concludes with Beatrice walking stoically to her death.
The Cenci addresses themes which reflect Shelley's Romantic ideals, and which are prevalent in his other literary works. Critics have drawn parallels between the play's chief thematic concerns and those of Prometheus Unbound, which Shelley was in the process of writing when he began work on The Cenci. Specifically, scholars have highlighted the conflicts of good versus evil and humanity versus tyranny in the play, noting Shelley's preoccupation with the dynamics of evil and mankind's ability to resist the power of cruelty. Central to this theme is the notion that Beatrice could have endured Cenci's wickedness through her own volition. In choosing to seek revenge, however, Shelley's heroine employs evil for her own ends, taking on the characteristics of her tyrannical father. As Shelley articulated in his Preface to The Cenci, Beatrice exercises poor moral judgment in her decision to combat evil through evil means rather than through forbearance and non-violent resistance. A related theme in the play is that moral fortitude cannot be tarnished by the actions of others, only by one's own actions and ethical choices. Thus, the destruction of Beatrice's innocence is not a consequence of her father's brutal treatment, but rather a result of her acquiescence to the desire to retaliate with violence. Critics have examined Beatrice as a tragic figure representing humanity suffering at the hands of unjust authority, underscoring another thematic current in The Cenci. Throughout the play, commentators have found evidence of Shelley's radical, anti-authoritarian ideals. Citing the poet's use of such taboo subjects as incest and parricide, critics have characterized The Cenci as an implicit attack on every form of patriarchal authority, be it political, religious, or familial. Additionally, Shelley's views on religion contribute to a central theme in The Cenci. Through the play's religious undertones, Shelley revealed his views on the ecclesiastical hierarchy, presenting Orsino—a clergyman—as hypocritical and avaricious, and highlighting the venality of the Roman Catholic Church in its dealings with Count Cenci. Critics have also interpreted Shelley's portrayal of Cenci as a Catholic as a critique of the Church, noting that although the Count was identified as an atheist in Shelley's source material, he was characterized as wicked, yet deeply religious, in the play. To underscore the distinction between religion and morality, Shelley's characters call upon God to justify their unethical choices, employing religious language and symbols as they commit acts of brutality and vengeance.
Upon its publication in 1819, The Cenci elicited an emotionally charged critical response. An anonymous reviewer writing for the Literary Gazette in 1820 deemed the play “noxious,” “odious,” and “abominable,” and accused Shelley of rampant plagiarism. In contrast, Alfred and H. Buxton Forman hailed The Cenci a “tragic masterpiece,” placing Shelley in the company of Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare. Furthermore, Leigh Hunt, to whom the play is dedicated, effused over Shelley's “great sweetness of nature, and enthusiasm for good. …” Despite the attention afforded the play, the purportedly immoral subject matter prevented The Cenci from reaching the stage for forty-five years. Critics have long debated the play's suitability for production, labeling it a “non-acting” play replete with structural defects. Commentators have complained that the play and its monologues are exceedingly long and lacking in consistent plot progression. They have also pointed out inconsistencies in the characterization of Beatrice and have noted an abrupt change in thematic direction after Cenci's death. However, scholar Charles L. Adams has refuted these arguments, analyzing the author's structural intentions and defending the play's merits. Moreover, as critic Roger Blood has observed, recent discourse on The Cenci has moved beyond issues of structure to explore thematic topics. In addition to the play's moral and religious themes, critics have focused on character studies, horror motifs such as vampirism, and the role of politics in the work. Scholars have also discussed the play in relation to the Shakespearean tragedies, such as Macbeth, as well as Shelley's other works, including his epic poem Laon and Cythna (1818), which shares with The Cenci controversial themes of incest and attacks on religion. As testament to the enduring quality of The Cenci, critics have remarked that Shelley's Romantic depiction of Beatrice inspired numerous writers, artists, and filmmakers to retell her story, including authors Stendhal, Alberto Moravia, Francesco Guerrazzi, and Giovanni Battista Niccolini; painters Charles Robert Leslie and Francesco Hayez; and Expressionist film director Mario Caserini.
Original Poetry by Victor and Cazire [as Victor; with Elizabeth Shelley] (poetry) 1810
Posthumous Fragments of Margaret Nicholsen, Being Poems Found amongst the Papers of That Noted Female Who Attempted the Life of the King in 1786 [with Thomas Jefferson Hogg] (poetry) 1810
Zastrozzi: A Romance (novel) 1810
The Necessity of Atheism (essay) 1811
St. Irvyne; or, The Rosicrucian: A Romance, by a Gentleman of the University of Oxford (novel) 1811
An Address to the Irish People (essay) 1812
A Declaration of Rights (essay) 1812
Queen Mab: A...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
SOURCE: “Unsigned Review, The Literary Gazette, and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences.” In Shelley: The Critical Heritage, edited by James E. Barcus, pp. 164-68. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1820, the critic condemns The Cenci, describing the play as “the production of a fiend, and calculated for the entertainment of devils in hell.”]
Of all the abominations which intellectual perversion, and poetical atheism, have produced in our times, this tragedy appears to us to be the most abominable. We have much doubted whether we ought to notice it; but, as watchmen place a light over...
(The entire section is 1785 words.)
SOURCE: Hunt, Leigh. “Leigh Hunt, Review, The Indicator.” In Shelley: The Critical Heritage, edited by James E. Barcus, pp. 200-06. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1820, Hunt lauds Shelley's use of imagination, details his characterization, and compares the author to classical dramatists.]
‘The highest moral purpose aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant, and kind. If dogmas can do more, it...
(The entire section is 2835 words.)
SOURCE: Forman, Alfred, and H. Buxton Forman. Introduction to The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts, pp. v-xii. New York: Phaeton Press, 1970.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1886, Forman and Forman delineate elements of horror and poetry in The Cenci, labeling Shelley the “chief tragic poet since Shakespeare.”]
When Milton gave to the world in 1671 his dramatic poem Samson Agonistes, he set before it a short discourse “Of that sort of Dramatic Poem which is call'd Tragedy.” The discourse opens thus:—
“Tragedy, as it was antiently compos'd, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all...
(The entire section is 2112 words.)
SOURCE: Cameron, Kenneth N., and Horst Frenz. “The Stage History of Shelley's The Cenci.1” PMLA 60, no. 4 (December 1945): 1080-1105.
[In the following essay, Cameron and Frenz summarize the critical response to various performances of The Cenci across Europe and the United States, highlighting the complications involved in staging the play and reappraising Shelley's talents as a dramatist.]
Although some of Shelley's Victorian critics—notably Forman2—believed The Cenci to be an acting play, it now seems to have become a settled dictum of Shelley scholarship that it is a closet drama. Woodberry in his edition of the...
(The entire section is 12602 words.)
SOURCE: Rees, Joan. “Shelley's Orsino: Evil in The Cenci.” Keats-Shelley Memorial Bulletin, no. 12 (1961): 3-6.
[In the following essay, Rees investigates the role of Orsino as a minor character and emblem for evil in Shelley's play.]
Shelley's treatment of his minor characters in The Cenci—all the dramatis personæ, that is, except Beatrice and Cenci himself—has never been found very satisfactory, and the general judgment as far as it concerns their dramatic effectiveness cannot be disputed. Nevertheless, the ideas behind Orsino, at least, are worth some attention and they have not been fully brought out by any commentator. Swinburne thought...
(The entire section is 1652 words.)
SOURCE: Smith, Paul. “Restless Casuistry: Shelley's Composition of The Cenci.” Keats-Shelley Journal 13 (winter 1964): 77-85.
[In the following essay, Smith explores Shelley's alteration of his source material to emphasize moral and ethical concerns in The Cenci.]
Sometime during the late summer or early fall of 1819, Shelley set about to write a preface to the play he had just finished, The Cenci. He wrote hurriedly, leaving sentences incomplete, sketching out the paragraphs as they occurred to him, paying little attention to continuity. He mentioned the Italian manuscript, the Guido painting, the interest the story had awakened in the social circles...
(The entire section is 3677 words.)
SOURCE: Adams, Charles L. “The Structure of The Cenci.” Drama Survey 4, no. 2 (summer 1965): 139-48.
[In the following essay, Adams defends Shelley against charges that The Cenci is structurally defective and argues that understanding Orsino's role in the first two acts is vital to an appreciation of the play.]
In the conclusion of their article “The Stage History of Shelley's The Cenci,” Kenneth Cameron and Horst Frenz summarize their findings (“… there is sufficient evidence to show that it is a genuine acting drama.”) and ask the question, “Why … has the misconception that it is a closet drama so long persisted?”1...
(The entire section is 5003 words.)
SOURCE: Turner, Justin G. “The Cenci: Shelley vs. the Truth.” American Book Collector 22, no. 5 (February 1972): 5-9.
[In the following essay, Turner examines the veracity of Shelley's source material for The Cenci and contends that Shelley would have found little interest in Beatrice as a tragic heroine had he known the truth behind the Cenci legend.]
All Italy was stirred by the most sensational criminal case in its history, the Cenci murder. After the execution of the family in 1599, rumors reached England of the wicked father who had poisoned his wife, killed his son, and ravished his daughter. Many years later, historians were to ascertain that...
(The entire section is 3928 words.)
SOURCE: White, Harry. “Beatrice Cenci and Shelley's Avenger.” Essays in Literature 5, no. 1 (spring 1978): 27-38.
[In the following essay, White explains that Shelley's changes to his source material downplay themes of tyrannical power and rebellion in favor of notions of retribution and atonement.]
A significant number of readers are not entirely convinced that the murder in The Cenci can be construed as an act of vengeance. Aware of Shelley's explicit condemnation of “revenge, retaliation, atonement,” they will nevertheless insist that “there is no evidence that she [Beatrice] seeks revenge. … [S]he is not thinking in such terms. For her it is a...
(The entire section is 5965 words.)
SOURCE: Wilson, James D. “Beatrice Cenci and Shelley's Vision of Moral Responsibility.” Ariel 9, no. 3 (July 1978): 75-89.
[In the following essay, Wilson alleges that The Cenci is not a tragedy, despite Shelley's claim in the Preface.]
The supposed moral disintegration of Beatrice after she is violated by her father has become the central source of dismay among scholars who analyze Shelley's gothic drama, The Cenci (1820). Despite Shelley's prefatory attempt to elevate his heroine to angelical stature, labelling Beatrice “a most gentle and amiable being … one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying...
(The entire section is 4803 words.)
SOURCE: Twitchell, James B. “Shelley's Use of Vampirism in The Cenci.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 24 (1979): 120-33.
[In the following essay, Twitchell studies Shelley's use of the vampire myth in the imagery of The Cenci.]
The Cenci is certainly one of the most philosophically intricate works Shelley ever wrote. It is intricate in that Shelley set for himself the complex task of reconstructing historical events in a form that demands sequential as well as imaginative cohesion, and it is philosophical in that he deals with the problem of casuistry, the use of evil means for good ends.1 It is a drama that shows through a fiction the...
(The entire section is 6088 words.)
SOURCE: Schell, John F. “Shelley's The Cenci: Corruption and the Calculating Faculty.” University of Mississippi Studies in English n. s. 2 (1981): 1-14.
[In the following essay, Schell evaluates Shelley's suggestion that reason is inadequate compared to imagination in The Cenci.]
Shelley believed drama to have a greater potential for influencing man's moral improvement than any other art form. In A Defense of Poetry he notes: “the connexion of scenic exhibitions with the improvement or corruption of the manners of men, has been universally recognized,”1 and he then remarks that “the connexion of poetry and social good is more...
(The entire section is 5732 words.)
SOURCE: Harrington-Lueker, D. “Imagination versus Introspection: The Cenci and Macbeth.” Keats-Shelley Journal 32 (1983): 172-89.
[In the following essay, Harrington-Lueker compares The Cenci and Macbeth and contends that Shelley borrowed Shakespearean themes to heighten audience understanding of his play.]
As the Preface to The Cenci (1819) indicates, the story of the Cenci family immediately impressed Shelley with its dramatic and, more precisely, its tragic possibilities. Yet, as his letters show, the playwright conceived of a popular drama—a tragedy written with the English theater-going public in mind. So, despite the...
(The entire section is 6740 words.)
SOURCE: Hall, Jean. “The Socialized Imagination: Shelley's The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound.” Studies in Romanticism 23, no. 3 (fall 1984): 339-50.
[In the following essay, Hall analyzes the relationship between The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound, specifically focusing on themes of imagination and social reality in the works.]
The Cenci was written during an interlude between Shelley's creation of the first three acts of Prometheus Unbound and the last. Obviously these plays stand in opposition to each other: the poet describes Prometheus Unbound as a “Lyrical Drama” employing imagery drawn from “the operations...
(The entire section is 5746 words.)
SOURCE: Groseclose, Barbara. “The Incest Motif in Shelley's The Cenci.” Comparative Drama 19, no. 3 (fall 1985): 222-39.
[In the following essay, Groseclose discusses how parent-child incest functions as a metaphor for tyranny in The Cenci.]
Mary Shelley admired her husband's 1819 play, The Cenci, because it was, she felt, the most direct of his works.1 The author himself, apparently both pleased and abashed that the writing of the drama consumed scarcely two months, implied a similar simplicity when he told E. J. Trelawny that in The Cenci he had expended considerably less effort on poetic language and “metaphysics” than was his...
(The entire section is 6977 words.)
SOURCE: Sperry, Stuart M. “The Ethical Politics of Shelley's The Cenci.” Studies in Romanticism 25, no. 3 (fall 1986): 411-27.
[In the following essay, Sperry considers the moral dilemma inherent in Beatrice's decision to seek violent revenge.]
Politics begins in the family, as Shelley well knew and as the title of The Cenci reminds us. Begun in Rome in May of 1819, the drama has intellectual and emotional roots that extend far back into the poet's career. As early as May 1811, we find him carrying on an argument with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, as to the reconcilability of law with private judgment and of politics...
(The entire section is 7416 words.)
SOURCE: Lockridge, Laurence S. “Justice in The Cenci.” Wordsworth Circle 19, no. 2 (spring 1988): 95-8.
[In the following essay, Lockridge addresses Shelley's belief in non-violent resistance to cruelty and oppression.]
Questions of moral psychology, freedom, and justice are explored by Shelley in his five act play, The Cenci (1819), his dramatization of Count Cenci's murderous hatred of his children, his incest with his daughter Beatrice, her plotting with her stepmother Lucretia and brother Bernardo to have the Count murdered by two hired assassins, and their subsequent arrest, torture, and execution by order of Pope Clement VIII in 1599. The play...
(The entire section is 3318 words.)
SOURCE: Weinberg, Alan M. “Religion and Patriarchy in Shelley's The Cenci.” Unisa English Studies 28, no. 1 (April 1990): 5-13.
[In the following essay, Weinberg assesses the role of religion as it relates to the characters and themes in The Cenci.]
In writing The Cenci, Shelley was scrupulous in his attention to historical detail. The reason for this is explained in a comment he made in his ‘Dedication’ of the play to Leigh Hunt. Speaking of the poems he had already published, Shelley says they are ‘dreams of what ought to be, or may be’. By contrast,
[t]he drama which I now present to you is a sad...
(The entire section is 6974 words.)
SOURCE: Davy, Daniel. “The Harmony of the Horrorscape: A Perspective on The Cenci.” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 5, no. 1 (fall 1990): 95-113.
[In the following essay, Davy explores elements of Gothic darkness and mystery in The Cenci.]
Most of the body of criticism devoted to Shelley's The Cenci approaches it as tragedy, and, moreover, as tragedy which is essentially in the Aristotelian mold.1 Beatrice, the obvious protagonist in the play, goaded by countless outrages at the hands of her father Count Cenci, finally retaliates in kind by murdering her tormentor, and is consequently destroyed. Her capacity to participate in the...
(The entire section is 8256 words.)
SOURCE: Ferriss, Suzanne. “Reflection in a ‘Many-Sided Mirror’: Shelley's The Cenci through the Post-Revolutionary Prism.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 15, no. 2 (1991): 161-70.
[In the following essay, Ferriss interprets The Cenci as Shelley's comment on the French Revolution and its aftermath.]
Following his visit to Versailles in September 1816, Shelley proclaimed the French Revolution “the master theme of the epoch in which we live” (Letters [of Percy Bysshe Shelley] I: 504), recommending it to Byron as “a theme involving pictures of all that is best qualified to interest and to instruct mankind” (Letters I: 508)....
(The entire section is 3493 words.)
SOURCE: Blood, Roger. “Allegory and Dramatic Representation in The Cenci.” Studies in Romanticism 33, no. 3 (fall 1994): 355-89.
[In the following essay, Blood comments on The Cenci's critical reception and considers theoretical interpretations of the play.]
To judge from the work of Shelley's recent critics, The Cenci has now taken its place securely in the canon of Shelley's work. The ambivalence concerning its aesthetic stature and lingering doubts about its suitability for performance have been set aside in favor of thematic considerations—rape, incest, murder, deceit, and the abuse of power—more in line with our contemporary tastes....
(The entire section is 16372 words.)
SOURCE: Strand, Ginger, and Sara Zimmerman. “Finding an Audience: Beatrice Cenci, Percy Shelley, and the Stage.” European Romantic Review 6, no. 2 (winter 1996): 246-68.
[In the following essay, Strand and Zimmerman concentrate on the moral problem associated with Beatrice's role as a heroine.]
“… in spite of all that has been said to the contrary, Beatrice Cenci is really none other than Percy Bysshe Shelley himself in petticoats …”1
The action of The Cenci revolves around two violent events, both of which take place off stage. Count Cenci's rape of his daughter Beatrice leads to the...
(The entire section is 9759 words.)
SOURCE: Cheeke, Stephen. “Shelley's The Cenci: Economies of a ‘Familiar’ Language.” Keats-Shelley Journal 47 (1998): 142-60.
[In the following essay, Cheeke asserts that Shelley's play is “deeply insecure about its theater, its audience, its style and its language.”]
Shelley's composition of The Cenci in the late spring and summer of 1819 was an experiment in the rigorous economies of an unfamiliar genre.1 Writing to Peacock in late July announcing the new work, Shelley stresses the “pains” he has taken to make the play “fit for representation” on the London stage.2 The play itself thematizes some of the pain of...
(The entire section is 8028 words.)
SOURCE: Harrison, Margot. “No Way for a Victim to Act?: Beatrice Cenci and the Dilemma of Romantic Performance.” Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 2 (summer 2000): 187-211.
[In the following essay, Harrison contrasts Shelley's opinions on romantic drama espoused in his Preface to The Cenci with those implicit in the play itself.]
Two problems have historically preoccupied readers of The Cenci. First of all: what does this verse-play have to do with the theatre? If only by default, Shelley's drama occupies the liminal space between closet and stage. Shelley indisputably “wished The Cenci to be acted,” picked out his lead actors, and even asked...
(The entire section is 11253 words.)
Baker, Carlos. “The Human Heart: The Conversation-Poems of 1818-1819.” In Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision, pp. 119-53. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1948.
Analyzes the work as a dialogue-poem in which Shelley discusses his views of morality.
Barcus, James E., ed. Shelley: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, 432 p.
Collection of contemporary reviews of Shelley's work including several on The Cenci.
Bates, Ernest Sutherland. A Study of Shelley's Drama The Cenci. New York: The Columbia University Press, 1908, 103 p....
(The entire section is 1293 words.)