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.