The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291


*Rome. Great Italian city in which the primary palace of the Cenci family is built. Outwardly, the palace reflects the grandeur of Rome at the end of the Renaissance. Its accommodations are sumptuous, and it is a scene of great pomp and pageantry. However, the palace is home to Count Francesco Cenci, a decadent and selfish tyrant determined to break the spirit of everyone in his family, in particular his strong-willed daughter Beatrice. Cenci flourishes in Rome, which suggests the city is tainted with the spiritual corruption he represents.

This is revealed by Cenci’s relationship with the Vatican, seat of the papal government. Shelley depicts the Vatican, which represents both the religious and political character of the city, as corrupt and hypocritical because its accepts the bribes Cenci pays to avoid prosecution of murders.

Beatrice’s perceptions of the city are the most telling. She knows that she can easily find assassins with no regard for life who will murder her father. When her mother begs the pope’s legate not to return them to Rome to be tried for Francesco’s murder, Beatrice soothes her with this mocking appraisal: “There as here/ Our innocence is as an armed heel/ To trample accusation.” Beatrice knows full well that this idealized Rome does not exist and that they are likely to be executed for a type of crime for which Francesco regularly bought absolution.

Castle Petrella

Castle Petrella. Castle in the Apennine mountains outside Rome that presents Beatrice and her family with a refuge beyond Rome’s influences, where Francesco can be more easily killed. Its setting in the wilds expresses the savagery of the murder committed on its premises and the extremes to which Francesco has driven his family.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 294

Behrendt, Stephen C. “Beatrice Cenci and the Tragic Myth of History.” In History & Myth: Essays on English Romantic Literature, edited by Stephen C. Behrendt. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990. Argues that Beatrice’s situation is like that of the English people in 1819. Shelley’s play argues that the English needed to temper their urges toward violence in order to avoid self-destruction.

Cameron, Kenneth Neill. Shelley: The Golden Years. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Analyzes Shelley’s transmutation of his source into The Cenci. Includes notes and bibliography.

Curran, Stuart. Shelley’s “Cenci”: Scorpions Ringed with Fire. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970. Forms a basis for subsequent commentaries on the play, covering its historical context, Shelley’s changes from his source, the play’s critical reception, and its literary, philosophic, and mythic dimensions. Illustrations and notes.

Ferriss, Suzanne. “Reflection in a ‘Many-Sided Mirror’: Shelley’s The Cenci Through the Post-Revolutionary Prism.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 15, no. 2 (1991): 161-170. Argues that Beatrice’s succumbing to the urge toward vengeful violence is analogous to the French Revolution’s descent to the Reign of Terror. Argues that the play reflects Shelley’s skepticism concerning the achievement of revolutionary ideals.

Hammond, Eugene R. “Beatrice’s Three Fathers: Successive Betrayal in Shelley’s The Cenci.” Essays in Literature 8, no. 1 (Spring, 1981): 25-32. Finds Beatrice betrayed successively by her father, the Pope, and God. References, notes.

Reiman, Donald H. Percy Bysshe Shelley. New York: Twayne, 1969. Offers an excellent interpretive synopsis of the play, including an analysis of Beatrice as a tragic protagonist. Bibliography and notes.

Wasserman, Earl R. Shelley: A Critical Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971. The chapter on The Cenci discusses the play in full detail, focusing on Shelley’s reference to the play’s being based on “sad reality.”

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Critical Essays