For all practical purposes, the narrative of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s importance to theatrical history is the tale of The Cenci. However, Prometheus Unbound was the first of his substantial literary undertakings to be cast in dramatic form and is thematically related to The Cenci.
Prometheus Unbound considers on the ideal level what The Cenci examines on the level of gritty reality, the relationship between good and evil, between benevolent innocence and that which would corrupt it. Shelley’s Prometheus is the traditional fire-giver redefined, as his preface tells us. The primary change that Shelley makes in his subject is a reworking of the events leading to Prometheus’s release. In the lost Aeschylean play from which Shelley borrowed his title, there occurred a “reconciliation of Jupiter with his victim” at “the price of the disclosure of the danger threatened to his empire by the consummation of his marriage with Thetis.” In Shelley’s version, Prometheus earns his freedom more nobly, by overcoming himself, by forswearing hatred and the desire for revenge, embracing love, and achieving, through extraordinary fortitude, a merciful selflessness.
In a sense, Prometheus combines a Christ-like forbearance with the traits the Romantics often admired in Satan. Shelley says Prometheus is like Satan in that “In addition to courage, and majesty, and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force, he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement.” By contrast with Satan, Shelley described Prometheus as “the type of the highest perfection of moral and intellectual nature, impelled by the purest and the truest motives to the best and noblest ends.”
This perfection is absent as the play begins, but when, in act 1, Prometheus relents in his hatred and says, “I wish no living thing to suffer pain,” his ultimate triumph and Jupiter’s defeat are inevitable. Evil can succeed only if it is allowed access to one’s innermost being, only if one allows it to re-create oneself in its own vile image. With “Gentleness, Virtue, Wisdom, and Endurance,” a person can win out, though the success of goodness requires a great deal of him as is shown in the play’s final lines:
To suffer woe which Hope thinks infinite;To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;To love, and bear; to hope till Hope createsFrom its own wreck the thing it contemplates;Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;This, like thy glory, Titan, is to beGood, great and joyous, beautiful and free;This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.
In The Cenci, Beatrice exhibits the necessary defiance of evil, but she lacks the fortitude to resist hatred. She confuses physical violation, which any person with sufficient opportunity can inflict on any other, with spiritual violation, which requires willful complicity. By hating, she comes partially to resemble the thing she hates.
The object of Beatrice’s hatred is her father, Count Francesco Cenci, the embodiment of everything the Romantics distrusted in those possessed of power. In characterizing the count, Shelley had a rich gallery of gothic and melodramatic villains on which to draw, and among them all, few can match the count for wickedness. The count is a plunderer, a murderer, and an incestuous rapist. He takes delight in destroying the lives of those around him, and he especially enjoys inflicting spiritual torture. He will only “rarely kill the body,” because it “preserves, like a strong prison, the soul within my power,/ Wherein I feed it with the breath of fear/ For hourly pain.”
Like many a villain of the period, the count commits his vilest crimes against the holy ties of sentiment. His egomania destroys his capacity for...
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- Critical Essays