The Cenci: A Poetic Drama - Summary and Analysis

Also Read

      The Cenci is a poetic drama by Shelley, based on actual events which occurred in Rome in 1599. He wrote the tragedy from an incomplete and untrustworthy version of the story that he had heard while living in Rome in 1819. Count Francesco Cenci, the head of one of the noblest and richest families of Rome was a debauchee who had conceived an implacable hatred for his children. But for the daughter, Beatrice he had an incestuous passion. The girl after fruitless efforts to escape from the shame plotted with her stepmother, Lucretia and brother Bernardo to assassinate him. This was done by two hired ruffians. Suspicion fell on the three, who were arrested and tortured for confession and executed by the order of the Pope.

      Shelley himself admits that the story of The Cenci is fearful and monstrous, and that anything like a dry exhibition of it on the stage would be insupportable. Count Cenci, a monster of wickedness, hates all his children. He exults in the death of two of his sons and violates his daughter; more because he wishes to do her an intolerable wrong than from incestuous desire. She resolves to have him murdered, and hires two bravoes to murder him. The papal legate arrives, just after the count's death, and the bravoes are discovered. One of them dies fighting; the other is captured and, under torture, confesses that the murder has been commissioned by Beatrice. The Pope does not pardon her, in spite of the wrongs she has suffered because, being an old man, he has a particular fear of parricide, and because Count Cenci had been in the habit of paying vast sums for the pardon of his misdeeds. The play ends just before the execution of Beatrice.

The Cenci is a poetic drama
The Cenci

Critical Analysis
      Out of this material Shelley has written a tragedy in the manner of Webster, the famous successor of Shakespeare. Shelley has the passionate intensity and the macabre imagination of Webster. Webster, the writer of The Duchess of Malfi, would have made a vital and sombre tragedy out of this story if he came by it. But Sheley piles horrors on horrors head not with a view to achieving dramatic effect, but only to express his passionate hatred of priestcraft and kingcraft. Action and characterization are inadequate in the play. Beatrice Cenci, the central character, which Shelley has striven to present dramatically fails to convince us. As Nicoll has pointed out: "Her uncompromising denial of complicity in the murder of her father seems to us not in harmony with her character as displayed in the first act and at the end of the play; and, although we can find an explanation for the heroines conduct, that explanation is one not likely to occur to ordinary spectators or to appear theatrically appropriate." The play has been overpraised as a tragedy because of its diction and verse. But Shelley's genius is lyrical, rather than dramatic and by the standard of a stage play it is found wanting. Even then, "it stands as one of the best tragedies since Webster".

      The Cenci which was composed in 1819, is a realistic tragedy based upon morbid and sordid Italian story of one of the richest families of Rome in 1599. It was one of the few poems Shelley wrote with an eye to popularity Though he cared nothing for popular success, he could not help being dismayed by the fact that none of his poems had sold more than a handful of copies, and he decided in The Cenci to accept current conventions.

      Treatment of Theme: Shelley did not understand wickedness at all; he chose a piece of inexplicable wickedness for his subject just because of this lack of understanding. What interested him was not the nature of the present condition of the universe. His Count Cenci has no feeling that he is out of harmony with God. Indeed, he speaks of God as if he were the Jupiter of Prometheus Unbound. In fact, he expresses, not the real workings of a wicked mind, but Shelley's view of wickedness—as something imposed upon the world by a supernatural tyranny.

      Wonder has been expressed that Shelley should in the same year have produced two works so unlike each other as Prometheus Unbound and The Cenci. It was certainly a great feat, but rather of energy than of versatility; for they are more alike than one might suppose. True, the subject of Prometheus is a myth invented by the poet, and the subject of The Cenci is a story of real life. But in each a fearful wrong is inflicted upon a virtuous being by a tyrant of inexplicable wickedness. Count Cenci is only Jupiter in another set of circumstances, and Beatrice only Prometheus. The end is different as befits the circumstances, but there is the same conception of evil, and the same blind revolt against it. In The Cenci, Shelley does not try to escape from reality, but he represents it, as in the first part of Prometheus, as suffering from an organic disease which could only be cured by a miracle. The difference is that in The Cenci, the miracle does not happen.

      The Cenci is a wonderful tour deforce, but we cannot believe in anything that happens in it. Indeed, it is far more unreal than Prometheus, for in Prometheus, Shelley was frequently expressing his own emotion and experience, but in The Cenci he seldom does so. The Cenci excels more in character than in plot, and more in the potential of character than in its realization. Shelley's morality was an apocalyptic one, and the implicit standard for The Cenci is set in The Mask of Anarchy, which advocates a non-violent resistance to evil. Beatrice is a tragic character because she does not meet this high standard, though she is clearly superior to every other person in her world. Life triumphs over Beatrice because she does not take violent revenge upon an intolerable oppressor. The tragedy Shelley develops is one of a heroic woman "violently thwarted from her nature'', by circumstances she ought to have defied. This links Beatrice with a large group of romantic heroes, ranging from the Cain of Byron's drama to the pathetic demon of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and, on the cosmic level, embracing Shelley's own Prometheus.

      Beatrice speaks fine poetry and argues with great skill and spirit, but she might be an eloquent advocate in another's cause. There is no character in what she says and, therefore, it is not interesting because she says it Her speech about death is almost as beautiful as the famous speech of Claudio in Measure for Measure; but the second part of the speech, when she fears lest she shall meet her father's spirit beyond the grave, is a mere expression of Shelley's sense of the omnipotence of evil:

For was he not alone omnipotent
On earth and ever present? Even though dead,
Does not his spirit live in all that breathes,
And work for me and mine still the same rum,
Scorn, pain, despair?

      The Cenci has the primary tragic requirements, the sense of inevitability tension and characters of tragic stature; but its borrowed technique robs it of subsidiary dramatic qualities and hampers its success as a play for being enacted. Shelley deliberately soaked himself in the atmosphere of Elizabethan drama, and it is no surprise to find him duplicating several of Shakespeare's situations and occasionally rephrasing his very words. When his own mind was blank, Shelley seems to have filled the vacuum by unconsciously recasting some half-remembered Shakespearean scene. Though this is unwise of him, it is worth noting that Shelley wisely abandons the Elizabethan convention that a tragedy should end leaving the stage strewn with corpses.

      Language and Form of the Work: The Cenci is a five-act tragedy in blank verse. In language, as in form, it is more of a tour de force than a logical step forward. Those digressions on natural beauty, which had adorned all his poems since Alastor, are missing. Nor does the play conform to any party line, political or metaphysical. For he was breaking new ground, by presenting a conflict of the human will, played out in an atmosphere thick with the primitive emotions of fear, hate and love, and so concentrated in its action that doctrine was out of place. He took pains, too, with the narrative and pruned his style, avoiding ornate images and exploiting the technique of under-statement so dear to the English. The purging of language was indeed so thorough that Keats, on reading The Cenci, was moved to offer somewhat dangerous advice: 'load every rift of your subject with ore'.

      Popularity of the Piece: The reputation of The Cenci has had its ups and downs. Most of the reviewers condemned it, mainly because it was by Shelley and about incest. Shelley did not insist on practising the theory of free love, and incest was even further in the realm of his theory Shelley himself sums up: "Incest is like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance. It may be the excess of love or hate. It may be the defiance of everything for the sake of another which clothes itself in the glory of the highest heroism, or it may be that cynical rage which, confounding the good and the bad in existing opinions, breaks through them for the purpose of rioting in selfishness, and antipathy."

      In spite of the condemnation of most of the reviewers, Shelley's closest friends, Hunt for example, and Mary thought it is his finest achievement. It was the first of his longer works to be accepted by the literary world, and most of the Victorian critics upheld Wordsworth's verdict, that it was 'the greatest tragedy of the age'. In fact, The Cenci seems to prove Shelley's power of writing brilliantly on any subject, rather than his dramatic capacity.

Previous Post Next Post

Search Your Questions