The Cenci: A Poetic Drama - Summary and Analysis

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Summary
      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.

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".

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