The Cenci, A Tragedy, in Five Acts is a verse drama in five acts by Percy Bysshe Shelley written in the summer of 1819 and inspired by a real Italian family, the House of Cenci and in particular, Beatrice Cenci. The horrific tragedy, set in 1599 in Rome, of a young woman executed for the premeditated murder of her tyrannical father, was a well-known true story handed down orally and documented in the Annali d’Italia, a twelve-volume chronicle of Italian history written by Ludovico Antonio Muratori in 1749. The events occurred during the Pontificate of Pope Clement VIII.
Shelley was first drawn to dramatise the tale after viewing Guido Reni’s portrait of Beatrice Cenci, a painting that intrigued Shelley’s poetic imagination. Almost from the moment of her death, Beatrice Cenci became a tragic heroine; her tragedy has been told in opera, prose, and poetry. Her grave, near the altar of San Pietro Montorio in Rome’s Gianicolo, is a site of pilgrimage for romantics who can reconcile their sympathies for her dreadful plight with those aroused by the transgression of the fifth commandment.
Shelley was eager to have his play performed in London, but his early death and the sensitive nature of the topic meant that it was not staged until 1886. In 1886 the Shelley Society had sponsored a private production at the Grand Theatre, Islington, before an audience that included Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning, and George Bernard Shaw. It was not performed in public in England until 1922 when it was staged in London. Though there has been much debate over the play’s stageability, it has been produced in many countries including France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and the United States. It was included in the Harvard Classics as one of the most important and representative works of the western canon.
- Count Francesco Cenci, head of the Cenci household and family
- Beatrice, his daughter
- Lucretia, the wife of Francesco Cenci and the stepmother of his children
- Cardinal Camillo
- Orsino, a Prelate
- Savella, the Pope’s Legate
- Andrea, a servant to Francesco Cenci Marzio, an assassin
- Olimpio, an assassin
- Giacomo, son of Francesco Cenci Bernardo, son of Francesco Cenci
The young Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599) is kept with her stepmother, Lucretia, in the appalling isolation and darkness of a forbidding castle outside the Papal States by her cruel father, Francesco, whose enormous debts and misdeeds make him unable, as well as unwilling, to support his offspring. He wants to prevent Beatrice from marrying to avoid paying a dowry. She has suitors, among them a “smooth” prelate, but is unhappily resigned to her lot until her father rapes her.
With the support of her brother, Giacomo, she commands two servants–Olimpio and Marzio–to kill her father, but they waver in their resolve. She taunts them and they return to strangle the man, tossing his body below a balcony as if he had fallen. She rewards them with a bag of coins. Suspicions about the death are raised almost within the moment of its discovery because of the wounds on the body, bloody evidence in the bed-chamber, and the apparent lack of grief in the family. Confessions are extracted by torture.
The defence argued sexual abuse of Beatrice as a mitigating circumstance but failed to convince the court. Beatrice, her stepmother, Lucretia, and Giacomo are to be executed while a younger brother is forced to watch. In the doleful final scene, the family accepts their fate with tenderness and courage.
The play opens with Cardinal Camillo discussing with Count Francesco Cenci a murder in which Cenci is implicated. Camillo tells Cenci that the matter will be hushed up if Cenci will relinquish a third of his possessions, his property beyond the Pincian gate, to the Church. Count Cenci has sent two of his sons, Rocco and Cristofano, to Salamanca, Spain in the expectation that they will die of starvation.
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 brutal rule. Orsino withholds the petition, however, revealing himself to be disingenuous, lustful for Beatrice, and greedy. After he hears the news that his sons have been brutally killed in Salamanca, the Count holds a feast in celebration of their deaths, commanding his guests to revel with him. Cenci drinks wine which he imagines as “my children’s blood” which he “did thirst to drink!” 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 and retribution.
Count 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.
Beatrice reveals 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 be murdered. After the first attempt at patricide fails because Cenci arrives early, Orsino conspires with Beatrice, Lucretia, and Giacomo, in a second assassination plot. Orsino proposes that two of Cenci’s ill-treated servants, Marzio and Olimpio, carry out the murder.
The scene shifts to the Petrella Castle in the Apulian Apennines. Olimpio and Marzio enter Cenci’s bed-chamber to murder him 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 and throw his body out of the room off the balcony, where it is entangled in a pine. Shortly thereafter, Savella, 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 for trial for murder in Rome. 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. Bernardo, another of Cenci’s sons, attempts a futile last-minute appeal to the Pope to have mercy on his family. The Pope is reported to have declared: “They must die.” The play concludes with Beatrice walking stoically to her execution for murder. Her final words are: “We are quite ready. Well, ’tis very well.”
In this play, Shelley constructed two specific moral arguments. The first is about the crime of sexual violation as a justification for patricide; the second concerns the worthlessness of evidence extracted by torture. But Shelley took liberties with the remarkably detailed sources to advance his position. For example, he conveniently ignores the love affair that Beatrice conducted with Olimpio, the married seneschal of the castle who bludgeoned Cenci to death. Nor does he indicate that she bore the man’s child and gave it up for adoption. Her relationship with her brother is portrayed as loving and respectful, although extant sources imply that it was strained and coercive. These differences are starkly emphasized when the play is contrasted with other accounts.
Unlike the judges, Shelley accepted the defence argument. In Act III, scene 1, Beatrice staggers onto the stage distraught and refusing to explain why: an explanation, she says, would condemn and further sully her. In this manner, incestuous rape is implied without being named, and Shelley underscores the impossibility of justice owing to the folly of victim-blaming, which is attached to crimes of a sexual nature. The judge asks if indeed Francesco did “outrages as to awaken in thee unfilial hate?” Beatrice replies, “Not hate ’twas more than hate …. I am more innocent of parricide, than is a child born fatherless” (Act IV, scene 4).
The play and especially the author’s preface also make it clear that “truths” extracted by torture have no more credibility than outright lies. The poetic prose aims at Shakespearean grandeur; the yokel assassins have the fecklessness of Hamlet’s gravediggers, while Beatrice is cast as a grievously wronged Portia.