The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

III. Shelley

§ 4. The Cenci

The central theme and situation of The Cenci are still, it is true, the heroic resistance to tyranny, of all situations the most kindling to Shelley. It is no longer a mythic symbol, however, but an actual event. And the chief actor and sufferer is a woman. Shelley, by merely following the lead of his own ardent and indignant sympathy, struck out a tragic type in effect new, and to none of the great masters stranger than to Shakespeare himself. Euripides, Sophocles, Massinger, Webster had nobly handled the tragedy of heroic womanhood; but neither Medea nor Antigone, nor Vittoria, nor Dorothea, nor the duchess of Malfi anticipated Beatrice Cenci in her way of meeting an intolerable wrong. She strikes down the criminal, not with the fierce vengeance of a Medea, but as the instrument of divine justice—

  • Because my father’s honour did demand
  • My father’s life.
  • This is the Shelleyan magnanimity, and Shelley found no hint of it in his source. But he wove into her character every positive trait that it supplied; his Beatrice, therefore, with all her ideal greatness of soul, is no abstraction, but an Italian girl, with flashing moods and impulses. She thinks, in her agony, of suicide—Lucretia’s remedy—before she finds her own; she is as sure as Antigone that her guilt is innocence, yet fights her accusers with the rare cunning of an advocate; she confronts the faltering murderers with more than the fierce energy of Lady Macbeth, yet has her moment of a young girl’s anguish at the thought of passing for ever from the sunshine into a “wide, grey, lampless, deep, unpeopled world.” Analysis may pronounce this or that trait inconsistent; but the qualified reader will feel himself in the grip of a character of Shakespearean richness of texture, irradiated through and through by a flawless splendour of soul.

    If Beatrice recalls Greek, as well as Elizabethan analogies, count Cenci is of the race of the Barabbases and Volpones who mark the extremest divergence of Elizabethan from Greek tragedy. Yet, he is drawn with a reticence of which no Elizabethan would have been capable, and the horror of his act is so far mitigated that its motive is hate, not lust. He has moments almost of sublimity, in which his hate appears a tragic doom:

  • The act I think shall soon extinguish all
  • For me: I bear a darker deadlier gloom
  • Than the earth’s shade, or interlunar air;
  • or in which he imagines his piled wealth making a flaming pyre out in the wide Campagna; which done,
  • My soul, which is a scourge, will I resign
  • Into the hands of him who wielded it.
  • The Cenci owes more to Shelley’s intense self-projection into a real story profoundly sympathetic to him than to conscious imitation of any master or school. If the Elizabethans were most in his mind, the absorbing interest for him of the person and the fate of his heroine checked any disposition to diffuseness of plot or luxury of style. No secondary interest gets foothold for a moment; the mother and brothers, even the hapless Bernardo, are distinctly, if faintly, drawn; but their fate hardly moves us beside that of Beatrice. And, if the Greeks, too, were in his mind, the same passionate championship effectually overcame any Hellenic disposition to find a relative justification for both contending parties. Cenci was beyond apology; but a blindly scrupulous, instead of a basely mercenary, pope would have strengthened the play.

    And a play Shelley did, in fact, intend it to be. In Beatrice Cenci, he actually had in mind the great tragic actress Eliza O’Neill, and, in sending the MS. to the lessee of Covent Garden, intimated his desire that she should play it. Harris, as was inevitable, declined the proposal, but invited its author to write a play for him on some other subject.

    Shelley was already, however, absorbed in other tasks. “I have deserted the odorous gardens of literature,” he wrote, “for the great sandy desert of politics.” From that “desert,” in truth, he had never averted his ken. And the provocation to enter it was now unusually great. Popular hostility to the government, fomented by the horrors of the factory system, the oppressiveness of the corn laws and the high-handed toryism of the ministry, had, in 1819, become acute. The Peterloo affair (16 August) roused Shelley’s fierce indignation, and, in brief serried stanzas as of knotted whipcord, he lashed the man whom he chose to hold responsible for the threatened revolution. The Masque of Anarchy is much more, however, than a derisive arraignment of the arch-“anarch” Castlereagh. Of Shelley’s finest vein of poetry, it contains few hints; but, without it, we should more unreservedly discredit his sense for the realities of a free national life. From the visionary freedom of Prometheus, this practical and attainable freedom of the “comely table spread” and the “neat and happy home” is as far removed as is the human tragedy of the Cenci palace from the mythic pangs of the pale sufferer on Caucasus. The publication, the same autumn, of Wordsworth’s Peter Bell (written in 1798) drew an outburst of sardonic mockery, not the less bitter for its sportive form, upon the tory poet. It had already been reviewed by Hunt (whose notice Shelley read “with great amusement”) and parodied by J. H. Reynolds.