Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Incest as Theology in Shelley's the Cenci

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Incest as Theology in Shelley's the Cenci

Article excerpt

Percy Bysshe Shelley's verse-drama The Cenci (1819) tells a story that fascinated nineteenth-century readers and writers alike: that of Beatrice Cenci, a young Roman beheaded in 1599 for killing her father--so the story goes--in order to end his sadistic rapes. Departing from previous accounts, Shelley made Count Francesco Cenci's attack on his daughter the crux of the story: the Count plans his assault from the beginning of this five-act play; after the rape, which takes place off-stage between Acts II and III, first Beatrice and her family, then papal officials investigating the Count's death, debate whether the incest provides a damning motive for murder or exoneration from the charge of parricide. Shelley's verses first anticipate and later echo the words and images used, albeit elliptically, to depict the incest, so that representations of sexual violence permeate the text. What the play is about, in the most basic sense, is the incestuous rape of Beatrice Cenci.

Shelley's drama became the authoritative formulation of the Cenci legend and inspired, directly or indirectly, novels, operas, films, and plays, including Antonin Artaud's famous Theatre of Cruelty production. (1) Through these progeny, Shelley's version of the story has become so well-known that most readers who recognize the name of Cenci know--or think they know--that the historical Beatrice Cenci was a victim of incest.

There's one problem, however, with this bit of popular knowledge: Shelley largely created the legend of the Cenci incest. He posited as a completed act what earlier writers described as an unsuccessful attempt or series of attempts; and he focused on an aspect of the story that previous authors treated briefly as part of a pattern of crime that the Count perpetrated against family, servants, and enemies alike. (2) The incest story was invented, historians agree, at the eleventh-hour by Beatrice's attorney, Prospero Farinacci, who argued that that crime justified parricide. Farinacci, however, talked about the Cenci rape as either attempted or imminent. (3) One Cenci narrative available to Shelley, in Lodovico Muritori's Annali d'Italia, does speak of seductions and beatings that result in coitus. (4) Mary Shelley's notebook containing material pertaining to The Cenci directs "vide Muratori. Annali d'Italia--v. 20--p. 511." (5) But aside from this inconclusive note, neither Percy nor Mary Shelley mentions the Annali. Shelley may have read Muratori; he may not. The only account of the Cenci case Shelley definitely knew treats the incest as unconsummated. In The Cenci's Preface, Shelley names as his source one of the Italian "Relazione," virtually identical manuscripts that romanticized the story. The Relazione, like Farinacci, describes only attempted rape. (6) It embroiders the ways Francesco sought to seduce or force Beatrice, but his campaign here is not successful. Nor does incest loom large in the Relazione account, occupying half a paragraph in a narrative of some dozen pages.

In essence, then, the incest and its centrality to the Cenci story are Shelley's inventions, despite his protests that he added little to the story as it came to him. (7) He claims in the Preface that, if anything, he toned down its Grand Guignol elements: "The person who would treat such a subject must increase the ideal and diminish the actual horror of the events" (730). But Shelley increased the horror. Why did he make the fulcrum of his play an act of incest that probably never occurred? Did he have a textual source for his depiction of Beatrice's rape? What significance does incest lend the story? These questions are obvious, and my asking them isn't original: the meaning that Shelley gives incest in the play has been explored extensively, with critics interpreting Cenci's rape of his daughter as a symbol of patriarchal tyranny within the domestic, political, ecclesiastical, psychological, and/or literary realms. (8) To be sure, the incest motif in the play, like the play itself, is multivalent, and I don't wish to render it univocal. …

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