A TRAGEDY IN FIVE ACTS.
[Composed at Rome and near Leghorn (Villa Valsovano), May-August
5, 1819; published 1820 (spring) by C. & J. Ollier, London.
This edition of two hundred and fifty copies was printed in
Italy 'because,' writes Shelley to Peacock, September 21,
1819, 'it costs, with all duties and freightage, about half
what it would cost in London.' A Table of Errata in Mrs. Shelley's
handwriting is printed by Forman in "The Shelley Library",
page 91. A second edition, published by Ollier in 1821 (C.H.
Reynell, printer), embodies the corrections indicated in this
Table. No manuscript of "The Cenci" is known to
exist. Our text follows that of the second edition (1821);
variations of the first (Italian) edition, the title-page
of which bears date 1819, are given in the footnotes. The
text of the "Poetical Works", 1839, 1st and 2nd
editions (Mrs. Shelley), follows for the most part that of
the editio princeps of 1819.]
DEDICATION, TO LEIGH HUNT, ESQ.
Mv dear friend--
I inscribe with your name, from a distant country, and after
an absence whose months have seemed years, this the latest
of my literary efforts.
Those writings which I have hitherto published, have been
little else than visions which impersonate my own apprehensions
of the beautiful and the just. I can also perceive in them
the literary defects incidental to youth and impatience; they
are dreams of what ought to be, or may be. The drama which
I now present to you is a sad reality. I lay aside the presumptuous
attitude of an instructor, and am content to paint, with such
colours as my own heart furnishes, that which has been.
Had I known a person more highly endowed than yourself with
all that it becomes a man to possess, I had solicited for
this work the ornament of his name. One more gentle, honourable,
innocent and brave; one of more exalted toleration for all
who do and think evil, and yet himself more free from evil;
one who knows better how to receive, and how to confer a benefit,
though he must ever confer far more than he can receive; one
of simpler, and, in the highest sense of the word, of purer
life and manners I never knew: and I had already been fortunate
in friendships when your name was added to the list.
In that patient and irreconcilable enmity with domestic and
political tyranny and imposture which the tenor of your life
has illustrated, and which, had I health and talents, should
illustrate mine, let us, comforting each other in our task,
live and die.
All happiness attend you! Your affectionate friend,
PERCY B. SHELLEY.
Rome, May 29, 1819.
A manuscript was communicated to me during my travels in
Italy, which was copied from the archives of the Cenci Palace
at Rome, and contains a detailed account of the horrors which
ended in the extinction of one of the noblest and richest
families of that city during the Pontificate of Clement VIII,
in the year 1599. The story is, that an old man having spent
his life in debauchery and wickedness, conceived at length
an implacable hatred towards his children; which showed itself
towards one daughter under the form of an incestuous passion,
aggravated by every circumstance of cruelty and violence.
This daughter, after long and vain attempts to escape from
what she considered a perpetual contamination both of body
and mind, at length plotted with her mother-in-law and brother
to murder their common tyrant. The young maiden, who was urged
to this tremendous deed by an impulse which overpowered its
horror, was evidently a most gentle and amiable being, a creature
formed to adorn and be admired, and thus violently thwarted
from her nature by the necessity of circumstance and opinion.
The deed was quickly discovered, and, in spite of the most
earnest prayers made to the Pope by the highest persons in
Rome, the criminals were put to death. The old man had during
his life repeatedly bought his pardon from the Pope for capital
crimes of the most enormous and unspeakable kind, at the price
of a hundred thousand crowns; the death therefore of his victims
can scarcely be accounted for by the love of justice. The
Pope, among other motives for severity, probably felt that
whoever killed the Count Cenci deprived his treasury of a
certain and copious source of revenue. (The Papal Government
formerly took the most extraordinary precautions against the
publicity of facts which offer so tragical a demonstration
of its own wickedness and weakness; so that the communication
of the manuscript had become, until very lately, a matter
of some difficulty.) Such a story, if told so as to present
to the reader all the feelings of those who once acted it,
their hopes and fears, their confidences and misgivings, their
various interests, passions, and opinions, acting upon and
with each other, yet all conspiring to one tremendous end,
would be as a light to make apparent some of the most dark
and secret caverns of the human heart.
On my arrival at Rome I found that the story of the Cenci
was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without
awakening a deep and breathless interest; and that the feelings
of the company never failed to incline to a romantic pity
for the wrongs, and a passionate exculpation of the horrible
deed to which they urged her, who has been mingled two centuries
with the common dust. All ranks of people knew the outlines
of this history, and participated in the overwhelming interest
which it seems to have the magic of exciting in the human
heart. I had a copy of Guido's picture of Beatrice which is
preserved in the Colonna Palace, and my servant instantly
recognized it as the portrait of La Cenci.
This national and universal interest which the story produces
and has produced for two centuries and among all ranks of
people in a great City, where the imagination is kept for
ever active and awake, first suggested to me the conception
of its fitness for a dramatic purpose. In fact it is a tragedy
which has already received, from its capacity of awakening
and sustaining the sympathy of men, approbation and success.
Nothing remained as I imagined, but to clothe it to the apprehensions
of my countrymen in such language and action as would bring
it home to their hearts. The deepest and the sublimest tragic
compositions, King Lear and the two plays in which the tale
of Oedipus is told, were stories which already existed in
tradition, as matters of popular belief and interest, before
Shakspeare and Sophocles made them familiar to the sympathy
of all succeeding generations of mankind.
This story of the Cenci is indeed eminently fearful and monstrous:
anything like a dry exhibition of it on the stage would be
insupportable. The person who would treat such a subject must
increase the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the
events, so that the pleasure which arises from the poetry
which exists in these tempestuous sufferings and crimes may
mitigate the pain of the contemplation of the moral deformity
from which they spring. There must also be nothing attempted
to make the exhibition subservient to what is vulgarly termed
a moral purpose. The highest moral purpose aimed at in the
highest species of the drama, is the teaching the human heart,
through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself;
in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every
human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind. If
dogmas can do more, it is well: but a drama is no fit place
for the enforcement of them. Undoubtedly, no person can be
truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return
to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance,
and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions
by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement, are pernicious
mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner she would
have been wiser and better; but she would never have been
a tragic character: the few whom such an exhibition would
have interested, could never have been sufficiently interested
for a dramatic purpose, from the want of finding sympathy
in their interest among the mass who surround them. It is
in the restless and anatomizing casuistry with which men seek
the justification of Beatrice, yet feel that she has done
what needs justification; it is in the superstitious horror
with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge,
that the dramatic character of what she did and suffered,
I have endeavoured as nearly as possible to represent the
characters as they probably were, and have sought to avoid
the error of making them actuated by my own conceptions of
right or wrong, false or true: thus under a thin veil converting
names and actions of the sixteenth century into cold impersonations
of my own mind. They are represented as Catholics, and as
Catholics deeply tinged with religion. To a Protestant apprehension
there will appear something unnatural in the earnest and perpetual
sentiment of the relations between God and men which pervade
the tragedy of the Cenci. It will especially be startled at
the combination of an undoubting persuasion of the truth of
the popular religion with a cool and determined perseverance
in enormous guilt. But religion in Italy is not, as in Protestant
countries, a cloak to be worn on particular days; or a passport
which those who do not wish to be railed at carry with them
to exhibit; or a gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable
mysteries of our being, which terrifies its possessor at the
darkness of the abyss to the brink of which it has conducted
him. Religion coexists, as it were, in the mind of an Italian
Catholic, with a faith in that of which all men have the most
certain knowledge. It is interwoven with the whole fabric
of life. It is adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind
admiration; not a rule for moral conduct. It has no necessary
connection with any one virtue. The most atrocious villain
may be rigidly devout, and without any shock to established
faith, confess himself to be so. Religion pervades intensely
the whole frame of society, and is according to the temper
of the mind which it inhabits, a passion, a persuasion, an
excuse, a refuge; never a check. Cenci himself built a chapel
in the court of his Palace, and dedicated it to St. Thomas
the Apostle, and established masses for the peace of his soul.
Thus in the first scene of the fourth act Lucretia's design
in exposing herself to the consequences of an expostulation
with Cenci after having administered the opiate, was to induce
him by a feigned tale to confess himself before death; this
being esteemed by Catholics as essential to salvation; and
she only relinquishes her purpose when she perceives that
her perseverance would expose Beatrice to new outrages.
I have avoided with great care in writing this play the introduction
of what is commonly called mere poetry, and I imagine there
will scarcely be found a detached simile or a single isolated
description, unless Beatrice's description of the chasm appointed
for her father's murder should be judged to be of that nature.
(An idea in this speech was suggested by a most sublime passage
in "El Purgaterio de San Patricio" of Calderon;
the only plagiarism which I have intentionally committed in
the whole piece.)
In a dramatic composition the imagery and the passion should
interpenetrate one another, the former being reserved simply
for the full development and illustration of the latter. Imagination
is as the immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption
of mortal passion. It is thus that the most remote and the
most familiar imagery may alike be fit for dramatic purposes
when employed in the illustration of strong feeling, which
raises what is low, and levels to the apprehension that which
is lofty, casting over all the shadow of its own greatness.
In other respects, I have written more carelessly; that is,
without an over-fastidious and learned choice of words. In
this respect I entirely agree with those modern critics who
assert that in order to move men to true sympathy we must
use the familiar language of men, and that our great ancestors
the ancient English poets are the writers, a study of whom
might incite us to do that for our own age which they have
done for theirs. But it must be the real language of men in
general and not that of any particular class to whose society
the writer happens to belong. So much for what I have attempted;
I need not be assured that success is a very different matter;
particularly for one whose attention has but newly been awakened
to the study of dramatic literature.
I endeavoured whilst at Rome to observe such monuments of
this story as might be accessible to a stranger. The portrait
of Beatrice at the Colonna Palace is admirable as a work of
art: it was taken by Guido during her confinement in prison.
But it is most interesting as a just representation of one
of the loveliest specimens of the workmanship of Nature. There
is a fixed and pale composure upon the features: she seems
sad and stricken down in spirit, yet the despair thus expressed
is lightened by the patience of gentleness. Her head is bound
with folds of white drapery from which the yellow strings
of her golden hair escape, and fall about her neck. The moulding
of her face is exquisitely delicate; the eyebrows are distinct
and arched: the lips have that permanent meaning of imagination
and sensibility which suffering has not repressed and which
it seems as if death scarcely could extinguish. Her forehead
is large and clear; her eyes, which we are told were remarkable
for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless,
but beautifully tender and serene. In the whole mien there
is a simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite
loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic. Beatrice
Cenci appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom
energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one
another: her nature was simple and profound. The crimes and
miseries in which she was an actor and a sufferer are as the
mask and the mantle in which circumstances clothed her for
her impersonation on the scene of the world.
The Cenci Palace is of great extent; and though in part modernized,
there yet remains a vast and gloomy pile of feudal architecture
in the same state as during the dreadful scenes which are
the subject of this tragedy. The Palace is situated in an
obscure corner of Rome, near the quarter of the Jews, and
from the upper windows you see the immense ruins of Mount
Palatine half hidden under their profuse overgrowth of trees.
There is a court in one part of the Palace (perhaps that in
which Cenci built the Chapel to St. Thomas), supported by
granite columns and adorned with antique friezes of fine workmanship,
and built up, according to the ancient Italian fashion, with
balcony over balcony of open-work. One of the gates of the
Palace formed of immense stones and leading through a passage,
dark and lofty and opening into gloomy subterranean chambers,
struck me particularly.
Of the Castle of Petrella, I could obtain no further information
than that which is to be found in the manuscript.
THE CENCI: A TRAGEDY IN FIVE ACTS.
COUNT FRANCESCO CENCI.
GIACOMO, BERNARDO, HIS SONS.
ORSINO, A PRELATE.
SAVELLA, THE POPE'S LEGATE.
OLIMPIO, MARZIO, ASSASSINS.
ANDREA, SERVANT TO CENCI.
NOBLES. JUDGES. GUARDS, SERVANTS.
LUCRETIA, WIFE OF CENCI AND STEP-MOTHER OF HIS CHILDREN.
BEATRICE, HIS DAUGHTER.
THE SCENE LIES PRINCIPALLY IN ROME, BUT CHANGES DURING THE
FOURTH ACT TO PETRELLA, A CASTLE AMONG THE APULIAN APENNINES.
TIME. DURING THE PONTIFICATE OF CLEMENT VIII.