The Cenci

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1819 title page, Livorno first edition, C. and J. Ollier, London.

The Cenci, A Tragedy, in Five Acts (1819) 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 Cenci (in particular, Beatrice Cenci, pronounced CHEN-chee). Shelley composed the play at Rome and at Villa Valsovano near Livorno, from May to 5 August 1819. The work was published by Charles and James Ollier, in London in 1819 (see 1819), the Livorno edition, printed in Livorno, Italy by Shelley himself in a run of 250 copies. Shelley told Thomas Love Peacock that he arranged for the printing himself because in Italy "it costs, with all duties and freightage, about half of what it would cost in London." Shelley sought to have the play staged, describing it as "totally different from anything you might conjecture that I should write; of a more popular kind ... written for the multitude." Shelley wrote to his publisher Charles Ollier that he was confident that the play "will succeed as a publication." A second edition appeared in 1821, his only published work to go into a second edition during his lifetime.

The play was not considered performable in its day due to its themes of incest and parricide, and was not performed in public in England until 1922 when it was staged in London. 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.[1] 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.[2][3] It was included in the Harvard Classics as one of the most important and representative works of the western canon.


The horrific tragedy, set in 1599 in Rome, of a young woman executed for pre-meditated 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.

Act I

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.

Act II

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 parricide 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.

Act IV

The scene shifts to the Petrella Castle in the Apulian Apennines. Olimpio and Marzio enter Cenci's bedchamber 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.

Act V

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."

Major characters[edit]

1935 Production at the Newcastle People's Theatre[edit]

In February 1935, Shelley's play The Cenci was staged by the People's Theatre, Rye Hill, Newcastle on the Tyne, in the UK, directed by Cecil McGivern. The role of Cenci was played by McGivern, while William Wilson played Orsino, Louise Smith played Beatrice, Winifred Eddy was Lucretia, and R. J. Perring was Savella. In 2001, the play was again staged by the People's Theatre in a version directed by Christopher Goulding.

Antonin Artaud adaptation[edit]

Antonin Artaud staged his adaptation of The Cenci in 1935, but his extensive use of surrealism in the performance meant that the production was shown only 17 times before closing. Artaud used highly graphic and disturbing images that were meant to release the audience from their current state of mind, especially during the murder scene where the main character Count Cenci (the role that was played by Artaud) is murdered by his two servants. These images were supposed to release what Artaud called the "savage under the skin", an aim that was commonly used by Artaud in many of his productions.[citation needed]

Opera adaptations[edit]

The German composer Berthold Goldschmidt composed an opera in three acts based on the Shelley play in 1949 entitled Beatrice Cenci with a libretto by Martin Esslin "after Shelley's verse drama The Cenci". The opera won first prize in the Festival of Britain opera competition in 1951. The opera was first performed in 1988. The first staged production of Beatrice Cenci in the UK was by the Trinity College of Music on 9–11 July 1998.

In 1951, British classical composer Havergal Brian composed an opera based on the Shelley play entitled The Cenci, an opera in eight scenes. The opera premiered in 1997 in the UK in a performance in London by the Millennium Sinfonia conducted by James Kelleher..

In 1971, Beatrix Cenci was premiered, an opera in two acts by Alberto Ginastera to a Spanish libretto by the composer and William Shand, based on the Shelley play.

Critical reception[edit]

A reviewer writing for the Literary Gazette in 1820 wrote that the play was "noxious", "odious", and "abominable". Alfred and H. Buxton Forman, on the other hand, praised The Cenci as a "tragic masterpiece", elevating Shelley into the company of Sophocles, Euripides, and Shakespeare. Leigh Hunt, to whom the play was dedicated, effused over Shelley's "great sweetness of nature, and enthusiasm for good." Mary Shelley, in her note on the play, wrote that "[u]niversal approbation soon stamped The Cenci as the best tragedy of modern times." She critically assessed Act V: "The Fifth Act is a masterpiece. It is the finest thing he ever wrote, and may claim proud comparison not only with any contemporary, but preceding, poet." She noted that "Shelley wished The Cenci to be acted", intending the work, which she wrote was of "surpassing excellence", to be an acting play, not a "closet drama". Shelley sought unsuccessfully to have the play staged at Covent Garden. Byron wrote his criticisms of the play in a letter to Shelley: "I read Cenci – - but, besides that I think the subject essentially un-dramatic, I am not a great admirer of our old dramatists as models. I deny that the English have hitherto had a drama at all. Your Cenci, however, was a work of power and poetry." Byron told Thomas Medwin in conversation: "The Cenci is ... perhaps the best tragedy modern times have produced." William Wordsworth reportedly called the play "the greatest tragedy of the age."[4] After seeing a performance of the play in 1886, George Bernard Shaw commented that "Shelley and Shakespeare are the only dramatists who have dealt in despair of this quality."[5] The taboo subjects of incest, patricide, and parricide, as well as the negative depiction of the Roman Catholic Church, however, prevented The Cenci from being staged publicly. The first public performance in England was in 1922.

Productions of Shelley's The Cenci[edit]

Other Works Titled The Cenci[edit]

Other works titled "The Cenci" include an 1837 novella by Stendhal, Marie-Henri Beyle, Les Cenci, and an 1840 true crime essay by Alexandre Dumas, père, included in Volume 1 of Celebrated Crimes.


  1. ^ Oscar Wilde's review of the performance in Dramatic Review (15 May 1886) in "Reviews"
  2. ^ Cameron, Kenneth N., and Horst Frenz. (December 1945). "The Stage History of Shelley's The Cenci." PMLA, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 1080–1105.
  3. ^ Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography: Exile of Unfulfilled Renown, 1816–1822. Rosemont, 2005.
  4. ^ Bieri, James. 2005 p. 137.
  5. ^ Bieri, James. 2005 p. 137.


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