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 bedchamber, and the apparent lack of grief in the family. Confessions are extracted by torture.

The defense 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.


This five-act play is loosely based on a true story, which captured Shelley’s imagination during his visit to Rome. He also knew Guido Reni’s striking portrait of a beautiful young woman alleged to be Beatrice. 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 transgression of the fifth commandment.

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 (not strangled) 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 (see e.g., Prokosch's A Tale for Midnight in this database).

Unlike the judges, Shelley accepted the defense 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.

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. The charming edition described here includes an engraving based on the Guido Reni portrait and the names of actors in the cast for that performance in the Grand Theatre, Islington, 7 May 1886.


Appendix, pp. 93-107.


Reeves & Turner

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