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The Incest Motif in Shelley's The Cenci Barbara Groseclose Mary Shelley admired her husband's 1 8 19 play, The Cenci, because it was, she felt, the most direct of his works.1 The author himself, apparently both pleased and abashed that the writing of the drama consumed scarcely two months, implied a similar simplicity when he told E. J. Trelawny that in The Cenci he had expended considerably less effort on poetic language and "meta­ physics" than was his wont.2 One scarcely wishes to contradict the two persons most intimately connected with the work, but a survey of the critical literature suggests that the drama is among the poet's densest, richest, and most ambiguous creations.3 Ex­ plored from every viewpoint-i.e., from its theatricality to its philosophy-The Cenci has yielded itself to interpretation in a most rewarding manner, though its paradoxes stubbornly remain. One feature, Shelley's decision to include incest among Count Cenci's crimes, has been regarded as a self-explanatory action; since Cenci's violation of his daughter provides the controlling symbol of the play, it establishes the rationale for its inclusion (and its rejection) . But incest was not, in fact, an aspect of the original story. I should like to offer some analyses which will attempt to delineate the reasons which might have led Shelley to draw upon the incest motif and to sketch out some of the consequences for later treatments of the Cenci's history. I At the turn of the eighteenth century, there were few ltalophiles who did not fall under the spell of Beatrice Cenci, for emotions were easily stirred by the pathos of her sorrowful life and her equally soulful "portrait" by Guido Reni. Today BARBARA GROSECLOSE is completing a bOok on British sculpture in India. Associate Professor of Art History at Ohio State, Professor Groseclose is the author of Emanuel Leutze: Freedom is the Only King (Smithsonian Press, 1976) and num­ erous articles on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art. 222 Barbara Groseclose 223 accepted neither as a portrait of Beatrice nor as the hand of Reni, the painting in Shelley's day rivalled Raphael's Trans­ figuration as the most famous picture in Rome.4 The image satisfied the early Romantic propensity for mournfulness, an attribute believed to endow mere physical beauty with spiritual distinction. Certainly Shelley succumbed to the painting's charms in just these terms: There is a fixed and pale composure upon her features. . . . 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 dis­ tinct and arched; the lips have that permanent meaning of imagi­ nation and sensibility which suffering has not repressed. . . . Her forehead is large and clear; her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustre­ less, but beautifully tender and serene. . . .5 Beatrice won the hearts of viewers, however, neither because of the canvas' superbly delineated features nor because of the ascription to Guido Reni (to which was added the piquant notion that he had taken the likeness the night before her execu­ tion ) .6 She was also the protagonist of a tale abundant with Gothic horrors. Shrewd Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked, "I wish . . . it were possible to see the picture without knowing anything of its subject or history; for no doubt, we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of it."7 Indeed legend, which had encrusted history and tied the painting to its fancies, had rendered the painting less portrait than icon. It is impossible now to ascertain the details of the case beyond the fact that a young Roman named Beatrice Cenci was be­ headed by the Church in 1599 for parricide; the defenders and detractors of Beatrice have between them impugned whatever evidence existed.8 Shelley and Hawthorne knew the story through the heavily embellished manuscript accounts in wide circulation at the time. Shelley was, I think, being ingenious when he declared that his manuscript source, "The Relation of the Death of the Family of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 222-239
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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