Short summary - The Cenci. A Tragedy, in Five Acts - Percy Bysshe Shelley

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Short summary - The Cenci. A Tragedy, in Five Acts
Percy Bysshe Shelley

The action takes place in Italy in the 16th century, when Pope Clement VIII sits on the papal throne.

Count Chenci, a wealthy Roman nobleman, the head of a large family, became famous for his dissoluteness and heinous atrocities, which he does not even consider it necessary to hide. He is confident in his impunity, because even the pope, condemning his sins, is ready to forgive their count for generous offerings. In response to the exhortations and reproaches of those around, Chenchi declares without a trace of embarrassment: «I am sweet in the sight of agony and feeling / That someone will die there, but I live. / There is neither remorse nor fear in me / Which torment others so much. »

Even his own wife and children, Count Chenchi feels nothing but anger, contempt, and hatred. Not embarrassed by the presence of the papal cardinal Camillo, he sends curses to his sons, whom he himself sent from Rome. A little later, he arranges a magnificent feast, at which, completely happy, he praises God for the reward of his sons. The nearby daughter of Chenchi, the beautiful Beatrice, begins to suspect that a misfortune happened to the brothers - otherwise why would the father rejoice like that. Indeed, Chenchi announces to her and her stepmother Lucretia that his two sons are dead: one was crushed by a collapsed church vault, the other was mistakenly killed by a jealous husband. Beatrice knows that the elder brother of Giacomo is ruined by his father and drags a miserable existence with his family. The girl feels that she can become the next victim, her father has long cast lascivious glances at her. In desperation, Beatrice turns to distinguished guests, seeking their protection and protection. But the guests, knowing the hot-tempered and vengeful character of the owner, embarrassedly disperse.


Beatrice, from her youth in love with Orsino, who became a priest, still hoped that Orsino's petition to the pope would be accepted, the pope would remove the dignity from his beloved, they could get married, and then she would be able to slip away from the power of the murderer-father; however, the news comes that Orsino’s petition has returned unopened, the pope did not want to delve into this request. Cardinal Camillo, who is close to papa, makes it clear that papa, confident that the children offend the old father, supports the count’s side, although he declares that he intends to maintain neutrality. Beatrice feels that she cannot get out of her father's spider web.

In Act III, Beatrice appears in her lazy stepmother Lucretia in complete despair, she seems to have a widespread wound in her head: her mind cannot comprehend the enormity of what happened. The violence happened, Beatrice dishonored by his own father. The girl rejects the idea of suicide, because in the eyes of the church it is a great sin, but where should she seek protection? The crafty Orsino advises to sue, but Beatrice does not believe in the justice of the court, since even the pope does not consider it necessary to intervene in her father’s evil deeds, and heaven even seems to help Chenci.


Not hoping to find understanding and support anywhere, Beatrice, along with the previously meek and God-fearing stepmother Lucretia, begins to make plans to kill the tyrant. Orsino proposes to use two strollers as performers, who «do not care what a worm is, what a person is». According to Beatrice’s plan, the killers should attack Chenci on the bridge over the abyss on the way to the castle, where the count intends to send his daughter and wife to mock them without interference. The conspirators are joined crushed by the cruelty and treachery of Father Giacomo.

All of them are waiting with hope for news of Chenchi’s death, but it turns out that the tyrant was lucky again: he drove the bridge an hour earlier than the appointed time.

In a mountain castle, in front of his wife, Chenchi gives vent to his low feelings and thoughts. He is not afraid to die without repentance, he is not afraid of God's judgment, believing that his black soul is «the scourge of God». He longs to enjoy the humiliation of the proud Beatrice, dreams of depriving his heirs of everything except the dishonored name.

Hearing that the daughter shows rebellion and is not on the orders of her father, Chenchi unleashes numerous monstrous curses on her. His soul knows neither love nor remorse.

Clearly aware that there is simply no other way to avoid new torments and humiliations for her and her relatives, Beatrice finally decides on patricide. Together with her brother and stepmother, she is waiting for the assassins, hoping that Chenchi is already dead, but they come and admit that they did not dare to kill the sleeping old man. In desperation, Beatrice grabs a dagger from them, ready to herself execute the tyrant's execution. Ashamed, the killers retire and after a short time they announce that Chenchi is dead.

But Beatrice, her younger brother Bernardo, Lucretia and Orsino do not have time to relieve this news, as the legate of Savella appears and demands Count Chenchi - he has to answer a number of serious accusations. The legate is informed that the count is asleep, but Savella’s mission is urgent, he insists, they will lead him to the bedroom, it is empty, but soon under the window of the tree, Chenchi’s dead body is found in the branches of a tree.

Enraged, Savella demands that everyone go with him to Rome to investigate the count’s murder. The conspirators are panicked; Beatrice alone does not lose her courage. She angrily accuses the servants of the law and the papal throne of inaction and indulgence in the crimes of her father, and when retribution has taken place, those who had previously requested but did not receive protection from the oppression of the tyrant are now readily condemned as criminals.


However, their trial is inevitable; they are all sent to Rome. The captured assassin under torture confesses to the deed and confirms the charges torn up on his hind legs. Beatrice then turns to the court with an impassioned speech about the dubious value of the confessions obtained in this way. Her speech is so shocking to the killer that, ashamed of his own cowardice at the sight of the courage of this beautiful girl, he renounces his testimony and dies on the rack. However, Beatrice’s brother and stepmother lacked the courage, and under torture they also confessed to conspiring to kill Chenchi. Beatrice reproaches them for their weakness, but he does not reproach the main reproaches. She condemns "justice, miserable earthly, heavenly ruthlessness" for condoning villainy. At the sight of such a firmness of spirit, her relatives repent of their own weakness, and Beatrice has the strength to console them.

The pope, whom the youngest son of Chenchi, not involved in the murder of his father, asked to have mercy on his relatives, remains deaf to his prayers. The papal cruelty struck even Cardinal Camillo, who knew him well. The papal verdict is unchanged: conspirators must be executed.

The news of the imminent death first confuses Beatrice’s soul: she, so young and beautiful, is sorry to part with her life; besides, she was frightened by the thought: what if, behind the tombstone, «there is no heaven, no God, no earth - only darkness, and emptiness, and the abyss ...» Suddenly, and there she is waiting for a meeting with a hated father. But then she takes control of herself and unexpectedly calmly says goodbye to her family. She corrects the hair of Lucretia, asks her to tie her hair with a simple knot. She is ready to face death with dignity.