The Incest Motif in Shelley's The Cenci


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Mary Shelley admired her husband's 1819 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 "metaphysics" 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 Explored 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.

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