Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play The Cenci was written between May and August 1819. Mary Shelley states in her edition of Shelley’s works (1839) that Shelley received a manuscript of the story of the Cenci family. She writes that he visited the sites associated with the family and was entranced by images of the daughter Beatrice, who is the main character in the story.

Shelley is keen to point out that the story is a true one, ‘a sad reality’, he writes in his dedication to Leigh Hunt; the poet’s role is to ‘increase the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the events’. This is done deliberately so that ‘the pleasure which arises from the poetry’ in the painful aspects of the story can balance the moral problems the story gives rise to. 

What happens in the play?

Count Francesco Cenci has continuously abused his family and committed other outrages including rape, incest and murder, and got away with it on payment of regular large amounts to the Pope. His family and servants decide to kill him, and Beatrice eventually orders the act. With others, she is condemned to death by the Vatican and executed, at first protesting her innocence but eventually accepting her fate. Shelley points out a possible motive for the severity and imbalance of the punishment, saying that Beatrice had deprived the Vatican of a regular income; a footnote states that the Papal Government had tried to suppress the story.

Was it performed?

In a letter to Peacock dated July 1819 Shelley wrote of the work:

I have taken some pains to make my play fit for representation […] I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed … What I want you to do, is to procure for me its presentation at Covent Garden.

Shelley even names the desired actress, Elizabeth O’Neill, and to his publisher wrote that it was ‘calculated to produce a very popular effect’. Sadly the manager of Covent Garden disagreed, though he did ask for a play on another subject. Miss O’Neill married and retired from the stage in December that year. The play was first performed, in private, in 1886.