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The Cenci:
A Tragedy in Five Acts.

By Percy Bysshe Shelley

Dramatis Personæ

      GIACOMO, BERNARDO, his Sons.
      ORSINO, a Prelate.
      SAVELLA, the Pope's Legate.
      OLIMPIO, MARZIO, Assassins.
      ANDREA, Servant to CENCI.
      LUCRETIA, Wife of CENCI and Stepmother of his children.
      BEATRICE, his Daughter.
      The SCENE lies principally in Rome, but changes during the fourth 
                Act to Petrella, a castle among the Apulian Apennines.
      TIME. During the Pontificate of Clement VIII.

Act I

SCENE I. -- An Apartment in the CENCI Palace. Enter COUNT CENCI and CARDINAL CAMILLO.
      THAT matter of the murder is hushed up
      If you consent to yield his Holiness
      Your fief that lies beyond the Pincian gate.
      It needed all my interest in the conclave
      To bend him to this point; he said that you
      Bought perilous impunity with your gold;
      That crimes like yours if once or twice compounded
      Enriched the Church, and respited from hell
      An erring soul which might repent and live;
      But that the glory and the interest                             10
      Of the high throne he fills little consist
      With making it a daily mart of guilt
      As manifold and hideous as the deeds
      Which you scarce hide from men's revolted eyes.

      The third of my possessions--let it go!
      Ay, I once heard the nephew of the Pope
      Had sent his architect to view the ground,
      Meaning to build a villa on my vines
      The next time I compounded with his uncle.
      I little thought he should outwit me so!                        20
      Henceforth no witness--not the lamp--shall see
      That which the vassal threatened to divulge,
      Whose throat is choked with dust for his reward.
      The deed he saw could not have rated higher
      Than his most worthless life--it angers me!
      Respited me from Hell! So may the Devil
      Respite their souls from Heaven! No doubt Pope Clement,
      And his most charitable nephews, pray
      That the Apostle Peter and the saints
      Will grant for their sake that I long enjoy                     30
      Strength, wealth, and pride, and lust, and length of days
      Wherein to act the deeds which are the stewards
      Of their revenue.--But much yet remains
      To which they show no title.

                                    Oh, Count Cenci!
      So much that thou migh'st honorably live
      And reconcile thyself with thine own heart
      And with thy God and with the offended world.
      How hideously look deeds of lust and blood
      Through those snow-white and venerable hairs!
      Your children should be sitting round you now                   40
      But that you fear to read upon their looks
      The shame and misery you have written there.
      Where is your wife? Where is your gentle daughter?
      Methinks her sweet looks, which make all things else
      Beauteous and glad, might kill the fiend within you.
      Why is she barred from all society
      But her own strange and uncomplaining wrongs?
      Talk with me, Count,--you know I mean you well.
      I stood beside your dark and fiery youth,
      Watching its bold and bad career, as men                        50
      Watch meteors, but it vanished not; I marked
      Your desperate and remorseless manhood; now
      Do I behold you in dishonored age
      Charged with a thousand unrepented crimes.
      Yet I have ever hoped you would amend,
      And in that hope have saved your life three times.

      For which Aldobrandino owes you now
      My fief beyond the Pincian. Cardinal,
      One thing, I pray you, recollect henceforth,
      And so we shall converse with less restraint.                   60
      A man you knew spoke of my wife and daughter;
      He was accustomed to frequent my house;
      So the next day his wife and daughter came
      And asked if I had seen him; and I smiled.
      I think they never saw him any more.

      Thou execrable man, beware!

                                   Of thee?
      Nay, this is idle. We should know each other.
      As to my character for what men call crime,
      Seeing I please my senses as I list,
      And vindicate that right with force or guile,                   70
      It is a public matter, and I care not
      If I discuss it with you. I may speak
      Alike to you and my own conscious heart,
      For you give out that you have half reformed me;
      Therefore strong vanity will keep you silent,
      If fear should not; both will, I do not doubt.
      All men delight in sensual luxury;
      All men enjoy revenge, and most exult
      Over the tortures they can never feel,
      Flattering their secret peace with others' pain.                80
      But I delight in nothing else. I love
      The sight of agony, and the sense of joy,
      When this shall be another's and that mine;
      And I have no remorse and little fear,
      Which are, I think, the checks of other men.
      This mood has grown upon me, until now
      Any design my captious fancy makes
      The picture of its wish--and it forms none
      But such as men like you would start to know--
      Is as my natural food and rest debarred                         90
      Until it be accomplished.

                                 Art thou not
      Most miserable?

                       Why miserable?
      No. I am what your theologians call
      Hardened; which they must be in impudence,
      So to revile a man's peculiar taste.
      True, I was happier than I am, while yet
      Manhood remained to act the thing I thought,--
      While lust was sweeter than revenge; and now
      Invention palls. Ay, we must all grow old.
      And but that there remains a deed to act                       100
      Whose horror might make sharp an appetite
      Duller than mine--I 'd do,--I know not what.
      When I was young I thought of nothing else
      But pleasure; and I fed on honey sweets.
      Men, by St. Thomas! cannot live like bees,--
      And I grew tired; yet, till I killed a foe,
      And heard his groans, and heard his children's groans,
      Knew I not what delight was else on earth,--
      Which now delights me little. I the rather
      Look on such pangs as terror ill conceals--                    110
      The dry, fixed eyeball, the pale, quivering lip,
      Which tell me that the spirit weeps within
      Tears bitterer than the bloody sweat of Christ.
      I rarely kill the body, which preserves,
      Like a strong prison, the soul within my power,
      Wherein I feed it with the breath of fear
      For hourly pain.

                        Hell's most abandoned fiend
      Did never, in the drunkenness of guilt,
      Speak to his heart as now you speak to me.
      I thank my God that I believe you not.                         120


      My Lord, a gentleman from Salamanca
      Would speak with you.

                             Bid him attend me
      In the grand saloon.

                                                         [Exit ANDREA.

      Farewell; and I will pray
      Almighty God that thy false, impious words
      Tempt not his spirit to abandon thee.

                                                        [Exit CAMILLO.

      The third of my possessions! I must use
      Close husbandry, or gold, the old man's sword,
      Falls from my withered hand. But yesterday
      There came an order from the Pope to make
      Fourfold provision for my cursèd sons,                  130
      Whom I had sent from Rome to Salamanca,
      Hoping some accident might cut them off,
      And meaning, if I could, to starve them there.
      I pray thee, God, send some quick death upon them!
      Bernardo and my wife could not be worse
      If dead and damned. Then, as to Beatrice--
      [Looking around him suspiciously.
      I think they cannot hear me at that door.
      What if they should? And yet I need not speak,
      Though the heart triumphs with itself in words.
      O thou most silent air, that shalt not hear                    140
      What now I think! Thou pavement which I tread
      Towards her chamber,--let your echoes talk
      Of my imperious step, scorning surprise,
      But not of my intent!--Andrea!


                                      My Lord?

      Bid Beatrice attend me in her chamber
      This evening:--no, at midnight and alone.
SCENE II. -- A Garden of the Cenci Palace. Enter BEATRICE and ORSINO, as in conversation.
                        Pervert not truth,
      Orsino. You remember where we held
      That conversation; nay, we see the spot
      Even from this cypress; two long years are passed
      Since, on an April midnight, underneath
      The moonlight ruins of Mount Palatine,
      I did confess to you my secret mind.

      You said you loved me then.

                                   You are a priest.
      Speak to me not of love.

                                I may obtain
      The dispensation of the Pope to marry.                          10
      Because I am a priest do you believe
      Your image, as the hunter some struck deer,
      Follows me not whether I wake or sleep?

      As I have said, speak to me not of love;
      Had you a dispensation, I have not;
      Nor will I leave this home of misery
      Whilst my poor Bernard, and that gentle lady
      To whom I owe life and these virtuous thoughts,
      Must suffer what I still have strength to share.
      Alas, Orsino! All the love that once                            20
      I felt for you is turned to bitter pain.
      Ours was a youthful contract, which you first
      Broke by assuming vows no Pope will loose.
      And thus I love you still, but holily,
      Even as a sister or a spirit might;
      And so I swear a cold fidelity.
      And it is well perhaps we shall not marry.
      You have a sly, equivocating vein
      That suits me not.--Ah, wretched that I am!
      Where shall I turn? Even now you look on me                     30
      As you were not my friend, and as if you
      Discovered that I thought so, with false smiles
      Making my true suspicion seem your wrong.
      Ah, no, forgive me; sorrow makes me seem
      Sterner than else my nature might have been;
      I have a weight of melancholy thoughts,
      And they forebode,--but what can they forebode
      Worse than I now endure?

                                All will be well.
      Is the petition yet prepared? You know
      My zeal for all you wish, sweet Beatrice;                       40
      Doubt not but I will use my utmost skill
      So that the Pope attend to your complaint.

      Your zeal for all I wish. Ah me, you are cold!
      Your utmost skill--speak but one word--
                                    (Aside) Alas!
      Weak and deserted creature that I am,
      Here I stand bickering with my only friend!

      This night my father gives a sumptuous feast,
      Orsino; he has heard some happy news
      From Salamanca, from my brothers there,
      And with this outward show of love he mocks                     50
      His inward hate. 'T is bold hypocrisy,
      For he would gladlier celebrate their deaths,
      Which I have heard him pray for on his knees.
      Great God! that such a father should be mine!
      But there is mighty preparation made,
      And all our kin, the Cenci, will be there,
      And all the chief nobility of Rome.
      And he has bidden me and my pale mother
      Attire ourselves in festival array.
      Poor lady! she expects some happy change                        60
      In his dark spirit from this act; I none.
      At supper I will give you the petition;
      Till when--farewell.

                                                       [Exit BEATRICE.
                                       I know the Pope
      Will ne'er absolve me from my priestly vow
      But by absolving me from the revenue
      Of many a wealthy see; and, Beatrice,
      I think to win thee at an easier rate.
      Nor shall he read her eloquent petition.
      He might bestow her on some poor relation
      Of his sixth cousin, as he did her sister,                      70
      And I should be debarred from all access.
      Then as to what she suffers from her father,
      In all this there is much exaggeration.
      Old men are testy, and will have their way.
      A man may stab his enemy, or his vassal,
      And live a free life as to wine or women,
      And with a peevish temper may return
      To a dull home, and rate his wife and children;
      Daughters and wives call this foul tyranny.
      I shall be well content if on my conscience                     80
      There rest no heavier sin than what they suffer
      From the devices of my love--a net
      From which he shall escape not. Yet I fear
      Her subtle mind, her awe-inspiring gaze,
      Whose beams anatomize me, nerve by nerve,
      And lay me bare, and make me blush to see
      My hidden thoughts.--Ah, no! a friendless girl
      Who clings to me, as to her only hope!
      I were a fool, not less than if a panther
      Were panic-stricken by the antelope's eye,                      90
      If she escape me.
SCENE III. -- A magnificent Hall in the Cenci Palace. A Banquet. Enter CENCI, LUCRETIA, BEATRICE, ORSINO, CAMILLO, NOBLES.
      Welcome, my friends and Kinsmen; welcome ye,
      Princes and Cardinals, pillars of the church,
      Whose presence honors our festivity.
      I have too long lived like an anchorite,
      And in my absence from your merry meetings
      An evil word is gone abroad of me;
      But I do hope that you, my noble friends,
      When you have shared the entertainment here,
      And heard the pious cause for which 't is given,
      And we have pledged a health or two together,                   10
      Will think me flesh and blood as well as you;
      Sinful indeed, for Adam made all so,
      But tender-hearted, meek and pitiful.

      In truth, my Lord, you seem too light of heart,
      Too sprightly and companionable a man,
      To act the deeds that rumor pins on you.
                                                    [To his companion.
      I never saw such blithe and open cheer
      In any eye!

                   Some most desired event,
      In which we all demand a common joy,
      Has brought us hither; let us hear it, Count.                   20

      It is indeed a most desired event.
      If when a parent from a parent's heart
      Lifts from this earth to the great Father of all
      A prayer, both when he lays him down to sleep,
      And when he rises up from dreaming it;
      One supplication, one desire, one hope,
      That he would grant a wish for his two sons,
      Even all that he demands in their regard,
      And suddenly beyond his dearest hope
      It is accomplished, he should then rejoice,                     30
      And call his friends and Kinsmen to a feast,
      And task their love to grace his merriment,--
      Then honor me thus far, for I am he.

      Great God! How horrible! some dreadful ill
      Must have befallen my brothers.

                                       Fear not, child,
      He speaks too frankly.

                              Ah! My blood runs cold.
      I fear that wicked laughter round his eye,
      Which wrinkles up the skin even to the hair.

      Here are the letters brought from Salamanca.
      Beatrice, read them to your mother. God!                        40
      I thank thee! In one night didst thou perform,
      By ways inscrutable, the thing I sought.
      My disobedient and rebellious sons
      Are dead!--Why, dead!--What means this change of cheer?
      You hear me not--I tell you they are dead;
      And they will need no food or raiment more;
      The tapers that did light them the dark way
      Are their last cost. The Pope, I think, will not
      Expect I should maintain them in their coffins.
      Rejoice with me--my heart is wondrous glad.                     50

BEATRICE (LUCRETIA sinks, half fainting; BEATRICE supports her)
      It is not true!--Dear Lady, pray look up.
      Had it been true--there is a God in Heaven--
      He would not live to boast of such a boon.
      Unnatural man, thou knowest that it is false.

      Ay, as the word of God; whom here I call
      To witness that I speak the sober truth;
      And whose most favoring providence was shown
      Even in the manner of their deaths. For Rocco
      Was kneeling at the mass, with sixteen others,
      When the church fell and crushed him to a mummy;                60
      The rest escaped unhurt. Cristofano
      Was stabbed in error by a jealous man,
      Whilst she he loved was sleeping with his rival,
      All in the self-same hour of the same night;
      Which shows that Heaven has special care of me.
      I beg those friends who love me that they mark
      The day a feast upon their calendars.
      It was the twenty-seventh of December.
      Ay, read the letters if you doubt my oath.

[The assembly appears confused; several of the guests rise.

      Oh, horrible! I will depart.

                                    And I.

                                            No, stay!                 70
      I do believe it is some jest; though, faith!
      'T is mocking us somewhat too solemnly.
      I think his son has married the Infanta,
      Or found a mine of gold in El Dorado.
      'T is but to season some such news; stay, stay!
      I see 't is only raillery by his smile.

CENCI (filling a bowl of wine, and lifting it up)
      O thou bright wine, whose purple splendor leaps
      And bubbles gaily in this golden bowl
      Under the lamp-light, as my spirits do,
      To hear the death of my accursèd sons!                          80
      Could I believe thou wert their mingled blood,
      Then would I taste thee like a sacrament,
      And pledge with thee the mighty Devil in Hell,
      Who, if a father's curses, as men say,
      Climb with swift wings after their children's souls,
      And drag them from the very throne of Heaven,
      Now triumphs in my triumph!--But thou art
      Superfluous; I have drunken deep of joy,
      And I will taste no other wine to-night.
      Here, Andrea! Bear the bowl around.                             90

A GUEST (rising)
                                           Thou wretch!
      Will none among this noble company
      Check the abandoned villain?

                                    For God's sake,
      Let me dismiss the guests! You are insane.
      Some ill will come of this.

                                   Seize, silence him!

      I will!

               And I!

CENCI (addressing those who rise with a threatening gesture)
                       Who moves? Who speaks?
                                              [Turning to the company.
                                               'T is nothing,
      Enjoy yourselves.--Beware! for my revenge
      Is as the sealed commission of a king,
      That kills, and none dare name the murderer.
       [The Banquet is broken up; several of the Guests are departing.

      I do entreat you, go not, noble guests;
      What although tyranny and impious hate                         100
      Stand sheltered by a father's hoary hair?
      What if 't is he who clothed us in these limbs
      Who tortures them, and triumphs? What, if we,
      The desolate and the dead, were his own flesh,
      His children and his wife, whom he is bound
      To love and shelter? Shall we therefore find
      No refuge in this merciless wide world?
      Oh, think what deep wrongs must have blotted out
      First love, then reverence, in a child's prone mind,
      Till it thus vanquish shame and fear! Oh, think!               110
      I have borne much, and kissed the sacred hand
      Which crushed us to the earth, and thought its stroke
      Was perhaps some paternal chastisement!
      Have excused much, doubted; and when no doubt
      Remained, have sought by patience, love and tears
      To soften him; and when this could not be,
      I have knelt down through the long sleepless nights,
      And lifted up to God, the father of all,
      Passionate prayers; and when these were not heard,
      I have still borne,--until I meet you here,                    120
      Princes and Kinsmen, at this hideous feast
      Given at my brothers' deaths. Two yet remain;
      His wife remains and I, whom if ye save not,
      Ye may soon share such merriment again
      As fathers make over their children's graves.
      Oh! Prince Colonna, thou art our near kinsman;
      Cardinal, thou art the Pope's chamberlain;
      Camillo, thou art chief justiciary;
      Take us away!

CENCI (he has been conversing with CAMILLO during the first
      part of BEATRICE'S speech; he hears the conclusion, 
      and now advances)
                     I hope my good friends here
      Will think of their own daughters--or perhaps                  130
      Of their own throats--before they lend an ear
      To this wild girl.

BEATRICE (not noticing the words of CENCI)
                          Dare no one look on me?
      None answer? Can one tyrant overbear
      The sense of many best and wisest men?
      Or is it that I sue not in some form
      Of scrupulous law that ye deny my suit?
      Oh, God! that I were buried with my brothers!
      And that the flowers of this departed spring
      Were fading on my grave! and that my father
      Were celebrating now one feast for all!                        140

      A bitter wish for one so young and gentle.
      Can we do nothing?--

                            Nothing that I see
      Count Cenci were a dangerous enemy;
      Yet I would second any one.

                                   And I.

      Retire to your chamber, insolent girl!

      Retire thou, impious man! Ay, hide thyself
      Where never eye can look upon thee more!
      Wouldst thou have honor and obedience,
      Who art a torturer? Father, never dream,
      Though thou mayst overbear this company,                       150
      But ill must come of ill. Frown not on me!
      Haste, hide thyself, lest with avenging looks
      My brothers' ghosts should hunt thee from thy seat!
      Cover thy face from every living eye,
      And start if thou but hear a human step;
      Seek out some dark and silent corner--there
      Bow thy white head before offended God,
      And we will kneel around, and fervently
      Pray that he pity both ourselves and thee.

      My friends, I do lament this insane girl                       160
      Has spoiled the mirth of our festivity.
      Good night, farewell; I will not make you longer
      Spectators of our dull domestic quarrels.
      Another time.--
                            [Exeunt all but CENCI and BEATRICE.
                       My brain is swimming round.
      Give me a bowl of wine!

                               Thou painted viper!
      Beast that thou art! Fair and yet terrible!
      I know a charm shall make thee meek and tame,
      Now get thee from my sight!
                                                       [Exit BEATRICE.
                                   Here, Andrea,
      Fill up this goblet with Greek wine. I said
      I would not drink this evening, but I must;                    170
      For, strange to say, I feel my spirits fail
      With thinking what I have decreed to do.
                                                   (Drinking the wine)
      Be thou the resolution of quick youth
      Within my veins, and manhood's purpose stern,
      And age's firm, cold, subtle villainy;
      As if thou wert indeed my children's blood
      Which I did thirst to drink! The charm works well.
      It must be done; it shall be done, I swear!