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“Shelley Himself in Petticoats”: Joanna Baillie’s Orra and Non-violent Masculinity as Remorse in The Cenci

  • Stephen Hancock

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  • Stephen Hancock

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As Stuart Curran points out, The Cenci holds a decisive place in the corpus of Percy Shelley’s Works. Afterward, he claims, “He did not sustain the fertile productivity of the annus mirabilis in which he plumbed the deepest resources of his imagination” (13-14). Indeed, though I cannot agree that Shelley had done his best work by the time he wrote The Cenci, there is certainly a shift in the tenor of his work after its publication. Instead of optimistic hope that the poetic mind might solve the world’s problems, as we find in “Mont Blanc,” we see the envious search for an effective voice in “To a Skylark.” Curran points to the poor reception of his work as the cause, and it is hard to ignore the fact that The Cenci did not enjoy the popularity Shelley would have liked. Still, it was his most successful work to date, and the playwright must have had a deep investment in the work for its reception to affect him so deeply that it inspired the remorseful uncertainty we find in so much of his later work.

When Julie Carlson examines the gender politics of the second generation of romantics as playwrights in the last chapter of her In the Theater of Romanticism, she sets out to do so in light of “two conditions that shape the theatre of romanticism: remorse and women” (176). The first of these factors relates to the ways in which the second-generation romantic poets react to the remorse they find in the works of the first generation romantics (especially Coleridge) as they (he) respond later in their careers to their early revolutionary ideals in light of the failure of the revolution in France. This factor makes up what she calls “the psychic state of theater generally and the play [Remorse] to which these two second generation plays [The Cenci and Marino Faliero] respond” (176). With regard to the second factor, she tells us, “Women activate the ambivalence toward theatre manifested by canonical poets of whatever political persuasion” (176). That is to say that although the first generation of romantic poets saw theater as an appropriate venue to work out their remorse for youthful radicalism and second generation poets saw it as the vehicle for their response to those concerns, their choice of a medium is troubled by the idea of seeing women on stage. In working together, these two factors first give us men who have divided inner lives, men whose ambivalence makes them hesitant. Second, they give us women who are denied this inner life, and thus the status of poets, and who become the true actors in the plays. As women act in the place of men, she claims, they are able to absorb the guilt of radical action, leaving men safe in passivity. Summing up her own argument, she states that romantic drama’s focus on internal conflict, “plays a misogynist hand in its attempts to exclude female character from complexity and sympathy” (“Remaking Love” 287).

Carlson’s analysis, however, assumes that Coleridge is the most immediate predecessor to whom the second-generation romantics respond in their playwriting. Interestingly, though, her examination of the “closest contextual analogues” (Theatre 188) for Byron’s and Shelley’s plays, as she herself has admitted since, “ignores the work of the best and most prolific playwright of the age, Joanna Baillie” (“Remaking Love” 287). Carlson’s earlier view would lead us to believe that, right or wrong, influence among the romantics as dramatic authors was something that took place among the privileged male elite. [1] Her revision situates women in what she calls the “theatre of remorse.” She allows that women experienced remorse in relation to their radicalism as well as the canonical male poets. These women advocated women developing their capacity for rational thought, but regretted that in teaching women to do so they were exposing their daughters, sisters, and others to repercussions in a world that was unready to accept such development.

While Carlson corrects her oversight in terms of woman’s place in romantic theater, I would like to extend this by considering the influence of women’s theater on later male playwrights. Particularly, I will examine the influence of Baillie’s Orra on Shelley’s Cenci, one of the plays in which Carlson examines remorse among the second-generation romantics. While I will not claim that Shelley’s remorse is liberating to women, I will argue that, seen in the light of Baillie’s influence, his ambivalent portrayal of Beatrice can be viewed as less misogynist than Carlson suggests. Jeffrey Cox has asserted that the women playwrights of the period, while certainly working to reform gender ideology, wrote to serve conservative politics, with the result that “it is possible to see men engaged with the drama and theatre of the day—Byron, Kean, Shelley, or Hunt—as offering, beyond their troubled and at times troubling views on gender issues, a more radical vision in (and of) the theatre than their female counterparts” (25). I will suggest that it is much more difficult to separate gender issues from politics and the influence of Baillie’s gender politics ultimately shapes Shelley’s views on non-violent political intervention. I will further suggest that it is problematic and all too common to separate influence between men and women and to create gendered categories of writing that can be artificial and misleading.

In addition to being prolific, Joanna Baillie is the one playwright that gained some degree of acceptance among the canonical romantics, both first and second generation. Byron, for example, deferred to her in every case, and thought her plays more fit for representation than his own. Her influence on his work was once taken for granted. [2] Scott thought her almost Shakespeare’s equal, and after reading De Monfort, he decided against trying to stage his The House of Aspen (Slagle 21). If we consider the influence of this particularly dramatic figure in romantic playwriting, we realize that the gender politics of the stage are much more complex than we might otherwise imagine. For example, if the romantics sought, as Carlson points out, to “closet Shakespeare” because they did not wish to see the bard played by women (Theater 29), then Scott’s comparisons between Baillie and Shakespeare would suggest that they might seek to closet her as well. What we actually find is that Byron and Scott, at least, were the greatest supporters of Baillie’s plays, going to great length to see them produced in London and Edinberg respectively. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss Baillie as a masculinized playwright and a tool of the male establishment. Anyone so connected to that establishment might of course be suspect. When her plays were first published anonymously, there were those who thought she must be male, and Byron, declaring that writing tragedy required “testicles,” remarked, “Lord knows what Joanna Baillie does; perhaps she borrows them” (5:203). Byron’s attitude is certainly conflicted, and yet even in his flippancy he grudgingly recognizes Baillie’s superiority. He does, however, masculinize her in the process.

Still, when we read Baillie’s plays, we find more than a reflection of the male poets. If, as Stuart Curran, Anne Mellor, and others have argued, the male romantic poet is concerned with a sublime mode that is interested in silencing the feminine and appropriating female sensibility, critics such as Julie Anderson and Deidre Gilbert have revealed the ways that Baillie is interested in creating new roles for women in her plays and regendering the gaze—with which the male poets would internalize and erase the feminine—in ways that are empowering for women. Greg Kucich argues effectively that there is always a “potential uncontainability” in the “disturbances to gender norms, within and beyond the theatre, posed by women dramatists, actors, and performance theorists” (“Reviewing Women” 67). Baillie’s place would have been even more disturbing because she explicitly champions troubling gender reconstruction in so many of her plays.

Specifically, Baillie’s gothic dramas seem to oppose male paradigms of romantic thought in much the same way that Anne Mellor outlines in her examination of Anne Radcliffe’s novels in Romanticism and Gender. Mellor points out that the aesthetic of the sublime, so important to what she identifies as “masculine” romanticism, “is distinctly, if unwittingly gendered. The sublime is associated with an experience of masculine empowerment” (85). In Burke this empowerment becomes the central thrust of the pleasure/pain dichotomy that separates the beautiful from the sublime. “There is a wide difference between admiration and love,” Burke tells us. “The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects, and terrible; the latter on small ones, and pleasing; we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us” (147). Thus the subject is “forced” into compliance by the sublime which threatens to cause pain. For the male subject this becomes a contest of violence in which the ability to cause pain is a measure of the respect due to the other. The sublime is created by the terrible threat of violence. Each man has power over others or is subject to others in a chain of violence that regulates society. The transcendent then, becomes the absolute ability to cause pain. Burke finds supreme power in God by tracing “power through its several gradations, unto the highest of all, where our imagination is finally lost.” Along the way, he claims, “terror” accompanies this power, “its inseparable companion” (112). As Mellor points out, the most sublime moment for burke is when the individual encounters the divine and is “made painfully aware both of his own mortality and of his own election” (86). While the male subject is threatened by the sublime, it also confirms his own position of empowerment. The female subject, however, was excluded from the sublime. Thus the encounter with the transcendent, far from being empowering, was simply an experience of abject terror. Reading Coral Ann Howells’ Love Mystery, and Misery: Feeling in Gothic Fiction, Vijay Mishra claims that in the Gothic, “a female sublime reads the unpresentable as the horrifying threat of violation” (9). Thus a violence present in 18th and 19th century patriarchy presents itself as transcendent, but that violence directs itself particularly against women and signifies their subjection. Mishra points out, “the Gothic sublime is a collective disempowerment under the sign of patriarchal power” (40).

Mellor relates this gendering of the sublime to the ways in which women incorporate Gothic landscapes into fiction. “One group of writers,” she asserts, “those familiar to us as the authors of Gothic fiction, accepts the identification of the sublime with the experience of masculine empowerment. But they explicitly equate this masculine sublime with patriarchal tyranny” (91). She then goes on to analyze the work of Ann Radcliffe, and concludes, “Radcliffe’s point is clear: the deepest terror aroused by the masculine sublime originates in the exercise of patriarchal authority within the home” (93). The same conclusion could perhaps be made by reading many of Joanna Baillie’s plays. Because of its particular interest in the study of Shelley’s work ,and because it allows us easily to point out Baillie’s connections and contributions to what Mellor terms feminine romanticism, we will examine Orra, Baillie’s tragedy on fear.

The discussion of whether Baillie is a feminine or masculine poet, though, assumes the sort of split that Mellor describes. She claims that there are two separate currents of romanticism, masculine and feminine. Mellor is obviously concerned with recuperating a body of work by women authors and in the process she must articulate the unique contributions that make them worthy of inclusion in the canon. In the process, however, this sort of approach also tends to separate influence among male and female authors, the men writing in a tradition of misogynist dominance and the women critiquing that position. A number of critics have since commented on the feminine characteristics of the second generation of romantic poets. For instance, as Greg Kucich notes, Marlon Ross, “claims that Keats embraces the inclinations of the female poets to deploy poetry as ‘a means for exploring the limits and for potentially violating gender boundaries’” (“Gender Crossings” 30). Carlson follows this line of reasoning to some extent when she examines the “feminized” hero-villains of Byron’s plays, but feminization is often viewed as simply a falling off from the manliness a male poet strived to achieve, rather than demonstrating the influence of writing that spoke from women’s experience on the work of those male poets. It is this sort of questioning of the boundaries of influence that I hope to accomplish by inserting Baillie into the discussion of dramatic influence and comparing her work with that of a poet like Percy Shelley. Such a view of the gender politics of the stage questions exactly what we mean by masculine and feminine and in what ways the feminine might have been necessary to Shelley’s construction of a non-violent masculinity.

Orra and the Domestic Sublime

The central issue of Orra is Orra’s agency when faced with the violent enforcement of a patriarchal edict. The dying wish of her father is that she will marry Glottenbal, son of Hughobert of Aldenberg, whom he appoints as her guardian. Orra is quite firmly set against the marriage, but more is at stake than just whom she will marry. Her alternative to marrying Glottenbal is not marrying another man. Instead, she wants to inherit her father’s estates and manage them herself. To the men of the play, she declares that she wants to “Improve the low condition of [her] peasants” (346). When she speaks with other women, she plans a sort of utopian community of women, “A pleasant life;/free from all stern subjection” (347). But haunting her dreams is a violent past. As Orra and Catherine are planning what they will do in their newfound life, her friend mentions the stories they will tell, “of ghosts and spirits/and things unearthly, that on Michael’s eve/rise from the yawning tombs.” Hughobert’s father, we discover, has murdered a “hunter knight” at the family castle in the Saubian forest. Now,

On Michael’s eve
And on that night alone of all the year,
The hunter-knight himself, having a horn
Thrice sounded at the gates, the castle enters;
And in the very chamber where he died,
Calls on his murderer, or in his default
Some true descendant of his house, to loose
His spirit from its torment [. .]”


Upon hearing the story, Orra exclaims, “Merciful Heaven! And in my veins there runs/A murderer’s blood.” Her greatest fear is that she will not be able to escape the violence of the masculine sublime because of her integral involvement in the system that perpetuates that violence. The situation, in fact, gives her nightmares. We are told that she has been “troubled in [her] dreams,” and that her friend almost woke her, but “forbore.” Her reply is telling:

And glad I am thou dids’t.
It is not dreams I fear; for still with me
There is an indistinctness o’er them cast,
  .  .  .
Dreams I fear not; it is the dreadful waking [. . .]


The passage suggests that Orra has repressed her fears of the violence she faces. When the violence comes back to her in her dreams it does not present itself directly. It is covered by a sort of secondary revision that keeps it from revealing itself for what it is. In a similar way Orra is caught between a violence that invites her to see it as protective and her realization that it can only ever subject her to violation.

Orra’s views on violence are strongly connected with her distaste for patriarchy. She is not opposed, for instance, to marriage for its own sake, but because no suitable partner could be found. She is opposed to marrying any man precisely because they are essentially violent, and this violence will restrict her agency, inhibiting her ability to carry out her more peaceful plans. Not even Theobald, the man most taken by Orra’s plan and most likely to support it, can be trusted. When Orra complains that marriage would foil her plan, Glottenbal’s friend Hartman suggests that perhaps she could find, “A valiant gentle mate, who in the field/Or in the council will maintain your right:/A noble equal partner” (346). Orra, however, will not accept this possibility, and neither will Theobald. Orra asks Hartman,

who would, an’ please you,
His harness doff: all feuds, all strife forebear,
All military rivalship, all lust
Of added power, and live in steady quietness
A mild and fost’ring Lord [?]


When she redirects the question to Theobald, he responds with the most concise statement of what is essentially male in the play:

Wot I of such a lord?—No, noble Orra,
I do not,
[. . .]
None such exist; we are all fierce, contentious,
Restless and proud, and prone to vengeful feuds;
The distant sound of war excites us,
Like coursers list’ning to the chase, who paw
And fret and bite the curbing rein.


Showing remorse of his own, Theobald admits that his violent nature as a man makes him “unworthy Orra’s Lord to be” (347). He is unable, as a man, to participate in Orra’s plans of peacefulness, and so he translates his support into violence, offering “protection.” Orra accepts Theobald’s “gen’rous” offer of protection, should she ever need it, an offer that is put forward because, as Orra says, his honesty in admitting his failings as a male gives him the right to be bold in making it. His proposal is acceptable also because he “will not murmur that a higher wish, too high and too presumptuous is repres’t” (347). As Carlson points out in a brief analysis of the play, Orra is a play about “the tragic fate for women who attempt to fashion characters that are neither idealizable nor dependent” (“Remaking Love” 295). And yet, Orra’s remorse at being unable to accept Theobald’s offer of love makes her unable to simply reject her dependence on a male chivalry that, as Carlson also notes, always relies on a woman’s need for protection. While Orra seemingly rejects male violence, she is unable to completely break with the system that perpetuates that violence. Theobald, whatver his obvious differences from Rudigere, who later uses violence to isolate and subdue Orra, still relies on her vulnerability to ensure her connection to him. What is repressed with Theobald’s “higher wish” is the degree to which Orra, as a woman, is unable to ever completely escape a system that relies on woman’s vulnerability while accepting an enlightened chivalry that seems benevolent.

And Theobald is not the only man in the play whose good intentions and seeming magnanimity are thwarted by the inherent violence of masculinity. Despite her vehement rejection of the marriage which is being thrust upon her, Orra is unable to escape the male violence in which she is enmeshed, figured here as a system more than either her actual father or Hughobert, both of whom express solicitude for her. Even as she finishes telling us that she does not fear dreams, but reality, her priest, here called her “ghostly father” (349), comes to tell her that she will be sent to the very castle in which her “grandsire” murdered the hunter-knight. As Mellor points out, in the Gothic, “crimes almost always occur among Alpine landscapes or ruined Gothic towers, the loci of the masculine sublime” (91). Accordingly, in an attempt to coerce Orra into giving her consent to the marriage, Hughobert takes the advice of Rudigere, bastard son of a branch of the Aldenberg family, and sends her to the supposedly haunted castle until she will “full gladly her freedom purchase” by marrying Glottenbal. The castle thus more visibly connects a symbol of the masculine sublime with tyrannical patriarchal authority, especially as it is supported by violence. A wartime locus of defense becomes a perfect representation of the home as the center of the violent containment of women.

And yet Hughobert is reluctant to send Orra away. As he points out, he “to her father swore I would protect her. I would fulfill his will” (345). Yet he is subject to an older system. Rudigere convinces him to go ahead with the plan by urging,

And in that will, her father did desire
She might be match’d with this your only son;
Therefore you’re firmly bound all means to use
That may the end attain.


Hughobert seems inclined to interpret his obligation as relating to Orra’s overall wellbeing, a sentiment that was, perhaps, shared by her father. Rudigere, by redirecting him through the double meaning of will situates the decision in the context of a codified legal system. Within that system, written documents secure, even in what are most likely conventional expressions of ostensibly benevolent intent, the ownership of women and control of their agency. Thus Hughobert is an agent of the will of a tyrannical system. He is called upon, despite his reluctance, to turn Orra over to the violence that will deprive her of her will and force her consent. He will seek for her consent in other ways, but violence is the last resort of patriarchy as Orra knows it. The next time we find Hughobert, it is he himself who is justifying the move in these same terms. Then, when his wife objects that it will ruin his reputation to send her into harm’s way, he pleads,

But do I send her unprotected? No!
Brave Rudigere conducts her with a
Band of trusty spearmen. In her new abode
She will be safe as here.


Knowing as we do that the entire plan is Rudigere’s way of getting Orra into his power causes us to question whether “here” is so safe a place to be. The passage emphasizes the violence of men, so strongly condemned in the play, and thus brings us to question whether a band of spearmen can ever be protective, rather than coercive, for a woman in Orra’s position.

When Orra gets to the castle and the Bandits, who pose as ghosts, begin their haunting, she is caught between violence on all sides. Hughobert, as an obvious authority figure, is on one level responsible for sending her to the castle. But she is also beset by an illegitimate cousin who would like to gain legitimacy by forcing her to marry him through his power over her as jailor. “If I were Orra’s Lord,” he tells us, “I should break forth /Like the unclouded sun, by all acknowledged/As ranking with the highest of the land” (354). Meanwhile the bandits outside blow their horns, reminding us that the violence of the present is only an echo of the violence of the past. The struggle for dominance among the men of the play is subject itself to the transcendent violence that is a sign of Orra’s disempowerment as a woman. Caught between waking Rudigere—who is dreaming lustfully of her—and the ghosts of the past, a message arrives from Theobald, and although she is kept from reading it, she takes heart in the hope that her champion will rescue her.

Unfortunately for Orra, she realizes too late that Theobald is more a part of the system, despite himself, than she had supposed. In an effort to rescue Orra, and, we may presume, to endear himself to her, he joins forces with the bandits, among whom he finds a long lost friend. As they plan the rescue, we are allowed to see that the bond between the friends is built on violence. Almost as an afterthought, his friend asks him:

Hast thou still upon thine arm
That mark which from mine arrow thou reciev’dst
When sportively we shot? The wound was deep,
And galled thee much, but thou mad’st light of it.


He has the scar, and this cements their alliance. The contractual nature of male violence is not written here in a legal document but is instead written on Theobald’s body. The system of male violence is thus naturalized and made part of essential maleness. His body proves that he is violent, whatever his wishes to the contrary, and his essential maleness makes him part of Orra’s problems even if his violence is intended to be protective.

The next night, Orra re-lives the same horrible scene of the night before. In what might elsewhere have been a last minute heroic rescue of imperiled beauty, Theobald arrives through a secret passage, dressed as the hunter-night. Seeing the man she relied on dressed this way seemingly drives Orra mad. It is as if she realizes that in relying on Theobald, she has unwittingly relied on the same system of violence that she opposed. Soon after this disastrous rescue attempt, forces arrive in Theobald’s name to “set her free” from Hughobert’s tyranny (363), and yet the terms of this rescue reveal the motives of the chivalry of Orra’s champion:

Brave Theobald, the Lord of Falkenstein,
Co-burgher also of our ancient city,
Whose cause is ours, declares himself
The suitor of thy ward the Lady Orra.
 *  *  *
In his behalf I come to set her free;
As an oppressed Dame, such service claiming
From every gen’rous knight.


What appears as madness to the men of the play is only a recognition that there is no difference between violence from one man and violence from another. From this point on, Orra makes a point of questioning the difference between the living and the dead, the past and the present, day and night. “Gen’rous” offers of protection are only one more way of using violence to secure access to women. Though Hughobert himself comes to rescue Orra (having found out that Rudigere meant to betray him) everyone seems to her as ghosts, and she treats them as such. The trappings of the gothic become permanent symbols of a lasting violence against women. There is no rescue from the ghosts of this Gothic tale because the rescuers represent the violence she fears. In her final speech, she explains, “The living and the dead, together are/in horrid neighborship.—’Tis but thin vapour,/Floating round thee, makes the wavering bound” (366). The lines between kinds of violence are erased, the violence of the past and present, of friends or foes are all placed on the same level.

Carlson asserts convincingly that women in the romantic period who advocate independence and the development of rational thought faced remorse at the thought that their arguments might make women who followed them unlovable for a time. In Orra, Baillie creates a woman that attempts, because of her remorse, to find middle ground between independence and an acceptance of enlightened chivalry. In doing so, she creates a further regret in being unable to part ways with the system of violence that oppresses her in the first place, and it is this remorse which turns to fear as Orra realizes the reality of the violence that Theobald’s chivalric, violent version of masculinity represents.

The Cenci, the domestic sublime and non-violence

In 1814, Percy Shelley was living with Mary and her sister Jane (Later Claire Clairmont) in London. The tenor of Shelley’s journals at the time shows that he was becoming increasingly close to Jane, and the triangular relationship was becoming a strain in terms of both his relationship with Mary and his relationship with William Godwin. At this point in his life, the dream of setting up a liberal community was still something Shelley thought of as a very real possibility, and the trio, along with Hogg, made up the nucleus of his plans. This plan however, sat none too well with Godwin. It violated even his liberal standards of decency. Still Percy, Mary and Claire were not about to capitulate, and continued living together. Thus it was that Shelley found himself flouting both his own and his wife’s father, without money, and generally not welcomed in polite society.

On 7 October, there happened at the group’s apartment what Richard Holmes refers to, as “an extremely bizarre incident, with ingredients of mystery, sexuality and terror which made it almost a paradigm of Shelley’s relationships with young women” (257). That night, after Mary went to bed, Shelley sat up discussing liberal schemes with Jane, including Jane’s conception of “a subterranean community of women” (258). In a passage from his journal that reminds the reader quite interestingly of Orra’s musings on a similar plan, Shelley goes on to tell how he diverted the conversation to tales of horror. As the tension mounts, Shelley then asks a question that might stump the casual literary historian: “Have you ever read the tragedy of Orra?” (258). Jane, however, is not stumped. Instead, she is terrified. She runs to her room, where she imagines all sorts of marvelous and terrible things happening. Things move without her moving them, and she feels beset by spirits. The rest of the night was spent calming the fears of both Jane and Mary. Whether the incident strengthened Shelley’s psychic connections to the text is uncertain, but it shows us there was a link for Shelley between subversion of patriarchy and the Gothic, and that he associated that view of the Gothic with Joanna Baillie, especially her play Orra.

But what makes the influence of Baillie’s work on Shelley more apparent than this biographical tidbit are the internal similarities between Orra on The Cenci. When Hughobert sends Orra away to the ruined castle, for example, part of the horror is that she will be removed from the society of other human beings. In the event, it is isolation which disturbs Orra the most and which Rudigere uses to try to make her give in to his demands. When she rejects him, Rudigere tells her:

Then let it be so.
Thy pleasure mighty Dame, I will not balk.
This night, tomorrow’s night, and every night,
Thou shalt in solitude be left; if absence
Of human beings can secure it for thee.


In Baillie’s play, the passage is important because it emphasizes that Orra’s only option, apart from giving in to the demands of the system of male violence in which she lives, is to remove herself from human interaction. Without comparing the moral stances of the pair—Baillie most certainly would not have approved of his relationships—it is easy to imagine that the idea would appeal to Shelley, an outcast mostly as a result of his failure to jibe with social norms regarding marriage.

It is this notion that meets us the most directly as evidence of influence in The Cenci. When Cenci announces that he will take his daughter and his wife, as punishment for their disobedience, to the deserted “Castle of Petrella,” it is specifically to isolate them. When Lucretia asserts that she did not know that Beatrice would revile Cenci at his party, he replies:

Blaspheming liar! You are damned for this!
But I will take you where you may persuade
The stones you tread on to deliver you:
For men there shall be none but those who dare
All things—not question what I command.


Mellor points out that in the domestic sublime as we see it in Radcliffe, the home “is repeatedly described as the ‘prison’ of women” (94). In both Baillie and Shelley it can be solitary confinement. In each case, a woman while surrounded by men is still isolated by her refusal to accept the terms society uses to control her. And there are other important similarities in plot and structure. In both stories, for instance, the father figure is opposed in his acts by both a powerless second wife and a minister who, though ostensibly trying to help, is worse than useless.

What is most important to the connection is that in his treatment of the domestic sublime, Shelley picks up, above all else, on Baillie’s criticism of masculine violence. Carlson criticizes Shelley’s portrayal of Beatrice because it is ambivalent. It is ambivalent, but ambivalence is a different thing than antipathy. Carlson mentions briefly the passage from the preface in which Shelley reprimands Beatrice, but it bears a closer look. Shelley states:

Undoubtedly, no person can be dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement are pernicious mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner, she would have been wiser and better, but she would never have been a tragic character.


Shelley’s ambivalence in portraying Beatrice has everything to do with what he is making of tragedy, and it is connected to a larger trend of non-violence in his work. As Donna Richardson has asserted, in most interpretations of the play Beatrice is “either the helpless victim of some deterministic process, psychological or social, or else she makes a conceptual error which a greater exercise of imagination could overcome” (217). The problem, she contends, with these interpretations, is that “they leave the casuistry about Beatrice’s responsibility restless because they offer little evidence from the play to suggest how Beatrice could have resisted the forces ranged against her” (219). One notable exception to this is Stuart Curran who presents Beatrice as a character whose goodness is untranslatable into the evil world in which she lives. Thus she is caught between maintaining a goodness which is ineffectual in her world and adopting an evil which, while effective, implicates her in that world’s failings. In Orra, Baillie enacts remorse as tragedy in much this way. A woman who removes herself from participation in the system that violates her removes herself to some degree from effective action within that system, but though accepting a place within that system might give her access to the violence it allows to be effective, it also implicates her in that violence.

We find Beatrice in a position very similar to Orra’s. She is beset by a system of violence that oppresses her. Her father is the obvious villain here, but Shelley hardly exonerates the rest of the establishment. From the preface, he makes a point of presenting the violence of Cenci as propping up the church. “The pope,” he says, “among other motives for severity, probably felt that whoever killed the Count Cenci deprived his treasury of a certain and copious source of revenue” (141). And lest we see this as a purely economic connection, Shelley blurs the lines when he has Cenci declare gold “the old man’s sword” (1.1.127). To the extent that Beatrice is a victim of male violence, that violence is enforced by a monetary and legal system that not only legitimizes but also makes possible that violence. Though Cenci’s words are hardly to be trusted, we hear echoes of Orra in his pronouncement that

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.


Cenci’s words give us more pause here because he reveals a bit of his own role when he goes on to say, “But I delight in nothing else” (81). Thus, Cenci simply becomes the terrible apotheosis of a masculinity built around the interplay between violence and the economic and legal control of women. The other men in the play, then, are lesser examples.

Orsino, the story’s would-be lover, for example, even more than Theobald in Orra, is allied with the violent power structure as well. Though a priest, he claims to want to marry Beatrice, but as she leaves, we hear his true feelings:

I know the Pope
Will ne’er absolve me from my priestly vow
But by absolving me from revenue
Of many a wealthy see; and, Beatrice,
I think to win thee at an easier rate.


To aid him in his plans, he relies on Beatrice’s position as “A friendless girl/who clings to me as to her only hope” (87-88). He even goes so far as not to deliver the petition that Beatrice sends to the Pope so that he can keep her under the violence of her father’s rule, and thus in need of his dubious protection. He justifies Cenci’s violence and gives us cause to believe that life with him would be only a lesser evil when he declares:

A man may stab his enemy, or his vassal,
And live a free life as to wine or women,
And with 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
There rest no heavier than what they suffer
From the devices of my love—a net
From which she shall escape not.


In the end Orsino aids, indeed helps to plan, the murder of Cenci in order to secure access to Beatrice, and thus in both plays we have the figure who would be the greatest source of protection being implicated in the system of violence that the women face. His love, which seems benevolent to Orra, is actually a net, ensuring that she does not escape the system of violence that oppresses her.

Thus Shelley makes more explicit the connections between chivalrous offers of protection and an exploitation of female helplessness that Orra implies. In both cases, they are tied to the woman’s involvement in that violence. Beatrice, despite her censure of Orsino on the grounds that he, as a priest, must not love her, accepts his protection because of her own guilt at having rejected him. She swears at first a “cold fidelity” to Orsino (26), blaming him for their separation because of his priestly vows, and censuring his “sly equivocating vein” (28). She even recognizes that he is turning the tables on her, “Making my true suspicion seem your wrong” (32). She ends, however, by absorbing the guilt herself and apologizes: “No, forgive me; sorrow makes me seem/ Sterner than else my nature might have been” (34-35). And yet, Shelley’s example is more obviously sinister because Orsino rejects all remorse for his actions. Instead, he reasons that her father’s violence is exaggeration and no more than that to which men normally subject women. Worse, he implies that such treatment is to be expected within the private space of the home where it is not publicly visible. Though at times uneasy with the situation, he consciously accepts that he is capitalizing on the fact that Orra is “a friendless girl.”

But more than any single character, it is the system of violence itself that Shelley indicts. At the party, when Cenci declares his joy at the death of his sons, the guests pass judgment on themselves when they ask, “Will none among this noble company/Check the abandoned villain?” (1.3.91-92). Then, later, as Beatrice faces the judges, though we find her guilty, the emphasis is deflected from that guilt by cruelty of the methods by which they find out the “truth.” As much a spectacle here as Beatrice is the body of Marzio. The bodily punishment inflicted on him on the rack is reminiscent of Foucault’s analysis in Discipline and Punish. Where Foucault sees spectacular violent punishment of the body as central to a system built on the body of the sovereign, Shelley sees a more intimate violence as central to the control mentality manifested in male dominance of women. His choice of medieval source material displays the violence of torture, but his play as a whole demonstrates a violence that is less spectacular and more intimate, that legitimates private space as the center of control of women’s sexuality. As she plans Cenci’s murder, Beatrice seems to sense that violence is essential to the system that subjects her. When Orsino suggests that she reveal Cenci’s crimes to the law, she realizes that it will be no victory for her—that the system will convict her whether innocent or guilty. She astutely recognizes:

my unpolluted fame should be
With vilest gossips a stale-mouthed story;
A mock, a bye-word, an astonishment.


If the system does not convict her, it will continue to control her. As Orsino points out, if he were to deliver his petition to the Pope, the best Beatrice can hope for is not freedom, but a sort of transferal to a different part of the system: “He might bestow her on some poor relation/Of his sixth cousin, as he did her sister” (1.2.69-70). Carlson is right to tell us, “Those critics who see a “tragic flaw” in ‘[Beatrice’s] idealization of virginity as the center of her moral life and nature’ fail to admit that the flaw is in a ‘world’ that anchors women’s moral life in their virginity” (191). Because virginity can be taken from women without their consent, she claims, women’s autonomy is controlled by men. I would add that it is a world that uses violence to control access to that virginity. Some of that violence is obviously antagonistic, and other instances are seemingly benign, but both rob women of the privilege of self-definition. The domestication of the sublime that Shelley adopts from Baillie brings this to the forefront.

If Beatrice truly does have a tragic flaw, then we should perhaps look to the flaw that Shelley says he wants to give her. That is, she resorts to involving herself in the system of violence that subjects her, and in Shelley’s eyes that can bring nothing more than further violence. Rather than freeing herself from violence, she instead makes herself a part of the violence that is the problem to begin with.

The center of her defense, after all, is not that she has not killed a man. Instead, when her mother cries out to the officers that they are not guilty, she asserts,

Guilty! Who dares talk of guilt? My Lord,
I am more innocent of parricide
Than is a child born fatherless.


The crux of the argument is that whether she killed the man Cenci should not be a measure of whether she killed her father, since he ceased to be her father when he raped her. Though she never admits to her crime it is not, as Carlson justly points out, because she aims to deceive, but because there is a “doubleness” that becomes part of her identity. She comes closest to pointing out what this doubleness is when she comes closest to admitting her part in the affair. When the Judges prompt her one last time for a confession, she calls the incident:

that which thou hast called my father’s death?
Which is or is not what men call a crime,
Which either I have done, or have not done;
Say what ye will.


Her defense lies not in action or the absence of it, but in the nature of the deed whether done or not. She claims only that she has not killed her father, and she has ceased to see the man Cenci as her father. She ends, however by ceding the definition of the act to the court, realizing that she will not be allowed the power of self definition. She will instead be defined by the system that is designed from the outset to do her violence.

Her defense is a slippery one, even on her terms. She imagines that, perhaps, even in the afterworld her father will haunt her. Curran claims that this represents her recognition of the powers that oppress her when her belief in a just god breaks down in the face of her condemnation. I would suggest, rather, that each time she has relied on a figure seemingly removed from the corruption of the system that does her violence, that figure has proven to be simply another force of control and violation in her life. When she reaches the point of imagining her father beyond the grave, she imagines that even death may not be the benevolent escape she has expected it to be. The triumph of patriarchal violence affirms for Beatrice the transcendent, absolute violence that accompanies the masculine empowerment of the sublime. Like Burke, Beatrice comes to see terror of the power of God to do violence as “the most striking” characteristic of the divine. As her father becomes a symbol of the transcendent violence of the patriarchal system in which she lives, he also assumes the place of God in her imagination.

Still, the ambivalence we find in the play is not simply in Beatrice’s legal defense. Rather, Shelley could accept Beatrice killing her father if it weren’t for the fact that he would have to countenance her violence at the same time. This is not to say that Shelley is naïve about the problem of violence against women. It is no coincidence that both Orra and The Cenci end up giving us little hope for the heroine. Carlson remarks that “the object lesson of Beatrice” is that “Those without power in society cannot move the powers that be to act on their behalf’’ (195). Certainly Shelley realized this. As his analogue in Baillie shows us, in some cases there is no particularly good solution; that is entirely the point, but it doesn’t move him in his commitment to non-violence. In fact, it is precisely because Shelley wants to present the extremity of his non-violent sentiment that he presents us with a heroine that is so beset by cruelty. Harrison asserts that Beatrice is “neither heroic nor even ‘sympathetic’.” She points out, “Critics agree that Beatrice Cenci turns readers and spectators against her in the fifth act” (188-89). But just important as Shelley’s (and the reader’s or spectator’s) renunciation of Beatrice is the sympathy which her position does initially excite. We must want to forgive Beatrice before Shelley’s condemnation of violence can be complete.

It may seem absurd to take Shelley at his word when he says that long-suffering should be our response to violence even in the most extreme cases, but it is part of the difficulty in dealing with The Cenci that we remove it from the recurring theme of non-violent resistance in his work. The Revolt of Islam, after all, is nothing less than a full scale revolution brought about by being kind to the tyrants who oppress, and The Mask of Anarchy, written soon after The Cenci, allegorizes Hope overcoming the violence of Anarchy by laying in the street, waiting for the horses of Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy to trample her down. In fact, in The Mask of Anarchy, hope’s willingness to sacrifice herself to the violence of Anarchy conquers by an almost martial peace. Her actions call up:

A Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.


When the mist clears, Anarchy is dead without a fight, and the horse that would have trampled her tramples its own army. Thus peaceful resistance becomes, on one level, an effective substitution for violence. [3] It accomplishes the aims that were intended, but it also connects hope to the system it seeks to resist, since Shelley is unable to figure resistance to violence, even non-violent resistance, as anything but violence.

Of course, this is part of the gendered split in romanticism that brings about Shelley’s remorse. It is most often through a feminine force that Shelley shapes his non-violent images. Despite this, “The Mask of Anarchy” and “The Revolt of Islam” place themselves in a masculine tradition of martial poetry. In doing so, they are able to place non-violence in a masculine context, and yet they are unable to completely escape a violence that Shelley connected with the masculine. In his use of the domestic sublime as he finds it in Baillie’s work, Shelley aligns himself with “feminine” romanticism, but it is not a simple matter of feminizing Shelley. Nor is this to say that Shelley’s search for a non-violent masculinity is necessarily a feminizing process. Shelley turns to the feminine at least partly to point out the faults of a system of masculinity based on violence. Baillie, however, simply condemns these faults and leaves woman to accept them passively, thus retaining for woman an innocence in passivity. She thus represents an influence that leads Shelley to two conflicting stances. He wants to condemn violence against women, and yet he is also convinced that violence is an inalienable part of his masculinity. Thus the influence of Baillie’s gender politics both inspires Shelley’s critique of violence and inhibits his ability to imagine that critique in politically useful ways. In The Cenci Shelley adopts the domestic sublime only to alter it. His main purpose is to re-define a masculinity that he sees as active, and to do so, he must depict active resistance to violent masculinity. Shelley effectively creates domestic tragedy from what Mellor calls the domesticated sublime. Rather than passively encountering violence as Orra does, Beatrice adopts violence to overcome the violence of the masculine sublime, and this becomes her tragic flaw. Thus it is difficult to be able to define Shelley’s tragedy as either masculine or feminine romanticism. He does not revel in the masculine empowerment that Mellor finds central to “masculine romanticism,” but neither is he providing the same critique of violence that “feminine romanticism” presents in a passive horror at the prospect of violation.

As concerns Carlson’s analysis of the play, perhaps she is right to find an ambivalence in Shelley’s work, and to find a connection with Coleridge’s Remorse, and by implication the French Revolution. Still, though Beatrice does loose her innocence in acting, this does not as she claims, leave the men of the play innocent. It is precisely when Beatrice looses both the passivity and the non-violence that separates her from the men that she looses her innocence. The men are never exonerated by her acts, and the play remains a critique of male violence.

Shelley’s non-violence is on one level a response to the revolution, but it is also a response to political matters of his own day. He saw in the sacrifices of the St Peter’s Field massacre a strength he did not find in the violence of the revolution. Additionally, he is responding to a growing awareness of women speaking for themselves. The one thing Carlson doesn’t consider is women as agents that could not only carve out a place for themselves but influence male writers as well. Perhaps in this she takes “the object lesson of Beatrice” too much to heart and misses an important element in the gender politics of Shelley’s play. She claims, in essence, that Shelley is reluctant to put a woman on stage that kills her father and countenance the act. Rather, Shelley wants to put such a woman on the stage precisely so that he can renounce her violence. By adopting Baillie’s politics, intended for public performance, he makes a spectacle of the private suffering of women and the rage that comes of it. At the same time, he wants to warn that meeting violence with violence will only perpetuate the problem by embroiling the victims in the system of violence they are resisting. Of course this is in some ways to assert what critics such as Alan Richardson have claimed—a claim that Margot Harrison and others take issue with—that Beatrice in some way becomes her father, and that Shelley criticizes her for doing so. The proposition would indeed be difficult to stomach if Shelley were simply admonishing women to passively accept violence against them. He is not trying to dismiss this violence or relegate it to the closet, where Orsino implies that it is to be expected. Instead he wants to display it as an impetus to change.

Additionally, critics have often noted Shelley’s self-identification with Beatrice—for example, the early reviewer in Fraser’s Magazine who wrote, “Beatrice is really none other than Percy Bysshe Shelley himself in petticoats” (qtd. in Curran 23). Rather than critiquing women for not being more passive, it is more likely that Shelley is involved in a self-critique. Beatrice represents an attempt to reformulate Shelley’s theories of non-violence along feminine lines which he perceived as more passive, while allowing for active resistance of violence. He could not imagine a non-violent man. Beatrice represents a failed attempt to create an actively non-violent woman, a feminine figure around which he could shape a non-violent masculinity. In his preface to the play he writes, “Beatrice Cenci appears to be one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another” (144). What Shelley imagines here is a solution to the dilemma of the conflict between “good and the means of good” which he would address later in “The Triumph of Life” (231). And yet, he is only able to imagine this synthesis as remorse. He is not able to create a character that actually resists male violence without becoming violent, so he settles for a character that is innocent but becomes violent. And then he criticizes that violence. Thus, in Beatrice the goodness which he saw in the feminine is preserved in the imaginary while the means of doing good, which he saw as masculine, is preserved in action.

Remorse certainly is a determining factor in Shelley’s Cenci, but it is not simply a response to the remorse of his elder colleagues. It is foremost a remorse for his own inability to escape the violence he connected with his own masculinity. Though he advocated non-violence, he carried a consciousness of the violence he owned as part of his manhood like the brace of pistols he kept nearby and loaded. We know of only one time when Shelley himself was met with violence, in February of 1813, when someone broke into his home in Wales. It is much disputed whether Shelley or the intruder shot first, but in the event, faced with violence, Shelley did fire his pistols—both of them. And the result promised in some ways the perpetuation of male violence against women, whether in Shelley’s mind or in reality, as the intruder reportedly threatened “By God I will be revenged! I will murder your wife. I will ravish your sister” (qtd. in Holmes 191). It seems that Shelley longed for a non-violent masculinity that he was unable to imagine, but the possibility of which he was able to think. He would never be able to approach his own construction of what happened at Peterloo. He would not be able to present in his work or his life a masculinity that was both passive in the face of violence and socially effective in the way he imagined the martyrs of 16 August 1819 to be.

So the Cenci is a distinct turning point in many ways for Shelley. The tension that we find between “good and the means of good” is certainly present in the first act of Prometheus Unbound, which he interrupted with his experiment in which he saw more “fitness for a dramatic purpose” (140). The Fury which comes to torture Prometheus does so with the frightening proposition that “The good lack power, but to weep barren tears,/ the powerful goodness want: worse need for them” (1.625-26). And yet the hope is still held out that the tension is resolvable. Perhaps the good can find power in their goodness.

But The Cenci does not have the luxury of holding out this hope. In his Defense of Poetry, Shelley outlines the difference between poetry and the story: “A story is a catalogue of detached facts which have no other bond of connection than time, place, circumstance, cause and effect; the other is the creation of actions according to the unchangeable forms of human nature, as existing in the mind of the creator, which is itself the image of all other minds” (515). Prometheus Unbound is poetry. Shelley calls it a “lyrical drama.” The Cenci as tragedy, is story. The poetic Prometheus Unbound deals in the universal and leaves room to contemplate the possibility of reconciling good and the means of good. Stage drama, however, seems connected for Shelley with the specific, rather than the universal, and “women on stage” activate his remorse as a mode. [4] As a story The Cenci deals with a particular circumstance of male violence, and it is significant that Shelley is adamant about the non-fictional nature of the case. He chooses an incident for which, as he explains in the preface, “nothing remained as I imagined, but to clothe it to the apprehensions of my countrymen in such language and action as would bring it home to their hearts” (142). When he puts women, in this case a “real” woman and a “real” victim of male violence, on stage, he may no longer theorize the reconcilability of his paradox. When real violence in real situations is encountered, violence is seen as the only possible effective resistance. Non-violence is Shelley’s ideal, but in the world Beatrice inhabits it can accomplish nothing. Thus the only reconciliation Shelley can make is through remorse, portraying a violence that is then condemned.

This, then, affects Prometheus Unbound, and the effect is one from which Shelley will never quite recover. In act 1 we find a Prometheus who would “wish no living thing to suffer pain” (305). Though he does “repent” (303), his remorse is not the way in which the tension between good and the means of good is resolved. Instead, non-violent endurance of violence is prolonged “ever, forever” (23) in an attempt to idealize the condition. After Shelley detours through stage drama to examine the actual costs of male violence—a cost taken out on women as well as men—he is unable to sustain this tension. In what begins as a work on the effectiveness of non-violent opposition, he turns to violence, which he condemns, to bring about the changes that are necessary in an oppressive system. As Demogorgon violently overthrows Jupiter’s despotism, the vanquished king of the gods cries:

That thou wouldst make mine enemy my judge,
Even where he hangs, seared by my long revenge,
On Caucasus! He would not doom me thus.
Gentle and just, and dreadless, is he not
The monarch of the world? What then art thou?


Gone are the former heroines who overcome by a non-violent militance. In their place is a hero who must rely on outside violence for his victory. One character cannot be both good and the means of effective action, and so two must represent the pieces of this unsolvable puzzle. Perhaps it is no coincidence that while the first act of Prometheus is one long scene of unbroken poetry, the other acts are broken into scenes. It tends to emphasize his movement from the poetic ideal to a dramatic specificity within the play. From this point on, Shelley retreated from the idea that non-violence could be effective in the political realm. And yet his failure to find a way for it to be so would haunt him until his last, fragmentary work, The Triumph of Life, in which the dilemma itself becomes transcendent, and he announces that “God made irreconcilable/ Good and the means of good” (230-31).

Parties annexes