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Some of my Best Friends are Romanticists: Shelley and the Queer Project in Romanticism

  • Amanda Berry

…plus d’informations

  • Amanda Berry
    American University

I. The Power of “Shelley’s Gayness”

An internet news tabloid aimed at gay and lesbian readers, Gay Today, published an article entitled “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” in the Spring of 2001 (Lauritsen). The piece relates some of the salient facts of Shelley’s life pertaining to his views on sexuality and his intimacies with men. It also condemns “the pious Shelley myth-makers,” including Mary Shelley, for suppressing evidence of Shelley’s homoeroticism. In closing, the essay ventures to answer its own title-question, although not without equivocation: yes, we can say that Shelley was gay, given the stated facts, given the article’s own broad definition of gay, and given the author’s intuition and “personal guess.”

Soon after the piece appeared online, it was mentioned on the academic discussion site associated with the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, NASSR-L. [1] “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” spurred an uncharacteristically energized thread of NASSR-L messages on the subjects of sexuality and sexuality studies in the context of scholarship in Romanticism. Though concerned by the nature of the title-question, NASSR-L Romanticists in this case offered their opinions on many related subjects including the essay’s central concern, the status of Shelley’s sexual identity. The topic was troubling, the virtual discussion was contentious, and little was concluded with respect to how best to describe and categorize Shelley’s sexual proclivities. While Shelley’s ostensible heterosexuality did not survive the conversation undisturbed, Shelley’s homosexuality was mostly rejected in this context.

Internet discussion lists are cantankerous animals whose behaviours are perhaps most impervious to their own participants. What interests me here is nothing more or less than the fact of the reaction to the article. For more than a month, “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” galvanized an ongoing conversation on NASSR-L concerning a subject very rarely addressed in that context despite many old and new academic projects that investigate sexuality during the Romantic period. Indeed, the first issue of Romanticism on the Net devoted exclusively to queer readings in Romanticism, which was published only a few months later, received no mention on NASSR-L (Sha). In other words, while there is an ample amount of academic work on the same subjects that so stirred the discussion list in this moment, this particular essay—unlike more intellectually rigorous ones published in academic settings that precede and follow it—proved powerful enough to produce spirited debate in place of a routinized silence.

Academic flaps over “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” (Sedgwick), “Tremble, Hetero Swine!” (Patton) and “I Hate Straights” [2] have proven that gay and lesbian and queer studies titles have the power to disturb and anger. They do so with intention, of course, for essay titles are the aspect of academic writing most closely linked to marketing; spicy titles—offensive, challenging, hilarious, even nonsensical—can be very effective in drawing readers from both inside and outside the academy. In the same way that “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” surfaced inside the New York Times, “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” found its way onto an academic discussion list not only due to its title but essentially as its title. [3] The author ventured the same argument at the same time in another essay, titled “Piecing Together Percy,” which was published in Gay and Lesbian Humanist and received no mention on NASSR-L. But academic readers are usually savvy about, if not disdainful of, attention-seeking titles that make promises their essays cannot keep. In light of the substantial archive of work in queer Romanticism, and in light of the obvious desire to hail a popular readership in a popular publication embedded in the title “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” what is it about this title in particular that moved NASSR-L Romanticists to take up its question? Why did Gay Today’s “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?”—something roughly equivalent to, for example, mention of the fate of Dove Cottage in People magazine—pack enough punch to overleap its setting in the gay and lesbian popular press and affront professional academics?

For the scholar for whom sexuality studies is central, the moment—the power of “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” to galvanize a continuous engagement in the question of not only Shelley’s sexuality but also how best to approach the question itself—was both exhilarating and vexing. It was happily fascinating in ways one might expect, as the fulfillment of the academic’s fantasy of respected scholars in one’s field addressing a subject at the heart of one’s own research. The vexation was, and is, more complex. At the most basic interrogative level, “Was Shelley gay?” is a bad Jeopardy question because it calls for a yes-or-no answer, and, in doing so, like most yes-or-no questions, threatens to close inquiry through simplification by massively downsizing the complex historical, political, discursive and affective structures that comprise sexuality.

Hoping to escape, or, more accurately, to go far beyond the limitations of identity politics, queer scholars usually avoid questions of this kind. From this perspective, “Was Shelley Gay?” is a reductionist rhetorical nightmare for a scholar exploring the effects of sexuality in and on literature, especially texts written before the modern invention of both the homosexual and his normative counterpart. Beyond this, and perhaps more dangerously for the work of the field of sexuality studies at large, the question’s mainstream academic reception threatens to perpetuate the vulnerabilities of a field as of yet unaccepted by more traditional fields. Queer scholarship, like feminist and post-colonial work, tends to revive trenchant pockets of discomfort among those whose scholarly desires to occupy the meaningful centre depend upon the construction of that fictive centre through the assignation of everything else to the margin; queer, feminist, and post-colonial critics know how to tread lightly when they must, if only in order to avoid the stultifying and unpleasant effects of panic. The most homophobic fantasies of queer studies posit its belonging exclusively to a small number of scholars who identify as either gay or lesbian and who manifest their intellectual labour as the search to find their like kind. In this outdated yet sustaining fantasy, gay scholars act like the most stereotyped notions of gay people, indelicately cruising and recruiting.

While the most sophisticated response to the question may involve avoiding entry into both its reductive intellectual landscape as well as its problematic offering of what queer theorists do, its dependence upon the legacy of identity politics in gay and lesbian studies conjures the instantiation of the field. There was a time, and it was not very long ago, when making and assessing monolithic claims to identity counted as serious political labour and worked as an intellectually galvanizing form of discovery powerful enough to resituate knowledge. While queer scholars, and feminists and post-colonialists, have moved beyond this aspect of inquiry belonging to the infancy of their fields, these scholars may still feel some allegiance to the liberatory procedures of making identity claims if only because these procedures hold an important place in our political and intellectual history. In an ideal setting for discussion, one would want to pause and consider what it might mean most fully, what it might do to the study of Romanticism, to know that Shelley was the equivalent of a modern gay man. The utopian ideation here attaches not to any notion of Shelley’s homosexuality per se but to the scholarly consideration of the potential effects of strong answers to a real and difficult question, answers unencumbered by homosexual panic.

Was Shelley gay? Having been asked, having been tossed around the academic discussion list, having compelled at least momentarily scholars whose usual intellectual focus lays elsewhere, the question persists. Both inside and outside the complicating contexts of its performances in Gay Today and on NASSR-L, this question should persist, not as a thorny roadblock to more sophisticated modes of queer thought (which continue apace), not as the demand for a simple affirmation or negation (which would effectively end all discussion), but as a probing scholarly question characterized, at least in part, by the fun involved in asking and attempting to answer it. The pleasurable powers of the otherwise problematic question are multifold: the breaking of silence that more subtle inquiries do not effect; the interruption of an unarticulated but naturalized reliance on Shelley’s sexual normativity; and, amazingly, the way the question, so obviously designed to provoke incredulity, defensiveness, and anger in an academic context, does so. In this regard the most powerful open secret about Shelley is not his homosexuality, but the sheer pleasure that emanates from thinking about it, from positing the biographical Shelley as a sexual being who had sexual experiences and feelings unexpected by mainstream criticism.

The routine practices and effects of homophobia, inside the academy and elsewhere, are serious and devastating. But the twisting logic of homophobia, especially in the hands of purported logicians, can be hilarious. It is a world in which the pretence of reason dictates that Shelley’s two marriages provide ample proof of a rampant heterosexuality but never suggest his inability to sustain long term romantic relationships with women nor any of the many other assessments this information might support. Unfortunately neither the notion of intellectual fun, nor the old-fashioned liberatory model of claiming more members for the gay team, nor the potential for evidentiary scandal that could rival the effects of a mud-slinging mockumentary on E!—not even the most Derridean sense of play—came to the aid of this question’s initial performance in the context of NASSR-L. Acknowledging and avowing the pleasure attached to consideration of the question would demand the self-conscious recognition that the intellectual vertigo produced by having your familiar scholarly turf recast—even if only hypothetically or for a brief moment or in a title—sheds more light on the precariousness of one’s own intellectual assumptions than it could ever shed on the historical text called Shelley.

The fact that “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” is archived on the Gay Today web site as a “popular” essay published during 2001 suggests that the title-question was not problematic for its intended audience. Generally readers of gay and lesbian press publications are familiar with the procedures of revised historical storytelling, with the tropes of “outing,” and with the accompanying effects, both actual and possible, of both. One imagines hopefully that for readers of Gay Today, “Was Percy Bysshe Shelley Gay?” may work to recast Shelley in the same way that, for many readers of Oscar Wilde, learning that Wilde was gay concomitantly reorganized their understanding of how they were taught a variety of subjects in school, particularly the way that heterocentric hyper-description—narcissistic, incorrigible, outspoken, artistic—can be a densely encoded form of educational occlusion.

The remainder of this essay is devoted to a discussion of Shelley’s The Cenci as well as the textual and biographical circumstances surrounding its production. This work does not make an argument regarding the precise status of Shelley’s sexual identity, nor does it labour over the terminology most appropriate for labelling Shelley’s obvious and vast curiosity about sex and other men. It practices a series of interpretive operations that comprise one scholar’s assessment of the sensibility of queerness in a part of Shelley’s work and life.

Still, if there can be any generative provisional answer to the question “Was Shelley Gay?” if the terms of the question can mobilize and open further inquiry, and if motions to answer the question can be taken in the pleasure-making spirit of a contest entry that might contribute to educated debate, then surely the question deserves as many answers as there are scholars who might attempt a genuine response. It is certainly as good a question as “What is Romanticism?” which inspired a critical sweepstakes event of its own. [4] I still teach an introduction to the Romantic period called “What is Romanticism?” and I’ll take a stab at “Was Shelley Gay?” If I can momentarily pose a hypothetical best case scenario in which “gay” and “straight” serve as blunt anachronistic metaphors to gesture toward some sense-making description of a historical writer’s sexual experience, Shelley, like most of the Romantic authors with whom he is grouped, was an incredibly interesting and thoroughly dissipated heterosexual.

II. “Knowing what must be thought” in The Cenci

[. . .] no one has more clearly understood than Shelley the mission of the dramatist and the meaning of the drama.

Wilde 12: 349

When he was first working on his translation of Plato’s Symposium, Shelley explained to John and Maria Gisborne that his efforts at the translation, which he undertook “only as an exercise,” would most of all benefit his wife Mary. Shelley wrote that his Symposium was meant “to give Mary some idea of the manners and feelings of the Athenians—so different on many subjects than that of any other community that ever existed” (Letters 2: 20). [5] Shelley’s fascination with male homoeroticism was matched by his concern over the potential interpretation of his interest, an anxiety to which he responded by producing a rich stream of authorial self-description in which his marriage, and the spectre of a sexually naïve Mary Shelley in need of education, figured prominently. Appointing himself as the skilled mediator capable of revealing ancient sexual secrets veiled by language, history, and culture, Shelley consistently offers Mary as the best shaping motivation for his own investigation of the cultural collusion of sexual behaviours, gender, and nation. Not only did Shelley claim to translate Plato’s Symposium as well as compose his companion piece on Greek love for Mary’s benefit, he also urged Mary to write a poetic drama about incest and parricide inside a historically notable Italian family. After Mary refused to write the play, Shelley wrote The Cenci himself. Shelley’s pre-emptive multiple self-positioning here—as poet, as playwright, as translator, as husband, as teacher, as both writer and audience—characterizes his forays into writing about ostensibly forbidden and potentially explosive sexual topics. During this time, he was particularly ethereal; in dialogue with his own desire to write about love and sex between men, Shelley hardly knew who he was.

If, in Shelley’s description, his Symposium was potentially instructive about the differences in the practices of love between the Ancient Greeks and the Modern English, then The Cenci provided a similar kind of education through the consideration of Italian modes of physical and familial intimacy as difference. The plot of The Cenci centres on the treachery of the historical Count Cenci who, in the course of the drama, arranges the murder of his sons and then rapes his daughter Beatrice. Beatrice then murders Count Cenci, her father, and finally is herself publicly beheaded as punishment for parricide. The energizing questions of the drama consider the balance, or lack of balance, between the various “crimes” committed by father and daughter, the inability of any legal system to meaningfully adjudicate their mutual hatred and violence, and ultimately the uses of a documented historical story to resonate with Shelley’s aims as a dramatist.

Critical approaches that re-popularized The Cenci in the late 1980s and early 1990s, reading the “social text” of the drama against, or apart from, its sexual subject matter, suggest that, simply speaking, the play is either one about parricide and therefore metaphorical revolution (something decidedly public) or about incest (something private). [6] This critical taxonomy reproduces the play’s driving quandary, the text’s sustaining struggle over the problem of where exactly Count Cenci’s and Beatrice’s crimes lie with reference to the public and private spheres. The drama’s persistent confusion over the boundaries between these spheres has complicated the critical search for Shelley’s goals in The Cenci. Is Count Cenci’s abuse toward his family, his murder of his sons and his molestation of Beatrice, properly private or public behaviour? And will his crimes be most adequately punished in the public or private sphere? What representational field can account for the fullest sense of the meaning of Beatrice’s arrangement of her father’s murder? Like the guests at Count Cenci’s banquet, during which the Count proposes the celebration of the murder of his own sons (which he has arranged privately) to everyone’s puzzled dismay, the reader of The Cenci senses a dizzying slippage between public and private spheres and is left with profoundly unanswered questions about how to read the play: what counts as public speech here, what constitutes a secret, what is allowed as evidence, and most importantly, how might we discern something stable about “character” or “identity” in the midst of the blurred separations and the vigorous oscillations between public and private domains? When Beatrice calls out to urge the guests at Count Cenci’s banquet to “save” herself and her mother from her father’s impious wrath, Count Cenci addresses his guests:

My friends, I do lament this insane girl
Has spoilt the mirth of our festivity.
Good night, farewell; I will not make you longer
Spectators of our dull domestic quarrels. [7]

For Shelley, The Cenci marked a moment of thoughtful anxiety over questions of publicity and privacy not only within the substance of the drama itself but in Shelley’s desires for its reception. [8] He thought the drama would sell well, and, though he was living in Italy at the time of its composition, he vividly imagined popular English actors and actresses performing The Cenci at Covent Garden. But the difficulties of the public life of the play, which Shelley learned when it was refused by Covent Garden and then soundly rejected by most of its critical readers, were consistently represented in reviews as a matter of its problematic and inappropriate subjects, incest and parricide. And though Shelley himself treated the difficulties of representing these subjects in a drama at great length in his introduction, and though he sent the text to England without attaching his name, one still perceives in his correspondence his surprised disappointment at The Cenci’s lack of success. Eventually Shelley wrote to Byron: “My ‘Cenci’ had, I believe, a complete failure [. . .]. I am aware of the unfitness of the subject, now it is written, but I had a different opinion in composition” (Letters 2: 290). [9]

But Shelley’s introduction to The Cenci, in which he writes at length of the problematic nature of the drama’s subjects, suggests he had many thoughts about the drama’s “unfitness” even during composition. Foregrounding his receipt of “a manuscript” that “contains a detailed account of the horrors” that ended a noble and rich Italian family in 1599, the introduction questions Shelley’s responsibility for the story from the very beginning (Cenci 5). Despite his reliance on the gothic convention of the found manuscript that contains the horrible subjects around which the drama will circle, Shelley still narrates his reasons for writing the drama:

Such a story, if told so as to present to the reader all the feelings of those who once acted it, their hopes and fears, their confidences and misgivings, their various interests, passions, and opinions, acting upon and with each other, yet all conspiring to one tremendous end, would be as a light to make apparent some of the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.


In addition to shining a “light” onto the “secret caverns of the human heart,” the dramatist, Shelley writes, must take the “eminently fearful and monstrous” events of the story and

increase the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the events, so that the pleasure which arises from the poetry which exists in these tempestuous sufferings and crimes may mitigate the pain of the contemplation of the moral deformity from which they spring.


He further states that the play must not attempt “what is vulgarly termed a moral purpose [. . .] a drama is not fit place for the enforcement of them” (7).

Given his lengthy treatment of the potential unfitness of the play’s subjects in his preface to The Cenci, one wonders what motivates Shelley’s surprise when Covent Garden rejects his drama. His performance of unknowing suggests his own sense of how best to approach the problem of imagining the relationship between the scene of The Cenci’s composition and the scene of its reception, a project of imagination that requires asking the following question: how will Shelley’s interest in the subjects of The Cenci be made into something publicly knowable about him? As much as these are concerns about The Cenci, they are more broadly concerns about authorship (Shelley points repeatedly in his preface to the fact that he is just “newly awakened to the study of dramatic literature” [9]) and the relationship between private behaviours and public identities in a historical context within which the vicissitudes of authorship were becoming less and less stable. They are also questions about sexual character, about the public assignation of sexual practices, interests, and/or proclivities to particular individuals, like Shelley.

Shelley’s path through this cluster of questions is to be found in a closer examination of what he imagined the “fit” or “unfit” subject of The Cenci to be. Shelley himself said, after the composition of the play, in a much-quoted letter to Maria Gisborne: “Incest is like many other incorrect things a very poetical circumstance” (Letters 2: 154). [10] In the year before composing The Cenci, while working on his Symposium, Shelley had engaged in a writing project that brought him through a treatment of another incorrect sexual circumstance, which may have marked the beginning of Shelley’s sustained reflections on how to represent the incorrect, especially incorrect sexual desires.

While Shelley was working on his translation of Plato’s Symposium that summer, a year before writing The Cenci, he explained that he was also composing a supplemental essay which would consider the differences in Ancient Greek and Modern British sentiments regarding, in Shelley’s words, “the subject of which the Symposium treats,” a subject, as Shelley went on to remark, “to be handled with that delicate caution which either I cannot or I will not practise in other matters, but which here I acknowledge to be necessary” (Letters 2: 29). [11] By emphasizing his agency in choosing “delicate caution” as a means of proceeding on the subject of the Symposium, Shelley’s remarks under-emphasize his ventriloquizing participation in a set of rhetorical practices that had become commonplace in public discussions of sodomy in Great Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, after William Blackstone called attention to “the delicacy of our English law, which treats it, in its very indictments, as a crime not fit to be named: the horrible sin not to be named among Christians” (qtd. in Crompton 20). By pointing out Shelley’s use of a culturally available practice of omission in reference to sodomy, I want also to suggest, in keeping with the work of Jonathan Goldberg in his anthology Reclaiming Sodom, that the thing Shelley cannot bring himself to articulate about his interests in Platonic love—sodomy—is itself not a stable signifier. The essays in Goldberg’s book make it clear that historically sodomy “flourished in the West as the name for every form of sexual behavior besides married, heterosexual, procreatively aimed sex” (Goldberg 3). For Shelley, in The Cenci, a set of anxieties about the relationship between sexual behaviours, gender, and nation were woven into an imagination of sodomy as a site for their condensation and overlap. There was a further slippage for Shelley, in the composition of The Cenci, between sodomy as a site of identity-production and incest.

Evidence to this point can be found in the document from which Shelley took the story of the Cenci family, a year after he translated the Symposium and wrote about the curious differences between Greek and English love, which stated explicitly that sodomy was among the real-life Count Cenci’s crimes:

Sodomy was the least, and atheism the greatest, of the vices of Francesco Cenci; as is proved by the tenor of his life; for he was 3 times accused of sodomy, and paid the sum of 100,000 crowns to government, in commutation of the punishment rightfully awarded to this crime. [12]

Shelley, ed. Woodberry 131

From this document, Shelley developed his own rendering of Count Cenci’s evil identity, in which it is his sodomitical nature which energizes his crimes toward his daughter. Shelley’s own translation of Cenci’s behaviours was this:

The story is, that an old man having spent his life in debauchery and wickedness, conceived at length an implacable hatred toward his children; which showed itself towards one daughter under the form of an incestuous passion aggravated by every circumstance of cruelty and violence.

Cenci 5

If we can imagine from these introductory remarks by Shelley that sodomy appears “under the form” of incest, then we need also to think this translation in national terms, to recognize that, inside a story replete with gothic disguises, Italian sodomy disguises itself as incest in England, for an English audience. Again, Shelley is participating in an English cultural imagination of sodomy which was widely thought to have been exported to Great Britain from Italy. The powers of the work of translation here are remarkable: sodomy under the form of incest and England under the form of Italy. But there is also a gender translation at work here: men under the form of women. Importantly, in The Cenci, it is a woman who will suffer at the hands of a sodomite because, for Shelley (and this may tell us something about his sense of the potential benefits of this information for Mary), the practice of Greek love was most of all a crime against women.

In other words, for Shelley, the question of where sodomy comes from encourages an amazing set of unrecognized slippages between his characterizations of ancient Greek women, modern Italian women, and Mary. From his “Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love” we know that Shelley most of all understood that Greek men loved each other because they suffered from a profound lack of desirable Greek women, who, because they were essentially enslaved, were not lofty objects for love. Shelley’s descriptions of Greek women portray them as inferior and, indeed, sexually repulsive because they were not morally and intellectually lovely, and, as he writes, “Their eyes could not have been deep and intricate from the workings of the mind, and could have entangled no heart in soul-enwoven labyrinths” (qtd. in Holmes 106). In other words Greek women were not like his own wife, Mary, whom Shelley consistently described in his letters as possessing an enchanting intellect and “redeeming eyes” (Letters 1: 412). [13] Of course contemporary Italian women were not like Mary either. And as in the case of ancient Greek women, Shelley’s contempt for his imagination of Italian femininity, women he describes as “an inferior race of beings” (Letters 2: 14) [14] and “devoid of any cultivation and refinement” (Letters 2: 22), [15] attaches to the sexual behaviours, however problematic, of Italian men. One way to simplify Shelley’s line of logic here, which wanders restlessly from nation to nation through a variety of time periods, is to say that one thing that might make a sodomite is the absence of Mary.

For Shelley, the best example of how this identity-formation works is with reference to the most liminally extraordinary Englishman of all, and consistently the best distorting mirror for Shelley himself, Lord Byron. In December of 1818, Shelley wrote to Thomas Love Peacock:

The fact is, that first, the Italian women are perhaps the most contemptible of all who exist under the moon; the most ignorant, the most disgusting, the most bigoted, the most filthy. Countesses smell so of garlick that an ordinary Englishman cannot approach them. Well, Lord Byron is familiar with the lowest sort of these women, the people his gondolieri pick up in the streets. He allows fathers and mothers to bargain with him for their daughters, and though this is common enough in Italy, yet for an Englishman to encourage such sickening vice is a melancholy thing. He associates with wretches who seem almost to have lost the gait and physiognomy of man, and who do not scruple to avow practices, which are not only not named, but I believe seldom even conceived in England. He says he disapproves, but he endures. [16]

Letters 2: 58

In an astounding feat of narrative condensation this passage performs the same kind of textual clustering found in The Cenci, especially its preface. The rapid associative movement here, from the hideousness of Italian femininity to the sodomitical proclivities of Italian men somehow through an Englishman is a virtual re-staging of Shelley’s own sense of the placement of himself in between Mary and Greek love. Certainly Shelley’s performance of these questions with reference to himself and Mary is much clearer (perhaps because it is more abstract), and certainly the outcome is very different: Mary is the kind of object that does not re-channel an Englishman’s erotic trajectory toward men. Not only does Mary stand solidly between Shelley and Greek love, but also as this example shows, she intervenes too between Shelley and Byron. In her passively magnetic ability to arouse Shelley, she confers upon him a staggeringly disingenuous unknowing, an inability even to conceive of sodomy as a practice, which simultaneously allows all the other pieces to fall into place: his masculinity unshaken, his Englishness unchallenged, his sexual behaviours transparent and natural.

But what lingers for Shelley is a price for the monolithic, perfect alignment of his identity performance along the axes of gender, nation, and sexual character. It takes a lot of hard work to sustain both his interest in and his disavowals of Greek love, Italian love, Byronic love. For Shelley this work appears residually in his worries over his own authorial constitution, in the work that he carried out mostly in his letters, of trying to represent the kind of author who wrote The Cenci. To Thomas Medwin, as to others, Shelley wavered in his self-described relationship to The Cenci: “My chief endeavor was to produce a delineation of passions in which I had never participated, in chaste language, and according to the rules of enlightened art. I don’t think very much of it, but it is for you to judge” (Letters 2: 189). [17]

The nature of the potentially dangerous work of self-scrutiny in negotiating the character of the play as being about Shelley’s own character is addressed in act 2 of The Cenci by Beatrice’s suitor Orsino, who is charged with the task of mediating between Beatrice and her public (the Pope) and her private audience (her father). Orsino describes the Cenci family this way:

[. . .] ’tis a trick of this same family
To analyze their own and other minds.
Such self-anatomy shall teach the will
Dangerous secrets; for it tempts our powers,
Knowing what must be thought, and may be done,
Into the depth of darkest purposes.

Cenci 39

Here Orsino reveals the dual nature of his role in Shelley’s Cenci as both Beatrice’s lover and Shelley’s authorial surrogate. In light of Shelley’s well-known fascination with Beatrice’s story and her portrait, as well as his purported goals in writing the drama, the double inflection of Orsino’s stance captures Shelley’s complex fascination with the subject—his impulse to retell the horrible story and to tell it so as to produce pleasure in its readers, to “increase the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the events, so that the pleasure which arises from the poetry which exists in these tempestuous sufferings and crimes may mitigate the pain of the contemplation of the moral deformity from which they spring” (Cenci 7). Still, the logic of the drama itself is profoundly undone by Orsino’s speech; there is little inside the play to suggest that the members of this family, however “tricky,” possess any skill whatsoever at reading one another. Indeed, not only do the characters in Shelley’s drama fail to understand themselves and each other, but also the individual members of the family rarely appear together and never make generative, revealing speech in the presence of one another. The very plot of the drama is driven by their miscalculated motivations, foiled sneak attacks, and fleeting moments of oblique and ultimately failed communication. Real powers of analysis might have worked to avert the historical as well as dramatic result, the extinction of an entire family, and the driving machinations of that extinction taking one unwitting member at a time in an unstoppable sequence.

While Shelley’s anxious considerations of his own purposes in writing The Cenci erupt as the product of his desire to think sexuality, these thoughts are simultaneously inflected by his imagination of the drama as a vehicle that will have a life in public, a performance more dangerously public than the lives of other forms, a difficult, monstrous existence not unlike the life Mary Shelley predicted for her own literary prodigy. But Mary Shelley’s misgivings over the potential public figuration of her novel, and therefore herself, were risks taken and amply rewarded: Frankenstein was read. Shelley wanted to be read, and he thought The Cenci might effect a breakthrough moment of public figuration for him despite the potential costs of that publicity. Shelley’s desires for audience were attended by the same force of anxiety evident in Wordsworth’s desire for the public life of The Prelude; but Shelley took obvious risks that Wordsworth did not, by expressing his desire for readers fully and directly, by expansively imagining a plethora of reasonable alibis in his advance expectation of a public life for his work and therefore for some version of himself that he did not yet know and could only imagine with a forceful and sometimes dizzying authorial anxiety attaching to both his interests in male sexuality and the potential public figuration of them.

It is worth rethinking the layering of desires revealed in Shelley’s Preface to the play, the densely described chain of reactions required in order for pleasure to arise. For pleasure, as Shelley argues, exists in the tempestuous sufferings of the Cenci story. No contemporary reader living amidst the products of a cultural hunger for violent spectacle and its hapless victims—no teacher plying students with the horrific plot of The Cenci as incentive to read it—could disagree. What one is left to wonder, and what is most difficult to assess, is the character of the link between Shelley’s own discomfort with responsibility for the contents of the drama and his own experience of “the pain of the contemplation of the moral deformity from which they spring.” It is not the self-shattering instability of a collision between pleasure and moral deformity that guarantees the sublime in Shelley’s The Cenci—it is just the opposite: the utter predictability of their relation, the endlessly generative performances of moral deformity, painful to apprehend only because in thinking it one realizes its enormous variety, its potentially endless assortment of concrete practices—including playwrighting and dramatic performance themselves—and its guaranteed potential to saturate everything, including authors such as Shelley, their most energizing interests and fascinations, their most intimate friends, and even their wives.

Perhaps we can think of Shelley’s work to derive a securely established authorial location with reference to sex, gender, and nation through a complicated series of real and imagined encounters and disavowals during 1818 and 1819 as the kind of faulty self-anatomy Orsino attributes to the Cenci family. Shelley’s inability to anatomize himself—to avow, name, categorize, pinpoint, or directly describe—pits his will against “dangerous secrets” and lays bare the complex mechanics of the articulation of “the ordinary Englishman” with its interested dependence on fantasies of national depravity, personal perversion, and authorial disapproval, all within the realm of the simultaneously public and private world of the unspeakably incorrect, metonymically contained within the locating, redeeming presence of Mary reading.

Parties annexes