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Romanticism on the Net

Numéro 4, novembre 1996

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/005727ar

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Article

The Violence of the Sacred: The Economy of Sacrifice in The Cenci

Robert M. Corbett

University of Washington


I. The Economy of the Sacred

1

Late in the second act of Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci, Giacomo asks Orsino to explain why the family's petition about the tyrannical Count Cenci to the Pope has failed. Though Orsino says he delivered the petition and "backed it with my earnest prayers . . . / It was returned unanswered." [1] The cause of its rejection illustrates the dilemma of resistance for Beatrice and the rest of the family: "I doubt not / But that the strange and execrable deeds / Alleged in it . . . / have turned the Pope's displeasure / Upon the accusers from the criminal" (Cenci II.i.62-66). According to the logic of the play, one can either be passive and pure, and thus become a victim to the Count Cenci's relentless violence, or reciprocate it in the equally pernicious act (in Shelleyan terms) of retribution. Shorn of every legitimate means of reprisal against his tyrannical father, Giacomo laments that "we are left, as scorpions ringed with fire. / What should we do but strike ourselves to death?" (Cenci II.ii.70-4). The image suggests that the only escape from such tyranny is through suicide. Yet Giacomo speaks of plural scorpions who are encircled by a force of nature, not by a human antagonist. Furthermore, the radical equivalence that the fire has reduced the scorpions to makes the difference between violence directed against self or other no longer important: whether it is mass suicide or mutual massacre - the ambivalence suggested by the reflexive "ourselves" - is beside the point. The family's dilemma is only accentuated by the dual authority that Count Cenci wields as both father and nobleman. His criminality effectively indicts a wider compass than just his own immortal soul, since he embodies temporal as well as familial authority. This unholy union provokes Orsino to argue that "A father who is all a tyrant seems, / Were the profaner for his sacred name." [2] While he will often articulate versions of the author's analysis of the family's dilemma, Orsino nevertheless here clings to one unShelleyan tenet: that fatherhood, and with it, patriarchy, is a sacred institution which can be profaned by violence. Yet the play, by linking familial, political, and religious corruption in the figure of Count Cenci, suggests a different formula: that violence is the imageless deep truth of these sacred institutions.

2

I invoke the formula of "the violence of the sacred" to suggest the relevance of Rene Girard's theory about the violent origins of community for understanding Percy Shelley's The Cenci. The plot is structured around parricide and incest, the two primary transgressions that call for sacrificial absolution in Girard's terms, an absolution that takes place in the form of Beatrice Cenci's execution, effectively making her a "scapegoat" expunged in order to save the community. Generically, Girard's work makes sense as a theoretical paradigm, since the strong precursors of Shelley's drama are the Athenian and Jacobean dramas where the collapse of authority provokes a seemingly endless spiral of violence—precisely the scenario of "reciprocal violence" which Girard recasts as a "sacrificial crisis." [3] Yet The Cenci seems less complicated than Shakespearean tragedy in both its language, and the lack of sub-plots: we are never very far from the confrontation of Beatrice and her father. In fact, by refining out these elements in favor of a stark unveiling of tragedy's sacrificial underpinnings, Shelley was playing to the expectations of his desired audience, expectations that placed a premium on actorly scene-chewing, and not verbal or psychological dexterity. [4] Moreover, this transformation suits Shelley's moral purpose, as well as making it more Girardian. The claustrophobia that the play induces in the reader or the spectator—since Shelley "avoided with great care in writing this play the introduction of what is commonly called mere poetry" (Preface 8-9)—sharpens the identification of the community and religion, which Girard theorizes as necessary, and which Shelley wishes to confront to his audience with. [5]

3

Given the Catholic and Italian setting of The Cenci, however, the reader/spectator is free to assert their difference, as though "People (in England at least) don't do such things." Indeed, Shelley anticipates that "To a Protestant apprehension there will appear something unnatural in the earnest and perpetual sentiment of the relations between God and men which pervade the tragedy of the Cenci." [6] Yet again the use of Italy both suits Shelley's moral purpose, and strengthens the Girardian thematics of the play. Insofar as Girard posits the violent origin of community and ritual, with their necessary resanctification through sacrifice, Renaissance Italy, with its loose aggregation of city-states united under Papal authority, provides a modern example of the identification of religion and state, while the execution of Beatrice becomes a modern version of sacrifice. [7] The distinction that Shelley draws between Italian Catholicism and Protestantism suggests that he is also interested in how religion's influence seems to abolish the ideal of a secular civil society. Italian Catholicism is not "a coat to be worn on particular days," like Protestantism (and more particularly, the Paleyite Anglicanism of his father), but is rather "interwoven with the whole fabric of life." [8] A coat that never comes off, Catholicism "pervades intensely the whole frame of society, and is according to the temper of the mind which it inhabits, a passion, a persuasion, an excuse, a refuge; never a check." [9] The last term in this series suggests Shelley's atheistic leanings in contrast to those of the writer of his favorite play of the period, Remorse. Samuel Taylor Coleridge there inscribes the title page with what is effectively the play's moral that "Remorse is as the heart, in which it grows: / If that be gentle, it drops balmy dews / Of true repentance," suggesting that religion, even of Catholic Spain, can potentially provide a check, if rightly understood by the "heart." [10] Shelley, on the other hand, folds religion back into the heart, as simply another discourse that affects the will, but does not offer salutary resistance to it. By choosing Italy as the setting for his depiction of "sad reality," Shelley creates a situation where the institutions of law, religion, and family are seamlessly interwoven, yet helpless to check the passions of the individual.

4

The apocalyptic tenor of Girard's theory, transmitted to Shelley through the medium of Greek tragedy, would seem to confirm Carl Woodring's assertion of the abstractness of Shelley's political concerns in his major works. For Woodring, Shelley's

intense interest in theories of man, society, politics and history preceded his interest in the practical, daily workings of legislation and power. Selective observation seemed to confirm what selective reading had told him of social and political wrong. [11]

Not unlike a reader in 1820, Woodring would dismiss the suggestion that Shelley had specific political concerns in writing a drama about incest and parricide in 16th-century Italy. Observations such as these have lead political readers of Shelley to almost prefer the propagandistic works such as The Mask of Anarchy to the "beautiful idealisms" of Prometheus Unbound. The suggestion of political specificity may well be out of place in the latter, but Shelley's The Cenci is in fact not entirely the apocalyptic contrary of that drama. As the foremost example of Shelley's middle style, The Cenci is, I will argue, also the foremost example of Shelley's attempts to write subversive art. Just as he mimed Southey's stanzas and conventions in Queen Mab not only to persuade the reader of the pervasiveness of Necessity, but also the necessity of vegetarianism, Shelley has a dual aim in miming dramatic conventions in The Cenci. Overtly, the play thrusts the reader in skeptical speculation about Christian ethics in the dilemma of Beatrice, but covertly, the play suggests that the ground for her dilemma has been prepared by the interweaving of church and state, thereby provoking the reader to see a current English political issue mirrored in the drama . One set of thematics that tends to undermine a sacrificial reading of The Cenci is the fact that the characters carry out their actions for Mammon, as much as God. For instance, after his interview with Camillo in the first scene, Count Cenci reveals what is foremost in his mind: "The third of my possessions! I must use / Close husbandry, or gold, the old man's sword, / Falls from my withered hand." [12] The Count knows very well that in "getting and spending" he ruins his "native powers," but paradoxically only through spending can he exercise those powers. Economic concerns, then, defamiliarize the tragic situation of the Cenci, threatening to reveal what is hidden in the sacred is not the Hobbesian threat of universal violence, but the sordid concern with money. Furthermore, the institution of dispensations which allow Cenci to evade judicial sanction for his actions benefit the "sacred" in its earthly instantiation as the Catholic Church. A cynical reader, keeping cui bono in mind, would say that Cenci's violence, far from profaning the sacred, is good for business.

5

There are strong historical reasons for taking Shelley's representation of the the intermingling of the Church and aristocracy in The Cenci as an idealized version of a conflict manifesting itself in the England of his time. To be brief, the tradition of tithing to the Established Church was being transformed by the economic revolution that England was undergoing at the time, in such a way that the aristocracy and the clergy were becoming more dependent upon each other. In fact, the recognition of such interdependence is at least one reason that the government could start to see the need for Catholic emancipation. I will return to this matter later, but I first want to show how Girard's theory illuminates The Cenci's intermingling of the sacred and violence.

II. Hobbesian Violence / Girardian Sacrifice

6

In writing a tragedy, Shelley knew that he would describe a logic antithetical to his belief in human perfectibility. Indeed, as he well knew, tragedy more often asserts the contrary of the ideal of universal benevolence that underlies the belief in perfectibility. Tragedy's answer is the need for social institutions to keep violence at bay. In a sense, Thomas Hobbes is the great theorist of this dynamic, as he worked out a theory of the state that begins from the premise of the war of all against all, while Shakespeare's King Lear exemplifies what can happen to men who forget this fact: rather than having the "commodious living" enabled by the social contract, they are turned into "unaccomodated" men as Edgar and Lear are. Yet Hobbes' theory is a theory of the state, not of literature, and thus, though it provides rules for social behavior, it does not provide rules for plot dynamics. On the other hand, Rene Girard's work on the connection of violence and the sacred in literature does take up the Hobbesian premise of the state of nature, but with a much different end in mind. The sacrificial crisis is Girard's equivalent of the Hobbesian state of nature, where

In a universe both deprived of any transcendental code of justice and exposed to violence, everybody has reason to fear the worst. The difference between a projection of one's own paranoia and an objective evaluation of circumstances has been worn away. [13]

Like Hobbes, Girard takes as his premise that violence is the condition of natural man, with the similar corollary that no society can exist in such a state. Furthermore, it is not the exacerbation of differences which causes social disorder, but instead their abolition. Girard's contention is Ulysses' contention in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, where he claims that "when is Degree is shaked . . . right and wrong / Between whose endless jar justice resides, / Should lose their names, and so should justice too." [14] One would not be hard put to show that Edmund Burke relies on this same premise (hence the crocodile tears for Marie-Antoinette) in order to condemn the French Revolution. [15] The claim that links all three of these theorists is that social differences presuppose hierarchy in order to prevent disorder from breaking out. In other words, any tilt towards democratization in a society— "levelling" as they would call in it the period—threatens a return to the war of all against all. Shelley, as partisan for revolution ideally, but also reform practically, would feel the tar of this brush often in his career in the polemics of Tory reviewers.

7

Yet while Girard's theory concerns the dynamics of tragedy, it also makes claim to explain social processes, but instead of invoking a transformative moment of contract, he argues that there is a transformation of violence. Sacrifice enters here as a peculiar kind of catharsis: the enactment of a single death transforms what was the ultimate evil into the ultimate good. As it enshrouds the single death in a mist of ritual, sacrifice purportedly distinguishes between legitimate murder and illegitimate murder. Instead of a generative contract, Girard postulates a generative murder, sweepingly revising Freud's Totem and Taboo. Freud there postulated a primordial murder of the father by his sons, a murder that so reverberates with guilt that the sons instigate the incest taboo and set up a totemic religion. Girard's vision of sacrifice simplifies this scenario, in that the identity of the victim is no longer important: rather, it is the imposition of unanimity, in a bizarre parody of social contract theory, that counts. Girard draws the sanguine conclusion that "[i]f this is true, the generative violence constitutes at least the indirect origin of all those things that men hold most dear and they strive most ardently to preserve." [16] Thus, all society has a religious origin because only religion can enshroud, through ritualistic sacrifice, violence with the sacred and keep the sacrificial crisis at bay. For Girard, tragedy, because of its ancient connection with religious ritual, reenacts this dynamic, although in a distorted manner.

8

One of the reasons that Girard singles out tragedy in his pursuit of the sacrificial crisis is that it engages in reversals which undermine differences. Thus, in tragedy, "Tyranny, too, is essentially unstable. A newcomer can ascend unexpectedly to the very summit of power, only to plummet, while one of his opponents assumes his position." [17] According to Girard, tragedy must create such reversals as a distanced echo of a fundamental process in the ritual sacrifice. In Girard's rereading of Freud, the fact that a father that is killed is not important because the identity of the victim is not important; there simply has to be a victim. This swerve, which Girard calls "the surrogate victim mechanism" in effect renders everyone guilty and equally liable to victimization. Ritual sacrifice enacts this mechanism: "its function is to perpetuate or renew effects of this mechanism; that is, to keep violence outside the community." [18] The function of religion is to allow men to misrecognize the arbitrariness of the victim, and to cover over the insight that might lead to the sacrificial crisis. Thus the reversal of roles involved in tragic plotting creates "monstrous doubles." The doubling of oppressor by the oppressed, makes characters seem to go out of character, so that they eerily shadow each other's actions, and as readers we are put in the casuistic position of choosing sides. [19]

9

Surely no system could be further from Shelley's own beliefs. Though he did not deny the reality of evil, Shelley did not give it the ontological status that Girard does. According to Stuart Sperry, Prometheus Unbound looks forward to a wholly other unanimity: "the triumph of a universal consensus that is forever imminent in our better nature." [20] Amidst these Promethean visions lurk complications, however; that Shelley took time off from his masterpiece to describe the "sad reality" of The Cenci indicates that he was wary of too easy a solution to apparently insoluble problems. While no critic has ever underscored sacrificial aspects of The Cenci, our attitude toward the play's violence has been seen as primary in understanding it. As Sperry points out,

The fundamental issue upon which the drama turns on is, to put it simply, was Beatrice wrong in planning the murder of her father, Count Francesco Cenci, or was she justified in following, like Antigone, the dictates of her conscience and in adopting violent means to relieve both her family and herself from insupportable tyranny. [21]

Girard argues there are only two ways to justify violence absolutely: either the sacred violence of sacrifice or sanctioned judicial murder. These choices are paralleled by the two deaths of the play: first, the murder of Cenci the tyrant and then the execution of Beatrice. Additionally, Shelley avows that writing the tragedy of The Cenci is in effect a sacrifice of his political principles, as he tries "to avoid the error of making [the characters] actuated by my own conceptions of right and wrong." [22] More particularly, as Shelley reveals in his preface, he knows that his solution to the tragedy of Beatrice—stoic self-sacrifice—simply cannot be embodied dramatically in a manner that will win him an audience. [23]

10

In point of fact, Cenci is the reverse of Shelley's principles of right and wrong. Cenci himself seems a monstrous double of Prometheus: rather than a rebellious god punished for his actions, Cenci is a human criminal whose actions are sanctioned by the church. Cardinal Camillo laments at the beginning that though Cenci is "Charged with a thousand unrepented crimes, / Yet I have ever hoped you amend, / And in that hope have saved your life three times." [24] In fact, Cenci has actually purchased the reticence of the Papal anger and seems to revel in having done so, since,

No doubt Pope Clement,

And his most charitable nephews, pray

That the Apostle Peter and the Saints

Will grant for their sake that I long enjoy

Strength, wealth, and pride, and lust, and length of days

Wherein to act the deeds which are stewards

Of their revenue. [25]

Cenci's ironic comment about the church's dependence upon his depredations offers another reading of events in the play that suggests that the sacred is simply a cover for self-interest. Cenci himself introduces the possibility of a sacred interpretation of events. In killing his own sons, Cenci does not choose to rely on human means, but rather asks, "I pray thee, God, send some quick death upon them!" [26] At the accomplishment of his wish, Cenci calls for a banquet to celebrate it, as "It is accomplished, he should then rejoice, / And call his friends, and kinsmen to a feast." [27] Despite his interpretation, the other celebrants do not share his satisfaction, although he would have them confront "the sober truth" that "Providence was shown / Even in the manner of their deaths." [28] One son was crushed when a church collapsed as he was at the mass and the other son was killed during the same hour of the night; whether these events are fortuitous, miraculous, or part of some elaborate plot of Cenci's is left up to the reader to speculate.

11

Yet Cenci vacillates upon the meaning of these deaths. Foremost on his mind is that "The tapers that did light them the dark way / Are their last cost." [29] Just as line from Macbeth is mocked by the last clause, Cenci's concentration on brass tacks suggests other motives. Yet Cenci's audacity leads him to propose a very sinister toast for his banquet. He says of a glass of wine he holds up to his horrified audience, "Could I believe thou wert their mingled blood, / Then I would taste thee like a sacrament." [30] Not the least sign of this gesture's outrageousness is that it is dedicated to the Devil, as though Cenci were inverting the destination as well as the purpose of sacrifice. Cenci does not quite go through with the gesture, since he argues that he has drunk enough of pleasure at the news his sons' deaths, but then he reverses himself at the end of the act. A parody of sacrifice, rather than an actual one, Cenci's communion does not cathartically end violence, but is the prelude to more.

12

Beatrice's purity stands in contrast with Cenci's perversity. Rather than appearing as Cenci's monstrous double, initially she seems like the self-sacrificial contrary to his radical evil. Even in acknowledging her father's evil, she can remind herself of a more natural state of relations: "What, although tyranny and impious hate / Stand sheltered by a father's hoary hair?" [31] Like Camillo, her reverence for her father's station has long deterred her from believing that Cenci incarnated evil; instead, she "has kissed the sacred hand / Which crushed us to the earth." [32] She takes submission, whether to Cenci's bloodlust so "that my father/ Were celebrating now one feast for all" or Cenci's submission to God, as the only cure for the ills that plague the family. [33] Most emblematic of Beatrice's capacity for metaphorical self-sacrifice is her reaction Orsino's breaking of their "youthful contract:" she says, "I love you still, but holily, / Even as a sister or spirit might." [34]

13

If Beatrice is marked off for her purity, Orsino sees with unblinkered pragmatism the means of getting what he want. He stands in the middle of Cenci's perversity and Beatrice's purity as someone in deploying illicit means to serve his "good" intentions, so that

I shall be well content if on my conscience

There rest no heavier sin than what they suffer

From the devices of my love. [35]

If Orsino's strategizing here tends to reduce the sacred subtext to one of self-interest, he later imagines a secret unanimity that will guarantee his success with Beatrice:

Her father dead; her brother bound to me

By a dark secret, surer than the grave;

Her mother scared and unexpostulating

From the dread manner of her wish achieved. [36]

Orsino effectively wishes for the unaminity , through the mechanism of collective guilt, that is necessary to render murder not illegitimate, but a necessary foundation of community. Thus, in Orsino we have an interweaving of both economies of violence in the play: one that would mask it as a legitimate sacrifice for the common good, the other which would unmask it as driven by naked self-interest.

14

The doubleness of Orsino's motivation prefigures the problem that will be crucial in reading the play in ethical terms: the increasing identification of Beatrice with her apparent opposite, Count Cenci. Cenci has essentially made a monster out of himself, turning fatherhood into tyranny. Though he has been motivated by money in the persecution of his sons, his resolution to rape Beatrice shows that Cenci's believes his tyranny is taking a supernatural turn: he characterizes the act as "A deed which shall confound both night and day." [37] After the rape, Cenci believes he is the instrument of God's will. He says that just before he dies he "will pile up my silver and my gold; / My costly robes, paintings and tapestries; / . . . And make a bonfire of my joy, and leave / Of my possessions nothing but my name, " ending his action by resigning his soul "Into the hands of him who wielded it" as a scourge. [38] Even as Cenci imagines himself as a monstrous figure of God's revenge, he wishes to make a monster of Beatrice, so that to make her "Body and soul a monstrous lump of ruin." [39] Cenci utters these words as he awaits the final submission of Beatrice to his will, yet Beatrice does not immediately comply with this request. In her recovery, however, Beatrice too starts to becoming monstrously other, vowing that

something must be done

. . . which shall make

The thing that I have suffered but a shadow

In the dread lightning which avenges it. [40]

Her desire arises out of a fear that her father has managed to infect her as well: "O blood, which art my father's blood, / Circling through these contaminated veins." [41] Nor can she turn to one solution for such contamination and spill her own blood, as she clings relentlessly to faith and its injunction against suicide.

15

When Orsino suggests to Beatrice the option that might resolve the crisis by less explosive means, in the form of the law, Beatrice's response is "Oh, ice-hearted counsellor." [42] Clearly, the purely formal apparatus of the law will not deliver Beatrice satisfaction of revenge. Yet her characterization of Orsino as "ice-hearted" is accurate, since he harbors other means of revenge beside the legal one: it is up to him to introduce the means of committing the murder of Cenci. Nevertheless, Beatrice cannot evade guilt for conceiving the first attempt, as she suggests the ravine as the appropriate place to take their revenge. The impersonal mode of having a boulder roll over Cenci effectively imitates the providential murders of her brothers. The scene of the actual murder however witnesses the complete transformation of Beatrice into her opposite. Even before the climactic confrontation, Beatrice implores the murderers to "Come follow! / And be your steps like mine, light, quick and bold," as though they are mere scourges for her use. [43] Like her father, she begins to cloak her action with the veil of the sacred. This becomes even more apparent when she acts to drive the murderers back after they had demurred in killing a sleeping old man. Their very reticence seems sacrilege in the case of "a deed where mercy insults Heaven." [44] In effect, Beatrice does come to Cenci when she takes hold of the dagger.

16

The ironic arrival of the Pope's representatives shows that the murder has not had its cathartic effect: instead, it represents simply one more move in the cycle of reciprocal violence. In part, that murder has already been revealed as illegitimate violence, for even as Beatrice tells Marzio and Olimpio that "Thou wert a weapon in the hand of God / To a just use," she gives them gold and a mantle, suggesting the economic benefits of their actions. [45] The unnerving calm that settles on Beatrice after the murder links her to her father as well. To suggest that Beatrice has become the monstrous double of her father may feel unduly harsh, and indeed, the pathos of Beatrice's predicament is seen in existential terms by one of the best readers of the play, Stuart Curran. [46] Yet perhaps the most shocking element of a Girardian reading of The Cenci is that rather than rigorously segregating the fate of Cenci and his daughter, Girard's concept of the monstrous double highlights how Beatrice actually mimes the monstrous actions of her father. Most particularly, she mimes her father's actions in masking her violence as sacred—far from challenging the premises he works from, she in fact confirms them. Girard would characterize the need to exempt Beatrice as a desire for "romantic melodrama" where "A static Manichaean confrontation of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' occurs. [47] Yet the complexity of Shelley's drama compels us to see a certain equivalence in the actions of Cenci and his daughter. Strikingly, in the later assertions that Cenci's murder was unjust, his "hoary hair" is appealed to as an emblem of fatherhood, just as Beatrice's hair embodies her virginity. Beatrice still clings to the notion that her actions were justified in holy terms, but the murder clearly did not have its desired effect, but merely turned violence towards the other members of the family. The legation of the Pope effectively rendered this inevitable, though their arrival merely confirms what we knew already: that the murder could not be justified. Nevertheless, their arrival enables a sacrifice to take place, but one by the judicial mechanism instead. [48]

17

Perhaps the Church believes it is only carrying out the proper punishment for a crime, but Camillo's final plea to the Pope engenders a reply that reveals other motives as well. Receiving the letter begging for mercy for Beatrice, the Pope replies,

Paolo Santa Croce

Murdered his mother yester evening

And he is fled. Parricide grows rife

That soon, for some just cause no doubt, the young

Will strangle us all, dozing in our chairs. [49]

Though the Pope imagines a scene of authority overwhelmed rather than one of reciprocal violence, the implicit rationale for the execution is the same: commit this murder in order to prevent these other murders. There would be something comic in the hyperbole the Pope is here engaging in, as he imagines a scenario of youthful revolution on the basis of two anecdotes, if the result of his thinking were not the sanctioned murder of Beatrice. In truly Girardian fashion, the Pope also admits the arbitrariness of the Church's revenge, as he imagines the parricides are carried out "for some just cause." Rather than the act itself, it is the tendency of killing the father, in metonymically overthrowing patriarchy and the domination of the Church, that the Pope wishes to exterminate. In this respect, the Church is acting more like a Hobbesian state, than the repository of Christian forgiveness on earth.

III. The Politics of The Cenci

18

My first act of Prometheus is complete, and I think you would like it. I consider the poetry very subordinate to moral and political science, and if I were well, certainly I would aspire to the latter, for I can conceive a great work, embodying the discoveries of all ages, and harmonizing the contending creeds by which mankind has been ruled.

Shelley to Peacock, in a letter dated January 26, 1819

At least in writing his utilitarian friend, Shelley in the midst of his poetic annus mirabulus was willing to emphasize his "moral and political science" over the poetry of his masterpiece. Some of the shock of this claim may be deflated when we consider the audience to whom Shelley writes here, since Peacock, as clerk in the India Office, had a much more refined understanding of the inner workings of government. Indeed, rather than lamenting than Shelley was not Byronic enough in his poetic politics, as Woodring does, we might imagine some hermaphroditic union of Shelley's revolutionary poetics, and Peacock's insider knowledge. The claim for ineffectuality of Shelley's politics rests on the claim that he wasn't enough of a political pragmatist. [50] He aimed at an imaginary universal consensus, rather than a more tangible consensus that might have reformed parliament and achieved Catholic Emancipation earlier. The fallacy of these claims is that Shelley did work toward practical political goals, as evidenced by the works of his left hand, including the pamphlet on the death of Princess Caroline and A Philosophical View of Reform. The Cenci, as a tragedy of oppression and retribution, with a clearly defined potential audience, represents Shelley's foremost attempt to combine the work of left and right hand.

19

A Girardian reading of The Cenci in some ways takes us further from the reformist politics of Shelley by highlighting a dynamic that his work shares with much tragedy. Yet I would argue that we miss the politics of the play by not reading allegorically enough. Allegory is a strategy used by writers to deliver social truths which cannot be said outright, either because the audience will not listen, or more critically, because the state will choose to kill or imprison the messenger. It is not coincedental that Shelley sets his illustration of the "sad reality" of oppression and retribution in Catholic Italy, where the divide between church and state is essentially non-existent. To dissent from the state becomes the same as to blaspheme: to kill the father the same thing as killing the Father. As much as an English audience would prefer to emphasize the differences between their constitutional monarchy and established church, they would find in The Cenci "a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted" in their political situation by laying bare links between the clergy and the aristocracy. Shelley knew from personal experience, and the experience of those around him, that when the state was aroused against writers, it would resort to charging and sentencing writers for blasphemy, most notably Richard Carlile for republishing Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason. [51] Furthermore, as the battle for Catholic emancipation continued, some intellectuals were willing to remark on Anglicanism's similarity with Catholicism. Thus, the Reverend William Phelan in the Edinburgh Review writes that

though the Established Church has renounced the errors of Popery, it has departed much less froim the Church of Rome than any other Protestant communion. We as well as the Catholics, belong to an Athanasian Episcopal Church; we too boast of an uninterrupted apostolical succession; we condemn heresy and schism; and we recognize the first four Councils as explanatory of the essential articles of belief. [52]

In effect, The Cenci allegorically asserts that the connection is even closer than Phelan thinks. Shelley is not interested so much in the spiritual parallels of Catholicism and Anglicanism, as he is interested in their financial parallels. In this light, the phenomenon of dispensations in the play takes a new meaning, for what established the church in the first place was institution of tithing. [53] The phenomenon of the church accumulating Cenci's land through dispensations is an allegory of relations between the church and the gentry in England during the Regency, as they were being affected by commutation of tithes. Through enclosure, certain landowners were accumulating land that had been held in common. As a result, these landowners found that they had larger tithes, which had to be paid year to year and represented a constant worry. Yet the burden of yearly payments could be commuted, through a private act of parliament (and therefore only open to those who had financing and political pull) allowing the landowner to cede part of his land or give a one-time cash payment. Through this process, the church became wealthier, but more importantly it became further entangled in governmental relations with the people, because clergymen who received benefices with substantial land-holdings became magistrates. An ordinary squire could perhaps be expected to use his political power to carry out personal grudges, but the spectacle of a man of the cloth, who is a figure of the impersonal justice of God, doing the same thing is extremely confounding. Indeed, there were clergy who wholeheartedly embraced their positions as representatives of the state, most pointedly during the aftermath of Peterloo where several priests instructed the populace on the sinfulness of their demonstrations. Regency reformers even coined the term "squarson" for such figures, as they united in their persons the function of squire and parson. [54] If some believed that the church was the last redoubt against the public ideology of self-interest which motivated bourgeois, gentry, and aristocrat alike, "squarsons" demonstrated the falsity of such beliefs.

20

Beatrice draws our attention in the play, both because of the extreme pathos of her situation, and because Shelley's own intepretation of the play in the preface. Yet in Girardian terms, Beatrice is the necessary scapegoat of the play, for the true villain of the play, Orsino. He never sent the petition to the Pope, thus allowing Cenci to continue his domestic tyranny, and aids and abets Beatrice in her patricide. Orsino's actions are predicated on the fact that he wants both church preferments and Beatrice. Significantly, it is not his commitment to his faith that impedes direct action, but the financial benefits that faith has for him. This turn of events suggests that The Cenci reveals the economy of sacrifice (which Shelley resuscitates out of Jacobean drama) is merely a mystification for the real motor of the play, economic self-interest, as Cenci, Orsino, and the Church more brazenly assert the underlying financial motives of their putatively spiritual acts. The rhetoric that would sacralize the violence of the play is simply a mask for economic interest.

21

Orsino, however, in his dithering between financial emolument and romantic passion, offers a glaring allegory of squarsonish behavior within The Cenci. What is curious, then, is the punishment Orsino foresees for himself: "where shall I / Find the disguise to me from myself, / As now I skulk from every other eye?" [55] Ripped out of the structure that made coherent his desires and deeds, his position as a Catholic priest, Orsino for the first time worries about his conscience. It is not too much to say he turns Protestant, although he has chosen the distinctly nonconformist variant suggested in the preface: "a gloomy passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being." [56] One way of reading Orsino's fate is that he embodies Shelley's rather Christian premise that the stings of conscience will pursue the guilty. But even before this moment of self-realization, Orsino has prided himself in the ability to start such passions in others, so as to make what is his will seemingly his victim's. His power to penetrate the "mysteries of our being," is his Iago-like ability to inaugurate tragedy where there might have been none. Orsino, then, is the protestant center of the seemingly corrupt Catholic state, and all the more insidious for his role in corrupting innocence in the service of good. The problem of the intermingling of economic concerns and sacred rhetoric, as figured in The Cenci, is not a foreign affair. Rather, the problem is itself ecumenical, a realization that Shelley hoped to awake in his audience through his drama. Yet by creating in effect an allegory of squarsonish behavior, Shelley was certainly not representing his own conceptions of right and wrong, as he perhaps did in his first attempt at subversive art, Queen Mab. Rather, by raising a mirror to "things as they are," he allegorically showed the peculiar dysfunctions of his time: the intermingling of church, state, and even civil society through growing rhetoric of economic interest. In the pathologically prudish, yet economically dynamic Victorian England, that could never seem to remember exactly what Shelley's politics were, he might well have seen the logic of the Cenci ("only the economy is sacred") writ large. [57]


 

Notes

[1]

Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Cenci, ed. Roland A. Duerksen (Indianapolis: the Library of Liberal Arts, 1970) II.ii.60-3; hereafter cited as Cenci .

[2]

Cenci II.ii.80-81.

[3]

For Girard's reading of Oedipus the King, see Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Unversity Press, 1977) pp. 46-48 and 68-89.

[4]

Stuart Curran rightly suggests that in doing so, Shelley effectively anticipates expressionist and absurdist drama. See Shelley's Cenci: Scorpions Ringed with Fire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970) pp. 257-282.

[5]

I am not the first to suggest the relevance of Girard to understanding Shelley's work. Jerrold Hogle provides a reading of the role of "mimetic desire" the works of Shelley's middle period, from Laon and Cythna to Julian and Maddalo. Hogle's reading of this process, however, is more psychologistic than mine, and doesn't attend to the political ramifications of the identity of the state, religion, and the debt; see Shelley's Process (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) pp. 89-103.

[6]

Preface, The Cenci 8.

[7]

Shelley was not the only romantic poet to see analogies between modern capital punishment and primitive sacrifice. As Alan Liu, in Wordsworth: The Sense of History (Stanford University Press, 1989), makes clear in his reading of the Salisbury Plain poems, Wordsworth draws direct links between druidic sacrifice and the hanging of the sailor. Across the Chanel, the reactionary Joseph de Maistre, in "Eclaircissements sur les sacrifices," acknowledges the analogy in order to debunk it.

[8]

Preface, Cenci 8.

[9]

Preface, Cenci 8.

[10]

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Remorse, 1813 (Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1989) I . The stance of tolerance, embodied in the play's sympathetic treatment of Catholicism and Islam, owes something to its origin in 1797, when repealing the Test Acts, and more particularly, Toleration Acts was an issue for the Unitarian community Coleridge was considering joining.

[11]

Carl Woodring, Politics in English Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970) p. 230.

[12]

Cenci I.i.126.

[13]

Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred p. 53.

[14]

Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred pp. 50-51.

[15]

Ronald Paulson analyzes such works as William Godwin's Caleb Williams using Girard, and also makes the connection to Burke. See Paulson, Representation and Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

[16]

Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred p. 93.

[17]

Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred p. 149.

[18]

Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred p. 92.

[19]

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein utilizes a logic of reversal similar to that of The Cenci; however much we sympathize with the creature, in his unfortunate beginning, his methods of revenge are calculated to entirely lose our sympathy. Indeed, the form of the creature's retribution is even more outrageous than Beatrice's actions, as he kills truly innocent bystanders rather than his oppressor.

[20]

Stuart Sperry, Shelley's Major Verse: The Narrative and Dramatic Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) pp. 66-7.

[21]

Stuart Sperry, Shelley's Major Verse p. 130.

[22]

Preface, Cenci 8.

[23]

Such objections to the premises of tragedy as such can be seen in his caustic comment about having an attempted one "goat-song" (an etymological derivation for tragedy) already in Hellas.

[24]

Cenci I.i.54-56.

[25]

Cenci I.i.28-33.

[26]

Cenci I.i.134.

[27]

Cenci I.iii.30-1.

[28]

Cenci I.iii.56-8.

[29]

Cenci I.iii.47-8.

[30]

Cenci I.iii.77-82.

[31]

Cenci I. iii.77-82.

[32]

Cenci I. iii.111-2.

[33]

Cenci I.iii.139-140.

[34]

Cenci I. ii.24-5.

[35]

Cenci I. ii.80-2.

[36]

Cenci II. ii.148-151.

[37]

Cenci II.ii.183.

[38]

Cenci IV.i.56-64.

[39]

Cenci IV. i.95.

[40]

Cenci II.i.87-9.

[41]

Cenci III.i.95-6.

[42]

Cenci III. i.154.

[43]

Cenci IV.iii.42-3.

[44]

Cenci IV. iii.30.

[45]

Cenci IV.iii.54-5.

[46]

See Curran, Shelley's Cenci 95-6. Girard's reading of Meursault as a monstrous double in Camus' The Stranger reveals that his theory of mimetic desire is well-suited to reading literature that a moral secular oriented critic would designate as existential. See "To double business bound:" Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) pp. 9-35.

[47]

Rene Girard, Violence and The Sacred p. 150.

[48]

Girard claims that in modernity, the judicial system "effectively limits [vengeance] to a single act of reprisal . . . . The decisions of the judiciary are invariably presented as the final word vengeance". [Rene Girard, Violence and The Sacred p. 15] The romantics, on the other hand, saw in capital punishment a return to sacrifice, and the similarities there threatened to reveal it as simply another instance of private vengeance, of the state upon the (radical) individual.

[49]

Cenci V.iv.18-22.

[50]

Kenneth Neill Cameron, in his masterly Young Shelley: The Genesis of a Radical (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950), should have laid to rest such claims forever, but Michael Henry Scrivener, in Radical Shelley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), with more sympathy to the Godwinian elements of Shelley's political thought, has shown that until the end of his career, the politics of Shelley can be described as "radical," if we except the economic implications of such a designation.

[51]

See Scrivener, Radical Shelley pp. 224-6, for an account of the career of Carlile.

[52]

The Rev. William Phelan, review of The Bible, not Bible Society, Edinburgh Review LXI (December 1818) 252.

[53]

My account in the changes in tithing structures is indebted to E.J. Evans, "Some Reasons for the Growth of English Rural Anti-Clericalism", Past & Present 66 (February 1975) 84-110.

[54]

For a representation of the squarson, see William Hone's "The Political House that Jack Built," The New Oxford Book of Romantic Period Verse, ed. Jerome McGann (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) pp. 473-485. Thomas Love Peacock includes an example of the squarson—an anglican priest who removes his own shares from a paper-mill he knows is on the verge of collapse, while keeping his flock in the dark about the eminent collapse for the very reason that his shares will be worth nothing if everyone knows—in his Melincourt.

[55]

Cenci V.ii.102-4.

[56]

Preface, Cenci 8.

[57]

This essay originated in a class with Mona Modiano, and is a revised version of a paper delivered at the conference 'Prometheus Unplugged? Romanticism Past and Future' (Emory University, 1996). In carrying out my revisions, I benefited much from the UW Publication Colloquium (Winter 1996), directed by Marshall Brown. In particular, the comments of Dr. Brown, David Baulch, Daniel Burgoyne, Bill Freind, Russ Prather, and Martha Denham were all instrumental.

Auteur : Robert M. Corbett
Titre : The Violence of the Sacred: The Economy of Sacrifice in The Cenci
Revue : Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 4, novembre 1996
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/005727ar
DOI : 10.7202/005727ar

Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra 1996-2002 — All rights reserved

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