The Violence of the Sacred: The Economy of Sacrifice in The Cenci[Notice]

  • Robert M. Corbett

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  • Robert M. Corbett
    University of Washington

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." 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." 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. 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." 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. Moreover, this transformation suits Shelley's moral purpose, as well as making it more Girardian. The claustrophobia …

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