Thursday, April 16, 2009

"The Cenci" - II.ii.27-40

Though your peculiar case is hard, I know
The Pope will not divert the course of law.
After that impious feast the other night
I spoke with him, and urged him then to check
Your father's cruel hand; he frowned and said,
'Children are disobedient, and they sting
Their fathers' hearts to madness and despair,
Requiting years of care with contumely.
I pity the Count Cenci from my heart;
His outraged love perhaps awakened hate,
And thus he is exasperated to ill.
In the great war between the old and young,
I, who have white hairs and a tottering body,
Will keep at least blameless neutrality.'

At this point in Shelley's tragedy we have already seen the horrific and sadistic cruelty of Cenci—his ghastly dinner party in honor of his sons' deaths, for instance, which is the "impious feast" in Camillo's speech above—and we have seen (in the play's opening lines) that Cenci's viciousness is tacitly condoned by the Church since it allows the Church to claim Cenci's property as a sort of "hush money" for his crimes. In the present speech, Camillo is explaining to Giacomo, one of Cenci's ill-treated sons, the Pope's view of his predicament. In Shelley's hands, this is a stark indictment of the corruption at the heart of the Church and the State.

The facts of the case are already quite clear, even to Camillo. Cenci, by his own admission, delights in torturing others. He loves the "sight of agony" (I.i.82) and, much as he enjoys killing his foes and hearing the groans and seeing the anguish of others, he most enjoys keeping his victims alive so that he can "feed [them] with the breath of fear / For hourly pain" (I.i.116-17). Such cruelties are certainly not reserved for others—it is common knowledge, thanks to Beatrice's speech at the "impious feast," that Cenci similarly tortures the members of his own family, from his wife Lucretia, to his daughter Beatrice and his (remaining) sons Giacomo and Bernardo. None of this is in any doubt: Cenci, by his own proud boast, is a cruel, tyrannical, vicious man.

Of course one would expect the Church to condemn such behavior, and, in a society where ecclesiastical and civil law are indistinguishable, to try to stop Cenci's wanton cruelty. Such at least is Giacomo's hope in appealling, through Camillo, to the Pope. But instead of sympathy, Camillo reports only the Pope's sympathy for Cenci. The Pope "will not divert the course of law"—even when that "law" sanctions such appalling cruelty. And, adding insult to injury, the Pope reads the situation according to a cultural stereotype that has over-reaching, greedy children who repay their father's "years of care" with scorn and insults ("contumely"). In short, the Pope reads the problems of the Cenci household as an instance of the "great war between the old and young" wherein the young are at least as much at fault as the old. The Pope claims a "blameless neutrality," but we know that the Pope in particular and the Church in general profit greatly from Cenci's acts.

There could scarcely be a clearer instance of Shelley's characteristic critique of the hypocrisy he saw in the collusion of Church and State. The play as a whole is ideologically lopsided—Cenci and the ecclesiastical politics that tolerate him are clearly evil; Cenci's wife and children are (at least until Cenci's murder) clearly virtuous. And yet all the instruments of church and state are brought in to support Cenci. Why? Part of the answer lies in simple materialistic hypocrisy. As noted above, it is profitable for the church to let Cenci commit his crimes and then to extort his property as punishment. But the answer also lies in the patriarchal social order. In the Pope's view, the domestic politics of the Cenci household offer an image of his own power as "father" of church. Camillo says as much a few lines later when he reports that the Pope "holds it of most dangerous example / In aught to weaken the paternal power, / Being, as 't were, the shadow of his own" (II.ii.54-56). In other words, the Pope sees an analogy between the organization of the individual household and family and the organization of the church and state.

The conception is illuminating, particularly with respect to "private sphere"/"public sphere" distinctions from the 18th century or the gendered "separate sphere ideology" that emerged strongly in the 19th. It also adds a new dimension to the political strife that rocked Britain in the years following the French Revolution. In Shelley's view, this was not just an abstract political question; instead, it also plays itself out in the domestic politics at the level of the individual family.

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