Did Count Cenci Rape His Daughter Beatrice?

face of a prisoner

In Shelley’s tragedy The Cenci, Beatrice refuses to name the wrong that prompted her to arrange to have a man murder her father. Beatrice refers to the wrong she suffered as “expressionless” (Act 3, Scene 1, l. 214) and “unutterable” (Act 5, Scene 3, l. 81). Beatrice thus refers to the wrong using the discursive strategy associated with publicly condemning homosexual acts (“the sin too horrible to name”) in early nineteenth-century Britain. In some societies, such as democratic Athens, consensual homosexual acts were openly discussed at festivals, banquets, symposia, and trials. That homosexual acts were publicly condemned in early nineteenth-century England doesn’t imply that intimates didn’t then personally discuss such acts among themselves. Using public language of disparagement of homosexuality functions as a public excuse for Beatrice’s personal silence in speaking with close family and friends.

At least one of Shelley’s manuscript sources for The Cenci provides grounds for reasonable doubt that Count Cenci committed an act of sexual violence against his biological daughter Beatrice. A scholar has observed:

Relation {one of Shelley’s sources for The Cenci}, in which it is stated that Francesco ‘often endeavoured by force & threats to debauch his daughter Beatrice who was now grown up & exceedingly beautiful’, … does not refer to his designs as having been realised.^

The actual historical fact of whether Cenci attempted this crime is contested:

The question of whether or not incenstuous rape did occur is, as a matter of historical fact, contested. Farinacci’s defence of Beatrice states that Francesco ‘endeavored to overcome her chastity’ (see Bowyer, ‘Translation of the Pleading of Prospero Farinacci 74 and headnote) but Ricci, in the face of what he regards as insufficient evidence, is doubtful (see Ricci ii 150-70).^

Historically, men have been socially constructed as criminal. Authoritative surveys of victimization have intentionally and greatly increased the number of reported rapes. Elite law professors have proposed new, broad sex crimes targeting men. Prisons highly disproportionately imprison men. Literary critics have uncritically assumed that Count Cenci raped Beatrice. Literary reading would have more social value with broader, more creative, and more emancipatory reading and interpretation.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *