Third-Personal Promethean Standpoint in The Cenci

face of a prisoner

The Cenci is a Promethean work in which third-personal claims about a just public order dominate second-personal communication of suffering. Prometheus in Prometheus Bound insists that the friends who visit him see his suffering. Prometheus insists that his visitors hear his account of the wrong Zeus has done to him. Prometheus’s rebellion against the current world order forms the background for valorizing second-personal communication with a person suffering in punishment. In The Cenci, Beatrice refuses to express even to her family and friends the injury that she has suffered. Beatrice insists that what has happened to her cannot be expressed. The second-personal communicative standpoint in the The Cenci serves to privilege third-personal condemnation of the current world order.

The Cenci positions its audience in a third-personal standpoint. The Cenci’s preface describes the drama’s source as a historical account in a manuscript from the Cenci Palace archives in Rome. The preface opens, “A manuscript was communicated to me during my travels in Italy.” The preface subsequently declares:

On my arrival in Rome I found that the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest; and that the feelings of the company never failed to incline a romantic pity for the wrongs, and a passionate exculpation of the horrible deed to which they urged her, who has been mingled two centuries with the common dust. All ranks of people knew the outlines of this history, and participated in the overwhelming interest which it seems to have the magic of exciting in the human heart.^

An ancient, obscure manuscript, the “not to be mentioned” subject, the sensational story – these are all conventional components of exotic travel accounts and gothic fiction popular in early-nineteenth-century England. The drama begins in a palace and then moves to a castle. Catholic institutions and practices figure importantly in it. Among fiercely Protestant, middle-class London theatre-goers, The Cenci represents geographically, historically, culturally, socially, and religiously distant others. Communication among the gods in Prometheus Bound was much closer to the ordinary life of Athenians in fifth-century Athens.

Speaking for over-hearers is at The Cenci’s dramatic climax. Like the false confession under a priest’s threat of “hell fire” in Frankenstein^, the true confession under judge-ordered torture in The Cenci is spoken for others to hear. Count Cenci commits horrible violence against his family and community. Beatrice, Count Cenci’s daughter, leads his son, wife, and hired accomplices in arrangements to kill her father.^ The dramatic tension reaches its peak in their trial for his murder. Beatrice proclaims their innocence and implores the others not to confess to the killing even under torture. The Cenci poetically addresses this extraordinary claim of innocence to the whole imagined patriarchal, monarchical, God-ruled world. Denying the killing is a noble lie. Beatrice assimilates this lie to her demand to the others to speak the truth at some higher level of abstraction.^ “Speak the truth” and “tell me the truth” are not the same moral imperative. The Cenci is primarily concerned with the former, third-personal moral imperative.^

Beatrice, the saintly and violated heroine, stands at trial with her step-mother Lucretia and brother Giacomo. They face Marzio, a vassal of their house. Beatrice violently threatened Marzio and paid him to get him to kill her father. A judge interrogates Beatrice:

A judge. Look upon this man;
When did you see him last?
Beatrice. We never saw him.
Marzio. You know me too well, Lady Beatrice.
Beatrice. I know thee! How? where? when?
Marzio. You know ‘twas I
Whom you did urge with menaces and bribes
To kill your father. When the thing was done
You clothed me in a robe of woven gold
And bade me thrive: how I have thriven, you see.
You my Lord Giacomo, Lady Lucretia,
You know that what I speak is true.
(Beatrice advances toward him; he covers his face, and shirks back.)
O, dart
The terrible resentment of those eyes
On the dead earth! Turn them away from me!
They wound: ‘twas torture forced the truth. My Lords,
Having said this let me be led to death.
Beatrice. Poor wretch, I pity thee: yet stay awhile.^

Beatrice then turns to address a church authority attending the trial. Her words to Marzio, “Poor wretch, I pity thee: yet stay awhile,” position her as a trial official speaking third-personally to Marzio. That implicit standpoint contrasts sharply with Marzio’s pathetic, second-personal lines, “You know me too well, Lady Beatrice. … You my Lord Giacomo, Lady Lucretia, / You know that what I speak is true.”

Beatrice ultimately forces Marzio to speak third-personally. Continuing to double herself with a trial lawyer and judge, Beatrice says to Marzio:

Beatrice. Fix thine eyes on mine;
Answer to what I ask.
(Turning to the Judges)
I prithee mark
His countenance: unlike bold calumny
Which sometimes dares not speak the thing it looks,
He dares not look the thing he speaks, but bends
His gaze on the blind earth.
(To Marzio)
What! wilt thou say
That I did murder my own father?
Marzio. Oh!
Spare me! My brain swims round … I cannot speak …
It was a horrid torture forced the truth.
Take me away! Let her not look on me!
I am a guilty, miserable wretch;
I have said all I know; now, let me die!

Beatrice’s second-personal claims in communication are figured as more painful than torture:

Marzio. Oh, spare me! Speak to me no more!
That stern, yet piteous look, those solemn tones,
Wound worse than torture.

This high melodrama pushes even higher before Beatrice overpowers Marzio:

Beatrice. … Think
What ‘tis to blot with infamy and blood
All that which shows like innocence, and is,
Hear me, great God! I swear, most innocent,
So that the world lose all discrimination
Between the sly, fierce, wild regard of guilt,
And that which now compels thee to reply
To what I ask: Am I, or am I not
A parricide?
Marzio. Thou are not!
Judge. What is this?
Marzio. I here declare those whom I did accuse
Are innocent. ‘Tis I alone am guilty.

Marzio. Torture me as ye will:
A keener pain has wrung a higher truth
From my last breath. She is most innocent!
Bloodhounds, not men, glut yourselves well with me;
I will not give you that fine piece of nature
To rend and ruin.

An appeal to “higher truth” is not just a move of heroes, ideologues, and pretentious dissemblers. Beatrice’s appeal to Marzio casts second-personal communication as a lower activity that can heroically serve third-personal ideas. Her appeal to higher truth devalues second-personal claims.

Beatrice’s suffering in The Cenci has less imaginative force than Prometheus’s suffering in the ancient Greek Prometheus Bound. Both Beatrice and Prometheus rebel against the ruling order and suffer weighty punishments for their actions. In a parody of Prometheus Bound’s ending, The Cenci ends with Beatrice speaking calmly of mundane details as she and her mother prepare to be dragged to their hanging:

Give yourself no unnecessary pain,
My dear Lord Cardinal. Here, Mother, tie
My girdle for me, and bind up this hair
In any simple knot; aye, that does well.
And yours I see is coming down. How often
Have we done this for one another; now
We shall not do it any more. My Lord,
We are quite ready. Well, ‘tis very well.^

This sardonic use of ordinary discourse might provoke theatre-goers’ moral outrage. It’s outrage well-distanced from second-personal claims on them. The implicit concern is clearly figured third-personally in one of Beatrice’s earlier declamations:

Will you give up these bodies to be dragged
At horses’ heels, so that our hair should sweep
The footsteps of the vain and senseless crowd,
Who, that they may make our calamity
Their worship and their spectacle, will leave
The churches and the theatres as void
As their own hearts?^

Beatrice’s concern in punishment is the content of everyone else’s heart. Prometheus Bound, in contrast, ends with Prometheus, chained to a crag, intensely chanting to the Athenians: “see how unjust / my / suffering.”

The Cenci reverses key aspects of Prometheus Bound’s second-personal communication. Beatrice’s father, Count Cenci, is an evil, thoroughly tyrannical Italian count who commits many wrongs. Unlike Zeus for the Athenians, Beatrice’s father has little specific importance to the world of The Cenci’s theater-goers. A specific wrong that Beatrice’s father commits against Beatrice drives the central action of killing him. Beatrice appears first to her step-mother after this wrong. Her step-mother repeatedly asks what has befallen her, what ails her, what her father has done. Beatrice refuses to say. She finally says:

What words would you have me speak?
I, who can feign no image in my mind
Of that which has transformed me. I, whose thought
Is like a ghost shrouded and folded up
In its own formless horror. Of all words,
That minister to mortal intercourse,
Which wouldst thou hear? For there is none to tell
My misery: if another ever knew
Aught like to it, she died as I will die,
And left it, as I must, without a name.^

Beatrice’s unwillingness to reveal her personal trauma parallels the behavior of Victor in Frankenstein. Like Victor, Beatrice adopts the ego-centrism of Oceanus in communication with Prometheus. Namelessness in Frankenstein emphasizes the controlling force of the narrator’s perceptions and psychology.^ Here, like the wisdom that Oceanus serves to the suffering Prometheus, Beatrice offers an externalized, universalized psychological abstraction to her step-mother. No one has suffered what she has suffered. And if anyone has, she could not have named her suffering either. Oceanus’s speech in Prometheus Bound teaches Athenians how not to speak with a person suffering in punishment. Beatrice speaks to her beloved step-mother statements much like those of Oceanus. Other characters in The Cenci give Beatrice’s statements the authority of compelling, impersonal truth.

While story-seeking in the Prometheus Bound mimics low-status practices, story-seeking in The Cenci is meant to create lofty melodrama. In Prometheus Bound, Io, the Oceanides, and Prometheus haggle over story-telling using the low-level morality of gift and exchange. The intense suffering in the ensuing stories contrasts sharply with the low moral circumstances of their production. In The Cenci, refusing to tell a story has great moral significance and substitutes for telling of suffering. When her friend and suitor Orsino enters, Beatrice says to him:

Welcome, Friend!
I have to tell you that, since we last met,
I have endured a wrong so great and strange,
That neither life nor death can give me rest.
Ask me not what it is, for there are deeds
Which have no form, sufferings which have no tongue.^

This highly rhetorical greeting, which differs greatly from that of a real person suffering a terrible psychological wound, naturally prompts Orsino to ask questions about the wrong. Beatrice responds with much poetical expression. But she refuses to describe the wrong she has suffered. Orsino concludes:

For it is such, as I but faintly guess,
As make remorse dishonour, and leaves her
Only one duty, how she may avenge

Orsino then hints of killing Beatrice’s father. Beatrice’s mother forthrightly asks whether they should devise her husband’s death. Beatrice declares yes, they should kill her father “suddenly,” being “brief and bold.”

The “unutterable,” “expressionless” wrong that Beatrice suffered creates a story with such moral power that it signifies without Beatrice having to speak. Subsequent to that wrong, Beatrice displays excellent reasoning, high verbal skill, and great emotional control. Compared to Beatrice’s verbal performances after her father’s decisive wrong to her, Prometheus’s verbal performances in Prometheus Bound are much less controlled. Prometheus’s words vary greatly in emotional level, verbal texture, and topical and situational coherence. Beatrice’s refusal to speak about the wrong she suffered is a third-personal rhetorical strategy of moral domination. Prometheus’s insistent, incoherent speaking is affective second-personal communication. Prometheus’s second-personal communication better serves personal accountability and justice in truth.

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