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The Cenci Summary & Study Guide Description
The Cenci Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Bibliography on The Cenci by Antonin Artaud.
Andrea is Cenci's servant.
The two mute assassins employed to kill Cenci make two unsuccessful attempts before murdering the count. Orsini, who describes them as "brutish, dull-witted scoundrels who would kill a man as unthinkingly as we might tear a piece of paper in two." The reason the assassins fail twice in their attempted murder of Cenci seems to be a combination of incompetence and cowardice rather than any feelings of guilt or conscience. After Camillo catches them, they provide written confessions condemning themselves to execution.
Beatrice describes the guests at Cenci's dinner table in act 1, scene 3 as "all the chief nobility of Rome." They become increasingly horrified and afraid as the situation worsens; they ignore Beatrice's plea to protect her; and they leave as soon as Cenci bids them to do so. Prince Colonna, the only character besides Camillo who makes an attempt to face up to Cenci, is among the guests.
A cardinal close to the Pope, Camillo is a shrewd and pragmatic figure who admits that the Catholic Church is rooted in cynicism. Although he does not have any fervent moral or religious convictions and does not believe in God, he is a figure of moral and religious authority in the play. He bargains with Cenci over his land and his criminal deeds; he nearly stands up to Cenci at dinner; he persuades Giacomo to plot against his father; and he investigates Cenci's murder, presiding over the execution of Lucretia, Beatrice, and Giacomo. Orsino calls him a "spoiled priest," and ultimately he is revealed to be a hypocrite, since he is willing to cover up a murder for a price and to urge a son to murder his father, but he is unwilling to have any mercy on Beatrice or the rest of the Cenci family for their complicity in Cenci's murder. Camillo's character can be seen to represent the corruption and power of the Catholic Church.
Beatrice is Cenci's daughter, and the play centers on her torture, rape, and execution. Because her father reduces her to desperate circumstances, she abandons her relationship with Orsino and places her duty to her family as her top priority. She refuses to trust secular or religious justice to deal with her cruel father, and this decision is justified by the fact that the religious and civil figures of power at Cenci's banquet fail to protect her in any way. Beatrice therefore conspires to have her father assassinated, and for this she is imprisoned and executed. She never comes to feel guilt or regret and she never repents for her actions, which is why Camillo has her tortured before she is executed.
One of Beatrice's defining characteristics is her sense of spirituality, which Orsino calls "intolerable mysticism." She is able to anticipate future events, based on her understanding of her father's character but also based on what appears to be a kind of psychic foreknowledge. Beatrice's attitude toward religion changes and evolves throughout the play; at first she is convinced that God would not allow Cenci's crimes to happen, but she comes to rebel against all kinds of authority, including God, since she tells Camillo never to mention God's name to her again.
Beatrice considers her duty to her family her most important value, but it later becomes clear that this is somewhat at odds with her rejection of tyrannical authority figures such as her father. By the end of the play, after her recognition that no one, including herself, has chosen between good and evil, Beatrice says that she fears that she has ended by resembling her father. This idea is particularly intriguing given that she appears to be so virtuous while Cenci appears to be so evil, and it reinforces the sense of moral upheaval in the play.
Bernardo is Cenci's youngest son, whom Cenci calls womanish and plans to leave alive so that he can bemoan the rest of his family. He is extremely close to Beatrice and attempts to protect and defend her as far as he is able. When he is taken away from his sister by Camillo's guards after Cenci's death, he reacts violently, screaming, "They have sacrificed my soul," and in prison, he kisses Beatrice and clings to her desperately. Despite the fact that Bernardo is involved in the murder plot, Camillo spares his life because he is too young. When he hears that he will survive, Bernardo despairs that he must live when the "flame which lit [his] life," or Beatrice, is about to die.
Cenci is the villain of the play, intent on torturing and destroying his family. He continually desires to be shocking and cruel, and his mission in life is to commit evil crimes. He glories in the deaths of two of his sons, terrifies the guests at his banquet, antagonizes Lucretia, harasses Bernardo, disinherits Giacomo, and rapes Beatrice. Although he is powerful and well connected, he does not seem to have any friends or allies, and he believes that his family is plotting against him even before they begin the plot to assassinate him. He is murdered on the third attempt by the assassins who Orsino has located for the family.
A master at horrifying others, Cenci seems to feel alive only when he is engaging in a form of cruelty. Although the reasons behind this cruelty remain somewhat unclear, he stresses that his impulses stretch to the root of his soul and character. He is not religious, but he believes that he is a force of destiny and nature, an ultimate figure of authority, power, and subjugation.
To understand Cenci's character, it is important to remember that Artaud's convention in The Cenci is that characters say whatever they feel, and often go beyond what they would realistically realize about themselves. Therefore, the vividness and extremity of Cenci's cruelty, as he expresses it in language, is intended to be a reflection of his true nature more so than it is intended to reproduce a realistic character's speech. Cenci is a bitter and vicious old father figure, and it is likely that he is a representation of the essential nature of paternal, civil, and financial authority. If this is the case, he shows no remorse and no restraint, because he embodies a power structure and a moral system that Artuad considers fundamentally tyrannical, arbitrary, and unjust.
One of Cenci's older sons, Giacomo is involved in the plot to murder his father. He is angry at his father because the count has disinherited him, and he agrees to plot against Cenci after he hears that his father is torturing Beatrice and Lucretia. During his conversation with Camillo, Giacomo reveals his distaste for the Catholic Church and for what he calls its faithless cynicism, but he heeds the cardinal's advice to plot against Cenci. Convinced by Orsino, he goes along with the scheme despite a comment at the end of act 3 that reveals his disillusionment with Beatrice's notion of personal justice: "Family, gold, justice: I despise them all."
Lucretia is Cenci's somewhat-timid second wife. She loves Cenci's children despite the fact that she is not their biological mother, and she tries to calm Cenci and maintain peace in the household. While comforting Bernardo, she reveals that she has suffered in her life and is a sensitive woman. She is a devout Christian throughout the play, often referring to God and making the sign of the cross. Unlike Beatrice, she does not seem to anticipate Cenci's evil actions, although she does come to recognize the full extent of his cruelty and she participates in the plot to kill him. She foolishly confirms Camillo's suspicions about the family's involvement in Cenci's murder by saying that she alone has the keys to his apartment and that no one could have entered without her knowledge. This contributes to her imprisonment and execution.
See Banquet Guests
Beatrice's lover at the beginning of the play, Orsino was ordained as a priest but is willing to break his vows out of love for her. After Beatrice informs him that her duty to her family takes precedence over their love, and after he is shocked by Cenci's actions, Orsino turns against the family and does what he can to help them destroy each other. In act 2, scene 2, Orsino describes Beatrice as brooding in an "intolerable mysticism," referring in part to her foresight of the horrific events of the play, and he proposes that Giacomo defy the law and act against Cenci's tyranny. His motive, as he reveals in this scene, is simply to see the family ruined, and toward this end, he provides two mute assassins to allow Beatrice and the others to have Cenci killed. In Percy Bysshe Shelley's version of the story, Orsino plots to have Cenci killed so that he can win and marry Beatrice, but in Artaud's version, Orsino seems interested only in the destruction of the entire family. After Cenci's death, Orsino manages to escape, disguised as a charcoal seller, and at the end of the play he is presumably still fleeing from the Pope's soldiers.
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