Shelley’s 1819 verse tragedy The Cenci is a story of incest and patricide set in the Papal Rome of 1599, a story that he claims to have found in “a manuscript communicated to me during my travels in Italy.” Its real origin lies rather in Shelley’s reading of the Jacobean melodrama of Webster, Tourneur, and Ford. Wicked Count Cenci is a thorough scoundrel who rejoices in the sufferings of his enemies: “I love the sight of agony… . I am what theologians call hardened … till I killed a foe,/ And heard his groans, and heard his children’s groans,/ I knew not what delight was else on earth.” As the play opens, Cenci is enjoying the unexpected news of the deaths of two of his sons and planning the rape of his daughter, Beatrice.

After this dread event, which is never actually named but rather alluded to in dark periphrasis, occurs, Beatrice cries, “My God!/ The beautiful blue...

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