Fiction > Harvard Classics > Percy Bysshe Shelley > The Cenci
Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822).  The Cenci.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
Introductory Note
PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY was born near Horsham, Sussex, England, on August 4, 1792, of a wealthy but undistinguished family. He was educated at Eton, where he was unpopular and persecuted, and at University College, Oxford, where he was interested in science, and from which he was expelled for the publication of a pamphlet on “The Necessity of Atheism.” Going up to London, he met at the school attended by his sisters a girl of sixteen called Harriet Westbrook, whose accounts of the persecution she suffered won Shelley’s sympathy and led him into a foolish marriage, he being nineteen and she sixteen. Within three years they had become estranged; she left him to return with her child to her father’s house; and a month later he set out for the Continent with Mary, daughter of William Godwin, the political philosopher, under whose influence Shelley had been for a time. In 1816 Harriet was found drowned; Shelley formally married Mary Godwin; and the courts refused him the custody of his children. Meantime he was taking active part in political agitation on the side of liberty, and was producing a good deal of poetry. “Alastor” had been written in 1815, and “The Revolt of Islam” appeared in 1818. In that year he returned to Italy, where he remained till his death by drowning on July 8, 1822. His ashes were buried in Rome.  1
  These last years were crowded with poetical production, “Prometheus Unbound,” “The Cenci,” the “Ode to the West Wind,” “The Sensitive Plant,” “Epipsychidion,” “Adonais,” and many of his finest lyrics belonging to this period. Of his dramatic work, the “Prometheus Unbound,” a mythological drama on the redemption of mankind, in gorgeous lyrical verse, and “The Cenci” are the most important. In the latter he handled a terrible story of old Roman life with great delicacy and tremendous impressiveness. Partly under the influence of Shakespeare, partly from the nature of the subject, this play, is more concrete and palpable than Shelley’s work in general, and displays sides of his genius which might not otherwise have been suspected. Though impossible on the public stage, “The Cenci” has claims to be regarded, by virtue of its strength of characterization, its poetry, and its emotional intensity, as the greatest drama of the century.  2

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