Romantic Electra: The case of Shelley's Beatrice

by Jennifer Wallace

According to many writers in the Romantic period, Greek tragedy was comparable with sculpture. It was larger than life and magnificent. It was beautifully proportioned and harmonious. It was static. The tragedians themselves were compared to sculptors—"Aeschylus is the Phidias of the tragic art , Sophocles the Polycletus, and Euripides the Lysippus" [1]—and an appreciation of Greek drama was thought to be enhanced through a knowledge of Greek art. "We have no better means of feeling the whole dignity of their idea of the tragic", wrote the German critic August Wilhelm Schlegel, "and of giving it a sort of theatrical animation, than to have always present to our fancy the forms of their gods and heroes ... We can only become properly acquainted with the tragedies of Sophocles before the groupes [sic] of Niobe or Laocoon".[2] The fact that the stories in Greek tragedy were apparently pre-determined, or set fast in stone, and so defied curiosity or sensationalism, proved their "lofty" worth. According to Samuel Coleridge, "that there had been at least fifty tragedies with the same title, would be one of the motives which determined Sophocles and Euripides, in the choice of Electra, as a subject".[3]

Although Schlegel claimed to be giving Greek tragedy "a sort of theatrical animation" by advocating the viewing of Greek statues, actually this understanding of Greek tragedy as statuesque rendered it essentially undramatic, not fit for the theatre and not (as Coleridge admitted) popular. William Hazlitt, when reviewing Schlegel's lectures on the drama, confessed the consequences of this new theory: "The tragedies of Sophocles, which are the perfection of the classical style, are hardly tragedies in our sense of the word", he wrote. "The mind is not shaken to its centre; the whole being is not crushed or broken down ... All is conducted with a fatal composure".[4]

Yet quietly resisting this predominant notion of the calmness and composure of Greek tragedy was an alternative sense, that Greek tragedy actually explored and dramatised violent experiences of pain and suffering and brutality. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had dared to drive a wedge between Greek statuary and Greek tragedy. Countering Winckelmann's argument that the ancient statue of Laocoon appeared calm and serene, he pointed out that pain could not be represented in stone but it could in drama. Sophocles' Philoctetes, who cries and shrieks under the torment of his festering foot, "remains one of the masterpieces of the stage", he claimed; in contrast, "all stoicism is undramatical".[5] The few "theatrical animations" of Greek tragedy at this time (or, in other words, performances) seem to have found it impossible to retain statuesque nobility throughout. A version of Electra, composed by the poet Peter Bayley, was performed in Covent Garden in 1825 (under the title Orestes in Argos) and contemporary reviews give some indication of the play's tone.[6] According to the report in the London Magazine, the audience was "much flustered" by the Furies and confused whether to respond to the show with the supposed piety suitable for the antique or with the usual raucous enthusiasm which filled the early nineteenth-century theatre. The sense of bewilderment was caused apparently by the lack of statuesque decorum exhibited by the characters. Electra, for example, played by Miss Lacy, was "a haughty slave living on the hope of revenge", "a fine picture of unshaken sorrow and lust of revenge".[7]

So the picture of Greek tragedy in the Romantic period was actually quite complex. Writers might seem to idealise the drama and raise it to impossible, unapproachable heights. But there was a latent, barely acknowledged sense that it might actually contain some quite unattractive elements, basically the nasty side of human nature. Shelley described ancient drama as impossibly ideal: "The tragedies of the Athenian poets are as mirrors in which the spectator beholds himself, under a thin disguise of circumstance, stript of all but that ideal perfection and energy which every one feels to be the internal type of all that he loves, admires and would become".[8] Platonically, Shelley thought that ancient drama "stript" all the troubling and distorting everyday concerns away and left the viewer with just the ideal, stone-like calmness, in which, he said, "even crime is disarmed of half its horror". But that activity of "stripping" could actually reveal a more savage reality. Shelley's poem, "The Triumph of Life", for example, describes a sudden clarity of vision which reveals a wildly violent ancient chorus at the heart of things:

They, tortured by the agonizing pleasure.
Convulsed and on the rapid whirlwinds spun
Of that fierce spirit, whose unholy leisure

Was soothed by mischief since the world begun,
Throw back their heads and loose their streaming hair ... [9]

With this double life of Romantic Greek tragedy in mind—outwardly calm and inwardly convulsed—I want to turn to Shelley's play The Cenci. The play tells the story of Beatrice, who is isolated and brutalised by her tyrannical father and finally (probably) raped by him. Driven to despair, she decides to murder her father and engages two hired assassins to undertake the deed. After the murder has taken place, Beatrice and her family (mother and brother) are arrested, together with the assassins. A trial of sorts follows, during which Beatrice denies responsibility for the deed and disowns the assassins, but her mother confesses the plot and the whole family is condemned to death. It is a play of surprises, of troubled expectation and justifications. Beatrice gives the audience no warning and no explanation for her terrible act of betrayal at the end of the play when she disowns the assassins and serenely offers them up for torture so that the wrong truth can be racked from them. It is a drama, too, about what is not spoken, what lies latent beneath the surface. Beatrice never names the cause of her tremendous suffering halfway through the play; the audience, like all the other characters in the drama, must just assume that she has been raped by her father.

One of the silences of the play, it seems to me, is its antecedent in Sophocles' Electra. Shelley read Sophocles' Electra in June 1818, a year before he wrote the play but only about ten days after he and Mary had first come across the story of the Cencis on newly arriving in Italy.[10] And yet Sophocles' play is never openly mentioned or alluded to, either in the preface or the drama itself. Instead Shelley refers in the preface to two other Sophocles' plays and to Shakespeare: "The deepest and the sublimest tragic compositions, King Lear and the two plays in which the tale of Oedipus is told, were stories which already existed in tradition, as matters of popular belief and interest, before Shakespeare and Sophocles made them familiar to the sympathy of all succeeding generations of mankind".[11] Alongside Macbeth, which is the most obvious influence upon the play, it is the heroines of Oedipus at Colonus and Lear—in other words, Antigone and Cordelia—who are renowned, of course, for their loyalty to their fathers, which are cited as models for Beatrice. Antigone, whom Shelley considered a "godlike victim", ("some of us have in a prior existence been in love with an Antigone" he confessed to John Gisborne) is evoked in the last scene of the play as Beatrice walks off to execution, bidding farewell to the "sweet sunshine" and hailing the "strange joy" of death: "Come, obscure Death, / And wind me in thine all-embracing arms!" [12] She has suceeded, she says, in subduing "fear and pain". Cordelia is invoked as Beatrice wakes in her cell and believes that she is in paradise.[13] She is recalled earlier too as the moment when Beatrice is gradually pulled out of her mad delirium, following what we imagine is the rape. Beatrice thinks she has died or that she is in a madhouse and her stepmother is the nurse, and only after some tender questioning by Lucretia does she, Lear-like, achieve a clarity of identification: "This is the Cenci palace; / Thou art Lucretia; I am Beatrice. / I have talked some wild words, but will no more".[14]

So there is tension in The Cenci between the overt, blatantly inappropriate allusions to Shakespearean or Sophoclean examples of filial loyalty and the latent, entirely apt comparison with the brutalised and vengeful Electra. It is clear that Shelley intended this disturbing disjunction between the visible and the invisible Beatrice, between the heroine we think we know and the one we actually encounter. In typical Shelley fashion, he wrote, in the preface to the play, of "masks" and "disguises". Beatrice, he declared, appeared to be the ideal woman. But "the crimes and miseries in which she was an actor and a sufferer are as the mask and the mantle in which circumstances clothed her for her impersonation on the scene of the world".[15] The particular story which Beatrice acts and suffers before the audience belies her "real" nature, whatever that may be; the uneasy fit between generic type (Beatrice as ideal gentle heroine) and particular case history (the drama of the Cenci) is imagined as bulky disguise, "mask and mantle". We remember Shelley's notion of ideal Greek drama as the stripping away of distorting disguises. Yet his drama of The Cenci paradoxically adds those disguises. Earlier in the preface, Shelley is careful to point out the dangers of just such misguided attempts to fit the particular case of Beatrice to some general picture or story. "It is in the restless and anatomising casuistry with which men seek the justification of Beatrice, yet feel that she has done what needs justification; it is in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge; that the dramatic character of what she did and suffered, consists".[16] James Chandler has written extensively of the trope of casuistry in the Romantic period for understanding the relationship between the particular story and the general historical circumstances.[17] I propose another metaphorical understanding of casuistry in The Cenci, in which the actions of Beatrice are justified by literary precedent. The relationship between ancient tragedy and modern audience might be seen to be casuistical, the sophistic "application of general rules to particular instances". The emphasis is upon the inappropriateness of the comparison, the ill-fit, the disjunction. Just as the ethical difficulties of the play—"men seek the justification of Beatrice yet feel that she has done what needs justification"—are marked by the ellipses and silences, so the aesthetic complexities are highlighted by bad pastiche and missing literary models.

Overt allusion in the Cenci is casuistical; what lies latent and unexamined paradoxically might yield some understanding of Beatrice's character. The ideal tragic model, (Antigone or Cordelia), cited in the beginning, might in fact turn out to be a sophistic deception, "clothing" the impersonation, while a barely acknowledged, more savage antecedent within tragedy (Electra) might actually be closer to an accurate portrayal. I wish to focus upon two moments in the play when the silence or evasion is felt most acutely and when the silenced antecedent, which is significantly not stressed, could be marked. The first is the moment, already mentioned, when Beatrice denies her responsibility in her father's murder. Confronted by accusations from one of the assassins that she hired them, she retorts that he is tarnishing her "stainless fame". Repeatedly she draws a distinction between the outward illusion of crime and guilt and taint, which might concern others, and the inward ideal purity and innocence which constitute her essential nature. She bemoans the weakness of her mother, when she confesses, in falsely assuming the role of murderer, and argues that to acknowledge complicity involves more deception than to maintain innocence:

O white innocence,
That thou shouldst wear the mask of guilt to hide
Thine awful and serenest countenance
From those who know thee not! [18]

As Julie Carlson has pointed out, the trial, in which Beatrice participates reluctantly, is a form of theatre.[19] Although according to Beatrice's rhetoric, drama is a degenerate activity in which one assumes ill-fitting roles or "masks of guilt", she herself performs admirably, casuistically assuming the role of the innocent Antigone, who appeals to a world beyond the immediate court—the unwritten laws of Zeus—in order to justify her exemption from ordinary justice.

Judge. Art thou not guilty of thy father's death.
Beatrice. Or wilt thou rather tax high judging God
That he permitted such an act as that
Which I have suffered and which he beheld.[20]

But of course, Beatrice's rhetoric is at odds with what we, the audience, have seen. We know that Beatrice is guilty, that she hired the assassins, and indeed during the murder she actively urged them on, threatening at one point to do the job herself. This frenzied need to assist assassins, who are doing the deed offstage, recalls Electra's hysterical shouts of encouragement as Orestes and Pylades are murdering Clytemnestra: "paison, ei stheneis, diplen".[21] The deception of white innocence wearing the mask of guilt is actually an inversion of the truth. The case of Beatrice, in other words, perverts the ideal, calm and statuesque model of the tragic heroine, of Antigone particularly, and in that perversion we see, latently, the figure of Electra.

The second occasion of doubt or evasion which I want to draw to your attention actually occurs earlier in the play and it is to be found in the rhetoric which Count Cenci and Beatrice use to describe what passes between them, which we assume to be a rape. The interest lies in their use of the imagery of infection: has Cenci corrupted a hitherto innocent and healthy daughter or did they not rather share the same blood, the same barely acknowledged psychological state of putrifaction? "So much has passed between us as must make / Me bold, her fearful", says Cenci before the rape, suggesting the mutual relationship of power and subjection which they both exercise and enjoy. As Beatrice stumbles in, trying to articulate what has happened to her, one of the few disjointed phrases that she can come up with is "Like Parricide ... / Misery has killed its father". Since the rape, she has become indistinguishable from her father; her blood, which, she points out, is her "father's blood", circles now "through these contaminated veins'. And repeatedly she asks "What have I done?" Electra, in comparison, is not so much infected as wasted by her harsh treatment: "o som' atimos katheos ephtharmenon", says Orestes, when he first sees her.[22] But in that physical disintegration, Electra has taken on many of the attributes of her mother; she has been tainted or infected by Clytemnestra's shameful cruelty: "aischrois gar aischra pragmat' ekdidasketai".[23] Electra hates her actions—she claims that they are "ouk emoi proseikota" ("not like me")—but they have become, by this stage, part of her nature. In Beatrice's case, the alteration is ostensibly clearcut and identifiable. The rape provokes her decision to avenge her wrongdoing and only then does she become as brutal and violent as her father, in her actions if not in her intent. But the suggestion in these images of infected blood and in her unconscious echoing of Cenci's words is that Beatrice's nature is closer to Cenci's than she might think anyway and the rape has only marked startlingly the underlying mutual capacity for violence they both share. Beatrice's final brutality is less the product of nurture, so to speak, and more the product, troublingly, of nature.

For in these two moments—Beatrice's betrayal of the assassins and Beatrice's infection by her father—what comes under scrutiny is precisely Beatrice's nature. What expectations and assumptions does it challenge? By what standards should it be judged? How inadequate are the familiar, idealised and acknowledged tragic precedents for understanding the "real" nature of Beatrice? How might the latent unattractive quality of Electra—with her uninhibited "lust of revenge", to quote the London Magazine review again—suggest more adequately the perversion of Beatrice, evidenced in her silences, evasions and sudden reversals?

Shelley's play was never performed in his lifetime. He intended it for the stage and even wrote careful instructions to his friend Peacock about which actors he would like to play the roles: Edmund Kean was to play Cenci and Eliza O'Neill, the tragic actress with whom Shelley seemed to be "half in love", just as he was with Antigone, was to play Beatrice: "God forbid that I shd see her play it - it wd tear my nerves to pieces".[24] But despite Shelley's imagined life for the play as an idealised tragedy for the stage, designed to make an audience weep, the manager of Covent Garden, Thomas Harris, rejected it because of its emphasis upon incest. For the next hundred years, the Cenci enjoyed a dual existence. Read in the closet, it seemed to many to encapsulate all the serenity of Greek tragedy, the "unshaken constancy in true and noble sentiments", which Schlegel and others enjoyed. Beatrice "walks in the light of innocence; in the unclouded sunshine of loveliness and modesty", according to the new London Magazine and Monthly Critical and Dramatic Review.[25] But venturing out upon the boards, it incurred the displeasure of the theatrical censors and was banned from performance until 1922.[26] In that paradoxical double life, lauded as an ideal and excoriated as viciously immoral and shocking, Shelley's Beatrice, it seems to me, exemplifies the case of being Electra in the Romantic period, with all the ambivalence, inappropriateness and evasions that suggests.

Dr Jennifer Wallace

Jennifer Wallace is a lecturer in English at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge and joint secretary of the Cambridge Greek Play committee. She published Shelley and Greece: Rethinking Romantic Hellenism in 1997 and has written on Classical reception, mapping and excavation for Essays in Criticism, Romanticism, and Greece and Rome.