According to the period’s dominant imaginary conspiracy was ‘totalizing’; it explained everything. Against this was the urgent task of imaging a form of agency that could effectively countermand the spirit of tyranny. Why was the Gothic necessary for Shelley? Part of our answer lies in the fact that Gothic precedents addressed both these crucial points. At the heart of the post-Walpolian Gothic’s ‘symbolic constitution’ lies the ‘dead hand of the past’, a metaphor for the way the past not only reaches into the present, but holds it in its palsied grip. The Gothic is a means of imagining vicious circles of transgression and violence repeating themselves down through the generations. As we shall see, the inherited vicious circle is precisely the crux that motivates The Cenci. But by the time Shelley started his Gothic experiments crucial modifications had been made to its symbolic constitution that made it even more eligible for his purposes. These changes were instigated by Friedrich Schiller, in Der Geisterseher (1789; translated as the Ghost-seer, 1795) and William Godwin in Caleb Williams (1794).
Schiller’s primary contribution to the Gothic was to provide a narrative form for representing the threat of conspiracy, whether revolutionary or Counter-Reformational.
It was Godwin who urgently raised the question of historical agency. When he refers to the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” he is just one of many radicals responding to Burke’s defense of the Gothic constitution and chivalry, the legal and social customs he celebrates as the ties that bind the English present.
All these constituents of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution (as it stood in the late 1810s) come together in The Cenci:
As a work of abstracted Gothic, The Cenci explores the problematic nature of modern systems of power by drawing upon the symbolic constitution of the Gothic as it stood post-Schiller and post-Godwin. In the preface to The Cenci Shelley references the key elements of the Gothic’s symbolic constitution that will concern him: the dead hand of the past; the baleful influence of Gothic institutions that live on in the present; the tendency of this influence to leave us living in vicious circles of abuse; a moral antinomy that prods the reader into analytical action as a way of rising above such circles; the self-defeating nature of conspiracy; a belief in the totalizing power of tyranny; the strenuous difficulty of regaining historical agency; the delusive glamour of the sublime; and, finally, and certainly not least, critique of Burke. After noting these key Gothic elements, Shelley’s thought takes a surprising turn. Rather than freeing us ‘self-anatomy’ is shown to lead to more Gothic entrapment. The Cenci suggests that the way to lighten the “Gothic and unintelligible burden of past institutions” is through the austere prescriptions of the categorical imperative.
In effect Shelley is telling us that he has moved on from his juvenile, jejune understanding of conspiracy (the sublimity of the secret societies) to a more abstraction proposition in which counterproductive conspiracy (any literal endeavour) is compared unfavourably with a conspiracy to make the reader think.