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This is a passage from Shelley's preface to The Cenci which I do not understand, so I need someone to explain the meaning:

"...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."

"she" refers to the heroine, and "they" refers to the reader/spectator.

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    It means: The dramatic character of what she did and suffered consists in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate her wrongs and their revenge. It may be easier to consider first The character of what she did consists in the horror with which they contemplate her wrongs, and then add in the other adjectives and the other verb one at at time! ("Their" here refers to her wrongs, not to they, which might add to the confusion.) Aug 25, 2016 at 21:55

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The construction here is called a cleft sentence. This is an "information-packaging" device which puts the focus on a particular piece of an ordinary sentence by "cleaving" (cutting) out the piece you're focusing on and making it the complement of the phrase It is (or was) at the beginning of the sentence; the piece left behind is turned into a relative clause at the end.

            John     broke the teacup.  
                  ↓ 
            John  |  broke the teacup.
                  ↓         
     ++ +++      +++              
     It was John who broke the teacup.

You can sort this sentence out by "uncleaving" it: reversing the cleft:

     It is in [ x ] that the dramatic character ...   consists.
     ----- in [ x ] ---- the dramatic character ...   consists.
                         the dramatic character ... | consists in [ x ]
                                                    ↓         
                         The dramatic character ...    consists in [ x ]

Consequently:

The dramatic character of what she did and suffered consists in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge.

[ x ], The dramatic character of what she did and suffered, is the subject; it means "The dramatic quality which is perceived in her actions and sufferings".

Consists in means "is made up of" or "is found in" or "exists in".

The superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her wrongs and their revenge is the complicated object of the preposition in.

  • her wrongs and their revenge may be paraphrased as "the evil things that were done to her and the revenge which she took for those evil things".

  • alike here has the sense "equally". The auditors contemplate (examine) both of these things, the wrongs and the revenge, in the same way.

  • with introduces a phrase which complements contemplate; it describes what the auditors feel when they contemplate these things, and which is its object: a relative pronoun which refers to the subject.

So we can paraphrase the entire sentence as

The audience feel superstitious horror when they watch Beatrice's wrongs and her revenge. That superstitious horror is the source of the dramatic quality of Beatrice's actions and sufferings.

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  • I hesitate to ask, but is cleft determined by an instead of a for an reason with which I am unfamiliar? Is the /k/ silent, when all these years I've been pronouncing it /kleft/ ? (insert appropriate emoticon here) Aug 25, 2016 at 22:32
  • It is preceded by an here because I originally wrote it cleft, then deleted it and neglected to tidy up after myself. Aug 25, 2016 at 22:40
  • I was not joking, by the way. I fully expected you to cite a hermetic rule of pronunciation. Aug 25, 2016 at 22:52

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