Machiavelli wrote several plays, including The Mandrake, which biographer Maurizio Rivoli called Machiavelli’s “finest theatrical piece.” The play begins with a song that succinctly presents the theme of the play: “Let us follow our desires . . . because whoever deprives himself of pleasure . . . doesn’t know the tricks of the world.” The prologue then presents the outline of the play and introduces the characters. The play consists of five acts, and the action takes place within a single day.
The Mandrake tells the story of Callimaco, who had lived in Paris but is now in Florence. He has learned of a woman there, Lucrezia, who is of extraordinary beauty. Callimaco desires to be with this woman, but he must devise a ruse in order to do so because she is married to a Florentine judge and has a reputation for her moral purity. Callimaco conspires with Ligurio to trick Master Nicia, Lucrezia’s husband.
Callimaco poses as a doctor who tells the childless Nicia that he can administer a potion made of mandrake root that will enable Lucrezia to become pregnant. However, the first man who has sexual relations with Lucrezia after she has taken the potion will die. Callimaco then convinces Nicia to bribe a local friar, Frate Timoteo, so the friar will convince Lucrezia to take the potion and sleep with a stranger because the greater good of having a child will be gained.
Lucrezia agrees to the plan, and in the evening Callimaco, who is in disguise, is brought to see her. Callimaco and Lucrezia spend the night together. In the morning, he reveals himself to Lucrezia, and she accepts Callimaco as her lover. Callimaco is then invited to be a part of the household.
All the characters engage in some form of deception in order to obtain something they desire. Nicia wants a son, Callimaco wants sexual pleasure, and Frate Timateo wants financial reward. In the end, Nicia, who appears to be a respected citizen, is the most deceived and has enabled the adulterous partner of his wife.