Aside from its worth as a literary genre, Italian comedy by the sixteenth century had become a vehicle for social and political criticism, a kind of speculum mundi by means of which the shortcomings and biases of communal society were exposed and ridiculed. Niccolò Machiavelli’s theatrical production, especially The Mandrake, encompasses this satiric intent while interpreting the more popular sentiments of his fellow citizens, who still relished the storytelling tradition of Giovanni Boccaccio.
The Mandrake, one of the most successful plays of the Italian Renaissance, enjoyed great popularity even during Machiavelli’s lifetime. Indeed, probably in 1522, during one performance the play had to be stopped at the end of the fourth act because of huge crowds that made its continuation unsafe. Although reference to certain historical events indicates that the action of The Mandrake takes place in Florence in 1504, the date of composition of the play has been disputed; it is most often considered to have been written during the late years of the author’s exile—probably during the pre-Lenten festivities of 1518—and was first printed in Florence about 1519.
The structure of The Mandrake is patterned after that of a classic Roman play, with the plot following the traditional organization of protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe, and including paraskene, or transition, scenes. Quite evident in it are the classic comic drama’s mocking tone and complicated plot structure, as well as the traditional five-act division and respect for dramatic unities; Machiavelli, however, has given these characteristics a new life, modifying and updating the classic model. The comedy embodies a greater realistic sense, and it is written in lively colloquial Florentine prose, revealing the influence of Boccaccio’s storytelling. The sensuality and licentiousness of the plot closely resemble those of one of the tales of the Decameron, while the unfolding of the story also reveals a more direct satiric intent.
The Mandrake is introduced by a prologue that is divided into two sections. The first section describes the characters, the setting, and the plot. Machiavelli identities the four main male characters as the lover, the gullible husband, the wicked friar, and the scheming parasite, and refers to the play as a badalucco, or joke. The second section of the prologue is used by Machiavelli to describe his relationship to society, portraying the author as unrewarded and unappreciated, as these well-known lines clearly indicate:
And if this subject is not worthy,although I am trying to be light,of a man who wants to seem wise and serious,forgive him with this excuse: he is trying with these trifle thoughts to make his sad time more bearable,for there is nowhere where he can turn to;he has been prevented from showing with other deeds his other virtues,an unjust reward for his endeavors.
The plot of The Mandrake revolves around the efforts of Callimaco, who returns to Florence to seduce the most beautiful woman of the city, Lucrezia, the wife of a rich but obtuse doctor of laws, Master Nicia. Master Nicia, terribly distraught by his lack of children, will go to any lengths to help cure the supposed infertility of Lucrezia, but until now his...
(The entire section is 1520 words.)