Last Updated February 5, 2024.
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his comedic play The Mandrake in about 1518. The play is set in Florence, Italy, during the author's own time, and presents a scandalous yet often hilarious tale in which Machiavelli explores the corruption of human nature and the willingness of many to do just about anything to achieve their desired ends—even if they know it to be wrong. The play’s title alludes to the characters' trickery, as the mandrake root is traditionally associated with sexuality and fertility.
The play opens with a prologue that explains its setting, introduces the characters, and offers a snapshot of the plot. The prologue also laments the misery of a playwright, whose hard work and literary skills are “no longer prized.” Rather he is “sneered at and maligned,” even when he does his best to entertain. The narrator warns the audience, however, that this playwright is especially good at taking revenge against those who might degrade his work.
Callimaco, who has recently returned to Florence after years in Paris, explains to his servant, Siro, how he happens to find himself back in Italy. A certain Cammillo Calfucci came to visit him and declared the praises of Italian women—especially a certain Lucrezia, the wife of Nicia Calfucci, a foolish but wealthy man.
With Cammillo Calfucci's praises lingering in his mind, Callimaco decided to go home to Florence and have a look at Lucrezia. Finding her even more beautiful than he expected, Callimaco soon becomes completely love-struck, determining that he must have Lucrezia or die of lust. To do so, he decides to work with Ligurio, a matchmaker turned conman who has access to Nicia.
Ligurio first suggests that Callimaco should convince Nicia to take his wife to a spa, playing on Nicia’s strong desire (and current failure) to have a child with Lucrezia. But Nicia balks at the work and inconvenience of such a plan, and the setback leads Callimaco to sigh, explaining that he cannot eat, sleep, or do anything because he is obsessed with Lucrezia and must have some hope of obtaining her. Soon, Ligurio comes up with another plan: Callimaco must pretend to be a doctor and influence Nicia to take his wife to the right spa, so Callimaco can unite with her at last.
Ligurio tells Nicia that there is a brilliant doctor just arrived from Paris who can assist with his wife’s fertility issues. They go to visit Callimaco, who pretends to be a doctor by speaking in broken Latin, which impresses Nicia immensely. Ligurio guides Callimaco into explaining that he can make a special “potion made from mandrake” for Lucrezia that “unfailingly leads to pregnancy.”
Siro plays along with the game, noting that even though he does not know what Ligurio and Callimaco are doing, he cannot help but laugh at Nicia for being “such a dupe.” Indeed, Callimaco manages to convince Nicia that the potion will work well, but there is one catch: The first man who has relations with Lucrezia after she drinks it will die within a week. Nicia certainly does not want to be that man, so the three come up with a scheme to catch an unsuspecting fellow and make him sleep with Lucrezia, whom they plan to coerce into participation with the help of her mother and her confessor.
Lucrezia’s mother, Sostratra, quickly agrees to the plan. However. Nicia still doubts that his wife will go along, as she is just too virtuous. Nicia and Ligurio go to visit Friar Timoteo, the confessor, and Ligurio tests the Friar by asking him to give...
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a young girl an abortion-inducing potion in exchange for money. The Friar agrees.
Ligurio then presents his real plan while Nicia, who has been pretending to be deaf, stands bewildered by the whole encounter. The Friar agrees to talk Lucrezia into cooperating and, in an aside, admits that he was duped but is unconcerned because he is being paid well for it. Between them, Sostratra and the Friar convince Lucrezia that if she participates, she will not be sinning because the good of pregnancy will outweigh her misdeeds.
Callimaco doubts his plan but convinces himself that he would rather go to Hell than miss out on being with Lucrezia. He also identifies a slight snag, wondering how he can simultaneously be the doctor and the man captured to have relations with Lucrezia. Ligurio decides that the Friar will have to disguise himself as Callimaco while the latter dresses as a young fop with a lute.
Ligurio, the Friar, Nicia, and Siro meet in disguise. Nicia reports that his wife is still protesting but cooperating with her mother. She has taken the potion and gone to bed. Siro “captures” the disguised Callimaco, and they take him to Nicia’s house. The Friar, in an aside to the audience, remarks that neither Callimaco nor Lucrezia will get much sleep that night.
The next day, Friar Timoteo complains that his friary is just not getting the offerings of money it used to, but right now, he is more interested in what has happened. He arrives at Nicia’s house just as Nicia and Ligurio are pushing Callimaco out the door. Nicia explains how he examined the young man and forced him into bed with Lucrezia. He feels a little bad that the fellow will soon die but is more interested in getting to church to purify his wife and get ready for his turn.
Callimaco tells Ligurio that he and Lucrezia had a great night, and she has agreed to continue their affair and convinced her husband to become best friends with Callimaco so that he has access to Nicia’s house all the time. Nicia is none the wiser; he merely notes that his wife is “feisty” this morning. The Friar gets his money, and the whole group goes to church.