Niccolò Machiavelli 1469-1527
Florentine (Italian) diplomat, essayist, and playwright.
Machiavelli is best known for his political treatise on government, Il principe (1532; The Prince), which sets forth his political theories based on a pragmatic understanding of government and a cynical view of history. Considered a shrewd and clever politician by his contemporaries, he spent most of his life as a diplomat and, at a young age, was entrusted with several sensitive diplomatic missions, quickly advancing his career and gaining a reputation for his intelligence and understanding. Patronized by the powerful Borgia family, Machiavelli admired Cesare Borgia and esteemed him as his role model of the perfect ruler, claiming that Borgia possessed a quality that he called virtù. Virtù can be defined as a quality of strength, confidence, and power (“manliness,” although women can also exhibit it) that includes a certain ruthlessness used to achieve an end. Machiavelli's political philosophy was built around the concept of virtù and was influenced by early Roman writers such as Titus Livy and the historian Polybius. His ideas about power and how to use it appear throughout his writings.
Written after his forced retirement from public life, Machiavelli's plays contain examples of characters with virtù and show how life would be if lived according to this principle. Indeed, Machiavelli's influence on theater was stronger than his influence on government, and his plays have been called revolutionary for several reasons. His characters, especially in his masterpiece Comedia di Callimaco: E di Lucretia (c. 1518), later published as Mandragola (1927; The Mandrake Root), exhibit the characteristics of virtù in varying degrees; so while purporting to be comic entertainment, they are, in effect, propagandizing Machiavelli's political theories and suggesting radical changes in the status quo of Florentine society. In addition, the style of Machiavelli's plays revolutionized European theater, inspiring an entire Elizabethan school of Machiavells that included William Shakespeare. His works provided the bridge between the fifteenth-century tradition of Latin comedy, derivative of Plautus and Terence, and the great Elizabethan theater that addressed local and social issues. The contemporary character of Mandragola, in particular, became a new model for dramatic construction that can still be seen centuries later.
Born into a Florentine family of modest means on May 3, 1469, Machiavelli was well educated in the classics by his father, who emphasized instruction in Roman literature and Latin. Young Machiavelli spent some time in Rome, probably working for a banker, and returned to Florence shortly after the death of Lorenzo de' Medici, the invasion of Naples by the French King Charles VIII, and the rise of Savonarola—a particularly politically active period of Italian history. Following the overthrow of Savonarola, Machiavelli began a meteoric diplomatic career, undertaking important and sensitive missions to other Italian states, as well as to France and Germany. When his patrons, the Borgias, lost power in 1503, Machiavelli also lost his political status and influence. Falsely accused of conspiracy, he was arrested and tortured, but finally released due to a lack of evidence. He chose to retire to his villa near Florence with his wife and six children where he studied Roman literature and began writing. He remained there until his death on June 21, 1527.
Machiavelli's first play, Andria (1517; The Woman From Andros), is considered a translation of a play by Terence, but Machiavelli departed from the original, modernizing and localizing it, while adding his own social commentary. The story—which includes incidents of confused identity, mysterious parentage, and hidden love—revolves around a father and son's struggle over the son's romantic and marital prospects. After much plotting and confusion, the loving couples are united and all is well.
Mandragola is widely acclaimed as Machiavelli's theatrical masterpiece. It revolutionized the theater of Renaissance Europe and continues to be analyzed both for its construction and its theme. The story concerns a married couple and their desire to have a child. The husband, Nicia, is told by a “Doctor” that if his wife, Lucrezia, takes a potion containing mandrake root, she will conceive a child, but that the first man she has intercourse with after taking the potion will die. The “Doctor”—in reality Callimaco, a young man who desires Lucrezia—offers to find a victim to take the husband's place if Lucrezia can be convinced to agree to the plan. Callimaco, of course, intends to offer himself as the “victim.” However, Lucrezia is a virtuous woman who runs a tight household and is difficult to convince. Under the influence of her pragmatic mother, and a priest who has been bribed, Lucrezia agrees to the plan and comes to find that it suits her very well. In the end, Nicia, who is supposedly too ignorant to know that he has been a party to his own cuckoldry, is so delighted with the prospect of a son that he makes Callimaco a part of his household, thereby providing his wife with a fertile live-in lover. Much of the literature written about Mandragola explores how Machiavelli uses the characters to demonstrate virtù in its various forms and to show how conventional attitudes can be bent to provide for particular needs.
The third of Machiavelli's plays, La clizia (1525; Clizia), was inspired by Plautus's Casina. However, Machiavelli again puts his own distinctive perspective on the plot and characters. For example, although the plot revolves completely around the title character, Clizia, she never actually appears on stage. The story concerns a father and son who are both enamored of the same woman, Clizia, a ward in their home. The father is planning to marry her to one of his servants who can be counted on to share her with his master. The son wants to marry her himself, but cannot tell his mother because Clizia's parentage is unknown, making her an unsuitable wife. Meanwhile, the mother, disgusted with her love-sick husband, substitutes a male servant for the bride at the wedding. The mother reveals the switch in the marriage bed, thus humiliating her husband, teaching him a lesson and gaining control over him. Clizia's father suddenly appears, providing Clizia with the status required to marry the son, and the play ends with order restored overall. In all his plays, Machiavelli expresses his admiration for those characters who exhibit virtù and makes clear his opinions about the societal norms of contemporary Florence, both as they were and as he believed they should be.
Because many of his works were not published until long after they were written, their dates are uncertain. Mandragola was first produced under the title Comedia di Callimaco: E di Lucretia at the house of B. di Giordana in Florence c. 1518, and La clizia was first produced at the house of Jacopo di Filippo Falconetti in Florence in 1525.
Machiavelli's plays were generally received by his audiences—the moneyed and powerful aristocracy—as amusing entertainment. The revolutionary nature of his subject matter, his style, and his play construction would later have a profound impact on the European theater, and his influence on contemporary playwrights would help change the future of theater. Mandragola is still performed today and is often discussed as a pivotal work in history of theater courses.