(Drama Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

Andria [translator; The Woman from Andros] 1517

*Comedia di Callimaco: E di Lucretia c. 1518

La clizia [Clizia] 1525

Dell'arte della guerra [The Art of War] (essays) 1521

Discorsi di Nicolo Machiavelli … sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio, a Zanobi Buondelmonte, et a Cosimo Rucellai [Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy] (essays) 1531

Il principe [The Prince] (essays) 1532

Historie di Nicolo Machiavegli [History of Florence] (history) 1532

*This work was published as Mandragola [The Mandrake Root] in 1927.

†This work is also known as Istorie Fiorentine.

Silvia Ruffo-Fiore (essay date 1982)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Ruffo-Fiore, Silvia. “Machiavelli's Dramatic and Literary Art.” In Niccolò Machiavelli, pp. 107–20. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following excerpted essay, Ruffo-Fiore discusses Machiavelli's approach to the theater.]


Although the action of the Mandragola occurs in 1504 (I, 1), its composition date remains controversial. Various dates have been cited by Tiraboschi (1498), Villari and Tommasini (1512-20), Renaudet (1523), Colimore (1504-12), and Ridolfi (January-February 1518). Ridolfi's speculations, having recently gained widest acceptance,...

(The entire section is 5525 words.)

William J. Kennedy (essay date 1984)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kennedy, William J. “Comic Audiences and Rhetorical Strategies in Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Molière.” Comparative Literature Studies 21, no. 4 (winter 1984): 363–82.

[In the following essay, Kennedy compares Machiavelli's Mandragola, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and Molière's L'Avare.]

Since antiquity, comic theory has pursued two different approaches. One analyzes the structure of the comic object and seeks to explain the comic action itself. Its proponents include Aristotle, Quintilian, most Neo-Classical theorists, and in the twentieth century Henri Bergson, Northrop Frye, and Susanne K. Langer.1 The other analyzes the...

(The entire section is 8724 words.)

James B. Atkinson (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Atkinson, James B. “An Essay on Machiavelli and Comedy.” In The Comedies of Machiavelli, pp. 213–31. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985.

[In the following essay, Atkinson shows how the plays reflect Machiavelli's politics and philosophy.]

The name of Niccolò Machiavelli is not generally associated—at least by English-speaking audiences—with the drama. According to a tongue-in-cheek prologue written for a recent production of The Mandrake,

The man, of course, was known far more
For his wicked Prince, and for his Histories,
As well as for an Art of War,
But he also mastered theater's mysteries.


(The entire section is 11610 words.)

Arlene W. Saxonhouse (essay date 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Saxonhouse, Arlene. “Comedy, Machiavelli's Letters, and His Imaginary Republics.” In The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli, pp. 57–63. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpted essay, Saxonhouse examines Maciavelli's attitude toward comedy.]

I write about Machiavelli's comedy. But what is comedy? This is a question to which I shall keep returning throughout this essay; to begin with, though, I do not mean only the comedies as categorized by the literary critics who divide literature into comedy, tragedy, romance, and all such assorted genres. Neither is comedy only the plays written to be produced and enacted on stage, such as...

(The entire section is 3763 words.)

Andrew Apter (review date 1986)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Apter, Andrew. Review of Mandragola. Theatre Journal 38 (October 1986): 359–60.

[In the following review, Apter examines a production of Mandragola performed at Atlanta's Academy Theatre.]

Presently gaining national recognition for his works Tent Meeting and Some Things You need To Know Before the World Ends: A Final Evening with the Illuminati, Levi Lee's aesthetic is one that combines excess and evanescence. In the best comedic tradition, he has the capacity to improvise on a theme that provokes non-stop laughter in the audience. The humor, ranging from the worst pun to incisive social satire to nightmarish farce, comes so...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Henry Paolucci (essay date 1957)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Paolucci, Henry. “Translator's Introduction.” In Mandragola, pp. vii-xv. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1957.

[In the following essay, Paolucci discusses how the characters in Mandragola exemplify Machiavelli's philosophy.]

Machiavelli's Mandragola, for centuries half-hidden from view in the shadow of The Prince, has only lately begun to receive adequate recognition as what it unquestionably is: the unrivaled masterpiece of the Italian comic theater. Carlo Goldoni, the eighteenth-century author traditionally honored as Italy's foremost comic playwright, will, no doubt, because of the mere quantity of good work he produced,...

(The entire section is 2875 words.)

Joseph A. Barber (essay date 1985)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Barber, Joseph A. “The Irony of Lucrezia: Machiavelli's Donna di virtù.” Studies in Philology 82, no. 4 (fall 1985): 450–59.

[In the following essay, Barber discusses the various interpretations of Mandragola.]

In spite of all the critical literature that has been written about Machiavelli's Mandragola, there remain a number of interpretive questions that merit further discussion. The comedy has elicited a wide range of interpretations, with some views quite diverse from what might be termed the traditional reading of the play.1 By far the majority of the readings develop a hypothesis about the relationship between Machiavelli's...

(The entire section is 3908 words.)

Mera J. Flaumenhaft (essay date 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Flaumenhaft, Mera J. “The Comic Remedy in Private Spectacle: Machiavelli's Mandragola.” In The Civic Spectacle: Essays on Drama and Community, pp. 85–121. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publisher, 1994.

[In the following essay, Flaumenhaft examines Machivelli's use of comedy in support of his idea of virtù.]

In October 1525, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote to his friend Francesco Guicciardini to explain some difficult passages in the Mandragola—passages that had brought Guicciardini great “distress of mind.”1 In this letter, Machiavelli playfully clarifies a colloquial expression by commenting on a mysterious sonnet by a...

(The entire section is 17456 words.)

Michael Palmer and James F. Pontuso (essay date 1996)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Palmer, Michael, and James F. Pontuso. “The Master Fool: the Conspiracy of Machiavelli's Mandragola.Perspectives on Political Science 25, no. 3 (summer 1996): 124–32.

[In the following essay, Palmer discusses Machiavelli as the architect of the political thought that characterized the Renaissance and as exemplified in Mandragola.]

Machiavelli is the master of conspiracy. He is both master theoretician and master practitioner of conspiracy. He may have been the most ambitious conspirator in the history of political philosophy; if, that is, one assumes that modern political thought emerged around the turn of the sixteenth century as a revolutionary...

(The entire section is 8541 words.)

Harvey C. Mansfield (essay date 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Mansfield, Harvey C. “The Cuckold in Machiavelli's Mandragola.” In The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works, edited by Vickie B. Sullivan, pp. 1–29. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Mansfield explores the role of the cuckold in Mandragola, who is a willing victim to gain his own ends—progeny.]

The Mandragola makes for a good introduction to Machiavelli. By reading the Mandragola ahead of his political works one could become acquainted with his comic and his erotic aspect, his appreciation of the nonpolitical, so that one could look for it in his politics. The levity,...

(The entire section is 14453 words.)

Criticism: La Clizia (Clizia)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Faulkner, Robert. “Clizia and the Enlightenment of Private Life.” In The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works, edited by Vickie B. Sullivan, pp. 30–56. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Faulkner discusses Machiavelli's humor and underlying message in La clizia.]

The Clizia is a comedy about love that borders on the scandalous. As a matter of fact, it crosses the border. But the play is not the ordinary romantic farce or, what is just now more conventional, the ordinary dramatic scandal. One should not expect the ordinary from a playwright so extraordinary. Machiavellian may be...

(The entire section is 13098 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Behuniak-Long, Susan. “The Signigicance of Lucrezia in Machiavelli's La Mandragola.Review of Politics 51, no. 2 (spring 1989): 264–80.

Examines the character of Lucrezia and what Machiavelli intended her to represent.

Colvin, Clare. Review of Mandragola. Plays and Players, no. 370 (July 1984): 30.

Assesses the National Theater of Great Britain's production of Mandragola.

Hale, J. R. Introduction to The Literary Works of Machivelli, pp. xvii-xxvi. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1961.

Details the history of Machiavelli's writings and the...

(The entire section is 247 words.)