Niccolò Machiavelli

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Silvia Ruffo-Fiore (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5525

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, are based on two points. First, in III, 3 the old woman who briefly converses with Fra Timoteo fearfully questions, “Do you believe the turk is coming over into Italy this year?”1 Ridolfi argues that this popular fear, which probably began after Turkish capture of Otranto in 1480, was alleviated from 1504 to 1517 by the truce between the Venetians and Sultan Bajazeth II. It intensified in the early months of 1518 when the Turks resumed their attacks on Italy.2 Second, in Ridolfi's study of the play's first printed edition, lacking a date and place of publication but probably done in Florence, he uncovered on the frontispiece the apparent remnants of the design of the Medicean arms, confirming his linking of the play with Medici patronage and the engagement of Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino, with Margherita de la Tour d' Auvergne in February 1518.3 Bertelli's critique of this theory points out how this presumed composition date would have meant that the play was written in less than a month, giving even less time to the actors to learn their parts for its supposed performance on February 16, 1518. Bertelli also argues that the Turkish threat was constant during Leo X's reign and not limited to or intensified in the early months of 1518.4 The 1518 date has been reinforced by Parronchi, who, in attempting to identify the three plays performed on successive evenings of Lorenzo's wedding festivities, assigns the Mandragola to the first day, September 7, 1518.5 Ridolfi has also studied the only surviving manuscript of the play, Laurenziano-Rediano 129 (dated 1519), containing a rich collection of Lorenzo de' Medici's (Il Magnifico) poems. He has concluded that this manuscript depends greatly on a lost one, perhaps the autograph, that the 129 was copied one year after the play's composition, and done independently of the anonymous printed edition.6

The first recorded reference to the play appears in Battista della Palla's letter to Machiavelli from Rome on April 26, 1520; this reference together with a statement in Paolo Giovio's Elogia illustrium virorum (Venice, 1546) have been taken to mean that a performance was done in Rome for Leo X. Marin Sanudo's Diarï (1496-1533) records a second reference on February 13, 1522, recounting a performance for the Venetian carnival that year. A third reference in Vasari's (1511-1574) Life of Bastiano Aristotele da San Gallo suggests a performance in Florence sometime between 1524 and 1525 and that it was composed before Clizia. Other early performances are recorded by Giovanni Manetti in a letter to Machiavelli on February 28, 1525/26 (Florentine style), about a Venetian performance and by Guicciardini in correspondence with Machiavelli. It was for a planned performance Guicciardini organized in Faenza in 1526, but never executed, that Machiavelli wrote certain parts of the prologue and the songs which were inserted.7


The opening Canzone praises the advantages of the secluded pastoral life over urban involvement to be depicted in the play. Lamenting life's transitoriness in the face of which man can only seek pleasurable distractions, the nymphs and shepherds advise escape from this world's labors, anguishes, and deceits which ultimately crush all men. The Prologue is organized into two sections: the first describing the setting, characters, and plot and ending with reference to the play as a badalucco (joke, game, pleasurable sport); the second, focusing on the author and his relationship to his age—patrons, audience, and society. The speaker identifies the localized Florentine setting8 and specifies the street as Via dell' Amore (“Street of Love”), from where, he warns, one can never rise once he has fallen. Admitting that the events to be dramatized are strange but true, the speaker identifies the protagonists, beginning with Messer Nicia whose study of Buezio (Boethius, with a pun on bue, meaning “ox,” the symbol of stupidity), has gained him nothing but the horns of the cuckolded man. Callimaco Guadagni, whose last name means profit, will trick a beautiful, virtuous lady by means of his charm, fine dress, and courteous ways. It would, however, be a pleasurable experience for the audience to be tricked in such a harmless, painless manner. Alluding to the play both as a favola (“tale”) and a badalucco, he identifies the four major characters: doleful lover, stupid judge, wicked friar, and evil parasite.

From this transition strophe the speaker commiserates with the uncelebrated author portrayed as neglected, unappreciated, and unrewarded, victimized by the present moral decline and degenerate separation from past cherished values. The speaker warns in the last three strophes that the author will not succumb to indiscriminate censure, since he, too, is skillful at the same art.9

The plot tells how Callimaco, exiled from Florence to Paris for twenty years, returns to his city upon hearing of the legendary beauty and exceptional virtue of Lucrezia Calfucci, the childless wife of a Florentine judge, Messer Nicia. Driven by passion, he enlists the assistance of Ligurio, a parasite, matchmaker, opportunist, and con-man, in devising the plan by which he hopes to possess Lucrezia. Aware of Nicia's vanity, foolishness, and provincialism, the conspirators devise a plan whereby they will propose to relieve Lucrezia's childlessness by administering a fertility potion derived from a mandrake. Callimaco, posing as a learned doctor, convinces Nicia of his drug's efficacy, but warns that its only side-effect is that the man sleeping with Lucrezia first after the potion has been given will die within a week. In several scenes which uncover Nicia's comic stupidity, Ligurio and Callimaco convince the easily duped Nicia to permit a substitute lover for that first encounter, who unknowing to Nicia will be Callimaco disguised as a street musician. Once reassured of his facile morals, the conspirators solicit the aid of Lucrezia's confessor, Fra Timoteo who, for the promise of an alms-offering, coaxes the unwilling Lucrezia to take the potion and sleep with a surrogate, if, as he is assured, the end result will be children. The Friar's casuistic arguments and the encouragement of her materialistic mother (Sostrata) finally induce Lucrezia. The potion is administered and Callimaco, disguised as the sacrificial surrogate, finally confesses the entire plot once alone with the lady. She accepts his love and pledges that he will become a permanent part of their new family. Everyone then goes off to church for the Friar's blessing.


Although the Mandragola is perhaps the most original play of the Italian Renaissance, it relates to classical and contemporary dramatic sources and traditions, a comparative study of which reveals Machiavelli's innovation and ways in which subsequent dramatists, Continental and English (Shakespeare not excluded), would build on the road he paved. During the fifteenth century a tradition of Latin comedy developed in Italy receiving impetus from the humanist revival of the ancient texts of Plautus and Terence. The discovery of classical texts and early critical commentaries, such as that by the fourth-century Donatus, along with the increased study, editing, translation, and circulation of printed editions resulted in the development of what came to be known as commedia erudita (“learned comedy”) in the sixteenth century.10 Its name derived from its erudite recollection of the Latin comic structures of Plautus and Terence, its composition by the humanist letterati, and its frequent performance before such literary court circles as Urbino, Ferrara, and Rome. These plays, of which Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena's (1470-1520) Calandria (an adaptation of Plautus' Menaechmi) is the most influential, were lively, spontaneous, and satiric representations of the social life of the times. Often they ironically juxtaposed learned, aristocratic views with more simple, popular elements. Basically they imitated classical form, assimilating and adapting classical themes and character types to contemporary and local concerns.

Mandragola imitates classical structure in its simple, direct, unilinear plot organization (protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe, with paraskene, or transition scenes) and its observance of the unities of place and time even before they were formally authenticated in Renaissance critical theory.11 Yet the play is more remarkable in how it deviates from classical models. Written in Florentine idiomatic prose, it mirrors a localized setting and texture as well as the unique Florentine attitudes and temperament. The language and gestures that might have accompanied it imprint a memorable picture of Renaissance Florentine customs. Machiavelli's insertion of intermedi—songs between the acts—also deviates from classical structure, while his thematic exploration of marriage as a sacrament and social institution reflects a new attitude on appropriate dramatic subjects. Finally, in noting Machiavelli's debt to or divergence from traditions, we need to mention that in its cynical characterization, its prose tale narrative form, and in its emphasis on trickery and sensuality, La mandragola reverts to Boccaccio's Decameron.12


A survey of the critical approaches to Machiavelli's plays verifies how a thoroughgoing analysis of his dramatic techniques, symbols, themes, language, and imagery has taken second place to the power of his ideological vision. Yet fascination with that vision derives largely from such devices. The plays, like the political works, break through the cultural confines of Machiavelli's intellectual world. Some have approached the Mandragola as a dramatic portrayal of his political theories and maxims, a dramatic version of The Prince and Discourses, written possibly as has been said of the former, to gain the Medici's political favor. This view is reinforced by the play's association with Lorenzo de' Medici's marriage in 1518. Similar is the approach which sees the play as a political allegory of contemporary historical figures and events intended to suggest solutions to current political problems.13 Although Machiavelli's plays reflect the political thought, historical vision, stylistic modes, and syntax of his major works, they possess an artistic integrity of their own. They reflect Machiavelli's psychological power and the caustic commentary on social, moral, and political chaos in his political writing. The plays also show how virtù can overcome fortuna. Yet Mandragola remains of interest for its dramatic and literary dimensions, not for how it reflects the author's politics. Criticism from the 1500s to the 1700s indicates acceptance as typical of Renaissance adaptation of dramatic sources, traditions, and conventions. The audiences ignored Machiavelli's increasingly tinged reputation deriving from a distortion of his politics; in fact, the play's popularity increased while his political works suffered. In the 1800s there was more concern for the bitter tone, the portrayal of corruption, the satiric intention, until in the early twentieth century Benedetto Croce saw in it Machiavelli's secret desire for an ideal society.14 An analysis of Machiavelli's plays must consider their place within his entire canon, recognizing them as another expression of a unified vision of man and the world, while also acknowledging them as discrete, artistic entities. Such a balanced approach will give proper weight to the role of ideology and art, it will recognize the dramatic and rhetorical element in all his writings, and will heal the so-called dichotomy between Machiavelli as thinker and as artist.

Mandragola's excellence emerges from its comic spirit, psychological characterization, brisk unfolding of plot, and stylistic directness. It is perhaps one of the first plays to assimilate such political ideas as conspiracy, policy, fortuna versus virtù, ends justifies the means, and others in the comic portrayal of marriage and seduction. While Machiavelli's political writings have been recognized as a source of the English stage Machiavel, little if any study has been given to how his comic characters and themes may be the source for those in Shakespeare and other English and continental playwrights.15

The Prologue to Clizia and the Discourse or Dialogue Concerning Language (1514-16) provide important insight on the criteria governing Mandragola's comic effect. Clizia's Prologue affirms the recurrence of analogous comic events in all ages; thus, the justification for the updating of classical sources and their contemporary Florentine localization for the audience's greater pleasure. While admitting the need to camouflage the identity of the Florentine citizens to whom the dramatic characters may relate, the speaker categorizes seven comic types and one general theme as the stuff of comedy: an old man's avarice, a lover's madness, a servant's tricks, a parasite's gluttony, a poor man's distress, a rich man's ambition, a harlot's flatteries, all men's unreliability. The purpose of comedy is to benefit and please the audience, ends which can be fulfilled by the use of model instances, persons, and language which incite laughter. Language, which reflects character, is what provokes laughter and it must be stupid, sarcastic, or amorous, projecting characters who are foolish, malicious, or in love. In his Dialogue Concerning Our Language Machiavelli provides additional information on his theory of comedy and its basis on the use of native, dialectical language, preferably Florentine, which he considered the fountainhead of the Italian language. Comedy is defined as a mirror of private life treated in a ridiculous manner. Examples of human nature (the fraudulent servant, silly old man, young man crazy with love, flattering whore, gluttonous parasite) provide practical models. Machiavelli's critique in this Dialogue of Ludovico Ariosto's play, I suppositi (1509), while praising the plot as “a knot well tied, but better unravelled,” reproaches Ariosto for failing to employ appropriate comic language.16 The characters and plot acquire their comedic effect through the mask of a highly expressive Florentine dialect. They are rendered laughable by their language, not by their nature, which if projected through a different language might make them pathetic or tragic.17

The play reveals qualities traditional to comedy. Although there are constant references to death and the use of death imagery, particularly in association with Callimaco's self-consuming passion, unlike the tragic portrayal of love and death in Romeo and Juliet, the trickery here is painless as the Prologue to Mandragola carefully points out. It ends not in death, as the use of the potion promises to the first man who sleeps with Lucrezia, but rather in renewed life and reconciliation projected by the traditional symbol of comedy, marriage. It is a comic treatment of legal marriage (Nicia is a doctor-in-law), ending in the religious and social sanctioning of a false marriage. The implications of this satirically corrective contrast are seen in Callimaco's impersonation as a physician and in the inverted use of the mandrake as a curative and regenerative agent. The Canzone preceding the play implicitly contrasts romantic comedy, which avoids mirror reflection by leading the spectators into an imaginative, timeless, dream world often pastoral, and critical social comedy which mirrors the errors and ridiculousness of urban life. The contrast is seen in the language used to draw these different worlds: the first, elegant, idealized, formal; the second, dialectical, realistic, informal. While in tragedy the rhythm of life is stifled by change and chance, here there is a triumph over fortuna by adaptation to and exploitation of circumstance through plotting and deception.18

Callimaco's language reflects three thematic trends: (1) the political maxims associated with Machiavelli's other writings (I, 1); (2) the humanist concern for the elegance of Latin syntax (II, 2); and (3) the conventional Petrarchan/courtly expression of love (IV, 1, 2, 4). The soliloquies in IV reveal how the “war” on Lucrezia's modesty suggests a repressed association between love and death, and as the seduction nears love's potentially fatal symptoms are boldly drawn. Callimaco's language is especially interesting since in IV, 1 he ironically desires to possess the virtuous without regard that in so doing it will ultimately be debased. In IV, 2 there is an ironic contrast between death and the fertility/birth which the union promises. In courting Lucrezia, Callimaco likewise courts death and in IV, 4 as the union approaches he threatens suicide as a substitute for sexual fulfillment if the plan fails—death by drowning, hanging, jumping out a window, and stabbing. Callimaco's success in executing his plan derives from his virtù, his good fortune, his realistic hope based on an accurate assessment of the risks. The Canzone at the end of I accentuates the theme of hope and fear which Callimaco reflects. Lucrezia's defeat, effected not by forced rape, but by trickery, exposes the traditional courtly-chivalric adulation of woman as merely a strategic camouflage of raw sexuality. Callimaco's peaceful conquest creates a new order with a minimum of violence and pain.

Ligurio's language is direct and rational in its efficient evaluation of the circumstances, risks, and probabilities. He exposes the disproportion between talent and rewards in his perceptive evaluation of Nicia's stupidity and his fortuitous rewards (I, 3), and clearly perceives what motivates a reputable friar to evil (III, 1). Ligurio's characterization possesses traits of the conventional court panderer and jester; however, his acrobatics are mental rather than physical. Nicia's stupidity is reflected in his idioms, proverbs, infantile expressions, and obscurities. He is a pedantic, myopic, and provincial simpleton who easily agrees to his wife's seduction after he learns that the French king used the same method to cure infertility. His singleminded concern for a child is celebrated in the Canzone that ends II. In II, 3 he presents a self-condemning national character sketch of Italians (ritratto) which laments their ingratitude, skepticism, and bureaucracy, and implicitly suggests the root of Italy's perennial cultural, political, and intellectual problems. Timoteo's language is venal, mechanical and formalized, objectifying his superficial concern with the exteriors of religion, with preserving appearances through the manipulation of rites and practices (V, 1). Timoteo recalls the anticlericism in Machiavelli's portraits of Savonarola (March 9, 1498, letter) and of the Franciscan preacher (December 19, 1513, letter) which epitomize the religious corruption, materialism, and immorality he so often condemned. Timoteo's narrowness, greed, and cynicism are reflected in his commercialiazed, utilitarian attitude toward religion based on the theory that good intentions justify everything. His shocking misogyny (III, 9, 11), combined with his sublimated eroticism and sexual fantasizing on the nocturnal activities of Lucrezia and Callimaco (IV, 10), mortally undercut Lucrezia's validity as an apotheosized model of virtue. His disguise as Callimaco for the purpose of fooling Nicia further reinforces him as a corrupted model, as a symbol of spiritual and sexual sterility. The Canzone on the sweetness of deceit ending III sums up Timoteo's character. Finally, it is Lucrezia who more than any other character demonstrates how disordering foolishness and trickery become the normal order of things. Throughout, the play juxtaposes the real world—how people actually live—with an implied ideal vision—how people ought to live in a world in which everything has its proper order and degree. In surrendering her body Lucrezia surrenders her integrity and commitment to an ideal order, illusionary symbols of the way things ought to be. A new hierarchical order with recategorized priorities is created out of the subversion and debasement of the old. Nicia is replaced by Callimaco whom she wants to be her whole world she says in V, 4—lord, master, guide, father, defender, and chief good. Cleverness, stupidity, folly, and greed—which characterize how people really live—become sanctioned as the new norm of how people ought to live. Through Callimaco, her new spokesman and mentor, Lucrezia affirms finally (V, 4) that the unequivocal and impelling success of his plan proves it must be God's will that she accept this new order.


Clizia was probably written during the last months of 1524 and January 1525. Although no autograph manuscript has been found, three copied manuscripts exist: the complete Riccardiana 2824, the incomplete Archivio Boncompagni, COD. F. 11, and the Colchester-Essex Museum manuscript discovered by Beatrice Corrigan in 1958 representing the earliest surviving version of the play, twelve years earlier than the first printed edition in 1537 by Maciochi. Corrigan's study of this beautifully illuminated manuscript identifies the scribe as Ludovico degli Arrighi, a well-known Roman calligrapher and printer, sets its date as 1525, and theorizes that it was commissioned as a gift for the marriage of Maria di Filippo Strozzi with Lorenzo Ridolfi. Machiavelli's close association with the two families, his 1525 presentation of The History of Florence to Clement VII in Rome, at which time it is thought Machiavelli spoke to Arrighi about doing the Clizia, and its linguistic features which suggest that Arrighi copied it from Machiavelli's hand, support Corrigan's association of this manuscript with the Strozzi-Ridolfi marriage. Although the marriage did not occur until 1529, Corrigan argues that Machiavelli's letter to Guicciardini, probably written in December 1525, shows that the union had already been contracted.19

Although the Colchester-Essex manuscript seems connected to the Strozzi-Ridolfi marriage, the play's composition may have been motivated by Machiavelli's desire to repay the generosity of Jacopo di Filippo Falconetti, called Il Fornaciaio. Falconetti owned a villa outside Florence where he entertained guests, Machiavelli among them. To celebrate the end of a five-year banishment from Florence, Falconetti held a series of festivities during which Clizia was performed on January 13, 1525. The stage scenery was done by Bastiano de San Gallo and the intermedie canzoni were sung by Barbara Raffacani Salutati, a young professional singer with whom Machiavelli, even at age fifty-six, was romantically involved. This love affair gives the play an autobiographical flavor since the plot of Clizia deals with an old man's love for a young girl.


Nicomaco, an elderly married Florentine merchant who had led an exemplary life, falls in love with Clizia, a poor, young Neopolitan girl. Clizia, orphaned during Charles's Italian campaign in 1494, was left at Nicomaco's home by a military officer who had found the five-year-old child in Naples. Clizia, now a young woman, was raised like a daughter in Nicomaco's house. Nicomaco schemes to marry Clizia to his farm servant Pirro so that he may himself enjoy her, since, as Cleandro, Nicomaco's son, explains, to possess her before her marriage seemed wicked and repulsive. Cleandro and his mother Sofronia, after discovering Nicomaco's plan, conspire to thwart his designs. Cleandro also loves Clizia, but her lowly birth and lack of dowry forbid their union. Cleandro decides the best he can do is to have Clizia married to his manservant, Eustace. Although he does not say so, the implication is that he hopes for the same privileges his father envisioned. Sofronia assists Cleandro, not to favor her son's unspoken designs, which she suspects, but rather to cure her husband of his amorous madness. Sofronia agrees to her husband's request to submit the question of whom Clizia should marry to resolution by lots. Nicomaco wins and prepares to execute his plan; however, Sofronia and Cleandro have not given up. During the wedding ceremony Siro, a house-servant, is disguised as Clizia. Once the couple has retired to the house Nicomaco had so generously prepared for them, Nicomaco enters the bedroom, is attacked by the “bride,” and finally discovers Sofronia's debasing joke. Although mother and son have won, things seem hopeless for Cleandro, until suddenly a rich Neopolitan gentleman arrives announcing that he is there to claim his daughter Clizia. In his desire to repay Nicomaco's family for their generosity, he offers the now worthy Clizia in a marriage-alliance to Cleandro.

The Prologue describes the localized setting of the events which the speaker avows are true but admittedly stranger than fiction. It summarizes the plot as a rivalry between father and son over the possession of a girl. The characters are introduced by having the actors come on stage for presentation to the audience. The Prologue's two-part structure, similar to that of the Mandragola, extends its traditional function by then announcing Machiavelli's theory of comedy (already discussed).


Clizia's source is Plautus' Casina, which in turn was based on the Greek play Cleroumenoe [The Lot Throwers] by Diphilus of Sinope, a dramatist representing the Greek New Comedy flourishing from 330 to 150 b.c.20 Although Machiavelli's dependence on sources is minimal, the plot's derivative nature has hampered analysis and appreciation of the play. While Machiavelli imitated the Plautine use of entrance and exit announcements, asides, and eavesdropping incidents, for the plot he only used the actions from Casina II, 4 for the basis of Clizia III, 5, freely adapting rather than literally translating. There are a number of scenes and plot subtleties not in the source.21 Machiavelli's characterization is also more realistic and full-bodied. He adds characters such as Cleandro who has an important thematic function of dramatizing the conflict between father and son and of portraying the effects of love (I, 2; III, 2; IV, 1; and V, 5). Cleandro also differs in that, unlike the Plautine source, he does not conspire with his servant to share Clizia for whom he seems to have a sincere passion. Nicomaco, unlike Plautus' Lysidamus, possesses many dimensions. Sofronia's soliloquy in II, 4 portrays a previously wise, dependable, and dignified father and husband, who was suddenly stricken by an amorous disease. His comic role, unlike Nicia's, is deepened by his pathetic, sincerely contrite return to his origins following his humiliating cure. Sofronia exceeds Plautus' caricature of the Roman matron in Cleustrata. Sofronia dominates the play as an exponent of, not only her sex and role, but also of the play's social and ethical themes. Her exposé of Nicomaco is motivated not by vindictive jealousy, but by concern for her husband, for Clizia's welfare, and for doing what is right to preserve the family. Her maternal tenderness toward Cleandro excludes indulging her son in order to punish her husband. Her forgiveness of Nicomaco is as sincere as his contrition. Critical neglect and appreciation of Clizia also derive from the stronger emphasis placed on Mandragola's overall excellence. Enforced by Machiavelli's conscious paralleling of the plays in Clizia II, 3 when Nicomaco alludes to Fra Timoteo, Lucrezia, and Nicia, both plays are similar in their focus on the family and in their symbolic use of marriage as a reconciling force. In several ways Clizia is superior to the Mandragola. Its picture of daily urban Florentine life, its markets, pharmacies, househelp, bourgeois values, etc., is more genuine, vivid, and complete, its dialogue imbued with a more subtle sense of the ironic and unknowingly self-revealing. The roles are developed through longer speeches and more extensive exchanges between characters. It boasts several memorable scenes which embody major themes and contribute to its unique effect, as the throwing of lots and Nicomaco's simultaneously comic and pathetic account of how he was deceived.

Machiavelli's psychological penetration is revealed in the multileveled moral and ethical implications of Clizia's themes. The play's rich texture of themes is expressed by means of an interwoven network of similes and metaphors. While the Mandragola uses native Florentine dialect for its unique comic effect, Clizia synthesizes that dialect with a variety of poetic imagery giving the play its quality of a true commedia erudita. Lovers are portrayed as lamenting bores (I, 1), the amorous situation is compared to a woman (IV, 1), and the unlucky man to a drowning sailor (V, 5). As in the Mandragola, history is used as a backdrop for the personal situation, but Cleandro's account of Charles's invasion of Italy with its attendant plundering and orphaning of children like Clizia is tragic in its overtones. The tragic dimension inheres as well in the themes of the potential ruination of a family (I, 1; II, 4), the inescapable physical effects of old age (II, 1; IV, 4), the waste of effort, talent, and virtue (II, 3), and most importantly the extravagant dissipation of a sensible, ordered life to pursue a self-indulging sexual madness (II, 3) masking as love. Each of the five canzone in the play portrays love in all of its romantic forms, effects, deceptions, and lessons. The effects of Nicomaco's disordering passion emphasize how the natural (the humors) and social relams are interdependent and why his punishment must be explicitly social as well as personal. Sofronia is not only the spokesperson for the necessary harmony between the personal and the social, but she is also the instrument for the administering of a required cure which will return her husband to his original values after a fantastical period of deviation, and in so doing reinstate the proper hierarchy of social values. The nature of the medicine she administers represents the most important theme in the play. Nicomaco's ritornare al segno, return to his origins, is achieved through society's participation—family, servants, and neighbors—in his derisive public shaming which simultaneously purges Nicomaco of his personal disease and society of any propensity for a similar disorder. Sofronia's explanation in V,3 emphasizes the need for witnesses, for social participation in the condemnation of Nicomaco's disease and in the approbation for his return to his old self, for “… to err and to do better is common.”22 As Nicomaco is exposed, the characters and audience laugh, and the laughter is doubled and redoubled with each recounting. Various forms of the word ridere, to laugh, pervade the final scenes. Nicomaco's seeming sciagura, tragedy, is viewed in its true perspective as a comic epiphany of man's vain delusions. Rather than through demoralizing invective, Machiavelli conveys his comic purpose and in turn his moral through the theme of laughter. Unlike the ending of Mandragola which undermines traditional values to be replaced by a revolutionary order, Clizia's ending affirms a positive moral order. Yet its dimensions have undergone a realignment, for it is now Sofronia, not Nicomaco, who will establish the new limits governing his future behavior.


  1. English citations from the plays refer to Gilbert, The Chief Works, II. Comparisons are made with the Italian, Gaeta, Il teatro, and with other English translations such as Mandragola, trans. Anne Paolucci and Henry Paolucci (Indianapolis, 1957) and Mandragola, trans. Mera J. Flaumenaft (Prospect Heights, Il., 1980).

  2. Ridolfi, Life, pp. 301-306.

  3. R. Ridolfi, “Composizione, rappresentazione, prima edizione della Mandragola,La Bibliofilia 64 (1962):285-300.

  4. Sergio Bertelli, “When Did Machiavelli Write Mandragola?” Renaissance Quarterly 24 (1971):317-26, bases this view on Kenneth M. Setton, “Pope Leo X and the Turkish Peril,” Penrose Memorial Lecture, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 113 (1969):377. See Allan Gilbert, “The Dates of Clizia and Mandragola,” PMLA 64 (1949):1231-35.

  5. Antonio Parronchi, “La prima rappresentazione della Mandragola. Il modello dell' apparato. L'allegoria,” La Bibliofilia 64 (1962):37-86, claims discovery of the sceneries used for the plays, including that for the September 7, 1518, performance of Mandragola. The plays performed on the subsequent days were the lost Falargo and La Pisana attributed to Leonardo Strozzi.

  6. R. Ridolfi, La Mandragola. Per la prima volta restituita alla sua integrità (Florence: Olschki, 1965); “Tradizione manoscritta della Mandragola,La Bibliofilia 67 (1965):1-16; “Composizione, rappresentazione, prima edizione della Mandragola.” His findings have been qualified by Fredi Chiappelli, “Considerazioni di linguaggio e stile della Mandragola,Giornale storico della letteratura italiana 146 (1969):252-59, and “Sulla composizione della Mandragola,Approdo 32 (1965):79-84; and by Vincenzo Romano, “Niccolò Machiavelli. La mandragola per la prima volta restituita alla sua integrità. A cura di Roberto Ridolfi,” Belfagor 21 (1966):614-21; see Fifi-Dolores Colimore, “Edizioni e traduzioni della Mandragola,Italica 18 (1941):55-59.

  7. Bertelli, “When Did Machiavelli Write Mandragola?”, pp. 317-18. Giorgio Padoan, “La mandragola del Machiavelli nella Venezia cinquecentesca,” Lettere italiane 22 (1970):161-86, analyzes how Sanudo's entry reflects Venetian response to the play.

  8. The speaker's quip that future settings will be Rome and Pisa coincides with the settings of the next two plays performed on the successive days of Lorenzo's marriage festivities.

  9. Apparently in 1504 Machiavelli wrote a play entitled Le maschere which his grandson, Giuliano de' Ricci, destroyed for its invective against contemporary Florentines.

  10. Machiavelli's prose translation of Terence's Andria (date uncertain, but probably between 1515 and 1518, before the Mandragola) may have resulted from this interest. It represents an early step toward the comic theory based on language. Publio Filippo Mantovano's Formicone (performed in Mantua in 1503) may be the first learned comedy. See Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Comedy in the Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966), pp. 60-164.

  11. Edwin J. Webber, “The Dramatic Unities in the ‘Mandragola,’” Italica 33 (1956):20-21, shows how Machiavelli anticipated the views of Robertelli, Segni, Trissino, and Castelvetro.

  12. Luigi Russo, Commedie Fiorentine del '500 (Florence: Sansoni, 1939), pp. 26-38; Franco Fido, “Machiavelli 1469-1969: Politica e teatro nel badalucco di Messer Nicia,” Italica 46 (1969):363-64.

  13. Theodore A. Sumberg, “La mandragola: An Interpretation,” Journal of Politics 2 (1961):320-40, interprets it as political allegory. Parronchi, “La prima rappresentazione,” pp. 59-69, endorses it as an allegory of the Medici return to Florence: Callimaco represents Lorenzo; Nicia, Soderini; Lucrezia, Florence, etc.

  14. Fido, “Machiavelli 1469-1969,” pp. 359-75, traces the play's critical reception.

  15. Robert I. Williams, “Machiavelli's Mandragola, Touchwood Senior, and the Comedy of Middleton's A Chaste Maid in Cheapside,Studies in English Literature 10 (1970):385-96, does not recognize that just as Middleton's play is a humorous portrayal of English middle-class society, the Mandragola likewise is a satire on Florentine middle-class mores.

  16. Gaeta, Il teatro, pp. 196-97.

  17. Charles S. Singleton, “Machiavelli and the Spirit of Comedy,” Modern Language Notes 57 (1942):585-92, demonstrates how the old woman in III.3 of the Mandragola symbolizes its “local texture” and comic vision. Nino Borsellino, “Per una storia delle commedie di Machiavelli,” Cultura e scuola 33-34 (1970):229-41, has more on language.

  18. See Martin Fleisher, “Trust and Deceit in Machiavelli's Comedies,” Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966):365-80.

  19. Beatrice Corrigan, “An Unrecorded Manuscript of Machiavelli's La Clizia,La Bibliofilia 62 (1961):73-87; Frank Allan Thomson, “The Significance of the Colchester Clizia MS.,” Fairbanks Essays 27 (1966):121-35; Roberto Ridolfi, “La Clizia di Machiavelli,” Veltro 4 (1960):5-8, and “Contributo a un'edizione critica della Clizia,La Bibliofilia 69 (1967):91-101.

  20. Clizia, trans. Oliver Evans, “Introduction” (Great Neck, N.Y., 1962), pp. 2-15.

  21. Allan H. Gilbert, “The Dates of Clizia and Mandragola,” p. 1232, outlines plot relationships.

  22. Gilbert, The Chief Works, II, 861; Gaeta, Il teatro, p. 162.


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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.

Andrew Apter (review date 1986)

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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 fiercely and furiously one often forgets where it all began, and, in the case of his riotous “liberal adaptation” of Machiavelli's Mandragola, one is equally hard-pressed to say where it all has led.

Lee's Mandragola begins with the cast meandering through the auditorium, making observations about what folks are wearing and offering a warming-up welcome. They exit at the rear of the house, and return moments later singing a Kyrie punctuated by a syncopated jazz beat. With this opening the fundamental conventions of the production are established. The actors know the audience is there, and they will do anything conceivable to sustain its attention.

Machiavelli's play begins when the Prologue is delivered by the Friar, played by black actor Donald Griffin. In recognition of the complexity of the plot and the alien names, he urges the audience to say “Call-i-ma-co” a few times over. When he moves to introduce Nicia, who is dressed in white, Ligurio heckles from the audience, “They look like a salt and pepper shaker.” Throughout the performance, the actors engage with the audience. They hide in the audience, ask questions of the audience, fall into the audience, spray “urine” into the audience—the last contained in a gallon Chianti bottle, an ample specimen from the demure Lucrezia.

Lee upsets not only the conventional lines between actor and audience but also the distinction between actor and character. Lee Fuetter, who is cast as Callimaco's servant, Siro, transforms himself into a wide array of stock theatrical servants, ranging from a Gunga-Din type to a hunchback. One of the richest moments of the production is derived from character/actor confusion. It occurs when Nicia is overwhelmed by the plan which requires that his wife sleep with another man prior to conceiving the child he so deeply desires.

Filled with anxiety, John Stephens, who plays Nicia, becomes agitated by both the character's concerns and his personal concerns. What if the huge crane hovering over the theatre at this moment should collapse and kill us all? The possibility of impending death launches Stephens on an urgent search for some tangible proof of his own existence. Stephens forgets even the name of the play and is begrudged a response when he appeals to the audience to tell him what the play is called. Finally he pleads with the audience to see if a character named Nicia is listed in the program. When this fact is finally corroborated, the brief, entrancing actor's nightmare is concluded.

Stephens is also the focus of another favorite Lee routine, the incorporation of topical local events into the thought of the play. Soliloquizing on life in Florence, Stephens/Nicia alludes to their absentee mayor who is always trying to drum up business elsewhere and returns only when it is necessary to “put a canal right through the middle of our neighborhood,” a reference to Andrew Young's preferences for international travel and unpopular road building. He also discusses provincial art using a Florence-Rome fulcrum. When he refers to the big theatre up the street and the fact that you never see Florentines on stage there, only no-talents from Rome, everyone knows he is referring to the Alliance Theatre and its New York imports.

With Lee in charge, the gags are non-stop. When Ligurio tries to encourage Nicia to agree to the scheme for assuring his wife's fertility, he asks Nicia to imagine what a beautiful baby he will have. Nicia makes a cradle of his arm, and then takes his false moustache and places it on the crook of his arm to complete the picture. The silliness does not negate the fact that in a play where character motivation is negligible to start, this works as good clear and funny explanation of the character's desires.

Anachronism is as abundant as the visual joking. When Callimaco presents his credentials as a doctor to Nicia, he calls his attention to his essential accessories: “Here is my white gown, here is my stethoscope, and here is the funny round thing I wear on my head.” Callimaco rebounds from any doubt provoked by this slip when he quickly produces the ultimate proof of his medical calling: a message beeper. Lee is also alert to ways of bringing the play's own historical details to life in a contemporary theatre. Ligurio tells Nicia that he has more confidence in Callimaco's medical ability “than a janissary has in his sword.” Immediately everyone on stage bursts into laughter while the audience sits in stone silence, until they are duly notified by the Priest that this is a good Renaissance joke.

While the production is updated to the 1930s, Lee's move is basically gratuitous, just another means through which to undermine Machiavelli. The original play serves as a mere starting point for Lee's ceaseless barraging of the audience with nonsense. Nicia, trying to impress a point on Siro, says, “Now grasp this” with a finger pointed for emphasis. Siro immediately seizes the finger. Unable to find a lute to serenade Lucrezia, Callimaco appears with a tuba. When Callimaco sits alone onstage awaiting his nocturnal tryst, the cast in the wings make owl and cricket sounds. As he progresses through his tedious monologue, the sounds gradually transform into jungle noises. The bit is so apparent, yet so joyfully and carefully fulfilled one never bothers to consider anything but the moment at hand. In the end everything vanishes but the memory of an evening filled with laughter.

Henry Paolucci (essay date 1957)

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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, continue to be so honored; nevertheless, the best Italian critics today are inclined to uphold the judgment of T. B. Macaulay that the Mandragola “is superior to the best of Goldoni and inferior only to the best of Molière.”1 They agree that no one work of Goldoni rises to the level of dramatic perfection of the Mandragola. They recognize also that precisely where Goldoni's art seems weakest as compared with Molière's—in intellectual fiber and depth of characterization—Machiavelli's art is exceptionally strong; and some critics press the advantage even further, noting that Machiavelli displays technical mastery also in the one phase of dramatic art wherein Molière himself was admittedly weak, namely, in the architectural design of the action, in the unraveling of the plot, which, as Voltaire observed, is often brought on in Molière with too little preparation and in an improbable manner. Voltaire, incidentally, is said to have asserted that the Mandragola was “worth more than all the comedies of Aristophanes.”2 One might more justly assert, rather, that had Machiavelli been willing to divert himself with writing a few more plays of comparable merit, and had he not written The Prince and the Discourses, he would long ago have been acclaimed a master of comedy to be ranked as the equal of Aristophanes and Molière.

Two other comedies, both typical products of the Renaissance theater, have come to us from the pen of Machiavelli: Andria, translated from Terence, and Clizia, an imitation of Plautus. But in the Mandragola, written sometime between 1512 and 1520, Machiavelli rose above the Renaissance ideal, abandoning translation and imitation for pure invention. Spectators at its earliest performances (one of the first took place in the year 1520 in the presence of Pope Leo X) judged the play to be something distinctly new—and modern literary scholars generally have concurred in that judgment.

The theme of the play, sexual seduction, is, of course, not new. A love-sick young man enlists the aid of servants, friends, and rogues that he may gratify an inordinate desire to possess the beautiful wife of an old “doctor”; obstacles are encountered; plans to overcome them are devised and revised; at last, after a series of humorous turns, the desired end is attained. All this belongs to comic tradition. Machiavelli, however, introduces an element that makes a fundamental difference. He represents the beautiful wife as an evidently virtuous woman who would not under any circumstances invite amorous advances and who has not the least intention of betraying her husband. Remarking the novelty of this representation of the wife, Professor D. C. Stuart, in his Development of Dramatic Art, observes that as a consequence “scenes and situations unknown in Latin comedy are introduced.”3 But this novel characterization is by no means accidental. It is, itself, a consequence of Machiavelli's wholly original conception of the basic action of the play. With the genius of purest comedy evidently guiding him, he boldly manipulates the commonplace amorous intrigue which is his theme as if it were a problem in international diplomacy. From the outset, the young hero of the play seems as ardently concerned to secure emotional health for himself as some fiery statesman might well be to secure the salus republica. He represents himself as caught in a situation of clear and present danger; he must attain his end or be destroyed. And with very life at issue, the voice of reason itself, he tells us, dictates that he must be willing to do whatever necessity indicates to secure victory and, with victory, the enjoyment of that hallowed peace and happiness which is the goal of all human endeavor.

In pursuit of such happiness the young hero enters, conditionally, upon an alliance with a known ruffian who performs his services with the aplomb of an experienced official of the diplomatic corps. The ruffian warns against shortsightedness, against unnecessary violence, against the allurements of easy but merely temporary success; and he advises a definition of policy such that everyone involved may anticipate from its successful execution some real or apparent benefit. The task, thereafter, is merely to negotiate with all parties, pointing out to each the nature of the advantage to be derived, beginning with those whose advantage is most obvious (even if only apparent) and, with their support, proceeding to the persuasion of the one person who, seemingly at least, stands to lose something precious in the transaction. Bluntly stated, the immediate object is to enlist the aid of husband, mother, and father confessor in persuading a virtuous wife that she shall have performed a faithful act of conjugal obedience while admitting an utter stranger to the enjoyments of her bed. Such is the immediate object; the ultimate object is to effect in the wife a fundamental “transvaluation of values.”

The attainment of these two objects involves the chief personages of the play in a series of actions which prompts Professor Stuart to remark: “Of the cynical immorality of these situations the less said the better; but nevertheless these scenes strike a note never heard even in Plautus. They give an opportunity for dramatic progression.”4 And even the great Francesco de Sanctis, who otherwise judges the Mandragola very severely on moral grounds, is constrained to acknowledge that in the closing scenes Machiavelli rises to a display of “comic power and originality matched by little in the ancient or modern theater.”5

The chief personages of the play—the Prologue informs us—are four: a low-designing lover, a leech or ruffian who is “deceit's own child,” an absurdly pompous old “doctor,” and a monk who has lived ill. We have already considered briefly the characteriations of the young lover and his ruffian adviser. The old “doctor” is, of course, the butt of the farcical intrigue. A scrawny old pigeon of a man, he struts and cackles among women and servants, bows and scrapes before his betters, and scurries out of sight at the mere suggestion of real danger. He is vulgar, stupid, impotent, shameless; but Machiavelli masterfully elevates him to the level of high comedy by arming him with the proverbial wisdom of the common people. His speech is a vade mecum of popular sagacity. His every decision, his every deed has the sanction of some traditional Florentine proverb, so that the old fool has the satisfaction of thinking himself a veritable fox as he leads himself by the nose whither others want him to go.

The fourth chief personage, the monk who has lived ill, makes his appearance very late in the play. The Prologue warns us that we may miss him if we hurry away too soon. And yet he is unmistakably the most important personality, so profoundly complex that there have been almost as many diverse interpretations of his character and of the significance of his part in the play as there have been critics. In the judgment of some he is a cheap hypocrite, a deceitful casuist and simoniac trading for a pittance the spiritual goods entrusted to his care, a lecherous corrupter of womanhood, of family, of society. For others he is a delightfully Boccaccesque personality, by some quirk of fate thrust into a monkish order, conducting himself as well as one can under the circumstances and consenting, when he cannot graciously do otherwise, to spice our enjoyment of the veneral suggestiveness of the play with a touch of clerical wit. Still other critics have seen in him a frank spokesman for Machiavelli's own profoundest sentiments regarding the nature of man and the motives underlying the normal conduct of human affairs.

He is, indeed, as some of the best critics have suggested, exactly the same sort of enigmatic personality that Machiavelli's prince is. The latter, too, has been variously appraised, being most frequently denounced as the embodiment of absolute immorality, yet almost as often admired for his unwavering pragmatism, and sometimes even quite earnestly acclaimed as the only conceivable instrument of temporal salvation for a politically depressed people. Each of these diverse interpretations, of the monk as of the prince, contains a large measure of truth; each is the result of appraising a singularly rich personality from a different point of view. The fact that Machiavelli, with the instinct of a dramatist, declines to impose upon his readers any single point of view is, perhaps, a defect in The Prince, for it renders equivocal the meaning of a work that may have been intended to be clear and unambiguous. But it is no defect in the Mandragola and, indeed, no defect in The Prince either, if the latter be judged from a purely literary standpoint. So judged The Prince becomes a grand tragedy—a play, rather than a treatise, offering a tragic view of the same world of which the Mandragola is the comedy.

Machiavelli, it would seem, was incapable of delineating an unequivocal representation of the world underlying his literary masterpieces. At any rate, one looks in vain through the entire corpus of his writings for such a picture. Here and there, especially in the Discourses, in the lesser tracts, and in the Florentine Histories, profoundly suggestive indications are given, but always in a fragmentary, and frequently in a self-contradictory or, rather, paradoxical manner. Yet the indications are sufficient to enable a serious student of political philosophy to recognize their compatibility with that grand conception of ethics and politics, and of the interrelation of the two in history, which had its foundation in Aristotle and which has received its most systematic exposition, from a secular point of view, in the Philosophy of Law of Hegel. Its equivalent in traditional Christianity is to be found in St. Augustine's elaborate conception of the civitas terrena.

The world of the Mandragola and of The Prince is a world of men, women, and children all earnestly pursuing peace and happiness, yet unfortunately pursuing these wonderful ends in such a way that the satisfaction of one person often, if not always, involves the frustration of another. Conflicts of interest inevitably arise—between the crying infant and its mother, between children, youths, adults, families, clans; and in these conflicts either both parties are frustrated or one party emerges as victor and the other as vanquished. No doubt there have always been some human beings who would rather die than submit to the will of another, but these have, in fact, been such rarities that all peoples, at all times, have looked upon them with wonderment. The majority of human beings easily learn to accommodate themselves in defeat, submitting their wills, gradually, as well as their bodies to the guidance of their conquerors. Thus emerges that “consent of the governed,” that common will, which transforms the relation of victor and vanquished into that of ruler and ruled. The institution of law and education is then possible, the latter implementing the former by training youths, from the earliest possible moment, to conduct themselves habitually in accordance with the common will. The product of the common will is the commonwealth, or res publica.

A people with a res publica are able to enjoy much peace and happiness among themselves—provided they can secure their commonwealth against the inevitable aggressions of their richer and poorer neighbors. If they can, they will no doubt continue to prosper, augmenting their commonwealth, insuring domestic tranquillity, and providing for the common defense first by merely thrusting back aggressors who invade their peaceful land, later, with more prudence, going forth to meet and stop aggressors before they actually invade, and finally, with maximum prudence, streaming outward themselves in full force to make the world utterly and forever safe, so that they who have proved most willing to fight for freedom may thereafter live comfortably in the peaceful pursuit of happiness.

So, according to the basic pattern glimpsed by Machiavelli, runs the course of the world's pursuit of happiness. Aristotle, in his Politics, concentrated his attention on the phase of this process which culminates in the establishment of a republic with sufficient means to facilitate among its free citizens the pursuit of knowledge and happiness. The Roman political and juridical thinkers concentrated on the problem of establishing the habits of peace throughout the world, putting an end to the aggressions of haughty people and helping backward areas to help themselves. St. Augustine, called upon to explain the sack of Rome in 410, chose to assess the colossal misery involved in the whole process, especially in its culminating stage—the establishing of an enforceable world peace.

In The Prince Machiavelli restricted himself to an analysis of the problem of releasing a vanquished people from the bondage of factional disunity imposed upon them by powerful neighbors. This is perhaps the ugliest phase of the process, especially from the point of view of the citizens of nations that have long ago solved the problem in question, and whose statesmen are masters of the high art of preventing other peoples from doing so. But in whatever phase men and societies may find themselves, the fundamental human nature, the underlying natural impulses, Machiavelli insists, remain the same. His view of human nature, pessimistic as it may seem, accords exactly with that of Aristotle, who observed that, apart from the restraints of politically constituted society, men are apt to behave toward one another worse than the most savage beasts; and it accords also with the traditional doctrine of Christianity on human nature, especially as articulated by St. Augustine. One should not forget, however, that in St. Augustine's view nature is not the sole force operating in human history. According to the great African bishop, Divine Grace also operates, sustaining, in the midst of the civitas terrena, a pilgrim portion of the City of God.

Of Divine Grace operating in the world, Machiavelli, needless to say, saw nothing. From a Christian point of view, therefore, one may say that his unpleasant doctrine is not the whole story. But, as T. S. Eliot has very emphatically observed in his short essay on the subject, from no other point of view can one fairly make this restriction.6 Against modern readers who find themselves revolted by the immorality of the world of The Prince and the Mandragola and who, on that account, repudiate Machiavelli's representation of human nature as unrealistic or perhaps true only for Italians of his own time, T. S. Eliot has written significantly: “Machiavelli was no fanatic; he merely observed the truth about humanity without the addition of superhuman Grace.” His view, Eliot continues, “is therefore tolerable only to persons who have also a definite religious belief; to the effort of the last three centuries to supply religious belief by belief in Humanity the creed of Machiavelli is insupportable.” All that the author of The Prince and of the Mandragola failed to see about human nature, Eliot concludes, is “the myth of human goodness which for liberal thought replaces the belief in Divine Grace.”

With the foregoing representation of the historical pattern of the earthly pursuit of happiness to serve as a background, it is perhaps easier to see why, judged from a purely literary standpoint, The Prince is indeed a tragedy and the Mandragola a comedy. The Prince represents a desperate, utterly frustrate attempt to salvage some genuine happiness out of a wretched national situation; the Mandragola, on the other hand, represents a mere prank whereby an audience is invited, for its recreation, to observe how, even in the tragic land of The Prince, some small measure of delight may be secured by deception worked so cunningly and with so little violence as to inflict as little pain as possible upon those who are being deceived. The spectacle of this cunningly worked deception may be enjoyed, on a thoughtless level, simply for its own sake. But appreciation of the element of greatness in the play requires that a picture of the tragic world of The Prince be ever kept at least faintly in mind. And Machiavelli is able to force upon his audience repeated reminders of the presence of that world primarily through his characterization of the monk, Fra Timoteo, to whom he has given that “inexplicable touch of infinity”—as A. C. Bradley calls it—which is the mark of true greatness in dramatic creation.


  1. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Machiavelli,” in Macaulay, Prose and Poetry, selected by G. M. Young (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), p. 252. The essay was originally printed in the Edinburgh Review, March, 1827.

  2. See preface by I. D. Levine in Niccolò Machiavelli, Mandragola, tr. Stark Young (New York, 1927), pp. 8-9.

  3. Donald Clive Stuart, Development of Dramatic Art (New York and London, 1928), p. 286.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Francesco de Sanctis, Storia della letteratura italiana (Milano, 1928), II, 89.

  6. T. S. Eliot, “Niccolò Machiavelli,” in For Lancelot Andrews (Garden City, N. Y., 1929), pp. 62-63.

William J. Kennedy (essay date 1984)

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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 psychology of the perceiving subject and seeks to explain the audience's response to the action. Its proponents include Plato, Hobbes, Kant, Baudelaire, and in the twentieth century Sigmund Freud, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Ernst Kris.2 These approaches are not mutually exclusive; indeed the second presumes the first while the first fulfills itself in the second. Examples abound from all periods. Between 1500 and 1700 dramatic practice was especially resourceful in its invention of topics for shaping the audience's role as participant in the action. Some of the greatest comedies of that period openly acknowledge the audience's role in the production of laughter by inscribing that role within the play's text. In Machiavelli's La Mandragola, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and Molière's L'Avare, the audience's roles are diverse and exemplary.

Renaissance dramatic theory itself emphasized the audience's role in comedy. George Puttenham, whose The Arte of English Poesie (1589) is important less for its deep theoretical vision of genre than for its precise definitions of rhetorical terms, nonetheless locates comedy in the context of everyday life and the audience's relationship to it. For him comedy should offer a model of society in depicting “the matters of the world,” and it should draw the audience to itself by “discipline and example”; in this formulation he reflects the Renaissance commonplace that comedy imitates life:

The Poets devised to have many parts played at once by two or three or foure persons, that debated the matters of the world, sometimes of their owne private affaires, sometimes of their neighbours, but never medling with any Princes matters nor such high personages, but commonly of marchants, souldiers, artificers, good honest householders, and also of unthrifty youthes, young damsels, old nurses, bawds, brokers, ruffians and parasites, with such like, in whose behaviors, lyeth in effect the whole course and trade of mans life, and therefore tended altogither to the good amendment of man by discipline and example.3

Puttenham's statement may well serve as a gloss for the comedies of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, and Molière.

Significantly in these plays the emphasis on the audience's ability to penetrate complex comic word-play calls into question the truism about comic distance between subject and object. The rhetorical relationship between them may instead reflect one of comic proximity. The proximity does not necessarily imply the audience's psychic identification with the characters, nor a sharing of the play's mimetic content. It does, however, require the audience to interact with the play's language, unravelling verbal structures that entrap the play's characters or express their problems and frustrations. The bond between the audience and the action entails a rhetorical sharing of meaning and expression, argument and invention, debate and judgment. In the century and a half between Machiavelli and Molière, the audience's roles became divided, fragmented, and set antithetically against one another. The coherent response demanded of Machiavelli's play turned problematic in Shakespeare's comedy and frankly oppositional in Molière's comedy. By studying the process of rhetorical sharing in La Mandragola, Twelfth Night, and L'Avare, we may come to firmer conclusions about the modalities of these plays, the styles of their comedy, and perhaps even about literary history in its passage from the early sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century.

The rhetorical roles of Machiavelli's sixteenth-century audience are constant. It is unclear whether Machiavelli composed La Mandragola as early as 1504, before his exile, or as late as 1518, after his return, and it is equally unclear whether the composition of the audience at its first performance was bourgeois, aristocratic, or both.4 What is clear is that La Mandragola was a superior amateur effort directed towards either wealthy aristocrats or wealthy signori who might have selected it for private performances on temporary stages in their palaces or courtyards. In early sixteenth-century Italy such plays were traditionally performed on festive occasions marking weddings, births, ceremonial installations, state visits, and the like. Class struggles in the cities of northern Italy usually prevented the mingling of broad sectors of the populace at public performances of commercial theater. As a result, plays aimed at a representative urban audience were few in number. Statistics about the attendance of middle- or lower-class spectators at upper-class presentations are scanty, though it is possible that some of the former were admitted through the patron's largess. Before 1513 when Italy's first permanent theater was opened at Rome, there is no evidence that any spectators paid to attend. The important point is that, whatever its social composition, Machiavelli's audience was an invited one, and hence was relatively homogeneous in its shared values.

One indication of the kind of response that Machiavelli expected from his audience emerges from commentaries on Roman comedy published during the early Renaissance. Badius Ascensius's edition of Terence (1502) is instructive. Though Badius founds his commentary on an already widely circulated one by the fourth-century grammarian Donatus, he amplifies it and gives it a decidedly Renaissance twist. Above all, he emphasizes the central role of the audience as participants in the play's rhetorical action. In his introductory remarks he distinguishes between the audience's response as mere spectators of visibilia and their response as intelligent auditors of rhetorical discourse. The wiser sort choose the latter perspective: “Doctores autem quorum alii indicium sequebantur magis audiebant” (But the wiser sort, others of whom attended to the argument's disclosure, listened instead).5 The audience's role is above all to listen.

Badius construes the action of a play as a rhetorical argument that draws the audience into its logical unfolding. Its three parts are protasis, epithasis, and catastrophe. The first secures attention by revealing some parts of the argument and concealing others: “Pars argumenti seu materie explicatur, pars autem reticetur ad populi expectationem tenendam” (bv) (Part of the argument is unfolded in the matter and part is withheld to stretch the audience's attention). A good beginning should inspire in the audience a desire to learn the argument's logical or illogical outcome: “Ut visis principiis populus desiderio exitus dubii videndi detineri possit” (bv) (So that when they have seen the beginning, the audience can be detained by its desire to see the resolution of an uncertain action). The play's second part develops the action, which itself entails a knot of error that the participants must unravel: “Epithasis secunda pars principalis est incrementum processusque turbartum actotius (ut ita dixerim) nodus erroris ac involutio argumenti” (bv) (The epithasis, the second principal part of the comedy, is the growth and progress of the conflicts and, I might so say, the whole knot of error and the complication of the plot). The play's third part, the catastrophe, is “conversio rerum ducens ad iocundos exitus patefacta cunctis cognitione gestorum” (bv) (the reversal of events leading to the happy ending when an understanding of the action is revealed to all). Badius's concept of rhetorical involvement informs his entire presentation.

When Badius analyzes the argument of each of Terence's plays, he refers to the plot's comic confusion (error) as posing a threat or danger (periculo) to the hero, and he asserts that it runs its course just long enough (tantisper) until someone can reveal (solvat) the truth. Thus in Andria “motus error periculo Carini ac Pamphili tantisper perductus est dum athenas veniens de Andro quidam genitorem aperiat ac nodum fabule solvat” (biiiiv) (the error set in motion to the danger of Carinus and Pamphilus is continued just long enough until someone coming from Andros might reveal Athens as the heroine's birthplace and still not untie the entire plot). Finally Badius emphasizes the rhetorical figures and sententiae that instruct the audience as well as delight it. In Hecrya “est etiam mixta motoris actibus ac statariis, multumquoque sententiae ac figurae continetur in toto stilo unde cum delectet plurimum non minus utilitatis affert spectatoribus” (mviiiv) (many sententiae and figures are contained in its style, which, while it might delight many, also brings no less profit to the audience). The whole commentary therefore tends to view comedy as an argument whose development and resolution involve the audience in a perception of the hero's error or confusion, of dangers threatening the hero, of wit entailed in the resolution, and of figures and sententiae that instruct and delight. The commentary thereby emphasizes the audience's role in the rhetorical action.

La Mandragola constitutes a textbook example of this kind of comedy. It represents the working out of a problem, and the audience's role inscribed into the play is to pursue the problem to its resolution. The problem for Callimaco (his name means “handsome contender”) is to invent a strategy to seduce Lucrezia. Her name evokes her virtuous Roman prototype, so that her eventual surrender to Callimaco affords a powerful reversal. It represents a clear triumph of his crafty intelligence over the tired old world of debased types like Lucrezia's husband and his cronies. The play's rhetorical nature entails not only its invention of an argument, but also its disposition, embellishment, delivery, and aftermath. The structure of debate informs the play, requiring the audience not only to observe the unfolding argument, but also to participate in it.

The topic of the debate is the power of fate or fortune over Callimaco's ability to execute his own designs. At the outset, for example, Callimaco recognizes that Fortune has set the plot in motion by envying his happiness and sending Camillo Calfucci to Paris with his account of Lucrezia's beauty: “Ma parendo alla Fortuna che io avessi troppo bel tempo, fece che capitò a Parigi un Camillo Calfucci” (I.i) (But since it seemed to Fortune that I was too happy, it sent Camillo Calfucci to Paris).6 He emphasizes the fortuitousness of the day that he happened to be discussing women with Camilo: “Accadde un giorno che noi venimmo in disputa” (I.i) (It happened one day that we fell into dispute). Complicating his decision to act is his admission that any hope of success may be only illusory: “e benche la fussi debole e vana” (I.i) (and yet it may be weak and illusory). All of these recognitions undermine his attempt to seduce Lucrezia. By facing them squarely, however, he succeeds in overcoming the danger presented to him.

In Act IV, Callimaco sets out in disguise to seduce Lucrezia. Again he evokes the power of Fortune, this time in soliloquy. He resolves to face Fortune and avoid danger, but if he cannot, he will confront it like a man, without groveling or degrading himself: “Ed è vero che la fortuna e la natura tiene el conto per bilancio; non ti fa mai un bene che all'incontro non surga un male” (IV.i.4-6) (It's all too true that fortune and nature outweigh each other: nothing good happens to you but something bad is sure to follow). The rhetorical resonances recall the two chief determinants of success in the political arena described in Machiavelli's Prince, fortuna and virtù.7Fortuna offers alleatory risks for good or ill, but virtù presents a stable alternative. The word does not mean “virtue” or even “manliness” as it is sometimes rendered, but rather “resourcefulness, flexibility, virtuosity.” It entails the capacity to perform as a virtuoso whatever task one sets oneself. In La Mandragola Callimaco becomes a comic virtuoso in his attainment of Lucrezia.

Callimaco's rhetorical stance in Acts I and IV represents no mere compendium of topoi and sententiae, however. Through its interaction with the rhetorical performances of the play's other characters it constitutes instead a frame that gives a focus to the entire comic action. The audience relates to this action on the cutting edge of Callimaco's anxieties. Its sensitivity to the rhetorical frame enables it to uncover the rhetorical inadequacies and obfuscations of the play's fools and scoundrels. Their talk comes to seem cheap, a poor substitute for performance or heroic resolve. Rhetoric, denuded, appears ridiculous.

In Act I the parasite Ligurio complains that Lucrezia's husband, Nicia, appears blessed by Fortune: “E quanto la fortuna lo ha favorito!” (I.iii) (And how fortune has favored him!). Ligurio's exclamation lends sharp relief to Callimaco's concern about his own virtuosity as a weapon against Fortune, but in the context of Callimaco's superior ability it also exposes Ligurio's weakness. For Ligurio the danger of failing in his endeavor to aid Callimaco is that he will lose all to a fool whom Fortune has smiled upon. In III.ii he articulates his fear (paura) that his Fortune depends entirely upon another's luck: “Costui è sì sciocco che io ho paura non guastassi ogni cosa” (III.ii) (He's so stupid I'm afraid he might ruin everything). Ligurio's success as a parasite requires him to please everyone all the time. By contrast, Callimaco's success with Lucrezia entails nothing more than winning a night of pleasure for both of them. Callimaco faces the non-threatening danger that someone else may enjoy Lucrezia's favors instead: “in modo che si porta pericolo di non durare questa fatica per altri” (I.iii) (so that we face the danger of doing a favor for someone else).

To avert those dangers Ligurio devises a scenario for Callimaco to win Lucrezia. The scenario in turn generates a knot of comic confusion that not only affects all the other characters in the play, but also binds the audience to the play. Ligurio becomes a figure of the playwright who controls the play's characters and its audience. Just as his scenario requires the entire cast to cooperate in its enactment, so too it requires the entire audience to participate in its rhetorical unfolding. It requires, moreover, a cohesive response of the play's characters and of its audience as well. It implies that there is but one way to execute the action and to understand it.

The scenario accommodates everyone, including Callimaco's servant, Siro, and the hypocritical priest, Frate Timoteo. In Act II, Siro speaks about the network of dependencies that tie him to Callimaco's fate and the danger (pericolo) that awaits him if he fails: “Perché risapendosi, io porto pericolo della vita, el padrone della vita e della roba” (II.iv) (Because being caught, I'm in danger of my life, and my master in danger of his life and his goods, too). In a soliloquy in Act III, Frate Timoteo entertains his own fear of being discovered. Here he schemes to turn the trap to his own use; yet he relieves the tension with a triumphant declaration of his own capacity to succeed without regret: “Sia come si voglia, io non me ne pento” (III.ix) (Come what may, I have no regrets). Rhetorically, however, Timoteo's bravado fails to convince. He is using words to bolster a self-confidence grounded in Fortune rather than virtuosity. The danger and confusion that he faces are the fruit of his own hypocritical contrivances.

The play's rhetorical articulation of danger and confusion enables the audience to participate in its resolution on several levels at once. It allows the audience to link the hero's success to that of the play's minor characters so that each illuminates the other. It allows the audience to recognize that the play is populated by fools and scoundrels whose security rides on the sheer luck of their covert intentions. Above all, it assigns to the audience a role like the one Badius designated in his commentary on Terence. Callimaco the nobleman, Ligurio the parasite, Siro the servant, and Timoteo the priest all face problems of danger and confusion. At each turn in the play's action, and especially at each iteration of its central motifs, the play's rhetoric affirms the integration of their interests and concerns. It also involves all members of the audience in a common response to the problems it develops. It therefore becomes a vehicle of cohesion linking audience to action.

The audience that Shakespeare created for Twelfth Night at the end of the century had a cultural base discernibly broader than Machiavelli's, and it was called upon to devote even more rigorous, perspicuous attention to the text's rhetorical implications. Historically and sociologically, the Elizabethan theater may have represented “a democratic institution in an intensely undemocratic age.”8 The unique composition of its members from all walks of life on both sides of the stage certainly reflects this condition. The economics of the theater reflects it as well. Distinguished from its academic and courtly counterpart on the continent, it was a professional enterprise conducted by professional actors and businessmen attracting lucrative audiences. It performed regularly at public and private houses, indoors and outdoors, in provinces and cities, for rich and poor, literate and illiterate. Recent evidence, however, suggests that its audience was less plebian than privileged, and that privileged expectations shaped dramatic rhetoric.9 The wealthy, educated minority simply had more time, money, leisure, and social conditioning to attend the theater. It was, moreover, attuned to a fine literary and dramatic virtuosity, with perhaps even some academic awareness of literary tradition.

Neither Elizabethan ethnology nor theatrical history fully explains the audience's role, however. More evidence is afforded by Shakespeare's rhetorical gestures, which at once identify the spectators with the play's action and dissociate them from it. They implicate the audience in a common pursuit of uncovering meaning and significance from the play's discourse. Each of its members can participate in the play's verbal dialectic. Its requirements for admission are neither specialized education nor background, but a keen ear and a quick wit. Literacy, learning, familiarity with theatrical conventions, and a taste for rhetorical word-play may enhance its reception, but attentiveness to nuance is the common denominator that unifies the audience's response.

The rhetorical strategies of Twelfth Night play on the topic of concealment. Malvolio revels in concealment by passing himself off in the vanguard of a new social order as “a kind of Puritan” (II.iii.128), but Maria knows better: “The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time pleaser; an affectioned ass” (II.iii.134-35).10 Toby asks bluntly, “Art any more than a steward?” (II.iii.104), but Malvolio inwardly believes that he is the object of Olivia's secret affections. His first word in the play is “Yes,” but he uses it in a negative way to deprecate Olivia's clown, answering Olivia's question, “Doth he not mend?” with the reply “Yes, and shall do till the pangs of death shake him” (I.v.68-71).

Malvolio is the figure of negation who is himself negated by other characters. He therefore falls easy victim to Maria's revenge by believing himself “most feelingly personated” (II.iii.145) in her parodic letter. Or rather, by misreading her parodic letter. As its reader he sees himself—or thinks he sees himself—represented by the letters M O A I. He is a poor audience, a victim of grammatology fooled by his own deconstruction of a fragmentary anagram of his name. His readiness to interpret wrongly when the wrong interpretation suits him leads him to the comic confusion in Act III of following suggestions, pursuing traces, and enacting codes privately embedded in the letter's text. His yellow stockings, cross garters, and fawning smile translate his folly into ludicrous visual correlatives. His enactment of the lover's role elicits from Olivia the caution that he must “be looked to” (III.iv.56).

Viola, however, has mastered the codes of disguise and rhetorical concealment. Her initial response to grief upon the possible drowning of her brother is to engage in word-play, in the liberating powers of free linguistic association: “And what should I do in Illyria? / My brother he is in Elysium” (I.ii.3-4). She does not allow herself to sink into a sea of words, however. In facts she stands up to the wit of others, and to the clown's assertion that “A sentence is but a chev'ril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward!” she rejoins, “Nay, that's certain. They that dally nicely with words may quickly make them wanton” (III.i.11-15). In her disguise as Cesario she disarms both Orsino and Olivia, and she knows how to interpret the rules of the same game when others play it. She perceives Olivia's amorous advances in the ring plot, and she calmly refutes Malvolio's protest in full knowledge that he himself is unaware of the sender's device: “She took the ring of me. I'll none of it” (II.ii.12). She plays the game well, but she also recognizes the problem that her disguise engenders: “Fortune forbid my outside have not charmed her” (II.ii.17). Viola can pierce through the rhetoric of others, but she cannot surmount her own disguise.11

Viola, in fact, falls victim to her own disguise. Andrew Aguecheek plots to baffle her with an “excellently ignorant” letter (III.iv.175). It is a masterpiece of rhetorical design contrived to keep Andrew's intention “from the blow of the law” (III.iv.145) and to challenge its recipient's powers of interpretation. Viola fails to comprehend Toby's message about Andrew's complaint: “You mistake, sir. I am sure no man hath any quarrel to me” (III.iv.212). She fails to comprehend why Antonio, mistaking her for Sebastian, defends her against Andrew: “Nor know I you by voice or any feature” (III.iv.333). And she fails to comprehend why Olivia, making the same mistake, calls her “husband”: “No, my lord,” she says to Orsino, “not I” (V.i.139). Upon recognizing the confusion in Act V, she insists on acting out the logic of revelation, even though Sebastian has established his own identity, and by implication hers as well: “Do not embrace me till each circumstance / Of place, time, fortune do cohere and jump / That I am Viola” (V.i.243-45). She demands ocular proof, full evidence, and the testimony of the sea-captain “by whose gentle help / I was preserved” (V.i.247-48). Once fooled, she is unwilling to be fooled again.

Twelfth Night therefore explores in a comic way the rhetorical problems engendered by the various guises that conceal us from others. To mask oneself or one's affections one need not wear the costume of disguise as Viola does, nor even a veil as Olivia does. Language, words, rhetoric do the job quite well. The audience's task in this comedy is to penetrate the rhetoric of disguise. As a model, Feste the clown serves as an apt figure for the audience.12 At the play's end he resolves Malvolio's bafflement about the letter plot by echoing the letter's words, recalling their context, and illuminating their rhetorical situation (V.i.360). His verbal demonstration readily implies that the audience's role is to analyze, interpret, and evaluate the rhetorical implications of the play's discourse. Like thunder, its comedy does not exist unless the audience is able to hear it.

Feste's first line in Act II provides an important clue to the audience's role. “Did you ever see the picture of We Three?” he asks (II.iii.15). The popular picture that he refers to showed two fools or asses and was inscribed “We Three,” with the implication that the onlooker constituted the third fool. Feste's role in the play is to draw into his witty repartee all his audiences—both the actors on one side of the stage and the spectators on the other. He entraps them in the rhetorical fallacies of their own logic and forces them to view reality from a more salubrious perspective. Thus he cons Olivia into mocking her own grief: “The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother's soul being in heaven” (I.v.65-66). Pace Harold Bloom, “misprision” is Feste's most powerful word (I.v.50) and his most powerful weapon. Or, rather, it is Shakespeare's, since the OED records its first use as “textual misunderstanding” in his earlier play, Love's Labour Lost. Here, when Olivia tires of his word-play, the clown accuses her of “misprision in the highest degree” (I.v.50).

Dramatizing comic misprision in the highest degree, the play requires its audience to focus on the very language it usually takes for granted. The play's foremost example of misprision is Malvolio's reading of his own name in “M O A I,” but in a broader sense the whole texture of the play's language and action dramatizes misprision. Within itself Malvolio's name anagramatically contains Viola's name with an extra m, l, o, and also Olivia's with an extra m and l. The latter's name anagramatically contains Viola's with an extra i. The women bear affinities with each other; they share, for example, a vitality implicit in the syllables Vi(e) = (French) ‘life’ and liv(e), and both reject the malevolent qualities associated with Malvolio and his name. The play's action entails their search for a vital response to the love that they feel and the elimination of Malvolio's malevolence. The audience will profit from a keenness to these implications. If Malvolio's name entraps him, Viola's and Olivia's liberate them.

The comic word-play that invites the audience to participate in its rhetorical unfolding is close to the center of the play's meaning. As its characters use language in variously faulty ways, they reveal their own follies. The clown, for example, defines his role as Olivia's “corrupter of words” (III.i.34). At the end of the scene where he offers that definition, Olivia professes her love for “Cesario” in extravagantly bad rhymed couplets: “I love thee so that, maugre all thy pride, / Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide” (III.i.148-49). Her rhetoric finally collapses under the weight of its own dogged iambic regularity and hypermetric excess: “But rather reason thus with reason fetter, / Love sought is good, but given unsought is better” (III.i.152-55). Viola, however, knowingly parodies this jangling verse as she retreats from the scene with her own facetious rhyme: “Never more / Will I my master's tears to you deplore” (III.i.158-59). For the audience, this parody throws into comic relief the real shallowness of Olivia's experience. Olivia's rhetoric rings false and foolish.

Viola is in full control of her parody. The audience knows this because earlier she confronted Orsino with an echoing response to his own bloated poetry. There he complained that no woman could match him in the expression of his love, not even his beloved Olivia: “Make no compare / Between that love a woman can bear me / And that I owe Olivia” (II.iv.100-102). In his final line the bemused audience might hear the sound of vowels rather than words, signifying the slippage of Orsino's rhetoric into empty sound: “I owe O(livia).” Viola immediately echoes the sounds of “I” and “O” in her reply, “Aye, but I know” (II.iv.102). The deliberateness of the echo signals her control over language, and also over herself and the trappings of her disguise. She now confesses her love for Orsino under the veil of a fiction that the audience can understand as her rhetorical accomplice: “My father had a daughter loved a man / As it might be perhaps, were I a woman, / I should your lordship” (II.iv.106-08). Because Orsino does not share the audience's knowledge, he asks Viola to continue: “And what's her history?” Viola clings to her rhetorical disguise as the audience accompanies her: “A blank, my lord. She never told her love, / But let concealment, like a worm i' th' bud, / Feed on her damask cheek” (II.iv.109-11).

Viola's disguise remains intact, even though her mask has fallen. Representationally and rhetorically, the audience shares the rewards of her heightened awareness and awaits the comic untanglement of the action. Representation and rhetoric demand a homogeneous perspective on the audience's part. No matter what might be the audience's powers of taste, discernment, social prestige, or sexual disposition, the play's rhetoric shapes its response in a uniform way.

The responses demanded by Molière's L'Avare (1668) are otherwise. Sociologically and historically, its audience was different from that of Machiavelli or Shakespeare. Though Molière's apprenticeship of thirteen years in the provinces conditioned him to the varied responses of all classes to his comedy, his success in Paris after 1658 was curiously linked to both royal protection and bourgeois attendance at the theater. The audiences of the comédie at the Palais Royale might have been homogeneous in sophistication and outlook, but they were heterogeneous in values and judgment. The representation on the stage could puzzle or offend as many as it might please or gratify. Rhetorical ingenuity could provoke outrage or laughter.

That outrage and laughter precipitated what recent critics have called Molière's “crisis” in Tartuffe (1664, 1667, 1669), Dom Juan (1665), and Le Misanthrope (1666). His earlier plays represented the correction of aberrancy, the expulsion of the scapegoat, and the chastisement of the misfit, all under the approving eyes of a society that wished to reestablish its harmony. In them Molière complied with his audience's values, or with what he perceived as its mainstream values. During his crisis, however, that complicity breaks down. Tartuffe, Dom Juan, and Le Misanthrope still represent the elimination of menacing, aberrant forces (the titular characters of those plays), but at the same time they admit no positive, reconstitutive forces to fill the void.13 The characters who should hold the center are weak (e.g. Orgon), or repressive (e.g. Dom Louis), or just plain frivolous (e.g. the suitors of Célimène). In these plays the dramatist distances himself from the audience and alienates its most powerful sectors from less powerful ones. He shows how its inferior sectors are really powerless even when championed by rebels like Dom Juan or Alceste, whom superiors regard as aberrant.

Molière's later plays transcend this crisis with a new kind of theater. It represents not just frivolous, weak, or repressive characters, but also the frivolity, weakness, and repressiveness of institutions and forms. The latter may be social, political, professional, or even linguistic. Molière's last plays dramatize the overcoming of some of these restraints through fantasy, masque, and role-playing. On the one hand, the elimination of even restraining verse forms in the prose of Le Medecin malgré lui, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, and L'Avare reflects the same impulse. On the other hand, the rhetoric of these plays reflects the perpetuation of those restraints in their comic action, and it proclaims the ultimate reestablishment of their authority figures. M. Jourdain and Harpagon, types of the meddlesome senex, are neither expelled nor converted nor even finally chastised. Their fundamental selfhoods simply do not change, even though the threats that they pose to their families are averted. The release from oppressive power proves thus to be temporary, provisional, not at all permanent. Various sectors of the audience may view this release in different ways. For those who retain power, the lack of resolution is reassuring. For those who remain powerless, it engenders discomfiture. The hierarchical order of class, caste, and authority in Molière's audience remains as deeply divided as ever before, but Molière converts the alienation into a principal rhetorical strategy of his comedy.

The playhouses of Molière's day were designed to enforce this alienation.14 Throughout Molière's Parisian career, members of the king's retinue occupied armchairs and stools on the stage. Less favored peers and other nobles took boxes around the auditorium. Commoners stood or sat on benches in the pit. Wealthier bourgeois and professionals either joined the latter in the pit or paid dearly for the privilege of sitting in box seats. One special section of the house was reserved for prosperous merchants of the Rue St. Denis: tailors, jewelers, glovemakers, opticians, import dealers, and others who were truly bourgeois gentilhommes. They are the ones whose power Molière represents as powerless, whose superiority he depicts as inferior, whose assumed special prestige pales before the exclusionary force of a yet higher social class. From these classes Molière derived the characters of L'Avare.

Molière had always exploited this dramatic potential in the closeness between actor and audience. Even in early plays like Les Facheux (1661) and again in La Critique de l'école des femmes (1663), he ridiculed the bad-mannered fops and gallants who occupied the stage, so crowding it that on occasion the rest of the audience could hardly separate the actors from some of the spectators. The line between the comic character in all his folly and the comic onlooker in all his foppery became purposively blurred. In later plays it was radically blurred, and nowhere more radically than in the crisis plays. There, other members of the audience could see themselves on the stage in unprecedented ways. Employing literary and non-literary forms from Plautine comedy through popular farce and slapstick as he did, Molière confronted his audience with its own direct experience of the representational issues involved, but more importantly, he challenged its rhetorical sensibilities. The audience evaluates the action on several different rhetorical levels, and not all members of the audience may agree on how the levels relate to one another. The audience is divided against itself.

With this division, representation and rhetoric do not always merge as in Machiavelli and Shakespeare. In L'Avare the reason is that rhetoric itself becomes the object of representation that the audience is invited to explore from various perspectives. The perspectives are as numerous as the sectors within the audience. The play's rhetoric forces each sector to view it first from its own perspective and then from opposing perspectives. What seems to be a perfectly “normal” use of language to one group turns out to be perfectly abnormal when viewed from another perspective. Its comedy entails not only the arbitrariness of conventional signs, but also the arbitrariness—and ultimately repressiveness—of all systems that regulate their members according to hierarchical divisions. The possibility of overcoming their abusiveness provokes laughter.

In L'Avare these systems converge in the unit of the family. The play's problematic laughter stems from the idea that Harpagon's children are no more capable of justifying the proprieties than their father is. Their language of love turns out to be as abusive as his language of money, and so do their mores. Members from one sector of the audience who sympathize with the young lovers are no more exonerated than those from other sectors who sympathize with Harpagon. The audience's role is to learn to respond to the play from opposing perspectives. In turn, the characters' various roles address the audience's variety of perspectives. Harpagon is a miser, a would-be bridegroom, and a parent. Each of these roles entails rhetorical confusion with the others and with the roles of his children. Among them are two pairs of lovers, Elise and Valère, Cléante and Mariane, and Harpagon's meddling thwarts their plans for marriage.

Not only on the representational surface do their plights seem interchangable—a single parent is blocking their way to marriage—but also in rhetorical substance their reactions to the situation are interchangable. Each is at heart deficient in his or her approach to love. Elise is very much her father's daughter. Valère has saved her from shipwreck, cared for her tenderly, showed her unceasing attention, neglected his parents for her, disguised his identity, but, as she says, perhaps his deeds are not enough to justify his love to others: “mais ce n'est pas assez peut-être pour le justifier aux autres, et je ne suis pas sûre qu'on egntre dans mes sentiments” (I.i) (but it is not enough, perhaps, to justify it to others, and I'm not sure that they share my feelings).15 Mariane fares no better. She admits that she loves Cléante, but she also avers that she could never allow her love for him to disappoint her mother's expectations: “Elle m'a toujours élevée avec une tendresse extréme, et je ne saurois me résoudre à lui donner du déplaisir” (IV.i) (She has always brought me up with extreme tenderness, and I would never decide to displease her). Nor are the men any more decisive. If they really loved their women with all the force of the romantic love that their rhetoric implies, they would defy the whole world. Instead they stand acquiescing, posturing, bickering, and plotting in Harpagon's living room. The neo-classical unity of setting is appropriate because the young lovers are as miserly with their affections as Harpagon is with his money. The same four walls enclose them all.16

If their stinginess about love is interchangable with Harpagon's about money, who is to say that other kinds of stinginess represented in the play may not affect the audience's response as well? We may all be misers in one way or another, though as individuals we may not agree on what is worthwhile to be miserly about: love, money, service to one's master, loyalty to one's family, fidelity to the rhetorical implications of one's language. The play's symmetrical structure enforces this interchangability among the character's motives. In II.ii, Harpagon and Cléante make the double discovery that one is the lender and the other the borrower in a mutually unsavory transaction. The audience perceives the joke because it has known the truth all along, but in perceiving it the audience comes also to suspect that no one is immune from falling victim to a similar plot. In IV.iv, Jacques tries to mend the quarrel between father and son by telling each that the other has relented. Again the audience perceives the joke because it knows that rhetorically neither disputant has budged an inch. The fun consists in watching Harpagon and Cléante come to the same recognition.17

The degree of the audience's participation in V.iii is more subtle. Here Valère confounds Harpagon with his mistaken references to Elise while Harpagon is speaking about his money-box: “Valère: Et c'est d'une ardeur toute pure et respectueuse que j'ai brûlé pour elle. Harpagon: Brûlé pour ma cassette?” (V.iii) (Valère: And it is with a wholly pure and respectful ardor that I have burned for her. Harpagon: Burned for my money-box?). The very language that they use has become an agent of confusion. The lover's language hardly differs from the miser's. Rhetoric tricks both speaker and audience by displacing the meaning encoded in one set of words and supplanting it with another kind of meaning altogether.

No scene in the play, however, is more effective in involving the audience with the action than Harpagon's famous soliloquy on the theft of his money-box.18 Harpagon's direct address to the audience breaks the illusion of distance between itself and him. His recognition of a disturbance among its members constitutes the play's most explicit rhetorical gesture of including the audience in the action: “Euh? que dites-vous?” (IV.vii) (Euh? What are you saying?). To him, each of its members looks like a thief: “Eh! de quoi est-ce qu'on parle là?” (IV.vii) (Eh? What are they talking about there?). And he notes that the audience responds by laughing at him: “Ils me regardent tous, et se mettent à rire” (IV.vii) (They all look at me and start to laugh). But beneath the guffaws that Molière writes into his text is the uneasy suggestion of nervous laughter. The actor's intrusion into the audience sets its members on edge. Nervous laughter springs from the failure to repress what one knows to be embarrassing but unavoidable. Here the audience cannot repress its consanguinity with Harpagon. Each of its members wishes himself or herself to be considered different, distinguished, admired, but each knows that when pressed to a point, he or she will fall back on the mechanical, unthinking, automatic rhetorical response. Harpagon's complaints about having been robbed demonstrate that rhetorical response in action.

Molière's representational and rhetorical aim is to make the audience uneasy, to unnerve the audience by disjoining its representational response from its rhetorical one. It forces the audience to evaluate the action and language from different perspectives. Representationally the young lovers appear to have just cause against Harpagon. Rhetorically, however, they prove themselves fatuous and glib. Representationally Harpagon seems a ridiculous old man. Rhetorically, however, he commands pity as well as laughter. His language shows him to be alternately a foolish and pathetic victim of his own illusions. The ambivalence of the audience's responses corresponds to the number of perspectives from which the audience can approach the action and to the forcefulness of each of the opposing claims.

In approaching what modern criticism has found to be the problematic dark side of Molière's comedy, we are dealing, I think, with a larger cultural and historical phenomenon than Molière's play alone.19 Molière exploited a heterogeneity already implicit in the multiplicity of his audience's viewpoints. The public theater of Molière's day was designed for the propertied classes. It neither limited itself to private audiences, as did Machiavelli's amateur theater, nor embraced audiences dràwn from all classes of society, as did Shakespeare's theater. Molière's focus on propertied classes exacerbated the infinitely subtle but very powerful tensions dividing various ranks of those classes against each other—aristocrat against bourgeois, capitalist against artisan, father against child, among others. Because the audience comes from within those divided ranks, it is not at all so homogeneous as Machiavelli's invited audience nor so fruitfully pluralistic as Shakespeare's democratic audience. The result in Molière's plays is a disjunction between representational and rhetorical responses among different sectors of the audience. This disjunction contrasts with a coherence of those responses in Machiavelli and Shakespeare.

This disjunction may be simply a reflex of Molière's individual genius. It is not a matter of national tradition. Within that tradition one can compare plays like Grévin's Les Esbahis (1560), Jean de la Taille's Les Corrivaux (1562), and Larrivey's Les Esprits (1579). They evoke unified responses that reflect the homogeneity of their audiences. Molière's later plays do not. Instead they reflect a mid-seventeenth-century situation. The homogeneity of Renaissance expectations had already passed through the diversity of early seventeenth-century Baroque ones calculated to surprise, shock, and upset expectations. The theater of Molière's age tempered these characteristics in a newly emergent classicism. The phenomenon, moreover, is not limited to Molière. In another study of the tragic motif of Cleopatra's suicide in the drama of the period, one can find the same types of differences between Jodelle's and Shakespeare's early treatments of the theme in 1553 and 1607 respectively, and Lohenstein's later one in 1661.20

The differences between Machiavelli's La Mandragola and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night on the one hand and Molière's L'Avare on the other entail a multiplication of the audience's responses to the representation and the rhetoric, and they eventually entail a multiplication of the kinds of audience involved. What one perceives as a single response demanded of the audience in sixteenth- and some early seventeenth-century texts becomes a divided one. As the audience adopts various perspectives on the action and the language, it may even assume the roles of two or more audiences at the same time, as judge and suspender of judgment, onlooker and collaborator at once. These developments parallel other differences in the passage from Renaissance style to Baroque style and beyond.21

These historical possibilities, however, need further support and corroboration from a careful study of other texts. It must suffice here to conclude that one can define various modes of comedy by the various roles that they assign to their audiences. Some modes encourage the audience towards a representational identification with the play's characters. Others encourage it towards a disjunction from them. In either case the question of the audience's rhetorical roles and their analogy with the comic hero's representational role merits serious attention. It can help to clarify important distinctions between comic modes and styles, and it can explain some of the rich effects animating good comedy. It can lend some relief to the trajectory of literary history as it discriminates among various audiences. Above all it can sharpen our appreciation of comic technique and help to explain some of the power underlying the form of comedy as a whole.


  1. See Aristotle, Poetics, V.1; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, VI.3; Henri Bergson, “Laughter,” in Comedy, ed. Wylie Sypher (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956), especially pp. 38 ff.; Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), especially pp. 172 ff.; and Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner, 1953), Ch. 18.

  2. See Plato, Philebus, 48a; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, I.6; Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, Sec. 54; Charles Baudelaire, “On the Essence of Laughter,” in The Mirror of Art, tr. Jonathan Wayne (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956); Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, tr. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1963); Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, tr. Helene Iswolsky (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968), especially pp. 32 ff.; and Ernst Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (New York: International Universities Press, 1952), Ch. 7.

  3. George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Edward Arber (London: English Reprints, 1869), p. 47. The commonplace describes comedy as “imitatio vitae, speculum consuetudinis, imago veritatis” (imitation of life, glass of custom, image of truth), ascribed to Cicero by Donatus and repeated in Robortelli, Minturno, Bernardo Tasso, Jonson, Heywood, and others. For its background in Italian theory see Bernard Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism in the Italian Renaissance, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), l. 254-57.

  4. For the dating of La Mandragola, see the authoritative study by Roberto Ridolfi, who assigns it to January-February, 1518, in Studi sulle commedie del Machiavelli (Pisa: Nistri Lischi, 1968), pp. 22-25. Alessandro Parronchi assigns it to September, 1518, to honor the marriage of Lorenzo de' Medici, in “La prima rappresentazione della Mandragola,La Bibliofilia, 66 (1962), 37-86. Franco Fido traces the play's reception through the eighteenth century in “Politica e teatro nel badalucco di messer Nicia,” Italica, 46 (1969), 359-75. In a close textual analysis, Ezio Raimondi emphasizes the appeal of the play's carnivalesque temper to all spectators in “Il teatro del Machiavelli,” Studi Storici, 10 (1969), 759-98. On conditions of performance in sixteenth-century Florence, see Ireneo Sanesi, La Commedia, 2 vols. (Milan: Villardi, 1954), especially l. 183-89, 245-47, and 265-66; and Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, The Birth of Modern Comedy in Renaissance Italy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp. 61-63. On the play's performance in Venice before a heterogeneous paying audience of all social classes in 1522, see Giorgio Padoan, “La Mandragola nella Venezia cinquecentesca,” Lettere Italiane, 23 (1970), 161-86. On the complications of plot that invite spectators “to engage in an unaccustomed exercise of conscious detachment,” see Louise Clubb, “Italian Renaissance Comedy,” in Versions of Medieval Comedy, ed. Paul Ruggiers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977), p. 196; and Anthony Caputi, Buffo (Detroit, 1978), p. 165.

  5. Quotations from P. Terentii Comedie ab Jodoco Badio Ascenscio una cum explanationibus rursum annotate (Paris: Franciscus Fradin, 1502), Sig. bv. These commentaries are invaluable for understanding the reception of comedy by Renaissance audiences. For their influence on various authors' productions of comedy in Elizabethan England, see Joel Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), pp. 130-47.

  6. Quotations from Niccolò Machiavelli, Opere letterarie, ed. Luigi Blasucci (Milan: Adelphi, 1964).

  7. For analyses of the connection, see Giulio Ferroni, “Mutazione” e “riscontro” nel teatro di Machiavelli (Rome; Bulzoni, 1972), pp. 26-101. For structuralist analyses that touch upon the issue, see Giorgio Barbieri Squarotti, La forma tragica del “Principe” (Florence: Olschki, 1966), pp. 43-102, and Luigi Vanossi, Lingua e strutture del teatro italiano del Rinascimento (Padua: Liviana, 1970), pp. 3-57.

  8. Alfred Harbage, Shakespeare's Audience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941), p. 11. See also Harbage, Shakespeare and the Rival Traditions (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1952) and the authoritative studies of Elizabethan playhouses by E. K. Chambers, A. M. Nagler, Andrew Gurr, and Glynne Wickham. For economic conditions that influenced aesthetic ones, see Robert Weimann, Drama und Wirklichkeit in der Shakespearezeit (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1958). For the emergent Puritan strain on the theater suggested in Twelfth Night, see David Bevington, Tudor Drama and Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968), pp. 295-98.

  9. See Ann Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 92-96, for highly qualified evidence. For learned literary models appealing to privileged playgoers, see Leo Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 88-112.

  10. Quotations from William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, ed. Charles Prouty (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1958). For Malvolio's role as intruder see C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959), pp. 255-57; Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare's Comic Sequence (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), pp. 94-96; and Harry Levin, Shakespeare and the Revolution of the Times (New York: Oxford, 1976), pp. 131-42. G. K. Hunter interprets Malvolio's intrigue in the decline of the aristocracy represented by Orsino and Olivia in Shakespeare: the Later Comedies (London: Longmans, Green, 1962), pp. 43-45.

  11. For discrepant perspectives by audience and actors see Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960), pp. 118-43. Thomas Van Laan studies role-playing as the dramatic core of the play's comedy in Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), pp. 72-85. Other approaches to role-playing and identity include Joseph Summers, “The Masks of Twelfth Night,The University Review, 22 (1955), 25-32; Larry Champion, The Evolution of Shakespeare's Comedy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970), pp. 81-95; Ralph Berry, Shakespeare's Comedies: Explorations in Form (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), pp. 201 ff.; and Thomas McFarland, Shakespeare's Pastoral Comedy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1972), pp. 3-19.

  12. For the sociological importance of Feste's role “on the threshold between the play and the community occasion,” see Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 43-44 and 175. For the clown actor's versatility see David Bevington, From Mankind to Marlowe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962), pp. 108-13. See also Susan Snyder's comments on wit in The Comic Matrix of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 48-50; Albert Cook on the audience's sequential perceptions in Shakespeare's Enactment (Chicago: Swallow Press, 1976), pp. 179 ff.; Richard Levin on critical reductionism in New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 110-13; Norman Rabkin on control of the audience's responses in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 20-27; and Anne Righter Barton on the audience as a central character in her study of the encroachments of illusion on real life in Shakespeare and the Idea of Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962), pp. 76-86.

  13. See Jacques Guicharnaud. Molière: une aventure théâtrale (Paris: Gallimard, 1963), pp. 519-35, and Gérard Defaux, Molière, ou les métamorphoses du comique (Lexington, KY: French Forum, 1980), passim.

  14. For theaters and their audiences in Paris see Henry Lancaster, A History of French Dramatic Literature in the Seventeenth Century, 9 vols. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1929-42), Part III, vol. 1, pp. 5-44; Thomas Lawrenson, The French Stage in the XVII Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1957), pp. 161-81; and Wilma Deierkauf-Holsboer, L'Histoire de la mise en scene dans le théâtre français à Paris de 1600 à 1673 (Paris: Droz, 1933), pp. 252-75.

  15. Quotations from Molière, Oeuvres, ed. Maurice Rat, 2 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, éditions de Pléiade, 1933).

  16. See, however, Roger W. Herzel, “The Decor of Molière's Stage,” PMLA, 93 (1978), 925-54, arguing for a change of scene between Act III when Cléante and Mariane exit and Act IV when they ostensibly enter another room in the same house.

  17. William Goode, “Comic Recognition Scenes in L'Avare,Romance Notes, 14 (1972), 122-27, effectively counters the traditionally adverse criticism of these scenes. See also J. D. Hubert, Molière and the Comedy of Intellect (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962), pp. 211-12.

  18. Recent criticism has strangely ignored the dramaturgical power of this soliloquy. See, however, W. G. Moore, Molière: A New Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. 61; René Bray, Molière: Homme de théâtre (Paris: Mercure de France, 1954), pp. 367-69; Lionel Gossman, Men and Masks (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1963), pp. 212-13; Harold Knutson, Molière: An Archetypal Approach (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976), pp. 98-99; and especially Nathan Gross, From Gesture to Idea (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), pp. 7-11.

  19. See Edith Kern, The Absolute Comic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 71, 144-59, for a splendid elaboration of this point.

  20. See William J. Kennedy, “Audiences and Rhetorical Strategies in Jodelle, Shakespeare, and Lohenstein,” Assays, 1 (1981), 117-33.

  21. See William J. Kennedy, Rhetorical Norms in Renaissance Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 17-19, 190-91; and Frank Warnke, Versions of Baroque (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), pp. 82-84.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 82

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.

James B. Atkinson (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11610

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.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that the author of The Prince is also responsible for a trio of comedies, one of which is considered by Italians to be the earliest—and by knowledgeable authorities such as dramatists Carlo Goldoni and Luigi Pirandello to be the greatest—of their country's theatrical classics. More than half a century before Shakespeare established the tradition of English-speaking comedy that has prospered and endured to the present, The Mandrake was entertaining audiences with its racy vernacular language. Audiences marveled at its contemporary character, and the play became a model for dramatic construction and comic characterization. The Mandrake provoked delight and thoughtful bemusement because of its representation of serious—if not seriously treated—ethical questions. These features have continued to inspire admiration more or less uninterruptedly until our day. Indeed, the play's linguistic and dramatic verve have made it more immediately accessible—and to a wider range of audiences—than are the comedies of Shakespeare.

Machiavelli's serious dramatic efforts date only from the last ten years of his life. At the beginning of this period he was poverty-stricken, disillusioned, and embittered. His wit and intelligence had won him great political success, proximity to power, and the friendship of strong leaders. When the Medici returned to power in Florence in 1512, overthrowing the republic that Machiavelli had served since its inception in 1498, they were suspicious of his loyalty and kept him on the periphery of power. Although history has cleared the record, Machiavelli was rumored to have been involved in a conspiracy to expel the Medici and was briefly imprisoned for his alleged complicity. Later, in the 1520s, the Medici relented and restored him to their favor; they granted him several commissions—notably, The Florentine Histories—but they permitted him no real access to the seats of power.

During the last decade of his life Machiavelli was thus writing some of his most significant analyses of political and historical events. Nevertheless, he was keenly aware that there was an alternative means for getting his ideas across to others. Machiavelli seized upon comedy as a useful tool for hammering out his political message so that it reached a more immediate audience. Comedy succeeded in a more resounding fashion through what we may call the politics of pleasure: Machiavelli politicizes the laughter he arouses, so that when the laughter dies down, the message can better be grasped by the alert members of the audience. Like Aristophanes, Machiavelli unsettles his audience with incongruity, distortion, and other techniques bordering on the grotesque. Hence, one cannot derive pleasure from Machiavelli's plays without also having one's political values shaken.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the ideas preoccupying Machiavelli when he writes about politics or history should thrust their way into his explanatory and theoretical statements on the nature of his comedy. The connection on the theoretical plane, be it in the prologue to Clizia or in his treatises, is clear. Translating this connection between comedy and politics so that it comes alive on the stage is a major endeavor. Comedies about love ruled the day—then as now—and one of the givens of the romantic love convention is that the lovers are subject to “unforeseen events.” For someone acutely aware of the problems of fortuna, the abstraction that Latin and medieval thinkers devised to represent the arbitrary forces at work in the universe to impede a person's use of intelligent foresight, the parallel between the literary and political spheres is instructive. Thus, Machiavelli is intrigued with writing about the same type of problem, but in a context different from his customary political one. He makes of love and its attendant issues a testing ground where many of his political and theoretical interests can assume a new phase. Moreover, these issues become the point of balance between the traditions of comedy and his practice of the art.

Little needs to be said about Machiavelli's lesser theatrical endeavors. He is credited by some of his contemporaries with having adapted Aulularia by Plautus, but verifying this claim involves too tortuous a path to follow here. In 1960 a hitherto unknown holograph copy made by Machiavelli of Eunuchus by Terence was detected in a Vatican codex that also included a copy of De rerum natura by Lucretius. Careful examination of the handwriting suggests that the Terentian play was probably copied early in the 1500s. Because these years are not the period of his known theatrical activity, scholars have unconvincingly proposed later dates.

Concerning another of his theatrical ventures there is even more confusion; if we knew anything more substantial about it, the text could prove to be one of his most interesting dramatic efforts. Giuliano de' Ricci, Machiavelli's literary executor, claims to have seen among his uncle's manuscripts—to paraphrase him—a damaged, imperfect draft of a ragionamento in a comic vein, reminiscent of The Clouds and other Aristophanic comedies. Ricci notes that Machiavelli had called it Le Maschere, “The Masks”; he editorializes, however, that it was so full of reckless accusations, of both ecclesiastics and laymen alike, that he decided not to copy it. He also adds the tantalizing aside that the people thus slandered were still alive in 1504. Posterity has no way of judging whether or not it was literary taste or political prudence in the face of the Counter Reformation's militant morality that dictated Ricci's regrettable decision not to copy it and hence to rob posterity of a potentially fascinating text. Because of the similarity in political and aesthetic views, it would be tempting to construct a theory, based however hesitantly on Ricci's evidence, about Aristophanic influences on Machiavelli. But rather than to lament what we lack, it is more to the point to examine what we have.


There are two versions of Machiavelli's translation of Terence's charming play Andria. According to handwriting analysts, the first version is found in a hastily prepared manuscript dating from late 1517 or early 1518. Some scholars have suggested that because Machiavelli was in such dire financial straits then, he translated the play solely to make money. The second version, contained in a more meticulously prepared manuscript, was probably completed in 1520. In this work, Machiavelli has gracefully and wittily re-created an elegant, formal comedy of manners by lacing it with pungent and fast-paced dialogue. He was especially careful to modernize and localize the deftly executed Latin comedy so that it might more readily appeal to early sixteenth-century Florentine audiences. In his translation, Machiavelli made clear which Florentine values he believed his contemporaries needed to improve.

The sparkling patina of Terence's play glows over a typical New Comedy plot, with its conflict between an austere, orthodox father who objects to his son's intended because of her unacceptable social status, and a son whose passion compels him to fly in the face of filial obligation. A third typical figure is the slave Davus—Davo in Machiavelli's translation. Through the devices he contrives, Davus tries to earn his stripes as a servus callidus, a “tricky slave,” a character made popular by Plautus. Yet Terence is not trying to compete with Plautus through this character. Rather, Davus exists to elicit laughter and to intensify the father-son conflict. Because Davus allies himself with the son and devises strategies for him, he finds himself exposed to the father's reprisals. All three characters act out the clash between social duty and private desire. Another typical element is the recognition scene, with its heavy reliance on coincidence—that is, fortuna—to resolve the conflict between the individual, whose values are centered on romantic goals, and the society, whose values are translated on stage by the blocking measures concocted by the father. The recognition scene allows the marriage of the young couple to take place according to the demands of society, its conventions and laws. The stability and order of society as a whole are reaffirmed at the same time as the earlier threats to social union, particularized in the interests of the father and son, are harmonized. This reconciliation is an important factor in Machiavelli's appreciation of Andria: He holds in the highest esteem the communal spirit asserted in Terence's play. This quality is not the focal point for the two most famous reworkings of the story: Richard Steele's sentimental comedy The Conscious Lovers (1722) and Thornton Wilder's lambent, gossamer fable The Woman of Andros (1930).

Machiavelli's play omits Terence's topical prologue and opens on a street in Athens. Simo, Panfilo's father, is engaged in a discussion with the elderly freed slave Sosia. Through this conversation we learn that Panfilo has been frequenting the house next door, where a woman named Criside, from the island of Andros, has set herself up as a hetaera. Simo is worried that his plans for Panfilo to marry Filomena, the daughter of his rich friend Cremete, may be foiled by this intimacy. Indeed, he should be worried, because Panfilo has met Glicerio, Criside's ward, fallen in love with her, and made her pregnant. Glicerio's relation to Criside is never made clear until the end of the play, but throughout the first several acts the key fact important to the plot—and the reason behind Simo's resentment of her—is that Glicerio is a foreigner without any Athenian legal status. Shortly before the play opens, Criside has died. We learn that Criside has handed Glicerio over to Panfilo, who valiantly swears to marry her and to acknowledge publicly that he is the child's father. A hint at a double plot develops with the entrance of Carino, Panfilo's friend, who is in love with Filomena and wants to marry her. Meanwhile her father, Cremete, comes to suspect that Panfilo is in love with Glicerio, and he therefore terminates the wedding agreement. Simo refuses to inform his son of this fact because he wants to discover the depth of Panfilo's feelings for Glicerio. In addition, he wants to test Panfilo; obedience to paternal commands is one of the play's important themes. According to the custom, Cremete's contractual offer of marriage contains a dowry for Filomena, and the motive of greed thus plays among the father's feelings.

Davo is aware of all of these issues and could easily lead the play into broad comedy, but his character is kept under control so that the play can depict a wider range of human emotions. Machiavelli, in turn, is mindful of Terence's original intention and the role of Davus in that play. Davo does not govern as much of the action as we might expect—Simo does that handily—but his contrivances ensure that Panfilo does not lose Glicerio. Davo deftly manipulates the events around her lying-in. As matters build to a showdown, Crito enters, on the lookout for any property of Criside's that might be lying around unclaimed. Crito's entrance signals the beginning of the sequence of events that will lead to the recognition scene. He turns out to be an old friend of Cremete, but he also knows all about how Criside adopted Glicerio and, more importantly, who Glicerio's real father was. With the opportunity at hand, marriage between Panfilo and Glicerio is finally permissible. To complement the sense of symmetry in plot, action, and characters, Carino is also allowed to marry Filomena.

The ultimate emphasis of the play is on masculine values and interests; the father-son relationship serves, not to illustrate the contrast between right and wrong, but rather to further the education, one might even say the social “initiation,” of Panfilo. The son struggles with the father; rather than defeating him, he becomes like him through his acceptance of the father's values. The play thus presents the duties and responsibilities that a young Roman man must learn—and these are the values of the society as a whole.

It is impossible to know whether Machiavelli decided on his own to translate this play or the choice was forced on him by need. If the decision was clearly his, then scholars could more easily argue that his purpose was to urge his audience to take stock of its values. We cannot be certain, and, therefore, to determine the author's goals we must look more closely at how he focuses on the narrative element and how he uses language to localize the story and thereby predispose his audience to react positively to the values the Andria implicitly asserts.

At several points Terence insists that his audience realize that they are in the presence of a fabula. The word is multivalent in Latin: it refers to tal or conversation as well as to a narrative story, tale, or fable; by extension, the term can refer to the plot of a drama, specifically, of a comedy. Terence plays on the overtones in the “stuff and nonsense” flavor of the word; he is not above self-consciously dragging in the connotation of plot to get a laugh. Davus cries out, Quae haec est fabula? (v. 747). Similarly, because Machiavelli can achieve an equal degree of multivalence with the Italian word favola, he consistently translates fabula literally (Che favola è questa?). Thus, he gets precisely the right effect. In English, the subtleties of the play on words in Latin and Italian are blunted; yet a similar line in English—“What kind of comedy is this?”—would still elicit a laugh. Machiavelli takes a cue from Terence and elaborates a line in order to emphasize his point even more. In act 5, scene 4, Simo ironically comments fabulam inceptat (v. 925) just as Crito is about to launch into a narrative pivotal for the recognition scene. The line means simply “now the pack of lies is about to begin.” But Machiavelli extends that brief phrase to read egli ha ordito una favola da capo (“he has composed a comedy from the ground up”); this slight alteration serves to intensify the self-consciousness of the art—that is, the awareness of art calling attention to itself.

In act 3, scene 5, through another addition to Terence's text, Machiavelli reminds his audience that there is a narrator behind the scenes. Panfilo has just learned from his father that Cremete will allow Filomena to marry him—information that delights the father and depresses the son. Panfilo is prepared to vent his anger on Davo, who mutters in an aside, “I'm thinking of telling him that I've come up with some clever idea” (Machiavelli's io penso di dire di avere trovato qualche bel tratto translates the skimpy Latin dicam aliquid me inventurum, “I'll tell him I'll think of something” [v. 615]). Although Davo is not an arch manipulator like the typical “tricky slave” in Plautus, he is nevertheless trying to control the action at this point in the play. He serves as a “narrator” propelling the story forward. Thus, the narrator's point of view is paramount. Machiavelli's amplification of the text gently underlines Davo's function, thereby making the audience more acutely aware of the sense of story as well as of a storyteller.

Although Machiavelli persists in translating fabula faithfully, he is not above manipulating language—especially by relying on Tuscan idioms—in order to capture a Florentine audience's attention. The addition of the Italian equivalent of four-letter words occurs in both the original 1517-1518 version and the one finished in 1520. His revisions of certain passages indicate hesitancy about how spicy he ought to be, but he shows no reluctance to enliven the text scatologically. Furthermore, he is adept at finding equivalents for Terence's polished rhetoric. Aware that literary critics would be particularly attuned to this quality, because the Renaissance greatly admired Terence's rhetorical skill, Machiavelli worked hard on this facet of his translation. His ability to come up with aural puns that highlight grammatically parallel or antithetical clauses is a measure of his success as a translator. Taking his cue from Terence, Machiavelli frequently resorts to figures of speech that emphasize repetition to achieve a play on words. Polyptoton, a reiteration of words derived from the same root, but with different endings or forms; paronomasia, a reiteration of words that sound alike but differ in meaning to create a pun; and antimetabole, a reversal in the order of words in a sentence that produces a reverse in logic, are among his favorite figures. It must be admitted, however, that Machiavelli is no match for Terence in the use of such rhetorical tropes.

By far the most felicitous example of Machiavelli's use of language combines this kind of wit with his skill at particularizing and localizing the play so that it emerges from the Roman past into the Florentine present. In the second scene of the first act in the Latin original, Simo berates Davus for being a knavishly poor guide and teacher for his son. Terence thereby accentuates through a negative example his thematic concern with the paternal role. His point is that a surrogate for a father—and, by extension, a proper father—should teach the correct values to his son; thus he acts in an exemplary fashion and may, in the son, produce exemplary results. Davus plays dumb and replies, Davos sum, non Oedipus (v. 194). Connecting Simo with the Sphinx, whose enigmatic remarks Oedipus must decipher, would have brought a laugh from a Roman audience. Machiavelli's search for an equivalent is an interesting illustration of his witty response to the translator's perennial headache of finding the proper word. Originally he wrote Io son Davo, non propheta vel non el frate (“I'm Davo, not a prophet, especially not the Frate”), and thus he took a direct jab at Fra Savonarola, whose prophetic powers had been proven to be severely limited. (Although Charles VIII of France had in fact descended on Italy and wreaked havoc, Savonarola's predictions of a Florence purified of all evil had failed to materialize.) Florentine audiences would have appreciated the irony involved. But by the time he came to write the 1520 version, Machiavelli had become more circumspect; he translates the line merely as Io son Davo non propheta. The audience is forced to supply any prophet it wishes, from David the prophet-king to, perhaps, Savonarola. Machiavelli consistently seeks to intensify the audience's involvement with his writing whether he writes for the stage or for the reader. Nevertheless, the line in the later version probably would not get as much of a laugh as the line in the first version might.

The theme of the paternal role that Simo obliquely reinforces in this scene is one Panfilo announces broadly three scenes later in the opening line of his first appearance on stage (I, 5). Machiavelli is prudently literal: È questo cosa umana? È questo ofizio d'un padre? (“Is this a humane thing? Is this a father's duty?”). He is railing against his father's highhanded decision that, like it or not, he will marry Filomena. Machiavelli painstakingly preserves Panfilo's ironic expression of the theme fundamental to Terence. In fact, he delicately accentuates it by tampering with the nature of the responsibility Panfilo accepts for Glicerio's child. Terence has his hero say merely nam pollicitus sum suscepturum (v. 401; “for I've promised to acknowledge the child”). Machiavelli's perché io ho promesso d'alevarlo, through its use of the verb allevare, implies a stronger commitment on Panfilo's part to raise and care for the child. Although the Greeks and Romans had an official ceremony during which the father decided whether a baby was to be brought up in the family or to be exposed, and the verb suscipio was frequently used in that context to signal the choice of keeping the child, the connotation of nurturing is greater in the Italian. Machiavelli's choice of words emphasizes the ritual aspect less and stresses the substantive, human contribution that the daily care of a child necessitates.

The theme of paternity reverberates sharply for Machiavelli. He is probably not as interested as Terence in sounding the interior, psychological depths of the characters. But he is concerned to create a trenchant analysis of two profound types of accountability. Both types inhere in relationships, but one exists between father and son and moves in a downward direction, whereas the other exists between son and father and moves upward. Consequently, the “growth” Panfilo undergoes in Andria is not so much that of a boy becoming a man but rather that of a youth coming to terms with the responsibilities of fatherhood. What Machiavelli, given his concerns for civic affairs, sees in this interaction can be expressed in terms of an analogy of vital significance. The analogy helps to clarify some of the reasons motivating the political Machiavelli to read Roman comedy with heightened interest. Just as a father is responsible for a family, so a leader is responsible for a city. Someone with true civic responsibility must see to it that the city nurtures its future leaders while they are still “sons” so that they, in turn, will have the proper values to instill in the citizenry they will eventually lead. Machiavelli saw in the Roman paterfamilias an example of these principles and their acknowledgment by society. It is no wonder, then, that Machiavelli felt affinities with Roman comedy.

The conflict between the characters over their desires and responsibilities comes to a head in the third scene of the last act as Simo chides Panfilo for what Simo believes to be actions tantamount to a usurpation of the role of father without his sanction. Significantly, Cremete, also a spokesman for paternal authority, closes the scene on a conciliatory note: “Even for a major crime, a father can go easy on the punishment.” By this line, Machiavelli deepens the audience's understanding of the role of authority. Compassion, when appropriate, is a value that authority must know how to demonstrate. This is the moment—obvious to the dramatist—for the recognition scene. Machiavelli does not disappoint us: Crito appears to provide the details necessary for a full reconciliation between father and son—and son and father. Thus, the play closes on an appropriate, festive note with not only Panfilo getting Glicerio but Carino getting Filomena. The recognition scene in turn facilitates the long-awaited comedic resolution.

The ending of a Roman comedy conventionally seeks to break the stage illusion of reality and remind the audience of the essentially fictive nature of the play. To do so, one actor usually urges the others to return to the stage for a final set of speeches. Terence respects this convention; he ends the play with a simple appeal to the audience for applause, spoken by a singer-musician-actor. Machiavelli modifies the convention of the ending only slightly. He dispenses with the cantor, thereby throwing all the weight of the ending on Davo's final speech. Davo urges the audience to go home, confident that all will be well in the ongoing lives of the characters as they return to their separate houses. Furthermore, “everything else that's wrong will get fixed up inside too.” This alteration brings to light the full impact of the comedic resolution. Moreover, it puts the brunt of the responsibility for the final reconciliation squarely on the audience's shoulders. The line “May God be with you; enjoy yourselves” is not in Terence; Machiavelli adds it to Davo's speech in order to press the audience to attend to the comedic conventions. Davo exacts a commitment from the audience to replicate the harmony achieved on stage in their own lives. Thus, the play's ending coordinates the values inherent in comedy with those Machiavelli would like to see flourishing in society.

Emphasizing values in this way suits Machiavelli's temperament. First, the twist at the end accords with his conception of values and, second, it accords with how he believes values should be instilled. Consequently, comedy in general—and Andria in particular—is justified. Machiavelli will go on to pursue the values comedy asserts, not merely by translating them, but by creating them. In the process he will discover that within the constraints of farce lie values that are even more temperamentally congenial than those he has encountered in comedy.


Machiavelli's reputation as a playwright rests on The Mandrake. Evidence from manuscripts, printed books, and contemporary comments about various performances proves that the play was acclaimed during his lifetime. Yet for all that certainty, we do not know exactly when it was written. Scholars have suggested various dates for the composition of the play, from 1504, the play's fictive date, to 1520. The more moderate of these voices would place the terminus a quo in the period between 1512 and 1520 because of evidence in the first printed edition. Guessing more narrowly, these voices would place it in the latter part of this period because of indications in an early manuscript of the play. What is now regarded as the first printed edition, in which the play is called Comedia di Callimaco: & di Lucretia, has no date. Nevertheless, the frontispiece provides a lead. It shows Chiron the centaur playing on a stringed instrument; in the center of the spiraled embellishment at the top of the ornamental border surrounding this image there seems to be a clumsy representation of six balls—the device of the Medici family. Thus, this edition was probably printed some time after the Medici returned to Florence, that is, after September 1512. An allusion in the fifth quatrain of the play's prologue would also seem to indicate this period in Machiavelli's life, one he refers elsewhere to as the post res perditas period. None of this evidence establishes precisely when the play was written, and we must therefore look elsewhere. In addition to our presumptive evidence, we possess a codex of the works of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Buried in it, and unknown to scholars until the 1960s, is a manuscript version of The Mandrake copied and duly dated in 1519.

The terminus ad quem provided by performance history brings us closer to this date than to the earlier ones. As with Clizia, in fact, information about performances is more extensive and more precise than that from the printed editions or manuscripts. The excitement stirred up by a Florentine production of The Mandrake caused Pope Leo X, the former Giovanni de Medici, to insist that the same scenery and actors used in Florence be transported to his court in Rome. The evidence for this command performance is not datable, but a letter to Machiavelli from a friend in Rome, dated April 26, 1520, refers to a forthcoming production of the play; it is generally agreed that this letter refers to the command performance. The evidence for subsequent performances, and thus for proof of the play's popularity, is ample, although sixteenth-century Italian standards of success differ considerably from modern-day standards. There is a diary entry indicating that two performances were given in Venice during the Lenten carnival season in February 1522. Vasari records that a performance, for which Andrea del Sarto helped paint the sets, was the high point of an evening's entertainment at a private party in Florence—probably late in 1524. If Guicciardini, Machiavelli's friend and would-be political patron, had had his way—and had both he and Machiavelli not been preoccupied with foreign affairs at the time—there might have been a production in Faenza during the carnival season of 1526. We know Machiavelli was anxious for this performance to occur, and for it to be good, because he composed a canzone on a carpe diem theme for nymphs and shepherds to sing, rhymed a prologue to answer some of Guicciardini's remarks about the play, and added four short canzoni to serve as intermezzos within it. Two of these songs were picked up from Clizia; the other two were written expressly for The Mandrake. Their dulcet musical line runs counter to the caustic irony with which they comment on the scene just completed. They are appropriately pungent additions to the text. One performance was given—once more in Venice—during the 1526 Lenten festivities. Thus, although no date has been established for the composition of the play, 1519 seems to be the likely year. The record of performances indicates that the play's reputation spread widely and developed quickly throughout Renaissance Italy.

The tightly constructed plot is one facet of the play's excellence. For all its lively characterization and dazzling speech, the play is thoroughly classical in its fidelity to the pattern prescribed by Donatus in his fourth-century commentary on Terence's Andria. The prologue of The Mandrake is followed by a protasis, a statement of the situation, the necessary exposition, and the start of the action; an epitasis, in which the plot thickens; and a catastrophe, the final comedic resolution. The play opens with the young hero, a merchant named Callimaco, explaining to his servant Siro why he has recently returned to his native Florence after living in Paris for twenty years. Some of Callimaco's comrades there, in discussing the relative virtues of French and Italian women, made extravagant claims for the beauty of Lucrezia, the wife of a Florentine lawyer named Nicia Calfucci—claims that Callimaco has found to be more than justified. The balance sheet Callimaco draws up to evaluate his chances of amorous success with Lucrezia weighs, on the credit side, the stupidity of her husband, the complaint nature of Lucrezia's mother, Sostrata, and especially the couple's desire for children, against such debits as Lucrezia's reputation for virtue, her ability to rule her husband, and her remoteness from social interaction. Callimaco has cultivated a parasite, Ligurio, who in turn has wormed his way into Nicia's good graces and is urging him to take his wife for treatment of her sterility to a warm springs resort, where it would be easier for Callimaco to meet her than in Florence. The first act ends with Ligurio hatching a conspiracy: Callimaco will pretend to be a doctor in order to recommend that the couple visit a certain spa.

In the second act, Ligurio has a better idea: Callimaco will claim to be the creator of a potion, extracted from the mandrake root (la mandragola), that will cure Lucrezia's sterility. The only problem is that the first person to sleep with her after she has taken the draft will inevitably die within a week; therefore, a “sacrificial victim” must be found. Callimaco persuades Nicia that even the king of France has resorted to this strange expedient. Nevertheless, as Nicia quickly points out, the task of prevailing upon Lucrezia to go along with this scheme will be a formidable one. Ligurio proposes to overcome Lucrezia's reluctance through the assistance of her confessor Friar Timoteo. Ligurio is confident that the friar can be persuaded to join the conspiracy by “me, money, our villainy and theirs”—and that Lucrezia's mother will prove willing to be the final link in the seduction plan. These are the kinds of friends surrounding Lucrezia, and it is not an accident that her name recalls Livy's story of the Roman matron who committed suicide after Collatinus raped her, rather than live a life of shame (I, 57-59).

Sostrata opens the third act by noting in Machiavellian fashion that “the wise person chooses the lesser of two evils.” Hence, because she wants her daughter to become pregnant, she will bring Lucrezia to the friar. Thus, she exemplifies, as will her daughter, an aspect of Machiavelli's notion of virtù that consists of readily adapting one's reactions to fit new situations. Meanwhile, Nicia and Ligurio visit the confessor, after Ligurio requests Nicia to play deaf, in order to keep him from spoiling the delicate negotiations by his stupidity. Ligurio first establishes with an invented story that, given the proper bribe, the friar can be enlisted in any cause. Once the friar is sure of his remuneration, he never balks at any request. To Lucrezia the friar proffers an enticingly fallacious deduction: Because “your end is to fill a seat in Heaven and to make your husband happy … there is no more sin … in this case than there is in eating meat on Wednesday.” Lucrezia, little convinced by all the casuistry, gives in, imploring “God and Our Lady” to save her from harm. Nicia declares himself to be “the happiest man in the world,” while the friar predicts, “If I am not deceived, the doctor is going to give you a fine young son.”

The fourth act reveals Callimaco striking the conventional Petrarchan posture of the lover in the throes of antithetical emotions. Throughout the play he has been ceding his initiative and control to Ligurio, and he was entirely absent from the crucial third act. Ligurio now informs him of the success of their conspiracy; all Callimaco has to do is to put up the required amount of money. Ligurio will even get the friar to pretend to be Dr. Callimaco, so that the real one, disguised, can be “caught” and then introduced into Lucrezia's bed. From the friar's soliloquy we learn how he has rationalized his involvement in this affair: “I can console myself with the thought that when a thing concerns many people, many people have to take care of it.” Once Callimaco has been captured, the friar can appear alone in the last scene to pique our imaginations about the bedroom activities and to solicit from us a willing suspension of disbelief at the play's failure to maintain the unity of time: “And you, dear audience, don't say that we are not observing the classical unities; you had better stick around, because nobody is going to sleep tonight, so the acts will not be interrupted by the passage of time.” (From the perspective of literary history, this is an interesting admonition. Aristotle's “unities” were not to become widely known in Italy until 1548, with the commentary on the Poetics by Francesco Robortello.)

As our attention turns to the bedroom in the last act, the flavor of The Mandrake changes. The humor in the events described thus far centers mostly on values we customarily associate with comedy; now elements from farce take over the play's comedic energy. Timoteo's opening soliloquy sets an arch tone through his preoccupation with lack of sleep: “I couldn't close my eyes all night long, I have been so eager to hear how Callimaco and the others have made out.” Nicia delivers an ironically voyeuristic description of how the “captive” was prepared and examined, before Nicia, as he puts it, “dragged him after me into the bedroom … put him in bed … and poked my nose into how things were coming.” When Callimaco then recounts his own version to Ligurio, he quotes Lucrezia's speech of submission to him: “Since your cleverness, my husband's stupidity, my mother's silliness, and my confessor's guile have led me to do what I would never have done by myself, I have to judge that this comes from a divine providence that willed it so … I therefore take you for my lord, my master, and my guide. … What my husband has willed for this one night, he shall have for good and ever.” The play ends with everyone invited back to Nicia's house for a meal, an invitation that sets a tone of congeniality typical for the end of a comedy. Nicia even provides Callimaco with a house key, so that he “can get back in” whenever he feels like it. Callimaco replies that he “will make use of it whenever the occasion arises.”

If the choice of words is not enough to shift the tone to that of farce, then Friar Timoteo's final action must suffice, for he officially sanctions the young couple's adultery. The friar, who has been concerned exclusively with the external forms of religion, provides—if not blasphemes—the purificatio post partum rite of the Roman Catholic church that would typically welcome Lucrezia back into communion after childbirth.

Despite all the appearances of comedic resolution and the aura of comedic harmony that permeate the ending of The Mandrake, Machiavelli actually resorts to alternative literary conventions to convey his concern for society—be it Florentine or Italian. His manipulation of these conventions, rather than the political allegory that some interpreters have found in it, defines the uniqueness of this play. He realizes that the values asserted by the customary ending of a Roman comedy can be obtained through different catalysts. Before turning to the resources in Roman comedy, perhaps we should recall the ending of Andria for comparison. There, the standard comedic devices reinforce the broader social resolution occurring on stage in which the audience vicariously participates. Hence, at the end of the play, what Terence believes to be the stable virtues of the Roman social ethic are reaffirmed by the restoration of family harmony. The euphoria of reconciliation between father and son, culminating in two marriages—thereby linking the main plot to the subplot—also reminds the audience of the austere responsibilities any paterfamilias faces. Whether on the family level or the societal level, Roman comedy asserts the need for unity within the body politic so that these duties can be discharged with all due probity.

But surely one must ask what is the nature of a body politic in which a Friar Timoteo, a Ligurio—even a Callimaco and a compromised Lucrezia—are permitted to triumph? Not only are they allowed to do so, but it would seem that the audience is expected to endorse the society that is to result offstage from the harmony generated onstage during the play. If the audience refuses to examine this fundamental issue, then Machiavelli will have failed. The moral justification behind The Mandrake will be vitiated unless the audience questions the ethical premises upon which the comedic resolution is based. To encourage the audience to consider these issues, Machiavelli reverts to two durable dramatic techniques. Satire and farce become the hallmarks of his success in this play.

The satiric vein of The Mandrake is clear; the play roots out social corruption and boldly holds it up for our scorn. It should not be surprising that there is a remarkable similarity between the objects of Machiavelli's satire and those in writings of the classical moralists, Renaissance humanists, or even eighteenth-century satirists. Laughter is the fundamental weapon in the satirist's arsenal, and, in the case of Nicia, the satiric butt is often identical with the comic butt. Our laughter at him or at any character who falls short of the ideal is not tantamount to our winking at the evil in the world of the play. On the contrary, our laughter and our ridicule jog us into realizing a significant aspect of the theatrical experience: that the character under scrutiny lacks an adequate knowledge of himself or herself and, by extension, we too may lack this self-awareness.

Machiavelli's satire makes this absence obvious in the portraits of a corrupt friar like Timoteo or even of a novitiate in bawdry like Sostrata, because both of these characters function smoothly only behind the veil of sanctity. The anticlerical satire, particularly in the scenes with Friar Timoteo and Lucrezia, is keenly felt. Ultimately, it is intellectual chicanery that galls Machiavelli. He regards the sophistry represented by the perversion of the power of reason in Ligurio and Friar Timoteo as an affront to mankind. Callimaco, in his transports of passion, is only partially humorous; for Machiavelli's purpose, it is more important that he, too, has betrayed his rational capacities. Nicia is condemned for similar failures. Someone who is gullible enough to trust in a magic potion drawn from the root of a mandrake is irrational enough to be a danger to the community. Moreover, Nicia's pedantry represents a threat to society because he has misconstrued the proper use of education.

Despite the many recognizable types in the cast of The Mandrake, we are not in the presence of Ben Jonson's typical kind of comedy of humours. Because we sense that satire for satire's sake is not the sole reason why Machiavelli puts his characters on stage, we might be tempted to argue that his characters, each with a recognizable satiric valence, exist as mere accessories to the basic love plot for romantic comedy involving Callimaco and Lucrezia. But Machiavelli proceeds more subtly than that. First, he draws on the viciousness of the alazon or imposter figure, a character type basic to Greek and Roman comedy, so that he may form Ligurio, Friar Timoteo, and Sostrata into compliant agents in his romantic intrigue. Then, he decides to exaggerate their function as types; given their ostensible roles, their speeches gradually become more intensely at variance with how they should be acting. Machiavelli heightens this sense of disjunction between words and deeds in the soliloquies he assigns to Callimaco, Timoteo, and Nicia in the last two acts. These characters aggressively elbow their way into our consciousness; we become more aware of them not only because of what they say but also because of how frequently they say it. Although they may have started out carrying the play's satiric weight, that is not the function Machiavelli wants them to fulfill by the time they appear in the last act. Rather than merely serving the plot's romantic interest or its satiric impulse, they become the fulcrum upon which rests the play's delicate balance between comedy and farce. Their highly colored speech and even their very presence as caricature vividly shift the play to one or the other of these modes. The Mandrake toys with our delight at watching delightful, romantic comedy—will boy get girl?—and with our mirth at watching raucous, boisterous farce. After all, for Callimaco to get Lucrezia, Nicia must be cuckolded and the two lovers must agree to establish their adulterous relationship. Is there any other mode for dealing with these subjects except farce? Thus, elements from farce are the second main dramatic technique that Machiavelli uses to urge his audience to scrutinize the nature of the social fabric formed at the end of the play.

A brief look at farce as a game may help us appreciate how Machiavelli achieves the effects of his final scene. In his chapter on farce in The Life of the Drama, Eric Bentley makes two points that are relevant to this discussion. First, he challenges the ideal embodied in Rudyard Kipling's couplet “Teach us Delight in simple things, / And Mirth that has no bitter springs” (“The Children's Song”). Second, with a long glance at Freud on wit and humor, he argues that aggression constitutes an essential ingredient of farce. Given what we know about Machiavelli's sense of humor and the oblique perspective from which he views most matters, we might predict that he would be moved more by “mirth” than “delight.” Hence, while we might anticipate the delight of a romantic comedy during the first scene of The Mandrake, we should not be surprised when the mirth of farce snares our attention before the first act is completed. Swiftly and deftly, characters and themes aggressively foist themselves upon us. Their farcical boisterousness may make us laugh; their satiric vitriol may make us think—or laugh in uneasy embarrassment. Whether the evidence comes from his life or from his works, it is doubly clear that Machiavelli is poignantly aware that the “bitter springs” of mirth are unavoidable.

Living unheeded in the frustrating solitude of his country estate at Sant' Andrea, Machiavelli is prepared to be both impatient and angry with the world. Yet The Mandrake proves that although his mood is one of desperation, it is not one of despair. Further, there is an escape from this maze of complicated and frequently polar sets of emotional and intellectual directions. Because Machiavelli has a desperate faith that his audience will find it, he does not give in to what we might see as warranted despair. Rather, he channels whatever aggression he may feel, in his neglected isolation, into the aggression inherent in farce. Adultery was never achieved through passivity. The audience has no alternative but to react to the surging energy it feels swirling about the stage—not only throughout the play but especially in that highly charged atmosphere of the final “reconciliation.” Because Machiavelli systematically doles out farcical treats to the audience and tantalizes it with deceptions, from practical jokes to mental subterfuge, the audience quickly realizes that it must delve into the ostensible reality of each character, of each situation. Hence, Machiavelli's use of farce has prepared the audience to unmask the final deception: the last scene.

Comedy proceeds differently. Bentley notes, illustrating his point with Tartuffe, that comedy nurtures appearances too. Indeed, it hoards them until the climax; then, and only then, can it tell all. Comedy, therefore, seeks to postpone its striptease of understanding until the final moments of the play. For this reason, The Mandrake is not a good representative of the comic mode. Nothing is unveiled at the end. On the contrary, everything is dressed up in garments of reconciliation and resolution. Without Machiavelli's meticulous preparations for exposing deception through the elements of farce, the audience might well accept the ending at face value. As Bentley puts it, because farce shatters and reshatters appearances, the audience is alert. It will challenge Machiavelli's version of the happy ending. Because it has been prepared by farce, the audience is ready to accept the invitation to go home (“as for you, dear audience, don't expect us to come back out again. The service is a long one”). There, it may construct a resolution to the play that can only occur offstage, in people's minds. If and when it does so, and in this lies Machiavelli's optimism, the determination not to permit the resolution of art to become the actuality of life may be what saves Machiavelli, Florence, Italy—indeed, humanity. It is the art of farce that triumphs over the art of comedy.


Clizia is the last of Machiavelli's plays, and also the least regarded by audiences and critics. As with The Mandrake, a manuscript helps to establish the date of composition: Quite recently a beautiful manuscript of the play was found in England. It is surmised that this was a presentation copy, perhaps arranged for by Machiavelli himself, intended as a gift for Lorenzo Ridolfi on the occasion of his betrothal to Maria di Filippo Strozzi in 1526. The information about the first performance is even more precise. During his fifties Machiavelli carried on an extended affair with an actress known to her contemporaries as Barbara Fiorentina and to history as Barbera Raffacani Salutati. It is believed that he fulfilled a promise to her by accepting an opportunity provided by a rich Florentine politician. He wanted to outdo the success of the private Florentine performance of The Mandrake in 1524 in order to celebrate his return to active civic life after a brief exile. Instead of mounting a second production of The Mandrake, Machiavelli dashed off Clizia. (This assumption helps to account for the difference in quality between the two plays.) The festivities for what is presumed to be the first performance, January 13, 1525, were garish and raucous in the extreme. They aroused the indignation of contemporaries, but the fame of the play “inspired everyone with the desire to see it,” so that “all the leading citizens” of Florence as well as “the highest ranking members of the government then in power” came to the performance—one that, according to Vasari, “was very pleasing to everyone.”

The play opens with a canzone in praise of the story's “harmony,” sung by a nymph and shepherds. As it turns out, the harmony Machiavelli builds into the comedic resolution of this play raises even more doubts about the nature of order than does the harmony that closes The Mandrake. The ensuing prose prologue nimbly alludes to the play's sources. The Clizia is inspired by—and a few speeches are actually translated from—Casina by Plautus, a Roman comedy frequently imitated by later sixteenth-century Italian dramatists. Plautus, in turn, had gone to Greek New Comedy for his model, to a play known now only by its title and author: The Lot-Drawers (Kleroumenoi) by Diphilus of Sinope, produced in Athens between 332 and 320 b.c. Machiavelli alludes to this fact in his prologue, noting that mankind is always the same—an idea that he repeats at the beginning of both The Prince and The Discourses. His comic premise, therefore, is that what once happened in Athens should now have occurred in Florence. The play soon establishes as its fictive date 1506, during the carnival season.

After the speaker of the prologue has introduced the main characters, the curtain rises on Cleandro revealing his love for Clizia to his friend Palamede, a figure, like Sosia in Andria, whose sole function is to permit Cleandro to fill us in on the background and explain how Clizia became part of the family. The unexpected barrier to his hopes of marrying Clizia is his own father, Nicomaco, who has also fallen in love with her—so desperately that he has arranged “to marry her off to someone who would be willing to share her with him afterward,” namely, the family servant Pirro. Meanwhile, Sofronia has countered her husband's plan by proposing Eustachio, the steward of the family's farm. Thus, what initially is a father-son conflict soon becomes one between husband and wife, with servants as pawns. Today is to be Pirro and Clizia's wedding day; therefore, whatever means may exist to foil Nicomaco, they must be brought to bear quickly. After the first in a series of plaintive soliloquies by Cleandro, Eustachio arrives and prepares to aid the young hero.

Nicomaco appears on stage in the second act. After he tries to bolster Pirro's resolve to marry, Sofronia bustles on stage to berate her husband. She informs us, in a soliloquy, how capricious and irresponsible her once upright husband has become since he fell in love. Her speech incidentally provides an epitome of middle-class life and values that, in its directness and economy of language, surpasses any analogue in Terence, whose views are similar: her sentiments are certainly not found in Plautus. Throughout this act Machiavelli demonstrates his control of Florentine idiom, but especially in the final scene—an exchange of insults between Pirro and Eustachio that surpasses the Plautine scene it imitates.

As the third act opens, father and son openly confront each other. Nicomaco resents the threat to his authority that Sofronia's plan represents: “I intend to be the master in my own house. … It is a sad house where the hen crows louder than the cock.” From the perspective of the play's ending, it is clear that such petulance works not only to motivate Nicomaco but also to mobilize the play's comedic energy. During this act this energy is going to gather enough steam so that it can eventually “right” the “wrong” Nicomaco laments, yet not in the way he anticipates. The lovesick Cleandro, who is still concealing his real feelings for Clizia from his unsympathetic mother, soliloquizes at length about the pain of having a father as a rival. Nicomaco proposes in exasperation that Clizia's husband should be decided by drawing lots. Sofronia agrees to let chance end the dispute, and the act ends with some sexual punning as Nicomaco and Pirro appear to have won the day.

Act 4 proves that Nicomaco counted his chickens before he knew what plans Sofronia had hatched. Cleandro's lamentation on the fickleness of fortune has strong reminiscences of the twenty-fifth chapter of The Prince. He has enough presence of mind, however, to overhear the arrangements that Nicomaco and Pirro are making: Nicomaco has leased a house from his neighbor Damone; Pirro will leave the marriage bed under the cover of darkness, and let the eager Nicomaco take over. In response to Pirro's concern lest Nicomaco be unable to get his “weapon cocked,” the old man lets us know that he “will take a dose of a potion called satyrion … that would rejuvenate a man of ninety, let alone a man of seventy like me.” Through a servant named Doria, a forerunner of Dorine in Molière's Tartuffe, we learn that Sofronia will counterattack, with the help of another servant, Siro: “They took our servant's clothes off him, dressed Clizia in them, and put Siro in Clizia's; and they are going to have Siro take Clizia's place as the bride.” Doria keeps Nicomaco at a safe distance by saying that the maddened Clizia is brandishing a knife and threatening to kill him and Pirro rather than marry the latter. Because of the homosexual twist to the bed trick that Sofronia plays, she feels free to set things up as if they were all going to turn out according to Nicomaco's plans. The act closes as Nicomaco breathlessly exits to take his place in the marriage bed, and as the lines from the canzone ring, if not in his ears, at least in ours: “How gentle is deception … [It] soothes the blissful dupes we have befriended.”

As in the final act of The Mandrake, the crucial nocturnal activities occur offstage. They are artfully recounted by one of the principals, Nicomaco himself. In this play, the audience is meant less to approve of the account than to laugh at it; the laughter is at Nicomaco's expense, for he is in tears throughout his burlesque tale of chagrin. Damone finally offers sensible, if unwelcome, advice: “Place yourself completely in Sofronia's hands, and tell her that from now on you will do whatever she says about both Clizia and yourself.” Nicomaco agrees to relinquish all his authority to Sofronia, “as long as nobody knows about this business.” She, in turn, will happily take over Clizia's affairs. There remains only the question of whether or not Cleandro may marry her. Because Clizia's birth is still clouded in mystery, both parents agree that Cleandro cannot be paired off with her just yet. After Sofronia tells Cleandro about this distressing decision, he speaks his last soliloquy, in which he frets about his fortune. At that timely point, Clizia's long-lost father, the Neapolitan nobleman Ramondo, appears. Touched at the honor and respect shown his daughter, he readily agrees to the match with Cleandro. Confirming her control of the situation, Sofronia shoos everyone offstage, then turns to us: “And you, dear audience, can go back home, because we shall not leave the house again until we have arranged this new wedding. And this time it will be man and wife, not man and man, like Nicomaco's!” As we ready ourselves to obey her, we hear in the closing song an enigmatic remark about there being, beneath “the comic leaven,” other truths too numerous to delve into right now: “So, kind audience, we pray / You reap the fruit you merit from our play.”

Phrasing the issue in these terms puts the audience on its guard. Shall we rise to the challenge or not? What, in fact, is the nature of the challenge? The meaning attached to the “fruit” and to what we may “merit” is not immediately apparent. What is apparent is the dramatist's ultimate frustration at never being able to be sure of controlling the audience's responses. It shines through this transparent invitation to do our own delving, even though we may unearth the wrong material—or even reject the invitation.

Despite the early stage history of the play, most audiences have refused to enter into any kind of give and take with Clizia. Perhaps Machiavelli knew that it was less polished than The Mandrake and tried to compensate for his lack of success by passing the responsibility for interpreting the play onto the audience during the last few minutes. Or the issue here may be that Machiavelli has adhered less strictly not only to the values inherent in Roman comedy, which he followed in Andria, but also to those inherent in Aristophanic comedy, which he alluded to in The Mandrake.

The defects of Clizia result from an imperfect blend of literary traditions. The interpretive signals sent the audience are clear, but the elements borrowed from the two comic traditions send confusing messages. Thus, they interfere with the reception of those very signals Machiavelli entreats his audience to heed. If Nicomaco is the butt of the humor, with all the apparatus of farce working throughout the play to make us ridicule him, then it is hard at the end suddenly to accept him—as Sofronia somehow is able to do—with all the understanding and tolerance that is part of the comedic resolution.

Machiavelli's decision to imitate Casina implies a realization that the risks he faces in building toward his ending are analogous to those faced by Plautus. Plautus, too, was trying to maintain an equal emphasis on farce and ethics. Because Plautus frequently uses the former to reinforce the latter, these two aspects of comedy are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, Plautus is fully aware of the farcical elements in Kleroumenoi; he refers to them obliquely in his prologue. Long before he began writing comedies, the Roman taste for farce had been developed and richly exploited by the native Atellan farces, with their lively use of slapstick, obscenity, and typical comic butts. Consequently, Plautus could be selective about what farcical elements he borrowed from the Greek tradition—whether from Aristophanic or New Comedy. On the other hand, Casina examines the nature of authority in a Roman family; by extension, it also explores the theme of social authority. To present this theme successfully, Plautus needs to be in complete control of all constituent elements. The example of Aristophanes, and perhaps even Diphilus, proves to him that thematic material like homosexuality, transvestism, the generation gap, the wedding ceremony turned upside down, and the conflict between husband and wife can be handled in a farce. But a balance must be maintained so that the farcical treatment does not outweigh the ethical and social values the play is designed to articulate. That the resolution to the authority dilemma should be provided by the maternal figure is, for a Roman audience, highly ironic. But that a resolution exists, whatever its source, is vital to the final effects—be they social, comic, or both—that Plautus seeks to create.

Because so much haste was involved in the first performance of Clizia, we cannot be absolutely certain that Machiavelli actually considered the problems inherent in working with Casina in this light. He may merely have had to produce a text quickly. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, we can see that Plautus's play might prompt in a would-be imitator the kinds of reflections we have been considering. Furthermore, for Machiavelli to create a play consistent with the ethical and social principles that animate Andria and The Mandrake, he must tread carefully the line between farce and ethics. The artistic problems he faces in adapting Casina parallel those Plautus must have confronted when adapting Kleroumenoi. Machiavelli seeks to maintain the necessary balance between farce and ethics by radically altering the characterization of Nicomaco and Sofronia. The changes are designed to govern our interpretation of the ending. Nicomaco's analogue in Plautus is the catalyst for the humor, less because of what he does than because of what other people are forced to do in response to him. Machiavelli retains this catalytic function, but he makes Nicomaco less obsessive. Nicomaco's passion, furthermore, is heterosexual in nature, not, as in the Plautine prototype, homosexual. What is important for Machiavelli is that as an old man in love, Nicomaco is ridiculous. Because he is enslaved by his passion, he is unable to rule; his household is divided, not united. This much can also be said for Plautus's character. But Machiavelli permits Nicomaco an aura of dignity—albeit tarnished—that Plautus never grants his protagonist. This air of nobility becomes a crucial factor in engaging our sympathy—or grudging affection—for him at the end of the play.

It is significant that Sofronia attributes this dignity to him during her first soliloquy (II, 4). Nothing like this speech exists in Plautus, whose matrona figure is considerably more shrewish, and hence less sympathetic. Because Sofronia's final act of reconciliation with Nicomaco arises from her own virtù, it is essential that she appear—not only at the end but also throughout the play—as someone with compassion and understanding. Thus we are meant to interpret her forgiveness of Nicomaco as the result of a genuine concern for him, as well as a change in his character, wrought through her corrective virtù, that is as potentially great for him as it is for us. For many people in the audience, this realization and acceptance will be impossible, because the signs leading to it are blurred. Sofronia clearly articulates Machiavelli's moral, ethical, and social meaning, but the means by which the audience is led to accept this position are not handled deftly.

Perhaps Machiavelli is less successful with this play because his intent at the end of Clizia runs counter to his aim at the end of The Mandrake. The motivating force behind the earlier play is farce. As we have seen, the play permits, even encourages, a feeling of vicarious irresponsibility while the audience savors the delicious ironies of the finale. If the audience reflects on the reasons for its laughter, it may gradually become aware that something is amiss—for example, that each person on stage participating in the comic resolution is, basically, a comic butt. At this point, and only at this point, can the audience resolve this situation through its own active and clear thinking.

Machiavelli chooses a potentially less risky solution to the question of comic harmony at the end of Clizia. Again, farce plays a strong role in making people laugh, but the ending appears to be much more like the customary one of comedy. Sofronia takes over. Into the comedic resolution she thrusts concepts related to sophrosyne, the Greek word for temperance and moderation from which her name is derived. Sophron means literally ‘soundness of mind’ and refers to a mastery and a self-control that typify her character and her actions throughout the play. Like Penelope and Andromache, two Greek heroines with this virtue, Sofronia is a good, even exemplary, wife because she is fully aware of herself. Thus, she acts in accordance with her nature and position in life. Because she is self-fulfilling, both in name and in action, she is the model citizen. Hence, she is assigned the speech that reminds Nicomaco of all he is not. It is perfectly right, from an ethical and social point of view, that she does so. But from the point of view of the audience's enjoyment, the laughter as the curtain falls carries with it bemusement. Machiavelli hopes that the laughter at the end of Clizia will be tempered by an awareness of the complexities of the everyday world. The laughter he seeks to elicit is rooted in a tolerance of perplexity, indeed a tolerance of its inevitable impingement upon moments of enjoyment. It is a laughter that accepts the loss of the luxury of a simple response—even to something funny. Machiavelli trusts that the humor of Clizia will prepare the audience for the final resolution because he sees this humor rooted in practical experience and therefore immediately pertinent to alert members of his audience. What Machiavelli wants is the laughter of comedy, not of farce.

Unfortunately, here Machiavelli inspires the laughter of farce. All the lasciviousness and voyeuristic pleasure of The Mandrake exist in Clizia. In fact, because of their shocking quality, they might even be said to be more intensely present in Clizia. Once these emotions have been elicited from the audience, it is not easy to submerge and repress them. Through an emphasis on Sofronia's soundness, Machiavelli tries to transmute them into a more acceptable representation, but he fails. While the play titillates us on one level, on another level it seeks our active support for Sofronia's triumphant assertion of control. Furthermore, we must respond on both levels at once; we cannot contemplate these issues at our leisure and in our privacy. Our public participation—in the theater for all to see—in the approval of reunion reinforces our civic sense. But it destroys our appreciation and enjoyment of the story. Taking his cue from Sofronia's assertion of control, Machiavelli proceeds to control us. In Clizia Machiavelli sacrifices art for society. In The Mandrake he celebrates both art and society—to the detriment of neither.


A letter written to Francesco Vettori on January 31, 1515, before Machiavelli began to write plays, according to the view of most scholars, is a significant document for any assessment of what issues were on his mind and of how he presented them. During the final twelve years of his life, neither his attitude toward the major philosophical issues nor his style for conveying these attitudes remained exactly the same. Nevertheless, this letter suggests why dramatic writing might be a mode of expression more conductive to his needs at this time in his life:

Whoever was to see our letters, my honorable friend, and saw the differences in them, might be very astonished, because it would seem to him that sometimes we are serious men, totally dedicated to great matters, and that no thought could leave our heads that had not probity and grandeur in it. But then, turning the page, it would seem to him that those same men were frivolous, fickle, and lewd—dedicated to vanity. This way of carrying on, although it may seem reprehensible to some, seems laudable to me, because we are imitating nature, which is variable; whoever imitates nature cannot be blamed. Although we customarily have this variety in separate letters, this time I want to practice it in a single one, as you will see if you read the other side. Now, clear your throat.

In the realm of politics, it has generally been assumed that Machiavelli's views are best explained as a blending of a knowledge of the classics with experience from the modern world; or, as he puts it in the dedicatory letter to The Prince, “I have found nothing among my resources that I cherish or value as much as my knowledge of the deeds of great men, learned from wide experience of recent events and a constant reading of classical authors.” The ancients were a vital stimulus to him. Thus, as The Discourses would seem to substantiate, he belongs squarely among the Renaissance thinkers and writers who believed that the cultural rebirth they were experiencing resulted directly from a revival of antiquity. Yet what he says to Vettori seems to imply a different priority: Anyone imitating nature cannot be blamed, for nature is, in a word, “variable.” Because nature is also profuse, it is not odd to have the ridiculous (sex, lust, and vanity) juxtaposed with the sublime (“great matters” of “probity and grandeur,” that is, the rarefied realm of politics). On the contrary, such contrast is quite normal because variety and multiplicity define nature; by imitating her, Vettori and Machiavelli are only doing what is right and natural. But if Machiavelli agrees to this kind of imitation in his private correspondence, is there sanction for such a process in his political and historical writings?

To ask this question is to wonder at the same time why Machiavelli turns to comedy between 1515 and 1527, a period when he is also producing some of his major theoretical and analytical treatises. An answer may be found through an analogy with the visual art of his time. The art of this period underwent a “change,” according to Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. With some fifty years of perspective, Vasari looks back on the achievements of Michelangelo; he is convinced that Michelangelo is the supreme ruler among artists because he surpasses not only his quattrocento predecessors, “who had almost conquered Nature,” but also the artists from antiquity, “who had unquestionably conquered Nature.” The accuracy of this judgment is unimportant, but its assumptions are crucial. In Vasari's estimation Michelangelo's incontrovertible artistic prominence marks a significant development in the history of art. Michelangelo is unique because he welds the previously bifurcated sources of artistic inspiration: nature and antiquity. At the very time Michelangelo is in the process of achieving these results, Machiavelli is at work on his comedies.

What Vasari maintains occurs in art suggests the following analogy with Machiavelli. His serious political and historical works reflect his profound commitment to the values of antiquity. But as he acknowledges to Vettori, he is conscious both intellectually and emotionally of harboring another quality, namely, a profound personal commitment to the values of nature. Thus his plays constitute a singular avowal: his willingness and ability to create an art that can combine, and hence contain, a commitment both to nature and to antiquity. Given the terms of this analogy, then, the surface of his plays represents his commitment to nature, while his reliance on the comic tradition—certainly on Plautus and Terence, and possibly Aristophanes—demonstrates his commitment to antiquity. His turning to a form that could subsume nature and antiquity tacitly implies that such works as The Prince, The Discourses, The Art of War, and The Florentine Histories could not. Thus his letter to Vettori justifies the practice of comedy as a means to achieve this goal. Let us go and do likewise.

Joseph A. Barber (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3908

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 excursion into the realm of theater and his more serious political and historical writings. Along this line of inquiry, it will be worthwhile to examine the parallel stories of Callimaco and Lucrezia in the Mandragola. As we note the similarity of the paths that the lives of these two characters follow, and the critical points at which these paths diverge, it becomes apparent as the play progresses that the successful seducer, Callimaco, becomes a more and more fitting example of one of life's foolish failures. Ironically, the woman seduced, Lucrezia, emerges as a true embodiment of Machiavelli's donna di virtú.

Machiavelli provides his audience with a brief background to the events which will take place on stage, relating the childhood story of Callimaco: why he departed from Italy in 1484 (sendo mio padre e mia madre morti, “since my father and mother were dead”), why he remained in France after he reached adulthood (per la passata del re Carlo le guerre in Italia, le quale ruinorno quella provincia, “the expedition of King Charles set going in Italy the wars that ruined this country”), and the stability of lifestyle which he had achieved in Paris:

avendo compartito el tempo, parte alli studii, parte a' piaceri e parte alle faccende; e in modo mi travagliavo in ciascuna di queste cose, che l'una non mi impediva la via dell'altra. E per questo, come tu sai, vivevo quietissimamente, giovando a ciascuno e ingegnandomi di non offendere persona; tal che mi pareva essere grato a' borghesi, ai gentiluomini, al forestiero, al terrazzano, al povero, al ricco.

laying out my time, partly in studies, partly in amusement, partly in business; and I employed myself in each of these in such fashion that one didn't keep me away from the other. And the result, as you know, was that I lived in the greatest peace, getting on well with everybody and trying not to make any enemies, so that I seemed to be in favor with the middle class, the gentlemen, the foreigner, the native, the poor, the rich.


Callimaco relates this story to his servant, Siro, as a prelude to his explanation of his sudden return to Florence when Fortune disrupted his pleasant life with news of Lucrezia (parendo alia Fortuna che io avessi troppo bel tempo, “but since Fortune decided that I was having too much good weather”). What follows this return comprises the action of the comedy: the devious seduction of Lucrezia organized by Callimaco under the direction of his friend and mediator, Ligurio.

What is noteworthy about Callimaco's description of his travels and life in Paris is the highly complex syntax adopted by the speaker. Others have noted the extreme literary or oratorical quality of this discourse,3 though the terminology “analytical syntax” might be more descriptive. Callimaco systematically divides his life into three equal periods of ten years each; he gives clear motives for his original move to Paris and his subsequent decision to remain there; and he gives a complete accounting of all of his daily activities, again framing his preoccupations in three respectable categories: study, pleasure, and business. Blasucci has noted that this analytical mode of discourse is also distinctive of Machiavelli's political and philosophical writings.4 In these works analytical constructions abound: critical inquiries framed with the list or series of possibilities. “Either this … or that … or this will happen,” Machiavelli writes, continuing until he has neatly compartmentalized the problem at hand and exhausted all of the possible hypotheses of its solution. The opening chapters of the Prince, for example, read like a brief encyclopedia of principalities, hereditary or acquired, acquired by force or otherwise, and so forth until the reader is presented with the category of princes classified truly according to genus, species, and variety.

This analytical style is representative of a critical methodology which is perhaps Machiavelli's greatest contribution to intellectual inquiry. The Machiavellian approach to any problem begins with an exhaustive survey of the gamut of possible contributing factors. If the analyst is to be certain that given courses of action will achieve the desired results, all of the possible causative and influential factors must be identified.

But this syntax may be out of character for Callimaco, no scientist to be sure! It may also be inappropriate, in its formality, its literary quality, for a discourse between a young man and his servant. Yet it serves an analytical function similar to that which the same type of syntactic structures serve in Machiavelli's political and historical studies. Callimaco exhausts the possibilities of his life in Paris: he gives a reasoned explanation of his presence there, a systematic analysis of his activities that leaves no time unaccounted for by worthy pursuits, and more importantly, he specifies that the result of this lifestyle is that he is pleasing to every segment of Parisian society: tal che mi pareva essere grato a' borghesi, a' gentiluomini, al forestiero, al terrazzano, al povero, al ricco, “so that I seemed to be in favor with the middle class, the gentlemen, the foreigner, the native, the poor, the rich” (I.i). He lives, in short, in perfect harmony with his social environment, ordering his daily activities quietissimamente.5

At this point, when Callimaco is in complete control of his pleasant life, Fortune strikes. A fellow Florentine, Cammillo Calfucci, happens to pass through Paris and in the course of a dinner conversation describes the extraordinary beauty of Lucrezia. What follows in the play could accurately be described as conventional. Upon Callimaco's return to Florence he enlists the aid of Ligurio; together they concoct a scheme which draws upon, as Lucrezia later says, la sciocchezza del mio marito, la semplicità di mia madre e la tristizia del mio confessoro, “my husband's stupidity, my mother's folly, and my confessor's rascality.” Playing upon these elements they convince Nicia, Lucrezia's husband, to force Callimaco into his wife's bed. The play ends with the promise that the new sexual relationship between Callimaco and Lucrezia is likely to become permanent.

But on another level Callimaco's successful seduction of the woman amounts to a narration of his own personal failure. One reader, G. Ferroni, has described the later acts of the play as the story of the progressive “liquidation” of the character of Callimaco.6 This liquidation is most evident in Callimaco's almost total loss of control of the situation, and in his complete subjugation to Ligurio in both the development and the enactment of the seduction strategy. After Callimaco's return to Florence, Ligurio becomes the play's protagonist; he is the character who orders the events, and his actions and planning determine their outcome. Callimaco's participation is such that their strategy succeeds more in spite of him than because of any virtù on his part.

Ligurio makes it evident early in the play that he considers Callimaco more of a liability than an asset. It is in part Ligurio's lack of faith in his client's power of persuasion that motivates the abandonment of the original scheme of persuading Nicia to take his wife to the health spa. And when they do decide on the plot involving the use of the mandrake potion, and meet face to face with Nicia for the purpose of setting the plan in motion, Ligurio takes precautions to minimize Callimaco's active role in the persuasion process by having him babble to Nicia in Latin.

But Callimaco's own behavior and his total dependency on Ligurio provide indications of his progressive degeneration and loss of selfcontrol. When Nicia and Ligurio have to leave Callimaco alone in order to enlist the aid of Lucrezia's mother, Callimaco's reaction borders on despondency.

… Vatti, Callimaco, a spasso, e fa che alle dua ore noi ti troviamo
in casa con la pozione ad ordine. Noi n'andreno a casa la madre, el dottore
ed io, a disporla, perché è mia nota. Poi n'andremo al
frate e vi ragguagliereno di quello che noi aren fatto.
Deh! non mi lasciare solo.
Tu mi pari cotto.
Dove vuoi tu che io vadia ora?
Di là, di qua, per questa via, per quell'altra: egli è
sì grande Firenze!
Io son morto.
You go and amuse yourself, Callimaco, and see to it that at eight o'clock
we find you in your house with the medicine ready. We'll go to her mother's
house, the Judge and I, to get her to help us, for I know her. Then we'll
go to the Friar, and we'll report to you what we've done.
Oh, don't leave me alone.
You act drunk.
Where do you want me to go now?
This way, that way, along this street, along that one; Florence is a
big town.
This is killing me.


In the play's fourth Act, Ligurio's reaction to Callimaco's degenerating mental state becomes more overtly condescending:

Che gente è questa? Or per l'allegrezza, or pel dolore,
costui vuol morire in ogni modo.
What a man this is! Now for happiness, now for sorrow, this fellow wants
to die no matter what.


Because of this regression into somewhat infantile behavior, because of his progressive loss of self-control, and notwithstanding the fact that he does indeed seduce the beautiful Lucrezia, Callimaco's performance in the comedy could scarcely be termed virtuoso in the Machiavellian sense of the word.

Callimaco's story parallels closely that of another Machiavellian hero, Cesare Borgia, though the true life history of the latter has a less happy ending. The rise and fall of Borgia, or as Machiavelli calls him, Valentino, is more spectacular. His ascendency was rapid, his carving out of an empire in provincial Italy was brutal and decisive, but in its skeletal form his story has much in common with that of Callimaco. Both were in their prime: Valentino at the pinnacle of his political power and Callimaco at the maximum level of integration and self-control within the Parisian milieu. Both men were in complete control of their own destiny and their social environment when they encountered an adverse intrusion of Fortune. For Callimaco, the interruption by Fortune came with news of Lucrezia's beauty; for Valentino it took the form of the death of his father, Pope Alexander VI. Upon learning of Lucrezia, Callimaco abandoned Paris, where he was content and in harmonious control of his destiny, and returned to Florence. This was his fatal mistake, for as we have seen, it ultimately led to his mental disintegration. Upon the death, or shortly after the death of his father, Valentino also committed a grave error that eventually led to his downfall. As described by Machiavelli in Chapter VII of the Prince, Valentino's mistake was to allow a faction inimical to him to ascend to the papacy after his father's death.

Solamente si può accusarlo [Valentino] nella creazione di Iulio pontefice, nella quale lui ebbe mala elezione; perché, come è detto, non potendo fare uno papa a suo modo, e' poteva tenere che uno non fussi papa. … Errò adunque el duca in questa elezione, e fu cagione dell'ultima ruina sua.

The only thing he can be accused of is that in the creation of Julius II he made a bad choice; for, as has been said, not being able to choose his own pope, he could still prevent any one individual being made pope. … The duke, therefore, erred in his choice, and it was the cause of his ultimate ruin.

In his writings, Machiavelli is at times ambiguous about the precise meaning of his usage of the term, virtù, and of its role in counteracting the whims of adverse Fortune, but there is a consistent bias or admiration throughout his works in favor of the individual who is able to roll with the punches. Obviously, neither Callimaco nor Valentino could continue his pleasant life unchanged after Fortune struck, but their fatal blunders were by no means necessary conclusions. Both had the option of countering adverse Fortune with a positive accommodation to the new order of events, a change of life-style, or, to use G. Ferroni's term, a mutazione through which they might seize control not of the old order which, of course, is irretrievably lost, but of the new order which they create and govern.

Neither Valentino nor Callimaco was able to effect this type of positive mutazione in the face of changing Fortune, and the result for both personalities was disastrous. All Machiavelli's praise of Cesare Borgia in the Prince is negated by his later descriptions, in his letters, of the sick, pathetic figure of a broken man wandering around Rome shortly before his death. All of the pleasantness and self-control evinced by Callimaco in his description to Siro of his former life in Paris stand in contrast to the image of a despondent character wandering aimlessly through the streets of Florence: di là, di qua; per questa via, per quell'altra: egli è sì grande Firenze! The opposite pole of virtù, in both cases, is despondency.

In many respects, Lucrezia's story also parallels that of Callimaco. As the play opens, we cannot be certain that her happiness is as complete as Callimaco portrays his own to be in his description of his life in Paris. Still, the description of Lucrezia which Callimaco offers to his servant in Act I suggests that the status quo of Lucrezia's existence is more than reasonably content. Callimaco is as exhaustive here as he was in describing his own past, and he emphasizes that Lucrezia's satisfactory lifestyle, her contentment with the status quo, constitutes the major obstacle to his amorous desires for the woman.

A cotesto son io paratissimo; ma che speranza ci avete voi?
Ahimè! nessuna.
O perché?
Dirotti. In prima mi fa la guerra la natura di lei, che è onestissima
e al tutto aliena dalle cose d'amore; avere el marito ricchissimo, e
che al tutto si lascia governare da lei, e, se non è giovane, non è
al tutto vecchio, come pare; non avere parenti o vicini con chi ella convenga
ad alcuna vegghia o festa, o ad alcuno altro piacere di che si sogliono delettare
le giovani. Delle persone mecaniche non gliene capita a casa nessuna; non
ha fante né famiglio che non tremi di lei: in modo che non ci è
luogo d'alcuna corruzione.
I'm quite ready for that, but what hopes do you have?
Hopes! None or very few. I'll explain. First, the nature of the
woman fights against me, because she's very chaste and a complete stranger
to love dealings. Her husband is very rich and lets her rule him entirely,
and if he isn't young, he isn't altogether an old man, as I guess.
She has no relatives or neighbors that she meets at parties or entertainments
or any of the other amusements that young women like. No tradespeople get
into her house; she has no maid or servant who's not afraid of her; so
there's no chance for bribery.


Segments of this description are worth emphasizing: Nicia allows himself to be completely governed by his beautiful wife; in fact, there is no one in her household who does not yield to her dominance (non ha fante né famiglio che non tremi di lei). Whether or not Lucrezia's happiness at this point is total may be an unknown factor, but it is clear from Callimaco's description that she is in complete control of herself, her family, and her social milieu.

Like Callimaco in Paris, Lucrezia leads her life in harmony with her environment and unthreatened by external forces over which she has no control. There is, of course, the problem of a child. In their six years of marriage, she and Nicia have been unable to conceive and give birth to offspring. Lucrezia nowhere in the play gives the impression that this constitutes for her a major problem, but it is of great concern to both Nicia and Lucrezia's mother, Sostrata. For Sostrata, whom Callimaco describes, è stata buona compagna, “her mother has been a lively dame,” the question is enshrouded in legal technicalities, not so much the lack of a son as the lack of an heir. It is serious because of the difference in age between Lucrezia and her husband, and because of the clear expectation that Nicia will die while Lucrezia is still in the prime of her life. Without an heir, Nicia's wealth will upon his death revert to his own family and pass out of the control of Lucrezia and Sostrata. Non vedi tu, Sostrata tells her daughter, che una donna che non ha figliuoli non ha casa? Muorsi el marito, resta com'una bestia, abandonata da ognuno “Don't you see that a woman who doesn't have any children doesn't have any home? When her husband dies, she is left wretched, deserted by everybody” (III.xi).

The same stroke of Fortune which disrupts Callimaco's pleasant life in Paris and eventually destroys him also poses a threat to the contented status quo of Lucrezia's life. As the play proceeds, the combined forces of Callimaco, Ligurio, Frate Timoteo, her husband, and her mother are allied against Lucrezia to coerce her into sleeping with Callimaco. Eventually, these forces succeed, but ironically, their superficial success is overshadowed by the fact that she is the character who emerges as the victor. The intervention of Fortune, the seduction by Callimaco, disrupts her life and would inevitably ruin it except that unlike Callimaco, she does not passively accept her fate and does not permit Fortune to destroy her. Instead, she counters with a true mutazione, a complete change in lifestyle which promises to be no worse, and perhaps even better than the old status quo. There have been hints throughout the play that Nicia is the one responsible for their lack of offspring, so in accepting the permanency of Callimaco as a lover Lucrezia may have actually resolved the legal problem of an heir. Her ready acceptance of her new lover is surprising in the play only because the change in lifestyle is so radical. Callimaco quotes Lucrezia in describing the new arrangement to Ligurio:

… doppo qualche sospiro disse: “Poi che l'astuzia
tua, la sciocchezza del mio marito, la semplicità di mia madre e la
tristizia del mio confessoro mi hanno condotta a fare quello che mai per me
medesima arei fatto, io voglio iudicare che e' venga da una celeste disposizione
che abbi voluto così, e non sono sufficiente a recusare quello che 'l
cielo vuole che io accetti. Però io ti prendo per signore, padrone,
guida; tu mio padre, tu mio defensore, e tu voglio che sia ogni mio bene;
e quello che 'l mio marito ha voluto per una sera, voglio ch'egli
abbia sempre.”
After some sighs she said: “Your cleverness, my husband's
stupidity, my mother's folly, and my confessor's rascality have
brought me to do what I never would have done of myself. So I'm forced
to judge that it comes from Heaven's wish that has ordered it so, and
I'm not strong enough to refuse what Heaven wills me to accept. I take
you then for lord, master, guide; you are my father, you are my defender;
I want you as my chief good; and what my husband has asked for one night,
I intend him to have always.”


Her use of the dantesque terms, signore, padre, and guida, is somewhat tongue in cheek. The important note is that destiny took control away from her and threatened to destroy her together with the old lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, but through her own volition and through a positive mutazione she regains control. The new order projected in the play for the future is one which she establishes and in which she will be the dominant force. Indeed, the play begins and ends with notes of her dominance of her men: Nicia, che al tutto si lascia governare da lei, and Callimaco, who gladly accepts the terms which she dictates for their new relationship. She tells Callimaco that he will come to live in their house and that every now and then they will be able to get together, etc. Now come on, she says, we are going to Church. The irony is that the traditional “winner” gets the girl but is the comedy's real loser, and vice-versa; once seduced, Lucrezia takes charge of the situation and emerges as a true donna di virtù.

In Chapter XXV of the Prince, Machiavelli tells us that Fortune favors the bold because, he writes, it is a woman, la fortuna è donna, ed è necessario, volendola tenere sotto, batterla e urtarla, “for fortune is a woman, and it is necessary, if you wish to master her, to conquer her by force.” So it is with supreme irony that in the Mandragola a woman displays the ability to wrest back control of her destiny from the whims of changing fortune. For too long readers have accepted that the ferocious image of Cesare Borgia forging a new empire is the epitome of the type of boldness to which Machiavelli refers in his political treatise. I propose that in her actions in the Mandragola, Lucrezia is also bold, bold and decisive, and perhaps her dramatic reversal of the trap which destiny set for her is a more fitting example of the author's meaning of virtù: not the warrior but the woman, not the brutal violence of the conqueror, Cesare Borgia, but the quiet sagacity of the conquered, the wise Lucrezia.


  1. The complete bibliography is extensive. I list here only those items which have most contributed to the present study: P. Baldan, “Sulla vera natura della Mandragola e dei suoi personaggi,” Ponte, XXXIV (1978), 387-407; G. Cavallini, Interpretazione della “Mandragola” (Milano, 1973); G. Ferroni, “Mutazione” e “riscontro” nel teatro di Machiavelli (Roma, 1972); F. Fido, “Machiavelli 1469-1969: Politica e teatro nel badalucco di Messer Nicia,” Italica, XLVI (1969), 359-75; A. Parronchi, “La prima rappresentazione della Mandragola: Il modello per l'apparato, l'allegoria,” Bibliofilia, LXIV (1962), 37-86; E. Raimondi, “Il teatro del Machiavelli,” Studi storici, X (1969), 749-98, now in Politica e commedia (Bologna, 1972); R. Ridolfi, Studi sulle commedie di Machiavelli (Pisa, 1968); L. Russo, Machiavelli (Bari, 1945); T. A. Sumberg, “The Mandragola: An Interpretation,” Journal of Politics, XXIII (1965), 320-40; L. Vanossi, “Situazione e sviluppo nel teatro machiavelliano,” in Lingua e strutture del teatro italiano del Rinascimento (Quaderni del circolo filologico linguistico padovano, n. 2) (Padova, 1970), 3-108.

  2. For Italian texts of the works of Machiavelli, I use Opere di Machiavelli, a cura di E. Raimondi (Milano, 1969). English translations are from Machiavelli, The Chief Works and Others, trans. by A. Gilbert (Durham, N.C., 1965), for the Mandragola; and The Prince, trans. L. Ricci, rev. E. R. P. Vincent (New York, 1952).

  3. Cavallini, p. 51.

  4. In the preface to Machiavelli, Opere letterarie, a cura di L. Blasucci (Milano, 1964).

  5. Note that Callimaco's well-balanced life in Paris is strikingly similar to Machiavelli's description of his own life in exile in his famous letter to Francesco Vettori of December 10, 1513.

  6. Ferroni, p. 54.

Arlene W. Saxonhouse (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3763

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 Machiavelli's Mandragola and Clizia, and categorized by scholars of the Renaissance as commedia erudita, which had its roots in the “antique inspiration” of Plautus, Terence, and Greek New Comedy.1 After all, Dante entitled his great poem The Divine Comedy, taking comedy away from the earthy world of the comic stage.2 While analyses of Machiavelli's comedies have provided insights into a variety of Machiavellian themes,3 for my purposes I am thinking of comedy in broader terms, terms that recognize the much wider source of comedy in Italian literature of the Renaissance and especially in the novella tradition deriving from Boccaccio's Decameron.4

Beyond the literary forms whether derivative from ancient or more contemporary and local works, however, comedy as I use it throughout this discussion is the breaking of boundaries—the blasphemy that reduces the gods to our level and human beings to biological creatures with sexual drives and alimentary needs. One of the classic boundaries that we in political theory explore, debate, and criticize is that between public and private. Comic productions from Aristophanes onward had been the mechanism for transcending that boundary. In comedy the stage becomes an arena in which the distinctive and the peculiar are opened up to be shared by all, in which the traditionally private is revealed to the gaze of the many.5 The private life of families and especially the sexual interactions of families become a spectacle laid bare to public viewing, and comedy builds on how this opening up reveals the tentativeness of the public's affirmed boundaries between male and female, between the upper and lower classes, between human beings and animals. These are the boundaries that at the end of comic literary works are, for the most part, reestablished through a restructuring of the comic world and the creation of a new regime, a new order. Comedy through its revelations, its taking away of veils of respectability and deceit, exposes private desires to public viewing and shows us human nature at its crassest; but it also translates those desires into a public and private order while the author of comedies becomes the founder of these new regimes through his art. Tragedy, in contrast, while teaching about the complexity of the world and about our own impotence in the face of that complexity, often leaves the audience barren of resolution—the plaything of the gods, or worse.6 Machiavelli's letters, laden with self-mockery, are far more comic than tragic; they often evoke smiles if not outright laughter and open up to his readers his own and others' private desires for viewing, amusement—and education.

Machiavelli is explicit about his staged comedies being didactic. Arguing for the use of local dialects in literary composition in Discourse or Dialogue Concerning Our Language, for example, he writes,

I say that many things are written which cannot be well written unless native words and expressions are used. In this category are comedies, for though the aim of comedy is to hold up a mirror to domestic life, the way it does this, all the same, is with a certain urbanity and with expressions which excite laughter, so that the men who come eagerly to enjoy themselves, taste afterwards the useful lesson that lay underneath. This is why it is difficult to use serious characters; for there can be no gravity in a cheating servant, a ridiculous old man, a love-crazed youth, in a wheedling harlot, in a greedy parasite, yet their actions can convey lessons, useful to our daily life. But to treat the subject in a comic fashion, it is necessary to use words and expressions which have such an effect, and they do not and cannot do unless they are local, popular, and understood by everybody.7

Similarly, at the beginning of Clizia, Machiavelli writes,

Comedies were invented to be of use and of delight to their audiences. It is indeed quite useful for any man, and particularly for young ones, to learn about the avarice of an old man, the frenzy of a lover, the deceit of a servant, the greed of a parasite, the indigence of the poor, the ambition of the rich, the wiles of a whore, and the bad faith of men. Comedies are filled with such examples, and they all can be represented with the greatest decency, but if the audience is to be delighted, it must be moved to laughter, and that cannot be done while keeping our speeches grave and austere; for speeches which evoke laughter are either foolish, or insulting, or amorous. It is therefore necessary to present characters who are foolish, slanderous, or love-struck.8

But what lesson are we to learn through this laughter? It is to behave like—or indeed to be—a prince. Comedies which detail our lives as private creatures provide the understanding of human nature and human potential whereby we can learn to control or adjust to the world in which we live. As Harvey Mansfield states it, “But a private man must behave like a prince because a private man if he is prudent, must become a prince. … Machiavelli's own suggestion, in his punning use of the word privato, is that a private man would regard himself as deprived of office.”9 Machiavelli's letters, however, illustrate how Machiavelli, as the author of comic tales and as one who imagines new republics while living the life of a private man, nevertheless is indeed a prince, a molder and founder of principalities through the imaginative exercise of his comic art. Through his letters he himself becomes a founding prince of imaginary republics and the educator of those who with the wisdom he teaches may be the founders of actual regimes.

According to scholars, Florentine comedies of the sixteenth century may often have had a “cautious moralistic tone,” yet there was also an “alternative streak whereby intrigue, trickery [beffa] and even adultery can be celebrated for their own sake.”10 The exalting of trickery draws on the “comic structures in Italian literature before 1500,” which revolved around a “competitive type of story, where some characters get the better of others in order to achieve satisfaction—and more often than not the satisfaction is one of which normal society disapproves.” Boccaccio and the novelle lie at the heart of this comic structure, which usually narrates a “contest in which there are winners and losers. The losers qualify as such by stupidity, inadequacy, or sometimes (but not often) immorality: the winners triumph through their intelligence, energy, singleness of purpose and intensity of desire.”11

These models, these contests, these personalities identified in the Discourse and in the preface to Clizia and inhabiting Machiavelli's comedies the Mandragola and Clizia and his one novella, Belfagor, all appear as well in many of Machiavelli's letters.12 The letters, often straddling the line between literary narrative and informal reflection on events both public and private, bring out the fundamentally comic aspects of politics. The letters give us a deep sense of the daemons in Machiavelli's life, but also of his delights, his everyday engagement in “the affairs of the heart” (if I may express myself euphemistically without the full force of Machiavelli's cruder, but more vivid language here),13 and his everyday engagement in political affairs.14

Most important about the comedy that emerges from the letters, though, is not so much what it tells us about Machiavelli's and his friends' lives, but how it helps us understand the foundations of his politics, how comedy in fact infiltrates the highest political activities and understandings. The letters illustrate how Machiavelli's legacy to the modern world is one of comic ambiguity and hopefulness rather than a sense of tragic impotence. The modern world as Machiavelli conceived it was one of comedy, of ambiguity, of transcendence, of human passions and human foibles that bring smiles to our faces—of successes that go to the trickster, the intriguer, to the one with “intelligence, energy, singleness of purpose and intensity of desire” rather than to the moralizer. The prince who does not recognize the comedy inhering in the ambiguity of natural boundaries cannot engage in the imaginative leaps at the base of political foundations and thus must fail. The letters help us recognize the necessity of comedy for the exercise of Machiavelli's politics—a politics that treats nature as fluid waiting to be channeled by the energies of a prince. In this essay, I focus on how the comic fluidity of nature surfaces in Machiavelli's letters and how the letters, by giving his readers an understanding of that fluidity and of the need to structure it, become a source of education to all who read them.

In a letter from 1515 to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli notes the mobility of his attention from “weighty matters” to the “chimerical.” While some might criticize this fluctuation, Machiavelli delights in it:

Anyone who might see our letters, honorable compare, would be greatly astonished, because at first it would seem that we were serious men completely directed toward weighty matters and that no thought could cascade through our heads that did not have within it probity and magnitude. But later, upon turning the page it would seem to the reader that we—still the very same selves—were petty, fickle, lascivious, and were directed toward chimerical matters. If to some this behavior seems contemptible, to me it seems laudable because we are imitating nature, which is changeable: whoever imitates nature cannot be censured.

[Letter 247 (January 31, 1515)]

Nature offers no permanent guide or form to which we find ourselves bound. Rather, nature is boundless and formless, challenging us to constant adaptation. To imitate a changeable nature: that is the comedy and the world Machiavelli presents us with. Nature itself makes men both comic and serious. Unlike the Nature of the ancients and medieval philosophers, Machiavelli's Nature demands that we not affirm a fixed form to ourselves lest we be broken by the rigidity of our characters, that we not mire ourselves in the moralistic pieties of those who lose in the comic stories of Italian literature. In chapter 24 of The Prince this rigidity is phrased in terms of cautiousness and impetuosity. The prince who finds himself cast firmly with one character trait or another and lacks the ability to adjust with Nature loses his state. The private (deprived) individual who does not understand and act on this need for fluidity never becomes a prince.

In his letters, Machiavelli demands that he and his readers move gracefully between the weighty and chimerical—or rather, be both when the times demand. Thus, the letter in which the above passage appears begins with a sonnet by Machiavelli acknowledging the power of Cupid, but it is only after Cupid learns that he must change his arrows that he conquers the resistant Machiavelli. Even the god adapts before he gains power over the object of his pursuit. Machiavelli's sonnet acknowledging his submission to Cupid's power is in response to Vettori's letter in which not Cupid's arrows, but idleness brought on Vettori's own subjection to love and to Vettori's conclusion that “I know of nothing that gives more delight to think about and to do than fucking. Everyman,” Vettori had continued, “may philosophize all he wants, but this is the utter truth, which many people understand this way but few will say” [Letter 247 (January 15, 1515)]. While Machiavelli begins his letter with his reflections on Cupid the ruler and with stories of lust and love, he turns in this same letter directly to a discussion of “new states, taken over by a new ruler,” how “they present countless problems,” and what Machiavelli would do “were I a new prince.” The move from sexual conquests and the language of the passions to discussions of political power is Machiavelli's lesson to his correspondents and readers—then and now. The seriousness of the political enterprise does not exclude the comic, and the comic is prelude to the serious. The construction of states builds upon the knowledge of lust and of Cupid and the necessity even for gods to transcend the rigidity of past forms. The prince must understand the comedy of nature.

In a letter from the previous year Machiavelli had written to Vettori about human hypocrisy and “how blind human beings are in matters that involve their sins and what implacable persecutors they are of the vices that they do not possess.” After numerous jabs at particular friends and associates, he writes,

Magnificent Ambassador, there are nothing but crazies here; only a few are familiar with this world and are aware that whoever seeks to act according to others will accomplish nothing because no two men who think alike can be found. These people are unaware that whoever is considered wise by day will not be considered crazy by night and that whoever is deemed a decent, able man will occasion honor, not blame, whatever he does to refresh his spirit and live happily; instead of being called a sodomite or lecher, people will say he is well-rounded, easy-going and a boon companion.

[Letter 227 (January 5, 1514)]

Machiavelli concludes his letter by urging Vettori to “stick with your natural dispositions” and turns those who criticize him into birds: their associate Brancacci (who reappears often in the letters) is “like one of those little wrens that is the first to squawk and to scold, and once the owl arrives, is the first to be caught.” Meanwhile, Filippo (again, a frequent inhabitant of the letters) is “like a vulture who, when there is no carrion in a rural district, soars a hundred miles to find some” and “when his gullet is full … mocks eagles, hawks, falcons, and their ilk.” Thus, Machiavelli tells Vettori, “Let the one squawk and the other fill its crop.” This letter captures much of Machiavelli's perspective on political and social life: the interplay of day and night, the hypocrisy that distinguishes virtue from vice, and the imaginative similes that transform the human into Aesopian creatures no more elevated than the vulture or wren. The letter denies natural boundaries and natural forms, natural categories—or categories of any kind—and emphasizes instead the fluidity of our lives and the dangers of trying to rely on a bounded nature with prescribed forms.

In an early chapter of The Prince Machiavelli reflects on a prince's acquisition of polities that have lived by their own laws and in freedom. About holding them after they have been conquered, he offers this advice: “For in truth there is no secure mode to possess them other than to ruin them. And whoever becomes patron of a city used to living free and does not destroy it, should expect to be destroyed by it.”15 Comedy, whether on stage, in stories, or in letters, is the analogous process of destruction and reestablishment. The plots of Machiavelli's comedies (for example, Mandragola) show how an old order is destroyed and how the new institutions provide for a new and happier life for all. But the new order (or regime, if we prefer the political term) cannot be founded without the destruction of the old. In chapter 6 of The Prince, Machiavelli praises those who by their own virtù and arms founded new principalities. Fortuna does not help beyond offering the opportunity; the opportunity, though, is the disorder from which the new prince creates order. To create, the heroes of chapter 6 must start with a world in chaos—in which either old orders have failed or have never been established. At a minimum, the old must be destroyed before the creation of the new. Comedy, as it appears in Machiavelli's plays and in his letters, destroys the old as prelude to the creation of the new. As I shall suggest, the letters of Machiavelli in their comic expression, building on the lively literary tradition from Boccaccio onward, illustrate this destruction of the old with its traditional boundaries and the refounding and restructuring of a flexible nature.


  1. Douglas Radcliff-Umstead, The Birth of Modern Comedy in the Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 2. The recently recovered and printed texts of Plautus and Terence in the late quattrocento were not alone in their influence on comedy in the cinquecento; it drew most especially on the Decameron of Boccaccio (ibid., 59-61). Cf. note 4 below. Some authors suggest that it drew as well on commedia dell'arte, but the timing appears to be off, at least as far as Machiavelli is concerned because commedia dell'arte develops during the middle of the cinquecento, after Machiavelli's comedies were produced. Cf. Richard Andrews, Scripts and Scenarios: The Performance of Comedy in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Jackson I. Cope, Secret Sharers in Italian Comedy: From Machiavelli to Goldoni (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996), 3-4.

  2. I have been unable to find in the scholarly literature on Dante a satisfactory explanation of why Dante used the word “comedy” in the title for his work. Alessandra Fussi has pointed me to Dante's letter to Cangrande in which Dante himself (assuming the authenticity of the letter) explains that he used the term commedia in the title of his work because comedies end happily, and while at the beginning of the poem the content is “horribilis et fetida, quia Infernus,” he assures that at the end it is “prosera, desiderabilis et grata, quia Paradisus” (Dante Alighieri, Epistola a Cangrande [Florence: Giunti Gruppos Editoriale, 1995], 12). Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 67, 292n8, points to the place in the Divine Comedy where Dante uses “commedia” and identifies comedy with that which makes truth out of lies (“ver c'ha faccia di mensoga,” Inf. 16.124). Dorothy Sayers's chapter “The Comedy of the Comedy,” in which she notes places in the poem that evoke a smile or suggest self-mockery on Dante's part, has the following priceless passage: “I have sometimes played with the idea of writing a story, and dropping into it, casually and without comment, the following sentence: ‘George was curled up comfortably in the big arm-chair, chuckling over The Divine Comedy’” (Introductory Papers on Dante [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954], 151).

  3. For example, see Catherine Zuckert, “Fortune Is a Woman—But so Is Prudence: Machiavelli's Clizia,” in Finding a New Feminism: Rethinking the Woman Questions for Liberal Democracy, ed. Pamela Jensen (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); Mera Flaumenhaft, “The Comic Remedy: Machiavelli's Mandragola,Interpretation 7 (1978): 33-74; and Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 29-32, 110-15.

  4. E.g., Andrews, Scripts and Scenarios, 18, argues that the novelle tradition and especially Boccaccio's Decameron was “no less important” a source for Italian Renaissance comedy than Plautus and Terence. Radcliff-Umstead, The Birth of Modern Comedy, 241, suggests that Boccaccio, perhaps even more than Plautus and Terence, inspired the growth of comedy and that Italian dramatists, with the example of the novelle, explored domestic relations more deeply than the Roman playwrights had ever dared to attempt; Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Comedy in the Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960), 58, makes similar claims.

  5. Old comedy of Aristophanes certainly had a public focus with attention to the political life of Athens, but the mechanism for evoking comedy was to draw attention to the private foibles of the public characters and often to reduce the city to the realm of the family, cf., e.g., Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae. New Comedy, stretching from Menander to Terence to the commedia erudita of the Italian Renaissance, focused directly on domestic life.

  6. Flaumenhaft, “The Comic Remedy,” 59, appropriately notes, “It has been said that there is no place for tragedy in the works of Machiavelli [the reference is to Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), 292]. His view of human virtù and Fortune preclude a world where pity, fear, and the recognition of divine justice constitute the proper human attitude. One effective way to undermine the sacred doctrines of older teachings is to refuse to recognize their seriousness.”

  7. Quoted from A Dialogue on Language in The Literary Works of Machiavelli, trans. J. R. Hale (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 188.

  8. Prologue to the Clizia, The Comedies of Machiavelli, trans. David Sices and James B. Atkinson (Hanover: Published for Dartmouth University Press by University Press of New England, 1985).

  9. Harvey Mansfield, Jr., Machiavelli's Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 262-63.

  10. Andrews, Scripts and Scenarios, 115.

  11. Ibid., 18.

  12. In what follows I refer to the letters in the volume edited and translated by James B Atkinson and David Sices, Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996), by number and date. About the humor, comedy, and paradoxes which fill the letters, see especially Giulio Ferroni, “‘Transformation’ and ‘Adaptation’ in Machiavelli's Mandragola,” in Machiavelli and the Discourse of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 81-116.

  13. Many of the letters describe in vivid language Machiavelli's own love affairs and reflections on love's power. The analogy is often made between love and political rule. Love “binds me with his fetters,” such that Machiavelli is “in absolute despair of my liberty” (Letter 247, March 1, 1515).

  14. We also come to recognize through Machiavelli's frequent allusions to the literature of the Italy of his own time his deep knowledge of the artistic and comic literary works of his compatriots. Here I rely heavily on John Najemy, Between Friends: Discourses of Power and Desire in the Machiavelli-Vettori Letters of 1513-1515 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), who traces the relationship between Machiavelli and Vettori through a study of their correspondence. Najemy identifies the literary allusions and provides detailed analyses of how Machiavelli's own incorporation of the literary allusions play out in his own presentations—and justify our working through to below-the-surface reading of Machiavelli's own writings. Though some of Najemy's psychoanalytic speculations on occasion wear on this reader, I found the book a goldmine of subtle readings and explorations of Machiavelli's complex relationship with Vettori and more importantly of his nuanced usage of literary references.

  15. Prince, chap. 5. All translations are from Harvey Mansfield, Jr., The Prince (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Pamela Ramseyer was a model research assistant for this essay. I would like to acknowledge and to thank her for the help she has provided.

Mera J. Flaumenhaft (essay date 1994)

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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 modern writer, Burchiello. Machiavelli says he believes that a person who considers the sonnet well “may continue to stir up our times.”2 He also refers to an ancient authority—“as Titus Livius says in his second decade”3—although he is aware that the second decade of Livy's Roman history is not extant. Perhaps his parody of a scholarly analysis of the “light material” (Prologue) of Mandragola should caution those who wish to read the play seriously as well as lightly: one must never forget that it is a staged comedy, “a thing to break one's jaws with laughter” (Prologue).

But since Machiavelli has the distinction of being both a playwright and an outstanding thinker apart from his plays, seriously amused readers should ask why this political theorist would repeatedly turn his attention to the comic theater. What is the relationship between his comic masterpiece and his revolutionary political treatises? The letter to Guicciardini, which seems to mock scholarly commentary, should stand as a check against the distortions of scholarship. Nevertheless, it should not discourage exploration of the sources, subject, and intent of Machiavelli's most famous and most original play. Indeed, the letter may even direct our attention to some of the central meanings of Mandragola.

Part 1 of this chapter will examine Machiavellian virtù in the light of ancient virtue and of Christian virtue, through a discussion of Machiavelli's attitude toward chastity. Central to this discussion is Machiavelli's use of Livy in this play, as well as in the Discourses, in a new version of the rape of Lucretia. Part 2 will examine, partly in the light of Paul's epistles to Timothy, Machiavelli's view of Christian man, in his depiction of the friar Timoteo and his flock. Part 3 will make some suggestions about the relationship between morality and the comic theater. But first, Machiavelli's Prologue to Mandragola invites a prologue.


The first stanza of the Prologue to Mandragola expresses hope that the audience will “come to understand a new case born in this city” (noi voglian che s'intenda/un nuovo caso in questa terra nato). The aim of this essay is, in part, to come to an understanding of what this means. In the comedy, as well as in the political writings, the claim to newness must always be understood in relation to something old. A reading of Mandragola should aim to clarify Machiavelli's attitudes toward old things: conventional morality, the conventions of drama, and the conventional purposes of drama.

Italian theater at the time Machiavelli wrote was dominated by the influence of the Roman comic playwrights Terence and Plautus, who modeled their plays on Greek New Comedy. In cities throughout Italy, much time and money were devoted to research and productions, in Latin or in newly prepared translations, of the Roman plays. Machiavelli's letters are peppered with allusions to them, and, like many of his acquaintances, he translated one of these plays (Terence's Andria). In addition to the revivals of Plautus and Terence, the end of the fifteenth and start of the sixteenth centuries saw the growth of a new native genre, the Commedia Erudita, based on the old Roman plots and characters, but self-consciously refusing to be servile to antiquity, and emphasizing such new elements as Italian settings, some indigenous characters, and a modern vernacular language.4 The prologue to Machiavelli's Clizia acknowledges its source as Roman comedy (Plautus's Casina) and implies what Machiavelli's political writings explicitly say: one can benefit from accounts of ancient times because human nature does not change.

Mandragola begins with a conventional address to the audience, one that combines the techniques of both Plautus and Terence. It introduces what appears to be a new play in the style of the Commedia Erudita. The argument draws attention to the conventional street setting, and to the houses of familiar Roman characters—the young lover, the chaste maiden he loves, a foolish old man—and to one familiar modern one, the priest. The heroine's mother bears a name found frequently in the plays of Terence. Early in the play, Machiavelli jokes about his stagey exposition. Later, there are explicit, albeit humorous, references to unity of time, an ancient stage convention that Italian critics came to emphasize in the latter half of the century. The action of the play is more unified in the Roman manner than that in most contemporary plays. Thus, here, as well as in Andria and Clizia, Machiavelli indicates his familiarity with the ancient comic models. But unlike the plots of Andria and Clizia, the plot of Mandragola is original. While it might at first resemble new versions of ancient comedy and another popular new form, the novella of Boccaccio and Cinthio, Machiavelli's “new case born in this city” will prove to be newer in a more serious way than these already conventional novelties.

The fifth and sixth stanzas of the prologue continue to juxtapose old and new things. After the conventional Plautian presentation of the argument, the author begins, more in the defensive and threatening tone of a Terence prologue, to justify the “light material” of this work: no one appreciates and rewards his graver endeavors; this scorn for worthy actions is proof that “in all things, the present age has fallen off from ancient worth” (l'antica virtù). Readers of The Prince and Discourses will recognize a familiar theme from the introductory letters and prologues, and from passages dealing with the significance of the works and the importance of renovating and being reborn.5 Machiavelli's repeated claim is that he will teach his readers new things by presenting them with ancient as well as recent ones. Again and again he urges the imitation of antiquity,6 though, as we shall see, he often presents new versions of these examples for his own purposes. Machiavelli is fully aware of the danger of advocating the rejection of present practices and beliefs for older ones, and of revising old beliefs in order to set forth new ones. Thus, he says at the beginning of the Discourses that “it has always been no less dangerous to find new modes and orders than it has been to look for unknown seas and lands” (D., I., intro.).7

Might the danger of presenting a “new case” explain why the Prologue to Mandragola is so reticent about claiming a didactic purpose, one that might even make its author seem as “wise and grave” as he says he wishes to appear? His contemporaries seem to have discussed widely the Ciceronian injunction that comedy should instruct, as well as entertain, the audience. Donatus's commentaries on Terence, recovered in 1433, repeated this precept and, though it was disregarded and even mocked in many contemporary plays, Machiavelli himself seems to have thought about it. In Clizia, less original in plot than Mandragola, and perhaps less novel in thought as well, the prologue speaks of the play's effect on youth:

Comedies exist to help and to delight the spectators. It is truly very helpful to any man, and especially to young men, to recognize an old man's avarice, a lover's furor, a servant's tricks, a parasite's gluttony, a poor man's misery, a rich man's ambition, a prostitute's flatteries, the little faith of all men.8

However un-Ciceronian the lesson of la poca fede di tutti li uomini may be,9 there is in Clizia, some explicit claim to teach. Similarly, in his “Discourse about Our Language,” Machiavelli says that, although the aim of a comedy is:

to hold up a mirror to private life, nevertheless, its way of doing it is with a certain urbanity and with terms which incite laughter, so that the men who run to that great delight taste afterwards the useful example that is underneath.10

Again, the meaning of “useful” is unclear, but at least the claim is made. One wonders why it is so muted in Mandragola.

Perhaps Machiavelli's reticence about this subject is due to his awareness that the lessons to be drawn from the “new case born in this city” are much more radically new than are those of a new version of a new version of New Comedy—that they differ greatly from the usual poetic attempts of older men to shape the young. If this were so, Machiavelli's comic drama about the “remedy” Mandragola would be as subversive of contemporary beliefs as the drastic “remedies” he discusses in the serious political works. To understand the relationship between these comic and serious remedies, we must see how Machiavelli rejects the older teachings—both ancient (Greek and Roman) and contemporary (Christian)—by presenting his dramatic new case.



In form, Mandragola resembles ancient Roman comedy. But its plot is to be found in ancient Roman history, the very history Machiavelli claims as his subject in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius and that he jokingly connects with Mandragola in the letter to Guicciardini quoted above. To understand what is new and what is old in Machiavelli's play and what he intends to teach, we must compare Livy's account of the rape of the Roman Lucretia and the events that followed with Machiavelli's account of the possession of a Christian Lucrezia and the probable results.11

Let us begin with the husbands. Livy depicts Collatine and his friends as warriors in the “vigor of youth,”12 and their bragging and wager are described as a “boyish prank of the night.”13 These are the men who are soon to rise and overthrow the tyrannical Tarquins, and to establish a republican regime in Rome. The husband in Machiavelli's play, Messer Nicia Calfucci, is an elderly and impotent bourgeois lawyer who is ruled by women and can weep tender tears. His earthy Tuscan speech and his occasional regret that he didn't marry a country girl remind us that he is less sophisticated than the cosmopolitan city-slickers who trick him. Like most loyal citizens, he grumbles about his position in the city, but he is totally attached to Florence—by habit, by his timidity, and by his possessions. He is reluctant to leave, even for a short trip to the baths. He brags about his experience; but his foolishness, his lack of spirit (animo), and his professional concentration on books, render him unfamiliar with the “things of the world” (cose del mondo, III.2). The Prologue tells us he read much, especially in “Buezio.” Machiavelli's strange spelling of Boethius might suggest that Nicia's decency is the sort of bovine mildness that is easily led by the nose. His name ironically suggests that he will be a loser. This essay will suggest that Machiavelli attributes the defeat of Nicia to the nature of his religion, to superstition, and to piety.14

Machiavelli's revised version of the man who would displace Lucretia's husband is more complex. In Mandragola, the hereditary tyrant of Rome is replaced by Callimaco Guadagni, whose ancient Greek and modern Italian names indicate his noble struggle for gain(s). The first song15 seems to associate Callimaco with the unpolitical life. Like the nymphs and shepherds, he has lived for pleasure and comforts. An expatriate since his childhood, he has enjoyed a peaceful private life in Paris while the French king was ravishing his native country. Even in France, as he reminds his servant, Callimaco was unattached to any party or special interests, to any class, or even to any one pastime. When he decided to return home, he easily parted with all his goods. The arguments in which the would-be lovers first hear of the women they desire are also strikingly different. In Livy, strong warrior compatriots sit drinking around a campfire and argue about the virtue and honor of women. In Machiavelli, the “noble warrior” fled from war and heard of Lucrezia, the relative of an acquaintance, at a leisurely international gathering.

Sextus Tarquin returns to Rome alone and steals into Lucretia's home. He threatens to kill and defame her if she doesn't yield, and then rapes her. Lucretia submits in order to live and denounce her assailant, and then kills herself. In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that fraud is preferable to force in achieving the Prince's aims (P., XVIII). Later, he asserts that the man of ability controls Fortune as if “she” were a woman (P., XXV): she must be beaten until she is submissive to the strong man's will. In Mandragola, even a woman is best won not by force, but by fraud. In the new version of the siege of Lucretia, nothing is accomplished by coercion. As Nicia says, his faith in his deceiver is stronger than that of the Hungarians in their swords (II.2). His own little sword is only a comic prop16 and he is swiftly conquered by a bold and risky plot in which the lover wins the cooperation of the husband and his mother-in-law, and finally, of the woman he desires. In place of the death of the dishonored Lucretia and the subsequent banishment and death of her violator, Machiavelli shows the continued life and honor of Lucrezia and her lover, and promises another life as the fruit of their liaison. Instead of the overthrow of a tyranny and its replacement by a republic, we see a thoroughly private man secure the pleasures that even a successful tyrant must usually forgo. Machiavelli's Florence is unaware of and unshaken by the acquisition of a new domain by the usurper, Callimaco Guadagni. Both lust and tyranny desire without limit, but, as Machiavelli suggests elsewhere, the private man can better afford to risk satisfying unlimited sexual desires. In this respect, the “regime” of the potent lover is less limited than that of the greatest potentate. The man in whom love plays the tyrant is the most tyrannical man. We must further explore Callimaco's relation to Machiavelli's great princes.

Although Callimaco is energetic and intelligent, he is unable to achieve by himself what he wants. As a result of his desperate passion, he is moody, frenzied, and even foolish. At one point, he contemplates suicide as an alternative to risky plots. His reason is dedicated to serving an irresistible desire that sometimes reduces him to confusion. This confusion is uncharacteristic of Machiavelli's greatest rulers. Callimaco is perhaps more like those second-level intelligences in The Prince who can discern and make use of what others understand (P., XXV). Thus, he acquires an advisor who exercises virtù analogous to that exhibited by the most outstanding men. It is Ligurio (the “gloater” or the “tyer-up”) who pulls the strings of the intrigue. He calls himself capitano and arranges his “army” (IV.9) to carry out this conspiracy. When Callimaco's animo fails, it is Ligurio who always thinks of a “remedy.” Machiavelli plays down the gluttony of the Roman and Italian parasites on whom Ligurio is superficially modeled,17 and emphasizes his sheer delight in imposing his will on others: “Your blood is in accord with mine and I desire for you to satisfy this desire of yours almost as much as you do yourself” (I.3). Machiavelli never allows him a soliloquy. This enhances his independence and authority, while depriving his companions and the audience of any clear knowledge of his motives. He feels a vague kinship with Callimaco, but his desire clearly has nothing to do with sex. As a former marriage broker, he knows the natures of men and women. Playing on the beliefs and desires of greedy, gullible, and fearful people, he plots with prudence, courage, and secrecy. He acts swiftly, spending the money of others, and, in Lucrezia's case, changes the nature of the conquered in order to secure his aims. By the end of the play, he has won not only the previously denied privilege of dining with Nicia but also the keys to his house. If Callimaco is the new “ruler” in that house, Ligurio has ruled the ruler. Thus, he is closely akin to another advisor of princes, Machiavelli himself.

Like the projects of Machiavelli's able princes and unlike Tarquin's, Callimaco's plot succeeds because the conspirators provide that their “good” or “advantage” (bene) benefits others. Thus, the remedy for Callimaco's unbearable discomfort coincides with the remedy for Nicia's and Lucrezia's childlessness. Nicia is not so simply a loser as his name might at first suggest. The same remedy relieves the pecuniary difficulties of Frate Timoteo and Ligurio. The remedy, of course, is not the medicinal Mandragola, but, as the song after Act Three says, “The trick [inganno] Oh remedy high and rare.”

At first, Callimaco, like many tyrants, cares only for pleasure and the satisfaction of present selfish desires. But, like Machiavelli's prudent princes, and unlike ordinary tyrants—a word never used in The Prince—Callimaco exercises restraint and thinks ahead. Although he doesn't hesitate to take another man's wife, he is not a conventional Don Juan. He is an adulterer but not a libertine. Unlike the Don, Callimaco proves his superiority by secretly succeeding in his conquest, not by flaunting a series of violations and, thus, courting his own fall. He will remain an undercover captain for as long as is necessary. But before the play is over, Callimaco has promised to be the godfather of his natural child and to marry that child's mother when her husband dies. The marriage proposal is his own addition to Ligurio's plan. The conquest, which must be enjoyed secretly at first, finally will be legitimate and Callimaco publicly will acknowledge himself the master of Messer Nicia's household.

Although Callimaco plans for the continuing satisfaction of his present desires, his success is limited by the limits of the field of action he has chosen. He himself recognizes the temporary character of his success:

and if this happiness couldn't fail either through death or through time, I would be more blessed than the blessed, more saintly than the saints


Though he can manipulate men and women and even Fortune, he cannot conquer death or time. This, above all, distinguishes Callimaco from the new princes whom Machiavelli discusses elsewhere. The language of love in Machiavelli's plays is derived from the language of war, and love itself is a battle to prevail.18 But, because the conspirators invest all their talents and spirit in an undercover struggle for acquisition, there is no immortal glory for the victors. In Machiavelli's political works, the greatest prince eventually organizes everything anew in order to insure that the regime he founds will outlive him. The Discourses indicates that this is most possible in a glorious and longlived republic. Love can only be a second-best activity for men like Callimaco (and Ligurio) who have forsworn politics. Where the end is a woman, there can be only an approximation of the struggles and successes of noble captains of men. Marital affairs are only a pale parody of martial ones.

Although Callimaco cannot be simply equated with the political men of virtù whom Machiavelli describes in other works, his new case does clarify some of the most difficult questions raised by those books. First, the play vividly presents individuals who embody the view of human nature on which Machiavelli's political teaching is based. Even though this presentation of human nature seems less harsh than the general statements in The Prince, the low desires of Timoteo, Nicia, Sostrata, and the anonymous Donna are the same as those of the subjects the prince might rule. According to a notorious remark of Machiavelli, men forget more quickly the death of their fathers than the loss of what they inherit from their fathers (P., XVII). The play clearly indicates that Nicia's tender anticipation of fatherhood grows out of his concern for his estate: he wants an heir. Nicia and all of Machiavelli's people are characterized by an overriding concern for themselves. The play demonstrates this structurally. Many scenes begin or end with one of the conspirators spying on or doubting the loyalty of one of his fellows.

Concern for oneself seems to increase with virtù. The most striking thing about Callimaco is his detachment. Having lost his father as a child, and having no attachment to his fatherland, he is willing to father a child whose true connection to him will never be revealed. In addition to lacking country, parents, and brothers, Callimaco is a man without friends. In this he differs from the young lovers in the Roman plays. Ligurio is a recent acquaintance and an inferior. The former Paris companions are never mentioned in connection with Callimaco after the first scene. The goal for which Callimaco temporarily unites with others aptly indicates Machiavelli's view of human existence as an isolated struggle to prevail: success in the winning of a woman is unshareable. Love is often thought to be ennobling because it makes the lover less self-regarding. But sexual fulfillment for Callimaco is not characterized by affectionate union for the partner. Although he is called a “lover,” and although the song after Act Two speaks conventionally of “loving another more than oneself,” Callimaco's love for Lucrezia, like hers for him, is severely limited. They share their victory over a third party. She is attracted by his ingenuity and virility, which so contrast with the frustrating incapacity of her husband. He is attracted by the challenge of her resistance. In his plotting and in his success, his attention is always fixed upon himself. Mandragola presents the people among whom one lives primarily as the means and objects of one's desires. Love, friendship, and family affection are all contracted into self-interest.

The dominating principle of self-interest is seen even more starkly in the comedy than in the works with public subjects. In the latter, the common good of patriotism sometimes seems to mitigate Machiavelli's harsh view of selfish human nature and his advocacy of the extreme self-assertion of the prince. If Machiavelli plays down the force of fatherly feelings and filial affections, he certainly advocates the exaltation of the fatherland. The higher “common” good of patriotism thus seems to justify the harsh and questionable means said to be necessary for political ends. In the political writings, Machiavelli does not deny the distinction between good and evil acts. Rather, he emphasizes the need to weigh alternatives and make choices. Mandragola also articulates this utilitarian principle, but the play's effect is to collapse the distinction. Conventionally evil behavior is presented as good.19 The principles of The Prince are equally successful in high public and in low private affairs. Machiavelli goes out of his way to emphasize that the protagonist of his play is an unpatriotic man. The common good of the play is nothing more than the sum of the private goods and desires of the conspiring individuals. Finally, in the political realm, the true and lasting success of the leader(s) requires that they improve the subjects whose desires they must satisfy. Callimaco and Ligurio show no such concern.


Let us now examine more closely Machiavelli's attitude toward the traditional virtue whose value is obscured in the course of the play. Machiavelli's treatment of sexual transgression and its corresponding opposite, chastity, can be taken as a measure of his attitude toward vice and virtue in general.20 An examination of relevant passages in the political works will show how the play also rejects traditional ancient (Aristotelian and Roman) and Christian notions of moral virtue.

In The Prince and in the Discourses, Machiavelli warns against violating the honor of the wives and daughters of one's subjects.21 He approves of Scipio's behavior in Spain, where he returned a daughter to her father, and a young wife to her husband (D., III, 20). Machiavelli says that Scipio imitated the “chastity, affability, humanity, liberality” of Xenophon's Cyrus (P., XIV). But one can see from the references to Scipio that a leader's concern with the virtue of women is merely political, a means by which the virtù of men can prevail. Scipio's “chastity” is an example of the calculated exhibition of a moral virtue that the people wish to see in great men. The people are so attached to such virtues that Scipio's return of the women, the most jealously guarded of men's possessions, was more effective than force would have been. Thus, as the conversationalists in Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier agree, Scipio's “continence” was only a kind of “military stratagem.”22 For Machiavelli, as for Cyrus, chastity is not valued for its own sake. The Prince makes clear that it is the appearance of virtue that insures support for a leader. Furthermore, Machiavelli even argues openly elsewhere that Scipio's “virtues” were not always as effective as Hannibal's “rapine” (D., III.21).

These remarks about Scipio should be kept in mind when evaluating Machiavelli's strange unique reference to Aristotle as the authority for the view that “among the first causes of the ruins of tyrants [is] their having injured others with respect to their women, either by raping them or by violating them or by breaking marriages.” (D., III.26).23 At this point he attributes the falls of Tarquin and the Decemvir Appius Claudius to their misconduct in this respect. However, other passages about Tarquin and Appius, whose experiences are closer than Scipio's or Hannibal's to the one dramatized in Mandragola, comment differently on the falls of these unchaste men.

Machiavelli discusses the fall of Appius Claudius, but he minimizes the outrage of his attempts to violate Virginia. Livy parallels the expulsions of the Tarquins and the Decemvirs and deals with the Virginia episode at great length. He reports the moral indignation of Virginia's friends and betrothed, and describes Appius's “crime” and “lust” and his attraction, like that of Tarquin for Lucretia, to the girl's modesty and beauty.24 The Roman historian seems to agree with Virginia's father that chaste death is preferable to sullied life. The Roman people believe that Appius's ruin is due, in part, to the anger of the gods. In contrast, Machiavelli mentions Virginia only in passing, as another cause of disturbances when the insatiable Appius attempted to exercise his tyranny. Appius's greater, though perhaps related, defect was one of military stratagem: “being cruel and rough in commanding, he was badly obeyed by his troops” (D., III.19). There is no suggestion of divine punishment for tyrannical lust.

Machiavelli tacitly comments on Livy's version of Lucretia both in his play and in his account of the episode in the Discourses. In the latter, he omits all of the passionate outrage found in Livy, and also present in Ovid's account and in Boccaccio's De Claris Mulieribus. There is no anger about the violation of a grave Roman matron's honor. Contrary to Machiavelli's later statement, the rape of Lucretia was not even the major cause of the fall of the Roman tyrant. It simply provided the first occasion for Romans to react

decisively to continued deprivation of their liberties: Tarquin was not driven from Rome because his son Sextus had raped Lucretia, but because he had broken the laws of the kingdom and governed it tyrannically.

(D., III.5)

In shifting the emphasis, Machiavelli says seriously in the political treatise what the play depicts comically: chastity, like the other moral virtues, is a matter of political prudence to be judged according to the situation.

Machiavelli's teachings thus differ greatly from those of the authority he cites on the subject of women. Whatever Aristotle's conclusions may be about the ultimate status of moral virtue, his rhetoric is conservative of such virtue. The passage to which Machiavelli refers is found in book 5 of the Politics, in the discussion of how the various regimes can preserve themselves. Aristotle's advice to tyrants—much of which Machiavelli transmits to his own prince—is stated in such a way as to make tyranny less bad, to move it toward the more virtuous monarchical regime. Perhaps his warnings against violating the women of subjects should be read in conjunction with an earlier passage from the Ethics. In his earliest definition of virtue as a mean, he emphatically states the opinion that some actions and passions do not admit of means, that they are bad in themselves:

nor is [acting] well or not well about such things a matter of [for example] with whom, and when, and how one commits adultery, but simply doing any of these whatever is to go astray.25

Although he repeatedly cautions against absolute rules in moral and political matters, he does seem to approve of the opinion that there are some deeds that are base, even if justifiable in extreme circumstances. He discusses such circumstances with great delicacy.

Machiavelli's writings openly teach the use of virtue and vice in clever alternation; no deed is ruled out. His play celebrates adultery, and the Discourses approve of worse crimes in some circumstances. The founding of Rome, made possible by fratricide, also required the rapes of Rhea and the Sabine women. Machiavelli does not mention these rapes but one can assume he could justify them if necessary. Interestingly, Callimaco's description of his talk with Lucrezia sounds something like Livy's Romulus wooing the Sabines after they have been taken by force.26 Callimaco's tricky seduction is, of course, a more efficient way to get and keep one woman.

It is interesting that Machiavelli does not mention the famous adultery of King David, whom he holds up for imitation in the political books.27 For David, as for Callimaco, there is no common or national good that could justify his treatment of Uriah and Bathsheba. Nathan faults the biblical David, not for impurity, but for injustice, and the king admits his lack of pity. But Machiavelli ignores the personal and political troubles which the biblical narrative seems to connect with this incident. Perhaps Machiavelli's edited account of David means to suggest that the very greatest princes might ignore Aristotle's and his own warning about women.

Leaving Machiavelli's views of chastity, as seen through his version of the Lucretia story, we turn to a famous Christian commentary on the incident. In The City of God, Saint Augustine, upholding the value of chastity, exonerates Lucretia from any blame for having been overcome by Tarquin. Like the authors of the many medieval examples based on her story, Augustine asserts that a woman's most precious possession is her sexual purity. He recognizes that Lucretia was chaste in intention and was violated against her will. But he does fault her for her characteristic pagan attachment to worldly honor. Christian women, similarly violated, would suffer patiently and would neither postpone nor pursue death to preserve their reputations: “They have the glory of chastity within them, the testimony of their conscience. They have this in the sight of God, and they ask for nothing more.”28

Machiavelli's Lucrezia begins as a Christian version of Livy's idealized Roman matron. She abandons the chastity of her namesake, but shares her pagan concern for honor. She lives to enjoy continued sexual infidelities with an untroubled conscience, but is careful to preserve her reputation, that is, the appearance of honor, as well. While both imitating and revising the Roman example, Machiavelli thoroughly rejects the Christian view.

Paul and Augustine preach the moral virtue of chastity because powerful sexual attractions, and even marriage, distract the Christian's attention from his primary concern with God and the eternal afterlife. If, to avoid worse distractions, one must marry, the marriage must be chaste. In a theology whose central notion is love, deviation and failure are aptly described as fornication and adultery. The great Christian poets whom Machiavelli's contemporaries revered depict love for a woman as an image of the divine love to which man's soul aspires. Dante's Beatrice is unattainable except in the life hereafter, and even there she is a temporary stop on the way to a love that no longer desires. This Christian view, reinforced with Renaissance Platonism, emerges as the ideal courtly love in The Book of the Courtier. The formulation is given after strict injunctions to faithfulness of wives to husbands, no matter how badly matched two partners are,29 and after rejections of deceit in courtship.30

Therefore let us direct all the thoughts and powers of our souls to this most holy light, that shows us the path leading to heaven; and, following after it and divesting ourselves of those passions wherewith we were clothed when we fell, by the ladder that bears the image of sensual beauty at its lowest rung, let us ascend to the lofty mansion where heavenly, lovely, and true beauty dwells, which lies hidden in the inmost secret recesses of God, so that profane eyes cannot behold it. Here we shall find a most happy end to our desires, true rest from our labors, the sure remedy for our miseries, most wholesome medicine for our illnesses, safest refuge from the dark storms of life's tempestuous sea.31

Machiavelli's remedy is a direct attack on the views that come together in The Courtier. Boldly, he introduces Callimaco as an outstanding example of “courtesy” (gentilezza). But the object of Callimaco's love is only a beautiful and virtuous woman. There is no indication that she represents anything more than that; he never speaks of her as the embodiment of a perfect ideal. Concentrating on “the things of the world” (D., Intro. letter), Machiavelli abandons the quest for the City of God to speak about cities of men as they are, not as they ought to be. He follows Boccaccio's example in another new genre, and exalts the natural and present pleasures of sex.32 He recognizes that most men must abide by sexual regulations as he means to avoid the related evils of striving and strife. Thus, the Romans were wise to forbid mere mortals to indulge in the philandering of Jupiter, and Moses's Decalogue prudently included a prohibition against adultery. But Machiavelli's play shows that, if one can indulge one's sexual desires secretly and with impunity, and even satisfy the desires of others in doing so, there is nothing inherently wrong with lust: purity is not a prime value for men or women. Part 2 of this chapter will continue to explore the relationship between Machiavelli's rejection of Christianity and his teachings about politics and sex.


One of the most interesting members of the conspiracy to invade and conquer Messer Nicia's domain is Frate Timoteo, who makes possible Callimaco's first evening with Lucrezia. Since Machiavelli's discussions of ancient Rome often include or imply radical critiques of modern Rome, of the principles and effects of Christianity, it is important to understand how his invention of this completely new character, a modern Christian priest, figures in this new version of the ancient story of Lucretia.

On May 17, 1521, when he was ambassador to the Friars Minor in Capri, Machiavelli wrote to Guicciardini how, while sitting on a privy, he had contemplated the preacher he would like for Florence. Just as he has never lacked a republic, at least in thought, so he can now imagine a preacher. But, as in his other opinions, he will be “obstinate,” and his view will differ from that of the other citizens:

They would like a preacher who would show them the road to Paradise, and I should like to find one who would teach them the way to go to the house of the Devil; they would like, besides, that he should be a man prudent, blameless and true; and I should like to find one crazier than Ponzo, more crafty than Fra Girolamo, more of a hypocrite than Frate Alberto … because I believe the true way of going to Paradise would be to learn the road to Hell in order to avoid it.33

The stage friar Machiavelli creates for Florence is indeed crafty and hypocritical. Under the guise of Christian piety, he teaches the road to hell. But in Machiavelli's play, neither the Frate's flock nor the Florentine audience to whom this road is shown is counseled to avoid it.34 In fact, like many of Machiavelli's other works, the play does not seriously dwell on the existence of hell—or of sin, conscience, or immortal souls. Timoteo's traditional Christian authority is depicted as serving private and profane aims contrary to traditional Christian beliefs. He is described initially as an “ill-living friar” (frate mal vissuto); an audience would expect him to resemble the hypocritical friars so often condemned in Renaissance literature. But as the play progresses, the ends of his participation in the conspiracy are repeatedly referred to as “beni.” The good is now synonymous with the advantageous. By redefining “the good,” Machiavelli's play rejects the Christian notion that “an evil man out of his evil treasure” will always bring forth evil.35 A closer look at his Christians will show why.

Frate Timoteo's greatest influence seems to be with women. We first see him in a crowd of women speaking with one widow (Ill.3). As we soon realize, this widow's religious belief is really belief in the priest's authority, or belief in his beliefs. Thus, she asks in the same tone whether the priest believes (credete voi?) her husband is in purgatory and, shortly after, whether he believes (credete voi?) the Turks will pass through Italy this year. The latter question, which also reveals her frightened belief in rumors about Turkish torture, is one that amused Machiavelli when the womanish Friars Minor discussed it with him.36

But Frate Timoteo is no ordinary weak friar. Believing that “all women have few brains” (Ill.9), he manipulates Sostrata, who believes everything he says, and finally even Lucrezia, who doubts him. The only man who trusts Timoteo is Messer Nicia. Although he, too, thinks women are stupid, he is soft and credulous like them. As he gains “faith” in the false doctor Callimaco, Nicia says he trusts him as much as his confessor (II.6). Although Nicia is not a devout practicing Christian, he has been brought up in the Church and maintains an attachment to it. Machiavelli seems to suggest that Italian Christianity, along with Nicia's indolent bourgeois life, has made him impotent in more than one way and, therefore, subject to the deceits of more vigorous men.

Here, as elsewhere, Machiavelli indicates that the virtues, as taught by Christianity, appeal to and cultivate the feminine in human nature.37 To Machiavelli, those like the friars, who might be said to have “made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,”38 are no different from women. Christian virtue thrives on peace and indoor activities, and teaches brotherhood and submissive obedience to authority. The strife that arises in modern times, like that mentioned in the play between Christians and Turks, or between Florence and France over papal alliances, is between conflicting religious parties. It may be especially fierce and bloody, but it is carried out in the name at least of future peace and love. Machiavelli sees these aims as unattainable and regards attempts to achieve them as likely to produce even worse disorders than the pre-Christian world endured. In place of this effeminate, even impotent, humane notion of human virtue and the evils it gives rise to, Machiavelli would substitute the vigorous antica virtù that he admires in the Romans. He would like to see this virtù—with all the implications of virility in its Latin root—born anew in his city.39 This renaissance would be accompanied by an ardent love of liberty and independence, and by the ability to defend oneself and one's domain. In this renewal, the virtues taught by religion and treasured by the common people, especially women, would or would not be employed by strong men, according to their aims and circumstances.

Timoteo's first association with the conspirators is the abortion ruse. After this first test, he virtually contracts himself to cooperate with Callimaco and Ligurio. It is soon clear that Timoteo uses popular religious beliefs and fears to further his own ends. He pretends to the women that he learns how to act by studying books, but unlike Nicia and ordinary friars, he is familiar with the “things of the world.” This is underlined by his allusions to time, which are surprisingly frequent for a man whose traditional focus might be expected to be on eternity.40 Like Savonarola, Timoteo is crafty. Although he ceaselessly inveighed against the worldly-wise, the great Florentine preacher may, according to Machiavelli, have availed himself of their methods. Unlike the Roman augurs, Savonarola was a Christian and preached in an enlightened city. But like them, he gained the confidence of the people through references to supernatural powers. Numa claims he spoke with a nymph, whereas “The people of Florence … were persuaded by Frate Girolamo Savonarola that he spoke with God” (D., I.11). Machiavelli does not comment further on the truth of the belief Savonarola inspired.

Timoteo, too, combines worldly virtù with Christianity. We know that his miracles are man-made. Like mandragola, they are contrived by astute men to manipulate beliefs and, thus, events, as they desire. Just as Callimaco's “remedy” works only because Nicia has faith in him, the Frate's miracles work because of his ability to inspire belief, faith, and trust. The connection between the success of “miracles” and the ability of the people involved is nicely presented in Clizia. At one point, Sofronia's credulous husband refers to the characters of Mandragola and to Timoteo's success when he prayed that Lucrezia might have a child. Sofronia, who prays for a miracle on her own behalf and then manipulates her husband's beliefs to insure that it occurs, knows how the Frate works miracles. Like other prudent and competent people in Machiavelli's works, he relies only on himself.41 Like the Romans, Timoteo knows the value of religion that is “used well” (D., I. 13, 14, 15). Thus, he recognizes that the reputation of a miracle-working Madonna depends on the friars, and that they have been lax. Repeating the words he uses about women, he remarks that his friars have “few brains” (V.1). For Machiavelli, the only miracle in Mandragola might be one like that referred to in his chapter on conspiracies in the Discourses: “When one [a conspiracy] has been kept secret among many men for a long time it is held to be a miraculous thing” (D., III.6).

The debunking of miracles is accompanied by the parody or distorted use of religious language throughout the play. In the hymnlike song to trickery, inganno is not only the “remedy high and rare,” which Nicia supposes is Mandragola; it is also the means of true salvation:

you show the straight path to wandering souls; you with your great valor, in making someone blessed you make Love rich. You conquer, with your holy counsels alone, stones, venoms, and enchantments.

Similarly, the song after Act Four asserts that “holy” Night is the only cause that makes souls blessed. The only passione in the play is the one that makes Lucrezia sweat (III.11), and the adulterous “mystery” is watched over by Saint Cuckoo and the Angel Raphael. Perhaps Machiavelli is playing upon the angel's name, which means “God has healed” (emphasis added).42 The match between Lucrezia and Callimaco, which is arranged by the marriage broker Ligurio, is solemnized in church by Frate Timoteo. This solemn blessing and Callimaco's consent to be the baby's godfather are further blasphemies Machiavelli suggests in connection with his new preacher.

Timoteo must accomplish several seductions of his own to earn the alms he desires. Like Machiavelli's men of virtù, he makes no attempt to raise his parishioners to unattainable standards. He never exhorts them to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”43 Rather he descends to the level of Sostrata (“substratum”) and uses her to attain his purpose. Lucrezia's mother speaks often of her “conscience,” which is eased as soon as the priest assures her that the proposed act is not sinful. Like Callimaco and the “good companions” (buon compagni) of the Prologue, she is a buona compagna (I.1) at heart. She herself expresses the principle of choosing “the best among bad courses” (de cattivi partiti il migliore, III.1), and advises her daughter to relax and enjoy her evening. Lucrezia, however, whose nature is alien to love (le cose d'amore) and amusements, requires a discussion about sin and conscience. Timoteo's arguments are based on the Machiavellian premise of no absolute good or evil, or as the Frate says, “It is the truth that there is no honey without flies” (III.4).44 Early in the play he accepts Ligurio's argument for abortion because the “good [bene] is what does good for the most people” (III.4). Ligurio begins “I believe” and articulates a utilitarian definition of good that replaces the moral virtues traditionally taught by religion. This new credo is blessed by Timoteo and developed in subsequent discussions with Lucrezia.

The Frate's rhetoric is calculated to lead her “to my wishes” (III.9). He begins with the argument that strange and fearful things seem normal and acceptable when we are used to them (III.11). “As to the conscience,” he generalizes that a “certain good [bene] is always preferable to an uncertain evil” (III.11). Despite his willingness to condone an abortion earlier, he now emphasizes the good deed of creating another soul for the Lord. Later, in private, he, too, seems uneasy about his actions, but again he rationalizes them by the “great good” (bene, IV.6) that will come from the evils of deceit, adultery, and his own desire for money.

With Lucrezia, however, he denies that the act is a sin. This belief, he declares, is a “fable” (favola). We might think here of the stories teaching that chastity is inviolable, like those in Livy, Ovid, or the medieval exemplary fables. At this point, Timoteo repeats some of the pleas of the original Lucretia's husband and friends, who beg her not to despair. Timoteo's argument that “the will is what sins, not the body” is almost a parody of the extended discussion of Lucretia's chastity in The City of God:

“A paradox! There were two persons involved and only one committed adultery.” Finely and truly said. The speaker observed in the union of two bodies the disgusting lechery of the one, the chaste intention of the other, and he saw in that act not the conjunction of their bodies but the diversity of their minds. There were two persons involved, but only one committed adultery.45

The Frate advises the Christian Lucrezia that, since her will does not approve, she should willingly sleep with the stranger.

Timoteo does not differ from the other conspirators with respect to the conscience. Siro seems to have none; he'd enjoy seeing Nicia cuckolded as long as the dupers are not caught (II.4). Nicia never mentions his conscience. He regrets having to harm the young man, but is mainly concerned with discovery by the Eight, the Florentine criminal tribunal. Ligurio has no regrets before or after his trick. And Callimaco, though he briefly wonders whether he'll be punished in the hereafter, decides, like Castruccio Castracani, that there are many good people in hell (IV.1).46 As in Machiavelli's more serious works, nothing need burden the conscience if one is not discovered in an immoral act. Only the imprudent have need of repentance.

Timoteo prefers another favola to demonstrate that “the end is to be regarded in all things” (III.1). This, of course, is a precept Machiavelli puts forth in The Prince while denying that there is any higher judgment for consciences to look to (P., XV). The Frate's “end” is, as usual, quite different from the end to which Christians look. Timoteo cites the story of Lot's daughters in Genesis and argues that they were not disobedient to God and should not be blamed. Rather, they acted prudently, sacrificing their personal virtue for another end: the good, or the advantage, of the greatest number. Lucrezia has already told her mother that nothing could justify the adultery to her, even if she were responsible for the continuation of the whole human race (III.10). Her confessor assures her that, “because their [Lot's daughters'] intention was good, they did not sin” (III.11). He glibly approves of an act that biblical commentaries hesitate even to discuss. The narrator of the account in Genesis tells us that these incestuous unions between a drunken father and his calculating daughters produced the infamous Moabites and Ammonites.

In his depiction of Timoteo, Machiavelli takes liberties with the Christian Bible as well as with the Hebrew. His new preacher is not like the members of “new orders” such as the Franciscans and Dominicans (D., III.1) who try to return to the original principles of their religion. Nor are his ends those of Savonarola who attempted, but failed, to restore Christian faith through “new modes and orders” (P., VI). On the contrary, Machiavelli's new preacher seems to reject what his own religion stood for in its beginnings. This may be indicated in his name, which appears to be more than an ironic joke about his failure to “honor God.” In the New Testament, Timothy is the recipient of two letters from Saint Paul, who describes him elsewhere: “I have no one like him who will be genuinely anxious for your welfare. They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ. But Timothy's worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served me in the Gospel.”47 Paul recognizes in Timothy a young man who will take up the Apostle's mission now that Paul is approaching his own end. What does Paul expect from the Timothys who will follow him? Most of the first epistle is devoted to the problems of church administration and the behavior of clerics. It also speaks at length of the modesty of women, especially of widows like the one Timoteo counsels in his first appearance. Although woman transgressed, she “will be saved through bearing children if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.”48 Finally, the letter contains the famous warning that “love of money is the root of all evils.”49 Machiavelli is well aware of the evils that originate in avarice, but his depiction of Timoteo and his discussions in the political writings make clear the differences between his attitudes and Paul's.

From his first appearance, to the last scene of the play, Timoteo is depicted in the act of receiving money. The Frate's desire for private wealth is not emphasized, for reasons discussed below, but the likely abuse of the responsibility to collect money for others is evident to Machiavelli, who repeatedly refers to the prominent place of greed in human nature. He is deeply critical of teachings and institutions that do little to mitigate the evils of human nature while ineffectively exhorting men to purify themselves in anticipation of an afterlife. The Frate's position shows what Machiavelli sees as a tension between prescriptions of otherworldliness and poverty on the one hand, and the injunction to minister to one's flock on the other. He also thinks that love of money need not be the root of all evils. The Frate's aim is clearly money, but in this play its use is not specified. Timoteo's continuing personal good depends on the good of his parishioners, and so he aims at a Machiavellian arrangement of mutual self-interest: some of the money will be used to maintain belief by acts of charity. Thus, Machiavelli suggests that Timoteo's love of money may result in some goods—though not in Paul's sense—as well as evils. The same would be even more true of unfettered political leaders in uncorrupt states. While avoiding the amassing of private fortunes and the concomitant growth of faction, luxury, and indolence, a prudent leader can guide his state to glory and power by the judicious management of money and men's love for it.

Mandragola should also be read in conjunction with Paul's second epistle to Timothy:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. For among them are those who make their way into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and swayed by various impulses, who will listen to anybody and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth.50

Machiavelli's Timothy is an instrument and ally of “such people” and he knowingly ignores the epistle's advice to the soldiers of God “not to get entangled in civilian pursuits.”51

Machiavelli gives us revised versions of characters from old books. Perhaps his boldest innovation is his presentation of an unholy family in the act of conception. Instead of a divine lover who “took our infirmities, bore our diseases” by fathering a baby,52 we see a cunning “doctor” visit a chaste wife's bed at night under cover of the grotesque mandragola story, leaving the participants feeling “reborn” the next morning. In Machiavelli's renaissance and renewal, men who know this world rely on themselves alone, not on hopes of being saved.53

Those who believe that Machiavelli was a believing Christian will question the identification of Timoteo with his creator. Such readers might protest that the distortions of religion by a stage character are not Machiavelli's and that the author is attacking only institutional corruption and not the principles of the religion itself. They might remind us that thoughtful readers of dramatic dialogue always assume that no character is speaking for the author; relaxing this assumption would be like attributing to Molière the casuistic blasphemies of Tartuffe, something Molière goes to great lengths to deny in his defensive and moralistic preface to that play. But, as we have seen, Machiavelli is curiously unassertive about the conventional moral lessons to be drawn from this play. He does not claim—because he cannot—as Molière does, that he has removed all that might confuse good with evil.54

Like Ligurio, Timoteo is introduced as a familiar stock character. But just as the conventional parasite metamorphoses into a version of Machiavelli's capitano, Timoteo turns out to be like Machiavelli's projected preacher for Florence. The frate mal vissuto of the Prologue is not presented as an evil and disgusting example to alienate the audience. Compared to his brother friars in the works of Machiavelli's contemporaries, Timoteo is remarkably reserved. For example, there is no indication that the Frate enjoys luxurious food and clothing or women, and he is scrupulous about performing his formal duties. Productions that present him as a repulsive sensualist who paws Lucrezia, misunderstand Machiavelli's intent. He is not like Boccaccio's Frate Alberto; nor is he an Italian model for Tartuffe. George Meredith thought that “The Frate Timoteo of this piece is only a very oily Friar compliantly assisting an intrigue with ecclesiastical sophisms (to use the mildest word) for payment.”55 But, as we have seen, he is shrewder and more self-controlled than the usual Tartuffes, and, as a result, he is a far greater threat to the religion he professes; for, like Ligurio, what he really wants is not bodily pleasure, but money and the satisfaction of manipulating his fellow beings.

Although Machiavelli is amused at his friar's hypocrisy, and recognizes that the Frate is used by better men, he does share the credo articulated by Ligurio and affirmed by the Frate. This is evident from the song about trickery which immediately follows Timoteo's long discussion with Lucrezia in Act Three. The song is Machiavelli's: it comes between the acts as a comment on the action. The remainder of this essay will be devoted to Machiavelli's role as a teacher of youth and to his use of comedy as a vehicle to instruct the audience in the ways of Timoteo and Ligurio.


Like the Platonic Socrates and like Saint Paul, Machiavelli is, in his political writings, self-conscious and explicit about his relationship to the young. His aim is to substitute his teachings of “new modes and orders” for the teachings of earlier writers. The Prince and the Discourses are written treatises. Although they differ in form, magnitude, and emphasis, they are alike in that they are books with public subjects which are addressed to readers who will study them privately. The busy young ruler to whom Machiavelli dedicates The Prince read this short terse handbook and learn the Machiavellian mode of acquiring and maintaining a state. The longer and more rambling Discourses are dedicated to two friends of the author, young gentlemen worthy to be princes, who will peruse the volumes at their leisure. Machiavelli's stated intention is to inspire these readers to carry his project to its “destined place” (D., I. pref.). In the introduction to the second book, he hopes to excite the minds of the young who will outlive him:

For it is the duty of a good man to teach others that good which, through the malignity of the times and of fortune, he has not been able to perform; so that, many capable ones hearing of it, some of them, more loved by heaven, might be able to perform it.

(D., II. intro.)

These political books are also, in a way, about the young, since youth and vigor, although they do not guarantee virtù, are likely to be accompanied by it. Machiavelli says that Fortune, which always figures in the outcome of events, is “the young man's friend” (P., XXV), and he admires “those who had the honors of triumph when very young men” (D., I.600).

Mandragola differs from the treatises in being a publicly presented work with a private subject. The hostile Prologue, as Guicciardini suggested, says more about the author than about his audience,56 and cannot be considered a dedication. But the identity of this audience is of the utmost importance in understanding Machiavelli's intent. Insofar as Mandragola has the same aim as the political writings, it too is addressed to the young, to those who are not yet fully formed. Machiavelli's audience is composed of young gentlemen, like Buondelmonte and Rucellai of the Discourses, who frequented the social and cultural gatherings in the courts and great houses of Italian cities. In Urbino, they participated in soirées of the sort depicted in Castiglione's Courtier; in Florence, they gathered for discussions with Marsilio Ficino in the court of Lorenzo de' Medici, or, more recently, with Machiavelli himself in the Rucellai gardens. And they attended productions of Roman and contemporary plays. In extreme contrast to the Athenian theater, which was financed and supervised as a civic event for the whole city and its visitors, these court productions were financed and presided over by private patrons like the Duke of Ferrara for a small number of invited guests, often for a private celebration like the wedding of Lucrezia Borgia. They took place in “small, ornate, secluded halls, removed not only from external nature, but from the view, indeed even from the consciousness, of all but those selected few who were permitted to enter them.”57

Mandragola is not intended directly to reach the public at large. But the particular coterie to whom the play is addressed is one whose attitudes and future actions will have the greatest effect on the wider community. For these elite young gentlemen are the future princes or, in the right circumstances, the future republican leaders, of Italy. The circumstances under which Machiavelli wrote make all his writings political events. What he says must always be considered in the context of what he could say. It is thus necessary to pay the utmost attention to the sources to whom he attributes his teachings, that is, to the dramatic characters in his political books. The genre of Mandragola makes it the most public of his attempts to teach the young.58 It also permits Machiavelli to say everything, for in a drama, the author himself says nothing.

Machiavelli's concern with the young is especially evident in The Art of War, which should be considered with Mandragola. Like the play, it is a dialogue in which the author never speaks. These two dramatic works are vehicles for the same principles Machiavelli sets forth in the political books, but their forms make these teachings more palatable, and hence, more publishable. In the lightest and in the gravest pursuits, the core of Machiavelli's teachings about justice is commonly acknowledged: all's fair in love and war. In the political books, not published during the author's lifetime, we learn that the true prince is as self-serving as a lover and as ruthless as a military capitano.

The Art of War is a technical handbook; its comments on Christianity, justice, and leadership are absorbed as the reader pores over military stratagems. The dialogue is clearly concerned with the young. Old Fabrizio Colonna converses in the Rucellai gardens with elite young men who will learn from him to revive ancient military practices. Like Machiavelli, Fabrizio won't live to see the enterprise through. The youngest questioner wishes to see the imagined army in action. Fabrizio's exchanges with him seem to parody Socrates' discussions with other young men about an imagined city: Fabrizio's projections are realizable.

The Art of War, like Mandragola, makes clear that love is an activity inferior to war. Cosimo Rucellai wrote love poems until Fortune would lead him to “higher activities.” The form of the dialogue seems to parallel that of Boccaccio's Decameron: in a ravaged and suffering Italy, worthy young people retire to a garden for conversation, taking turns at “absolute power.” Machiavelli's version replaces the theme of love with that of war. There are no women in the Rucellai gardens, and the consolations of love are replaced by the remedy of military virtù.

Philosophers, poets, and political theorists have remarked that poetry is more suited to teach morality than is history. This is implied in Aristotle's statement that poetry is more philosophic than history; in poetry human events occur not by chance, but as they would in a moral and rationally ordered universe. In The Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon elaborates on this view: “because true history propoundeth the success and issues of action not so agreeable to the merits of virtue and vice, therefore poesy feigns them more just in retribution, and more according to revealed Providence.”59 In the terms of his famous formula about Machiavelli, poetry depicts, “not what men do, but what they ought to do.”60 For Bacon, “poesy” is useful only as an expression of human customs, passions, and yearnings. He thus advises reading history as a practical guide for human action: “it is not good to stay too long in the theater.”61 Perhaps he might consider Machiavelli's theater an exception. For Mandragola is effective precisely because it depicts poetically—and universally—the material Bacon assigns to history: the world as it is, not as it should be according to philosophers, poets, and preachers. Thus, we are shown what traditional morality would probably view as a deplorable but “true-to-life” situation, clever men enjoying the fruits of their immoral actions. But Bacon's formulae, both about history and about Machiavelli, are misleading. The greatest histories are “poetic”; they do order events so as to draw universal, philosophic conclusions about them. This is true of Machiavelli's histories, or commentaries upon history. Furthermore, like these “poetic” histories, Machiavelli's “historical” poetry does not really abandon the attempt to set standards for human behavior. Rather, it substitutes new standards for the “merits of virtue and vice.” Thus, we must explain further the poetic vehicle Machiavelli uses to make his “historical” views of human action the accepted ones.

It has been said that there is no place for tragedy in the works of Machiavelli.62 His views of human virtù and Fortune preclude a world where pity, fear, and the recognition of divine justice constitute the proper human attitude. But Machiavelli is at home in the comic realm, both within his political writings and his avowedly comic works—dramatic, narrative, and poetic. One effective way to undermine the sacred doctrines of older teachings is to refuse to recognize their seriousness. As Leo Strauss says, “If it is true that every complete society necessarily recognizes something about which it is absolutely forbidden to laugh, we may say that the determination to transgress that prohibition sanza alcuno rispetto, is of the essence of Machiavelli's intention.”63 But Machiavelli's “comic” view does not fully explain the way in which the genre of Mandragola is so well suited to his project. We must now return to the question of how Machiavelli uses comedy to teach the young as they watch un giovane seduce una giovane64 from her older husband and from her old-fashioned morals.


The greatest comedies in the Western tradition tend to conserve established “modes and orders.” They may be critical of particulars—of timely fashions, government policies, the pretenses of the professions, the rigidity of age and authority—but they usually end by affirming the traditional teaching about virtues and vices that the older generation seeks to pass on to the young. Thus, in one type of intrigue plot the young lover and his supporters conspire to defeat or circumvent an opponent (often older) who would “usurp” the lover's place and interfere with his desires. New information, chance, the ability of the intriguers, and the stupidity of the opponents, accomplish what the audience recognizes as the appropriate and better arrangement: the enemies of youth are defeated, either reformed and reconciled, or punished and expelled. But youthful exuberance and passion must also accept limits, and so moral virtue is not really questioned. Individual elders may err, comically and with consequences, but the old morality emerges intact. A more satirical intrigue plot presents a conspiracy of clever rogues who prey on equally vicious or on foolish dupes. Here, too, the action may imply serious criticism of the established values and authorities, but, in the end, the play demonstrates the nonviability of deviations from the life of virtue.65 In the plays of Aristophanes, Plautus, Terence, Shakespeare, Jonson, and Molière, these two intrigue plots—with modifications and variations—occur repeatedly.66 In them, deviants may be loved and enjoyed, and even ambivalently admired, but eventually they are exposed and perhaps punished, and the rightful order is restored.

But this conservative effect is easily lost—through artistic shortcomings or by design. As a result, moral authorities have always been suspicious of the youthful intrigues of comic drama. Not necessarily, but not infrequently, comedy has been justly charged with subverting morality. The remainder of this essay will examine how changes in the traditional elements of intrigue plots enable Machiavelli to exploit some subversive tendencies of comedy in order to convey his truly subversive teachings. His intrigue plot is as different from those of conventional intrigue comedies as The Prince is from the conventional “mirror of princes” books whose form it resembles. Machiavelli's writings, both comic and serious, are still didactic, but what they teach is new.

As everyone knows, all good comedies end in marriage with the promise that the protagonists will live happily ever after. Happily usually means “in accordance with accepted morality,” that is, virtuously. Machiavelli stands the comic convention on its head. His happy ending consists of the subversion of a marriage, of a successful adultery. “Who wouldn't be happy?” asks Sostrata at the end. Machiavelli's inversion of the convention of the comic theater goes hand-in-hand with his revision of the meaning of human happiness. Once again, virtue is replaced by virtù.


Readers of the Discourses know that Machiavelli thought carefully about what might now be called the “psychology” of conspiracies. Readers of Mandragola have recognized, in the remarks of Callimaco, Ligurio, and Timoteo, key maxims of Machiavelli's teachings about conspiracy. The early acts of the play depict the formation of the conspiracy as new members are added. In comedy, Machiavelli employs an appropriate vehicle for his teachings because comedy often works by effecting a conspiracy outside the play, as well as within it. The physical seclusion and exclusion of uninvited outsiders from the Italian court theaters would heighten this sense of conspiracy. Bergson's suggestion that laughter functions as a “social gesture,” assumes that members of an audience in a theater feel a common bond as they identify with some characters on stage and laugh at others: “laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity with other laughers.”67 The nature of the conspiracies that a playwright establishes (1) among the characters, (2) among the spectators, and (3) between the spectators and the characters on stage, is responsible for whether the play will have a conservative or subversive effect on the morality of those spectators.

The comic theater can be, as Bergson suggests, an institution that restricts immoral or unsocial deviations, as do the plots described above. On the other hand, comedy shares the power of all drama to make the audience identify with the characters imitated on stage, even if they would condemn them in real life. Thus, as Rousseau feared, stage imitations have a special ability to undermine morality:

Let us dare say it without being roundabout. Which of us is sure enough of himself to bear the performance of such a comedy without halfway taking part in the deeds which are played in it? Who would not be a bit distressed if the thief were to be taken by surprise or fail in his attempt? Who does not himself become a thief for a minute in being concerned about him? For is being concerned about someone anything other than putting oneself in his place? A fine instruction for the youth, one in which grown men have difficulty protecting themselves from the seductions of vice! Is that to say that it is never permissible to show blamable actions in the theater? No; but in truth, to know how to put a rascal on the stage, a very good man must be the author.68

The tendency to be drawn into the play is especially strong in intrigue comedies because the spectator is so often invited to identify with a successful group, rather than with an outstanding but isolated and doomed individual, as in tragedy.

Tragic actors expect to be applauded as well as comic ones, but nevertheless the word “plaudite” at the end of a Roman comedy, the invitation to the audience to form part of the comic society, would seem rather out of place at the end of a tragedy.69

Comedy is capable of both greater social and moral “affirmation” (the spectator vicariously participates in the group reconciliation and celebration of accepted values), and greater “subversion” (the spectator identifies with a group that successfully celebrates its rejection of those values).

Returning now to the play itself, we can see that Machiavelli's views about human nature and politics are responsible for his revisions of the conventional conspiracy plot. These revisions are, in turn, responsible for differences in audience response, and, thus, for the Machiavellian subversion. This is evident in his depiction of the intriguers and their success, and his depiction of the duped—the objects of the intrigue—as well.

In his comic intriguers, Machiavelli makes attractive what would ordinarily be condemned as immoral. Callimaco is young, handsome, vigorous, and intelligent. Macaulay's objections to the comedies of Wycherly and Congreve is apt here, since the writers for the English Restoration stage sometimes used—or abused—some of the same comic elements as Machiavelli. Referring especially to their subversive attitudes toward “conjugal fidelity,” Macaulay argues that “morality is deeply interested in this, that what is immoral shall not be presented to the imagination of the young and susceptible in constant connection with what is attractive.”70 Conservative comedies often present an attractive young hero who embraces immoral schemes to satisfy immoral desires. But, as I shall suggest below, in these comedies, our potential sympathy for such actions and passions gradually undergoes a metamorphosis. For example, either the hero's (and our sympathetic) initial fancy or lust is discredited by laughter or punishment, or it is controlled and transformed into a more spiritual and legally sanctioned love. Neither of these things happens in Mandragola.

Machiavelli's conspirators defy a distinction often made in comedies between “well- or ill-intentioned” rogues.71 They most resemble the sympathetic schemers of a plot such as that of Cassina/Clizia. However, in Mandragola, the young dupers are not the rightful opponents of a would-be usurper, but, as I have suggested, the usurpers themselves. Thus, like Volpone and Mosca in Jonson's play, they are underminers of morality. The merging of the two intrigue plots described above and exemplified here by Cassina and Volpone, leads the audience to approve of Machiavelli's attractive conspirators. There is no conventional “poetic justice” in Mandragola. According to Machiavelli, justice is not a primary consideration, except insofar as it, too, might contribute to success. Machiavelli's rogues are eminently successful and thus are never exposed and punished. Their success, as I have suggested, depends on their benefiting others. Thus, although the conspirators are subverters of morality, they are not conventionally vicious, that is, ill-intentioned.72 If comedy supports morality by making us angry at (or at least contemptuous of) the right things—by sharpening our sense of justice—Machiavelli's comedy deliberately undermines morality. We experience nothing like our desire to see the tripping up of such archdeceivers as Molière's Tartuffe, Jonson's Volpone and Mosca, or even more sympathetic deviants like Malvolio or Falstaff. Nor do we feel our initial relish for the intrigue turn to contempt, as we do for Boccaccio's comic (though unstaged) Frate Alberto. The conspiracy succeeds completely and there is no suggestion, like those found repeatedly in Jonson's didactic comedies, that the partners will defeat themselves.

Some readers have thought that Machiavelli's plays exhibit the successful maneuverings of clever people in order to help those who witness them learn to protect themselves. The printer of the first edition of The Prince suggested something similar when he sought Church protection against those who “do not know that those who instruct in the use of herbs and medicine, also instruct in poisons, in order to know how to guard against them.” This would seem to be the intent of traditional moral fables, such as Aesop's or La Fontaine's, which often present a simplified narrated version of tricks like these in the intrigue comedies. But the fables, like some comedies, run the risk of misteaching—precisely because the schemer is attractive and goes unpunished. In Emile, Rousseau discusses the didactic effect of these stories on the “very young.” According to Rousseau, the problem with La Fontaine's engaging fables is that they have the effect, if not the intention, of encouraging the young to identify with the successful fox, ant, or lion. Furthermore, since fraud is more admirable than force, when a clever gnat defeats a lion, the child's sympathies will be with the gnat. This, I believe, is the intended effect of Mandragola, and it is well described by Rousseau: “You are teaching them how to make another drop his cheese, rather than how to keep their own.”73 Unlike Jonson, whose moral lesson requires the humiliation and punishment of Volpone, the Fox, Machiavelli openly advertises elsewhere (P., XVIII) that he is teaching the “virtues” of the fox (and the lion). Machiavelli's fox is, of course, much more prudent than Jonson's.

The injunction to develop subhuman characteristics is accompanied by the celebration of Chiron the centaur, identified by Machiavelli as the teacher of Achilles (P., XVIII), and, we might add, of Asclepius the physician. Machiavelli, who in the dedication to The Prince, presents himself as the teacher of princes, seems to identify his teachings with those of Chiron. The centaur makes no appearance in Mandragola, but he watches from the wings, directing the action from backstage. Whether or not Machiavelli was responsible for the frontispiece of the first edition of the play (1518), the picture it bears could not be more appropriate. A centaur stands before us. In addition to the conventional strung bow on his back, this centaur bears another bow with which he plays a violin. The second bow distinguishes him from the many centaurs of classical and neoclassical art, those imprudent half-beasts who rape women and fight wars over the stolen brides of others. He is Chiron, the pupil of Artemis and Apollo, who told Peleus a cunning way to win the elusive Thetis as his lawful wife, and who later became the tutor to the son of this union. Although the author of the play was known, this first title page does not bear his name. Instead, it bears what might be considered a personal emblem. The prudent use of arms is a central theme in Machiavelli's political writings. Here, however, the instruments of war are at rest, and the centaur concentrates on the instruments of love and of poetry, the violin (lira da bracchio) being a modern Italian improvement on the lyre of Apollo. As I have suggested above, princes can be taught remedies for the ills of their times through plays and poetry, as well as through political writings.74

Machiavelli's view of human nature is responsible for differences in our attitudes toward the conventionally deceived characters, as well as towards their deceivers. In most “conservative” comedies, the former are either virtuous and unjustly abused innocents, or vicious and justly abused rogues. In Volpone, the victims with whom we sympathize are superhuman personifications named Bonario and Celia. Similar characters often appear in plays whose authors emphasize their moral purpose. Even The Country Wife has its Alithea and Harcourt, hardly superhuman, but clearly exemplary by the end of the play. Mandragola strikingly lacks characters like these who, however pallid and weak they appear next to Jonson's and Wycherly's able rogues, invite allegiance because they stand for an uncorrupt morality.75Mandragola, as Robert Heilman remarks, “is sometimes called a satire, but it is hard to see it as such, for it includes no dramatic assertion of an alternative standard which would invite criticism of the mode of life depicted.”76 Once again, the absence of such characters is not surprising in a play by a writer who rejects the traditional exhortations to imitate the superhuman as a standard for human beings. Machiavelli also omits—and in this he resembles Jonson—any characters who are virtuous but also intelligent and witty.77 Once more, this suggests that intelligence means knowing how to be both moral and immoral, depending on the circumstances.

Let us now turn to the other victims of the standard intrigue plot, the rogues who are punished by superior rogues. Again, Machiavelli's view of human nature is responsible for changes in our attitudes. Though other examples would do, Volpone provides an especially revealing contrast. Jonson demeans the vicious duped, as well as the vicious dupers, by caricaturing them as subhuman beasts. Thus, the wicked Volpone and Mosca prey on characters named Corvino, Voltore, and Corbaccio. Again, it is not surprising that Machiavelli, the teacher of virtù rather than of moral virtue, never suggests that his characters are less than human, either in their moral or intellectual shortcomings. As far as I can tell, the word bestia (or its derivatives) occurs six times in the play: in reference to Callimaco's desperate plot (I.3), to women mismatched with inferior men (I.3), to Lucrezia's fanatic piety (II.6), to Sostrata who can be counted on to convince her daughter to cooperate (III.9), to windows without children (III.11), and to men without women (V.6). In the first and fourth cases, the “bestial” is embraced and put to use. In the third and last cases, the term refers derogatorily to human beings who refuse to “accommodate” themselves—another frequent phrase—in order to secure their comfort and convenience in this world. Machiavelli thus inverts the traditional sense of this term as he does others.

Messer Nicia and Jonson's Corvino both arrange for their wives' adultery and their own cuckolding. But the naturalistic characterization and almost affectionate tone of Machiavelli's play reveal a radical difference between the two comedies. Corvino is depicted as vicious and evil, while Nicia is shown to be simple and lax; Corvino is punished by the Scrutineo, while Messer Nicia not only escapes notice of the Eight, but is peculiarly rewarded. Machiavelli's neutral presentation of the anonymous Donna in Act Three, Scene One is another example of his refusal to condemn either forceful superior people or their weak inferiors as “immoral.”78 Human beings are neither all good nor all evil (D., I.27). Lowering our moral expectations or standards makes us judge only in terms of virtù. In stage comedy, as in life, it is difficult to feel righteously hostile or vindictive toward people who lack ability. Justice does not require the punishment of stupidity and Machiavelli mutes Nicia's moral shortcomings. Thus, we only laugh at Nicia's simplicity. If ability and aptness to succeed are all that matter, we will support the conspiracy of the able.


One way in which many comedies depict the overthrow of the sanctioned rules of society without subverting these “modes and orders” by audience complicity in the overthrow is to indicate clearly the temporary character of the upset. The conventional “comedies of misrule” are related, however distantly, to the ancient Athenian Festival of Dionysus and to medieval Feasts of Fools and Saturnalian carnivals, whose function was to serve as an outlet and, ultimately, to preserve the order and hierarchy of everyday moral life.79 This conservative function helps explain why they were sanctioned by Athenian and Roman officials and, later, though more uneasily, by the Church. The Roman comedies were included among the events in the official state holidays (ludi), festivals associated with the state religion, held in honor of the gods, supervised by officials, and presided over by magistrates. They were performed on temporary stages or platforms, which were erected on public ground before a temple in the Circus, or in a building used for public athletic events.80 Like their Greek counterparts, performances took place in full daylight, and their audiences included a cross-section of the whole community. The stage sets typically represented a street with the exterior of one or more houses. The exterior wall of these sets was not penetrated; interior action was reported, as in the Greek plays, by messengers or other characters who emerged from within. Machiavelli retains this stage convention, but like others, in his hands, it tends to emphasize the differences between his play and his Roman models. For, as we have seen, by the end of Mandragola, reports from within have revealed the complete and permanent reversal of the views that Lucrezia—and probably the audience—had at the beginning. We are still looking at the same unviolated exterior wall, but our inside information has informed us that the appearance of morality—in private as well as in public affairs—may be only an appearance. As Machiavelli teaches elsewhere, the civic spectacle may be only a cover-up for what's behind the scenes.

Machiavelli seems to have given some thought to the political uses and consequences of carnival and its absence.81 But his play differs greatly from Roman and Shakespearean comedies, which allowed nonparticipating spectators to experience vicariously the temporary release that the older festivals had provided. The nymphs and shepherds in the first song of Mandragola emphasize the permanence of their withdrawal from serious pursuits. As I have argued, the play that follows emphasizes a similar permanent “release” from the restrictions of ancient morality and the Church. A brief look at the Roman plays from which Mandragola is superficially descended will demonstrate what a distant grandchild Machiavelli's play really is.

In Plautus and Terence, there is much that is racy and vulgar, and the plays are populated with those engaged in irregular sexual pursuits. But the reader will find few plays that inherently undermine the strict Roman morality of the audience that watched it. Once again, chastity and grave Roman women serve as a gauge. Virgins do not appear on stage;82 habitual sexual license is limited to courtesans and their pimps; rapes are committed but there are mitigating circumstances; maidens remain miraculously intact or are overcome only by force and are often married when their true identity is discovered. Young people who defy their elders—even when they are justified by the folly of these elders—are reconciled with them and recognize their authority. They often ask for pardon or forgiveness, thus admitting their misbehavior.83 Young men grow out of their impulsive yielding to nature, and become responsible husbands, fathers, and senators. Slaves may trick their masters, but they don't demand their freedom; there are reminders that they may be punished after the plays end. The dramas are only brief releases from the stringent moral codes of Roman life, and rarely fail to affirm accepted notions of piety, filial duty, chaste conjugal love, and friendship. As Duckworth says, “the plots are basically moral; the good are rewarded and villainous or lustful characters (leno, miles, senex amato) are punished … all this is not very edifying, perhaps, but neither is it harmful to the morals of the spectators.”84

Furthermore, the plays avoid the danger of corruption or more than a temporary desire for “misrule” in the spectators, by not presenting a too-naturalistic world with which these spectators might identify. They are set far from Rome in a place infamous for license. The characters are, for the most part, stock stage types rather than naturalistic individuals, and the language, too, is conventional and removed (music and verse). In contrast, as Carlo Goldoni recognized, the power of Mandragola lies in its naturalism. It was precisely this powerful naturalism in the service of dubious actions that made the admiring young Goldoni uncomfortable—even as he resisted his father's ire for reading such literature.85 To those who would protest that the action Machiavelli's play presents is limited to the make-believe world of the stage, we might remember Macaulay's reply to Lamb's apology for the English Restoration playwrights: Machiavelli's setting is the audience's Florence, the people are recognizable, the language is natural, and “one hundred little touches make the fictitious world look like the actual world.”86

Perhaps these generalizations about Roman comedy are more consistently applicable to Plautus, but they also describe most of Terence's plays as well. The one Latin comedy that most resembles Mandragola is Terence's Eunuch, in which a carefully plotted rape is described in all its ugliness and even rationalized before the situation is saved by the conventional marriage.87 The play ends with an “adulterous” ménage-à-trois of a prostitute, her lover, and a braggart soldier who will unsuspectingly support them. Like Mandragola, the Eunuch seems to defy the conventional morality: it presents approvingly, situations that make us vaguely uncomfortable even as we comply with the request for applause at the end. Perhaps our discomfort is provoked by the inclusion of all the unpleasant details of the action. It is hard to know what Terence intended in the Eunuch; the play may be an interesting failure.88 But Machiavelli's play intends to divide us from our conventional assumptions. To do this, it must avoid recognizing the unpleasant implications of its action. Its artistic—though not moral—superiority is indicated by our feeling little discomfort at the end. Interestingly, as Elder Olson points out, Terence's failure to remain within the comic limits are related to his “tendency to humanize the characters,”89 that is, to naturalize.


Many of the plays of Machiavelli's contemporaries adhered more closely than Mandragola does to the Roman plots discussed above. Others added to the more familiar settings and characters, new plots of cuckoldry and adultery, like those found in the popular novellas. From these plays, one sees clearly the way in which the comic intreccio (intrigue) plots arouse audience support for what would ordinarily be judged as base actions. One can also see how the same action is so much more vivid on stage than it is in the novella. This is not the place for a comparison of The Decameron and the plays derived from it, but one might begin by noting the effects of (1) the author's moral frame for the stories, (2) the individual narrator's comments, and (3) the difference between a privately read narrative account and a publicly viewed physical representation.

Although some of the Commedia Erudita plots have elements in common with Mandragola, there are important differences. As in the Roman plays, the success of Commedia intrigues is often due to chance. Although the plays are cheerfully lax about language90 and approving of adultery, there are few articulate rationales for the behavior presented. They do not consistently exclude the moral point of view. Furthermore, the rambling structures and, for the most part, stereotyped characters, undercut the audience's identification. There is something artificial and mechanical, not to say boring, about many of these plays, and this keeps an audience at a distance. Because they are artistically inferior to Mandragola, they are less successful at undermining traditional values. Finally, like the Roman plays, they were performed on public platforms, in broad daylight, a light and visible entertainment for the whole community. Crude and heavyhanded, there is nothing undercover about them.


There are still other ways in which Machiavelli encourages the acquiescence of the audience in his new case. In addition to amplifying our complicity in the plot and removing all suggestions that its values are temporary fictions, Machiavelli prepares us to accept his premises by offering more shocking notions in order to get us to accept less shocking ones. We, like Timoteo, are tested by the proposed abortion plan, which is then withdrawn. Mandragola is substituted for the abortion medicine and, like the Frate, we abandon abortion and accept adultery. However, one might wonder whether, once chastity, conjugal fidelity, honesty, and the other virtues that Machiavelli turns to matters of prudential judgment elsewhere, are reduced to mere “fables,” one shouldn't accept the practical arguments Ligurio makes in favor of abortion as well. Given the principles of action and conscience articulated in the play, one also wonders whether any but a prudential argument would stand up against really killing a vagrant lute player if this would further the purpose of the conspirators. If the power of mandragola were not a fiction, and Callimaco and many others would benefit from one unfortunate sacrifice, Machiavelli's play might seem to sanction such a murder.

But Mandragola is effective precisely because the most unseemly consequences of the action are merely implicit. When Machiavelli makes his principles explicit in The Prince, readers are shocked and repelled. But comedy, by convention, is permitted to treat the most serious matters lightly. Comedy laughs at everything, and the audience laughs too. The same immoral teachings, now exhibited in the private realm, are less shocking. But as Machiavelli says in his “Discourse about Our Language,” the concealed serious lessons of comedy are tasted only after the laughter in the theater has stopped. In Mandragola, these new lessons are underneath the ancient comic form and come into focus when viewed alongside the ancient historic subject. Machiavelli does well not to call attention, in this play, to the conventional didactic purpose of comedy, because what he has to teach is far from conventional; it is truly “a new case born in this city.” In the Prologue, the alienated author says that he hopes “you will be tricked [ingannate]” as Lucrezia was. This seems to apply to the ladies in the audience. But by the end, the entire audience has been taken in. We have all looked; and because this is a play, we have looked together as part of the conspiracy. By taking us into the plot, the author insures that we have been taken in by his teachings. Our applause at the end in response to Timoteo's “farewell” is also a response to Sostrata's immediately preceding rhetorical question, “Who wouldn't be happy?” Happy to applaud the happy ending, we endorse as a community a new notion of happiness. Machiavelli, the undercover captain in a new campaign against the old teachings, is an articulate preacher of verità effettuale. As the most eloquent seducer in his comedy Mandragola, he administers a remedy for the illness of the present age. And the remedy is administered as pleasant entertainment in a small, private theater.


  1. Niccolò Machiavelli, Letter to Guicciardini (October 16-20, 1525), Lettere, a cura di Franco Gaeta, (Milan, 1961), p. 438.

  2. Machiavelli, Letter, p. 439.

  3. Machiavelli, Letter, p. 439-40.

  4. For introductory surveys of contemporary Italian comedy, see Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Comedy in the Renaissance (Urbana, Ill., 1960) and Douglas Radcliff-Ulmstead, The Birth of Modern Comedy in Renaissance Italy (Chicago, 1969).

  5. The Prince, ded., XV, XXVI and The Discourses, ded., I.intro., II.intro., III.1, hereafter cited as P. and D.

  6. D., I.intro. refers to sculpture, law, medicine, and government. One wonders why he omits drama. Elsewhere one of his speakers says, “This land seems to be born to raise up dead things, as she has in poetry, painting and in sculpture.” See “The Art of War,” in Machiavelli, The Chief Works and Others, trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham, N. C., 1965), II, 706. See also “History of Florence,” Chief Works, III, 1233.

  7. See also P., VI. These and other passages suggest that Machiavelli considers himself a political founder of some sort.

  8. “Clizia,” Niccolò Machiavelli, Opere Letterarie, a Cura di Luigi Blasucci (Milano, 1964), p. 71.

  9. See Martin Fleisher, “Trust and Deceit in Machiavelli's Comedies,” Journal of the History of Ideas (July, 1966), p. 370.

  10. “Discorso o Dialogo Intorno Alla Nostra Lingua,” Opere Letterarie, p. 225.

  11. The story of Lucretia is told also by Ovid in The Fasti for February 24, and by Boccaccio in his De Claris Mulieribus, with which Machiavelli might have been familiar. Variants of the incident are found in contemporary works like Boccaccio's Decameron (II, 9). English readers will know Shakespeare's version of Lucretia and will recognize it as the source of the subplot of Cymbeline which refers to it explicitly. But in Boccaccio's story and in Shakespeare's play, the woman is not actually taken. The name of Machiavelli's heroine points to Livy's Lucretia rather than Boccaccio's, despite similar elements.

  12. Livy, trans. B. O. Foster (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), I, p. 199.

  13. Livy, I, p. 201.

  14. Leo Strauss suggests that Machiavelli named him after the Athenian general Nicias, whose Sicilian campaign failed, in part, because of this superstition. In discussing the general, Machiavelli does not explicitly mention this quality. See Thoughts on Machiavelli (Seattle, 1969), p. 284; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, VII, pp. 50 ff. and 86; and D., I. 53 and III.16.

  15. The songs were composed for a production of the play at Faenza or Modena in 1526. Unlike some readers, I assume that Machiavelli considered them relevant to the play, despite their later composition.

  16. Theodore Sumberg, “La Mandragola: An Interpretation,” The Journal of Politics 23, (1961), p. 322. This article came to my attention after most of the present essay was written. Sumberg takes the play seriously and reads it in the context of Machiavelli's other works. However, by drawing too close analogies between the play and the political works, he fails to explain adequately the function of the drama for Machiavelli. Nevertheless, he touches on many key issues.

  17. See, for example, Plautus's Phormio. In some of the Roman plays, the clever slave or parasite seems to personify Reason in the service of his master's passion.

  18. See Mandragola (I.1; Song after the first act; IV.9) and Clizia (I.2).

  19. The evil character of the plot is referred to only once by Ligurio: “As if God granted grace in evil things as well as good ones!” (II.2). By the end of the play, it would seem that “God's grace” is irrelevant.

  20. See Strauss, p. 343 (notes) for a list of relevant passages without reference to the play.

  21. P., XIX and D., III.,6.

  22. Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (III.44), trans. Charles S. Singleton (Garden City, N.Y., 1959), p. 248.

  23. Lest the reader be misled by the following discussion, the context should be noted. Machiavelli completes the sentence with a reference to an earlier chapter (III.6) in which he discusses, not the breaking up of concluded marriages like Nicia's, but the breaking off of planned ones. See also Aristotle, Politics, 1311a, 1314b.

  24. Livy, II., 145.

  25. Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, 1107a. See also the references to adultery in the discussion of justice in book 5.

  26. Livy, I., 37-39.

  27. P., XIII and D., I.19 and 26. David's adultery is one of the two principal examples in Machiavelli's “Exhortation to Penitence,” Chief Works, I.173-74.

  28. Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans (I.19), trans. Henry Bettenson (England, 1972), pp. 28-29. See also II.17, pp. 66-67, for Augustine's comments on the rape of the Sabines.

  29. Castiglione (III.55), p. 261.

  30. Castiglione (III.70), p. 275.

  31. Castiglione (IV.69), p. 355.

  32. As Erich Auerbach says, Boccaccio also exalts a new doctrine of “love and nature” over the medieval ethic of love as “the mother of all virtue and everything noble in man.” But Boccaccio's rejection of the medieval view is inadequate because the new order he substitutes for it is incomplete. See “Frate Alberto,” Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask (Garden City, N.Y., 1953), pp. 177-203. Read by itself, Mandragola elaborates the Boccaccian view of love and nature, as opposed to the Christian courtly ethic. Read in conjunction with the political books, the play is part of a complete replacement, applicable to all realms of human experience.

  33. Lettere, pp. 402-5.

  34. See part 3 below.

  35. Matthew 12:35.

  36. Letter to Guicciardini (May 18, 1521), Lettere, p. 409.

  37. See P., VI and D., II.2 and III.27.

  38. Matthew 19:12.

  39. See D., I. intro. and II.2.

  40. Charles S. Singleton, “Machiavelli and the Spirit of Comedy,” Modern Language Notes (November, 1942), p. 585.

  41. Clizia (II.3). In the extant version of Mandragola, the Frate does not pray for a miracle for Lucrezia, nor is there any suggestion of sexual misbehavior.

  42. Raphael accompanies Tobias (in the Apocryphal book of Tobit) when he goes to claim Sarah as his wife. Raphael tells Tobias to burn the heart and liver of a fish to save himself from her demon lover Asmodeus, who has killed each of her seven other husbands on their wedding nights. This remedy drives away the demon and makes possible Tobias's marriage. In a prayer of thanksgiving, Tobias emphasizes his sincerity and denies any lustful desires. See Tobit 2-9.

  43. Matthew 5:48.

  44. See, in contrast, Nicia's instinctive rejection of “sugar and vinegar” in II.6.

  45. The City of God (I.19), p. 29.

  46. Machiavelli, “The Life of Castruccio Castracani of Lucca,” Chief Works, II, p. 558.

  47. Philippians 2:22.

  48. 1 Timothy 2:15.

  49. 1 Timothy 6:10.

  50. 2 Timothy 3:1.

  51. 2 Timothy 2:4.

  52. Matthew 7:17; John 3:16.

  53. See the language of the Exhortation, which ends The Prince (XXVI).

  54. Preface to Tartuffe: “from one end to the other, he [Tartuffe] says not one word, performs not one action, which does not depict to the spectators the character of a wicked man and which does not bring out that of the true man of good whom I oppose to him.” See note 73.

  55. George Meredith, “An Essay on Comedy,” Comedy (Garden City, N.Y., 1955), p. 244.

  56. Letter to Guicciardini (December 26, 1525), Lettere, p. 447.

  57. Marvin Carlson, Places of Performance: The Semiotics of Theatre Production (Ithaca, N.Y., 1989), p. 61. In chapter 2, The Jewel in the Casket, pp. 38-60, Carlson contrasts these secluded, private theater spaces with the large, free-standing, “monumental” public theatres that were part of the everyday visual experience of the ancient cities.

  58. For a vivid depiction of the seductive effect of Machiavelli (and of those he seems to approve) on a promising and impressionable youth, see Maurice Samuel's engrossing novel, Web of Lucifer (New York, 1947). Somerset Maugham's Then and Now (New York, 1947) also conveys this quality. Maugham's novel makes Machiavelli the protagonist in a plot adapted from Mandragola's. On Machiavelli's intentions with respect to the young, see Leo Strauss's Thoughts on Machiavelli.

  59. Francis Bacon, “The Advancement of Learning,” Selected Writings of Francis Bacon, ed. Hugh G. Dick (New York, 1955), p. 244.

  60. Bacon, p. 330.

  61. Bacon, p. 247.

  62. Strauss, p. 292.

  63. Strauss, p. 40.

  64. The Italian word order in the Prologue draws attention to the youth of the protagonists more than most English translations do.

  65. See Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (New York, 1969), pp. 163-86, for a discussion of archetypal comic plots.

  66. Shakespeare, although he wrote one Plautian comedy, departed from the Latin models and developed his own comic forms. In this essay, I have tried to use for comparisons examples from comedies of the Latin type—Plautus, Terence, and the Commedia Erudita, which Machiavelli knew, and, despite their ambiguities, plays of Jonson and Molière.

  67. Henri Bergson, “Laughter,” Comedy (Garden City, N.Y., 1956), p. 64.

  68. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts: Letter to M. D'Alembert, trans. Allan Bloom (Ithaca, N.Y., 1968), p. 46.

  69. Frye, p. 164.

  70. Thomas Babington Macaulay, “Hunt's Comic Dramatists,” Critical and Historical Essays (New York, 1923), pp. 414-15.

  71. Elder Olson, The Theory of Comedy (Bloomington, Ind., 1968), p. 52.

  72. There is a corresponding collapse of the traditional classification of rulers at the beginning of The Prince. Machiavelli does not distinguish regimes according to whether they exist for their own or for their subjects' benefit, but according to modes of acquisition.

  73. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, trans. Barbara Foxley (New York, 1957), p. 79.

  74. For a discussion of this frontispiece, and whether Machiavelli had authorized the first edition, see Roberto Ridolfi, Studi Sulle Commedie del Machiavelli (Pisa, 1968), pp. 25ff. Ridolfi speculates about the date and place of publication, the decorative border, and the title, but does not mention the picture.

  75. Although this is not the place for such a discussion, one could argue that Tartuffe and Volpone are, in fact, deeply critical of Christian religion. But if Molière and Jonson have inherited even part of the Machiavellian view, they present it more warily. These plays may be critical of Christian values, but they are careful not to hold up for emulation the behavior that undermines those values.

  76. Robert B. Heilman, The Ghost on the Ramparts and Other Essays in the Humanities (Athens, Ga., 1973), p. 160.

  77. Shakespeare's comedies, which I take to be the greatest of the conservative comedies, abound in attractive, intelligent characters who are also moral. Such characters distinguish these masterpieces from the heavy-handed didacticism of eighteenth-century English sentimental comedy. As You Like It is the paradigm.

  78. See the discussion of this Donna in Singleton, “Machiavelli and the Spirit of Comedy.”

  79. See C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and Its Relation to Social Custom (Cleveland, 1968) and Erich W. Segal, Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). See also Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais and His World (Cambridge, Mass., 1968) and my chapter 2 above. The “New Historicists,” following Bakhtin, Foucault, Geertz, and others, have written much in recent years about “carnival” and its purposes in the Renaissance and Tudor periods. Their views aim to be subversive rather than conservative of conventional morality and establishment hierarchies.

  80. Margarete Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre (Princeton, N.J., 1961), p. 152.

  81. On shows and carnivals see: Letter to Vettori, 15 January, 1513; and History of Florence, V.15, VI.1, VII.12 and 21, VIII.36. Also History of Florence, II.2, 17, 36, III.9.

  82. Many of the early Commedie Erudite continued the Roman practice of not showing the virgin on stage. Machiavelli translated Woman of Andros, which had no virgo, and, in Clizia, calls attention to the fact that the audience won't see the contested girl. Appropriately, Mandragola boldly exhibits the girl, only to transform her original from chaste matron to adulterous wife—a category that does not exist in Roman drama, but which is standard fare in Boccaccio and some contemporary comedies.

  83. Jonson's Alchemist, despite its controversial ending, pays lip service at least, to the need to pardon and forgive the wrongdoer. Whether the contrite admission of guilt is to be taken seriously is too long a question to discuss here.

  84. George Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy (Princeton, 1952), pp. 303-4.

  85. See Carlo Goldoni, Memoirs, trans. John Black (Boston, 1877), pp. 71-72.

  86. Macaulay, p. 414. Machiavelli's care to make this world familiar to his audience is often undone by translators who attempt to substitute contemporary equivalents to make it familiar to their own. Unless the whole play is rewritten, this practice would seem to obscure Machiavelli's intentions.

  87. Augustine criticizes the play on the grounds that the young rapist justifies himself by citing the example of Jupiter. See City of God (II. 7), p. 55, and Confessions (I), trans. Edward B. Pusey (New York, 1949), pp. 19-20.

  88. See Olson, pp. 82-85, for a discussion of this play.

  89. Olson, p. 84. See also Goldoni on Mandragola.

  90. Mandragola contains strikingly less obscenity, both in language and gesture, than most Roman or contemporary Italian plays. Bawdy language and overt sexuality are not the only indications of a corrupting influence.

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

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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 reaction against ancient thought in both its pagan and Christianized forms, and that Machiavelli was the architect of that revolution. Machiavelli announces the revolutionary nature of his teaching in both The Prince (ch. 15) and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (bk. 1, intro.), the two books that contain or comprise, by his own confession, everything he knows (Prince, Ded. Letter; Discourses, Ded. Letter).

It is certainly true that the theme of conspiracy plays a paramount role in Machiavelli's political thought. The longest chapters in The Prince and Discourses deal with conspiracies. Chapter 19 of The Prince, “Of Avoiding Contempt and Hatred,” discusses, among other things, how the Roman emperors executed and avoided conspiracies. It is here that we learn that the “bad” emperor, Severus, is the one who above all others combined the ferocity of a lion and the cleverness of a fox to gain and then secure sole possession of the empire and subsequently to frustrate every attempt to take it away from him. Severus is, indeed, the hero of The Prince (Strauss and Cropsey 1987, 302; compare the original reading of Machiavelli's treatment of Cesare Borgia, often called the hero of The Prince, in Scott and Sullivan 1994, 887-900). In Discourses, “On Conspiracies” (3.6) provides an exhaustive analysis of no less than sixty-five conspiracies from ancient and modern times: how they were executed, how they succeeded, how they failed, how they could have succeeded, and what lessons aspiring conspirators should learn from them. Perhaps the most memorable passages in Florentine Histories are those dealing with the conspiracy against the Sforza, reported at the end of book 7, and the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici, recounted in book 8, both of which were implemented and involved executions, surely to Machiavelli's delight, in a church. Indeed, in the midst of relating these conspiracies, in the opening sentence of book 8 of Florentine Histories, Machiavelli writes, “Since the beginning of this eighth book lies in the middle of two conspiracies—one already narrated and taking place in Milan, the other yet to be narrated and occurring in Florence—it would appear the proper thing, if we want to follow our custom, to reason on the qualities of conspiracies and their importance. This would be done willingly if I had not spoken of it in another place or if it were a matter that could be passed over with brevity” (Florentine Histories, 317). “Another place” where the qualities of conspiracies and their importance are discussed and (certainly not “passed over with brevity”) is Discourses 3.6 (also The Prince, ch. 19). And, of course, Mandragola is a comedy about conspiracies. Its plot, much of which accords with Machiavelli's lessons about conspiracies in The Prince and Discourses, is nothing but a series of interrelated conspiracies. It should not be surprising, in light of Machiavelli's conspiratorial lessons, that Mandragola has elicited a variety of interpretations, for we submit that Mandragola is not only a play about conspiracies; it is a play that is, itself, a conspiracy.

We get indications of this in what we think are the most satisfying interpretations of Mandragola to date, those of Carnes Lord (1979) and Theodore Sumberg (1961). Lord manages to read Mandragola as a self-contained comedy about a group of characters all of whom are conspiring against each other. He also reads it as a somewhat cryptic, allegorical commentary on the politics of Machiavelli's Florence that includes an esoteric confession on the part of Machiavelli that he was involved in a conspiracy in or around the year 1504 (the dramatic date of the action of Mandragola) against his political patron Piero Soderini, who had by 1504 served for two years as chief executive for life of the Florentine republic. We do not wish to dispute Lord's suggestions about the political parallels in his allegorical reading of the play. But we have doubts about his reading of the play within the play's own horizon. In the end, we think that the direction in which Sumberg points may prove more satisfactory. Sumberg suggests—and we intend to pursue this point—that Machiavelli has the last laugh, and at the expense of his audience:

Machiavelli puts a mask on himself as well as his cast. The masked dramatist covers the face of the arch-conspirator. Against whom does he conspire? Against his audience, of course. While the audience laughs at the play, Machiavelli laughs at the audience. He puts horns on the audience laughing at the cuckoldry of Nicia. By making them laugh he disarms them, and amidst their laughter he and his associates go about busily uprooting the established order. He has the last laugh.

(1961, 337)

Just as the characters within the play put on masks and conspire against each other, Machiavelli puts on a mask, as playwright, and conspires against us. We think that Sumberg's observation is of the utmost importance—indeed, that Sumberg himself does not take it seriously enough. Thus we think that Sumberg's interpretation, too, has its limitations, as we shall discuss below.

Most of the play's interpreters have acknowledged that the spirit of the comedy is in harmony with the moral-political teaching that we find in Machiavelli's more overtly political writings.1 Many have attempted to sort out the various conspiracies that constitute the plot of the play in order to determine who is “the prince” of Mandragola; that is, who ultimately is the master conspirator who dupes all others while never being duped in turn—the consummate “Machiavellian.” Who best exemplifies Machiavellian virtù, the ability to act alternately in accord with traditional virtue and traditional vice, to be both human and bestial, to combine the fox and the lion most efficaciously in the pursuit of personal ambition; who has the audacity to flout traditional morality and piety but the political prudence not to flaunt it? The many interpretations of Mandragola have sought to discover the character with true Machiavellian designs. As a result, the honor of chief conspirator has been granted to most of the leading characters of the play. We contend, however, that despite all the attention that has been paid to it, this question is yet to be answered satisfactorily. We maintain that interpreters have yet to expose fully the conspiracy within Mandragola because they have failed to notice the conspiracy that is Mandragola. “L'audace, toujours l'audace!” is the proper motto, we think, for interpreters of Machiavelli. But it is not the best method for expostulators to present their interpretations. In an appropriately Machiavellian conspiratorial mode, we do not wish to expose our own plot until the moment is ripe for its execution.


At the beginning of Mandragola we learn that a young woman is to be tricked, just as Machiavelli “would wish that” we the audience “might be tricked, as she was” (prologue).2 The romantic lead of the play, Callimaco, is burning with desire for the beautiful Lucrezia Calfucci, a married woman. He has traveled with his servant Siro all the way from Paris to his native Florence after hearing of Lucrezia's charms from a relative of Messer Nicia Calfucci, her husband.3 Sadly for him, she is “extremely honest” and “in all ways alien to the things of love” (1.1). If Callimaco is to satisfy his lust, he will need to use extraordinary means, even if they are “dangerous, harmful, scandalous” (1.3). Two things give him hope: He believes that although Messer Nicia is very rich and a doctor of law (dottore), he “is the simplest and most stupid man in Florence,” and he knows that both the Calfuccis yearn to have children, although they seem unable to produce any (1.1). Callimaco's beliefs serve to set the plot in motion. In the end, Callimaco gains the object of his lust through an outlandish ploy that tricks Lucrezia into compliance, with the willing acquiescence of her impotent husband.

The first and most obvious candidate for the prince of Mandragola is Callimaco. Although Callimaco has given his life over to “studies,” “pleasures,” and “business,” he seems to have the nature of a lion, or at least he is brave enough to risk everything to possess Lucrezia (1.1). Of course, strong erotic desire need not be conducive to martial valor and may even militate against it (for ten years Callimaco found that he could live “more securely” in Paris than in his native Florence), but Callimaco says that he will risk death to satisfy his yearnings (1.1, 3). His passions are the kind that “men and gods alike dread” (song after the first act). His enthusiasm rouses others to follow; it binds conspiracies together by giving the accomplices Ligurio and Siro a vicarious share in the thrill of accomplishing a difficult feat (1.3; 2.4).

Salvatore Di Maria sees “Callimaco as both a Machiavellian and a social hero exploiting and exposing Messer Nicia as a social misfit.” For Di Maria, “Callimaco's major strength lies in his propensity to assess and act upon the situation at hand.” His success in finally seducing Lucrezia is “not fortuitous,” for it indicates the value that Machiavelli places on virtù, or boldness of action combined with adaptability of means (1986-89, 19, 21, 25-26). Lord, too, maintains that “Callimaco is the natural or ‘virtuous’ prince in the Machiavellian sense.” According to Lord's allegorical reading of the play, “Only a prince of this kind is capable of satisfying the most fundamental longing of the people of Florence—the longing not for freedom but for security and efficient government” (1979, 812-13).4

But Callimaco has serious shortcomings; too serious, we contend, to cast him in the role of “Machiavellian prince.” For one, he is unable to control his passions: He cannot sleep, eat, converse, or take pleasure in anything because of his lust for Lucrezia. More important, he is willing to risk something “scandalous” and thereby expose himself to unnecessary danger to fulfill his desire. Ligurio has to remind Callimaco not to speak intemperately and to curb his rushes of desire (1.3). Indeed, Callimaco is quite inept without Ligurio as his guide. As Mera Flaumenhaft points out, when “Callimaco's ‘animo’ fails, it is Ligurio who always thinks of the ‘remedy’” (1978, 39). Callimaco is in fact completely dependent on Ligurio for concocting, adapting, and executing the scheme that leads to his conquest of Lucrezia. “But if a prince puts himself entirely in the hands of someone else, he will eventually lose his state to his underling” (Mastri 1987, 9; see also Sumberg 1961, 331-32; Hulliung 1978, 44; Barber 1985, 453; Rebhorn 1988, 54). In The Prince, Machiavelli presents this lesson under the heading “Of Those Whom Princes Have as Secretaries.” He argues that there are three kinds of brains: “One that understands by itself, another that discerns what others understand, the third that understands neither by itself nor through others; the first is most excellent, the second excellent, and the third useless” (ch. 22, 92). Callimaco certainly lacks a “most excellent” brain, as can be seen by the tenor of the questions he poses to Ligurio: “But what can I do? What course can I take? Where can I turn? How will this serve us? What are you saying?” (1.3). Callimaco may not have the second sort of brain either; for example, even after the plot begins to unfold he asks Ligurio, “Where do you want me to go now?” (2.6). It is Callimaco's lack of a “most excellent” or even an “excellent” brain that disqualifies him as the Machiavellian prince. It is what prompts Sumberg to depict Callimaco and Ligurio together in council as “the complete statesman,” and Lord to assign Ligurio the honor of Machiavelli's “self-portrait” (Sumberg 1961, 332; Lord 1979, 87).


Mark Hulliung proffers the view of many interpreters of the play when he claims that “Ligurio is the perfect Machiavellian” (1978, 44; see also Barber 1985, 453; Lord 1979, 817; Mastri 1987, 10-11). After all, Ligurio apparently originates the ploy, organizes the cabal, and directs the intrigue that surmounts the major stumbling block to Callimaco's wish: Lucrezia's reluctance to commit adultery. He tests his cunning against her virtue and employs the mandragola—the ersatz potion that is supposed to cure her alleged infertility—to win victory. (Since the mandragola is to be drunk by the man who copulates with Lucrezia, it is obviously another “potion” that effects her impregnation.)

Yet for all his cunning, Ligurio, too, does not quite fit the role of Machiavellian prince. As Hanna Pitkin points out, Ligurio thinks that Lucrezia is “fit to rule a kingdom,” but would Machiavelli have the same regard for a woman so easily seduced? (1984, 112). Sumberg points out that Ligurio is not a passionate person, and argues that he would never have instigated this (or any other) plot without the urging of an ardent person such as Callimaco (1961, 324, 332). In fact, it is difficult to understand exactly what interest Ligurio has in aiding Callimaco. Callimaco claims that Ligurio will gain “a good sum of money” if the conspiracy succeeds, and “a lunch and supper” if it fails. But Ligurio will gain more than money and a few meals from Messer Nicia and Callimaco; he will acquire a certain social respectability: He will be granted free access to Messer Nicia's house and thereby an entry into a social circle that was closed to him in the past. Are such plebeian motivations worthy of a true Machiavellian prince? Other than the obvious fact that some people can use their calculating cunning to ascend the social ladder, what point would Machiavelli be teaching if the satisfaction of Ligurio's desires were the lesson of the play?

There is another, and more serious, problem with Ligurio-as-leader theory. At the crucial moment when Lucrezia discovers that Callimaco is her lover, Ligurio has no control over events. Indeed, unlike the three who are in the bedroom, he is not present and must leave her decision to chance. Would a true Machiavellian be absent when Lady Fortuna was being conquered?


Shall we dare suggest Lucrezia—a woman—as the prince?5 We are not the first to have suspicions about Lucrezia. Susan Behuniak-Long argues that it “may well be that readers have indeed been tricked as Machiavelli warned” (in his prologue), because Lucrezia, who is so widely understood to be an honest and pious woman who experiences a fall from goodness during the play, is in fact of questionable character from the start (1989, 265). “Most of what we know of Lucrezia is not from first-hand information but from what others say about her throughout the play” (Behuniak-Long 1989, 267-68). According to Behuniak-Long, if we examine Lucrezia's actions, a different picture of her character emerges; her virtue is more imagined than real: She willingly consents, for example, to a plan that involves murder. Once the deception is uncovered, she accepts a stranger as her lover and assents to conceive his child (Behuniak-Long 1989, 268-70). Does this not demonstrate, Behuniak-Long asks rhetorically, that “Lucrezia is the key to reaching the deeper level of the play” (1989, 279; see also D'Amico 1984, 268-70)?

We think that Behuniak-Long is onto something and offer our own, even more censorious, suspicions: Clearly, Lucrezia realizes what has happened on the night of her seduction and readily acquiesces. She does not resist the advances of Callimaco; yet she does not respond to his proposal of marriage. She takes Callimaco as her lord, master, guide, father, and defender, but not her husband. The most telling evidence, however, of Lucrezia's possible involvement in the conspiracy is that she mysteriously, indeed, inexplicably, knows in advance that Messer Nicia will make Callimaco his close friend and godfather to the child, that Callimaco will go to the church as a member of the family later that morning, that he will be invited to dinner that evening, and that he will come and go from the Calfucci house “without suspicion” (5.4). It is indeed startling to realize that Callimaco's report of Lucrezia's instructions to him in the early morning hours after the satisfaction of his desires are identical to Messer Nicia's instructions to him given later that morning (5.4, 5.6). This leads us to recall that it is not Callimaco but Ligurio who suggests that Callimaco perpetuate the liaison with Lucrezia; which leads us to wonder, was it Ligurio's idea in the first place, or someone else's? Does Callimaco succeed in seducing Lucrezia with the aid of his adviser, or does Lucrezia succeed in seducing Callimaco with the aid of her adviser?


Messer Nicia is universally judged a simpleton. He is easily cuckolded by a ludicrous ruse. His desire for children, his need to keep up social appearances, and his unfailing ability to be duped make him the object of contempt and derision. “Nicia is comical precisely because he considers himself shrewd and socially aware, when, in fact, his behavior not only offends social decorum, it also exhibits a clear lack of virtù, since he is unable to discern fact from fiction. In Machiavellian terms, he is laughable essentially because he fails to perceive actual truth (“realtà effettuale della cose”), allowing himself to be taken in by appearances” (Di Maria 1986-89, 27).6 Yet Messer Nicia has many traits that have made it difficult for commentators to draw a clear picture of him. Their interpretations are either self-contradictory or do not square with the text. For instance, Lord argues that Messer Nicia represents the “political simplicity and the frivolity of princes” in Italy; nevertheless, he has somehow acquired “a certain awareness of the defects of his class” (1979, 817). Flaumenhaft asserts that “Italian Christianity, along with Nicia's indolent bourgeois life, has made him impotent in more than one way and, therefore, subject to the deceits of more vigorous men.” But she admits that “Nicia is not a devout practicing Christian” (1978, 48). We note, in fact, that it is “more than ten years” since he has even spoken to the Frate (3.2). Sumberg reasons that Messer Nicia “will kill a man to have an heir.” However, this same “man, who is an accomplice in a planned murder, could not be more law-abiding. Nicia pleads repeatedly with the fellow-plotters not to transgress the law, even in its most picayune detail” (1961, 329). But, far from being “a pillar of respectability in the community,” as Sumberg suggests (320), Messer Nicia states that his Florence does not “appreciate any virtù,” especially his kind: He has never held a political position, and although clearly he covets “status,” he cannot “find a dog to bark at him” (2.3).

Di Maria avers that “Nicia is so engrossed in attempting to enforce social etiquette that he is hardly alarmed by the curious familiarity existing between a marriage-broker turned parasite and a renowned doctor” (1986-89, 27). But, we wonder, why would a person “engrossed in attempting to enforce social etiquette” associate with “a marriage-broker turned parasite” at all? Di Maria asserts that Messer Nicia is easily beguiled by “Maestro” Callimaco's use of Latin, and thus accepts Callimaco's authority as a doctor of medicine: “Since Callimaco's medical elucidation is altogether meaningless and outright idiotic, the bene ragionare which wins Nicia's admiration does not refer to the doctor's science, but to the Latin rhetoric informing it” (1986-89, 27-28). Again we ask, could the man who read the works of Boethius—written in Latin (prologue)—really be so easily charmed by a few Latin phrases? His alleged inability to comprehend Latin, despite his claim to Siro that he studied it (2.3), is supposedly indicated by his failure to understand “Maestro” Callimaco's diagnosis of Messer Nicia's impotence, spoken in Latin. Messer Nicia objects to this claim only when it is repeated in Italian. This proves to Di Maria that Messer Nicia did not understand the Latin. But we suggest an alternative: Might not Messer Nicia be luring Callimaco into his web? Messer Nicia does not protest until the diagnosis is made in Italian. He is willing to abide the truth about his impotence in private, when it comes from “Maestro” Callimaco in Latin, but he is unwilling to have it repeated publicly in front of Ligurio, who cannot understand Latin. This would lead the “real” Callimaco to conclude that Messer Nicia is a foolish man, easily impressed by a few high-blown phrases, who is desperately trying to conceal his inadequacies from the public as represented by Ligurio. But perhaps Messer Nicia maintains a public facade of virility and at the same time plays the fool before the “Maestro” because he wishes to present himself to the “real” Callimaco as someone easily duped. We should not forget that for the plot to succeed two things must happen: Messer Nicia must be duped and the plot must never be uncovered. Clearly, Messer Nicia does not want this double deception against Callimaco revealed. He demands that Callimaco tell no one of the plan involving the mandragola. He implores Callimaco, “above all, don't let it be known” (2.6).

We suggest that readers of Machiavelli's conspiratorial comedy ought not be so easily deceived by appearances as Messer Nicia always seems to be. We propose a reconsideration of the obvious folly of Messer Nicia. In Machiavelli's terms, we ask, what is the “effectual truth” (Prince, ch. 15) of Messer Nicia's folly?


It is often asserted that Machiavelli is a teacher of political means. He is scientific in the modern sense of the word because he has no teaching about the purpose or end of political life. Instead, he examines and offers advice on the most efficient means of attaining whatever objects people desire. If Callimaco's desire were the only catalyst within Mandragola, that claim might satisfactorily express the teaching of the play. We must not forget, however, that there are two desires in the play that might give impetus to the grand fraud: Callimaco's lust for Lucrezia and Messer Nicia's longing for children, or to put it formally, a new foundation for his family.

Messer Nicia Calfucci is a wealthy doctor, “a dottore who learned in Buethius a great deal of law” (prologue).7 Boethius was a scholar and the principal minister to Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king of Italy. His major work, The Consolation of Philosophy, was written while he was in prison for plotting to overthrow Theodoric in order to restore the Roman Senate and reestablish the ancient liberties of Rome. He died without revealing his part in the plot.8 Among his other scholarly achievements, Boethius was a translator of Aristotle. Moreover, although he never avowed Christianity, he was honored as a Christian martyr. His two sons became consuls of Rome (Edwards 1967, 328-30). Now if Messer Nicia learned a great deal from Boethius, not only might he know the classical Greeks and value being honored by the Christians, he would also understand the importance of refoundations or new foundations. And just as Boethius was denied political activity while in prison, Messer Nicia (like Machiavelli himself) is kept from political opportunity in Florence. Boethius was unable to create or recreate a political order, while Messer Nicia lacks the power to create or re-create his family, at least by nature.

Messer Nicia is married to the most beautiful woman in Florence; she is much his junior. What then is his problem? He is apparently deficient in two ways: he cannot produce children, and he cannot fully control his wife on account of her piety. Yet, Lucrezia's impeccable propriety is important to Messer Nicia, as are all appearances of being law abiding and respectable. In order for Messer Nicia to overcome his natural deficiency and lay a new foundation for his family, he must locate an appropriate mate for his wife and find a way around his wife's religious scruples, all the while maintaining appearances. Moreover, if fortune is to be mastered, the liaison must be perpetuated over time to ensure him the son or sons that he desires. To see how Messer Nicia seeks to achieve his twin goals we must investigate his relationship with Callimaco and Ligurio.

Messer Nicia remarks that Ligurio and Callimaco live like beasts (5.6). In The Prince (ch. 18), Machiavelli counsels that a prince should act like two particular beasts, the lion and the fox. Lions are fearless and foxes are cunning. These qualities are rarely found in the same individual; still, for difficult ventures to succeed, both are necessary. To facilitate his scheme, Messer Nicia needs the boldness of Callimaco and the shrewdness of Ligurio. But is it not Messer Nicia who knows his own nature—including his impotence—and thus knows when he must change his nature, combining or prudently alternating the lion and the fox in personae that enable him to master his (ill) fortune?

Callimaco is a brash young man whose parents died in his youth. His intense passions have not been tamed by parental instruction. Love of tradition, devotion to religion, or respect for authority are unimportant to Callimaco. Rather, his untamed erotic impulse drives him to pursue above everything the satisfaction of his lust for Lucrezia. His eros is a propelling force of the play, but Callimaco cannot control it. He has the perfect kind of soul to be ruled by someone who possesses self-control and who can control others. Is not Callimaco, as Aristotle suggests of people who cannot rule their passions, the natural slave to the person who can (Politics 1254b1-1255a1)? We dare to suggest that Callimaco does not have to suppress his eros because Messer Nicia has his own plans for it, plans that depend on its full vigor. Callimaco is, as Messer Nicia himself says, the perfect “staff” of his old age; that is, Callimaco is the perfect live-in lover for Messer Nicia's beautiful young wife. Callimaco is Messer Nicia's lion.

Ligurio is a “marriage broker” with whom Messer Nicia maintains an acquaintance by giving him money (1.1). Despite a long-standing relationship, Ligurio is never invited into Messer Nicia's home—that is, not until after Callimaco's conquest of Lucrezia. Messer Nicia needs the assistance of a man like Ligurio to accomplish his grand design. Ligurio is Messer Nicia's fox. But the fox must not be allowed too near the lamb. Ligurio thinks that Lucrezia is not only “beautiful,” but “wise, well-mannered, and fit to govern a kingdom” (1.3). Given the opportunity, the fox might himself lie down with the lamb. This, however, would foil Messer Nicia's designs, for Lucrezia would never accept as her lover a man of Ligurio's vulgar type, certainly not over the long term necessary to produce Messer Nicia's sons. Furthermore, Ligurio lacks the aristocratic seed Messer Nicia wants from his “staff.”9

As we have seen, Ligurio is often taken to be Machiavelli's “Machiavellian” character. Yet Ligurio is instructed and scolded by Messer Nicia on a number of occasions, particularly concerning the best means of carrying out the conspiracy. It is Messer Nicia who tells Ligurio that he is “wrong”—that he has “a mouth full of milk”—when he rejects Ligurio's scheme of going to the baths to consummate the seduction, probably because Messer Nicia fears that at a public place there is no way to control who could approach Lucrezia (1.2). It is Messer Nicia who first subtly introduces the idea of a doctor of medicine, the scheme that is later adopted as the means of gaining intimate access to his wife (1.2). “The Dottore has commissioned me to find a doctor,” Ligurio tells Callimaco (1.3). It is Messer Nicia who directs Ligurio to call Callimaco maestro so that he can effectively masquerade as a doctor (2.1). It is Messer Nicia who points out that for the intrigue to go forward, Lucrezia's piety must first be circumvented by “way of her confessor” (2.6). He castigates Ligurio, calling him “really dumb,” for not informing him of all parts of the plan, even picayune details (4.9).

It is true, of course, that once Ligurio gets hold of the plot he uses his shrewdness to overcome Lucrezia's resistance, her moral reservations. He enlists a priest who will absolve her of any sin. But she is hesitant to see her confessor; it seems she had experienced sexual harassment at the hands of a priest. To triumph over this reluctance, Ligurio appeals to the parental authority, the most natural of all authorities. Parents command dominion over their children because parents claim to guide children to what is good for them. Parents are able to direct children toward what is good for them because parents have more wisdom than children. Wisdom comes with age. Thus, parents acquire authority by being old. The old, in other words, is synonymous with the good. But Sostrata, Lucrezia's old mother, used to be “good company,” as Callimaco remarks, when she was not so old (1.1). Sostrata quickly becomes part of the conspiracy and convinces her daughter to see the priest, Frate Timoteo. In Machiavelli's world the old may not always teach the young to be good; they may also teach the young to have a good time.

How can Ligurio undermine Lucrezia's religious conviction? Again he appeals to an authority to corrupt her, this time the authority of the Church. First, he entraps Frate Timoteo into the conspiracy with a bribe. Timoteo agrees to sanction an abortion in exchange for a donation to his parish, on the grounds that it “will do good for the greatest number” (3.4). The Frate also agrees to sanction it both under his own authority and that of the abbess, suggesting that the Church is so badly in need of donations that it will act against its own moral canons. He admits that the Church is becoming corrupt and that its influence is declining (5.1). When the need for the abortion turns out to be entirely fictitious, Ligurio induces the Frate to cooperate in the plot against Lucrezia.

When we first meet the Frate he is talking with a woman about her deceased husband. She complains that he mistreated her, perhaps in a sexual way, but that the Church could do nothing about it. She then asks if the Turks will invade Italy—she fears the impaling she might suffer. The Frate assures her that the Turks will not invade if she keeps up her devotions (3.3).10 Lucrezia too fears that sin will cause her death (3.11). She is pious because of the dread of retribution both in this life and in the afterlife. From these examples we can infer that in the play religion claims to deliver both earthly felicity and eternal salvation. But since it derives its ultimate strength from being otherworldly, it cannot truly satisfy worldly desires. To be effective in the visible world, it must counsel taking “a certain good” over “an uncertain evil” (3.11).

Eventually the inconsistency of religion will cause its doom. Another faith will have to take its place. In a way, the mandragola, which is supposed to cure Lucrezia's infertility, is a new kind of faith, a new mode. Outwardly everyone professes to believe in its powers. It allows them all to maintain their propriety. But the new mode is merely instrumental (2.1, 3.12, 4.2). Its function is to satiate the temporal appetites of human beings—as, of course, it does for every character in the play (with the possible exception of Siro). Just as the mandragola sanctifies an adulterous sexual union by joining it to generation, so the new ethical mode disguises human desires by acknowledging them as moral actions (later called rights). The new ethical mode rests on a conspiracy in which each person gets what he or she wants, but each is fearful of admitting his or her complicity (4.6). Mutual complicity in crime is the ground of Machiavellian trust; indeed, it establishes the “common good” and is the basis of citizenship in Machiavelli's new political order. To establish the new order, the remnants of the old must be swept away. This involves an inversion of standards. (Thus Callimaco's beauty must be turned into ugliness by his preposterous disguise [5.1].) Eventually the new order can be institutionalized, as Callimaco and Lucrezia are joined in quasimatrimony by Messer Nicia himself (5.6). If Lucrezia is tricked into adultery it is because she mistakes a new mode for her old religion (5.4). She does not abandon her husband; rather she “lives to enjoy continued sexual infidelities with an untroubled conscience, but is careful to preserve her reputation, that is, the appearance of honor” (Flaumenhaft 1978, 46). The old forms are maintained although they contain “new matter” (Machiavelli, Discourses 1.25).

During the change from old to new, the founder must ensure nothing is overlooked (5.2). For example, on the night that the disguised, comic band goes out to ensnare a “victim” to copulate with Lucrezia, Messer Nicia is the only one carrying a weapon (4.8). Sumberg argues that there

is no show of force in the play. No one carries a weapon with the exception of Nicia who puts on a small sword upon joining the plotters to find the young man to drag to Lucrezia. But he never unsheathes the sword and its uselessness is emphasized by the irony of his buckling it on the moment before he loses his wife. … The action of the play consequently gives the lie to the statement of The Prince (ch. 6) that the armed prophets win and the unarmed lose.

(1961, 322)11

But seen in a different light Messer Nicia's behavior seems prudent. He carries a sword in case something goes awry with the intricate and potentially embarrassing plot, a scheme that could come to the attention of the Florentine magistrates (2.6).12 Even a small sword can be quite effective when no one else is armed.13 He does not use the weapon because the intrigue unfolds as he had planned, and the plan calls for the use of the sword only if the deception is somehow revealed. Messer Nicia has not lost his wife; he is gaining a son. Prophets succeed best when they can use fraud as well as force.

Although Messer Nicia's activities on the evening of the conspiracy's culmination are made to look ridiculous, they take on a far different complexion if we entertain the possibility that he is aware of what is going on. The apparent deception of Messer Nicia rests on his inability to recognize people. He fails to identify the Frate disguised as Callimaco and Callimaco masquerading as a street musician with a twisted face and a large nose (4.2, 8). But are Messer Nicia's powers of perception that flawed? As Lord points out, “In spite of his comic ignorance of the world outside his native city, Nicia boasts of having visited Pisa, and he promptly recalls for Ligurio the correct name of a fort in the vicinity (the Verrucola) recently occupied by the Florentines in the long war against their former subjects” (1979, 816). He is also able to detail its size (1.2). Furthermore, consider Callimaco's disguise. Are a twisted face and a fake nose really sufficient concealment to fool even a child? The features of the face, no matter how contorted, are readily distinguishable. In fact, children and childish people are often the most difficult to dupe with such games. It is true that Messer Nicia professes not to have recognized Callimaco (5.2), but the supposedly childish Messer Nicia has an interest in acquiescing in the charade because he is childless.

But Messer Nicia more than acquiesces, he insists “that nothing … [be] done under a hood.” As the plot is about to reach its climax, he uses his own hands to make certain that things are proceeding according to plan (5.2). Unlike Ligurio, who is absent, Messer Nicia takes the advice of Machiavelli's Prince:

Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially princes, where there is no court to appeal to, one looks to the end. So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in this world there is no one but the vulgar.

(Prince, ch. 18)

So thoroughly does Messer Nicia wish to conquer chance that he allows Callimaco unlimited access to his wife in case the couple's first union does not produce a child, or the first child is not a boy, or the first boy is not possessed of the right character.14 But we should not be surprised if the new union lasts but a few years.

Callimaco and Sostrata knew each other in the past (1.1). Perhaps Lucrezia's mother told Messer Nicia about Callimaco, and Nicia somehow influenced his relative to entice the aristocratic Florentine back to Italy. Only a handsome and passionate young man, preferably a Florentine noble, could overcome Lucrezia's reluctance to commit adultery. Messer Nicia complains throughout the play of his difficulty in controlling his wife. But, in what way does he wish to control her? Perhaps he has asked her to undergo the Florentine equivalent of artificial insemination, but her propriety compelled her to refuse. Once she has seen the beautiful Callimaco, however, and tasted the fruit, she becomes an accommodating participant in Messer Nicia's scheme. Yet, if this orphaned Florentine expatriate, without family to avenge him, were to meet with some ill fate or accident after several years—say, he died in the arms of another woman and thereby alienated Lucrezia's affections—no one would raise too much of a disturbance.15


Mandragola is a play about conspiracies, and Mandragola is itself a conspiracy. All of the various conspiracy theories put forward by the interpreters of Mandragola have a certain credence, and it is clear that Machiavelli wanted his audience to wonder who was at the center of the plot's intrigue. Machiavelli hoped to stimulate his readers to think the way skillful conspirators should: trust no one fully, including, if not the playwright himself, at least his “prologue” and “songs.” Machiavelli both conspires with and against his audience; he tests them, and those who pass the test, he trains. He can make accomplices of the best of his audience only if the play's conspiracy is similar to real-life conspiracies: complex, intricate, and full of false leads. Among his friends, Machiavelli referred to his play as “Messer Nicia”; it is called La mandragola by his prologue (Rebhorn 1988, 67). Machiavelli certainly knew enough not to call attention to his true intentions, not to give his conspiracy away by naming names.

The key to Mandragola may be found in Discourses 3.2. There Machiavelli retells the famous story of the Roman maiden Lucrezia who chose to commit suicide rather than live with the dishonor of having been raped. The “rape” of Mandragola's Lucrezia by fraud cannot help but bring to mind the rape of the historical Lucrezia by force, and Machiavelli surely chose the name in order to bring the incident to mind. The project of Brutus was the overthrow of the Tarquins and the establishment of Roman republican liberty. He used the rape of Lucrezia as a means to his political end. To effect his scheme, he played the fool. Machiavelli's lesson is revealed in the title of Discourses 3.2: “At the Right Time It Is the Highest Wisdom to Simulate Folly.”16 This lesson, we think, Messer Nicia learned, perhaps from reading Livy in Latin, as Machiavelli did, as well as Boethius.

Messer Nicia never prays to heaven for children. He takes matters into his own hands. He overcomes the defects of his nature by playing the fool and by allowing others to believe that he has been deceived by the mandragola. Not only does Messer Nicia wish to have progeny, he hopes through his children to control the future, if you will, to conquer chance.

The plot can never be revealed. Messer Nicia is aware that his Lucrezia aspires to the same reputation for virtue as Rome's Lucrezia. If he is to safely cajole her into engaging in a dishonorable act, he must do so by means of the wisdom gained from both Boethius's and Brutus's examples. Lucrezia cannot be publicly humiliated; her reputation must be maintained. Moreover, Messer Nicia wants to become the acknowledged father of Lucrezia's offspring. He must overcome his defective nature, but he must conceal the consequent artificial or conventional character of his relationship to his children. To found his family he must conquer his ill fortune. And to do so he knows, as does Machiavelli, that it is the highest wisdom to feign folly at the right time, “and this is sufficiently done by praising, speaking, seeing, and doing things contrary to your way of thinking” (Discourses 3.2).17

Machiavelli is surely a serious student of politics, yet he is the author of this funny play. Like Messer Nicia, Machiavelli plays the fool. As Sumberg argues, “Only as a fool can a wise man mingle unmolested with the people. Machiavelli understood Socrates' fate as well as anyone. Playing the clown is even more necessary for Machiavelli than for earlier philosophers, for he starts a new and more dangerous kind of philosophy” (1961, 338). Both Machiavelli and his incredible “fool,” Messer Nicia (who, as others have maintained, may in fact be named after Nicias, the leader of the ill-fated Athenian expedition to Sicily), teach us to what lengths human beings must go to subdue an otherwise hostile nature (Lord 1979, 815; Rebhorn 1988, 83). If they are shrewd enough and learn the correct lessons, Machiavelli's students can avoid the fate of Nicias, avoid being victims of ill fortune. To become shrewd enough, they must understand the human condition, the things of this world: whatever possible order exists among the chance occurrences of the universe is humanly created (Strauss 1958, 198, 200, 203).


The authors thank Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. for first suggesting the line of argument taken in this article and for graciously sharing with them a transcription of his lecture on the Mandragola. James F. Pontuso also acknowledges an intellectual debt to Delba Winthrop who encouraged him to read the Mandragola and other works carefully. Hampden-Sydney College provided a grant to James F. Pontuso for the preparation of this article.


  1. Hulliung represents this position most clearly: “The true link between seduction and conspiracy, as understood by Machiavelli, is that they are virtually interchangeable phenomena, to be conducted according to identical rules” (1978, 39).

  2. All quotations are from Flaumenhaft's translation of Mandragola (Machiavelli 1981).

  3. One of Sumberg's errors is to argue that Messer Nicia is the ideal object of a conspiracy because he has no relatives to avenge him (1961, 327). Sumberg forgets about Cammillo Calfucci. Indeed, everyone forgets about Cammillo Calfucci who plays, we believe, a critical role in the architectonic conspiracy within Mandragola.

  4. Sumberg, too, argues that Callimaco has political ambition, but he gives no textual evidence for this conclusion (1961, 332). Flaumenhaft points out that, “Machiavelli goes out of his way to emphasize that the protagonist of his play is an unpatriotic man” (1978, 42).

  5. “Prince” is a technical term in Machiavelli's works. It is not reserved for a single male, but used to designate whoever holds final executive power in the state. At one point in the Discourses Machiavelli calls the Roman Senate “prince” of Rome (1.38), and at another the Decemvirs “absolute prince of Rome” (1.40). In The Prince, ch. 20, he claims that in “our times fortresses have not been seen to bring profit to any prince, unless to the Countess of Forlì, when Count Girolamo, her consort, died; for by means of a fortress she was able to escape a popular uprising, to await help from Milan, and to recover her state”—i.e., the countess is a “prince.”

  6. Even Machiavelli's prologue and songs join in to belittle Messer Nicia, calling him “a not-so-astute dottore” (un dottore poco astuto) and stating that he “would believe an ass would fly” (prologue, song after the second act). The same prologue, who we are suggesting should be treated as a character in the play, and one whose views are not necessarily identical to Machiavelli's, notes that Lucrezia is shrewd (una giovane accorta), Callimaco a miserable lover and a monster (un amante meschino, monstro), the Frate Timoteo an ill-living frate (un frate mall vissuto), and Ligurio a parasite, the darling of malice (un parassito, di malizia li cucco). But are any of those fully accurate descriptions of the characters portrayed? They seem to be at odds with at least some aspect of their behavior. Perhaps we should heed Machiavelli's advice and “not pay attention to words.” The prologue states explicitly that Machiavelli would wish that we (the audience) would be tricked as she (Lucrezia) was. And when was the prologue written? And for whom? The prologue also states that the characters are “yours,” meaning, we suggest, the audience's—or perhaps Francesco Guicciardini's: The prologue and songs, which were not originally in the play, were written at the request of Guicciardini. In a letter in which Machiavelli responds to some questions that Guicciardini had about the play, he quotes the second decade of Livy to him, which was not extant (Machiavelli 1961, 213). In another letter to Guicciardini Machiavelli writes, “For a long time I have not said what I believe, nor do I ever believe what I say, and if indeed sometimes I do happen to tell the truth, I hide it among so many lies that it is hard to find” (1989, 2:973).

  7. Boethius is misspelled, and this could be taken as a sign of Messer Nicia's incompetence. Yet, it is not Messer Nicia speaking here, but Machiavelli's somewhat deceptive prologue.

  8. If Lord's reading of Mandragola is correct—that is, the play is Machiavelli's retrospective, esoteric confession of his own part in a conspiracy against Soderini in 1504—the parallel here between Boethius and Machiavelli is most interesting. We believe, incidentally, that both our own and Lord's reading of the play may be correct. Not that we wish to subscribe to literary theories that permit myriad readings of texts, but rather because we believe Machiavelli capable of constructing a plot that, on the comic level, calls for our reading, and that on the allegorical level Lord calls for his. The two readings need not be mutually exclusive: nor, for that matter, need they exclude a third; Machiavelli's writing is polysemous.

  9. Messer Nicia desires sons of the correct sort. Unlike Callimaco, Ligurio lacks the lion's heart. As Sumberg says, he is “aloof” (1961, 324). Perhaps Messer Nicia wants children with the spiritedness that Ligurio lacks.

  10. We think that the lady doth protest too much! On the basis of the Frate's implied threat she might abjure her religious devotions and hope for the best. At any rate, her belief that religion can affect individual fate is steadfast.

  11. Sumberg argues that “Callimaco unchallenged will very much be master of the new order.” He adds that this “new state rests on force, as do all political orders” (1961, 327). But Messer Nicia is the only character in the play who is capable of employing force, since he is the only one armed.

  12. Compare Discourses 3.5 in which Machiavelli explains that “Tarquin was driven from Rome, not because his son Sextus had violated Lucrezia, but because he had disregarded the laws of the kingdom. … Princes should remember, then, that they begin to lose their state from the moment when they begin to disregard the laws and ancient customs under which people have lived contented for a length of time.” See also Discourses 3.26.

  13. As Sostrata points out in Machiavelli's other great comedy Clizia (Machiavelli 1985a, 4.12), which involves some of the same characters as Mandragola.

  14. We know that the scheme was successful. In Clizia Frate Timoteo is said to have worked a miracle in helping Lucrezia have a child (Machiavelli 1985a, 2.3).

  15. Sumberg suggests that Callimaco might hasten Messer Nicia's death since Lucrezia will then marry him (1961, 326). All the more reason for Messer Nicia to rid his family of the outsider after two or three years. As we noted earlier, Sumberg mistakenly asserts that it is Messer Nicia who is without family to avenge him, forgetting about Cammillo Calfucci, the very man who first approached Callimaco in Paris.

  16. Pitkin understands how important playing the fool was for Machiavelli, but her interpretation of Mandragola overlooks the most foolish character (Pitkin 1984, 38).

  17. Our imaginary sixth act of Mandragola goes something like this: The scene is Messer Nicia's house, three years hence. Messer Nicia reminds Ligurio of their meeting in the Lucelli Gardens in 1503-1504, where Nicia's friend, Machiavelli, discoursed on the lessons to be drawn from Brutus's conspiratorial activities in founding Roman liberty. Now Messer Nicia and his lieutenant, Ligurio (who, we recall, was on Nicia's payroll before the opening of the play), must bring the conspiracy to its end: they must “make sure” of Callimaco. Nicia now has two sons; as for Callimaco, he is no longer so enamored of Lucrezia. But Callimaco is devoted to the young boys, especially Nicollo, the first born (perhaps his paternal ardor is enhanced by memories of his own orphaned youth). Messer Nicia is no longer in need of a “staff” to sustain his old age; Callimaco has become, rather, a dangerous rock: Messer Nicia's self-interest and Callimaco's no longer coincide; they no longer share the same “common good.” Callimaco (not Messer Nicia, contra Sumberg) is without family to avenge him.


Aristotle. 1984. Politics. Trans. Carnes Lord. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Barber, Joseph A. 1985. “The irony of Lucrezia: Machiavelli's donna di virtù.” Studies in Philology 82:450-59.

Behuniak-Long, Susan. 1989. “The significance of Lucrezia in Machiavelli's La Mandragola.Review of Politics 51:264-80.

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. 1981. On the consolation of philosophy. Trans. W. V. Cooper. Chicago: Regnery Gateway.

D'Amico, Jack. 1984. “The virtù of women: Machiavelli's Mandragola and Clizia.Interpretation 12:261-73.

Di Maria, Salvatore. 1986-89. “The ethical premises for the Mandragola's new society.” Italian Culture 7:17-33.

Edwards, Paul, ed. 1967. The encyclopedia of philosophy. Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Macmillan.

Flaumenhaft, Mera. 1978. “The comic remedy: Machiavelli's Mandragola.Interpretation 7:33-74.

Hulliung, Mark. 1978. “Machiavelli's Mandragola: A day and night in the life of a citizen.” Review of Politics 40:32-57.

Lord, Carnes. 1979. “On Machiavelli's Mandragola.Journal of Politics 41:806-27.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. 1981. Mandragola. Trans. Mera J. Flaumenhaft. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland.

———. 1985a. The comedies of Machiavelli. Bilingual ed. Ed. and trans. David Sices and James B. Atkinson. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.

———. 1985b. The prince. Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1988. Florentine histories. Trans. Laura F. Banfield and Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

———. 1989. The chief works and others. Trans. Allan Gilbert. 3 vols. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mastri, Augustus A. 1987. “Machiavelli's La Mandragola: A political and personal statement.” Ball State Review 28:3-15.

Pitkin, Hanna. 1984. Fortune is a woman: Gender and politics in the thought of Machiavelli. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rebhorn, Wayne A. 1988. Foxes and lions: Machiavelli's confidence men. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Scott, John T., and Vickie B. Sullivan. 1994. “Patricide and the plot of The Prince: Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli's Italy.” American Political Science Review 88:887-900.

Strauss, Leo. 1958. Thoughts on Machiavelli. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, Leo, and Joseph Cropsey. 1987. A history of political philosophy. 3d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sumberg, Theodore A. 1961. “La Mandragola: An interpretation.” Review of Politics 23:320-40.

Criticism: La Clizia (Clizia)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13098

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 a common byword now, but Machiavelli was a political scientist or political philosopher. The Prince, his most famous work, is perhaps the most notorious handbook for unscrupulous policies ever and perhaps also the most influential treatise of political philosophy ever.

I shall argue that Machiavelli's Clizia is itself a mix of the amusingly popular and the gravely searching. Bawdy and raucous as it may be, Clizia is also maliciously penetrating as to religion, morals, and love. It teaches how to get the girl, and it also teaches how to manage in the long run mating and a household. Simply put, the play applies Machiavellian arts of scoffing and of management to sex, love, and family. It thus shows the way to enlightened reform of the relations between man and woman, parent and child, master and servant. The traditional relations of love, deference, piety, and duty are ridiculed as frauds. They are replaced by transactions for mutual utility, with an art of management as midwife. Clizia teaches a lot about the comedy of enlightenment, if we can figure it out. Such an inquiry, which extends to the play's connections with similar themes in its sister play, Mandragola, is what this essay is about.


I fear that serious talk about comedy will have the dubious appeal of explaining a joke, especially in an age when critics eulogize irony and deprecate the importance of being earnest. Yet a comic writer has to have a serious side. If you can make people laugh at the low and the foolish, you must have some inkling of the high or at least of the knowing. The more uncommon the playwright's consideration of such things, the more penetrating his drama and even his humor. Midsummer Night's Dream is not mere slapstick or a sitcom; Bottom the Weaver is more than a slip on a banana peel or the roast of a particular pol. Uncommon playwrights instruct. Machiavelli, the uncommon playwright here, intended to instruct. He said so. He said so precisely in Clizia's prologue, which contains a serious rethinking of the comic art. A playwright must devise “expressions which excite laughter,” but the spectators who eagerly attend to “enjoy themselves” will “taste afterwards the useful lesson that lay underneath.”

One cannot but wonder: what “useful lesson” does Machiavelli advance beneath the biting humor of Clizia? And how is it related to the striking political lessons of The Prince and the Discourses on Livy, his two major works? One must wonder also at the relation between underlying lesson and humorous appeal: might Machiavelli's humor be specially designed to bite into the scruples of a broad range of spectators? It seems to me that Clizia advances lessons in cynicism and policy, especially for lovers, women, and servants, and advances too a correspondingly scoffing and controlled humor. The combination proves to be a powerful vehicle. I shall call Machiavellian comedy a vehicle of enlightenment. It is chiefly the saucy comedies that have led some commentators to call Machiavelli the “greatest dramatist of his age,” “the greatest of Italian dramatists,” and a seminal influence upon important traditions of European drama, including such playwrights as Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Congreve. Shakespeare himself, seminal in a different tradition, was famously concerned to rebut that “notorious Machevile” and his “subtle” and “politic” portrayals of love, ambition, and comedy itself.

At first sighting the plot might make one doubt whether such light drama can bear such grave interpreting. Cleandro, a young Florentine, is mad with desire for the beautiful Clizia, a girl of seventeen brought up from childhood in his household. But Cleandro has to contend with his father, Nicomaco, an old geezer who also wants to bed Clizia, and with his ambitious mother, Sofronia, who regards the match as unsuitable. Indeed, in the face of his parents' diverse passions, Cleandro's efforts are reduced to a sideshow. The plot is moved by the attempts of old Nicomaco to get the girl and the counterplots of old Sofronia to protect the girl and especially to protect the household. Nicomaco would marry off Clizia to a pliable servant, Pirro, who is to make the girl available to his master. But Sofronia, who has stopped Cleandro by command, would stop Nicomaco by a countermarriage of Clizia to Eustachio—the stinky steward (“perfumed in dung”) of the family farm. Nicomaco responds with a bizarre and successful drawing of lots (there are allusions to the workings of providence), by means of which his Pirro wins out over Sofronia's Eustachio for the marriage rights. But Sofronia crowns this move by substituting for the bride Clizia a disguised male servant, Siro. What Nicomaco finds in the marital bed is not what he had expected. There follows a lewdly humiliating encounter in the dark. The threat of bringing it to light is enough to bring Nicomaco to heel. At the end the unexpected arrival of the wealthy and respectable father of Clizia persuades Sofronia to allow Cleandro to marry Clizia. Through her wits and plots and some help from fortuna, Sofronia manages to arrange a restored family and even a new and future prosperity.

It seems simple and even the triumph of justice. But there are strange loose ends and substantive peculiarities. Why does Clizia never appear? Why does Clizia's father, Ramondo, appear out of nowhere? Why does Cleandro's friend Palamede completely disappear after his prominence in the first scene? Why the strange linkages of Nicomaco to God? And how explain the prominence or even universality of selfish motives and calculating policies? How can there be a just restoration of family ties when each and every member seems an instrument of private passion, be it sexual desire or an appetite for wealth, respectability, and security? Why the amorality or immorality in most or all of the chief characters and in their constant conspiring?

It is no doubt true that some of the loose ends correspond to the neoclassical stage conventions of the time, but it is also true that such correspondences don't prove much in this case. Machiavelli was a dramatist who broke plenty of conventions. Or so at least a recent commentator argues: Machiavelli omitted such staples of neoclassical comedy as subplots, prominent minor characters, and leisurely one-liners and was a “pioneer,” an innovator who was “inventing a new mode of theater from scratch.” Given the possibility of radical unconventionality, one has to wonder first and foremost about Machiavelli's own plan: the comprehensive intention that permitted him to retain what he did as well as to change what he did.

In any event, the chief peculiarity of Machiavellian comedy is not literary form but substantive outlook, a comprehensive cynicism as to human motives. This is clearly intentional, for it is the chief feature of the theory of comedy that the prologue expounds. Some who deny moral or political seriousness to Clizia, such as the biographer Roberto Ridolfi, neglect to address this authentic explanation of Machiavelli's intent.

Both Clizia and Mandragola are unconventional from the start, that is, in their self-consciously philosophic prologues. A recent commentator goes so far as to say that Machiavelli “invented the critical prologue in which the author does something never met in classical literature: he analyzes and discusses his own art.” Be that as it may, the prologues stand out in their mixture of the singularly self-regarding and the singularly universal. In Clizia the author speaks and mentions no predecessors. Yet he speaks as wise in the manner of a philosopher—as a knower of “events always the same” and hence of the nature of human things. Consider the Roman play on which the Clizia is modeled, Plautus's Casina. While the Casina has a prologue, the actors deliver it, and they trace the play deferentially to a Greek original. In Clizia's, Machiavelli alone speaks, and he tacitly sneers at traditional literary theories.

What Clizia's prologue recommends is a cynical-scoffing comedy, one which ridicules morality and piety and the supposition that either is realistic. Comedies were invented to “benefit” as well as to “delight.” According to Machiavelli, the benefit is consciousness-lowering (as we may call it). An author can bring out the “avarice,” “passion,” and “tricks” in his characters; he should bring out in general “the untrustworthiness of all men.” The doubtfulness of moral claims is the theme. While the prologue displays some initial concern that the play not appear to contain “some indecency” (disonesta), by its end Machiavelli says only that if there is anything “not decent” (non onesta), women will be able to listen “without blushing.” Indecency there may be—but so presented that women can get over it.

This thoroughgoing cynicism as to men and morals challenges the chief literary theories of the time, especially those derived from Horace's Art of Poetry and Aristotle's Poetics. The Art of Poetry was the leading European vehicle of classical literary theory through the so-called middle ages until it began to be supplanted, during Machiavelli's era, by the Poetics. Both of these works make the poet a teacher of decency, not an underminer of it. The Art of Poetry is especially notable for its moral intention. To convey the purpose of poetry Horace recurs to the fable of Orpheus, the “holy prophet” of divine harmony among men: in primitive times the charms of rhyme and music were to make men shrink “from bloodshed and brutal living.” Then poets drew lines between private and public, things sacred and things common. They checked “vagrant union,” gave rules for wedded life, helped build towns and give laws. For such civilizing contributions the archaic poets reaped honor. A Hesiod and a Homer were even worshiped as divine. Later poets, according to Horace, hymn the gods, prepare men for battle, show a way of life. He prescribes accordingly. A dramatic chorus, for example, should side with the good. It should give friendly counsel, praise justice, law, and peace, and pray that a divine justice will give good fortune to the unhappy and the reverse to the proud.

Aristotle's Poetics is less morally didactic in acknowledging the varieties of tragedy and comedy and especially in wariness as to religious theatrics and moral-religious indictments of the poets. But on the point in question the Poetics does not differ much. The “more serious” (semnoterei) dramatists imitate the “more noble” (kalas) men and doings; the less serious, men and things that are common and base (phaulos). The distinction between high and low, noble and base, is a starting point or the starting point. Seriousness about the fate of high possibilities is the measure to the point that tragedy, not comedy, seems the high or higher drama. Still, the Poetics also points in other directions. Near the end Aristotle defends poets against the charge that they portray things not noble. He is circumspect. One needs to consider whether the thing said or done is actually serious or base (spoudaios or phaulos), and by whom and to whom it is said or done, and whether to obtain a greater good or avoid a lesser evil. Perhaps part of the poet's task is to warn against evil under the appearance of good, such as in an Iago, to show the limitations of certain understandings of nobility, such as the sexual austerity of the pious Angelo (in Measure for Measure), or the compassion of Miranda and the honest kindness of Gonzalo (in the Tempest), or to remind of goods apart from noble conduct, such as the wisdom and poetic gift of a Prospero. Still, if Aristotle's measure of poetry proceeds beyond common decency, it begins with respect for decency or at least with the common promptings of reason in knowing: “Learning things gives great pleasure not only to philosophers but also in the same way to all other men, though they share this pleasure only to a small degree.”

According to Machiavelli's poetics in Clizia, on the other hand, the starting point of comedy is ridicule of others in order to appeal to the audience's desire to be superior. The playwright gets laughs at human beings who are silly, in love, or insulted (or harmed: “iniuroso”). The laughing is a looking down on others, not for their baseness or vulgarity but out of one's desire to be above them. The playwright appeals not to intuitions of something higher (noble or fair or pious), but to the desire to rise if only by having others reduced. Machiavellian comedy supposes the audience to be self-regarding; it appeals accordingly. This supposition is a two-edged sword. From such an audience a playwright cannot himself obtain admiration, to say nothing of worship. Machiavelli knows the difficulty. The prologue of Mandragola tells of the reward he expects: everyone will “sneer” and “speak ill.” He confronts the difficulty. Machiavelli will not bother to remonstrate or to rise above the taunts. He will defend himself and indeed beat the audience at its own game. He will obtain his own superiority. The playwright too is self-regarding in Machiavelli's sense. Hence, I suspect, the prologue's peculiarly self-regarding assertions of superiority—precisely in wielding the poison pen. Machiavelli too can speak ill and better than anyone. “This was his first art,” this speaking ill, and he stands in awe of no one where Italian is spoken. Such an audience extends beyond the theater. Machiavelli's art of laughter is more like a politic art of governing or at least of rising. His ridicule is not least for the sake of reducing his rivals for literary superiority, for example, the Roman playwrights or, as I will suggest, even Dante. Machiavelli proves to be “a darling of malice” like Ligurio, the mastermind of Mandragola, but with a far more masterly understanding of who and what are his rivals.

Although Machiavelli wrote comedies, he wrote no drama even reminding of tragedy, Leo Strauss noted, and this is owing to the absence from his thought of moral seriousness, as Strauss also noted. One can have a grim or grave outlook as to the human condition, as Machiavelli indeed has, without having a tragic outlook as to the fate of good human beings. Decency is finessed in Clizia's prologue and replaced in the play proper. Nobility of conduct is conspicuous by its absence. The term “noble” (nobile) appears only in a reference to old Athens, “a noble and very ancient city in Greece,” and this amidst the nostalgia for ancient things that oozes from the first song and first paragraph and then more or less disappears. Cured of belief in the actuality or at least the use of admirable human types, Machiavelli need not and cannot regard their fall as the stuff of tragedy.

Instead, human failure is the stuff of bad fortune or bad management. Improving management, so that one can master fortune, is the theme that gives seriousness to Machiavelli's political thought and to his comedies too. Amusement is the bait; underneath are useful lessons. The comedies, like their prologues, are peculiarly didactic. Life according to Machiavelli is no laughing matter—and less so than for an Aristotle or a Shakespeare. While Aristotle distinguishes comedy from tragedy, Machiavelli distinguishes the comic from the grave. Life is very grave indeed to those who grasp the prevalence of necessity. Machiavelli distinguishes not the high from the low, but light necessities, which are lesser necessities, from serious necessities, which are the real necessities. Comedy is about light necessities. The grave works are the political works that show how to overcome real necessities by security, riches, and glory. The comedies play with light necessities while intimating the road to overcoming real necessities.

In comedy, Machiavelli says in the Discourse or Dialogue Concerning Our Language, one cannot show serious figures. Palamede seems the most serious figure in Clizia; he withdraws from Cleandro's love business to pursue his own business. The figure who most moves the plot is Nicomaco, and he, like Callimaco in Mandragola, is driven by a necessity that is partly a “fantasia.” His and Callimaco's are light necessities. Nicomaco's is a lust beyond his abilities, ruinous to his establishment, and covered over with pretensions and self-deceptions. There is plenty of opportunity for an author to exhibit silliness, lovesickness, and insult. If there are prominent serious figures in the two comedies, they are of limited seriousness. The two most prominent are Ligurio and Sofronia, one a parasite looking for a living and to rise, the other a wife limited to her household. Still, both so manage domestic affairs as to provide for their security and gain. They are not nobler souls above the fray who descend out of necessity to offer guidance, such as the duke in Measure for Measure, or the duke and Portia in Merchant of Venice. They are grave figures in the fray who manage the lighter figures so as to provide for mutual necessities and thus for their own.

In Machiavelli's accounts one looks in vain for the contemplative or imitative pleasures that Aristotle described. On the contrary. In Mandragola's prologue Machiavelli complains about spending time on such “light stuff” when he would rather seem “wise and grave” (saggio e grave); he is cut off from “showing with other undertakings other virtù.” How then understand the peculiarly didactic tenor of Machiavellian comedies? Why are they particularly “single-minded” in giving “textbook lessons in ingenuity”?

In the Discourse Machiavelli indicates something of the place of comedy in his project for overturning traditional ways and something too of the literary rivals it is meant to help in overcoming. The Discourse might seem but philological, a combative defense of the Florentine vernacular for writers. Yet it turns to attack especially Dante, he of the Divine Comedy, for not acknowledging his dependence on the Florentine vernacular. Why does defense of the vernacular turn to the issue of comedy? It is because of comedy's potential power over a wide public. Vernacular speech can be idiomatic, and idioms in local speech bite more—supply the “salt” that can make comedy “popular and understood by everybody.” Thus comedy can convey the lessons “useful to our daily life.” There come to light certain substantive implications of Machiavelli's attack on the language of the learned. He tacitly impugns a divine comedy that attends half-bemusedly to the whole human scene, as if contemplating from on high. He recommends instead useful comedy—comedy effectual in enlightening “the generality” as to what the author wants.

The Discourse proceeds to show something of what Machiavelli wants from comedy. It develops a special animus toward the church, which is, one might think, the worldly patron of rival and otherworldly lessons for the generality. Machiavelli criticizes Dante for using the language of the Papal Court and on grounds more political than linguistic: “I am astonished that you attach such importance to a place where nothing happens that is good or praiseworthy. Where customs are perverted language too must be perverted.” The attack on the universal language conceals a more basic attack, that on churchly customs. Then the argument turns to the power of great writers even over the vernacular and the customs it carries. Dante can teach other writers “to forget the original barbarism in which their native tongue steeped them.” One is reminded of The Prince's concluding call to liberate Italy from the barbarians. Is not Machiavelli suggesting that great writers can play a part, especially with respect to Italy's particular barbaric customs? But which great writers? The outstanding literary feature of the Discourse is a coerced interrogation of Dante—over whom Machiavelli wins a spectacular victory. Machiavelli compels Dante to defend by dialogue his use of the vernacular, at the end of which Dante “confessed that I was right and went away.” If a poet such as Dante is henceforth to confess to anyone, he is to confess according to the new faith expounded by Machiavelli. Machiavelli intended the effect he would have on the Jonsons, Congreves, and others of the modern European literary tradition. In the Discourse Machiavelli then himself confesses: he confesses himself not sure that he has disabused all of those who confound his native language with “filthy usages” from elsewhere. Confession is an acknowledgment of weakness. Allies are needed. Machiavelli is the political-literary prophet who calls other writers to spread secularization—to enter the fray over the wretched customs now mixed with the everyday language of men. Recall the self-proclaiming prologues of the comedies. At the start of Mandragola Machiavelli appears as master of “speaking ill”; at the start of Clizia, as enlightener as to the worldly forces beneath men's hypocrisies. Machiavelli intends to supplant divine comedy with earthy love-comedy, one particularly fitted to teach universal lessons in scoffing and management. He would make Dante go away, together with classical-Christian poetics in general.

However that may be, what is clear is that the new poetics corresponds to Machiavelli's new political-philosophic wisdom about man's exposed state in the world. Since all men are “wicked and do not observe faith [fede] with you,” according to The Prince, you need not keep faith with them. Good faith and justice in general are an unrealistic hope and guide. Another famous aphorism explains Machiavelli's divergence from “the orders” of many writers and directs more generally: “And many have imagined republics or principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live, that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.” But if you watch what men really do, you can preserve yourself. Undistracted by how men should live, you can provide for and against what most moves the generality of men. If you follow Machiavelli's new customs you can come close to mastering fortune.

To sum up my broad thesis: Clizia exemplifies the mixture of critique and construction in Machiavelli's politics poetics. Cynical scoffing is its distinctively Machiavellian delight and part of its benefit. Yet the play also and chiefly shows how human beings searching for love and security may use one another to their mutual gain. This thought controls the plot and supplies the constructive lesson. One sees how to obtain others' aid by seeing through them and attending to what they really want. In this sense the comedies indeed are “textbook examples of human ingenuity.”

Admittedly, some will object to viewing Machiavelli's comedies in the dark light shed by his political arts. They have a point. How can a political outlook as grim as Machiavelli's allow room for the acrobatic wit of a Clizia? The Prince and the Discourses recommend cruelty in preference to mercy. They recommend the art of being not merely bad, a murderer, but altogether bad, a murderer of the pope and all the cardinals. One can understand why one commentator would want to deny any deeper meaning to Machiavelli's comedies, especially a moral-political meaning. Art for art's sake, literature for literature's sake, and Machiavellian comedy for the sake of literary play in language. But such a proposal is impossible. To save the humor it dulls the humor, for it leads the reader away from the telling thrusts at, say, priests, gentlemen, Dante, Aristotle, and providence. In any event, such arty theorizing is contrary on its face to Machiavelli's own assertions as to the benefits of comedy, in Clizia, and as to the corresponding subordination of humor to useful lessons, in the Discourse.


While many commentators agree that Clizia has a message, some deny that the message is Machiavellian. The play is of the Renaissance, they say, and its instruction merely what could be expected from the recovery of Greek and Roman drama. They point to the obvious fact that Clizia is a variation on Plautus's Casina, itself a variation on a Greek comedy. In Casina as in Clizia an old father competes with his son for the bed of a young ward, father and son try to marry the girl to competing servants, and the father is foiled by his wife. One could add that Clizia abounds with allusions to Greek things. The Florentine incident recounted in Clizia is compared with a like event in ancient Athens. Sofronia is reminiscent of the Greek word for temperance or moderation. Doria, the name of the female servant who laughs so at her master's fall, is reminiscent of the Dorians, the Hellenic race that ruled in Sparta and the Greek cities of the Peloponnesus. Palamede, the name of the wary friend of Cleandro, is reminiscent of Palamedes, a legendary Greek wise man. Nicomaco, Cleandro, and Eustachio also have Italian versions of Greek names.

Still, such surface similarities are inconclusive, if only because elsewhere Machiavelli visibly manipulates classical themes for innovative ends. Mandragola radically revises the legend of Lucretia's rape by the son of the Roman tyrant Tarquin, to take the most obvious example, and Discourses on Livy revises Livy's account of Rome. Might Machiavelli be doing something similar with Plautus's Casina?

Also, there is a special difficulty in supposing that Machiavelli was the product of a certain Florentine neoclassical dramatic tradition: the tradition may not have existed before Machiavelli; he may have established it. According to Richard Andrews, only in the second quarter of the 1500s did the custom of imitating Plautus and other Roman comic dramatists arise. Andrews thinks Machiavelli was the cause, not the product: later writers used “the model of Machiavelli's Clizia.

In short, Machiavelli is likely to have selected Casina for his own reasons, and the interesting question concerns his reasons, not the conditions about him. Admittedly, an adequate account must await a fuller account of his variations on his source. At this point I will speculate that Casina was for Machiavelli a Trojan horse suitable for a Renaissance city. It had the cachet of the old classics while lending itself to an innovative antimoralism. Casina paraded a sensational sex scene and exhibited the power of passion to overturn taboos of age, incest, and gender.

Plautus had been judged doubtful, after all, by the standards of classical poetics or at least by the standards of his Roman compatriot Horace. In the Art of Poetry Horace calls Plautus's comedies coarse (“inurbanem”). In the Epistles he faults the plays for carelessness of finish, the result, it seems, of certain flaws of character: Plautus cared too much for money and fame. He cared too little for perfected thoughtfulness. But Horace also places some responsibility on the comic tradition in Rome, with its coarse jesting and crudity of consideration. This he links cryptically to a preoccupation with “expansion.” Did Roman imperialism lead to crude humor and undeveloped discrimination? After indicting Plautus and Rome, Horace recommends another guide: “Use Greek models by day, use them by night.” And this is not a matter merely of form. The big advantage of the Greeks for poets is Socratic philosophy. The source of good writing is wisdom about “your matter,” which is to be found in “the Socratic pages.”

In short, Machiavelli adopts the Casina for the same reason that his Discourses builds on Livy's history of Rome's republican empire. The old books appeal to a taste for the renaissance of classical learning, and these particular old books serve to cover an attack on the utopianism of classical political philosophy. The Discourses attacks aristocracy, the small city, and antiimperialism; Clizia, a moral and philosophic theater.

To such arguments a serious commentator has responded that Clizia's devotion to classical moral virtue is visible on its face. Suppose it true that such earlier works as The Prince, the Discourses, and Mandragola smack of Machiavellianism. Clizia differs because it ridicules old Nicomaco's lusts and is thus a “critique of aggressive virtù.” It recurs to a moderation that Machiavelli elsewhere rejected, and the proof, according to this argument, is in a name. Nicomaco combines the author's two names, and Nicomaco's humiliation exhibits Niccolò Machiavelli's self-punishment for his earlier excesses, literary and personal (while in his fifties he had a well-known affair with an actress in her thirties).

However ingenious this argument, it runs into difficulties. Indeed, any attempt to interpret Clizia as a restoration of ancient morals encounters grave difficulties. Clizia differs in major ways from Casina; and the big differences go in a Machiavellian direction. The crucial point is that Clizia lacks the predominantly moral resolution of Casina. It is about effectual virtù, not moral virtue.

While the Roman play basically ridicules an old man's vice, Clizia has an additional theme: how young men can succeed in bedding young women, and an additional answer: with a view to security in the future. In Plautus's play the son never appears. In Clizia Cleandro's sexual hunt seems to set the play in motion, just as Callimaco's certainly does in Mandragola. Both of Machiavelli's plays blend young sexual desire with old heads. They thus teach how to do it reliably and with a view to more important considerations (that is, for the long haul and without sacrificing security). But passions of the old are satisfied too. In fact, for young and old security seems to be regarded as primary, while love is but a force to be satisfied at others' expense or to be otherwise managed. In Plautus's play the distinctive metaphor for love is food. In Machiavelli's, it is war.1 In Plautus's play the mother, while thwarting her husband, sympathizes with her son's love and promotes it. In Clizia mother thwarts son as well as husband for her own purpose, that is, until a marriage useful to the family may be obtained. It is a mother's “ambizione” as well as a father's lust that stands in Cleandro's way (5.5; cf. 2.3, 4), and it is that passion that governs the reconciliation of the household at play's end.

Are the lessons of Clizia about the virtue of moderation or about realism as to motives and management? Nicomaco's passion is ridiculed as ineffectual, not as incestuous and evil. He is “a crazy, drooling, bleary-eyed, toothless old man,” even in the report of a friend (5.2); his son reports a “smelly mouth,” “trembling hands,” “such wrinkled and stinking limbs” (4.1). Whatever the case with Machiavelli in his fifties and his reputed lover Barbera in her thirties, Father Nicomaco at seventy seems not quite the fetching love-object for a teenager—apart from the fact (on which Machiavelli neglects to dwell) that the teenager is his ward. Nor do we see in Sofronia's victory the triumph of moral principle. In Plautus's Casina, indeed, the finale involved merciless ridicule of the old lecher's vices. But there was no visible effect. Clizia ends with success, precisely by not relying upon moral indignation. It is because of Sofronia's schemes, not her morals or piety, that we find a domestic reconstitution with the knowing wife now completely in charge.

It is true that the new ruler Sofronia is understanding as to her husband's excesses, is restrained in her remedy, and seeks to keep rather secret his humiliation. But this is only the Machiavellian equivalent of moderation, anticipation of necessity.2 Sofronia interprets Nicomaco's excesses not as vices to be condemned, but as forces to be expected, and thinks that only forces shrewdly managed will serve as remedy. Nicomaco eventually subordinates himself, indeed, but only because he has to. Sofronia somewhat subordinates herself again because she has to, because, that is, of her dependence on Nicomaco's reputation and in general on the household. She anticipates her necessities. This dependence on the household is crucial because it is a common necessity that all share and in response to which all can ally. Cleandro and Nicomaco too had feared to turn the household “bottoms-up” (2.2; cf. 4.1). Like Sofronia they need a respectable name and household (5.2). Still, only Palamede at the start and Sofronia throughout understand the priority of the household for whatever each wishes or can reasonably wish. Nicomaco's foresight recurs only after Sofronia intimidates him. Reconciled to their necessities by her management, which includes forcing him to perceive mutual necessities, the two retire to a household restored.

Actually the household is less restored than it is secured on a new basis. It is not the old household, and it will be advanced as well as secured. This too is due to Sofronia's motives and management. Treating Clizia all along as a potential asset, she opposes “throwing away” the girl on whom “they have expended so much effort” (2.3). As soon as Clizia is known to have a father rich and noble as well as accepting of Cleandro, no other questions are asked. There is no parallel in Casina to this concluding affirmation, in a love-comedy, of the primacy of riches and respectability. Some critics have been surprised to find in Machiavellian comedy such a bourgeois spirit. But Machiavellian anticipation of necessity amounts to the apprehensive acquisitiveness that underlies the later and more economic teachings of a John Locke. The leading characters in Clizia are very much about their own “business.” Still, Machiavelli's political teaching is chiefly about freedom, glory, and political empire. In his case the new basis shows its bourgeois resonance chiefly in the sphere of domestic economy—Machiavelli does not plan a full-fledged political economy—and even there more in gaining by advantageous dealing than by production.

Clizia ends by showing how human necessities can be effectively managed to a certain mutual satisfaction. It eschews moral indignation because it has eschewed morality and the complications that attend any moral seriousness of love. It also eschews the playing around, the leisurely playfulness and joyful indulgence, that goes with lovable things cherished as good and delightful in themselves. Love as well as morals is to be controlled to one's advantage.

In short, Clizia is less a recovery of the old Greek and Roman wisdom than a corrosive satire on it. While from its first song it advertises “ancient” or “very ancient” themes, these disguise ingenious attacks on the outlook of a Renaissance audience. The play takes aim especially at Greek philosophy in its Christian version. Consider Nicomaco. He is a respectable Christian gentleman who looks up to “ancient and modern examples” for the instruction of his son (2.4). But his ancient virtue and modern religion prove no match for his passions.3


Even the fluffy surface of Clizia innovates within Renaissance convention. The fluffiest of the fluff are the six songs (Casina had none), and they bespeak a world of force and fraud only loosely covered by conventional romance and piety. It is true that the first song features pagan nymphs and shepherds mooning nostalgically over their antique loves. And the last song eulogizes the play itself as a “wise and noble teacher” that shows what is needed for “ascending to heaven”—and then for teaching “under a veil a great deal more.” But between such gauzy veils, the first sappily pagan and the last sardonically Christian or Platonic, are four songs that treat of love, youthful ardor, woman's anger at offense, and trickery. These songs alone teach a great deal more. Their teachings are not about the decency and piety that Horace had prescribed for theatrical choruses. Machiavelli's musical commentaries treat love, ardor, and the rest simply as forces, and these are the real “lords” that will overpower decency and overpower gods as well as men. Men cannot look above passions and plots but must contend with them.

Love (not grace or truth) may bring heaven's “highest worth,” according to the song after act 1, and the love in question, the “great power” that men and gods dread, is said after act 2 to be in the bodies of the “ardent young.” A greater force is vengeance, especially female vengeance, whatever its occasion. We are told after act 3 that woman offended, whether “wrongly or with reason,” is full of pride, anger, trickery, and cruelty. Her force is more than “all mortal force.” There remains a superior force that seems the supreme force: the fraud of trickery. The trick in act 4 is paid the highest tribute; at least, the successful trick is called the “remedy high and rare” that “shows the straight path to wandering souls.” Is great trickery, the conspiracy that works by providing the remedies men need, Machiavelli's replacement for the eternal claims of right or of the divinity? Consider the pleasure in trickery displayed in Mandragola by both Ligurio the politic and Father Timoteo the priest, and in Clizia by the many laughers who are freed from their master. The trick is the greater if it achieves a state of real security. So Sofronia's accomplishment: by a clever conspiracy she obtains for her household the superiority that a knowing prince seeks for his state.

This orientation by real forces presupposes the philosophic critique of morals found in all of Machiavelli's major works and most visibly in chapter 15 of The Prince. The comedies package critical thinking for a popular audience. That, I think, is their special task. Consider again the author's role in Clizia's prologue. Machiavelli appears not only as philosopher but also as abrupt director of the actors and insinuating director of the audience. He orders the actors out front and, as if speaking for the people, back offstage. While this comedy is insistent about what is put before the audience, it puts itself in the people's shoes. Machiavelli makes himself the instrument, the people's voice, for the people's desires. He thus directs to enlightened satisfaction, rather than to moral and religious duty. But this message depends on a critique of the moral spirit. Machiavelli is authoritative as to what is played, and scoffing at morals is central to his plays. To repeat, the prologue ends by defending the immorality (“disonesta”) of the play for those who might find it immoral, especially women. It is the defense of immorality, not least sexual looseness, that calls forth a new theory of comedy. Machiavellian comedy ridicules especially efforts to do what one ought. Clizia is quiet about incest and chastity—while outraging modesty with its sensational conclusion.

In Clizia one sees a reductionist view of love: sexual desire accompanied by fantasy. The real thing is the sexual urge, which is itself some mixture of desire for pleasure and desire for domination. What men think they ought to love, and thus the beauty and character of the person they love, is merely fantasy. Love as distinct from sexual passion is an imagining. It is then to be dismissed by serious people. The two most serious people in the play are Palamede and Sofronia, and both dismiss it. Replying to Cleandro in heat, Palamede would avoid lovers and musicians (as well as old people). When Cleandro wails that he must be satisfied, Sofronia tells him that he can wait to be satisfied. She plans to marry him off to someone else or wait until his fantasy dissipates (5.4, cf. 5.3; 3.3).

In Cleandro and Nicomaco alike there is nothing of the lover chastened in desire by awe before the beauty of his beloved. When in Shakespeare's Tempest Ferdinand first sees the young Miranda, he looks up to her as a goddess. “O you wonder,” he breathes. When Miranda's father warns about “th' fire ith' blood,” Ferdinand says, to some skepticism from the father, that he would not “melt Mine honor into lust.”4 Love as honorable love is absent from Clizia. Honor, in the sense of reverence for the worthy, is absent as a motive. Neither Cleandro nor Nicomaco looks up to Clizia's goodness (to which Sofronia alone refers [2.3]). Cleandro and Pirro certainly drool over Clizia's “delicate” charms (4.1; 2.5), but this is anticipation of a delectable dish. The men show no awe before her beauty and certainly no concern for charm and seriousness of soul. The steward Eustachio even calculates that a beautiful wife can always be a source of income (3.5). The women are not much different. Sostrata jokes at Clizia's presumed scruples about lovemaking (4.10). Sofronia does refer to this “good and beautiful girl,” but she treats these attributes as qualities useful for the market, that is, as adding value to a commodity which they should make the most out of. Some such considerations probably help explain why Clizia is referred to as but an imagining (“fantasia”) (1.1; 2.4; 5.3). Beauty and goodness are only images of wish fulfillment, for Cleandro as well as Nicomaco.

The critique of love in Clizia is comprehensive, at least to the point of extending to a critique of friendship and of love of wisdom. The key example is Palamede. The Greek Palamedes was a legendary wise man who is supposed to have invented great benefactions like lighthouses and the alphabet, but to have come to a bad end because of his supposed friends. According to one version of the legend, Palamedes was induced by the wily Odysseus to join the expedition to recover Helen of Troy and then betrayed by the leaders, including Odysseus himself and perhaps King Agamemnon as well.

Some clues in Clizia hint at Machiavelli's improved version of the wise benefactor. This Palamede is secretive, occupied with his own business and wary of helping others (especially lovers and musicians). He will help only if necessary. He does not help except to advise temporizing in the face of superior forces. Palamede and Cleandro together comprise a little Machiavellian commentary on friendship. They are wary, hiding rather than sharing, attentive to their own. The first words of the play strike the keynote:

Why are you leaving the house so early?
Where are you coming from so early?
From taking care of some of my business.
Is it a matter that can be spoken of?


Friendship strictly speaking seems not to exist between these two. Perhaps such friendship is impossible, according to Machiavelli's fundamental individualism. No one who is knowing would act knowingly for the sake of another or would love good things as if they were inherently shareable. Even one's knowledge is oriented to one's own necessities. Still, Cleandro out of necessity seeks help in his business or at least tells of his necessity in order to vent his passion, to get it off his chest (1.1; 4.1). Machiavellian friendship is trust or aid by those who hope to gain something from one another, if only appreciation of one's burden. Palamede sees no need to serve Cleandro, although he ventures an offer, and Cleandro does not know how to use Palamede. Cleandro's affairs are not put in order except by Sofronia, whose necessities encompass his and whose power and virtù are superior.


Because each is out for himself and without limits on desire except for the limits of possibility, each must fight for his satisfaction. Machiavelli has his own version of the “state of nature” that is “a state of war,” albeit one without Hobbes's doctrines of natural equality and the primacy of peace. In love as in war, the key art is of war. Cleandro compares lover to soldier (1.2); Sofronia would defend Clizia from the “camps” of husband, son, and servants alike (1.3); there are sexually charged analogies with conquest and the weapons of war (1.1; 2.1, 3; 4.5, 11, 12, etc.). Actually, love is war, according to Machiavelli, except, I suppose, as its pleasures make a soft and enduring mutual relation preferable to forced submission, that is, to rape. Cleandro and Nicomaco seek the conquest of Clizia. Cleandro wants her in any way possible (1.1). Cleandro and Nicomaco are desperate, one to the point of willing death, and the other to breaking up his household and burning down his house. But there is no moral misery, that is, disgust at one's baseness or despair at losing something admirable. There is only the misery that fears failure and that spurs the search for the strategy and tactics of victory.

Victory in love as in war requires allies and so incentives. Hence the need for management. What the young Cleandro more or less lacks on his own is the ingenious stratagems, the remedies, that Nicomaco and Sofronia manage to devise. He needs fraud as well as force, for if life is a battle it is not least a battle of tricksters. Clizia teaches shrewd elders like Sofronia how to earn trust by showing youthful passions the road to long-term satisfaction. Ligurio does likewise in Mandragola. Leaders can serve themselves in managing followers.

In Clizia Sofronia alone exhibits the virtù of a leader. She alone of all the characters uses the word, and she also defines it in Machiavellian fashion. Virtù is “knowing how to do something” that will provide for business, the household, “or the affairs of others” and oneself (2.3). Virtù is the ability to provide—“knowing how.” It amounts to self-reliance broadly construed. But Sofronia also has “industria” (1.1), the concentration on one's advancement that underlies virtù.5 These crucial Machiavellian qualities do not revolve about “onesta,” about decency or moderation. They do indeed lead to a self-limitation of one's desires, but out of ability to size up the real necessities and to master accordingly oneself and one's environment. While Sofronia's virtù may be within domestic limits, within those limits she exhibits a characteristically Machiavellian self-reliance. Even a commentator who would have Sofronia an agent of “conventional morality” had to admit that “her methods are those of manipulation and deceit” and correspond to those of Ligurio.6

At first Sofronia might appear to be the traditional woman that many commentators take her for: dependent upon others, moral, and pious. She retains a certain subordination to husband as well as to household; she looks for remedies from Cleandro and from God; she “would do good all the time” and goes off to mass (2.3). But from the start her churchgoing is linked with a statement that she “does not want to submit” her affairs “to anyone” (2.3). When Sofronia returns from mass she has been devising for herself rather than praying for help from without. She has been “revolving” schemes. She now threatens to expose and humiliate her husband (2.3). By play's end Sofronia is fierce in contriving her own remedies for the security of herself and her household. This mixture of spiritedness with cynicism and inventiveness is Machiavellian virtù.

Sofronia exhibits in her own way the mastery of fortune that is a prominent theme in Clizia. It is Nicomaco who believes in good fortune and would rely on a lottery (3.6). Perhaps he mixes Aristotelian reliance on nature's goodness with religious reliance on help from providence. His son Cleandro, however, thinks fortune an obstacle to be conquered (4.1; 5.5). Cleandro repeats a notorious theme of The Prince: fortune, like a woman, is a “friend of the young” (4.1). While The Prince explains that the young are less timid and thus command fortune “with more audacity,” it also indicates that audacity has its limits.7Clizia shows the limitations of even a knowing Cleandro when carried away by passion and up against superior force. Like Callimaco in Mandragola, Cleandro is knowing enough to submit himself to a more knowing manager. Unlike Callimaco, he is knowing enough to devise, to spy, and to temporize until “accidenti” and Sofronia's stratagems might favor his plans.

Sofronia's art of managing fortune is a domesticated art of war. She contrives forces to intimidate her husband. She contrives ingeniously, and her forces break his power and then reconstitute it for her purposes. She does not pardon her Nicomaco out of affection. Having humiliated him to the point of sobs before witnesses from the household, she keeps him humble through his fear of exposure and restricts knowledge of his humiliation to preserve their mutual respectability. We see a version of the fundamental but limited intimidation discussed in Machiavelli's political works.8 Any society needs a periodic recurrence to its beginnings9—which is Machiavellian idiom for return to an original fear, indeed, to a founding terror. The foundation of society is directed terror that so sinks into selfish men as to make them obey something other than themselves: “Men will always turn out bad for you unless they have been made good by a necessity.”10 The famous Machiavellian model of well-directed terror is Cesare Borgia. Borgia laid “very good foundations” for his rule, that is, he engaged in acts of intimidation that culminated in terrifying but pointed executions. He first set up a “cruel and ready” prosecutor to destroy the robbers and murderers who had flourished under impotent lords. This instrument having pacified the land and having thus provoked his own enmities and resentments, he was found in a piazza “in two pieces” with a piece of wood and a bloody knife: “The ferocity of this spectacle left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.”11 Sofronia's management does not involve murder as spectacle—terrifying murder is not a comic theme—but she does effect a spectacular sexual humiliation that serves to destroy the old man's domestic tyranny and to unify a reformed household.


The household as alliance: this marks Clizia's radical novelty as to the pretensions of fathers and masters and the dutifulness of mothers and servants.

Claims to be paterfamilias, the sacred father, seem pretentious indeed in light of a Nicomaco's motives and trickiness. Cleandro goes so far as to call his father “the foundation and cause of my harm” (3.1). Not an original sin, but the lordly power of a father, seems the root of this son's sufferings. The wife too loses whatever reverence she may have had for Nicomaco. Both lose their awe as they discern the real motives of men, fathers or no and sacred or no. But precisely this awareness without moral illusion permits the Machiavellian equivalent of moderation. Checked by enlightenment within the family and by the corresponding threat of exposure without, Nicomaco can keep himself in the harness of domestic provider. Nicomaco's prestige as head of the family is certainly not restored, as some have suggested, nor can I see that Machiavelli shows any more archetypal fear of a Sofronia than of the Lucretia in Mandragola. Sofronia is the real ruler of the reordered family. “Do what you like,” allows the defeated husband, “I'm prepared not to go beyond the limits you set” (5.3).

Nicomaco's status as lordly master declines with his claims to be lordly father. Clizia is a deconstruction by ridicule of the traditional master-servant relation. One sign of the new attitudes is the servant Doria's strangely exaggerated laughter at her master's humiliation; another, her extended triumphing at this “beautiful trick” (4.8; 5.1). But the paradigmatic example is the triumph of Siro the servant, who sets upon Nicomaco in the ultimate male gestures of contempt. First Siro defends “herself.” Then he goes on the offensive—very offensive. The story of Nicomaco's humiliations by Siro, sexual and otherwise, is the most sensational action of the play. All are said to laugh at this overturn of the master. The play dwells on the servants' laughter. Machiavelli may not proceed down the legalistic and economic road later taken by John Locke, who turns the hierarchical relation between master and servant into a contractual relation between employer and employee. But insofar as service and servants are to remain in the Machiavellian order, a kind of exchange will dominate. The traditional expectation of reverence and dutifulness will be subverted by hidden disdain and by the supposition of natural equality in ends and urges. Machiavelli would destroy the case for servile deference to gentlemen and replace the old relation with new “ordini”—with a managed association that appeals to mutual utility.

Both of Machiavelli's plays foster a liberation of women that is in many ways eerily contemporary. In Mandragola the beautiful wife Lucrezia is liberated from pedantic husband and pious modesty to take power and a lover in her household. In Clizia the old wife Sofronia rises from equivocal subordination before lord and master to unequivocal if indirect control of the household. The last two acts of Clizia are almost “entirely in the control of women,”12 as Ronald Martinez notes, including not only Sofronia but also the servant Doria and the offstage Clizia.

Still, for Machiavelli liberation is not enough. A woman must provide for her self-reliance, not suppose it, and must also provide for the associations on which she will willy-nilly depend. There is a utilitarian rationalism about Machiavelli's teaching, a planning for security through calculated subordination, that is alien to the antibourgeois and anticontrol bent of contemporary feminism. It is Sofronia's politic scheming that establishes her control. She anticipates her necessities in the long haul and is inventive in providing means. Sofronia is not overcome by fear, she scoffs at Nicomaco's transparent efforts to win her with love, and she keeps her wits when Cleandro loses his. Thus she can provide for the family respectability and wealth that is useful. She schemes to ridicule her husband for her purposes, but when he has been cowed she protects him and avoids offending him, also for her purposes. Machiavellian liberation is an enlightened liberation. In Clizia old Sofronia is the most Machiavellian of the prominent characters. Like Ligurio in Mandragola, she is the brains of the job. Also like Ligurio, she is most like the author of the play.


What is the relation of Clizia to the more famous Mandragola? While some commentators speak of disparate literary qualities of the plays, judging Clizia inferior, they rarely consider the substantive relation.13 Do the plot and teaching of Clizia complement, contradict, or duplicate those of Mandragola? That's the interesting question, and it is provoked by the Clizia itself. Two characters from Mandragola, Sostrata and Siro, reappear in Clizia. Two songs, as to the power of love and of trickery, reappear as well. More to the point, in Clizia Nicomaco expressly reminds Sofronia of Frate Timoteo's miracle working in Mandragola (to produce Lucrezia's pregnancy) before slyly suggesting that she allow this pliable friar to pick the servant that gets to marry Clizia (2.3).

But Sofronia rejects out of hand Nicomaco's scheme for priestly intervention. Her reaction is a clue to the differences in the plays. In Mandragola the pious Lucrezia had been bedded adulterously only after a friar had salved her conscience with theological casuistry. But in Clizia the female lead scoffs at any such resort and lewdly so: “As if one needed a miracle to explain a priest getting a woman pregnant” (2.3). The general relation appears to be this: in confronting the traditions from ancient Greece and Christian Rome, Clizia addresses chiefly but not solely Greek moral wisdom, Mandragola, Latin theological learning.

Edmund Burke once traced the European tradition of chivalry to a blend of the Greek tradition of the gentleman with the Christian tradition of piety. Both of Machiavelli's comedies take aim at this Great Tradition. Both fight on the same battleground, that of love and the sexes. Also, both treat of private things in a grave public context and the same context: contemporary Italian politico-military failings. Clizia had been won as spoil of war by a French captain during the invasion of Italy by Charles VIII in 1494. In Mandragola Callimaco returns from Paris, where he had fled because of the same French invasion. That is, both plays take their broad bearings from the Italian weakness familiar from Machiavelli's political diagnoses, a weakness there symbolized by this and other French incursions.14 The problem is specifically modern, Machiavelli seemed to think. It is caused by the pretensions to power of pacific Christian gentlemen and of an unarmed Roman Church, a church that needs armed allies, including foreign kings. But the pious weakness is partly the result of a philosophic weakness—especially of a Socratic and Aristotelian tradition that rather disdains political virtue in favor of moral and contemplative virtue.

In addressing such paradoxes at the level of romantic comedy both plays use the character Sostrata to remind of the naturalness of passion, of sexual passion in particular. Sostrata is a feminine form of sostrato, which can mean substratum or hidden depths or, in more philosophic discourse, matter or substance. In Clizia and Mandragola alike Sostrata laughs at scruple, counsels indulgence in pleasure, prepares the bride or wife for lovemaking, and is happily in on the conspiracy. But she is never a planner, and she utters such pieties as “In the name of God.” Human passion is without much foresight and defers to conventional formulations (Clizia, 4.2, 10, 12).15

Although the two plays make a joint assault upon religion and “onesta,” one can see a concentration of labor even if no strict division. Greek things and opinions are more prominent in Clizia: Athens, Greek names, a philosophic theory of comedy, and a wise friend. This play satirizes chiefly aristocratic morality, the gentleman and his household, deference to superiors, and the naturalness of governance by fathers and by males in general. Yet it is also true that Clizia satirizes claims to divine authority and power, perhaps claims that Machiavelli finds somehow connected to the attitudes mentioned. “I am brought back to life,” Nicomaco exclaims when his fear of losing Clizia is replaced by hope of getting her (3.7).

It must be granted that blaspheming seems to go quite deep in Clizia. One has to wonder about an unholy divine trio of Nicomaco, Cleandro, and Sofronia. Apart from seeming to have risen from the dead, Nicomaco is frequently identified with God or at least “the name of God,” and he orders his servant to “stand with Christ” (3.6, 7). His son identifies himself with a man of “infinite sorrows” (3.2).16 In light of such things, it may not be mere convention that Machiavelli occasionally calls Sofronia Madonna. Perhaps Clizia shows how to scoff at a blindly willful lord who would take vengeance on those who stand in the way of all good things for himself. He would take vengeance, as Catherine Zuckert suggests, even on his chosen people and would sacrifice even his only begotten son.17 “I intend to be lord in this household,” Nicomaco says after threatening to evict his wife, burn down their house, and imprison his son (3.1). He is “the foundation and cause of my harm,” says Cleandro (3.2).

Still, religions scoffing is more prominent in Mandragola. It is thematic and not secondary. Also, the scoffing in Mandragola focuses less on the Lord and more on an otherworldly Christ, his worldly otherworldly church, and Latin learning, and the Roman learned such as Boethius. Hence the prominence of spirituality, the church, Christian theology and chastity, and Christian husbands and priests. Which is not to say that the play spares the claims of the Bible as such and of morals as such.

These differences pervade the particulars. The title character in Clizia is a woman never seen, who is called at one point a “fantasia.” Perhaps the play spoofs as nonexistent the beauty or perfection that men, not least Aristotelians, imagine to accompany natural desire. The title of Mandragola refers to a supposed medical cure (the mandrake root) that is shown to be a funny fraud. This play spoofs as nonexistent a miracle that was supposed to change nature and produce “a soul for our Lord.”18 Clizia is a spoil of war left by a military gentleman; she proves to be the daughter of a worldly gentleman. But Lucrezia in Mandragola is distinguished by devotion to God—she seems almost a daughter of God—and is married to a gullible Christian gentleman. In Clizia Sofronia uses Nicomaco's strange confidence in friends and in established hierarchies to overcome the chance result of his strange confidence in the drawing of lots. In Mandragola Ligurio uses Nicia's faith in miraculous cures to overcome Lucrezia's faith in providence.

The plays differ above all in the different beddings. Both plays describe openly if indirectly acts that decency would shroud. Indeed, such descriptions might be expected to undermine sexual awe and especially feminine modesty. Both episodes lead to a revolution in the household. But Mandragola's recounting of Callimaco's night with Lucrezia describes virtually a religious conversion—an antireligious conversion that follows an earlier black mass with Dr. Callimaco as high priest. Pious wife is “reborn” as enlightened woman.19 Lucrezia departs from faith in God, holy fathers, and husband. She turns to worldly pleasure, spirited independence from husbandly authority, and acceptance of her strong young lover as “lord and master” behind the facade of a traditional household.20 The sexual spectacle in Clizia, on the other hand, challenges the presumptive naturalness of heterosexuality and of the superiority of gentleman to servant. The final bedding of Nicomaco, if one can call it that, involves display of male intercourse, if one can call it that, and the power of a strong young servant over an old and foolish master. It symbolizes subversion of the aristocratic and paternal moral order—and of the Aristotelianism that upheld such an order as being in accord, more or less, with the best in human nature.

There is some reason to think of Clizia as a completion of Machiavelli's comic project for managed liberation, not just a complement to other parts. The servant who triumphs is Siro. Siro is the only character besides Sostrata who appears in both plays. In Mandragola a servant Siro appears as a perfect servant. He is so perfect as to seem unnatural, a parody, perhaps, of a servant of the Lord who takes on himself the sins of the world.21 In Clizia Siro's clothes, discarded pretriumph, are used to hide Clizia on her way to a convent. In Mandragola Siro is not raised toward independence, despite the subversion of the Christian household and despite the fact that Siro is often astute and is finally the object of Ligurio's solicitude: “Is there no man who remembers Siro?”22 In Clizia Machiavelli remembers the servant Siro. Siro triumphs, in memorably offensive gesture and deed, and his leading role in the ridiculing of the old master is expressly noted (5.1). It may be that Clizia subverts what Machiavelli thought to be the remaining pillars of the traditional household, an allegedly natural superiority in fathers and masters and an unconditional dutifulness before a lordly father who demands all worship for himself.23 But there is little reason to follow further the blasphemies in which Machiavelli entangles his audience.

Finally, what is one to make of the fact that Clizia, like the Discourses on Livy, is a variation on a classical text, while Mandragola, like The Prince, is not?24 Is there more to this parallel than coincidence? Clizia does seem in some ways more attentive to the conventionally moral and family-oriented than is Mandragola, just as the Discourses is more attentive to the legal and republican than is The Prince. Whereas Clizia's prologue shows some effort to protect an appearance of morality, Mandragola's justifies speaking ill. Clizia is about efforts of the old and feeble to keep a household; Mandragola, about efforts of the young and vigorous to introduce a love match under the veils of a household. In that respect too Clizia may be a completion of Machiavelli's comic project. While Mandragola in its focus on sex laughs at the household's focus on marriage and babies, Clizia rethinks the household's utility. It shows the use of babies and how in general to replace patriarchy with an enlightened alliance for security, wealth, and reputation. Accordingly, Mandragola seems the more intellectually radical of the two plays. There is nothing in Clizia to compare with Friar Timoteo's remarkable dialogue with Lucrezia about the difficulties of morality, nor are there prominent characters of the theoretical subtlety of the friar or even of Ligurio. Might it be that Mandragola is a comic put-down of love extending even to love of Christ—the unarmed prophet who conquered the world and whom Machiavelli means to replace with a new faith (“fede”) of arms?25 Ligurio, unlike Sofronia, might rise beyond household management. Clizia is a comic put-down of love that extends to the political philosophers' pretension to love of wisdom. Palamede, attuned to business, indicates Machiavelli's alternative—but he finds no business worth his time in Clizia. Mandragola is more oriented to individuals' pursuing their own business and hence also to Machiavelli's own business. Clizia is about a restricted application of the prince's art: liberating and reforming the little republic of the household.


In general, Machiavellian comedies promote for private life the reconstruction that The Prince and the Discourses promote for public life. They subvert and they construct. They subvert the traditional hierarchies of the household. They construct artificial associations for private satisfactions, whether it be an adulterous grouping within the household or a more equal and mutually useful household.

This private reform by comedy complements Machiavelli's grave treatises on public reform. Many have praised his special attention to public life, some for its encouragement of a participatory civic republicanism, others for its undistracted realpolitik. But this priority for public life rests upon a critique of the dignity of private life. Machiavellian comedies ridicule most the supposedly higher inclinations to piety, decency, nobility, and philosophy. They laugh at the allegedly natural and divine hierarchies of the household and of private life generally. Reformed private life is, then, a realm chiefly of play—so the boy-lovers Cleandro and Callimaco and the would-be boy-lover Nicomaco—and of domestic security—so the wiser heads Ligurio and Sofronia and the longing of the sentimental-timid Nicia for a “little cutie” who will be a “staff to sustain our old age.”26 Entertainment and everyday security are what private life is about, according to Machiavelli. Criticizing the allegedly higher inclinations, he allows public life to stand out as alone grave. For the pleasures of bodily play and small trickery ignore the dangers of death and war as well as our subjection to the big tricksters. A secure household is but small security. Consider Nicia's fear of “the Eight” and his dependence upon what he thinks is done by “kings and princes and lords.”27 Only peoples with power can secure themselves and their families, and only princes with their own states can obtain by glory an immortality of their own.

It is not surprising that the comedies' reform of the private sphere is accompanied by an insinuation of public reform. To that extent at least Machiavellian comedy is politicized comedy—a rhetoric of political reform. It is not solely political because of the pleasure in play and the necessity for association in households. The private sphere has its claims. But comedic rhetoric has in good part a public purpose, partly by subverting in small and partly by accustoming in small.

Without reform we stint ourselves, in the words of the first song. We are repressed, in today's lingo. The plays liberate us from deferential beliefs and instruct us in the key liberated belief: that we are put upon in the name of the old fogies and dominating creeds of the world. The young, strong, clever, and female have been especially put upon. Machiavellian comedy aims especially to liberate and instruct them.

Women are the primary beneficiaries, with playboys probably in second place, and the young and the clever of both classes are favored accordingly. Both Sofronia and Lucrezia are pretty much in control of their households by play's end. “Whoever offends a woman” must face a force that surpasses “all mortal force,” according to the song after act 3 of Clizia. Machiavelli takes his own warning to heart. This first of modern political philosophers caters to women in the prologue to Clizia and caters to their desire for vengeance in the action. A young girl is protected from an old father, and the result is the punishment of an old lecher as well as an exhibition of a man's frustration without a woman. Both comedies could seem chiefly for the liberation and instruction of women—but that would be to forget the satisfactions supplied to the young men with whom they sympathize (at least when the women know what is really important) and who set the plots in motion by seeking them.

The conventionally prominent men of the plays are by and large forgettable. They are boys preoccupied with girls or old men preoccupied with domestic security or with girls. One sees little in Callimaco or Nicomaco of ambition and gravity. The male servants are generally no better; they are alternately cheeky, servile, and cheeky again. It is true that Ligurio is the brains of Mandragola and that other clever men, like Father Timoteo in Mandragola and to a lesser extent Palamede in Clizia, are memorable. But these men have instrumental roles or are irrelevant to the plot. Some are conspirators, indeed, but chiefly for someone else's benefit. They get only partial satisfaction in managing another person's domestic satisfactions, although Ligurio gets a leg up in his rising (but not in his loving). It may be that first-rate men wish for the power and glory of public life, a life inevitably grave and ruthless. The pleasures and security of love and of the household are primarily for second-rate men and for almost all women. Lucrezia, “fit to govern a kingdom,” may be an exception, although even in her enlightenment she submits herself to Callimaco as “lord, master, and guide” as well as “my father” and “my defender.”28

In the prologue to Mandragola the author says that he engages in such light literary pursuits only because he is “cut off from showing with other enterprises other virtù.” Machiavelli too gets only a secondary satisfaction from the domestic scene and from satisfying audiences with such stuff. A student must look to The Prince and the Discourses to understand the scope of Machiavelli's singular outlook, not least as to first-rate men.

Still, the two comedies are themselves a profound political innovation. Comedy had not enjoyed a particularly good press among the political philosophers who preceded Machiavelli. They saw a short road between laughing at rulers and the respectable—and losing reverence for law and morals. The road between satire and lawlessness or licentiousness is especially short for the young, whose character, whose stance toward life and the passions, is comparatively unformed. Some ancient philosophers had worried about a slippery slope. In his Politics Aristotle would have well-governed countries keep lampoons and comedies from young people, at least until their upbringing is completed.29 The Poetics exhibits similar apprehensions, touching on the origins of comedy in preludes to phallic songs and in personal parodies and crude invectives. It connects the rise of comedy with the rise of democracy and common tastes and with wandering comedians dishonored in their towns. Still, such doubts do not exhaust Aristotle's relevant reflections. He credits the great Homer with the origin of comedy in his Margites, as well as of tragedy, for Homer rose above merely personal satire to the laughable as such. He takes care to record the first comic writer in Athens to give up the lampooning form (“idea”) and generalize speeches and plot (“logoi” and “muthos”).30 Aristotle, like Horace, points toward an urbane and philosophic comedy. It is urbane about the troubles and joys of life because wise as to the range of human beings and as to the absurdities and sadnesses to be expected. The Nicomachean Ethics includes wittiness among the moral virtues of the gentleman.31

Shakespeare in his Tempest figures forth, I believe, such a philosophic poet. Prospero is a lover of studies and the liberal arts, but he also has magical powers with the aid of his darling “chick,” Ariel. Ariel can be taken for the poet's imagination, his power of imaging forth characters and events. Still, precisely such a nature as Prospero's may incline him to neglect the evil possibilities from a twisted brother, say, or from the twisted nature of a Caliban. Even on his island, even after the lesson of his political disaster back in Milan, only Ariel's warnings and powers save Prospero from the various plots of Antonio, Caliban, and Stephano and Trinculo. We are shown the endangered position of the poetic and wise, confronted by the dominating, the viciously passionate, and the flighty but greedy crowd. The Tempest instructs such a nature about the storms of life, without forgetting or denying life's magical delights. Prospero finds it easier to care for the charms of the wonderful Miranda and the nobility of the ardent young prince Ferdinand. But this care too is partly in the light of his darling art and in the shadow of his impending death. Prospero takes care to provide for what he delights in, lovingly and not only because it is perpetually endangered by the low and vicious. Philosophic comedy of this kind ridicules rather tolerantly the low, while indicating its ubiquity and warning of its danger, but also illuminates the beautiful and noble, while reminding of both its preciousness and its fragility. In portraying all of this, a Tempest shows both the gifts of the poet and the capacious superiority of the wise. There is high comedy as well as low comedy. High comedy prepares the mind to discriminate among delightful possibilities as well as dangerous ones. It adds to the pleasures of imitation the pleasure of philosophic thoughtfulness. It is what Dante accomplished in his Commedia.

Machiavelli's is different comedy, although it too means to instruct. It instructs in policy and being politic. It does not ridicule the low, except as shortsighted, but it especially ridicules those who pretend to be high, that is, to be virtuous, spiritual, or devoted to wisdom. It is less high comedy than low comedy because it disdains the distinction between noble and base. But it is neither, for it exposes above all the foolishness of high and low that keeps each from the effectual ways of real satisfaction, which it also shows. It does elevate the wise, but chiefly in the cool form of the shrewd knowers of the world. So Ligurio and Sofronia. Machiavellian virtù is cool because it is all business and not warmed by love of the good, the beautiful, or the true.

Hence the peculiarly cynical, conspiratorial, and calculating flavor of Machiavellian comedy. Its humor is in exposing the pretension in others' airs of superiority and in enjoying one's own superiority in tricks and plots. Such twofold wit, malicious and proud, is characteristically Machiavellian. It is in the political writings as well as in the comedies. The Prince and the Discourses may be grim by the standards of ordinary morals and politics. But they are enlivened with the pleasure of seeing and surpassing the foolishness of well-meaning men and even of the princes who pride themselves on vice. Machiavelli's comedy is, then, farther from low comedy than is, say, Shakespeare's. There is an easy warmth about Stephano and Trinculo in the Tempest and Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream, whatever the more ominous possibilities. And then there is Falstaff. Machiavelli's comedy is cold if raucous in its use of the ridiculous, for it is calculatingly in the service of politic reform.32

Clizia is a comic classic of enlightened rhetoric, a classic insinuation of the critique and the planning that underlie modern free society as well as modern effective government. But the play also expresses the versatile wit of one of the most powerful of thinkers. Machiavelli had his reasons. Whether they are adequate is a question considered, but not settled, in this essay.


  1. Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Comedy in the Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960), 45.

  2. See Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli's Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 297, 13-16, 74-77, 179-80; see also Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), Introduction, xxxvi, xxxviii.

  3. If one ventures to play around with names, “Nicomaco” could remind of the Nicomachean Ethics. The Ethics, which takes the gentleman as moral model and is the philosophic defense of moral virtue, was supposedly addressed to Aristotle's son, Nicomachus. Nicomaco's strange mixture of hypocritical moralism and uncontrolled passion might be Machiavelli's little comment on the practicability of Aristotelian moral virtue as a disposition to select the “mean.” Might Clizia also hint maliciously that Aristotle's moralism denies to young sons the pleasures that fathers secretly desire and would appropriate for themselves?

  4. William Shakespeare, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare, ed. Horace Howard Furness (New York: Dover Publications, 1964), 1.2 and 4.1.

  5. See Mansfield's note 4 to chap. 2 of The Prince.

  6. Hanna Fenichel Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman: Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolò Machiavelli (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 119.

  7. Prince, chap. 25.

  8. Discourses on Livy 1.4.5; see especially Martin Fleischer, “Trust and Deceit in Machiavelli's Comedies,” Journal of the History of Ideas 27 (1966): 374; also Martinez, “Machiavellian Valediction in Clizia,” 120, and Timothy Lukes, “Fortune Comes of Age (in Machiavelli's Literary Works),” Sixteenth Century Journal 9 (1980): 44-45.

  9. Discourses on Livy 3.1.

  10. Prince, chap. 23.

  11. Prince, chap. 7.

  12. Martinez, “Machiavellian Valediction in Clizia,” 131.

  13. Consider Ridolfi, Life of Machiavelli, who dismisses without serious argument the “theory” that the two plays make up a “diptych designed for particular moral ends” (209). He refers to a work, which I have not considered, by G. Tambara, Intorno alla Clizia di Niccolò Machiavelli (Rovigo, 1895).

  14. Prince, chaps. 3, 7, 8, 12.

  15. See also Mandragola 2.6; 3.1, 9, 10, 11; 5.5, 6.

  16. Cf. Isa. 53:3.

  17. Catherine Zuckert, “Fortune Is a Woman—But So Is Prudence: Machiavelli's Clizia,” in Finding a New Feminism: Rethinking the Woman Question for Liberal Democracy, ed. Pamela Jensen (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 34, 37n5.

  18. Mandragola 3.1.

  19. Ibid., 5.5.

  20. Ibid., 5.4.

  21. Cf. Isa. 52:3-9, 13, 14.

  22. Mandragola 5.6.

  23. Cf. Isa. 66:4-12, 57:11-14, 59:17-19, 62:11-12, etc.; Ezek. 44:10-14.

  24. Zuckert, “Fortune Is a Woman—But So Is Prudence,” 25.

  25. Cf. La Vita di Castruccio Castracani da Lucca, in Istorie Fiorentine, Niccolò Machiavelli, Opere, ed. Franco Gaeta (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1962), 13.

  26. Mandragola 5.2, 5.

  27. Ibid., 2.6.

  28. Ibid., 1.3, 5.4.

  29. Aristotle, Politics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), 1336b20-35.

  30. Ibid., 1448a32, 36-39, 1449a12-13, 1448b35-1449a2, 1449b 5-9.

  31. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 1127b33-1128b9. See Susan D. Collins, “The Ends of Action: The Moral Virtues in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics,” Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 1994, 159-72.

  32. Lukes suggests that “the triviality and humor of the dramatic medium may have best suited Machiavelli's intentions—to relate truly revolutionary and immoral ideas without being labeled a gross revolutionary and atheist himself” (“Fortune Comes of Age,” 37n4). This is compatible with a clever man's perceptions of “how dangerous” such a play was “for a young man.” Consider the first encounter with Mandragola of the play-wright Carlo Goldoni, who “devoured” it and immediately reread it “at least ten times” (Memoirs of Carlo Goldoni, trans. John Black [Boston: James Osgood, 1877], 72).

Further Reading

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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 circumstances and literature that influenced him.

Martinez, Ronald. L. “Tragic Machiavelli.” The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works, ed. by Vickie B. Sullivan, pp. 102–19. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Discusses, among other works, Mandragola and La clizia in relation to early cinquecentro tragedy.

Scott, Margaret. “Machiavelli and the Machiavel.” Renaissance Drama 15 (1984): 147–74.

Explores how the Machivel—contemporaries of Shakespeare who had been influenced by Machiavelli—interpreted Machiavelli's works.

Tylus, Jane. “Theater and its Social Uses: Machivelli's Mandragola and the Spectacle of Infamy.” Renaissance Quarterly 53, no. 3 (autumn 2000): 656–86.

Explains how Machiavelli used Mandragola to express his political ideas.

Watson, George. “Machiavel and Machiavelli.” Sewanee Review 84, no. 4 (fall 1976): 630–48.

Discusses Machiavelli's influence on Elizabethan drama.

Additional coverage of Machiavelli's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; European Writers; Literature and Its Times; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vols. 8, 36; Literature Resource Center; Novels for Students, Vol. 9; Reference Guide to World Literature; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Harvey C. Mansfield (essay date 2000)

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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 double meanings, even the dirty jokes and blasphemies that run rampant in the Mandragola are also present, less obviously, in The Prince and the Discourses on Livy, in which they reflect his desire to treat respectable political ideas and institutions “without any respect” (sanza alcuno rispetto).1 Yet it is also true that the Mandragola is a heavily politicized comedy, that both its jokes and its erotic passions are managed, hence stunted, for the sake of a political end. Its plot seems at first to tell of a private sexual conquest but turns out to have a political end. Even in private enjoyments Machiavelli has his eye on the main chance.


We are not sure when the Mandragola was written.2 The first production was apparently in 1518, and Machiavelli mentions it in a letter in 1520. The action of the Mandragola takes place at a time clearly marked for us—ten years after 1494, that is, ten years after the invasion of Charles VIII, king of France, into Italy (1.1). The erotic conquest by the hero, Callimaco, occurs under the shadow of that political conquest and is presented as an alternative employment in a time when virtue, that is, virtue in politics, has been made incapable in Italy. Callimaco, then, is not faced with making a choice between love and command in a situation that would test the relative strength of the two.3 Politics has for the time being relaxed its hold on him, and he becomes hot with the heat he might have spent in ambition. The purity of his eros is in question. In one of the songs that Machiavelli added to the play later, he speaks of the great power (“possanza”) of love, which when tested can move lovers to disobey men, gods, and even themselves. Love provides “arms with which you are armed”4—a political rendering of what might seem nonpolitical.

Doubtful, too, of course, is the purity of Callimaco's morality, or of any character's morality in the Mandragola. Indeed, the play is about morality, not about eros. It has dirty jokes galore but no scenes of attraction or arousal, and it has no speeches of love. Since Callimaco has nothing grand in view—nothing more than the pleasure of sex or the pleasure of sexual conquest—and since he does not sacrifice anything for it but his spare time, his desire cannot be said to be noble. He is not even “sexy”—a democratic notion of modern times that simultaneously promises nobility and guarantees never to deliver it. Although the action of the play results in the satisfaction of Callimaco's desire, it seems to use and hence subordinate that desire for the purpose of producing a child. The plot contains—or consists in—a trick, but the play is unlike the beffa plays of the time because the fun of the trick is turned to account and given a value that proves to be political.5 In the Mandragola the fun makes us laugh, but not so as to enable us to see how ridiculous we are and then to become reconciled with ourselves. Rather, it is to extend our limited sense of our possibilities, and is profoundly political.

Our sense of what is possible is limited by morality. Callimaco's desire for sexual conquest is limited by the moral prohibition against adultery, as he has set his eye on a married woman. Not that the prohibition weighs heavily on him, but it gets in his way. Lucrezia is the wife of a man who with some exaggeration might be called a professor of political science: In the prologue he is called a doctor. Though “hardly astute” (prol.; 1.1), he is said to be a specialist in the philosopher Boethius (whose name, however, is got wrong). Lucrezia and her husband are childless, and both want a child. The action of the play makes their desire a means to the satisfaction of Callimaco's desire, for he uses their desire to get them to agree to his. If the Mandragola went only so far as this and Machiavelli were content to make the point that love does not always accord with morality, then however well he said it, he would be saying nothing new in human experience or in comparison with previous comedy. But Machiavelli does not stop here.

At the same time and increasingly as the play proceeds, it subordinates Callimaco to the childless couple and makes his desire a means to the realization of theirs. At the end both he and they get what they want. But at the beginning, Lucrezia too is prevented by the moral law against adultery from having a child by going outside her marriage for the insemination. She is persuaded that the good end of having a child excuses the evil means by which it is got. Having a child is more serious and reputable than merely making a conquest; so Callimaco's lighthearted ambition is justified by an end outside itself. The question, then, in the Mandragola is not whether we have the strength to hold to morality in a difficult situation, but whether we should even try to do so. In the play Machiavelli suggests that we have neither the strength nor the obligation. And instead of restating the opposition of love to morality, he offers a reconciliation between them.


The seduction of Lucrezia in the Mandragola recalls through the similarity of name the rape of Lucretia in Roman history, which occasioned the founding of a republic.6 That famous rape, followed by Lucretia's suicide, is treated by Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy. For it is narrated by Livy in his history and was the subject of a famous discussion by St. Augustine in the City of God.7 Shakespeare's Rape of Lucrece showed it to be a subject for tragedy. But in Livy's narration, Lucretia's sacrifice of her life for the shame done to her chastity was considered inspiration for a republic, a form of government that puts lawfulness or morality ahead of advantage and tyrannical passion. In its respect for morality and the law, republican virtue breathes the spirit of chastity, a seemingly nonpolitical virtue of withdrawal. Chastity in its purity of will, however, sets an example of self-sacrifice that extends from private to public behavior. Moreover the honor of women stands for the principle of limits on a tyrant's will, for whether by their own consent or as other men's property, women are subjects a king cannot have or touch. And in the face of temptation it needs to be defended. Rape, then, is an especially grave violation of law, and rape by a king is tyranny made manifest. The rape of Lucretia by the son of Tarquinius Superbus was appropriately punished by the founding of the Roman republic. Later, that republic was duly revived after the lust of Appius Claudius, head of the Decemvirs, for Virginia was revealed by her father when he killed her in order to save her from the tyrant.

Machiavelli's treatment of these affairs in the Discourses is altogether distant from the chaste spirit of republicanism. He speaks slightingly of the “incident of Virginia.”8 He refers to Lucretia's rape as an “accident,” an “error,” and an “excess.”9 The accident was used by Junius Brutus to overthrow the Tarquin kings and found the republic, but it was merely a pretext. Some other incident would have served as well and would have been found. But Machiavelli also indicates that Tarquinius Superbus could have used the incident himself. He could have survived as king and he could have foiled Brutus if he had had the wit and the ruthlessness to sacrifice his son to the popular anger—qualities that Brutus himself was to show soon in condemning his sons for their misbehavior.10 Brutus's conspiracy to found the Roman republic could have been anticipated by a counterconspiracy to save the Tarquins.11

Machiavelli praises Brutus's simulated craziness or stupidity in overthrowing the Tarquins, but he is also willing to advise them with hindsight as to how they could have saved themselves. He does not suffer from moral shock over the rape committed by Sextus Tarquinius, and he does not offer a tragic interpretation of Lucretia's self-sacrifice.12 Consequently, he does not seem to care here about the difference between a republic that respects law and morality and a tyranny that does not. The tyrant could have survived if he had satisfied the people at the expense of his son, which is advice implying that the people care more about punishing immorality than about keeping the law. As to the law, a prince who does not take away the life, wife, or property of his subjects can rule them in a tyranny not essentially different from a republic.13

Machiavelli treats both rape and tyranny lightly, the two being connected in the incident of the Roman Lucretia. In the Mandragola he goes further and treats rape as a joke. He can go further because the rape is without violence; it is a persuasion or seduction. But the seduction is not altogether without force; it does not use “open force,” a Machiavellian phrase that forces the reader to construct its opposite, but the concealed force of a fraud.14 The fraud is, first, for Lucrezia a certain argument that overcomes her conscience; and second, for her husband, Messer Nicia, it is the belief in a certain magic potion, the “mandragola,” or mandrake, which makes sterile women conceive. There is, perhaps, a connection, even an identity, between the argument and the potion, for the use of the potion, which kills the man who inseminates the woman after she takes it, requires the same disregard for immoral means as in the argument.


As in Machiavelli's interpretation of the Roman Lucretia, the plot of the Mandragola is a conspiracy: nothing else but conspiracy is in the plot. There are no chance events, no unintended consequences.15 The object of the conspiracy is to rape Lucrezia comically, as it were, without violence. To do so the conspirators must get around the belief of Lucrezia and her husband that adultery is wrong and make them believe it is permitted to them. In the Discourse or Dialogue Concerning Our Language Machiavelli says that the “end of a comedy is to hold a mirror to a private life,” and “grave and useful effects to our life” result from it.16 Private life is the home of natural, erotic yearnings as opposed especially to public things, that is, the prevailing notions of justice, shame, and morality—the dominant values, we would say. These notions may be laughable, but not to those who hold them; public morality (in Greek, the nomos) is what one is not permitted to laugh at, in public. But one is permitted to laugh at private desires that may reflect respectable public ambitions. It is easier to laugh at a young man such as Callimaco hopping around in his desire for a woman than to laugh at the same young man eager to make a name for himself in politics.

Politics is the realm of gravity, a fact that Machiavelli wants to change somewhat, but only somewhat. In the prologue to the Mandragola he refers to the difference between levity and gravity, offering an excuse for himself “if this material is not worthy—on account of its being so light—of a man who wishes to seem wise and grave.”17 But he cannot treat private life without treating public notions either directly or by implication. Callimaco is kept from consummating his desire for Lucrezia by the public view that it is wrong, the nomos understood in the wide sense of both law and morality, enforced by sanctions both formal and informal. Callimaco's plot is a conspiracy against society's conventions, and Machiavelli's play makes us laugh at those conventions. If we reflect, it inclines us to question them.

In the Discourses, Machiavelli says that Junius Brutus used the rape of Lucretia for the public purpose of founding the Roman republic. But he hints that Brutus also used the rape of Lucretia for the private purpose of making himself the founder of the Roman republic. (In Livy's original version of the event, Brutus's private motive is actually more explicit than in Machiavelli's account.) In the Mandragola, the rape of Lucrezia is used by Callimaco for the private purpose of sexual gratification. But it also has a public consequence that is necessary to the plot and that Callimaco accepts: the making of a happy family. Not only does Callimaco seduce Messer Nicia's wife with impunity and to the delight of them both, but Messer Nicia also invites him to become a member of the household, living with Messer Nicia and serving “as the staff of his old age” (one of the many dirty jokes in the Mandragola) for an indefinite period—perhaps until he runs dry. Callimaco's private purpose receives a public cover of respectability, and in the process it is absorbed into the public end of continuing Messer Nicia's family and keeping it respectable. This development was unintended and unexpected by Callimaco, who wanted only the conquest with no thought of the future, but he gladly consents to the extension, indeed the transformation, of his desire.

The Mandragola has a happy ending because respectability is preserved, but at the cost of morality. Respectability is essential to morality because morality needs the support of social conventions without which moral people are unprotected from the risks they take with their own necessities. To be moral means to stake one's happiness on one partner for life. If doing that does not produce happiness, then at least it leaves one respectable; and failing to do it robs one of respectability. But maintaining respectability can also be fatal to morality: Messer Nicia's family could not be continued without an act of adultery. Instead of maintaining respectability for the sake of morality, as Lucrezia wishes, one may be tempted, as was Messer Nicia, to sacrifice morality for the sake of respectability and the political standing it gives. In the Mandragola, the adultery is itself continued and even made respectable; it is brought to Messer Nicia's home, where he welcomes a situation only he is so stupid as to misunderstand. But his outstanding stupidity also permits him a certain freedom. For to be oblivious of conventional judgment is also to be free of it. Messer Nicia gets, or will have, the children or sons (“figli”) he wants. Lucrezia has her conscience salved, and Callimaco gets her, for good and with impunity. These excellent results would not be possible if the appearances were not preserved, if Machiavelli did not reestablish the obedience of his characters to the law, in the wide sense of nomos, that they had violated.

The Mandragola ends without pain and without scandal. In Clizia, a companion play to the Mandragola, one finds that the conspiracy in the Mandragola was successful in producing a son for Messer Nicia and that the product was blamed on the priest. The chief representative of the law (as opposed to Messer Nicia, who is learned in the law) is the one “fingered” and commonly held responsible for having violated the law. That he is a priest reminds us that morality in Machiavelli's day, far more than in ours, was Christian. Machiavelli shows us the contradictions of morality both in general and specifically in the dogmas of Christianity: one of his lessons is that, contrary to the moral philosophers of our day, morality always comes in a specific version. A theoretical morality of universal principles is never seen in fact any more than the genus tree will be found in a forest. Every morality comes bound inseparably to the arbitrary dogma of one time or another, if for no other reason than that morality needs respectability, and what is respectable varies.

The Mandragola presents a private conspiracy to “rape” Lucrezia that parallels and parodies Machiavelli's interpretation of the founding of the Roman republic. It explains why the overthrow of tyranny does not do away with tyranny but rather comes by means of tyranny and reinstates tyranny. Or is tyranny the wrong word for morality which keeps us from getting what we want? More moderately, one can say the play shows why it is necessary to overthrow an old law and its regime and to establish a new law and a new regime. It is not sufficient merely to overthrow. Machiavelli presents the case for freer sex in the Mandragola but emphatically not for a sexual revolution, in the current sense, that would overthrow all hypocritical notions of fidelity and shame. That is the meaning of the comic domestication of adultery in the play.

Yet the new regime is not the same as the old. Machiavelli does not merely give us a glimpse of freedom in a brief comic vacation from morality. That was the usual function of comedy: to show the limitations of morality and then to remind us why it is needed nonetheless. But in the Mandragola, there is a revolution in the new attitude toward trust that it portrays. The public nomos is based on trust or belief as opposed to private erotic yearnings. One can take for granted that men and women desire sexual gratification as a necessity of their nature. But whether a particular woman will consent is not in her nature but in a belief she holds, in which she trusts. It is by trust and not by nature that husbands and wives confine their sexual attentions to each other. Trust between husband and wife is established, confirmed, and sanctioned by the trust that holds society together, as we have seen in the connection between chastity and republican virtue. Public trust controls, or attempts to control, natural private desires.

Trust is the theme of the Mandragola, the creation and the testing of trust. The main lesson can be given here: every ordinary human trust in the Mandragola is betrayed. Whether it is in the relationship of husband and wife, mother and daughter, host and guest, master and servant, ruler and ruled, or confessor and confessed—all are betrayed. There is no chance for father and son to betray each other because the problem of the play is the generation of a son (which occurs through the action of a potion rather than by a miracle). But one, and only one, relationship of trust holds—an extraordinary one, the trust of coconspirators in a common crime. As Callimaco says in response to a doubt about dealing with criminals, “When a thing does good for an individual, you have to believe that when you tell him about it, he will serve you with faith” (1.1).

Since the plot of the play is a plot to change our world, let us watch it unfold and see the plotter transformed from Callimaco to Messer Nicia with Lucrezia to Messer Nicia alone.


A song to be spoken by nymphs and shepherds appears at the beginning of the play before the prologue, apparently added by Machiavelli in 1526. They complain of the brevity and painfulness of life, and they warn of the deceits of the world, which perhaps offer happiness and do not deliver. They choose a solitary life of pleasure in joy and festivity, not so solitary as not to be shared with the opposite sex. Since shepherding is a real occupation, it appears that women have to go further from reality than do men to reach the life of pleasure. No natural human end is in evidence here unless it is the pleasure found away from the world. The song ends by invoking the “name of the one who governs you” and “the one who gave you” so happy a state of grace—but without specifying who they might be. Perhaps they are Francesco Guicciardini, governor of Faenza when the Mandragola was shown there in 1526, and Pope Clement VII, who appointed him. Or perhaps they are God, who is mentioned next as the first word of the prologue. God has two aspects as the source of goods for men and of grace, grace being required because the goods are not enough to keep men alive or to keep them from sin. The nymphs and shepherds fleeing the world do not go in the direction of God.

The prologue takes us from the deceits of the world in the initial song to comic deceits. The prologue's speaker is Machiavelli or his representative, a “composer” (componitor) said to be of no great fame. The play is about a new chance or case (“caso”) with its setting in Florence, though it could be elsewhere. “The fable is called Mandragola” for a cause the audience will see. Four of the characters are introduced with the setting: first, the Doctor of laws lives near the “Street of Love,” opposite to which is the church, where the friar lives. So we have law, love, and the Church that mediates between them. Then we are introduced to Callimaco, whose door is on the left, and a young woman deceived by him. “I would like you to be deceived like her” (prol.), says Machiavelli, comparing the deceit practiced by the lover on the beloved to that of the comedian on the audience. Lucrezia, though deceived, was also benefited with sexual pleasure and eventually a child; perhaps the audience too can expect such benefits—a diversion and a serious lesson.

Machiavelli then lists, though not by name, the four characters who will seem comic: Callimaco, Messer Nicia, the Friar, and Ligurio. The parasite Ligurio replaces the deceived Lucrezia in the previous list. Machiavelli excuses himself for such unworthy matter, since it is so light (“leggieri”) for a man who wants to appear wise and grave. But he has been precluded from “showing other virtue with other enterprises,” there being no reward for his labors. The Mandragola, then, is one of his enterprises or part of his enterprise. His enterprise is not to live the contemplative life, which is its own reward, but it has a certain levity that reminds one of the contemplative life. High seriousness permits low comedy because both question things people are ordinarily serious about. Machiavelli, however, seeks the reward of pleasing his audience. He knows that it is prone to faultfinding because the present age has fallen so far from “ancient virtue.” But he has a remedy; he warns that he too can find fault—it was his “first art.” Although he may play the sergeant (“sergieri”) to someone who wears a better coat than his, like Callimaco, he holds no one in esteem. Machiavelli presents himself in need of employment for his virtue, but he is more resourceful. His Mandragola is both relief from his other weightier enterprises and part of them.

The first scene introduces us to Callimaco and Siro, master and servant. Callimaco believes that Siro must have been “marveling” at his sudden departure from Paris, a word that occurs frequently in the play. Perhaps we are supposed to think of servants who marvel at what their masters do. Siro declares himself the model servant and says that he should never inquire into his master's affairs without being told but should serve faithfully after he has been told. The master now tells the servant why they are in Florence, although they have been there nearly a month. Callimaco does not trust Siro as a servant; his profession of fidelity means nothing, as becomes clear later in the scene when we hear of servants who can be bribed. But now Callimaco is ready to make him a coconspirator in his plot to pursue Lucrezia. He needs his servant to further his pursuit of her, to whom he is a kind of servant. Callimaco had been in Paris because there were no political opportunities in Italy and because it was safer in Paris. He was having a good time until Fortune interrupted it when Cammillo Calfucci, Lucrezia's relative, came and told him of her. The scene is parallel to the one in Livy in which Sextus Tarquinius learns of Lucretia from her husband, Collatinus, except that Cammillo's praise is more pointed.

Callimaco does not need Siro yet; so why is he telling him now, as he said, without being “forced” to do so? Partly he wants to vent himself, and partly he wants Siro to prepare his own spirit to help him. A master needs to vent himself and a servant needs to get ready: these needs on both sides of the relationship complicate the trust between the parties. Callimaco mentions three difficulties in the way of getting Lucrezia: her very honest nature “alien to things of love”; her husband who is very rich and lets her govern him and who is not that old; and her inaccessibility, through relatives, workers, or bribable servants. From this we learn that chastity is not incompatible with the desire to rule (1.3) and the ability to inspire fear.

Against these difficulties Callimaco mentions two hopes and then adds a third. First is Messer Nicia's simplicity; second, the wish they both have for children; and, as an afterthought, the fact that Lucrezia's mother, Sostrata, is a good sport (“buona compagna,” the same description given Callimaco in the prologue). Callimaco has already engaged Ligurio to help him gain his desire. He hired a man he knew to be dishonest before he told his honest servant. Siro protests that Ligurio is a sponger or a parasite (“pappatore”), a type not usually faithful, but Callimaco can trust him in this because he will be paid and because Ligurio has no scruples. In conspiracy, the unscrupulous are more trustworthy than honest servants because scruples act as inhibitions against doing what is necessary quickly. A man you can depend on is one whose dishonesty you can be sure of. Callimaco has only a very vague plan of getting Lucrezia to the public bath, where he hopes she will change her nature and time will bring an opportunity. “What do I know?” he asks somewhat plaintively. Callimaco does not give the impression of being on top of events; he is not what we would expect from a Machiavellian prince. He is ready to react, as in Paris to the report of Lucrezia's beauty, and is surely not shy about taking a risk, but he does not lead. He is led by love and by those who know how to take advantage of love.


Next we meet Ligurio with Messer Nicia (1.2). Messer Nicia's name suggests that of Nicias, the Athenian general who was very rich, very pious, and very lucky—until, of course, thanks to his piety, his luck ran out in the Athenian expedition to Sicily. In Messer Nicia, Nicias's piety and luck are brutally translated into stupidity, and he is introduced as a real booby, a credulous fool whose first words are “I believe.” A stay-at-home, he is unwilling to leave Florence in order to go to the baths, despite medical advice to do so. In his youth he once went to Pisa and Livorno, and at Livorno saw the ocean, which was much larger than the Arno and full of “water, water, water.” Ligurio marvels that “having pissed in so much snow,” he would find difficulty going to a bath. To piss in the snow means to leave your mark, which is what Messer Nicia wants to do by having children. When Messer Nicia retorts to Ligurio, “Your mouth is full of milk,” we note that, although several fluids have been mentioned in this short scene, Messer Nicia is perhaps lacking in the vital fluid not mentioned.

The third scene begins with Ligurio reflecting on the stupidity and good fortune of Messer Nicia. Being so stupid he is fortunate to have such a wife as Lucrezia—beautiful, wise, well-mannered, and fit to govern a kingdom. Ligurio cites and disagrees with the proverb concerning matrimony that says, “God makes men, and they pair themselves off.” If God made perfect pairs, there would perhaps be no need for a law against adultery, and, of course, matchmakers like Ligurio would be unnecessary. His judgment that Lucrezia is fit to govern a kingdom is in tension with Callimaco's regarding her honesty or chastity, and we shall have to see what happens. Messer Nicia can be got around, it seems, because he is stupid, boastful, a stay-at-home, and lucky. Since getting around Nicia is the same as getting around the law, it is not surprising that they share these traits.

Once Callimaco comes over to Ligurio, he offers no praise of Lucrezia but only his need for her. His love is only an expression of the lover's need, and his selfishness is made very emphatic. His need generates hope, which generates belief. Even a false hope, he says, will make him feel better. Callimaco is in an absolute tizzy; he will do anything to succeed with Lucrezia, but he doesn't know what will work. Ligurio puts him in this state by pointing out the defect in the idea of bringing Lucrezia to the baths. The scheme might work for someone else who would be attracted to Lucrezia, and whom she might prefer if he were richer or more gracious.

To pursue the point as Ligurio does not: once you give up respectibility and the stability of the home and make love your principle, whether love of money, beauty, or whatever, promiscuity is the result. One who loves Lucrezia merely because she is beautiful will love the next woman who comes along who is more beautiful. Or she will love a richer and more gracious man. Sensing this, Callimaco becomes as possessive as the most jealous husband. He doesn't yet realize, but he will, that the conspiracy of which he is a part must accept or reconstruct some arbitrary law in order to succeed, some limit on the principle that one should always be attracted to the best, to the beautiful, to the good. Love of beauty has no stability. One cannot match up men and women according to how they rank in yearly, or daily, beauty contests. This is what happens at the baths, or in our day at the beach. If God had made men and women into pairs in which the partners could easily find each other, then there would be no difficulty. But the pairing off of human beings is inconsistent and barely compatible with the relentless yearning of their love.

Callimaco avers, not for the last time, that he is on the edge of dying for his love. He is desperate, and he sees no “remedy.” But Machiavelli always has a remedy for the human troubles or dilemmas that he points out, and he never leaves his readers and students at a loss, in an aporia. He is not satisfied, like Callimaco, with mere hope (1.1). Callimaco comes to Florence because he has heard of Lucrezia's beauty, but though he has seen her (1.1), as yet he has not met her. Ligurio plays with him; he makes him feel, if not see, that beauty is an unstable principle. Therefore, it is necessary to return the conspiracy to the home—the home of Messer Nicia—where limits can be imposed. In the Mandragola, the seduction of Lucrezia, which lifts her moral horizon, goes apace with the domestication of Callimaco, which lowers his. Ligurio's remedy does not require Callimaco to moderate his desire, much less give it up and become a moral character. He remarks to Callimaco that “your blood accords with mine,” perhaps because they both have infinite desires, one for love, the other for money. On that basis they can cooperate. All Callimaco need do is to see the advantages of respectability.

Another, related reason makes it necessary to return the conspiracy to the home. The scheme at the baths depends on time for an opportunity, and things can go wrong while they wait. Infinity of desire keeps one from settling on an attainable object. Ligurio's true or altered scheme makes everyone move so that there is no time for bad luck or for second thoughts—to say nothing of repentance—to intervene. “We will lack time for doing, much less talking,” says Ligurio. This reminds us of “the necessity that does not give time” (la necessità che non da tempo) that Machiavelli in the Discourses on Livy recommends imposing on the execution of a conspiracy, if it is to be successful.


In the second act we see Ligurio's plan in operation. We learn of it, and so do his coconspirators, not all at once but one stage at a time. Ligurio introduces Callimaco to Messer Nicia as a doctor who will find out why his wife is sterile. Before accepting him, Messer Nicia wants to make his own test of the presumed “Maestro's” science, which he proceeds to do. He need only test Callimaco's competence, not his motives, for the motive is the consequence of the competence. Callimaco declares to Nicia that he hasn't labored all those years in Paris (as if!) for any other reason than to help virtuous men like himself. Callimaco has an art, and so he is selfless, like Plato's artisan, who works for his customers. The phony doctor Callimaco is the only character in the Mandragola who is presumed to have no selfish interest, but in fact, of course, he has the most of all. The question of the selflessness of art is a close concern of Machiavelli's because an adviser like himself who denies the reality of selflessness raises doubts about his own selfish interest in giving such advice and even in writing diverting comedies.

To confirm his knowledge, Maestro Callimaco gives in Latin five causes of sterility in Messer Nicia's wife, three of which refer to his own possible inadequacy. Nicia goes into rapture with this discussion of causes, calling the Maestro “the worthiest man one could hope to find.” Then Callimaco says in Italian that beyond these causes, Messer Nicia might be impotent. It seems that despite having greeted the Maestro in correct Latin, Messer Nicia did not understand what he praised. He indignantly rejects the suggestion: “Oh! You make me laugh.” What makes Nicia laugh makes us laugh too. The assumption of everyone in the play, except him, is that he is impotent and that he is the cause of his wife's infertility.

The Maestro says that there would be no remedy for Messer Nicia's impotence, but that there is one for his wife's sterility. Callimaco is not much good at remedies. He promises one only when pretending to be someone else, and then he has to be prompted by Ligurio, who brings up the existence of “certain potions” that infallibly make sterile women conceive. To cover his ignorance and confusion, Callimaco says that he is careful what he says to people he doesn't know, for the selfish reason that he doesn't want to be taken for a charlatan. He, like us, is learning of the potion for the first time and without any detail. The conspiracy is changed after it begins and is revealed by stages, so that it comes as a surprise to subordinate conspirators—as Callimaco is now shown to be—as well as to the object of the conspiracy. The advantage of that method is that the conspirators become committed to the conspiracy before they know it fully; then they cannot back out of it when they find it goes further than they would have intended at first. We shall see the same trick played on Brother Timothy, and it is recommended by Machiavelli in the Discourses. What it means when carried out consistently is that, unless there is some one plotter of the whole, all conspirators are in a sense victims of the conspiracy. It does not mean that all cannot at the same time profit from the conspiracy, as happens in the Mandragola.

Next, Messer Nicia and Siro discuss Callimaco, with whom Nicia is very impressed. He would not be valued in Florence, of course, where people do not appreciate virtue. Nicia himself has no status (“stato”) in this town; so no wonder Callimaco doesn't remain here. He would stay in France because the king of France must take him into account, Nicia supposes and Siro confirms. But Siro's only concern is that the same in store for Nicia will bring trouble for himself and his master. Messer Nicia is a man of political responsibility; he is stupid but (and?) he is grave and responsible. His desire to have children is for the purpose not merely of perpetuating his bloodline but also of increasing his influence in politics, thus enabling him to do more good. Children, or sons, would mean heirs for a large family that would improve his status in the town. He knows that in wanting to have children he is looking for two things someone else might flee, trouble for himself and for others (2.2). But in the Mandragola, politics is treated lightly. This is the only political discussion that occurs, and it is between a master and a disdainful servant, hence not a serious one. It takes place while Messer Nicia is on the way to gather a urine specimen from his wife. He comes back holding a chamber pot, representing the first appearance of Lucrezia on stage. She is not a tragic figure.

Maestro Callimaco examines the specimen and gives two different analyses, one in Latin, the other in Italian. If the first analysis were correct, there would be no need for the second, in which he suggests that Lucrezia might be “mal coperta” (badly covered) at night. Messer Nicia of course misunderstands. She has a good quilt, but he wonders whether she gets cold from saying paternosters on her knees for four hours before getting into bed. Here is a joking reference to the incompatibility of Christianity and generation, the remedy for which is the mandragola. Callimaco as Maestro has a sure remedy, because of which Messer Nicia should have faith in him; and if the remedy doesn't work after a year, he will give Nicia two thousand ducats. This is not the kind of offer made by Brother Timothy and other clergy when they ask for faith.

Nothing is more certain to make a woman pregnant, continues Callimaco, than a potion made of mandragola. Why, if it weren't for this, the queen of France would be barren, and infinite other princesses in that state. The rub is, however, that the first man who lies with the woman after she has taken the potion dies. Nonetheless, this is the method used by the king and queen of France in order to keep their succession going. Succession is both a family and a political reason. Messer Nicia has no such reason or no such compelling reason. He compares himself to the king of France, as Lucrezia will compare herself to Lot's daughters. By the way, Nicia knows that Callimaco is prized by the king of France and that the king of France uses a stud when he wants a child, but he doesn't put two and two together.

Following Nicia's example, let us generalize. The mandrake preserves succession at the cost of its progenitor; it uses the agent and then kills him. But in general, God or nature uses individual progenitors as agents to preserve the succession of the human species and then allows them to die sooner or later, if not within eight days as the Maestro says in this case. All human beings can be likened to the unfortunate stud who keeps the succession going at his own cost. Why does he, why do we cooperate in this business? God or nature has made the immediate pleasure of sex distinct from the long-term desire for generation, so that the latter is not necessary to the former. In the play, Callimaco wants the pleasure of sex, and Lucrezia and Messer Nicia have a desire for generation. The distinctness between sex and generation is reflected in Christianity, the ruling nomos of Machiavelli's time. Christianity frowns on sexual pleasure and prizes chastity, on the one hand, and on the other, it praises generation in asking men to be fruitful and multiply. The natural law doctrine of the Church joins the two distinct desires, laying it down that sexual pleasure is lawful only for the purpose of generation. Similarly, the plot of the Mandragola opposes Callimaco to Lucrezia and Messer Nicia. Callimaco, who desires sex, represents pleasure and levity; Lucrezia and Messer Nicia, who desire generation, represent morality, politics, and gravity. The deception of the plot keeps them separate but also joins them and makes them complementary so that both ends are achieved by indirection, the one as the means to the other. Machiavelli by implication criticizes Christianity and uses it against itself. If sex can be used for generation, so also generation can be used for sex; thus generation is not the end of, or higher than, sex, as Christian natural law asserts. The Christian idea that sex and generation are distinct, or its recognition of that natural truth, can be used to oppose its strictures against sex without generation.

Maestro Callimaco proposes to have Lucrezia lie first with a young man who will draw off the infection from the mandrake; then the way will be clear for Messer Nicia. Fortune has so favored Nicia that he, Callimaco, just happens to have the ingredients for making the potion with him. Nicia's immediate reaction is that he doesn't want to make his wife a whore and himself a cuckold. He cares for his wife, whom he mentions first; but he doesn't care for the unfortunate young man, except that if word of this deed got out, Nicia might be reported to the Eight, the criminal tribunal. But Callimaco explains to him how they will kidnap a young idler and shove him into Lucrezia's bedroom in the dark without identifying themselves, and he reminds him that the king and lords of France do this. Messer Nicia is satisfied. If “king and princes and lords” use this method (he adds “princes” and does not mention tyrants, 2.6), then it must be right for him. He seems oblivious to the fact that the young man might actually be the father of the son he will call his own. Being cuckolded is just a matter of perception, and nobody will know except Lucrezia and himself—and every other character in the play-plot.


Messer Nicia reminds Callimaco that it is necessary to get his wife's consent. Callimaco says loftily, “I wouldn't want to be a husband if I couldn't dispose my wife to do things my way” (2.6). He wants an obedient wife who will consent to her husband's desire that she be unfaithful. Now Ligurio has the remedy. He says they should use her confessor, and he gives five reasons why the confessor would be willing to join the conspiracy, of which the third is money. But how will they get Lucrezia to go to the confessor, given her distrust of priests? Ligurio's further remedy is to suggest that it be done through her mother, whom she trusts.

The song at the end of the second act is devoted to stupidity. The stupid man, it says, believes everything and does not feel ambition or fear. That is a condition both pitiful and laughable, but it does allow for a certain detachment from the world, while permitting the stupid man to concentrate on one thing. Messer Nicia is stupid, the song says, and his stupidity consists in his single-minded desire to have children. Why is this desire necessarily so stupid? If it were an intelligent desire, then Nicia could be intelligent. If he were, it is not clear that the plot of the Mandragola would be any different. If Nicia were intelligent, he would be in charge of the plot and would allow himself to be cuckolded, just like the king of France. He would have sent his relative Cammillo to Paris to entice Callimaco to return to Italy. We all need the grave people who want children, even though they may be laughable. This play puts them down more than they deserve in order to show the nature of nomos, of the nomos on which we depend.

Nicia's stupidity is that, unlike the king of France, he doesn't want his wife to be a whore. So he is precisely not single-minded. He has not forgotten everything else but his desire for children; he wants his own child—his own natural and his own nominal child. Nicia is ridiculous because he wants something impossible, the harmony of nature and nomos or respectability. Callimaco doesn't care about the law; he is in harmony with nature. He could have wanted a son instead of sexual conquest, and it would have made no difference to him whether his son were really, that is, naturally, his. Callimaco is the single-minded character in this play. Nicia, like most of us, wants both his own natural child and his own nominal child, a double desire that Machiavelli shows us to be ridiculous because it is divided against itself. If you must have a child, should you adopt (the child is not yours) or wait for your own (you may not get one)? Nicia's care for law and respectability makes them ridiculous. He tries to do what they try to do—join the pleasure of sex and desire for children—as if nature had not kept them distinct. The law, or the Christian law, intends that there be no difference between the natural and the legitimate child. The legitimate child is regarded as yours by the law as if the law, in making a child legitimate, could make a child. Or is Messer Nicia after all as intelligent as the king of France and does not care about being a cuckold? In that case, rather than demanding that his legitimate son be natural, he would be indifferent as to whether his son was the one or the other. He would not care about the immortality of his body as opposed to his fame or glory or soul.

Lucrezia's seduction has now come down to enticing her to her confessor, which must be done through her mother. Nicia and Ligurio discuss how to gain the consent of Lucrezia (3.2) and quickly decide that it cannot be done through her piety. They cannot use her piety to make her trust what her confessor will recommend to her because it is precisely her piety that makes her distrust the clergy. She once had an experience of what we would call sexual harassment at a local church. But she will trust her mother, who is introduced into the play speaking of the “duty of a prudent person to take the best among bad courses” (3.1). She adds the condition that the prudent course not weigh on the conscience, thus indicating that prudence and conscience are not necessarily opposed.

In the Mandragola, Machiavelli uses Lucrezia to represent morality, which always has its two accompanying guides, prudence and conscience, who are represented by Sostrata and Brother Timothy. Neither guide is sufficient by itself, and though they can be made compatible, each works against the other. They are shown to be compatible, clearly, on the terms of prudence rather than those of conscience; but prudence cannot simply dispense with conscience, and Brother Timothy, however corrupt in conscience, is nonetheless an essential figure in the plot. Lucrezia is closer to her natural mother, Sostrata, than to Brother Timothy, and she trusts her more. Yet Sostrata does not question the need to consult Brother Timothy and to secure from him the gross misinterpretation of Christianity that will square Lucrezia's conscience. By the way, in the conversation with Ligurio, Messer Nicia offers the only direct criticism of the Christian church to be found in the play: “It's really bad, though, that those who should be giving us good examples are like this.” He also utters a passing remark that, if taken seriously, would provide the basis for criticizing conscience and religion that ordinary prudence does not: “If you knew everything, you wouldn't marvel” (3.2).

The next scene in the third act is an apparent digression, a conversation between Brother Timothy and a woman unnamed. But it is an important scene because it shows us how priests operate with human will. The conversation is very salacious, but it begins innocently with Brother Timothy's saying to the woman, “If you want to confess, I will do what you want.” Not today, the woman says, indicating how lightly, yet how trustingly, she considers the grave duty of saving her soul. If you want is how Brother Timothy begins; the woman's confession is not imposed. There is no confession unless she is willing to accept God's commands. When she accepts them as her own will, then the priest specifies what they are. Priestly rule is a kind of indirect government in which the real ruler, the priest, seems to be a mere intermediary between God and man, or between God and woman, or womanly men.


Next, Brother Timothy is caught up in the plot (3.4). Messer Nicia is told to pretend to be deaf so that Ligurio controls the situation. Any protests from Nicia about the money Ligurio is unexpectedly promising that Nicia will pay to Brother Timothy can be set down to Nicia's not having heard well. Deafness is also a beautiful disguise for Nicia, who can say what he will and have it explained away. One might remark, too, that deafness is the condition of an author: he speaks but does not hear what his readers say to him, unless he anticipates them.

Ligurio catches Brother Timothy by bringing up a question of abortion, which is just the opposite of Messer Nicia's case. Nicia wants a child. Ligurio pretends that Nicia wants an abortion for his nephew's daughter, who had been staying at a nunnery, and (of course) the nuns had betrayed their trust. The purpose of this dodge is to hook Brother Timothy. He is committed then to one crime, an ordinary one with him, in order to use him in an extraordinary crime with the same criminals that he might not have agreed to if it had been presented to him at first. Note that under Christianity reputation favors the woman with no child over the woman with a bastard child. Christian law is not favorable to the growth of population necessary to the strength of states.

More broadly, Machiavelli shows that religion, which necessarily accompanies morality, necessarily detracts from it. To convince Brother Timothy to arrange the abortion, Ligurio mentions the worldly honor (that is, respectability) that will be saved, but he stresses the alms to do God's work that Nicia's three hundred ducats will make available. Against this is merely a piece of unborn flesh, and Ligurio then delivers a beautifully succinct statement of utilitarianism: “I believe that that is good which does good to the most and by which most are contented” (3.4). Brother Timothy readily agrees to this, and why not? Any religion, but especially Christianity, makes the commands of God paramount and thus subordinates the good of this world to the next, including the numberless souls of the dead. No matter that abortion is contrary to God's command; the mode of subordinating this world's goods to the next's will infect morality with the utilitarian habit of choosing the lesser evil. That a priest should arrange abortions is a regular consequence of Christianity and is neither the special corruption of the Renaissance Church nor the occasional evil of a priest who goes wrong. So Ligurio says to Brother Timothy at the end of the scene (3.4), “Now you appear to me that man of religion [quel religioso] that I believed you were.”

Ligurio then pretends to consult with someone in the Church and returns with the happy news, of course imaginary, that Nicia's nephew's daughter has suffered a miscarriage (3.6). Nature has done God's work, or God did not need prompting, and so Brother Timothy is not needed after all. Brother Timothy wants, of course, to keep the money anyway, as perhaps God deserves to be thanked when something goes right. Brother Timothy, however, is needed for a new task that will be explained to him in the church. The church seems to be the sanctuary of conspiracy, the place where men's intentions are most hidden and best revealed. Both of the grand conspiracies in Machiavelli's Florentine Histories, one against the Sforzas and the other against the Medici, were executed in churches.

Though Ligurio promises to return, Messer Nicia is left alone outside the church. He bursts out in frustration over having to feign deafness and understanding nothing of what Ligurio and Brother Timothy have been saying. He has to trust them, and his comic situation illustrates the meaning of trust, which is listening or being forced to listen without questioning. Forced trust is as good as or better than implicit trust. Messer Nicia would have to behave as he does whether he was stupid or not. His stupidity is the best running joke in the play, but it is not necessary to the plot of the play. Instead of being forced to trust his tormentors, while forced to pretend he is deaf, he could be pretending to be forced, all the time laughing up his sleeve and counting on the character or necessity of Ligurio and Brother Timothy to make good his trust. Messer Nicia pretends to be deaf so well that we think him as stupid as if he were deaf in fact. If he is pretending for part of the plot, why not for the whole?

Now Brother Timothy has heard what he must do, and Nicia is assured by Ligurio, shouting at him still as if he were deaf, that he will comply with the scheme. Nicia is overjoyed, exclaiming, “You recreate me completely” (3.8). He wants to know whether he will have a boy, and when assured he will, he responds that he weeps with tenderness. Unable to produce a miracle, Messer Nicia is compelled to rely on the potion to reproduce himself. But the potion is nothing but the necessity of the various characters, suitably concealed because of the necessity of maintaining their respectability.

In the next scene (3.9) Brother Timothy is alone. He now sees what has been done to him, but he does not withdraw—he cannot. And besides, he will get something for himself if he remains in the plot. He admits he has been duped but senses also that he has not, since there is profit in it for him. It is not always to one's disadvantage to be duped. He sees more easily how he was duped because he did the same thing himself in the scene in which he is confessor for the woman. What happened was that Ligurio and Messer Nicia confessed their intent to commit the crime of abortion to Brother Timothy; and they got his absolution. His absolution consisted in his connivance, and then they used that against him. In speaking alone and so frankly, Brother Timothy confesses to the audience. He has five scenes in the play in which he confesses to the audience, far more than anyone else. As a priest, he has no one to confess to except another priest. Ligurio never confesses; he acts according to necessities and, so to speak, has nothing to confess. Brother Timothy has to purge his mind (“animo”)—not his soul (“anima”)—of the pressure put on it by God's commands. Even the adaptable priest must, for the sake of his office, feel the pressures he manipulates. He is indeed adaptable and does not trip himself up in self-righteousness. Like Ligurio, he lives off the women whom he despises and does not desire (3.4, 3.9). Adaptable priests like Brother Timothy suggest the possibility of an adaptable Christianity. In his soliloquy he goes from acknowledging he has been duped to speaking of “my wishes” as if the plot had all along been his. He who has been duped pretends not to have been duped.


There follows a crucial scene between Sostrata and Lucrezia, in which Sostrata gets her daughter to go to the priest. Sostrata begins, “I believe that you believe,” the only time that such a speech occurs in the play. Callimaco's first speech was “I believe,” as was Messer Nicia's. Ligurio's first speech was “I do not believe.” I note that this is the central scene of the Mandragola, the nineteenth scene. To put the point in words, it is natural to believe but the thing believed in is conventional. Men need to believe in order to trust one another, and to trust one another in order to work together, and to work together in order to survive. The first rule of Machiavellian prudence is to use your own arms and not rely on others. But you must use others; you need their help in order to get into a situation in which you do not need their help. And for this you need a relation of trust with them. How should one make this relation? and can it be made on a Christian basis? These are questions addressed in the Mandragola.

Lucrezia's first speech in the play begins, “I have always feared” (3.10). What she fears is the conflict between Messer Nicia's wish (“voglia”) to have children and the demands of morality. She speaks of some error he might commit, not of a sin, and the wrongs she mentions—submitting her body to this disgrace and being the cause that some man might die for disgracing her—are not specifically Christian. She concludes, “If I were the only woman left in the world and human nature had to rise again from me, I wouldn't believe that such a course would be allowed to me.” Her fear arises from her belief and from her need to believe that what she does is permitted. These are weaknesses that will be used against her.

That is Lucrezia's objection. She would not do this thing to regenerate the human race, let alone to satisfy Messer Nicia's wish to have children. Her seduction is forecast in this announcement because Brother Timothy shows how it would be allowed to her. Lucrezia is good, and goodness or conscience consists in a sticking point. A sticking point is something one would not do regardless of the consequences. There is a little of Kant's moralism in Machiavelli's picture of morality, as Kant understood so well what morality is; but there is also something of Plato's critique of morality.

Morality is an indivisible whole. The moral person must act, therefore, as if all morality depended on his refusal to do something obviously prudent in an extreme case. One cannot divide morality into small pieces, into discrete actions, because there is always a reason to be or not to be moral in a particular case. Once you have begun to reason your way through each case, then you do the moral action for the sake of reason, which is outside morality, and not in order to be moral. Morality, or nomos, is a spurious whole that must defend itself as a whole. It must assimilate the extreme case to the ordinary cases and decide the ordinary case as if all morality were at stake. The easy answer to Lucrezia would be, “You're not the only woman in the world; therefore, morality doesn't depend on you. Neither the human race nor morality depends on what you do. So live a little.”

But that is not true. Morality does depend on Lucrezia. Morality cannot afford not to make an issue of itself. Unless you think all morality is at stake, you can always find a reason not to be moral. That is why moral people tend to be self-righteous; they sense that in acting morally, they stand up for all morality. So the moral woman is the woman who says to herself, “I wouldn't do that if he were the last man on earth.” That is what Lucrezia says, and as soon as she does, Brother Timothy has her.

In the eleventh scene of this act we are shown the seduction of Lucrezia through Brother Timothy. Brother Timothy, like Messer Nicia, reads books (3.2). Scholar that he is, he has spent two hours in study and has come up with three arguments to persuade Lucrezia's conscience. His first point is the general principle that one should stay with a certain good and not leave it for an uncertain evil. The certain good is that Lucrezia will become pregnant and gain a soul for the Lord; the uncertain evil is that the man who lies with her after she takes the potion may die. The application of Brother Timothy's rule of prudence is, of course, ridiculous because the good he mentions is uncertain and the evil, so far as we know before now, is certain. Perhaps Brother Timothy's thinking is affected by the fact that, according to Christianity, it is uncertain whether death is good or evil.

After this powerful beginning, Brother Timothy has a second point. The act in question is not a sin because the will (“voluntà”) sins, not the body. Your will would sin if you displeased your husband and pleased yourself, but you will be pleasing him and not yourself. In effect, Brother Timothy tells Lucrezia that her will should be her husband's will. Lucrezia's will is the vital point, but it is taken away from her. Her will belongs to her husband, just like her body. But do they really belong to him?

In his third point Brother Timothy brings up the biblical example of Lot's daughters, who, believing themselves to be alone in the world, committed incest with their father. Their intention was good; we assume it was to repopulate the world. Brother Timothy's implication is that if incest is permitted to repopulate the world, then adultery is permitted to have a child for oneself. Drawing out the analogy that Machiavelli puts in the mouth of Brother Timothy between the example of Lot and the situation of Messer Nicia, we have this: Callimaco is in the place of Lot, and Lucrezia, of Lot's daughters. Who is Messer Nicia? Messer Nicia is analogous to God, as he wants a child and God wants a soul, or many souls. According to Brother Timothy's second point, Lucrezia is obliged to please Messer Nicia; according to the third, she should please God. Pleasing Nicia is pleasing God, not so much by obeying a direct command as by reasoning through analogy to what has pleased God in a similar case.

In fact, this is the Bible read “sensatamente” (judiciously), which means in accordance with human necessities, not with God's commands. When Lucrezia hears this interpretation, the pressure of her goodness is relieved. Goodness consists of the things one would not do even to save the human race. It therefore creates a terrific conflict with human necessities, which do pertain to saving, thriving, and acquiring. The resulting pressure needs to be relieved, and one purpose of religion is to relieve it (the other is to create it). Religion offers relief, a release from goodness or conscience. This is a natural purpose of religion, of the natural religion that Christianity is to become if it is interpreted “sensatamente.” Lucrezia's belief relieves her from her goodness. God says or indicates that it is permissible to abandon morality in the extreme case, which means that it is all right to abandon morality. Lucrezia comes to trust, is forced to trust, the priest, who shows her how to obey human necessities, those of sexual pleasure and generation, as well as providing her with the disguise for those necessities. The disguise is first as God's will, and then, when she perceives God's will, as her own.

After Brother Timothy speaks, Sostrata weighs in with the voice of prudence. Don't you see, she says to Lucrezia, that a woman who has no children has no house (“casa”)? She refers not to the pleasures of domesticity but to the need for protection from the world, a need that goes together with Messer Nicia's desire to advance in the world. Some commentators are disappointed that Lucrezia gives in, they think, so easily; and they add to this her later delight in the whole scheme as it turns out. Can such a woman be considered chaste? But Lucrezia is a moral person, and her failings are the failings of morality, not particular to her. She is the effectual truth of the Roman Lucretia. Brother Timothy sums up the failings of morality in his three points. First, morality has trouble coming to terms with necessary evil and has to rely on prudence, which may tempt the moral person into unnecessary evil. Second, inasmuch as morality needs religion, it requires obedience to a superior will, which detracts from one's own moral will. Third, it appears that obedience to God shades into imitation of God, and the moral person begins to think himself godly. But then what God does in support of morality does not seem always to accord with morality. In Machiavelli's judicious interpretation, God seems to obey the same necessities in dealing with humans as do humans who must live with them. Any moral paragon who thinks she could live more chastely than Lucrezia is relying on innocence or good luck or on the angel Raphael, whose protection Brother Timothy invokes as he bids Lucrezia prepare herself for the “mystery” to come.

At the end of act 3, Messer Nicia declares himself the most contented man in the world. The following song praises deceit and then addresses “remedy high and rare,” which shows the right path to erring souls. The “holy counsels” of a human remedy or deceit replace divine precepts and commands as human guides. In personifying the remedy, Machiavelli indicates how men come to subject themselves to a being they think will bring salvation. Unlike Boethius, the favorite of Messer Nicia who wrote On the Consolation of Philosophy, Machiavelli produces remedies.


At the beginning of act 4, Callimaco is alone, waiting to hear the result. By contrast to Messer Nicia, he is full of “anguish of spirit.” He is tossed back and forth by his hopes and fears; the more he hopes, the more he fears his hopes will not be realized. Fortune and Nature are so balanced that you never get a good without an evil. Callimaco mentions not God or heaven but only hell. Clearly he lacks the remedy Machiavelli has just sung to. He expresses a certain manliness, but that lasts only a while and his body trembles; indeed, seven parts of his body are agitated in seven different ways. He needs to purge himself with Ligurio, who is his confessor.

Ligurio returns with the good news; everything is arranged. Callimaco thinks that Brother Timothy is responsible for persuading Lucrezia, but Ligurio gives the credit to Sostrata. Their disagreement might make us think about the relative importance of prudence (Sostrata) and “ideology” (Brother Timothy) in an enterprise like this one. Evidently Machiavelli thinks both are necessary. Somehow, despite the obviously contrived character of Brother Timothy's bogus arguments, prudence lacks the authority on its own to clear one's conscience. Even for the most unthinking human beings, some superhuman reckoning is required to show the relationship between the human and the nonhuman and thus to justify the “holy counsels” of prudence. Callimaco is now ready to die of delight, and Ligurio wonders what kind of person is ready to die now for sorrow, now for delight, no matter which. Happiness is not the guide to happiness, in Machiavelli's opinion, one is tempted to say. Men, especially men like Callimaco, are too restless to settle down in happiness. They prefer, or they need, to live in alternating moods despite the apparent irrationality of such a course.

Then Callimaco nearly has heart failure. He forgot he was to help catch the young roustabout they would use to serve Lucrezia. He was to catch this man and also to be this man. So he forgot the necessity of a disguise as himself as well as a disguise of himself. The earlier plan had not provided for this (see 2.6). Callimaco the Maestro had forgotten that he could not simply disappear in that guise. Again Callimaco lacks a remedy, and again Ligurio finds one (but he had not anticipated the difficulty). Though Brother Timothy has been dismissed, they need him once more to pretend to be Callimaco's pretense, the disguise of a disguise. The religious man is man in disguise. Religion is a disguise of human nature required by human nature, even by Callimaco in his single-minded pursuit of Lucrezia. With religion, Callimaco can be in two places doing two things at the same time, advising and enjoying. Watching others enjoy the fruits of an enterprise you have advised is some relief from the transience of enjoyment.

This scene (4.2) is very important because it marks a turn in the play against levity and in favor of morality and respectability. For the first time Ligurio mentions the possibility of return engagements for Callimaco with Lucrezia. In the previous scene, Callimaco had spoken of one experience only, and now he is taken by surprise. Ligurio tells him that Lucrezia will agree to a continuing arrangement in order to avoid scandal (“infamia”). She will want to maintain her disguise of respectability. Chastity is a disguise that hides from the virtuous the good fortune his or her virtue depends on.

Callimaco now orders Siro to carry the potion to Messer Nicia's house. He tells his servant of ten years less than what Ligurio knows. He finds himself alone again, his confidence gone. He will kill himself if something occurs to interrupt “my design,” as he calls it inaccurately. Then he easily recognizes Brother Timothy in disguise. Friars are easy to recognize in disguise, being nothing but disguise. Siro is told to obey Ligurio as if he were Callimaco, and there follows a ridiculous ceremony between Brother Timothy and Callimaco, between the disguise of Callimaco as a Maestro and Callimaco as a roust-about. Brother Timothy gives another soliloquy and pronounces himself to be the little innocent. He blames Ligurio and speaks of dipping his finger in “error” but says nothing of sin or conscience (4.6). Then they all see Messer Nicia in the disguise of a monk, and all except Siro laugh at him with his little sword. Siro was willing to laugh at him earlier (2.4), but now he remembers he is a servant and is more respectful.

There follows a second soliloquy by Messer Nicia (4.8). He is disguised but very full of himself. He boasts that he feels bigger, younger, and leaner—as if he were endowed with the youth of the young man he is about to capture. He tells us the funny things Lucrezia said, things she could not say on stage without lowering her character. Messer Nicia is the only character in the play to report comic conversations.

In the next scene all are disguised: Messer Nicia, Brother Timothy, Ligurio, and Siro (4.9). Nicia thinks the Maestro is disguised. The Maestro was known to him in the person of Callimaco, but now that he is being played by Brother Timothy, the disguised Maestro has to be disguised. We see Nicia trying to disguise his voice, like Brother Timothy, with a ball of wax that turns out to be bitter aloes. The four then capture Callimaco in disguise, Messer Nicia giving instructions for the capture. Callimaco, of course, acts very much of his own accord, but for Messer Nicia's sake he pretends to be captured. But again, it is only Nicia's inhibition against being cuckolded, or his belief in his own potency, that makes the pretense necessary.

The act ends with Brother Timothy's address to the spectators. A sleepless night will be had by all, in which he will give religious offices to Our Lady at the same time that Callimaco pays his devotions to Lucrezia. The song at the end of act 4 says directly that the “holy” hours of night that accompany yearning lovers are “the sole cause of making souls blessed.” Then Brother Timothy has another soliloquy to begin act 5. He complains that his fellow friars no longer maintain the reputation of Our Lady, as if assiduous attention to ritual would do the trick, as if faith were no different from reputation, and as if his actions could not have contributed to the decline he complains of. The other friars are lacking in “brain”—which is what he had said earlier of all women (3.9). If the friars have come to resemble women, perhaps it is because they are more concerned with maintaining the reputation of Our Lady than Brother Timothy sees. Apart from his odious sexism, his criticisms indicate a contradiction in Christianity between the femininity of its belief and the manliness necessary to maintaining the reputation of its belief. Christianity makes hypocrites of friars and has nothing to offer to men like Callimaco. In the Mandragola Machiavelli shows how to “capture” such men.


The last act deals with the sequel to Lucrezia's seduction, and it would not be necessary if her seduction were the only, or even the main, point the play has to make. There remains the need to make the seduction respectable. So, the morning after, Callimaco the roustabout is sent packing and Callimaco the Maestro is introduced into Messer Nicia's household. Nicia takes charge of both tasks. Having been cuckolded, he now arranges that the insult be made perpetual. When Callimaco has been disposed of, Nicia orders Ligurio and Siro to get out of their disguises and go out early so that they don't appear to have stayed up all night (5.2). Then Nicia tells them of his encounter with Callimaco before the latter was sent to Lucrezia's bed. He had forced Callimaco to strip, and not only looked him over but felt him too (touch being the most reliable sense). Nicia had previously examined Callimaco's learning and intellect as Maestro (2.2); now if only he could put body and soul together he would have examined the whole man. Callimaco had analyzed an effluence of Lucrezia (2.6), but Nicia is the only one in the play to execute a comprehensive examination. After this, Nicia goes to Sostrata, and they discuss the stupidity of Lucrezia, who should have yielded from the first.

Nicia insists that all come to the church to see Lucrezia be blessed. One might think that Nicia is counting his chickens before they are hatched, but that is not so. He has found a method that does not depend on luck. Brother Timothy has overheard Nicia's command and is eager to meet them at the church, where his merchandise is worth more. On the way, Callimaco gives Ligurio his version of the night spent with Lucrezia. He made the proposal to her, prompted by Ligurio (4.2), to live with her without scandal, and she surrendered completely, he says. The reasoning he quotes from her is wonderful: “Since your astuteness, my husband's stupidity, my mother's simplicity, and my confessor's wickedness have led me to do what I never would have done by myself, I am willing to judge that it comes from a heavenly disposition which has so willed, and I don't have it in me to reject what Heaven wills that I accept.” In other words: I would not have done this myself, but I did it; therefore, heaven willed it; therefore, I will it. Lucrezia wills necessity in the guise of religion. Her reasoning shows morality refuting itself because morality assumes that one can act as one wills. She also said to Callimaco, I take you for my lord, master (“patrone”), guide; you are my father (“padre”), my defender. Callimaco is to be her father, as if she were the daughter of Lot; her adultery she understands as incest. On hearing these words, Callimaco, as always, was about to die with their sweetness. He declared himself “the happiest and most contented man who ever was in the world,” and if the happiness should never fail, he would be blessed. Messer Nicia had also called himself the happiest man in the world, but without the implied reference to the next world (3.12).

Lucrezia herself, whom we see next with Nicia and Sostrata (now a pair), is hardly submissive. To Nicia, who wants her “to do things in fear of God,” she appears to be a rooster, and as if she were reborn (5.5). Sostrata calls her “un poco alterata” (a little angered or a little altered [for the worse]). She is more aware, more aggressive; she knows she no longer depends on one man, though she is not liberated from men altogether. But she has had her consciousness raised—or lowered. So have we. We have seen morality instructed as to its own limits.

The last scene is held before the church in the presiding presence of Brother Timothy. Messer Nicia invites Callimaco to live in his house, and Lucrezia willingly agrees that he be given a key to the room on the ground floor and that he become “our godfather” (nostro compare). The man Lucrezia calls father in private is godfather in public. The happy ending requires that they keep up appearances, but for that purpose it also requires deceit. The Mandragola does not end with general enlightenment, as do most comedies, but with a deceit that must be continued. So Brother Timothy leads all into the church for prayers, and the play ends.

The error of many commentators on the Mandragola is to focus on Callimaco and his burning desire for Lucrezia. The commentators overlook or subordinate the desire of Messer Nicia, and in lesser degree of Lucrezia, to have children. Seeing that Callimaco is so often without a “remedy” and remains suggestible throughout, they seize on Ligurio as the key character in the play, the Machiavellian schemer. But Ligurio is not a principal; he is an agent. He has no interest in the transformation of Callimaco from lover to godfather, in the surprise ending in which Messer Nicia too gets what he wanted. Ligurio is apparently both pimp and matchmaker. These are two occupations difficult to combine in the same case, but in the Mandragola Ligurio achieves this feat, one beyond his understanding. For him as for us, matchmaking is respectable and pimping is not. That the two could be necessary to each other—in Machiavelli's new design for respectability—is present only in Ligurio's actions, but not in anything he says. At a certain point (4.2) Ligurio, without explanation, changes the object of the conspiracy from satisfying Callimaco once to arranging return engagements and making them respectable. This was not Callimaco's original interest, which was to decide whether Italian women were more beautiful than French. Would it not be necessary to consider other possibilities and keep his mind open? But like Ligurio, Callimaco suddenly changes direction. Why?

We are led, then, to Messer Nicia and his desire to have children, namely, sons. From that standpoint, Callimaco and Ligurio are subordinate characters, means to an end beyond their end. Messer Nicia is using them, rather than they using him. What stands in the way of this thought is Messer Nicia's “stupidity.” But what does that stupidity amount to, apart from Messer Nicia's earthy language and apparently unintentional suggestions? He is stupid because he is a cuckold. But why is that necessarily stupid? If it is not always stupid to commit adultery, why is it always stupid to permit it? A new, laxer attitude toward adultery might seem to require us not to laugh so hard at cuckoldry. It is, after all, the method recommended by the king of France for the perpetuation of families and kingdoms. Interpreters of the Mandragola, who do not consider themselves ignorant or coarse and who are surely superior to most audiences, nonetheless share the conventional view that cuckoldry is ridiculous—and so it never occurs to them that a cuckold could be a hero. But let us not be prisoners of convention!

Once one turns away, dissatisfied, from Callimaco and Ligurio, Messer Nicia appears as the key figure in the Mandragola, and the problem of the play becomes how to enable him to have sons. If Messer Nicia does not mind being a cuckold, then perhaps he doesn't mind appearing stupid. Machiavelli praised Junius Brutus for pretending to be crazy during the affair of the Roman Lucretia. Perhaps Ligurio, with whom Messer Nicia had had a “close familiarity” (una stretta dimestichezza, 1.1), was his agent, not Callimaco's. Ligurio induces Callimaco to believe that the plot is intended to accomplish his desire, and spectators and readers, expecting a conventional comedy devoted to proving once again that there's no fool like an old fool, fall just as easily as Callimaco into the misdirection.

Yet the Mandragola is not a conventional comedy that ridicules the respectable nomos and then, at the end, returns to it and accepts it. Machiavelli's levity ends in gravity, justifies gravity, but a new gravity. Human necessities, which prompt men to laugh at and otherwise assault the grave, public beliefs by which they live, force them not to abandon gravity but to change it, reform it, renew it. Messer Nicia has a succession problem in his family to which all families are subject: through chance, the bloodline of the family may not continue. The public belief in chastity, which secures the family, does nothing to continue it. Family values are not enough. The task of perpetuation is left to the natural desire for generation—to nature. But nature is subject to chance. Machiavelli's general advice—since the Mandragola is probably not a proposal for family reform by itself—is to find a remedy for untoward chance and not to worry if it is morally unconventional. The Mandragola is part of his campaign for a “perpetual republic.”

As such, the theme of succession goes beyond family or even republic in the usual sense. In order to accomplish his plan, or plot, Machiavelli needs followers that will carry on his work, bringing it by the “short road” to a conclusion, after his lifetime, from the point he has had to leave it. He needs Machiavellians, and so he too has a succession problem. If we look again at the Mandragola, we can suspect that Messer Nicia is Machiavelli reversed, and not only with respect to his initials. Messer Nicia is very stupid; Machiavelli, who rises to “grandi prudenze,” is very prudent. Accordingly, Messer Nicia pretends to be potent, and Machiavelli impotent (the “great and continuous malignity” of his fortune). Both need sons, and neither can be sure of generating them in the usual way. If we disbelieve in Messer Nicia's potency, we can see how he might make use of Callimaco. If we disbelieve in Machiavelli's impotence, we can see how he might use men like Callimaco. At one point in the play, Messer Nicia reflects—in the presence of Callimaco!—on the difficulty of getting a young man into the mandragola scheme (2.6). If he tells the young man he will die, he won't be willing; if he doesn't, he will be betraying him and will be reported to the public justice. Machiavelli, too, needs young men or students willing to risk their lives; how will he tell them what to do without betraying them? He must entice them into his design, relying on their subversive virtue, encouraging them at first to forget about the crime of adultery and then, once they are committed to it, gradually revealing to them just how far that crime goes. They may suffer retribution from the public authorities, but more likely, if the authorities are prudent, they will be rewarded. Machiavelli cannot generate his students; others have to do this for him. But if he doesn't mind being cuckolded, he can manage to claim them as his own.


  1. See Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1958), 40.

  2. See Roberto Ridolfi, Studi sulle commedie del Machiavelli (Pisa: Nistri-Lischi, 1968), 11-35; Sergio Bertelli, “When Did Machiavelli Write Mandragola?” Renaissance Quarterly 24 (1980): 317-26; Gennaro Sasso, “Considerazioni sulla ‘Mandragola,’” in Niccolò Machiavelli, La Mandragola, ed G. Sasso (Milan: Rizzoli, 1980), 5-18.

  3. See Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, 284-85.

  4. I am using the excellent translation by Mera J Flaumenhaft, Niccolò Machiavelli, Mandragola (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1981).

  5. See Marvin T. Herrick, Italian Comedy in the Renaissance (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960), 165; cf. Mark Hulliung, Citizen Machiavelli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 101.

  6. For remarks on the parallel, see Benedetto Croce, Poesia populare e poesia d'arte (Bari: Laterza, 1933), 246; Luigi Russo, Machiavelli (Bari: Laterza, 1988), 109; Ezio Raimondi, Politica e commedia; dal Beroaldo al Machiavelli (Bologna: il Mulino, 1972), 202; Hanna F. Pitkin, Fortune Is a Woman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 47; Ronald L. Martinez, “The Pharmacy of Machiavelli: Roman Lucretia in Mandragola,Renaissance Drama 14 (1983): 1-43; Michael Palmer and James F. Pontuso, “The Master Fool: The Conspiracy of Machiavelli's Mandragola,Perspectives on Political Science 25 (1996): 130; Mera J. Flaumenhaft, The Civic Spectacle (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), 89-90; Carnes Lord, “Allegory in Machiavelli's Mandragola,” in Political Philosophy and the Human Soul, ed. Michael Palmer and Thomas L. Pangle (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995), 154.

  7. Livy 1.57-60; St. Augustine, City of God, 1.19.

  8. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 1.44.1.

  9. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy 3.5.1, 3.26.2.

  10. Ibid., 1.16.4, 3.5.1.

  11. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979), 316.

  12. Cf. Croce, Poesia populare, 248.

  13. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), chap. 17.

  14. Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy 2.13.1.

  15. Francesco DeSanctis, Storia della letteratura italiana, 2 vols (Turin: Gallo, 1958), 2:597; Richard Blank, Sprache und Dramaturgie (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1969), 146-56.

  16. Machiavelli, Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua, 777a26, 40, in Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorso o dialogo intorno alla nostra lingua, ed. Bortolo Tommaso Sozzi (Turin: Einaudi, 1976), 23.

  17. On levity and gravity, see Machiavelli's Letter of January 31, 1515.

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Niccolò Machiavelli World Literature Analysis