Niccolò Machiavelli

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Had Niccolò Machiavelli not written any of his other works, he would without doubt still be remembered today as one of the most innovative and perceptive playwrights of the sixteenth century, for he contributed much to revitalize the tradition of the Italian commedia erudita, combining classical and Boccaccean sources with contemporary themes and morals. Although Machiavelli’s theatrical production is noteworthy for its satiric and biting treatment of societal attitudes, as well as (especially in his play The Mandrake) for its political overtones, Machiavelli is best known today for his political and historical writings, which mark one of the highest achievements in this sphere of intellectual pursuit. His best-known work, Il principe (wr. 1513; The Prince, 1640), that list of practical advice by means of which a prince, properly trained in the workings of politics, might acquire and maintain a state and muster enough virtú to overcome and keep in check fortuna, has had a profound impact on the development of political thought. Clearly implied in it is Machiavelli’s tenet that politics and morality are independent of each other and that the behavior of people or the course of events is no longer necessarily determined by dogmas or fate; even the consequence of chance may be anticipated and confronted. Moreover, in chapter 26 of The Prince, Machiavelli reaches the highest expression of Italian nationalism and desire for political territorial integrity by exhorting the Italians to seek liberty and to unite against foreign invaders. Searching in ancient history for precedents that might offer solutions to the world in which he lived and explain the nature of humankind, Machiavelli, in his Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (wr. c. 1513-1517, pb. 1531; Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, 1636), attempted to analyze the proper functioning of a republican state so that the laws of ancient Rome could be successfully reapplied in a modern state in order to achieve national strength and unity. In addition, Machiavelli completed Dell’ arte della guerra (1521; The Art of War, 1560), a dialogue on military tactics with examples drawn from both ancient and modern history, and Istorie fiorentine (1525; The Florentine History, 1595), the official history of Florence commissioned by Cardinal Giuliano de’ Medici, which is noted for its political rather than purely historic tone, and in which Machiavelli had to reconcile his republican beliefs with a perfunctory pro-Medici posture.


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Niccolò Machiavelli unquestionably belongs to the ranks of the most profound and original political theorists in history. This reputation not only rests on his most famous and influential work, The Prince, and on his other political works but also attests the political sophistication of such literary and dramatic efforts as The Mandrake and Clizia.

The considerable influence Machiavelli has had on political thought is evidenced by the several and varied reactions to his works throughout history. As a result of the Church’s perception of his ragione di stato (reason of state) as a rejection of the connection of the state to Catholic teachings and as an obvious attempt to release rulers from religious compliance, Machiavelli was accused of impiety and his works were placed on the Index in 1559. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s works enjoyed great popularity while he was still alive, and even after his writings were banned they continued to be published—although, understandably, the publisher often chose to remain anonymous. The emperor Charles V, it is said, had only three books beside his bed: the Bible, Baldassare Castiglione’s Il cortegiano (1528; The Courtier, 1561), and Machiavelli’s The Prince . Ironically, among the greatest proponents of anti-Machiavellism were also the French Huguenots, particularly Innocent Gentillet, who blamed Machiavelli...

(This entire section contains 460 words.)

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for having provided Catherine de’ Medici with the model of her unyielding statesmanship, which later culminated in the violent repression of French Protestants.

By the eighteenth century, however, despite some strong reservations on the part of such thinkers and rulers as Vico, Voltaire, and Frederic of Prussia, Machiavelli’s works came to be viewed less critically through a so-called oblique interpretation. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Giuseppe Parini, Giuseppe Baretti, and many others rejected the belief that Machiavelli propounded cunning and deception, and instead interpreted his writings as an attempt to show the immorality of political tactics, implying, at the same time, that through a proper application of politics it would also be possible to restore people’s natural rights. Although at the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a result of his appeal for Italian unity, Machiavelli began to be considered a forerunner of the Risorgimento, his writings were later viewed unfavorably for their emphasis on the importance of the state rather than that of the individual quest for liberty and independence.

It is only in the twentieth century that an analysis of Machiavelli’s works has been undertaken with proper consideration of the political, economic, and social circumstances present during Machiavelli’s lifetime. It is only in this light that his realistic approach and personal concern for the forces at play in the society in which he lived, as demonstrated by the theories proposed in The Prince, and his criticism of Florentine social values, as reflected in his plays, may be properly understood.

Discussion Topics

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How do the first eleven chapters of The Prince demonstrate Niccolò Machiavelli’s concern for realism over idealism?

What, according to Machiavelli, should be the political leader’s view of war and the preparation for war?

In chapters 15 through 23 of The Prince, Machiavelli speaks of several commonly recognized virtues. According to this account, when, if ever, should one be concerned with traditional codes of behavior?

What is Machiavelli’s view of fortune?

In what way is The Mandrake a play about exercising power?

How is Callimaco in The Mandrake a Machiavellian character?


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Ascoli, Albert Russell, and Victoria Kahn, eds. Machiavelli and the Discourse of Literature. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. A collection of essays that focus on the literary aspects of Machiavelli’s writings, historical, political, and artistic.

Bondanella, Peter E. Machiavelli and the Art of Renaissance History. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. This astute study constitutes a chronological survey of Machiavelli’s development as a literary stylist. Focuses on the compositional techniques that he employed in depicting the character and conduct of heroic personages. Lacks a formal bibliography, but there are copious endnotes for each chapter.

Grant, Ruth Weissbourd. Hypocrisy and Integrity: Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. This work challenges the usual standards for political ethics and sheds light on Machiavelli’s argument for the necessity of hypocrisy. Grant interprets the writings of Machiavelli as pro-hypocrite and the writings of Rousseau as anti-hypocrite and balances them in a conceptual framework encompassing the moral limits of compromise, and integrity in political behavior.

Grazia, Sebastian de. Machiavelli in Hell. 1989. Reprint. New York: Vintage, 1994. A colorful intellectual biography.

Hale, John R. Machiavelli and Renaissance Italy. New York: Macmillan, 1961. A standard biography.

Kahn, Victoria Ann. Machiavellian Rhetoric: From the Counter-Reformation to Milton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. An examination of Machiavelli’s political and social views as expressed in his literary works. Bibliography and index.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. Machiavelli and His Friends: Their Personal Correspondence. Translated by James B. Atkinson, edited by David Sices. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Arranged chronologically and with an introduction and historical annotations by the translator, these 257 letters written to Machiavelli, and 84 written by him, offer a broad view of the life, people, places, and crucial events of Renaissance Italy.

Rebhorn, Wayne A. Foxes and Lions: Machiavelli’s Confidence Men. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988. Analyzes Machiavelli’s literary and political works in the context of his personal life.

Roe, John. Shakespeare and Machiavelli. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell and Brewer, 2002. A detailed comparison of the works of the two writers, emphasizing the Machiavellian aspects of Shakespeare’s characters and plots.

Skinner, Quentin. Machaivelli: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A concise introduction to Machiavelli’s political thought.

Sullivan, Vickie, ed. The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. A collection of essays covering Machiavelli’s non-political works.

Sullivan, Vickie B. Machiavelli’s Three Romes: Religion, Human Liberty, and Politics Reformed. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996. Drawing on Machiavelli’s writings from The Florentine History, The Prince, and Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, the author provides a unique and important study of Machiavelli’s political thought. She offers a new understanding of Machiavelli’s religious views, maintaining that he uses both pagan and Christian elements in his political philosophy.

Viroli, Maurizio. Niccolò Machiavelli: A Biography of Machiavelli. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000. A brief general-interest biography of Machiavelli focusing primarily on his career as a diplomat, secretary in the Republic of Florence, and writer. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.


Critical Essays