Word of the Day: Machiavel

June 1, 2012 in Word of the Day

There are, according to various counts, approximately four hundred references to Niccolò Machiavelli in Elizabethan literature. Three of them are in plays of Shakespeare; what is interesting is that two of the three are from the lips of Shakespeare’s greatest Machiavel, Richard III (when he was still Duke of Gloucester):

Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives. (Henry VI, Part I)

and:

I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school. (Henry VI, Part III)

The third reference is by the Host in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

“Am I politic? am I subtle? am I a Machiavel?”

Shakespeare’s image of the Machiavel as (to use his adjectives) “subtle,” “notorious,” and “murderous” was standard-issue Elizabethan. Machiavelli himself was believed to be “a man inspired by the Devil to lead good men to their doom, the great subverter, the teacher of evil, le docteur de la scélératesse, the inspirer of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, the original of Iago” (Isaiah Berlin, The Question of Machiavelli).

In Richard III not only other characters see Richard as a devil figure (e.g., Lady Anne calls him “minister of hell”, and cacodemon), but Richard himself identifies with the great dissembler: I will, he says, “seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

At least one great contemporary of Shakespeare – Sir Francis Bacon – did not view Machiavelli as a promoter of the Machiavel, but as a describer of evil:

We are much beholden to Machiavelli and others, that write what men do, and not what they ought to do. For it is not possible to join serpentine wisdom with the columbine innocency, except men know exactly all the conditions of the serpent; his baseness and going upon his belly, his volubility and lubricity, his envy and sting, and the rest; that is, all forms and natures of evil.

But Sir Francis wasn’t a dramatist, and as the American playwright Jean Kerr observed: “The snake has all the lines.” So if Machiavelli hadn’t existed, playwrights would have invented him.

Contributed by Harold Gotthelf

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