This item is the first English translation in print of Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469–1572) complete works.
Machiavelli was an Italian statesman and political philosopher whose most famous work, Il Principe (The Prince, 1532), put forward the controversial idea that a successful ruler would sometimes have to commit immoral acts, such as deception or ruthless killing, in order to maintain his rule and the stability of his kingdom.
The ruthlessness and realpolitik of The Prince influenced the development of the Elizabethan stage Machiavel: a figure that combined elements of the Vice character (the comic villain from medieval morality drama) with a negative caricature of Machiavellian ideology as godless, scheming and self-interested. Christopher Marlowe was particularly well known for his Machiavels: Barabas, Faustus and Tamburlaine. Shakespearean examples include Iago, Edmund and Richard, Duke of Gloucester.
However, many Elizabethan and Jacobean writers did not just know Machiavelli in this reductive framework; they would also have been familiar with his actual writings, which are varied and complex and lean heavily towards republicanism. Writers switched between caricatured presentations of the Machiavel and serious engagement with Machiavelli’s ideas, as occasion required.
This version of Machiavelli’s work was translated by Henry Nevile and dates to 1675. Nevile makes some changes, such as adding chapter divisions where these are absent and reordering the contents of some of the individual works.
The Art of War and Coriolanus
A number of ideas found in Machiavelli’s works are explored in Coriolanus, perhaps emphasizing this as a play about a period of political change. Coriolanus’s disdain for the people can be read in relation to the highly popular and influential Arte della Guerra (The Art of War, 1521), in which Machiavelli argues that although they may at first seem incongruous, the military and civil worlds are necessarily interconnected and that the ideal soldier is both civic-minded and militarily skilful. Machiavelli invokes the Roman Republic, locating its stability in its citizen-militia. He also criticises professional or mercenary soldiers for their lack of interest in peace and stability. The failures of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus are rooted in the lack of civic-mindedness to his militarism, which occasions his banishment and ultimately leads him to switch sides and attack his own homeland. In Othello, Iago’s militarism is also believed to have been influenced by The Art of War.
Discourses and Coriolanus
We can also read Shakespeare’s portrayal of republicanism and the interactions between its different institutions in the context of Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio (Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy, 1531), in which Machiavelli analyses the politics of Rome as recounted in the first ten books of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City, 753 BC), which includes the period of the early Republic. In Act 3, Scene 1 of Coriolanus, Martius criticises the conflicts in multiple authorities for causing confusion, however for Machiavelli this tension between the consulate, the patricians and the tribunes (representing the plebeians) was a strength of republicanism as it created equilibrium between the different members and allowed them to keep each other in check. Machiavelli’s own portrayal of Coriolanus is far less sympathetic than Shakespeare’s.
Arte della Guerra was published in an English translation in 1560 and while the other works were not published in English until after Shakespeare’s death, they were widely available in England in Italian, Latin and French printed editions. Scholars believe Shakespeare could read Italian, but in any case English translations circulated in manuscript in the 16th century.
- Discourses: pp. 273 and 277–78
- The Art of War: pp. 433–34 and 438–39
- Article by:
- Michael Donkor
- Power, politics and religion, Histories
Machiavelli's The Prince was a much-discussed text in Renaissance England. Michael Donkor considers how, in Richard III, Shakespeare engages with Machiavelli's ideas about what constitutes appropriate behaviour in a ruler.
- Article by:
- Malcolm Hebron
- Histories, Power, politics and religion, Language, word play and text
Malcolm Hebron explains how Shakespeare drew on earlier depictions of Richard III and other ruthless rulers in order to create his own power-hungry king, and how Richard III has influenced later depictions of megalomania.
- Article by:
- Michael Dobson
Michael Dobson describes the political context in which Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, and how the play has resonated with later generations of playwrights, directors and actors.
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