Machiavelli (1469–1527) 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.
Transmission of the text and the first English edition
The Prince circulated widely in England from the 1580s in Italian, French and Latin printed editions. Scholars believe Shakespeare could read Italian, but in any case English translations circulated in manuscript from around 1585. It is not known if Shakespeare read Machiavelli’s writings directly, but he would have been familiar with the ideas they discussed (and the stereotypes engendered) from other writings of the time. The first English translation to appear in print was Edward Dacres’s 1640 edition, shown here.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester as Machiavel
Shakespeare’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester – who appears in Henry VI, Parts 1–3 and Richard III – has been variously interpreted as Machiavellian and as a caricatured stage Machiavel who perverts Machiavelli’s ideals.
In 3 Henry VI, Gloucester delivers a soliloquy (the longest in Shakespeare’s oeuvre) revealing his treacherous ambition for the crown and the strength of his will to take it. Furthermore he describes the skills in deception that he will use to execute his plots. He even claims he will outdo the Machiavel himself: ‘I can add colors to the chameleon, / Change shapes with Proteus [a shapeshifter] for advantages, / And set the murtherous Machevil to school.’ (3.2.191–93).
In Richard III we see the extremes of his ruthlessness and deception played out as he murders one brother, hastens the death of another, kills his nephews and manipulates the court (not least Anne Neville and Elizabeth Woodville). In Chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli urges the need for impetuosity rather than circumspection, describing fortune as a woman who needs to be beaten into submission. This idea of shaping one’s own fortune and indeed the highly misogynistic cast to Machiavelli’s expression, are both found in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Gloucester, for example in Act 1, Scene 2 with his seduction of the grieving widow Anne. However, while Machiavelli advocates the need for a willingness to do evil where necessary to retain power, Richard’s determination to ‘prove a villain’ (Richard III, 1.1.30) goes far beyond this. Machiavelli in fact counsels against a prince allowing his cruelty to grow in intensity; Richard’s violent tyranny is tactless and not good politics.
The Prince and Coriolanus
Volumnia, in Act 3, Scene 2 of Coriolanus echoes the teachings of The Prince in urging her son to use deceit and rhetoric to win over the plebeians, and in her insistence that there is no dishonour in this. Machiavelli teaches that while it can be better for a ruler to be feared than loved, unless he can be certain that the people cannot rise against him, he must also secure their good will. Coriolanus’s refusal to engage in this sort of politics is a rejection of these ideas, but both Coriolanus and Volumnia are flawed characters who are unsuccessful in their aims and the play presents pros and cons for each of these extreme approaches.
- pp. 61–71: Chapter 8, ‘Concerning those who by wicked meanes have attaind to a Principality’
- pp. 202–11: Chapter 25, ‘How great power Fortune hath in humane affaires, and what meanes there is to resist it’
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Renaissance writers, Shakespeare’s life and world, Elizabethan England
Andrew Dickson follows the progress of the Renaissance through Europe, and examines the educational, religious, artistic and geographical developments that shaped culture during the period.
- Article by:
- Michael Donkor
- Tragedies, Deception, drama and misunderstanding
Othello is a tragedy that proceeds from misunderstandings and miscommunication. Many of these errors are bound up with Iago's deception, but Michael Donkor looks at other, additional causes in the play.
- Article by:
- Michael Donkor
- Histories, Power, politics and religion
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.
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