English 366B, Section S02: Shakespeare's Histories and Tragedies   >   King John: Machiavelli To the previous page To the next page


Machiavelli's name is often used freely to label the evils of those in power: to be "machiavellian," in contemporary usage, is to be deviously manipulative, and to assume that the end justifies the means. The historical Machiavelli made a sharp break with traditional literature of the moralities and their poetic equivalent, the "Mirror of Princes," which dealt with moral rather than practical issues, and he is accordingly considered a forerunner of modern political theory. Yet, rather than supporting the indiscriminate cruelty and deceit of rulers, Machiavelli viewed political stability as a ruler's foremost consideration, believing that with this end in mind a prince must be capable of being cruel, deceitful, generous or honest as need requires.

Christopher Marlowe introduced a character called Machiavel as the prologue to his play The Jew of Malta. Machiavel boasts about the extent to which his precepts are followed, even by those that most revile him—including those who are aspiring to become Pope:

                                    I am Machiavel.
And weigh not [care not for] men, and therefore not men's words.
Admired I am of those that hate me most.
Though some speak openly against my books,
Yet will they read me, and thereby attain
To Peter's chair [the papacy]: and when they cast me off,
Are poisoned by my climbing followers.
I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

The historical Machiavelli was indeed a radical thinker. He was one of the first to consider power relations between people from what we now call a pragmatic viewpoint rather than a moral one; hence the popular view, that Marlowe exploits, of Machiavelli as immoral. He sought to observe, and to give advice on the basis of observation--rather like the parallel movement towards inductive reasoning in the natural sciences.

There was no English translation of Machiavelli published in Shakespeare's lifetime, but The Prince and the Discourses were widely read in Italian, French and Latin during the 16th century, and Shakespeare may well have had access to one of these editions. In any case, Machiavelli's teachings, and his rather exaggerated reputation, were widely known and discussed in Shakespeare's England.

Machiavelli wrote his two major treatises in an attempt to gain favour by a demonstration of political experience and know-how. In The Prince, he sets out "to represent things as they are in real truth, rather than as they are imagined." In Richard II, Richard comes close to quoting Machiavelli when he prophesies to Northumberland that Bolingbroke will fall short of expectation; Machiavelli wrote:

". . . a prince is always compelled to injure those who have made him the new ruler. . . (since) [he] cannot satisfy them in the way they had taken for granted.


As well as treating politics as a distinct field of study subject to its own laws, a further contribution to the modern concept of the state is Machiavelli's idea of virtu as a necessary spirit of vitality underlying government. Note that virtu does not mean "virtue": it is closer in meaning to "strength" (the English word is derived ultimately from the Latin virtus, which means "manliness"!). Virtu represents the strength of will that can oppose chance circumstance (Fortuna) and bring about political success irrespective of either right or probability. Machiavelli believed that to hold power governments (whether republics or principalities) must be able to take action resolutely, not wavering or seeking always the middle way.

Machiavelli gives a fine example of the Renaissance habit of thought by symbol, or icon, as well as offering an uncomfortable insight into attitudes towards women:

As fortune is changeable whereas men are obstinate in their ways, men prosper so long as fortune and policy are in accord, and when there is a clash they fail. I hold strongly to this: that it is better to be impetuous than circumspect; because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her. . . . Always, being a woman, she favors young men, because they are less circumspect and more ardent, and because they command her with great audacity.

Machiavelli's insistence on the powerful influence of Fortune is inherited from medieval thinkers. But at the same time, Machiavelli was one of the earliest writers to consider the differing and contrasting perspectives of the group (the state) and the individual (the ruler), where orthodox thinking would make no effective separation between the interests of the two. In resisting Fortune, the ruler must separate himself from his moral duty; as an individual he must be prepared to play a role very different from the surface appearance of the ideal prince:

He [a prince] should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, kind, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how. . . . And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate.


Quotations are from Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince. Trans. George Bull. (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1986) 66, 96-100.

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This page last updated on 28 December 2006. © Michael Best, 2006.