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Machiavellian Authority on the Renaissance Stage

An Analysis of the Renaissance Play and Machiavellianism

By Annie KapurPublished 5 years ago 18 min read

It is commonly interpreted in Early Modern Drama that Machiavelli "appears as the Devil incarnate, or at least as the incorporation of all hypocrisy" (Meyer, 1969). According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2012), a "Machiavellian" is defined as a "very cunning and deceitful" identity that was "brought on stage as an incarnation of villainy" (Meyer, 1969). Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince serves as the subversion, and the impression of villainy with the corruption of religion used as a guard. Thus forming the Early Modern attitude towards theatre being somewhat "ungodly," as the dishonest stigma attached to it was that there were plays containing these Machiavellian characters, or Machiavellian stereotypes.

The Prince was conceived as an idea to make great rulers through the reasoning between being morally good, and doing what is best to maintain absolute power. It judges the morality of a prince, and points out reasonable deceptions performed to the public in attempts to "appear" moral. Within The Prince, it is also well known that it is more important to "appear" than be openly, morally good, as realisation of being morally good could intentionally destroy the reign of the prince in question. Many plays in Early Modern Drama support the authoritarian style of Machiavelli, and that gaining power is best accentuated in this way. But the identity that turns Machiavellian by "cunning," and "deceit(ful)" in self-gratification, highlights their own transgression, immorality, and anti-heroism, and conceives the foundations for the misunderstanding between Machiavellian authority, and Machiavellian identity, in and amongst the Early Modern audience. The strategies of power laid out by Machiavelli suggest immorality and sacrilege, but actually prove to be logical if used correctly. This correct usage is highlighted by the character that attains power in the end, rather than the fallen character depicted as a stigma of a Machiavellian. Machiavelli (2009) shows that there is a requirement for disregard in loyalty, and introduces the socially accepted ideologies of morale in The Prince:

"Princes who have little regard for their word have achieved great things, being the experts at beguiling men’s minds. In the end, these princes overcame those who relied solely on loyalty."

There are striking resemblances in morality and vice of corrupt power between various characters in a wide range of Early Modern Plays, and the political strategies of power stated by Machiavelli himself.

Since New Historicism decentralises the individual, and uses a critical, yet sympathetic perspective as Howard (2008) stated, it does not concentrate on the singular divisions of close formalist reading, but rather intends to look at the stature and symbol of certain historical aspects of the text. In this case, the Early Modern Play tends to represent itself as a microcosmic satire of the state. New Historicism according to Bennet and Royle (1999), can also be quantified by the structures within these microcosms, and the power obtained and lost, homing in on the Early Modern reactions to this. Whereas, Dutton and Wilson (1992) examine this in a cross-New Historicist and Machiavellian aspect several times to create a rounded view of withstanding Machiavellian authority in Early Modern Drama, proving that the reliance on this power is prominently examined as being a commonly known authority gained through the focus on decentralising the self, and acting as a part of the state. The subversion of the providential laws would tie-in here, as especially Christian providential views obsess over individuality. Whereas, this concern with power disregards that for a more reliant and self-sustaining dogma as having each individual be a part of a certain state or social power. This social power is then effectively taken up by a leader; who is named as the Machiavellian authority. Effectively, Marlowe uses Machiavelli (or "Machevill") as a subversion for dogmatic rules, as he regards "religion but a childish toy" (1.1.14), and this complies with the Early Modern ideology of Machiavelli being a personification of evil, and the ideals within New Historicism of gaining and losing powers through the subversion of religion as a part of a dogmatic state.

The Jew of Malta presents an anti-heroic character (Barabas) who has not fueled hatred until he is stripped of his wealth for the good of the state; immediately recognising that he is not an individual, but a part of the state. The construction of the state through his marginalisation, sees Barabas decentralised as "Man" through his "narcissistic behaviour, and therefore (inability) to accept responsibility that is a concomitant of increased personal power" (McAdam, 1999). He is then effectively made a working part of this system of totality, dictated by Ferneze. Even though Barabas is seen as the Machiavellian catalyst, he has little in common with the writings from The Prince. But, instead serves as a symbol for what an Early Modern audience would’ve understood as quintessentially the "true Machiavellian" (Meyer, 1969) in terms of deception and villainy. This is not only through his lack of morale, but also through the stigma attached to his race; this evil is critiqued by Loomba (2013) who observes the Machiavellian nature that hangs on the stereotype of Judaism in Early Modern Western Europe.

According to Honan (2005), Barabas achieves this evil without the requirement to compromise his identity. The refusal to compromise identity is seen in many cases of Early Modern Drama as an act of Machiavellism in terms of having the audience trust an anti-heroic image, in which they can both sympathise with, and accuse of villainy. Even though Barabas is an embodiment of what an Early Modern audience knew as a "true Machiavellian" (Meyer, 1969), his identity a somewhat consistent throughout the entire play, except for his carnal love of gold. He is unlike Portia in The Merchant of Venice, who becomes duplicitous and controlling for the good of principality. She is not noticeably a Machiavellian, but attains certain traits to qualify her. Other "true Machiavellians" (Meyer, 1969) of Early Modern Drama who lust after the materials of gold and power include Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play of the same name and Richard III also in Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The actual Machiavellian character in fact, is Ferneze who takes back leadership after the Barabas’ fall. Serving as the dictator of the Maltese state, he does not fear the backlash from Barabas as he states: "Content thee Barabas, thou hast nought but right" (1. 2. 153). This notices the reasoning behind Ferneze’s argument of taking the wealth from Barabas. Machiavelli states that the prince should not fear being reproached (Machiavelli, 2009), as Ferneze does not. But he also states that too much mercy will allow for disorder and murder; which is exactly what happens to Barabas, requiring Ferneze to reinstate a familiar order. This social structure of a cyclic Machiavellian authority, shows that Machiavelli provides the entire "genius" over the governing body within play, as stated by Bawcutt (1970). A similar cyclic situation of power and authority within the purposeful death of the former, and the rise of a familiar can also be witnessed in Marlowe’s Edward II, as the authority (the King) is killed only to be replaced by his rightful heir, his son.

At the end of the play, Ferneze states, "see, Calymath, this was devised for thee!" (5. 5. 65). Thus, proving that he has now deceived Barabas, and taken the place of the stereotypical Machiavellian. The authority he takes back is the true leadership of Malta; but alongside takes up a Machiavellian persona with the use of double-crossing, as an Early Modern audience would have understood. But, he also serves as a Machiavellian in authority as his dictatorship redeems itself as Ferneze has found a person "willing to be deceived" (Machiavelli, 2009). Dollimore (2010) understands that Early Modern tragedy, in this sense, is made to decentralise "Man," and focus primarily on social structure and upheaval of power. This is the social structure that follows The Jew of Malta, as it depends primarily on the Early Modern audience’s understanding of a Machiavellian character in comparison to a Machiavellian authority; both of which Ferneze proves to take up at the end of the play. Just as Duke Vincentio displays in the final act of Measure for Measure, this is mistakenly assumed as closure, but actually offers a substitute for what the Early Modern audience would have known as a Machiavellian character for what a contemporary audience now recognise as a Machiavellian authority.

Brecht (2007) states that there is a concept of unmasking the realities behind true power. Just as Machiavelli dictated in chapter eighteen of The Prince, that it is somewhat dangerous for a prince to have good qualities, but the "appearance" of being good is absolutely necessary. This can be witnessed in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which Portia demands a Machiavellian sense of authority within Shylock’s trial. Not only is she seen in disguise as a male authority, but also there is a question of how long she knew of the loophole in the bond. First of all, Portia disguises herself as a male law clerk in order to "appear" good, proved effective by Machiavelli in The Prince. She chooses to keep to what Dollimore (2010) calls "political orthodoxy"; in which the character seeks to repair society, and formally restore it to the original state as can be seen in various plays of Shakespeare’s, one example being the title protagonist in Titus Andronicus, resulting less successfully that Portia’s attempt. The Merchant of Venice being a microcosm for the actual state of Europe during the Early Modern era sought to criminalise the Jewish race. Thus, it decentralises "Man" through the creation of a social order in which Portia must play the part of authority in disguise. This is what an Early Modern audience would have seen as Machiavellian. Secondly, Portia controls the state of affairs as the court room reduces to a representation for a state under Machiavellian authority. Portia, as the Machiavellian, states that Shylock must not take even one drop of Christian blood (4.1.303-310), but only after seeing the bond on many occasions. There is a question of control over exactly what moment Portia knew about the loophole, and why the charge on Antonio was dropped in what was meant to be the final seconds of his life. Mahon (2002) states that Portia uses her disguise to gain power over the court room, suggesting that the loophole may have been found a while before the charges were dropped, in order to elongate the short-lived power of her mask. In the feminist critique on Machiavellian identity, Portia uses a male authority to gain access to higher powers than females were accustomed to in the Early Modern era, just as Viola effectively disguises herself as ‘Cesario’ in Twelfth Night; eliminating themselves as one of the three "maid, wife, or widow" categories.

She then achieves control over Bassanio in her claims not to lay with him until he acquires the rings back (5. 1. 190-191). In this, she does not yet reveal the deception that she was the clerk. Thus, she upholds the Machiavellian character of "deceptive" until the end scene of the play. She also upholds the Machiavellian authority of fashioned cruelty, and a seemingly "good" appearance, but harsher intentions (Machiavelli, 2009). According to Keilen and Orgel (1999), Portia achieves this power via using time and deceit, just as she did in the trial scene with Shylock. She reflects on this to Bassanio in what Bolduc (2008) refers to as "cruel mercy"; establishing to an Early Modern audience that she is a female with the ability to maintain a Machiavellian sense of authority by bending laws and morale, without actually breaking them. She does this alongside maintaining the feminine image that was socially compliant in the era, thus creating a sympathy between her and the audience, even though she is successfully duplicitous; a trait commonly associated with Machiavelli. Other duplicitous characters from the Early Modern Stage that are associated with the Machiavellian identity being in control of the events of the play or even a certain scene are; Vindice of The Revenger’s Tragedy, who rejected initial morals in order to carry out a plot of revenge against members of the Italian court; controlling the play through a series of fluid events of misfortune upon the aristocracy. Also there is Giovanni of Tis Pity She’s A Whore as he manipulates the law and morality stated by the doctrine against his sister Annabella, in order to achieve incest. Once this is achieved, he adopts a double identity of unknowing and knowing; scheming the deaths of his sister and her unborn child.

Even though both characters are in different situations to Portia, all three play similar disguises in order to obtain, retain, or maintain a feigned or insecure power of some kind.

Unlike the previous two characters, the religious authority was already held with high respects in the Early Modern era. The ecclesiastical association of a Cardinal would have been enough to gain and maintain certain powers within the state; even those closely engaged with the leader. Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi requires the audience to understand that ecclesiastical authority is too, corrupt; just as any other Machiavellian authority in an Early Modern piece. Webster channels Machiavelli through a Catholic Cardinal as hypocrisy and corruption of religion. As Machiavelli states that the respect is gained by "either skill or Fortune" (Machiavelli, 2009), the Cardinal’s money ("fortune") and his deceit ("skill") uses these maxims in The Prince. He states to Bosola:

"Throw to the DevilThy melancholy. The fire burns well,What need we keep a stirring of it, and make A greater smother? Thou wilt kill Antonio?" (5.2.299-302)

The Early Modern audience would have conceived this to be an ideal characteristic of a Machiavellian through their understanding of "deception" and "cunning." Ingram (2005) observes through a critique of the Cardinal’s identity, stating he "self-destructs as a result of (his) Machiavellian schemes." This suggests that the Machiavellian ideological identity is only effective until the farce is discovered. Proving true, the Cardinal gives a short speech on his conscience being "take(n) (by) the Devil" (5. 5. 22-31); attaching these to the "Machiavellian schemes" stated by Ingram (2005), it is clear to see how an Early Modern audience would have viewed this character as a figurehead of Machiavellian authority. According to Dollimore (2010), the court of The Duchess of Malfi has fashioned a self-image of civility, contradicting the reality of the inhabitants; suggesting that the Cardinal can also be applied to this theory which comprehends the understanding of religion and corruption through the Machiavellian principle of "turn(ing) one’s back on (good) qualities and becom(ing) the opposite" (Machiavelli, 2009). As a downscale model of a corrupt ecclesiastical state, The Duchess of Malfi holds the Cardinal in the constraints of a Catholic Church leader; creating immediate tensions with a protestant audience and then produces a persona that is fit for villainy via deception, and what an Early Modern audience would have understood as the Machiavellian identity traits. This rejection of strict doctrine for a more stereotypical Machiavellian identity rather than Machiavellian principalities can also be seen in The Atheist’s Tragedy by Tourneur through the characters D’Amville, Charlemont, and Snuffe who produce the same principalities, but in slightly different ways.

The Machiavellian identity on stage has proved to be contrasted with that of the actual concepts of a Machiavellian advocate. As there is focus on the intricacies of the Elizabeth World Picture, as stated by Hopkins (2005) including the Early Modern Stage; there is also a great focus on the ideology and politics used to create it. The methods in which power is obtained comes as both a political and personal struggle, as characters within the drama seek to achieve the "beguil(ing) (of) men’s minds" (Machiavelli, 2009); but when dealing with the New Historicist reading, both Dollimore (2010) and Dutton and Wilson (1992) claim that power is created, and then obtained by subverting the original dogmatic laws. Ferneze in The Jew of Malta is the Machiavellian that creates the power that Barabas ultimately takes, only to find himself controlling the character by deceiving him; revealing his farce and causing his death. The subversion against Barabas’ initial rules put to the front Ferneze’s true Machiavellian nature. Also seen in The Duchess of Malfi with the more religious aspects of good and evil; The Cardinal subverts and confuses not only the law of the Ducal State of Malfi, but also the dogmatic laws surrounding the Catholic Church by presenting a Machiavellian authority figure to the audience through his dishonesty to the Duchess, and ordering and dishonesty to Bosola. But, it is seen differently again in The Merchant of Venice with Portia taking on the role of a male in order to confuse the courtroom into believing she is an actual lawyer. This proves effective and gains Portia, for that scene, the complete power of Venetian Court. This Machiavellian disguise is not only a disguise of occupation; but also a disguise of gender and identity. There is also much focus on drawing a conclusion within more philosophical sectors.

In Dollimore and Sinfield’s Political Shakespeare there is deep attention paid to the differentiation between ideology and contemporary philosophy; something that was yet unclear in Early Modern England. Therefore, when a Machiavellian was identified and evaluated, there was little identification of whether the character was duplicitous, "cunning" and "deceptive" like Barabas in The Jew of Malta or Richard III in the play of the same name; gaining power only for self-satisfaction. Or whether the character was a leader following the maxims stated by Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince like Ferneze in TheJew of Malta or King Henry V in the play of the same name (2.2). It was based on the idealist viewpoint recognised by the mass majority of audiences of the Early Modern Era. But, the mimesis of a leader of state in a play reflecting on the ideals that can be witnessed in the Early Modern courts were not picked up as being the "true Machiavellian" (Meyer, 1969) trait. Thus concluding that the differentiation makes one more viably recognisable than the other. For example, the Early Modern audience would have been more inclined to recognise that Barabas in The Jew of Malta and The Cardinal in The Duchess of Malfi as Machiavellian characters, but more obscurely there is Portia from The Merchant of Venice or Ferneze from The Jew of Malta. These would be a lesser recognised Machiavellian because Shakespeare and Marlowe deal with their notions of obtaining and applying power and authority in the appropriate areas using the "deceit" and "cunning". Whereas, the other two use the "deceit" and "cunning" for self gratification via using the malcontented character in order to dispose of their "deceit" and "cunning" by channeling it through another character

The ideological value gaining the power as the prime purpose of the play, creating, and relieving tension between the rise and the fall. Yet, the philosophical viewpoint that bases itself carefully as charged within Machiavelli’s The Prince contains such intricacies that the Early Modern audience almost failed to recognise that it existed at all. This is presented as the power that may have been relieved of their time due to either unforeseen circumstances as Ferneze in The Jew of Malta, or due to a lack of ruling balance between fear and love as Machiavelli stated (Machiavelli, 2009); projected by Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure and at the other extreme. During the fall of the Early Modern ideological Machiavellian, the authoritarian gains their power back, maintaining it until after the events of the play. Early Modern Drama therefore hints to the true maxims of a Machiavellian, well maintained along the motives of restoring order in the state, compared with the belief in a nefarious Machiavellian identity.

Cited Works:

Primary Sources:

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About the Creator

Annie Kapur

200K+ Reads on Vocal.

English Lecturer

🎓Literature & Writing (B.A)

🎓Film & Writing (M.A)

🎓Secondary English Education (PgDipEd) (QTS)

📍Birmingham, UK

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