Hated, Feared and Loved: Popular Representations of Nicollò Machiavelli (8 April 2016)

“A controversy has risen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa.  My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

-Nicollò Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian, denoting a duplicitous schemer or an unscrupulous politician entered into the English language in 1566,[1] decades before a formal English translation of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, would be legally available for the general population.


Picured: An unscrupulous politician


In England, Machiavelli’s reputation proceeded him and this led to a tremendous interest in the early modern consciousness concerning exactly how his more controversial ideas should be handled.  He became the era’s go-to reference point for political duplicity, amoral scheming and atheism.  Historical villains were rechristened as followers of the Florentine and an entire theatrical archetype was invented to leverage an emerging public discourse which framed anything associated with Nicollò as a ready-made symbol of evil.


Richard III, as understood by Tudor propaganda

This series of blogposts intends to examine not only the historic and literary history of representations of Machiavellianism, but also more contemporary representations and discourses, which remain closely connected to many of the same rhetorical movements and ideas that informed 16th century repudiations of Machiavelli.   While we may not have the same relationship to the Florentine as Elizabethan audiences did, we still express many of the same doubts and fears about men and morality that Machiavelli ignited in the early part of the 16th century.

Early modern representations of Machiavelli took the worst excerpts they could draw from The Prince and ran with them.  Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, and countless other dramatists exploited the public fear of the Machiavellian image to construct dozens of scheming political climbers that would populate some their most famous plays.  Villains such as Claudius, Iago, Edmund and Richard III would become closely tied to the image of the Machivel. Tapping into a cluster of fears among English play goers, early modern representations of Machiavellianism tended to emphasis its amorality, its belief in justified cruelty and its connection to Southern Europe.[2]  While some of these writers may have had some amount of sympathy for elements of Machiavelli’s politics, when invoking the man himself, few popular representations of Machiavellianism offered any sympathy or nuance.   In the early days of representation, the figure of the Machiavel had lived up to his prodigious reputation.

Despite a long history of being transformed into a symbol of unrepentant villainy and amorality, Machiavelli still seems to inhabit a special place in our consciousness.  The word attached to his name still possesses tremendous currency, as we use it to discuss any number of politicians,[3] fictional characters,[4] sports personalities,[5] among countless others.  Further, in a political environment which sees increasing public support coalescing behind anti-establishment rhetoric and campaigning, here understood to represent politicians who don’t outwardly appear to ‘treat politics as a game,’ or who appeal to a sense of honesty and integrity that implicitly suggests that this integrity represents a break from the norm, a sizable population seems to be looking at modern institutions with the same wary eyes with which Machiavelli’s philosophical detractors wished to view their own world in the waning years of the 16th century.   Part of the fear that early modern audiences saw in Machiavelli was in his suggestion that politics was a game of misdirection and manipulation, a place where liars and cheaters stood above moral men.  As a result, Machiavelli was never far from the political fiction of his time, and the last four centuries seem to have done little to remove him from our imaginations.

One need to look no further than the recent resurgence of political thrillers to see that this suspicion still underlies a section of our popular culture in much the same way that it informed the popular culture of early modern England.  Richard III, the deformed usurper of Shakespeare’s The History of Henry VI Part III, who wishes to “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” (III.ii.193), bares more than a passing resemblance to modern popular figures such as Frank Underwood or Petyr Baelish,[6] whose political machinations drive the plots of their respective series.


As political schemers, intent on raising themselves through the ranks by whatever means necessary, figures like Baelish and Underwood are cut from the same cloth that gave Anglophonic culture villains like Iago and Lorenzo.  While the pop culture Machiavel is still villainous, there is some newfound pleasure to be found in watching the devious and duplicitous anti-heroes maneuver their way into power.  The popularity of series that make explicit their Machiavellian theme suggests that there exists a disconnect between the way that audiences are conceptualizing real world politics and the way that we choose to stage and consume fiction about politics.   The next in this series of posts will look in greater detail at a few case studies to examine how Machiavellian political thought is being fictionalized in contemporary popular culture.

[1] “Machiavellian, n. and adj.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/view/Entry/111832?redirectedFrom=Machiavellian (accessed April 05, 2016).

[2] Despite being framed by writers as an atheist, Machiavelli is frequently connected to the other big early modern fear coming out of Italy, the Catholic Church.

[3] Virtually every candidate in the 2016 primary cycle has been compared to or compared against Machiavelli in some capacity.

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22537324

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/the-infinite-mercy-of-bill-belichick

[6] Between the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells and Lords Baylish and Varys, the political subplot of HBO’s Game of Thrones could best be described as a contest between a dozen Machivels trying to out maneuver one another.

Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.


The English Renaissance “Timeline” (11 December 2015)

“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

In a post for her blog Brain Pickings, Maria Popova introduces the above quotation by asserting photography as “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it.” “This seems especially true,” Popova continues, “if subtly tragic, as we fill our social media timelines with images, as if to prove that our biological timelines – our very lives – are filled with notable moments, which also remind us that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.”

Popova’s post and, in particular, Susan Sontag’s quotation, reminded me of an image I came across about a year ago while studying at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I was doing research for a dissertation-related project exploring the relation between practices of literary invention and English Renaissance ideas about mutability, mortality, and memento mori (Latin: “Remember that you have to die”). The following turned up in my search results:


Fig. 1   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 43r. [i]

Click here to zoom in.

The image is of an illustration from Thomas Fella’s commonplace book, or miscellany, A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures, compiled between 1592 and 1598, to which he later made additions in July 1622. Fella was a calligrapher and draper from the Halesworth area of Suffolk County, England. He didn’t attend university, and most of what is known about him derives from two extant writings, including his commonplace book. Perhaps this is what I find so interesting about him: little is known about Fella – “who” he was, what his life was “like.” But if we turn, for clues, to the images and aphorisms copied into his commonplace book, or “timeline,” as it were, it’s striking that those which he thought to include seem to be, as Popova writes, reminders “that they are all inevitably fleeting towards the end point of that timeline: mortality itself.” While the invention of photography postdates Fella’s commonplace book by about two and a half centuries, Popova and Sontag are, I think, instructive for how we might interpret certain of Fella’s illustrations and, more broadly, a particular historical moment in print, visual culture, and memory.


Issuing from the man’s mouth in Fig. 1 is a banderole, or “speech bubble,” on which appear the words “Tempus Omnia terminat” (Latin: “Time ends all things”) – a sort of memento mori proclaiming “time’s relentless melt.” What initially attracted my attention to this image, however, was the phrase written within the second banderole: “Life is death and death is Life.” Fella’s appropriation of the phrase isn’t unusual; I’d encountered it before in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century sermons, all of which place it within the context of St. Augustine’s City of God (462 AD). Variant iterations of the phrase crop up in other English Renaissance texts, most famously in Hamlet’s musings on being and not being – “To be, or not to be.”

However, Fella’s deployment of the phrase participates, per Sontag, “in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability,” namely English Renaissance printer John Day:


Fig. 2   Folger MS, f.515v

Click here to zoom in.

In the 1563 edition of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, there is, included at its end, a woodcut-cum-miniature portrait (quasi-photograph?) of John Day, Foxe’s printer. The woodcut is included in all editions of Actes and Monuments. Engraved within the ribbon that encircles Day’s profile is the phrase, “LIEFE IS DEATHE AND DEATH IS LIEFE,” bookended by Roman numerals indicating Day’s age. Forty.

The few scholarly paragraphs devoted to Fella’s commonplace book are driven, primarily, by a desperation to find out how he was able to access texts such as Foxe’s Actes and Monuments – whether he owned them, borrowed them – and what other texts the images might have been copied from: the “irrepressible desire to return to the origin,” as Derrida has it.[ii] I share this desire somewhat differently, however: what fascinates me is the delicate balance that Fella strikes between his meticulous attention to the original medium of Day’s woodcut and the apparent differences in his copying of it.

While this image suggests a heightened attention to the sensuous particularities of everyday objects, namely Fella’s interest in the materiality of the woodcut, I think that copying the woodcut communicates this interest in a different way: it holds the memory of its past engravedness, of its former life, in Foxe’s book. The aesthesis of Day’s woodcut is memorialized in the shading techniques used by Fella to detail Day’s apparel, hair, and beard. If memory, as defined by William Fulwood in The Castel of Memorie (1562), is the faculty by “which the mind repeateth things that are past,”[iii] then copying – repetition – is, for Fella, an aesthetic technique through which he preserves, yet also recreates, the medium of the woodcut in his own “timeline” – the English Renaissance commonplace book.

Indeed, the phrase and numbers that encircle, confine, Day’s profile in Fig. 2 are, in Fella’s rendering, notions over which he has physical and sensual control: life and death he grips with his hand, but Fella also used his hand to write those italic words into the swirling banderole on which they appear. Whereas Day’s woodcut indicates his age, or the passage of time, via Roman numerals, Fella’s illustration ostensibly speaks of time’s finitude, and of age, as memento mori – “Remember that you have to die.” Fella thus participates in Day’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” by “slicing out,” or copying, the woodcut into his commonplace book.


Fittingly, the phrase “Tempus omnia terminat” – “Time ends all things” – is the epigraph to Fella’s “end” page (Fig. 3), at once testifying “to time’s relentless melt” and acknowledging the inevitable end point of his own timeline/commonplace book: “And all must ende that ever was begonne.” The whole of Fella’s miscellany is preoccupied with mortality – and, for someone alive during the plague-ridden English Renaissance, understandably so. But if A booke of diverse devices and sorts of pictures is “both an attempted antidote to our mortality paradox and a deepening awareness of it,” so, too, is my interest in it. I participate in Fella’s “mortality, vulnerability, mutability” as I look at, and write about, a digitized image of his copied image of Day’s woodcut image.

However, the phrase “Life is death and death is Life,” especially Fella’s deployment of it, has a chiasmatic formulation – it implies circularity rather than antithesis. Time’s melt is relentless; but, as Hamlet so often reminds us, memory is the only human antidote to mortality.


Fig. 3   Folger MS V.a.311, fol. 75r

Click here to zoom in.

[i] All images from Thomas Fella’s A booke of diverse devices and sorts of images are here used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995), 91.

[iii] Guglielmo Gratarolo, The castel of memorie, trans. William Fulwood (London: 1562).

Amy K. Burnette is a 6th year doctoral candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University where she is currently at work on her dissertation project, Praxis Memoriae: Memory as Aesthetic Technique in English Renaissance Literature, 1580-1630.