Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s “Small Volume”: The Legacy of the Stage Machiavel (29 April 2016)

“Bearing in mind all the matters previously discussed, I ask myself whether the present time is appropriate for welcoming a new ruler in Italy, and whether there is matter that provides an opportunity for a few-seeing and able man to mold it into a form that will bring honour to him and its inhabitants.”

-Machiavelli

As we’ve been considering the seemingly timeless quality of the figure of the stage Machiavel, it is worth remembering that the archetype is drawn from a series of highly specific moments in history.   The quote at the top of the page reminds us that Machiavelli is writing during a period of intense civil unrest in Italy, following a major foreign invasion and the dissolution of a number of seemingly stable governments and it was written as a gift for a single man—Lorenzo de’ Medici.[1]  Even so, while English audiences found themselves largely disinterested with Machiavelli’s specific appeals to Italian cultural history or his interest in the maintenance of armies and auxiliaries, there was something about the Florentine that caught fire in the cultural imagination of England.  Through stage representations, his political ideas were spread to a population that would have otherwise had little access to them,[2] and the staging tropes that helped to disseminate a basic overview of Machiavellian thought have remained with us ever since.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at popular representations of Machiavellian politics with an eye turned towards the ways in which contemporary audiences share the same fascination with Machiavelli that defined early modern representations.  For the last 400 years, Anglophonic audiences have been fascinated by attempts to understand Machiavelli’s political beliefs, and I have only touched upon a small sample of the most popular contemporary representations.  The goal here has been less to say anything about Machiavelli’s actual politics than to examine the process by which cultural understandings of those politics end up in our popular fiction.  The stage Machiavel offers an interesting case study for examining the ways in which popular representations of political philosophy can make those theories more accessible and the ways in which those same representations can participate in shaping public discourse concerning those theories.   While printers would eventually receive license to legally print The Prince in England, decades of being represented as a ruthless stage villain certainly colored the reading practices of English audiences.

This in turned has dramatically impacted our cultural perception of virtually everything connected to Machiavelli.  Period fiction set during the early 16th century frequently turns to him as a ready-made villain in the same way that Christopher Marlowe utilized Machiavelli to introduce The Jew of Malta.[3]  He has appeared as a character in texts ranging from Showtime’s The Borgias to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed II.

Machaivelli%2c The Borgias

Machiavelli in The Borgias

Just as his name became shorthand for a duplicitous schemer, his person has entered into the stable of stock historical villains.  Just as stage representations of Machiavellianism would brand any act that was remotely morally questionable as Machiavellian, modern pop culture representations label any act of political scheming as inherently connected to Machiavellian thought.  Even though the characters that I examined in the last few weeks of posts frequently display a number of profoundly non-Machiavellian beliefs,[4] the image of the stage Machiavel still informs the way in which we understand those characters.

In closing up my month of blog posts, I hope to have demonstrated the ways in which the tropes of the early modern stage have remained with us throughout the past five centuries.  In the wake of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, it becomes worth considering the ways in which it isn’t simply the texts of the early modern theatre that have stuck in our imaginations.  While we certainly imagine Machiavellianism differently than audiences did in the 16th century, many of the same questions and concerns still exist in the fiction that we create.  We may not be interested in the complex history of English kingship that exists in The History of Henry IV part 1, but we do still have an investment in the questions that the play asks about how a ruler should act.  While representations of Machiavellianism are not the only entry point into understanding the continuities that exist between early modern and contemporary practices of representation, the stage Machiavel does provide a fairly clear example of an early modern stage trope that continues to capture our imagination well into the 21st century.

[1] The Prince was not published until 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death.

[2] The Prince could not be legally published in England during the 16th century and literacy rates were fairly low.

[3] This habit of making Machiavelli a central character in narratives about 16th century Florence dates back to the mid-19th century at the latest, as George Eliot’s Romola features extended cameos by a pre-Prince Machiavelli.

[4] I noted last week that Machiavelli would likely have hated Frank Underwood for being a self-invested conspirator.  Beyond this, Cersei Lannister would likely be chided for her absolute disregard for the opinions of the populace and the fact that so few people actual trust Peytr Baelish suggests that he lacks the fox-like qualities that Machiavelli lauds in his schemers.


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.

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Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”

-Machiavelli

At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.


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.

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

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Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.