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Shakespeare's Machiavelli

Machiavelli's notoriety in Elizabethan England gave rise to the particular use of the term "policy" as a sly reference to Machiavellian realpolitik.

Though Shakespeare's earlier plays tend to support an idealism reminiscent of such writers as John of Salisbury--straightforward English nationalism and the "Tudor Myth"--the later history plays, and those tragedies that deal with political power, explore a more complex interplay of political realism and idealism.

Whether or not Shakespeare read Machiavelli directly is an open question*, but characters such as Richard II* and Richard III* show evidence of Machiavellian influence.

"Virtu"

As well as treating politics as a distinct field of study subject to its own laws, a second contribution to the modern concept of the state is Machiavelli's idea of "virtu" as a necessary spirit of vitality underlying government. 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*.

A good example of a character with virtu is Fortinbras, in Hamlet: he agitates against Denmark, is thwarted by Claudius' political manoeuvring, carries on nonetheless against the Poles, and arrives onstage at the crucial moment to seize the opportunity of picking up the Danish crown.

A Maciavellian prophecy?

When Richard II is deposed, he prophesies that those who deposed him will in turn be scorned by the new King -- and in the process echoes Machiavelli:

MACHIAVELLI

. . . 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.

SHAKESPEARE

Richard II: Northumberland, thou ladder wherewithal
The mounting Bolingbroke ascends my throne,
The time shall not be many hours of age,
More than it is, ere foul sin, gathering head,
Shall break into corruption. Thou shalt think,
Though he divide the realm and give thee half,
It is too little, helping him to all;
He shall think that thou which knowest the way
To plant unrightful kings, wilt know again,
Being ne'er so little urged another way,
To pluck him headlong from the usurped throne.
(Richard II, 5.1.55-65)

Footnotes

  1. Did Shakespeare read Machiavelli?

    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.

    (See "small Latin and less Greek" for Shakespeare's fluency in other languages.)

  2. Richard learns from Machiavelli

    MACHIAVELLI

    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.
    SHAKESPEARE

    Richard [Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III]: I'll play the orator as well as Nestor,
    Deceive more slily than Ulysses could,
    And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
    I can add colours to the chameleon,
    Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
    And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
    Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
    Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.
    (Henry VI, Part Three 3.2.188-195)
  3. The via media

    Queen Elizabeth followed the middle path most of her life, but the Earl of Essex and Mary Queen of Scots, at different times forced her to extremes.