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Machiavelli: Paragon of Treachery or Dishonesty Essay

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Updated: Feb 5th, 2022

The ideas of Niccolò Machiavelli have often been misinterpreted or misrepresented. Moreover, in the course of history, he has been demonized in various literary works. In particular, one can mention various plays created during the Elizabethan era. Such authors such as Shakespeare or Marlowe portrayed Machiavelli as a paragon of treachery or dishonesty. This paper is aimed at discussing the reason why this political philosopher was described in such a way. Overall, one can say that the writers, who created a fictional image of Machiavelli, were familiar mostly with numerous criticisms of Machiavelli or biased representation of his works. However, they did not know much about the ideas that he tried to express. This is why they described him as an individual who could justify almost any atrocity to achieve certain political goals.

There are several reasons which can explain the demonization of Machiavelli. First of all, his treatise The Prince was criticized for its alleged cynicism or disregard for ethical values (Petrina 1). It should be borne in mind that in the work, he described the strategies that could help political leaders seize and retain power. Some of these strategies were based on violence, deception, and cruelty (Petrina 1). The main issue is that this book presented a very honest and clear portrayal of many European monarchs who could stick at nothing in order to attain their objectives. However, many people came to the conclusion that Machiavelli advocated the use of such policies. This is one of the factors that should not be overlooked since they are important for explaining how the image of this philosopher was constructed by various authors representing the Elizabethan era.

It should be mentioned that the ideas of Machiavelli were falsely associated with some of the horrible atrocities that were committed in the sixteenth century. In particular, one should refer to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre which was partly perpetrated by the ruling house of Medici. This issue was later explored by Christopher Marlowe in his play The Jew of Malta. Moreover, it was believed that such an atrocity could only be explained by their reliance on Machiavellian ideas and principles (Dickens 478). This aspect is also important for explaining the demonization of Machiavelli who was not a supporter of violence.

Furthermore, Elizabethan writers could learn about the works of Machiavelli through inadequate translations. Moreover, his ideas could be misrepresented by his enemies such as Innocent Gentillet who used the excerpts of The Prince to criticize Machiavelli (Richmond 280). It should be mentioned that a complete translation of The Prince appeared after the end of the Elizabethan era. Additionally, these writers were not familiar with the objective critique of his works; at that time, this critique simply did not exist. This information is also helpful for explaining the hostility of Elizabethan writers toward this philosopher. Thus, one can say that the lack of knowledge is another factor that contributed to the persistent negative image of Machiavelli in popular culture.

Several authors refer to Machiavelli in their works. For instance, one can mention Christopher Marlow. In his play, The Jew of Malta, the author creates the fictional image of Machiavelli. In this case, the author describes this thinker as an evil spirit that possessed the mind of Henry I who is also known as the Duke of Guise (Marlowe 1). It should be kept in mind the Duke of Guise was one of those people who instigated the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (Dickens 478). Yet, one should remember that Machiavelli would not have approved this slaughter of innocent people. This example illustrates the attitude of Elizabethan writers toward this philosopher and his political works.

Furthermore, one can mention William Shakespeare and his character Richard of Gloucester who is often viewed as an example of deception and cruelty. In the play Henry VI, this character boasts that he can “set the murderous Machiavel1 to school” (Shakespeare 59). Overall, this comparison indicates that for Shakespeare, this philosopher was a diabolical or at least a repulsive figure. To a great extent, Richard of Gloucester was supposed to represent Machiavellian attitude toward politics. So, this stereotypical description solidified the reputation of Machiavellian as an unscrupulous individual who was not bound by any moral principles or social norms.

On the whole, this discussion suggests that the image of Machiavelli was distorted by people who did not have a clear understanding of the main ideas that this thinker tried to express. Moreover, he was associated with people who committed horrible atrocities. In turn, the works of such playwrights as Shakespeare or Marlowe gave rise to a stereotype according to which Machiavelli was only an evil plotter who could justify almost every action provided that it could help a political leader achieve his/her goals. These are the main arguments that can be put forward.

Works Cited

Dickens, Arnold. Reformation Studies. New York, Continuum, 1982. Print.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. London: Courier Dover Publications, 2012. Print.

Petrina, Alessandra. Machiavelli in the British Isles: Two Early Modern Translations of the Prince. New York: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Print.

Richmond, Henry. Shakespeare’s Theatre: A Dictionary of His Stage Context. New York: Continuum, 2003. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Henry the Sixth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Footnotes

  1. This is the spelling that was used by Elizabethan authors.
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