evil

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.

“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.