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Term of the Day

Machiavellian

Conduct or philosophy based on (or one who adopts) the cynical beliefs of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) whose name (in popular perception) is synonymous with deception and duplicity in management and statecraft. Born in Florence (Italy), Machiavelli was its second chancellor and (in 1531) wrote the book ‘The Prince’ that discusses ways in which the rulers of a nation state can gain and control power. Although The Prince contains some keen and practical insights into human behavior, it also displays a pessimistic view of human nature and condones opportunistic and unethical ways of manipulating people. One of its suggestions reads, “Whoever desires to found a state and give it laws, must start with assuming that all men are bad and ever ready to display their vicious nature.”

Ma chi-a ve li: phẩm hạnh hay triết lý dựa trên các nguyên tắc ích kỷ cẩu trệ (cynical beliefs) của nhà chính trị học Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), mà tên tuổi của ông, theo đánh giá chung của đa số, đồng nghĩa với sự giả trá (deception) và thói hai mặt (duplicity) trong thuật dùng người và trị nước (management and statecraft). Sinh trưởng tại vùng Florence (Italia), Machiavelli là quan Thái sư của nhà vua và biên soạn cuốn sách “Quân Vương” (Il Principe, 1531) trong đó luận bàn những phương cách các nhà cai trị thâu tóm và khống chế quyền lực . Mặc dù tác phẩm “Quân Vương” chứa đựng  nhiều cách nhìn sâu sắc thực tiễn về hành vi ứng xử (behaviours) của con người, tác phẩm cũng bộc lộ quan điểm rất tiêu cực (pessimistic, bi quan) về bản chất con người và dung dưỡng (condone) những cung cách vô luân, mang tính cơ hội  trong đối nhân xử thế (manipulating people). Người ta tìm thấy trong đó những lời khuyên đại loại: “Bậc quân vương muốn nắm lấy quốc gia, định đặt pháp chế phải đi từ chỗ xác định bản chất con người ai cũng xấu xa và không từ một cơ hội nào để thể hiện cái bản năng làm hại kẻ khác”

 

 

 

 

 

The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian philosopher and poet who both repulsed and fascinated the psyche of Renaissance Europe. In his most famous work, Il Principe (The Prince)(1532), he set out his ideas on how the prince of a country could set out to attain power and how he might keep that power once he had secured it. Although Shakespeare’s most infamous Machiavellian character is Richard III, the model of the political schemer out to secure his own position can be detected most overtly in the characters of Iago (Othello), Edmund (King Lear), and Claudius (Hamlet), and to a lesser extent in the characters of Hamlet himself and Augustus Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra.

In the aftermath of the publication of Il Principe, both the Catholic and the newly formed Protestant Church condemned the book and it was in fact banned in Elizabethan England. [1] The papacy placed it on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559, but it was nevertheless read widely by the Elizabethan political class during this period. Although an English translation was not made until 1640, there were Latin, Italian, French and Spanish versions of the book in print.

As Machiavelli has proved to be both repellent and enticing, the message of his book has often been misinterpreted. The most common misreading is to suggest that Machiavelli advocates the idea that ‘The end justifies the means.’ However, as John Roe has noted, ‘Machiavelli at no point advocates the practice of evil as acceptable in itself – despite what his many detractors then and now have said; he concedes, rather, that evil sometimes has to be used.’ [2] It is in this respect that characters such as Hamlet can be viewed as Machiavellian. Although he is not overtly evil, Hamlet is faced with the task of killing a legitimately elected monarch in order to avenge his father, with no concrete evidence, and only the word of the Ghost for proof. Furthermore, it is an example of how a skilled politician can attain power in the absence of a legal succession. In fact Hamlet would only be following in the footsteps of Claudius who is himself a Machiavellian schemer; and, for at least a portion of the play, a particularly adept one, on the grounds that he achieved a relatively quiet transition into his position of power having committed only one murder. Initially, out of all the characters in the play, only Hamlet complains of his uncle’s succession.

The characters of Edmund and Iago are perhaps more readily identifiable to the reader as Machiavellian because of the way in which they manipulate truth and virtue for their own gain. However, while the temptation is to label them as evil these figures are successful as they engage with the other characters in the way that men act, and not in they way in which they should act. Machiavelli warns that:

A man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need. [3]

Both Iago and Edmund are able to succeed to a large extent because they embrace these principles, which they combine with high intelligence and the ability to adapt to unexpected developments, which they can further manipulate to their benefit. Augustus Caesar is even more adept at political manoeuvring, as he ultimately secures an Empire thorough his plotting. Antony’s virtus or virtue should, in an ideal world, overcome the machinations of Caesar, but in the real world that proves not to be the case. Indeed he is warned by a soothsayer early in the play not to engage with him. ‘If thou dost play with him at any game, / Thou art sure to lose’ (2.3.24-5).

Ultimately Machiavelli was a figure who greatly influenced the minds of Renaissance thinkers. Although many of the ideas which he put forward were not original in themselves, no one had ever written such a pamphlet on how to succeed in the art of kingship. One should be careful though in adhering to the stereotype of Machiavelli as morally bankrupt however, as one can clearly see Machiavellian characteristics in both his villains and his heroes.

Ralph McLean

1. Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, (Oxford, 2002), p. 30 Return to text

2. John Roe, Shakespeare and Machiavelli (Cambridge, 2002) p. 15 Return to text

3. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (London, 2004), p. 65 Return to text

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