The Irony of Machiavelli's Bad Reputation, His Cunning Prince and the Irreverence of Mandragora
Niccolò Machiavelli. His name conjures everything devious, cunning, malicious and cruel. To call someone Machiavellian, or a Machiavel, is not a compliment, unless it be considered praise for unethical behaviour. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago is a supreme Machiavel, quite possibly the ultimate and best-known Machiavel in dramatic literature.
However, there is irony here for the grievous reputation given Machiavelli is grossly undeserved. For most of his adult life, he was involved with politics, striving always to better the life of the people. Dissatisfied with the indifference of expensive Swiss and German mercenaries to defend Florence, he created the military draft, conscripting Florentines to defend their own city. By the time of his early death at fifty-eight, he was a highly respected ambassador and political courier to France, as well as to city-states in Italy outside of his native Florence.
He was also a much loved man for his generosity and his intelligence, possessed a renowned sense of humour, was loyal to his friends, a caring father to his children, and devoted to his wife (even through his many love affairs-because, of course, he was a Florentine, and an Italian).
It was not until twenty years after his death that his reputation turned from a man respected, admired, and loved, to that of Satan in the flesh. Even his name became another epithet for the devil: Old Nick!
As for Niccolò himself, his pragmatic philosophy had no room-and little respect-for the spiritual. He was all too familiar with corrupt Church officials to be anything like a staunch believer in dogma; what faith he had he based on a reality that excluded the idea of a Heaven. He said often that he desired to go to Hell because he knew that he would meet his friends there.
We must blame the Jesuits, whom Niccolò adamantly did not consider friends, for the corruption of his name and reputation. That intellectual order of priests, not overjoyed with Machiavelli’s realistic thoughts about the Church, placed all of his writings on the Index of Forbidden Books, thus beginning the infamous legacy he has to this day.
His principal essay, The Prince, continues to intrigue and to stir controversy with its ideas of how to obtain, maintain, and promote power, seemingly at any cost, including human lives.
Although not primarily considered a playwright, his 1518 play, Mandragora (English title: The Mandrake), is considered by theatre scholars the finest comedy of the Italian Renaissance. This ribald play satirizes aspects of life, love-and, yes-power: its uses and its misuses. It was a huge success during his lifetime.
Over the ensuing centuries, Mandragora has seen countless productions. In the twentieth century alone, it found its way into English nine times, as well as adaptations into two operas, two light musicals, and two motion pictures. In this still young twenty-first century, it has already seen one new translation produced in New York City.
Heretofore, you always had to be part of an audience in a theatre to enjoy Machiavelli’s comedy, and a theatre, however large, remains a limited venue. Now there is another incarnation of this fascinating play. Mandragora is now a novel. Indeed, it is the only novel ever created from Machiavelli’s comedy, even after five centuries. This allows you to hold ‘Old Nick’ in your hands and take him, his outrageous ideas, and his hilarious irreverence with you wheresoever you go. Buon giorno!