The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

Machiavels

Villains are often the most intriguing characters in a dramatic or literary work, for it is their lust for money, power, love, or some more amorphous goal that propels the plot. Moreover, they almost always conceive the plan that they hope will fulfill their desire, and it is this plan to which the heroes or heroines react. Villains therefore furnish the intellectual and emotional energy that carries the narrative and commands our attention.

Shakespeare created a gallery of memorable villains, most of whom may be classified as “Machiavels.” The name is taken from Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), the Italian statesman whose book Il Principe (The Prince, 1513) contributed profoundly to the Renaissance view of political realism. Machiavelli’s pragmatic advice on the administration of effective government became to the Elizabethans and many subsequent generations synonymous with diabolic conspiracy and unscrupulous manipulation. What gives Machiavels their unique flavor is that they carry out their schemes with glee; they relish their own ruthlessness. In addition, their wit, in combination with their intellect and freedom from moral restraint, creates an allure that may be at moments horrifying, but which is theatrically gripping.

One early example from Shakespeare’s tragedies is Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus. As he explains:


I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,

To wait upon this new-made empress.

(II, i, 19–20)

He plans to marry Tamora, the Queen of the Goths who has been recently engaged to Saturninus, the Emperor of Rome, the city that has conquered her people. The reasons for his cruelties otherwise remain cloudy. He comments to Tamora:

-187-

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The Plays of Shakespeare: A Thematic Guide
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Introduction xi
  • Acting 1
  • Appearance versus Reality 9
  • Clerics 23
  • Commoners 35
  • Cynicism 45
  • Divine Right 53
  • Fate 63
  • Fathers and Daughters 71
  • Fidelity 81
  • Fools 89
  • Forgiveness 99
  • Gender 107
  • Generations 117
  • Honor 127
  • Innocence 135
  • Intoxication 143
  • Justice 151
  • Language 161
  • Love and Romance 171
  • Machiavels 187
  • Madness 199
  • Male Friendship 211
  • Marriage 219
  • Money 229
  • Mortality 237
  • Nationalistic Pride and Prejudice 245
  • Nature 255
  • Order 263
  • Politics 273
  • Power 285
  • Reason versus Passion 295
  • Revenge 305
  • Supernatural Phenomena 315
  • The Tragic Flaw 325
  • War 335
  • Conclusion 345
  • Further Reading 347
  • Index 349
  • About the Author 362
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