The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli

The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works

Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli
    Book Description:

    The Italian statesman and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, well known as the author ofThe Prince,wrote not only grave, cold-blooded political tracts but also comedies, poems, fables, and letters that are seemingly lighthearted. What are we to make of the two extremes in Machiavelli's writings? This volume brings together outstanding scholars in the fields of literature, political science, and history to explore the meanings of Machiavelli's literary works, the light as well as the dark. Contemplating the comic and tragic in Machiavelli, the contributors offer new perspectives on his obsessions, intentions, and capabilities and reveal through sometimes opposing visions of their subject much about his political-historical treatises as well.The nine essays in the book consider nearly all of Machiavelli's literary and dramatic works, including the lively and ribald comedyMandragola,the comic playClizia,the ambivalent poem "The Ass," the symbolicFlorentine Histories,and Machiavelli's fascinating correspondence. The contributors to the volume-among them Harvey C. Mansfield, Arlene W. Saxonhouse, Franco Fido, and Ronald L. Martinez-do not always resolve their opposing visions of the essentially tragic or comic Machiavelli, yet none contests the weight of his insights into the world and especially into the actors on the great stage of politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14794-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xxiv)

    Niccolò Machiavelli wrote not only grave, cold-blooded political tracts, but also seemingly lighthearted comedies, poems, and fables. His corpus seems to divide between subjects of the utmost seriousness and those merely frivolous and funny. On the serious side one finds, for example, theDescription of the Way Duke Valentino Killed Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, Signor Pagolo, and the Duke of Gravina Orsini,a bone-chillingly terse relation of the historical incident in which Cesare Borgia tricked his armed and formidable rivals into accepting terms of friendship only to have them murdered. As dark as this work is, the final outcome...

  5. 1 The Cuckold in Machiavelli’s Mandragola
    (pp. 1-29)

    TheMandragolamakes for a good introduction to Machiavelli. By reading theMandragolaahead of his political works one could become acquainted with his comic and his erotic aspect, his appreciation of the nonpolitical, so that one could look for it in his politics. The levity, the double meanings, even the dirty jokes and blasphemies that run rampant in theMandragolaare also present, less obviously, inThe Princeand theDiscourses on Livy,in which they reflect his desire to treat respectable political ideas and institutions “without any respect” (sanza alcuno rispetto).¹ Yet it is also true that the...

  6. 2 Clizia and the Enlightenment of Private Life
    (pp. 30-56)

    TheCliziais a comedy about love that borders on the scandalous. As a matter of fact, it crosses the border. But the play is not the ordinary romantic farce or, what is just now more conventional, the ordinary dramatic scandal. One should not expect the ordinary from a playwright so extraordinary.Machiavellianmay be a common byword now, but Machiavelli was a political scientist or political philosopher.The Prince,his most famous work, is perhaps the most notorious handbook for unscrupulous policies ever and perhaps also the most influential treatise of political philosophy ever.

    I shall argue that Machiavelli’s...

  7. 3 Comedy, Machiavelli’s Letters, and His Imaginary Republics
    (pp. 57-77)

    I write about Machiavelli’s comedy. But what is comedy? This is a question to which I shall keep returning throughout this essay; to begin with, though, I do not mean only the comedies as categorized by the literary critics who divide literature into comedy, tragedy, romance, and all such assorted genres. Neither is comedy only the plays written to be produced and enacted on stage, such as Machiavelli’sMandragolaandClizia,and categorized by scholars of the Renaissance ascommedia erudita,which had its roots in the “antique inspiration” of Plautus, Terence, and Greek New Comedy.¹ After all, Dante entitled...

  8. 4 Machiavelli’s Discourse on Language
    (pp. 78-101)

    Machiavelli’sDiscourse or Dialogue Concerning Our Language,long a favorite among philologists, has generally been ignored by students of his thought.¹ Few besides Hans Baron have discussed its political implications,² and most, especially since Cecil Grayson raised again the question of its authenticity, have dismissed the work as either uncharacteristic or not Machiavelli’s at all.³ There is no denying the strangeness of the work, in which a dialogue with Dante is the occasion for a discourse on the nature of language generally, its cycles, modes, and orders, and its relation to the grave and comic forms assumed by Machiavelli’s own...

  9. 5 Tragic Machiavelli
    (pp. 102-119)

    Machiavelli’s letter of October 21, 1525, to Francesco Guicciardini, to which he signs himself “historico, comico et tragico,” has, since Roberto Ridolfi’s biography, been taken as a fitting summary of the career of the Florentine secretary. As Machiavelli wrote no known tragedy (and there is no tantalizing lost possibility analogous to the supposedly Aristophanic comedyLe maschere),the last term in the self-descriptive triad is sweepingly interpreted by Ridolfi as Machiavelli’s formulation of the experience of Italy during the catastrophic epoch that had begun with the French invasion of 1494.¹ Ridolfi’s interpretation is beyond cavil, but Machiavelli’s lapidary self-description may...

  10. 6 Lost in the Wilderness: Love and Longing in L’Asino
    (pp. 120-137)

    One of the chief themes in Machiavelli’s work is that the political actor must not be restrained by any sentimental tenderness, whether self-pity or compassion for others. The political actor must be able to act freely, without being checked by such qualms. The best political actor, Machiavelli insists, never takes off his armor. His startling condemnation of Cesare Borgia inThe Prince,after almost a whole chapter of unstinting praise, can be understood from this perspective: in the end Machiavelli says Borgia fell because at one critical moment, after a lifetime of treachery, he was too soft, allowing sentiment and...

  11. 7 The Politician as Writer
    (pp. 138-158)

    My purpose is to discuss some instances of the connection between Machiavelli’s practical concerns as a diplomat and politician on the one hand and his extraordinary ability, on the other, to elevate those concerns to the sphere of theory and literary creation. As Machiavelli’s career as a writer develops amid the chaos of Florentine and Italian politics and personal losses and disappointments, he relinquishes his early hopes for the possibility of a princely redeemer. Although his confidence in the possibility of human beings’ mastering fortune diminishes, his own power as a literary artist capable of creating unforgettable characters and indelible...

  12. 8 Beyond Limits: Time, Space, Language in Machiavelli’s Decennali
    (pp. 159-175)

    It was in the autumn of 1504, in the aftermath of Florence’s failed attempt to capture Pisa by diverting the waters of the Arno, that Niccolò Machiavelli wrote the firstDecennale,changing the course—albeit briefly—of the flow of his own writing. The impact of the event in Pisa would be gauged in many ways: militarily, by the loss of a city of great strategic importance; politically, by the loss of prestige and reputation in failing to capture a long-time adversary; economically, by the stunning loss of seven thousandducati.In a letter to Machiavelli from Cardinal Francesco Soderini...

  13. 9 The Classical Heritage in Machiavelli’s Histories: Symbol and Poetry as Historical Literature
    (pp. 176-192)

    As many have noted, the key metaphysical support of the past three centuries of Western culture has been the concept of progress, the conviction that history is neither aimless nor cyclical, but a constant overcoming of the inferior by the superior.¹ Without this reliable canon, we would have no assurance of the survival of the fittest peoples and institutions nor any guarantee that democracy and secularism are better than monarchy and religious awe. It is, therefore, difficult for us to imagine a time when history was not so reassuring, when it was conceived as merely the constantly recurring cycle of...

  14. Contributors
    (pp. 193-194)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 195-238)
  16. Index
    (pp. 239-246)