Machiavellian Rhetoric in The Prince and the Mandragola

Read at SAMLA Convention, 5 November 1998

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        The Prince is generally regarded as a most serious book, not just because of its content, but also because of its reputation. Speaking as it does about word-breaking popes, criminal Roman emperors, and illustrious prospective saviors of Italy, it seems far from the lighter side of life. However, an interested reader/spectator of Machiavelli's comedy the Mandragola will have noticed the recurrence much of the terminology employed in The Prince. In the following, I will briefly discuss some terms of The Prince and apply them to Callimaco, the protagonist of the Mandragola. The vocabulary of The Prince will allow us to leap from one genre to another, and not only will we see how Callimaco is a good example of a prince, but also how Machiavelli's philosophical terminology applies to comedy. This, in turn, will expose the rhetorical quality of the language of The Prince.

        In chapter 6 of The Prince, Machiavelli discusses princes who came to rule thanks to their own powers. One such prince, who merits brief mention, is Moses. Machiavelli is notably unclear about exactly what it was that made him a ruler, and doesn't say much more than "[Moses] had such a good teacher." Later, when discussing ecclesiastical states in chapter 11, Machiavelli expresses a certain modesty, which prevents him from entering too deeply into a discussion on the nature of the power of ecclesiastical governments: "It would be a rash and imprudent man who ventured to discuss them." This modesty needs to be taken with a grain of salt, and he does indeed go on to discuss the history of the papacy, treating popes much the same as other princes--in military and political, temporal, terms. The only indication Machiavelli ever gives about the nature of power sanctioned by God is in the brief comments on Moses: "[Moses] should still be admired, if only for that special grace which made him worthy of talking with God." Whatever power God had, whatever it was he transferred onto Moses, it was done verbally.

        This attention to language is crucial. Much of the force of The Prince derives from a single set of terms in The Prince: Fortuna and Virtù. Virtù is translated in many different ways. "Power" or "strength of character" perhaps come closest, but other translations abound: Virtù can be the quality of a person's strength of body or mind, but it can also refer to the spirit of a nation.

        Fortuna, usually translated with "fortune" (or sometimes "luck"), is a term that carries a heavy load of tradition, deriving mainly from Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. In chapter 25 of The Prince, Machiavelli slightly alters both denotation and connotation of Fortuna. Rather than portraying Fortuna as a goddess who has complete control over human affairs, he insists on joint control: "I think it may be true that Fortune governs half more or less of our actions, but that even so she leaves the other half more or less in our power to control." Machiavelli's Fortuna is a creator of opportunity, not just the ruler of temporal affairs or the goddess of bad luck. In his letter to Vettori, 10 December 1513, he says:

And since Fortune wants to do everything, she wishes us to let her do it, to be quiet, and not to give her trouble, and to wait for a time when she will allow something to be done by men.

Fortune can leave room for men to act, if they treat her right: Fortune is a woman.

        With this set of governing principles, Fortuna and Virtù, Machiavelli gives us a way of describing the world of human action that allows for freedom. Machiavelli himself, in The Prince and The Discourses on Livy, read Roman, Italian, and European history in these terms; let us turn to the world Machiavelli created in his Mandragola, to see if and how these most serious terms apply to his comedy.

        The Mandragola, a fast-paced and tightly constructed comedy, tells the story of a young Florentine, Callimaco, who has fallen in love with a married woman, Lucrezia. In the opening scene already, we see Fortuna at work explicitly. Callimaco describes to his servant Siro why they moved from Paris to his native Florence: "But fortune, deeming no doubt that things were going too well for me, saw to it that a certain Cammillo Calfucci came to Paris." Calfucci told Callimaco of a woman, Lucrezia, so virtuous that Callimaco is infatuated immediately, and cannot but return to Florence. It is worth noticing that although the English translation has Callimaco use the adjective "virtuous" to describe Lucrezia; the Italian text has "onestissima," "most honest." Her honesty may be her virtue, but for Callimaco, her Virtù is her beauty, her grace; the text does not give way easily in translation and the similarities between Italian and English easily lead one astray. In fact, Lucrezia's honesty is Callimaco's biggest problem--she is married to a lawyer, Messer Nicia, and Callimaco will have to corrupt this honorable woman in order to have her. To add to his problems, Lucrezia doesn't leave the house much. Morality obviously doesn’t really pertain: this is a comedy!

        Machiavelli introduces the idea of Virtù in the same scene, when Callimaco asserts that, against the (perceived) odds, he will try to fulfill his desire:

Nothing is ever so desperate that there is no ground for hope. Even if the hope is vain and foolish, a man's will and desire to achieve what he wants will make it seem not to be.

Illustrating the Machiavellian imperative of "do or die," this reminds us of the penultimate chapter of The Prince, where Machiavelli explains how human affairs are ruled by both Fortuna and Virtù. If Fortune seems not to be favorable, a man has to create his own destiny--if his Virtù will let him. Machiavelli gives the example of Pope Julius II, who "proceeded boldly" where all circumstances seemed to oppose him. Thus, our character note for Callimaco will be this: will he have enough Virtù to overcome Lucrezia's virtue, and anything else that Fortuna may throw at him? On a more practical note: will he even get to see her?

        This brings us to another notion used in The Prince, that of Occasione, opportunity. That this concept is quite important to Machiavelli is attested to also by his re-writing of an epigram by Ausonius, in which Machiavelli depicts opportunity as a woman, who is always on the move, and hard to catch:

And you who stand here talking, you who dote
On idle chatter, while the hour lingers,
Wise up a bit, you klutz, you've missed the boat,
And I've already slipped between your fingers!
("On Occasion," ll. 19-22)

In the final chapter of The Prince, Machiavelli addresses the importance of Occasione, exclaiming that the time is ripe for a prince to stand up and deliver Italy from the barbarians. He also remarks on how an Occasione, and the more difficult the better, can bring out a character's Virtù: ". . . if . . . it was necessary, to bring out the power [virtù] of Moses, that the children of Israel should be slaves in Egypt . . ." In the Mandragola, this is the very first difficulty, since Lucrezia sees few people and rarely leaves the house. An Occasione needs to be created. Fortunately, Callimaco has the support of an important character to any Prince: a private counselor. In the corrupted world of comedy, the role of the private counselor is appropriately played by a stock character, the parasite, Ligurio. I will return to Ligurio later on.

        The way to Lucrezia goes through her husband Nicia, and Nicia's weakness is his desire to have children. Naturally, he blames his wife's sterility; any suggestion of impotence is hastily denied. Callimaco is to pose as a doctor who can help out in this delicate matter. In order to pull this off, Ligurio and Callimaco take The Prince's advice: appearance is sometimes more important than reality, and sometimes one must use rhetoric creatively, I mean lie. This begs the question of morality, in politics as well as in comedy. Let us briefly examine the morality of comedy.

        To the charge that the Mandragola proves once again that Machiavelli is immoral, and advocates that "the end justifies the means," we may say the following. The moral world of comedy is upside-down in a somewhat paradoxical manner: some vices are virtues, but other vices remain vices--depending on whose character's they are. The bad guy always remains the bad guy; his vices always remain vices. In other words, Nicia, who is possessive, vulgar, and corrupt, deserves to be cheated, while Callimaco, who is a good man, if infatuated (comedy always favors the lover), will be allowed to be corrupt, to lie, to cheat. We may also remind ourselves that we, the audience, are no better: when we root for Callimaco, we are drawn into the play of corruption our hero and his parasite have set up; we are accomplices. In the world of comedy, adultery is good, if the husband is bad or foolish enough. Fortunately, Nicia is both.

        Today, people are convinced they are listening to a doctor if the guy wears a lab coat. Before the invention of the pharmaceutical industry, a patient's need to see a doctor's credentials was satisfied by having the supposed doctor speak Latin--in the Mandragola anyway. Callimaco, who is educated, manages to impress Nicia with some Latin phrases. Nicia is all the more taken in, because his recognition of Callimaco's credentials establishes also that he is qualified to judge such credentials. This type of make-believe is seen by Machiavelli as crucial to a new prince, whose safety may depend on assuming the status of an old prince. In chapter 24, he says: "The precepts given above [on personal counselors and flatterers], if properly observed, will help a new prince appear like an old one." And earlier in The Prince, Machiavelli has stressed reputation as imperative, in chapter 21: "It should be a prince's major concern in everything he does to give the impression of being a great man and of possessing excellent insight." Callimaco pulls it off, and through his use of language successfully impresses Nicia as an expert:

CALLIMACO: In order to gratify your desire, I have to know the cause of your wife's sterility. There are several possible causes. Nam causae sterilitatis sunt: aut in semine, aut in matrice, aut in instrumentis seminariis, aut in virga, aut in causa extrinseca.

NICIA (aside): This is the most worthy man I have ever met!

Actually, Callimaco combines the use of Latin with the charge of impotence, and this double strategy proves very convincing:

CALLIMACO: Aside from these causes, this sterility might be occasioned by your impotence. If that were the case, I have no remedy for you.

NICIA: Me impotent!? Why, you're making me laugh! I'm as tough as nails!

Of course, impotence was already mentioned in Latin ("semine and instrumentis seminariis"), and Nicia gives himself away as an ignoramus. As if this wasn’t enough, Callimaco holds another Machiavellian trick up his sleeve: the exemplum.

        Act II of the Mandragola features what we see all throughout The Prince: the use of the example, of experience. In the dedication to Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli speaks of his "knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired through long experience of contemporary affairs and extended reading in antiquity." The "extended reading" doesn't figure heavily in the Mandragola (after all, it's a play), although Callimaco's knowledge of Latin is an indication that reading plays its part in the background, and surely works as such on Nicia. But "knowledge of . . . great men, acquired through long experience of contemporary affairs" plays an explicit part in gaining Nicia's trust:

CALLIMACO: You must understand this: there is nothing more certain to make a woman conceive than to give her a potion made with mandrake root. That is something I have tested half a dozen times, and always found true. If it were not for that, the Queen of France and countless other Princesses of that realm would be barren.

NICIA: You don't say!

Callimaco's use of the "famous example" establishes his authority, and a little later on Nicia himself actually uses the supposed authority of the exemplum as a condition to convince himself, after Callimaco explains the catch: the first one to sleep with Lucrezia after she takes the potion will die. Callimaco comes up with a magnificent plan:

CALLIMACO: The first young scamp we find strolling about, we'll gag him and march him back to your house. We'll take him up the stairs in the dark, then put him in bed, tell him what he has to do, and he won't make any trouble, I'm sure. Tomorrow morning, you throw him out before daybreak, get your wife cleaned up, and you can stay with her at your leisure and without any danger.

NICIA: It's all right with me, as long as you say that kings and princes and noblemen have done it that way.

Nicia's immediate agreement to what would be premeditated murder is the final drop: he deserves to be cuckolded, and of course he will. He is won; the new prince is ready to take over the dominion.

        In this brief overview of the first two acts of the Mandragola, we have seen how one of Machiavelli's preoccupations, language, serves an important function; we have seen how the exemplum, part of the raison d'etre of The Prince, is employed in the actual rhetorical moves in the Mandragola; and we have been reminded of the most important terms used in The Prince: Fortuna, Virtù, Occasione. That Machiavelli uses these various notions and moves in a comedy needn't surprise us, considering how important they are in his other works. But the appropriateness of these Machiavellian notions in a dramatic context seems serendipitous. Why are Fortuna, Virtù, and Occasione so applicable? What does The Prince have to do with the Mandragola?

        Partly, the semantics of The Prince, the field of reference of Machiavelli's almost poetic rhetoric, connect the drama to the political tract. The description of Fortuna as a "ruinous river" in chapter 25 is only one example of how the semantic field of The Prince is one of action, of the here and now, of force: "Fortune is a woman, and the man who wants to hold her down must beat and bully her." Similarly, to act now is at stake in the urgency of the exhortation, because the opportunity for the rescue of Italy will not wait on a prince. This semantic field, I would propose, is appropriate for drama. After all, what is a theatrical performance but an action in the here and now, and gone in a few hours? When Machiavelli discusses Julius II and praises him for being impetuous, he might as well have praised a dramatic actor, a hero, stubbornly refusing to give in, and determined to make his mark in the world--if only on his neighbor's wife. Machiavelli's strategy in The Prince is to establish the validity of his general remarks and principles using examples from history, recounting brief episodes that prove his point. This focus on individual action, individual history, transfers easily to the theater, which has room for big stories insofar as they can be "individualized," made into one concise dramatization for an audience.

        Whether Callimaco is the ultimate prince of comedy remains to be seen. While he does create his Occasione, possesses enough Virtù to carry the day, and certainly has what it takes to convince Lucrezia that his offer is a good one, we should not forget that he owes his success to a great extent to his parasite, Ligurio. But then, as Machiavelli says in The Prince, "the first notion one gets of a prince's intelligence comes from the men around him; when they are able and loyal, you may be sure he is wise." So, we shall leave some room on the stage for the secretario, and a good secretario is always functional, doing whatever is necessary to benefit his employer, his native city, his country: again The Prince enlightens the Mandragola.

        The rhetoric that Machiavelli uses in The Prince is impressive, and has proven very convincing, even after almost five centuries. But if we aren't aware that, in the end, it is rhetoric, we may fall for any of Machiavelli's rhetorical traps the way Nicia falls for Callimaco's. For Callimaco proves that Fortuna and Occasione can be created, out of nothing, so to speak. Continuing a previously quoted passage from Act II, Scene 6:

NICIA: You don't say!

CALLIMACO: It is exactly as I have told you. And it just so happens, by a stroke of good fortune, that I have brought with me all the ingredients which go into this potion, so now you can have it, too.

NICIA: When would she have to take it?

CALLIMACO: This evening, after supper. According to the moon, this is just the right time of the month. We couldn't choose a better moment.

Callimaco's "good fortune" is set up, and the perfect occasion is an undefined, fictitious time of the month. But as Nicia buys into it, it all comes true, like a self-fulfilling prophecy: like crying PANIC! in a department store. Callimaco's rhetoric is that of a con-man, and we, the audience, buy into it. We have to, we can't walk away. Suspending our disbelief creates not only the fiction that this is the right time, but also the ensuing urgency and suspense. And if we then reflect on The Prince, we may ask ourselves what exactly causes the urgency of the exhortation: Italy's political and historical situation, or Machiavelli's rhetoric?

        Language does more than filter reality; it constitutes reality, or re-constitutes it, as the example of Moses, armed with the word of God, makes clear. In The Prince, Machiavelli uses impressive terminology and rhetorical strategies for the worthiest of causes: the unification of Italy. In the Mandragola, the same terminology and strategies serve a quite different purpose--tricking a lawyer and seducing his wife. The Mandragola shows us that the argument of The Prince is a rhetorical one, and that the rhetoric itself is a tool for making reality rather than a means for getting at some truth about a pre-existing reality. Perhaps it even shows that corruption and nobility are matters of perspective, not inherently different. A prince is, on the whole, likely to have different objectives than a randy young Florentine, but they may well use the same methods of satisfying their desire.

Copyright Michel Aaij, 1998

Works cited

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Mandrake. In: The Comedies of Machiavelli. Ed., trans., David Sices and James B. Atkinson. Hanover: UP of New England, 1985.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 2nd ed. Ed., trans. Robert M. Adams. New York: Norton, 1992.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. "On Occasion." In The Prince, 134-35.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. "To Francesco Vettori." 10 December 1513. In The Prince, 126-29.