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Summary of Machiavelli's La Mandragola

Arguably one of Machiavelli's finest works, Mandragola is a comedy that offers
an in-depth look into the world of Machiavelli. The play's action takes place in
the span of 24 hrs. It is the story of Callimaco, a young Florentine who lived
in Paris for 20 years. One day he overheard a fellow Florentine tell the
Parisians about a woman of extraordinary beauty back in Tuscany. Compelled to
see her for himself, Callimaco returned to his native land. Once he saw her
beauty he was determined to have her. There are several problems to his plan
however. The first is that the woman, Lucrezia, is married and the second that
her virtue seems above reproach. Callimaco enlisted the help of Ligurio, a
rascally marriage broker who had had dealings with Lucrezia and her husband,
Nicia. Using his skills at arranging things, Ligurio devises plans to allow
Callimaco to have his moment of bliss with Lucrezia.


Pretending to be a doctor, Callimaco assures Nicia, whom is without the heir
that he so desperately wants, that the ingestion of a potion made from the
mandrake root will result in pregnancy. Nicia accepts the advice, complete with
the consequence that the first man to sleep with the woman who takes the potion
will die the next day. With Nicia's money, Ligurio and Callimaco enlist the help
of the friar. Frate Timoteo convinces the unwilling Lucrezia that it would be
best to take the potion and sleep with another man at first, so that he might
draw out the poison. Though her conscience is heavy, she accepts the advice of
her confessor and the reassurance of her mother. Nicia is persuaded to capture a
young man (Callimaco in disguise) in the street at night and bring him in to
take upon himself the fatal effects of the drug. The affair goes according to
plan: Callimaco gets his night with the lovely Lucrezia and Nicia will have his
heir. Nicia, however, is ignorant to the fact that the potion was simply a ploy
to allow another man to sleep with his wife. Worse yet for Nicia, he is also
unaware of the fact that this plot was revealed to his wife the morning after
and she has happily accepted Callimaco as her lover. The play is believed to
have been first performed in 1518, and most historians believe it was composed
between 1504 and 1518. It was a tremendous hit at the time, mainly for its
comedic qualities. However, it may be what lies under the surface of the play
that makes it a real masterpiece. One of the main themes in the comedy is the
use of fraud, as none of the characters' objectives could be accomplished
without it. Machiavelli makes it clear that fraud is acceptable, so long as it
furthers a worthwhile cause. In Mandragola, almost every character uses fraud.
Nicia is the obvious example of Callimaco and Ligurio's trickery. From the
beginning of Act I, we see their plans to take advantage of Nicia and Lucrezia's
desire to have an heir, as well as Nicia's stupidity. The first plan is to
convince Nicia to take Lucrezia to the baths so that Callimaco might catch her
attention and gain her love. Nicia believes that this is sound medical advice
and, though reluctantly, persuades his wife to go along with the plan. When the
plan is changed, Nicia again goes along with the new plan. Throughout the whole
play, down to the very last scene, someone is tricking Nicia.

Even his wife, the only seemingly virtuous character at the beginning, at the end has taken
advantage of his stupidity and her situation and plans on fooling him with her
affair with Callimaco. Lucrezia is also the victim of fraud. Like Nicia,
everyone is plotting against her. She is led to believe, with her husband, that
the root potion is a sure means to a child. Against her moral objections, she
agrees, but only as a result of intense persuasion by her mother and Frate
Timoteo. Though for the most part Sostrata herself is innocent of fraud, it can
be argued that she was not very concerned about whether the arrangement was
fraudulent or not. She is willing to convince her daughter to do whatever is
necessary to achieve her means, which is classically Machiavellian. One of the
most ironic figures to be guilty of fraud, yet nonetheless one of the most
guilty, is Frate Timoteo. Ligurio and Callimaco believe that they are fooling
the priest, but Timoteo is shrewd enough to see through their plan and make sure
he benefits as well. He is also a willing partner in the fraud over Lucrezia. He
knows what he is convincing her to do ( to sleep with a man other than Nicia)
and relies on her trust in him as her confessor to persuade her. More interested
in the monetary gains for himself, he casts aside any moral obligations to end
the deception.


The plot revolves around which character is shrewder than the next. Each person
is driven by their desires: Nicia by his desire to have an heir, Ligurio to get
some kind of profit out of the deal, Callimaco to get the girl, Sostrata to have
a grandchild, Lucrezia to have a child and follow the will of God, and Timoteo
to make a profit by being shrewder than everyone else. In order to fulfill their
desires, the characters use cunning and deception. The only exception to this is
Lucrezia at the beginning of the play. However, when Callimaco reveals the
trickery to her, she uses her own deception to attain her desires for a new,
young lover.


The end of the play is a happy ending, as all characters are satisfied with the
new arrangement: Callimaco has the object of his desire whenever he wants,
Ligurio has a place to stay and eat, Nicia will no doubt have an heir, Lucrezia
has a new love, and Timoteo has his money and the satisfaction of knowing that
he outsmarted everyone else. The fact that all this deception has turned into a
happy, peaceful state shows an interesting view of Machiavelli's world. This
says that fraud is acceptable when it attains positive ends. In fact, as long as
the results are pleasing to someone, it appears that fraud is a valid means of
attaining them. As the friar remarks, "in all things one must look to the
result." This si gargde al fine is a popular theme attached to Machiavelli, one
which runs through the Prince as well as the Discourses. In Mandragola, fraud
prevails over force, in this case the forces of religion and intelligence. In
the latter, it is no large feat, because of the stupidity of Messer Nicia. He is
easily persuaded, even though it seems unlikely that any other lawyer would have
bought the ridiculous ploy.


However, fraud prevailing over religion and morals seems to be the main theme
Machiavelli wants to address. In the case of the Friar, with some ducats he is
easily persuaded as well, even though to the reader it seems that he should be
the hardest to persuade. It is likely that when the play was first performed,
the scenario of the contemptible priest was very amusing as a commentary on the
current state of affairs in Florence, which will be addressed later. Although he
is not fully aware of the whole plot, Timoteo knows that Ligurio and Callimaco
are tricking him, and he is not morally above taking advantage of the situation.
The same applies for his involvement in the convincing of Lucrezia. Deception
and greed win over morality and Christian virtue. How and why Ligurio and
Callimaco succeed despite of Lucrezia's virtue helps to reveal the structure of
the play and the nature of Machiavelli's world. Everyone achieves their
respective goals by taking advantage of each other's desires. Machiavelli makes
it clear that this is not only acceptable, but also the desired ending, judging
from the rejuvenated characters at the end. To better understand Machiavelli's
reliance on fraud in his works, one could look to his other main dramatic work,
Clizia. Based closely upon a Roman comedy by Plautus, the action in Clizia
revolves around a family torn apart by the father and son's love of a young
girl.

The girl, who has lived in the family's house for many years and been
brought up under their care, has become beautiful and desirable to the son.
However, the son, Cleander, finds himself threatened by a rival for Clizia's
love. That rival is none other than his father, Nicomaco. Everyone in the
household knows about the father's infatuation with Clizia, including his wife
Soforina. Nicomaco designs a plan to quickly marry off Clizia to his servant so
that he can sleep with her himself. Echoing the contempt for religion and
disregard for moral standards seen in Mandragola, Nicomaco believes that it is
too scandalous to sleep with Clizia before she is married. His family sees right
through his plan, however. Cleander, realizing that this is his father's plan,
argues that if she must marry, Clizia should marry another servant, with whom
Nicomaco would not be able to share her.


In this comedy, each family member tries to trick the other, and there are
several tricks going on at once. In the end, it is the father who loses. On the
night of the wedding of Clizia to the servant he chose, Nicomaco devises a plan
to sneak into her bed and pretend he is the young groom. However, he is shocked
and humiliated when he finds the next morning that in the place of the beautiful
bride is actually another male servant who had been thwarting Nicomaco's
advances all night. For the time being, the wife is the victor. In this play, as
well as in Mandragola, in influencing the outcome of human affairs, wit or fraud
counts more than force.


Yet another example of this can be found in Machiavelli's novella, Belfagor, the
Devil Who Took a Wife, a wonderful window into Machiavelli's relationship with
women. In Belfagor, a man outsmarts a devil that came to earth to discover if
wives really were the cause of the many male entrants into Hell. Gianmatteo
hides Belfagor when he is running from the authorities and creditors of Florence
(for the wife he took ran him into debt) in return for specific instructions on
how Belfagor will make him rich. When Gianmatteo later overstepped the bounds of
the instructions, Belfagor promised to kill him. But Gianmatteo drove the demon
back to Hell by scaring him into believing that his wife was coming to find him.
This novella joins the two former works in the theme of the superiority of wit,
which mirrors Machiavelli's ideas in the Prince. As Timoteo says, Clizia and
Belfagor reinforce Machiavelli's belief that "one must consider the final
result."


The question of whether Mandragola should be read strictly as a comedy or
whether Machiavelli wrote it as an allegory is a source of much disagreement. In
the preface to his translation, Peter Bondanella writes that
"although some critics have attempted to reduce this marvelous comedy to the
status of a political allegory…none of Machiavelli's contemporaries (i.e., those
best qualified to notice any allegorical content) viewed the play in this light;
they all considered it as an exemplary neoclassical comedy, intended solely to
delight without containing a political message."


However, many writers disagree, stating that the similarities of the characters
are too striking to personalities in Machiavelli's Florence to ignore. Theodore
Sumberg, in his La Mandragola: An Interpretation, offers a comprehensive
analysis of the play as an allegory.
Machiavelli proved himself time and time again to be a witty, satirical writer.
A quick look to any number of his works, including Belfagor, or his personal
letters reveals a storyteller with a great deal to say, and a clever way of
saying it. The play was written during the worst years of Machiavelli's life. He
was ousted from Florentine politics and spends his days unhappily on a farm. In
one letter to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli describes his situation as "having
been cooped up among these lice, I get the mold out of my brain and let out the
malice of my fate, content to be ridden roughshod in this fashion if only to
discover whether or not my fate is ashamed of treating me so." Many of his
letters from the latter part of the 1504-1518 time period that many historians
have targeted as the composition date contain a similar
sentiment.


The time period in which Machiavelli wrote Mandragola was a period of drastic
change for Florence. The Medici returned to power and the power structure of
which Machiavelli was a part was dissolved. Sumberg compares this renaissance of
the city to the renaissance of the characters at the end of the play. The
characters are refreshed and glowing at the start of their new lives. Virtually
every character has undergone some form of change and now has a newer, brighter
future to look forward to. The morning after, Nicia remarks to his wife that she
looks born anew. Similarly, Timoteo says that Sostrata looks as though she has a
new lease on life.


Carnes Lord offers a slightly different interpretation of the plot, but in
keeping with the same main character comparisons. He points out that in several
instances, Lucrezia is linked with the audience. In the prologue, Machiavelli
writes that: "A girl, young and clever, was loved very much by him [Callimaco],
and was for this reason deceived in the manner that you will hear, and I would
wish you deceived as was she." Later in the play, Timoteo remarks that Callimaco
and Lucrezia would be up all night "...because I know that, if I were he and you
were she, we would not be sleeping either." Machiavelli also notes in the
prologue that the intended audience is Florence. Tomorrow, it may be Rome or
Pisa, but today it is Florence. Thus, Lord states that it makes sense that
Lucrezia represents the Florentine people, an idea also supported by others.
It follows fittingly that if Lucrezia represents the Florentine populace, Nicia
represents Piero Soderini. Nicia is the ineffectual master of Lucrezia, the
master who is dominated by his wife. This can be compared to the ineffectual
government of Soderini in which he was unable to providing for Florence the
satisfaction of her wants. Lord points out that like Soderini, Nicia was a rich
doctor of law, who was also a childless man. In the play, it is clear that Nicia
is the simpleton of the story. He is the master who regards himself to be much
more important and intelligent than he is and ends up being the cuckold. He is
the character with the fewest positive attributes and is made a fool of during
the whole play.

When Ligurio says to Nicia that "someone like you, who remains
all day in his study, understands those books but is unable to discuss the
things of the world" Lord suggests that this may be the true feelings of
Machiavelli towards Soderini. How Machiavelli felt about Soderini is important
for continuing the allegory. Lord points to Machiavelli's epigram on Soderini to
provide further evidence of Machiavelli's contempt for Soderini:
"The night Piero Soderini died, his soul went to the mouth of Hell, and Pluto
cried out to it: Foolish soul, why Hell? Go to Limbo with the children."
However, in his edition, Allan Gilbert makes the point that many people took the
playful tone (in the Italian, the word for babies is bambini, a perfect rhyme
for Soderini, that "Machiavelli couldn't resist") of the epigram to be full of
bitter contempt. He also states that the tone suggests composition during
Soderini's prosperity, before the return of the Medici. However, Lord also
points to several chapters in the Discourses support his point.
If we continue along with the same allegory, if Nicia is Soderini, then Ligurio
is Machiavelli. Ligurio successfully makes his way into Nicia's house, mirroring
Machiavelli's close personal and political friendship with Soderini. Despite
this friendship, Machiavelli never quite puts his trust and loyalty in Soderini,
much like how Ligurio never bestows his loyalty on Nicia. This reflects the
fundamental dissatisfaction of Machiavelli with the governing of Soderini "and
his hope for the regeneration of a new Florence at the hands of a new and
genuine prince." This can be seen as the renaissance at the end of Mandragola.
Machiavelli and Ligurio both are astute counselors of princes; both are content
to serve the fame of others, or are content to seem content, and both men
believe they are superior to the men they serve.


Lords also suggests that Timoteo represents Pope Julius II. He is described as
having an abnormal interest in political and military matters, just as Timoteo
has an abnormal interest in the outcome of the affairs of Lucrezia. In the
Prince Machiavelli notes that Pope Julius acted "impetuously in all his affairs;
and he found the times and conditions so apt to this course of action that he
always achieved successful results." If Timoteo is the Pope, then Lord suggests
that Sostrata is Francesco Soderini. She plays a minor role in the play, but
plays along side Timoteo. She assures her daughter that what the priest is
saying is correct and should be followed, much like the role of a cardinal in
relation to a pope.
It then remains to be determined whom Callimaco might represent. Both Lord and
Sumberg suggest that Callimaco represent the new prince. However, they disagree
on who that new prince would be. Lord discounts the popular choice, Lorenzo de
Medici, because if the play were in fact written in 1504, Lorenzo would have
only been twelve. Another suggestion is Don Michele Coriglia, former lieutenant
of Cesare Borgia, but also found unlikely. More plausible is Bernardo Rucellai,
a Floentine aristocrat and opponent of Soderini.


While many literaries disagree over the question of Mandragola as an allegory,
it seems clear that at the very least, Mandragola is a comic parallel to the
Prince. Both are works of practicality and the pursuit of happiness at the
expense of others. The Prince is an essay written to a prince, for the purpose
of laying out examples form famous leaders in the past of how to be an effective
prince. In many ways, Callimaco is Mandragola's Prince. He possesses many of the
characteristics Machiavelli describes in the letter and in examining the two
works together, one can see the parallels.


Callimaco is a gentleman, but only by title. He was orphaned at a young age, and
was left with enough money to make him well off by Florentine standards. He
lived a life of some studies, some pleasures, and some business in Paris,
enjoying his life. However, if we were to use the term gentleman to describe a
man's honor, Callimaco would fail miserably. He has no honor in that he shows no
shame at what he does, or wants to do. Not once during the course of the play
does he doubt the morality of his actions. He is driven by a desire, and the
means by which to get there are not a concern.




 

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