Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth

by Barbara Riebling
Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian Reading of Macbeth
Barbara Riebling
Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Start Page: 
End Page: 
Select license: 
Select License

SEL 31 (1991)

ISSN 6459-3657

Virtue's Sacrifice: A Machiavellian
Reading of Macbeth


"I love my city more than I love my soul," Machiavelli wrote in a letter to a friend. If we take him at his word-including the belief that he has a soul-Machiavelli is describing the ultimate patriotic sacrifice. In both of his major theoretical works, The Prince and The Discourses, he presents this sacrifice as more likely the deeper one ventures into politics, and as virtually unavoidable for the prince. Machiavelli's works shocked sixteenth-century audiences, who were accustomed to seeing Christian and civic virtue as interchangeable; in his version of truth, "la verith effettuale," political uirtzi is ineluctably at odds with religion and its rules. The English were particularly appalled by Machiavelli's ideas; hence the enormous popularity in the late sixteenth century of the villainous "stage Machiavel." For centuries medieval and Renais- sance citizens had been assured of an essential harmony between religious and political truths-any apparent conflicts were resolved either by a rejection of worldly values or their procrustean fit to the Decalogue. English audiences by Shakespeare's time would have been familiar with a number of traditional religio-political models: the de casibus theme carried forward from Boccaccio through writers like Lydgate, that valorizes the contemplative life and presents earthly power and glory as transitory vanities; the providential view of political history in works like Mirror for Magistrates or the play Cambises, that sees divine justice acted out in the political realm; the picture of virtuous statecraft drawn by Christian humanists like Thomas Elyot and Erasmus, who equate effective rule with upright behavior and advise the prince to be

Barbara Riebling is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, completing a dissertation on statecraft literature and stage representations of royal counselors and favorites. Along with Nancy Easterlin, she is also co- editing a collection of essays on new approaches to interdisciplinary studies of literature.

nothing more nor less than a good Christian. In sharp contrast, Machiavelli boldly states that any prince who would take such advice and let go of what is done for what should be done studies his own ruin (The Prince, 15). In The Discourses he even goes so far as to blame Christianity for the triumph of evil in contemporary po1itics.l Clearly, Machiavelli's views are not in harmony with the religious beliefs of his time. After his advent, Renaissance audiences are confronted by two antipathetic philosophies of state. Political life is played out either in a world bound to Christian rules of conduct or a delegitimized world cut loose from any rule but survival. The question I would like to raise is: which world does Macbeth inhabit?

For many years Macbeth was read as one of Shakespeare's most unambiguous works and analyzed as if it were a political-moral fable.2 More recent scholarship has attempted to place Macbeth within the context of conflicting ideologies of early seventeenth- century England and Scotland-as a response, for instance, to the clash of absolutism and resistance theory.3 I would like to suggest another context for the politics of the play, the discourse of civic humanism. In this context, Macbeth can be read specifically as a response to Machiavelli's most controversial models for effective rule. By the beginning of the seventeenth century in England, the real Machiavelli started to replace the "Machiavel," opening the way for both the republicanism of The Discourses and the "ragione di stato" arguments in The Prince.* An analysis of the portraits of kingship in Macbeth suggests that the play participates in this shift in political consciousness, reflecting standards of conduct that are far more Machiavellian than Christian.

Political tragedy studies the consequences of misrule, and Macbeth is no exception, censuring two extremes in civic mal- practice. Although the majority of the play is taken up with Macbeth's criminal reign-a regime at odds with both Machia- vellian and Christian precepts-Macbeth begins its exploration of tragic politics in Duncan's chaotic realm, presenting a brief but succinct portrait of the consequences of political innocence. Measured by traditional Christian values, Duncan's behavior is impeccable. By Machiavellian standards, it is a menace to himself and his people. Because Duncan's kingship can be admired from one perspective and condemned from the other, it serves as a locus for uncovering the play's ideological sympathies, particularly since Macbeth provides an alternative model of political virtue in Malcolm. At the beginning of the play, Duncan "rules" by the rules; later his son will "rule" by breaking them. These opposing images of the good king frame the portrait of Macbeth and his criminal regime, and it is Malcolm's politic practice that emerges as the normative standard against which both Duncan and Macbeth are measured.

The rebellion that almost destroys Duncan's kingdom is set in a Machiavellian context. Acentral theme of The Prince is Machia- velli's new take on the classic opposition of fortune and virtue. In late medieval philosophy Christian virtue could defeat the goddess Fortune by making a man indifferent to her blows. Machiavelli, however, argues that although a private individual can afford to hold the world in contempt, a prince has aggressively to impose his will upon it. He inverts the standard virtue-fortune model, stating that a man with sufficient virtu can violently conquer Fortuna (The Prince, 25). In the first act of Macbeth, the goddess Fortune is a battle prize tossed back and forth among virile warriors. Initially, Fortune is the "rebel's whore" who aids the traitorous Thanes (I.ii.15).5 But she is finally conquered by Macbeth, who "Disdaining" her, prefers instead to be "Valor's minion," "Bellona's bridegroom" (I.ii. l7,54). Significantly, Dun- can is left on the sidelines; in the delegitimized world of power struggle, his Christian virtue cannot come into play. In order to conquer Fortune he needs the virtu of men like Macbeth. However, according to Machiavelli, a prince cannot maintain his power by relying on the virt2i of another; like the goddess, the state belongs to the man who wins her by force. It is for this reason Machiavelli advises that every prince should be his own best general and "never lift his thoughts from the exercise of war" (The Prince, 14). In Machiavelli's view, Duncan's delegation of the violent arts of war would be consistent with both Christian values and the eventual loss of his kingdom.

Machiavelli does not dismiss Christian virtues; he understands their appeal and acknowledges their prestige. In The Prince he instructs the ruler in the proper "use" of traditional virtues. If the times are peaceful and all men trustworthy, the prince can afford the luxury of moral practice. If, however, his state is insecure, he must cultivate an appearance of virtue while being willing to practice its opposite. In chapter 18 Machiavelli explains why it is dangerous for the prince to possess in actuality the virtues that he must always project:

Nay, I dare say this, that by having them [virtues] and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able to know how to change to the contrary. This has to be understood: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are held good, since he is often under the necessity, to maintain his state, of acting against faith, against charity, against humanity, against religion.

As this passage makes clear, Duncan, however admirable a man, is

by Machiavellian standards a dangerous king-a ruler whose gentle and trusting character has invited treason, civil war, and foreign invasion. By being a perfect Christian, Duncan succeeds in becoming a perfect lamb-a sacrificial offering on the altar of real- world politics.

Given the potentially deadly environment a prince must inhabit, Machiavelli recommends that his nature should combine two less endearing animals, the lion and the fox: "Thus, since a prince is compelled of necessity how to use the beast, he should pick the fox and the lion. . . .one needs to be a fox to recognize snares and a lion to frighten wolves" (The Prince, 18). Because he sees survival as a prince's first duty, Machiavelli selects for emulation animals known for their survival skills rather than their service to others. Although this advice may seem to be nothing more than the glorification of self-interest,6 it can be argued that altruistic virtues will be of little value to the prince or his kingdom if they open the way to his destruction and die with him, along with countless subjects. At the beginning of Macbeth Duncan displays the kind of fatal naivete characteristic of a prince who possesses virtue rather than virtzi. Mystified by Cawdor's treason, he states,

There's no art

To find the mind's construction in the face:

He was a gentleman on whom I built

An absolute trust.


Duncan admits that he cannot penetrate appearances, yet he tries to build his kingdom on relationships of "absolute trust." The Machiavellian prince, on the other hand, has mastered the art of seeing into others while remaining a mystery himself, and he is utterly self-reliant. In chapter 17 of The Prince, Machiavelli warns against depending on the love and loyalty of one's followers. He calls the generality of men "ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers," and urges the prince to build his kingdom on fear rather than love since love is "held by a chain of obligation, which, because men are wicked, is broken at every opportunity for their own utility, but fear is held by a dread of punishment that never forsakes you" (The Prince, 17).7

Duncan's faith and trust cost him his life. But it is through his death that his son Malcolm learns the art of survival. Machiavelli considered the prince fortunate to found his state in adversity since the struggle instructs him in the ways of maintaining power (The Prince, 20). Indeed, by the end of the play, Malcolm's fortunes seem to have transformed him into a total Machiavellian. Im- mediately following his father's murder, Malcolm wishes to speak his heart, but his brother stops him, considering it more prudent to run than to stay and protest against a hidden and deadly enemy (II.iii.118-25). By Act IV, scene iii, Malcolm has acquired virtzi, which is above all else the art of prudence.* He tells Macduff, who has come from Scotland to offer his services to the prince in exile, that he cannot depend on a mere verbal assurance of Macduff's virtuous intent. After all, as Malcolm points out, "This tyrant whose sole name blisters our tongue / Was once thought honest" (IV.iii.ll-12). He suspects that Macduff may be trying to ingratiate himself with Macbeth by offering him up "a weak, poor, innocent lamb / T'appease an angry god" (IV.iii.16-17). However, unlike his father, Malcolm is more fox than lamb, and although he maintains that he cannot know what is in a man's heart, he has learned to attain some measure of control over a world of deception by turning dissimulation itself into a tool.g In other words, he has learned to "rule" by breaking the rules of Christian conduct. He tests Macduff's virtue by pretending to every vice a tyrant prover- bially possessed.10 In this Machiavellian test, a virtuous man dissimulates (a non-virtuous act) that he is not virtuous in order to prove that the object of his test is virtuous. And it is not until Macduff violently rejects him ("Fit to govern? / No, not to live") that he can accept Macduff. Malcolm has put into practice what Machiavelli recommends in chapter 18 of The Prince: "How laudable it is for a prince to keep his faith, and live with honesty and not by astuteness, everyone understands. Nonetheless one sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men's brains with their astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who have founded themselves on loyalty."

The exchange between Malcolm and Macduff is not only interesting as a Machiavellian demonstration of "how to get around men's brains," it also reveals the extent to which conven- tional rule-bound notions of ethical conduct have yielded to moral concepts that are prudential or ends-oriented. In the area of religious practice, late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England is witness to a growing adiaphorism which relegates to the realm of things indifferent all matters that do not directly affect salvation. At the same time, James I asserts a political adiaphora which contains any royal vice that does not directly affect the state." These developments in English religious and political ideology harmonize with Machiavellian notions of civic virtue that subordinate personal morality to considerations of political con- sequence. Thus during the testing scene, Macduff can promise that Scotland will accommodate a series of personal vices-deceit, lust,

avarice-but he rejects Malcolm as a king when his vices turn
  Nay, had I pow'r, I should

Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.


The scene between Malcolm and Macduff not only illustrates concepts of virtue that subordinate traditional rules of Christian conduct to the pressing needs of troubled times; it also succeeds in cloaking Malcolm's true nature in an impenetrable veil. When Malcolm "unspeaks" the crimes he has just laid upon himself, claiming that he is a virgin who has never before lied or broken faith, Macduff is struck dumb with confusion. Malcolm's claims of perfect innocence and honesty are incredible under any circum- stances but particularly since they are belied by the speech that asserts them. After this virtzioso display of politic dissimulation, it becomes impossible for Macduff, or the audience, to get a precise fix on Malcolm. He has successfully cultivated the "mystery of state" that is characteristic of both Machiavellian theory and absolutist practice.l3

Before Malcolm tests Macduff's honesty by lying, the breakdown of an easy equivalence between being "true" literally and politically has been introduced in a conversation where the subject is also Macduff's loyalty-the exchange between Lady Macduff and her son moments before their murder. The boy asks if his father is really a traitor, and when his mother replies that he is, he wants a definition of treason:

Son. What is a traitor?

L. Macd. Why, one that swears and lies.

Son. And be all traitors that do so?
L. Macd. Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be
Son. And must they all be hang'd that swear and lie?
L. Macd. Every one.
Son. Who must hang them?
L. Macd. Why, the honest men.
Son. Then the liars and swearers are fools; for there are
  liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and
  hang up them.

Lady Macduff's definition of treason is never meant to be taken seriously, quickly collapsing in the face of her son's simple "reality test." However, her explanation of the supreme crime against the state echoes the political writings of Christian humanists, who insist that political evil is identical to religious sin. Lady Macduff's equating treason with breaking the second and ninth commandments has serious philosophical precedent, and the ease with which that equation is dismissed by her son is a reflection of the erosion these views have undergone by the early seventeenth century. Thus Shakespeare's domestic exchange illus- trates that by this time even a child knows what political writers from Cicero to Suarez vigorously deny-lying is not treason; as the world goes, it is a ubiquitous tool of survival.

Given his strength, courage, and willingness to commit evil, Macbeth might seem to be Machiavelli's ideal prince. Actually, he manages to fall short in several regards, not the least of which is his inability to dissimulate. From the moment he hears the witches' prediction, his ambition becomes transparent. He attracts Banquo's suspicion early on, and he has to be instructed by Lady Macbeth to hide his feelings from the first moment she sees him:

Your face, my thane, is as a book, where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th' innocent flower,
But be the serpent under't.


His acting abilities hardly improve once he becomes king. The play is filled with references to Macbeth's ill-fitting costumes (I.iii.144-46; V.ii.20-23), references which are usually read as symbols of Macbeth's inability to "fill Duncan's shoes." I would like to suggest that these costumes which never seem to fit may also refer to Macbeth's incompetence at maintaining illusion. The mask of the "mystery of state" keeps slipping, revealing Macbeth's naked face-filled with ambition, fear, hatred-for anyone to read. He reveals fear and guilt in the banquet scene in front of the assembled lords of Scotland, and Macduff senses danger in time to escape his grasp. The sarcastic exchange between Lennox and another lord in Act 111, scene vi, reveals that not one of his attempts to shift the blame for his crimes has succeeded. One tactic for which Machiavelli praises Borgia is his use of Rimirro de Orca; Rimirro commits all of the crimes necessary to pacify the Romagna, and once the people begin to hate him for his cruelty, he is killed, leaving Borgia both secure and popular. Unlike Borgia, Macbeth carries the personal stigma of every crime in his realm.

However, by Machiavellian standards Macbeth's greatest sin would probably be not his inability to dissimulate but his initial reluctance to commit totally to the course of wrongdoing that his position as usurping prince has made essential. In The Discourses Machiavelli praises the wisdom of those who prefer to live as private citizens rather than suffer the guilt all kings must incur. He goes on to warn against the greatest danger, the desire to have it all-the clean conscience of a private man and the power of a prince. Having just described the means by which Philip of Macedon made himself prince of Greece, Machiavelli states:

Such methods are exceedingly cruel, and are repugnant to any

community, not only a Christian one, but to any composed of

men. It behoves, therefore, every man to shun them, and to

prefer rather to live as a private citizen than as a king with

such ruination of men to his score. None the less, for the sort

of man who is unwilling to take up this first course of well

doing, it is expedient, should he wish to hold what he has, to

enter on the path of wrong doing. Actually, however, most

men prefer to steer a middle course, which is very harmful; for

they know not how to be wholly good nor yet wholly bad.

(Bk. 1, chap. 26)

Machiavelli's complaint about men's longing to attain power without sacrificing personal virtue sounds very much like Lady Macbeth's fears concerning her husband's double desire:

Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly,

That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, And yet wouldst wrongly win. (I.v.18-22)

One can see Macbeth's deep desire to be "holy" and yet "wrongly win" in Act 11, scene ii, where, incredibly, he seeks a blessing by trying to join his own "Amen" to the prayer of two sleeping innocents seconds after he has murdered Duncan; it seems genuinely to surprise him that the "Amen" sticks in his throat (II.ii.24-31). Macbeth is like the Porter's "equivocator," a man who wants it all and "could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven" (II.iii.8- 11).

It is a delicate issue to argue that Scotland would have been better off had Macbeth been more thoroughly evil-especially since Macbeth becomes evil incarnate by the end of the play. What Machiavelli would argue is that Macbeth's conversion comes too late for himself and for the kingdom. In Act I Macbeth wants his murder of Duncan to be a single, limited crime, and he alternates between fantasizing an assassination that "Could trammel up the consequences," and the realization that he may not be able to control what will follow.14 By murdering Duncan, and Duncan alone, Macbeth's worst fears come true. He unleashes a flood of events that so outrace his efforts at containment that he finally resorts to a reign of terror. In what must be the most troubling passages in ThePrince, chapters 7 and 8 on Borgia and Agathocles, Machiavelli distinguishes between cruelties that are well or badly used:

Someone could question how it happened that Agathocles and anyone like him, after infinite betrayals and cruelties, could live for a long time secure in his fatherland, defend himself against external enemies, and never be conspired against by his citizens, inasmuch as many others have not been able to maintain their states through cruelty even in peaceful times, not to mention uncertain times of war. I believe that this comes from cruelties badly used or well used. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time than are eliminated. Those who observe the first mode can have some remedy for their state with God and with men, as had Agathocles.

Machiavelli's condemnation of "cruelties badly used" could easily serve as a gloss to Macbeth, where the crimes are few in the beginning but do indeed grow with time. It is particularly interesting to note that Machiavelli brings in the judgment of God as well as men; both distinguish between these two cruelties and both find only the latter beyond remedy. Machiavelli can praise Borgia and Agathocles, and even offer them a kind of divine dispensation, because his perspective is "of the people" (The Prince, dedicatory letter). He is not interested in the personal virtue of the prince, only in the effect of his actions on the kingdom. Since the civil chaos and terror that follow innocent blunders and half-hearted crimes are more deadly to the people than the quick and ruthless pacification of a kingdom, Machiavelli saves his condemnation for those princes whose actions cost the most lives.

Machiavelli warns against the dangers of traveling the "middle course" throughout his works. He states in The Prince that men should either be "caressed or eliminated" (3). In both The Prince and The Discourses, he particularly emphasizes the importance of eliminating the blood line of the former ruler when founding a new kingdom (The Prince, 3; The Discourses, Bk. 3, chap. 4). Macbeth's failures in this regard are obvious. He lets Malcolm and Donalbain escape after having done them the gravest injuries. And because he feels insecure from the moment he seizes power, he continues to murder in order to feel safe: "to be thus is nothing / But to be safely thus" (III.i.48-49). When he speaks to Lady Macbeth about his fears, he illustrates the escalation of violence that follows from half-hearted measures:

We have scorch'd the snake, not kill'd it;

She'll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice

Remains in danger of her former tooth.

But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer,

Ere we will eat our meal in fear.

(1II.ii .13-17)

He ends the scene with a reiteration of the same concept-increased evil to secure their shaky position: "Thou marvel'st at my words, but hold thee still: / Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill" (III.ii.54-55). But after his initial crime, no matter how willingly or quickly he kills, it never seems to be enough. Having begun his crimes by killing Duncan while allowing his heirs to escape, he will crown them by killing all of Macduff's heirs after allowing Macduff to escape. The violence increases exponentially, but its efficacy decreases at an even higher rate.

Machiavelli never praises brutality for its own sake; he advocates its politic use as a necessary evil, a prophylactic against widespread and indiscriminate violence. He is particularly critical of the kinds of cruel actions that breed mayhem; and more than any other political writer, he understands the destructive power of vengeance. When in chapter 17 of The Prince he advises that it is better to be feared than to be loved, he adds an important caveat- one should be feared but never hated. In chapter 20 he discusses fortifications and concludes, "the best fortress there is, is not to be hated by the people, because although you may have fortresses, if the people hold you in hatred fortresses do not save you; for to people who have taken up arms foreigners will never be lacking to come to their aid." By committing acts like the massacre of Macduff's family, Macbeth has become universally hated. He faces an avenging army, aided by a foreign king, with nothing at his back but a fortress, soldiers in revolt, and "Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath / Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not" (V.iii.27-28). Shortly after this speech, Macbeth will be defeated and decapitated. Machiavelli would have predicted his violent end, but not on providential grounds. He would have seen Macbeth's destruction as no more or less inevitable than Duncan's-both of Shakespeare's portraits in political disaster could have found a place among his vast collection of object lessons in uirtu and the art of survival.


'In The Discourses Niccolo Machiavelli rails against Christianity's effect on political life. Unlike the state religion of the Romans, Christianity holds the world and its glories in contempt:

Our religion has glorified humble and contemplative men, rather than men of action. It has assigned as man's highest good humility, abnegation, and contempt for mundane things [cosi umane], whereas the other identified it with magnanimity, bodily strength, and everything else that conduces to make men very bold. And, if our religion demands that in you there be strength, what it asks for is the strength to suffer rather than the strength to do bold things.

This pattern of life, therefore, appears to have made the world weak, and to have handed it over as prey to the wicked, who run it successfully and securely since they are well aware that the generality of men, with paradise for their goal, consider how best to bear, rather than how best to avenge, their injuries.

(Bk. 2, chap. 2)

(All citations from The Discourses are from Leslie J. Walker's translation, New York: Penguin, 1970; all citations from The Prince are from Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.'s translation, cited by chapter. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985).

%ee among others L.C. Knights, "How Many Children Had Lady Mac- beth," in Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963), pp. 1-39, and Maynard Mack, Jr., Killing the King: Three Studies in Shakespeare's Tragic Structure (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973).

%ee David Norbrook's "Macbeth and the Politics of Historiography," in Politics of Discourse: The Literature and History of Seventeenth-Century England, ed. Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 78- 116.

'The reception of Machiavelli in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a welter of contradictions; however, it is clear that by the seventeenth century his philosophy was beginning to gain respectability. For detailed accounts of the extent and levels of Machiavellianism, open and covert, see Felix Raab, The English Face of Machiavelli (London: Routledge, 1964), and the recent study by Peter S. Donaldson, Machiavelli and the Mystery of State (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988). As Donaldson's investigations have confirmed, there were a number of avid followers of Machiavelli in the early Tudor courts-among others, William Thomas, who wrote a secret work of royal pedagogy based on Machiavelli's works for the young prince Edward VI, and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who wrote a Machiavellian treatise for Mary's consort, Philip of Spain.

By the late sixteenth century many of Machiavelli's most controversial ideas were also gaining ground in public political discourse, although authors often avoided defending him by name. For instance, in an English translation of The Six Bookes of Politickes or Civil Doctrine (trans. William Jones, London, 1594), Justus Lipsius, a writer noted for his piety, praises the politic use of deception and actively defends Machiavelli (identified in a marginal note):

Surely when one is not strong enough to debate in the matter, it is not amisse secretly to intrappe. And as the King of Sparta teacheth us, where we cannot prevaile by the Lions skinne, we must put on the Foxes . . . . Of such a person we shall easily obtaine this; neither will he so strictly condemne the Italian fault-writer, (who poore soule is layde at of all hands) and as a holy person sayth, that there is a certaine honest and laudable deceipt. (p. 114)

For seventeenth-century adoption of Machiavelli's republican theories, see Zera S. Fink, The Classical Republicans: An Essay in the Recovery of a Pattern of Thought in Seventeenth-Century England (Evanston: Northwestern Univ. Press, 1945).

5All quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

6Machiavelli's attitude towards self-interest is clearly expressed in one of his poems, "Tercets on Ambition" in Machiavelli: The Chief Works and Others, 3 vols., trans. Allan Gilbert (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1965), 2: 735-39. He sees personal ambition as a great evil unless it is harnessed by the state and its energies turned against her enemies. If it is allowed to rage unchecked within a kingdom the results are reminiscent of Macbeth's Scotland: "Wherever you turn your eyes, you see the earth wet with tears / and blood, and the air full of screams, sobs, and sighs" (lines 157-58).

71t has long been noted that Machiavelli has a very "Protestant" conception of human nature. See for example, Hiram Haydn's The Counter-Renaissance (New York: Scribner's, 1950) for a discussion of Calvin and the Florentine school. One can also see an affinity with Luther, whose bleak view of humanity is the basis on which he justifies the need for coercive government: without rule by force, "seeing that the whole world is evil and that among thousands there is scarcely one true Christian, men would devour one another, and no one could preserve wife and child, support himself and serve God; and thus the world would be reduced to chaos." Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Doubleday, 1961), p. 370. These views of man's nature, along with the antinomianism inherent in the doctrine of election (which does not contain a rule-bound view of virtue), contribute to a world-view receptive to both absolutism and civic humanism. Thus as England became more Protestant and more absolutist, it became more hospitable to Machiavelli.

8For a detailed discussion of the relationship between Machiavellian virtu and prudence see Eugene Garver's Machiavelli and the History of Prudence (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987). Garver states: "Machiavelli 'empties' virtu of its conventional semantic, moral, and intellectual associ- ations in order to substitute a prudential structure for understanding it"

(P 31). 9See Victoria Kahn's article, "Virtu and the Example of Agathocles in Machiavelli's Prince," Representations 13 (Winter 1986): 63-83, for a discus- sion of the breakdown of the Ciceronian equation of honestas and utilitas (if a statement is true it will be effective) subscribed to by Christian humanists. Kahn points out Machiavelli's adoption of an ironic mode of discourse that achieves its ends by seeming to speak against them. 'Osee Rebecca W. Bushnell's Tragedies of Tyrants: Political Thought and Theater in the English Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990) for a detailed discussion of the character of the tyrant in classical and Renaissance political theory and theater. He was conventionally conceived as a slave to desire and therefore subject to any number of appetitive vices. "In Basilikon Doron, James I separates the King's personal conduct from the rest of the work in a book labeled, "Of a King's Behaviour in Indifferent

Things." Earlier in the work he admits every king has his faults, but insists that they are to be kept between him and God and "should not be a matter of discourse to others whatsoever." The Poltttcal Works of James 1, 1616, intro. Charles Howard McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), p. 21.

'2Bushnell notes the relationship between absolutist notions that relegate personal sins to the adiaphora and this turn in Macduff's attitude (pp. 140-42).

13See especially Donaldson's Machiavelli and the Mystery of State for an exhaustive study of the role of mystery in both Machiavelli's political theory and his reception and use in England. See also the treatment of the arcana imperii in Jonathan Goldberg's James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), and Stephen Orgel's connection of Machiavellian illusion with the celebration of power in the Jacobean masque in The Illusion of Power: Political Theater in the English Renaissance (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1975).

''In The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975),

J.G.A. Pocock notes the mixed nature of virtu; its cardinal characteristic, innovation, can easily turn against its practitioner:

On the one hand virtu is that by which we innovate, and so let loose sequences of contingency beyond our prediction or control so that we become prey to fortuna; on the other hand, virtu is that internal to ourselves by which we resist fortuna and impose upon her patterns of order, which may even become patterns of moral order. This seems to be at the heart of Machiavellian ambiguities. It explains why innovation is supremely difficult, being formally self-destructive; and it explains why there is incompatibility between action-and so between politics defined in terms of action rather than tradition- and moral order.

(P 167)

  • Recommend Us