Jail-breaking Machiavelli 2: Shakespeare & Gaming Kingship

It’s interesting to note how quickly the European elite moved to demonize Machiavelli, mostly because he exposed the hypocrisy of political and ecclesiastical power, its violence and deceit. Magicians and witches may have reputations as charlatans, but Machiavelli showed how the same was true of kings and popes.

As Alessandra Petrina argues, Machiavelli may have desired a broad readership for The Prince. Indeed, French translations began appearing in 1546, with The Prince seen as “a manual of practical politics” by at least 1586. Indeed, the elite seemed to castigate Machiavelli publicly while taking extensive notes. Petrina dates the circulation of Italian manuscripts in England to 1539, and Sidney and Edmund Spenser both encountered Machiavelli’s works, suggesting his popularity in Tudor England.[1] Unsurprisingly, the elite began a hit job on Machiavelli and the book’s reputations, painting them as demonic, anti-Christian, encouraging princes to commit whatever acts benefited them since the ends justified the means. The opening passage from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta that I quoted last time even resurrects Machiavelli as a kind of demonic shade come to England to introduce the Stage Jew villain Barabas. You can imagine Marlowe’s sense of spectacle and irony in play as he uses this early modern boogeyman to introduce his production while pointing to a cannier understanding of The Prince than the simplistic “Machiavellianism” of the Stage Machiavel, a stock character who uses theatricality and deceit to accomplish his treacherous ends.

What I find interesting, though, is how Machiavelli also seems to democratize—maybe publicize or popularize are more apt—the magical tech that political power had previously monopolized. Although the Stage Machiavel represents a debased, simplified version of Machiavellian logic, writers like Shakespeare use Machiavels and actual Machiavellian princes on the stage.

You see, I would argue that players and playwrights such as Marlowe and Shakespeare recognized the theatrical glamour of political authority because they knew very well how, if you dressed the part and acted the part, you could pass as royalty. Anxieties about costuming and wardrobe—on and off the stage—as markers of gender, class, and profession resulted in the tradition of sporadically-enforced sumptuary laws, and theatrical companies in Renaissance London had special dispensation to ignore these laws for performances through their aristocratic patronage.

Deposition & Richard II

Ay, no; no, ay; for I must nothing be;
Therefore no no, for I resign to thee.
Now mark me, how I will undo myself;
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
Make me, that nothing have, with nothing grieved,
And thou with all pleased, that hast all achieved!
Long mayst thou live in Richard’s seat to sit,
And soon lie Richard in an earthly pit!
God save King Harry, unking’d Richard says,
And send him many years of sunshine days!

–Richard II 4.1

You see, Shakespeare and others recognized how political power was performative—was an Art, and that correlation was not lost on the Tudor elite. In his Richard II, the play includes a scene in which Richard is deposed by Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), and in the deposition scene, Richard must un-king himself. Now, such a thing was unheard of. Coronation has long existed, but kings are kings until death, at which point a new king takes the crown. One does not (typically) just stop being king.[2] But Richard is deposed, and the play imagines how one might go about un-kinging a king. As Robert Schuler has observed about the “pervasive sense of abused ceremony, sacred and secular in the play,” the result is that Richard II points to “the ‘world turned upside-down’ [nature] of Elizabethan demonology.”[3] The play caught Elizabeth’s attention, who famously observed, “I am Richard II. Know ye not that?”, and as Charles R. Forker relates, “it become increasingly common to identify her [as she aged] with Richard II.”[4] And that identification and the demonic un-kinging apparently also got the attention of the Earl of Essex’s supporters on the eve of his failed coup against Elizabeth: they commissioned a performance of Richard II, perhaps to help get them in the mood for deposing a prince. Another way to consider this commissioned performance is as a kind of model for deposing a monarch: Shakespeare had imagined how the Machiavellian Bolingbroke engineered such a deposition even as Richard himself spontaneously reverses the ritual of coronation.

I can even imagine that Essex’s supporters were engaged in outright magic—an intended, de facto ritual performance of the deposition of a Richard II-like monarch on the eve of a planned coup.

The coup failed.

Shakespeare and company were called in for questioning and managed to come out the other end without undue incident. The deposition scene from the play went unperformed for some time afterwards—it was too politically charged and dangerous a scene to perform in the aftermath. It would not be until 1608—five years into James I’s reign—when the scene would be restored as a kind of “deleted scene”: “With new additions of the Parliament Sceane, and the deposing of King Richard.”[5]

Shakespeare’s Bolingbroke is a Machiavellian prince, cannier than Richard who buys into divine right kingship, to his detriment—or at least, that’s the commonplace reading of the play’s conflict. I would argue that Richard is Machiavellian himself—his scheming in the first half of the play points to a Machiavellian-lite perspective, but he relies on the rhetoric of divine right kingship to save him. Bolingbroke relies on allies and the threat of military force to gain the crown, and he must then engage in the opening battles of the War of the Roses as he attempts to hold onto the crown.

(I find it fascinating how the sequel to this play—Henry IV, Part 1—where we meet Falstaff and Prince Hal, includes the Welsh magician Owen Glendower, but also focuses on Prince Hal’s Machiavellian magical attempt to enchant his legitimacy for the throne, using Harry Hotspur as his sacrifice.)

Other Shakespearean Princely Machiavels


Hamlet would just carry skulls around just because, like he was when he went to show up with Horatio and company to see if this “Ghost” would come around. Playing with Yorick’s skull was just normal for Hamlet. Pedro Américo’s Hamlet’s Vision (1893).


But Shakespeare often uses Stage Machiavels and Machiavellians. In Hamlet, Claudius murders his brother, Old King Hamlet, and he claims the throne by manipulating the Danish electors and by marrying Gertrude, who as the former Queen Consort to Old Hamlet arguably bridges his royal body to Claudius’s (while also alluding to Henry VIII’s own incestuous Great Matter). Hamlet works to use Machiavellianism to mask his intentions and to use art to compel Claudius into an admission of guilt, but Claudius remains one of the cannier Shakespearean Machiavellian princes.[6]

That said, you can also see how Claudius engages in a necromantic coupling. A Tudor audience would be used to Henry VIII’s and Elizabeth’s use of the rhetoric of the king’s two bodies as a strategy for legitimizing their rule as providential. A monarch was more than a mere human body and life: blood and coronation united them to a divine body politic, a divine kingly body. At the monarch’s death, that kingly body would move—like a spirit—to join with the heir. Thus, while the king may be dead, long live the (new) king. However, Hamlet seems to point to a problem where this Machiavellian theological/magical tech butts up against other models. If husband and wife are “one flesh”—and the metaphor is far more literal in the thinking of the period—then when Old King Hamlet married and consummated his marriage with Queen Gertrude, she also became one flesh with that kingly body. And we know they consummated the marriage, unlike for Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon: Hamlet is the uncontested result. However, Claudius marries and presumably consummates his marriage with Gertrude, an act that mirrors the purported incest problem for Henry-Arthur-Catherine. You can imagine how Hamlet responds the way he does about that incestuous marriage, but then the corporeal revenant of Old Hamlet (or at least something looking like him) shows up, says how his body was corrupted through Claudius’s poison. I would argue that Claudius marries Gertrude in part to gain access to the kingly body she represents a link to through her marriage to Old Hamlet, and Claudius alludes to this link and how the marriage helps him solidify his claim to the throne:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, …

Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr’d
Your [those who elected him] better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along…

While Denmark may rely on an elector system for determining the new king, the fact remains that Shakespeare’s original audience would ground their experience of the play in Tudor political theology and in Henry VIII’s Great Matter—and at that point, I think it’s fair game to say that Claudius uses necrophilic incest to gain access to “such divinity [that] doth hedge a king” from harm.

If you want to think about it from another perspective, Claudius marries into the Mighty Dead’s power, and that’s fucked up. And the porous nature of humoral bodies in the early modern period leads, I’d argue, Hamlet to wonder about the status of all the bodies that originate from that original pairing of Old Hamlet and Gertrude–that is, his own–especially given the physicality of the Ghost as his “bones, hearsed in death, / Have burst their cerements” and “the sepulchre, / … [has] cast [him] up again” so that this “dead corse, again in complete steel,” wanders Denmark and haunts his lawful son.

Perhaps more compelling, though, is what we see in Macbeth and Richard III. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both use treachery and deceit in pursuit of the throne, but they act with such cruelty that Macbeth spurs most everyone to hate him enough to act against him. Meanwhile, the true Machiavellian prince is Duncan’s son Malcolm, who avoids shows of mourning for his father for a very pragmatic question of who killed his father. Malcolm flees rather than trust to any of the nobles of Duncan’s old court, and his “test” of Macduff’s loyalties entails a Machiavellian performance of villainy that reveals how well Malcolm can imagine villainy. However, the truest demonstration of Malcolm’s Machiavellian framing of his kingship is in how he becomes the king who leads the war to depose the tyrant Macbeth—becoming the King who saved Scotland while allied with an English king with the power to cure “evil.” In this sense, Malcolm is of the same class as Richmond in Richard III. Richmond is the seemingly bland hero character who defeats Richard and acts as England’s savior. Shakespeare’s Richmond is a representation of the historical Henry VII, Elizabeth I’s grandfather. Notably, Henry’s court will work hard to create the “Tudor Myth” to help sacralize Tudor rule as providential and to represent any act of resistance, disobedience, or rebellion as satanic, as the Homily against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion made clear to church goers in Tudor England:

But as all felicity and blessedness should have continued with the continuance of obedience, so with the breach of obedience, and breaking in of rebellion, all vices and miseries did withal break in, and overwhelm the world. The first author of which rebellion, the root of all vices, and mother of all mischief, was Lucifer, first GODS most excellent creature, and most bounden subject, who by rebelling against the Majesty of God, of the brightest and most glorious angel, is become the blackest and most foulest fiend and devil: and from the height of heaven, is fallen into the pit and bottom of hell. Here you may see the first author and founder of rebellion, and the reward thereof, here you may see the grand captain and father of rebels, who persuading the following of his rebellion against God their creator and Lord, unto our first parents Adam and Eve, brought them in high displeasure with God, wrought their exile and banishment out of Paradise, a place of all pleasure and goodness, into this wretched earth and vale of misery: procured unto them, sorrows of their minds, mischief, sickness, diseases, death of their bodies, and which is far more horrible then all worldly and bodily mischief, he had wrought thereby.

Featured Image: “Henry kneels before Richard II,” by James William Edmund Doyle (1864)

[1] Alessandra Petrina, Machiavelli in the British Isles: Two Early Modern Translations of The Prince (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 4-18.

[2] There is a traditional of medieval kings who retire to the monastic life, though, but I might argue that represents a lateral move in which the king becomes a monk and emphasizes the nominal subservient position of Christian to Christ rather than un-kinging the king. The king prepares himself for the afterlife and is still nominally a king—however, the practice also points to a far more spiritual engagement on the kings’ parts, at least in senescence.

[3] Robert Schuler, “De-Coronation and Demonic Meta-Ritual in Richard II,” Exemplaria 17, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 169-214.

[4] Charles R. Forker, introduction to King Richard II, edited by Charles R. Forker (London: Thomson-Arden, 2005), 5.

[5] William Shakespeare, The Tragedie of King Richard the Second (London, 1608).

[6] Meanwhile, Hamlet certainly seems a Machiavel–albeit one working against corruption–by using theatricality to mask his interiority as he tries to work against Claudius.

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