The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) was an Italian philosopher and poet who both repulsed and fascinated the psyche of Renaissance Europe. In his most famous work, Il Principe (The Prince)(1532), he set out his ideas on how the prince of a country could set out to attain power and how he might keep that power once he had secured it. Although Shakespeare’s most infamous Machiavellian character is Richard III, the model of the political schemer out to secure his own position can be detected most overtly in the characters of Iago (Othello), Edmund (King Lear), and Claudius (Hamlet), and to a lesser extent in the characters of Hamlet himself and Augustus Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra.
In the aftermath of the publication of Il Principe, both the Catholic and the newly formed Protestant Church condemned the book and it was in fact banned in Elizabethan England.  The papacy placed it on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559, but it was nevertheless read widely by the Elizabethan political class during this period. Although an English translation was not made until 1640, there were Latin, Italian, French and Spanish versions of the book in print.
As Machiavelli has proved to be both repellent and enticing, the message of his book has often been misinterpreted. The most common misreading is to suggest that Machiavelli advocates the idea that ‘The end justifies the means.’ However, as John Roe has noted, ‘Machiavelli at no point advocates the practice of evil as acceptable in itself – despite what his many detractors then and now have said; he concedes, rather, that evil sometimes has to be used.’  It is in this respect that characters such as Hamlet can be viewed as Machiavellian. Although he is not overtly evil, Hamlet is faced with the task of killing a legitimately elected monarch in order to avenge his father, with no concrete evidence, and only the word of the Ghost for proof. Furthermore, it is an example of how a skilled politician can attain power in the absence of a legal succession. In fact Hamlet would only be following in the footsteps of Claudius who is himself a Machiavellian schemer; and, for at least a portion of the play, a particularly adept one, on the grounds that he achieved a relatively quiet transition into his position of power having committed only one murder. Initially, out of all the characters in the play, only Hamlet complains of his uncle’s succession.
The characters of Edmund and Iago are perhaps more readily identifiable to the reader as Machiavellian because of the way in which they manipulate truth and virtue for their own gain. However, while the temptation is to label them as evil these figures are successful as they engage with the other characters in the way that men act, and not in they way in which they should act. Machiavelli warns that:
A man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need. 
Both Iago and Edmund are able to succeed to a large extent because they embrace these principles, which they combine with high intelligence and the ability to adapt to unexpected developments, which they can further manipulate to their benefit. Augustus Caesar is even more adept at political manoeuvring, as he ultimately secures an Empire thorough his plotting. Antony’s virtus or virtue should, in an ideal world, overcome the machinations of Caesar, but in the real world that proves not to be the case. Indeed he is warned by a soothsayer early in the play not to engage with him. ‘If thou dost play with him at any game, / Thou art sure to lose’ (2.3.24-5).
Ultimately Machiavelli was a figure who greatly influenced the minds of Renaissance thinkers. Although many of the ideas which he put forward were not original in themselves, no one had ever written such a pamphlet on how to succeed in the art of kingship. One should be careful though in adhering to the stereotype of Machiavelli as morally bankrupt however, as one can clearly see Machiavellian characteristics in both his villains and his heroes.
1. Hugh Grady, Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet
, (Oxford, 2002), p. 30 Return to text
John Roe, Shakespeare and Machiavelli
(Cambridge, 2002) p. 15 Return to text
3. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
(London, 2004), p. 65 Return to text