Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Marlowe and Machiavelli: For Your Consideration

It is not uncommon to come across scholarship pointing to the profound influence Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance political theorist, may have had upon Christopher Marlowe. For this reason, I highly recommend Irving Ribner's rather contrarian reality check, "Marlowe and Machiavelli" (Comparative Literature, Vol. 6, No. 4; Autumn, 1954). In the article, Ribner clarifies how the stage villain known as the "Machiavel," popularized in Elizabethan theatre (e.g. Barrabas in The Jew of Malta and Iago in Othello), in fact bears scant resemblance to anything Machiavelli wrote. As Ribner asserts, "Marlowe, with [Thomas] Kyd, was among the most important perpetuators of this 'pseudo-Machiavellian' burlesque stage tradition. Its relation to Machiavelli's political doctrine does not go much beyond its borrowing of the Florentine's name." Thus, maintains Ribner, we should not confuse Marlowe's use of the ruthless and sinister Machiavel in The Jew of Malta ("the model for what was to be one of the most popular stock characters of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage") with Marlowe's defense or attack of the Renaissance philosopher, for we can trace little of this evil theatrical stereotype to anything written by Machiavelli. And as Ribner reminds us regarding Barrabas, "[f]or the most part his activity involves no political decisions." Nevertheless, Ribner suggests that Marlowe viewed the Machiavel as good theatre, and with The Jew of Malta "use[d] it for all that it was worth."

Marlowe's Tamburlaine (in Part I), however, eagerly "presents . . . doctrine very close to Machiavelli's actual thought" in his attempts to master Fortune (chapter 25 of The Prince) and in his embodiment as the hero/superman lawgiver (espoused in Machiavelli's Life of Castruccio Castracani), who, according to Ribner, "can restore a corrupt state to virtue by returning it to its original principles, but who, while effecting his reforms, may rule outside of law and with complete authority." Ribner also makes an interesting point that by Part II of Tamburlaine, we can see some evidence of Marlowe's disillusionment with the Renaissance theorist, "and by the time of Edward II he appears to have abandoned almost entirely" true Machiavellian philosophy.

© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, July 2008

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Unknown said...

a nice and quick teaching session!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

good clarification. true, there's machiavellian philosophy and then there's the pseudo-mach. stereotype.