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Machiavellian Themes in Shakespeare

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    William Shakespeare has stood the test of time and will likely remain as the most celebrated playwright of the English language for centuries to come. His works encompass political, social, economic, and moral lessons that all rely on the intricacy of language and dialogue to produce fascinating situations. This is part one of a sample essay on "The Merchant of Venice", one of Shakespeare's plays that focuses on a social commentary of English society at the time.

    Introduction to Shakespeare

    Shakespeare’s plays endure in relevance as brilliant pieces of art beautifully capturing moments in time with underlying social commentary and relevance - even centuries later. “The Merchant of Venice” captures the moment in Elizabethan history where the emergence of a more commerce centered economy brought into the social structure a challenge to long held Elizabethan social traditions.

    Additionally, ideas of government and its involvement in mitigating economic disputes brings relevance to evaluating the themes of the play in a more political context. Although most Shakespearean plays deal with nobility, this play shows the role of government as a vehicle for resolving economic disputes. An interesting lens to view this play is the philosophy of Machiavelli and his thoughts on the use of power by individuals and institutions. Each character in this play represents a Machiavellian attribute including cunning, derision, and dominance.  This essay explores Machiavellian themes throughout the play. Analysis goes both ways: Machiavelli is a lens to evaluate the play, but also the play is a lens to evaluate Machiavelli. 

    Conduct in personal and business affairs

    Considering one Machiavellian induces a certain idea of how that person conducts their personal and business affairs. The term is coined out of Machiavelli’s principle work, “The Prince”, where Machiavelli analyzes the principles of government whereby power is the ultimate commodity supplanting morality focused on using craft and deceit to maintain authority. Someone who is “Machiavellian” uses often subtle cunning, deception, and dishonesty to the ultimate end of maintaining power for power’s sake.

    “According to Machiavelli, a ruler with a clear agenda should be open to any and all effective tactics, including manipulative interpersonal strategies such as flattery and lying”  (Leary 93).

    Enjoying this blog? Check out our blog on this comedy by Shakespeare, too!

    As Leary notes the ends justify the means and the Machiavellian ends are always having power regardless of the emotional or moral costs. Further, Machiavellians are associated with high emotional intelligence and mind reading”(Leary 94). The intelligence of the Machiavellian is critical to their successful pursuit of power. Manipulation requires and understanding and manipulation of the characters involved in the game of political chess. Any interaction among individuals could be considered a political interaction as the use and response to power is usually engaged. These precepts of the Machiavellian ethical paradigm are present in varying degrees in the main characters of Shakespeare's, “The Merchant of Venice”. 

    Motivations, emotions, and intentions

    Analyzing the motivations, emotions, and intents as portrayed by each character elucidates an interesting facet of each of the characteristics of a Machiavellian person. The conflict among the characters of the play surround concerns over money, position, the role of law, and the moral ambiguity of Christians and Jews. The connections between Machiavelli and “The Merchant of Venice” makes this one of Shakespeare’s most political plays. Differing from other Shakespearean works which often include nobility, this play focuses on the moral challenges faced with social constructs of the Elizabethan era, the tension between the sin of usury in the Christian faith in contrast to usury in Judaism.

    Also, the rule of law is considered heavily in this play as a place to resolve disputes. In essence the play is about money, power, and the law.  The conflict and tension of these tenets are weight on each character, but each character responds differently. This is consistent with the human condition and is so often the case of any individual trying to reconcile social mores with personal desires. Taking each character in turn, each character presents their moral conundrum as they struggle for power.

    Related reading: Read more about Macbeth, another popular Shakespearean play with similar themes.

    Considering Antonio, the merchant himself, suffers from an unidentified sadness. It is opined that he is, “Suffering constant unrest because of unrequited love” (Mahon 354). This is Antonio’s love for Bassiano. It further appears that Antonio’s passionate anti-Semitism motivates him to pressure Shylock to convert to Christianity. Antonio is wealthy, but his wealth is engaged in overseas trade. Antonio is manipulated by Bassaino who attempts to woo Portia. However, Bassaino is not a man of wealth and secures a loan from Skylock. Shylock agrees to a loan but Bassaino has no collateral. Bassaino manipulates Antonio into guaranteeing the loan with a, “Pound of flesh” should the debt go unpaid. This turn of events elucidates the role of money and manipulation and presents Bassaino’s Machiavellian traits. 

    Money and manipulation in The Merchant of Venice

    Bassaino uses the affections of Antonio to secure a loan so that Bassaino may present himself as a man of wealth worthy of courtship of Portia. Antonio requites because he fears losing the company of Bassaino.

    “Pray god, Bassanio come /To see me pay his debt, and then I care not!” (III.iii.36-37).

    Although he does care as Engle points out, “Antonio’s initiative and pervading melancholy are a result of both love concerns and money concerns, which are equated throughout the play (Engle 21-22). Antonio guarantees Skylocks loan with a literal pound of flesh to Shylock. The symbolism of this is that Antonio is willing to give of his very body for the perceived good. This act binds Antonio and Bassanio forever, something Antonio long for and Bassanio abuses as a means to another end, to woo Portia.   

    Portia is highly constrained with her station in Elizabethan society and is heavily influenced by her dying father. Portia is most concerned by her future as position as a wife to whoever she marries, not so much by who she marries for his own sake (Slights 129-30). Marriage to her is a political contract and she’s more concerned with how her position will change depending on the man she marries. As a tool of manipulation her father instills a game whereby a suitor must select the correct casket among three to chose from. Portia doesn’t appreciate being played and would be, “Happy to remain unmarried thanks to the intimidation of her father’s casket game”(I.ii.95-99).

    Although she is somewhat a pawn, she is able to use her cunning to influence others (but not enough to be a true antagonist). She, “Uses her role as a bond maker to lever herself into a position of power over people” (Mahon 345). Portia’s is resourceful in a surprising way by using and manipulating the rules of society and law without breaking them. “When giving herself in marriage, she makes herself the more generous and thus more dignified and more powerful, just as she did in the case of the bond” (Newman 26). She’s able to resolve conflicts among the other characters with her wit and intelligence while maintaining the proper role for women of her station and this time in history. With only a brief departure as concealing her gender to during the legal proceeding Portia uses the rules and mores in her favor, always with a keen eye ensuring she is in power. Her cunning and ability to see the big picture is a foil for Shylock who appears to be single minded.

    Additional readingKing Lear (also by Shakespeare) explores the same theme of the struggle for money in Renaissance society.

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