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Machiavellianism, real and romantic, on the Elizabethan stage

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Title: Machiavellianism, real and romantic, on the Elizabethan stage
Author: Ferneyhough, Beatrice Christina
Degree Master of Arts - MA
Program English
Copyright Date: 1953
Subject Keywords English drama -- Early modern and Elizabethan
Abstract: The Machiavellian villain has long been the subject of discussion among critics of the Elizabethan drama. This essay attempts to analyse with some precision evidence from history and the drama of the relationship of the literary to the real political figure. It attempts to indicate the answer to the questions: In what way does the sinister stage personality symbolize the real experience of the Elizabethans ? What is the relationship of this character to that of the prince delineated by Machiavelli ? Niccolo Machiavelli, whose name has been attached to the typical sixteenth century unscrupulous and diabolically cunning cloak and dagger murderer and politician was in fact the founder of modern political science. He was a responsible and esteemed servant of the foremost city state of his time in Italy, and his theses on princely rule and on the principles underlying republican government have established themselves as texts in the courses of universities. It would appear, then, that the Machiavellian of the Elizabethan stage requires some explaining. An examination of the history of English government during the late fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries reveals that the practice of the kings and chief ministers of England was governed by the precepts on power that Machiavelli so brilliantly set forth in his writings; and investigation of the popular reaction to the practices he exposed makes clear that it took a sharp turn toward the close of the sixteenth century, when the bogey of Machiavellian villainy asserted Itself in England, appearing in its most spectacular form in the plays of the last two decades of that century and the first decade of the seventeenth. It becomes apparent from a consideration of the facts of history and of the record of public opinion that the Machiavellian villain epitomized the fear of the ambitious Individual experienced by a despotism faced on two sides by a threat to its claim to absolute power; and that the menace that threatened the Tudors from the reactionary nobility on the one hand and from the upstart merchant aristocracy on the other found dramatic expression in the extravagant, ruthless, self-seeking villain who inevitably was characterized by the name of the theoretician of that absolute princely rule by which alone the confusions of the end of the medieval era could be resolved into a new and more advanced order of society. Such paradoxes are not unknown in history. The great dramas of Elizabethan England present not only the Machiavellian Barabas, the prototype for all subsequent villains in the cloak and dagger tradition, they present al so such figures as Richard, Duke of York, Henry IV, Henry V and the brilliant dialogue of Volumnia In Coriolanus, proofs, every one of them, that the sound political science of Machiavelli upon which the Tudor monarchs built their institutions and formulated their laws also reached the people through the stage, although these latter characterizations were not associated with the name of Machiavelli. The conclusion arrived at from a careful examination of a selected number of plays by Marlowe, Jonson and Shakespeare is that the true Machiavellian prince was most effectively represented in drama by the great princes in the historical plays of Shakespeare, and particularly in the figure of Henry V in the play of that name; and that the essence of the Machiavellian thesis on The Prince was poetically most succinctly and explicitly phrased in the dialogue of Volumnla in Coriolanus.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/2429/40725
Series/Report no. UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project [http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/retro_theses/]
Scholarly Level: Graduate

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