Brianna Nicia (the lawyer) believe are helping him

Brianna BraxtonProfessor Stefano AlbertiniMachiavelli14 December 2017Machiavelli the Comedian    When someone speaks of the Roman influence on the work of Niccolo Machiavelli, the immediate assumption might be that they are speaking of the influence of the Romans on his politics. The political work of Machiavelli is fraught with references to important Roman leaders and the concepts which he details are often greatly reminiscent of Roman political philosophy.Thus, it is quite simple to see how one might pay close attention to Machiavelli’s  political models, disregarding the very evident and tangible models for his literature in the process. This trap leads the observer to limit their own view of Machiavelli, for while it is important to understand the politics behind the man, it is arguably equally important to understand the literature.    As a political writer, Machiavelli is best known for “The Prince”; as a playwrite, “The Mandrake Root”. Though somewhat similar in content under close scrutiny, “The Mandrake Root,” the ultimate representation of Machiavelli’s dramatic work, is often overshadowed/silenced by the legacy of “The Prince”. “The Mandrake Root” details the humorous and, in many instances, indecent story of Callimaco, who, with the help of “advisor” and collaborator Ligurio, schemes to go to bed with a lawyer’s saintly wife. Together Callimaco and Ligurio, who Messer Nicia (the lawyer) believe are helping him get his wife pregnant (by helping him get another man to have sex with his wife under the false pretense it will cure her of her infertility and the other man will die) manage to employ the help of the wife’s mother and priest, ultimately succeeding in the end. The plot is ridiculous – as Callimaco hasn’t even seen but heard of the woman before deciding he is in love with her – and morally destitute. It is in similar to Machiavelli’s vely vulgar private letter to his good friend Luigi Gucciardini, describing a (possibly fictitious) sexual encounter between himself and a woman he finds grotesque, but, in relation to works like “The Prince” and “The Discourses” seems like it could have been from a completely different writer altogether. Further, “The Mandrake Root”, in its structural and thematic formation, appears to agree with the conventions of a genre popularized centuries before its genesis and attributed greatly to the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus.    Plautus is considered the first (oldest surviving) playwright of the Roman Republic and the progenitor of the genre of Roman Comedy. He is said to have studied Greek drama, and much of the genre he pioneered holds resemblance to Greek New Comedy and Atellan Farce. Roman Comedy is characterized by specific rule sets created by and seen throughout the work of Plautus and others of his time. Perhaps most well known is the implementation of stock characters within the comedy. Roman stock characters are static and archetypal figures who recur in different plays by the same playwrights, and different plays by varying playwrights as well. They are essentially guidelines for character creation, such that one sees the same archetypal figure from story to story with the only variations being name and the situations they are faced with. Similarly, one will see certain themes and techniques reappear when examining different Roman comedies . Plautus created these with a specific vision in mind, one which deviates from contemporary beliefs and which certainly struck accord with Machiavelli.    In “The Mandrake Root,” Machiavelli’s faithfulness to Plautus is glaring, though the ways in which Machiavelli, at times, departs from and even expands upon these conventions is quite evident as well. In regards to Roman stock characters, a prime example of this in Machiavelli is Lucrezia. Lucrezia can be assigned the role of the virgo, who is desired and sought after by the story’s “hero”. Lucrezia is built to be the most moral and pure character in the play, as explicated by several others throughout as well as through her own words and actions. Much like any typical virgo, the other characters play on Lucrezia’s innocence to get their way; Brother Timoteo states, “there will probably be difficulties, since Madonna Lucrezia is clever and kind, but I shall play on her kindness” (Machiavelli 3.9.458). This discussion of Lucrezia obviously invokes the way in which a virgo-type character is fooled and manipulated by others, her virtuous characteristics played upon in the scheme for others to get what they want out of her. Yet, it also says something about Lucrezia that suggests she is not as archetypal as expected. As stated by Timoteo and earlier in the play by Callimaco, Lucrezia is regarded not only as righteous and pure, but as intelligent as well. She is far more prudent and questioning and far less naive than the typical virgo, who is generally very submissive and hardly, if at all, resistant. Upon hearing of the plan to impregnate her, she states, “I’ve always been afraid that Nicia’s desire to have children would get us into trouble; because of this, I am always suspicious whenever he comes up with a new scheme… But of all things he’s dreamed up, this is the strangest, to submit my body to this outrage, to be the cause of a man’s death because of such a disgrace. If I were the last woman on earth and the future depended on me, I don’t think I could go through with it” (Machiavelli 3.10.458). Not only does the reader see from this Lucrezia’s moral astuteness, but the power she holds and her intellect as well; she is powerful in that she has the right to decide, and she is intelligent in that she knows she has that decision in the first place. She is also not easily swayed, and even when she does, in the end, submit to Callimaco as a result of her virtue and devotion to God, it is still in part due to reason and free will. In her letter to Callimaco, which he reads aloud to Ligurio, she says, “since your cunning, the stupidity of my husband, the unscrupulousness of my mother, and the evil nature of my confessor have made me do what I would never have done on my own, I shall have to believe it is some divine power that causes me to act in this way” (Machiavelli 5.4.476). It can be begotten that she does not give in simply because she is naive; she gives in as a result of a mental process, as religion-saturated as it is. She still recognizes everyone for who they truly are, as she explicates in the letter, though this only aids in her submission in the end. Lucrezia, though perhaps the most significant in this discussion of conventional and unconventional, is certainly not the only character to exhibit likeness to Roman stock. Callimaco can be regarded the adulescens, the hero of the story who is foolishly in love with the virgo and vies for her heart though he is often distracted and/or thwarted by his own love blindedness*. The adulescens is often reluctant and lacking in courage, which can be easily seen in Callimaco during his several fits of nervousness and panic concerning the plot to get Lucrezia. Further the adulescens never quite accomplishes anything on his own, rather turning to the servus callidus for aid in his efforts.  Ligurio is a prime example of the servus callidus, a shrewd servant who is essentially the mastermind behind the entire scheme. Ligurio is an “advisor” (of sorts) to Nicia, though he deceives him to give Callimaco what he wants as he is supremely faithful to Callimaco; this is a staple characteristic of the servus callidus, typically owned by another but above all on the side of the adulescens*. Callimaco and Ligurio, as well as all others in the play, show little nuance or deviation from these assigned roles, adhering precisely to Plautus’ early system of character development.    The play is bountiful with agreeances to Roman thematic plot conventions. As aforementioned, we see the concept of the two lovers forced apart played out through Lucrezia and Callimaco (due to her being married). This concept is a bit complicated in that Lucrezia does not know of this, or of Callimaco, until the very end of the story and the idea that they are meant to be together derives chiefly from Callimaco’s head. Also typical is the reversal of hierarchical roles, best seen in Ligurio and Nicia; though Nicia is Ligurio’s superior, he takes orders from Ligurio throughout the play and is very much under his influence. Moreover, Ligurio is the one who devises the very intricate scheme to get Lucrezia, another theme and a critical distinction in the development of the servus callidus archetype. We also see two very common techniques employed in early Roman comedy used in “The Mandrake Root”: “comic irony” and “breaking the fourth wall”. The irony derives from the audience/reader knowing something that someone on the stage does not, which is in this case Nicia, whose ignorance throughout is the main source of humor. There are several instances in which characters throughout the play “break the fourth wall”, usually during a monologue or when they are detailing what one might assume to be their inner thoughts, and leading back into dialogue with the mention of someone entering. For example, Brother Timoteo interrupts his own monologue regarding his role  in the plot by saying, “here Lucrezia is with his mother – who is really capable of anything. She will be of use to me in convincing her daughter” (Machiavelli 3. 8. 458). This specific instance sounds much more like he is addressing the audience than himself, imparting on the viewer and/or the reader his thoughts much more than just thinking them, though this is mere speculation. A more concrete example is the end, when Timoteo directly addresses the audience by saying, “you in the audience – don’t wait for us to come out this time,” acknowledging the audience as participants/observers of the story and thus penetrating the imaginary wall which separates reality from the imagined in accordance with Roman comedic tradition.     It is also notable to discuss the intentions and common beliefs regarding theater shared by Machiavelli and Plautus. Plautus is known for creating plays for mere entertainment and with no motivation to teach or invoke emotion into his audience. Machiavelli echoes this sentiment, remarking in the prologue of Clizia – “a play directly inspired by Plautus,” according to literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly – that, “comedies exist to benefit and to please the audience. It is certainly very helpful for anyone, and especially for young men, to observe an old man’s avarice, a lover’s madness, a servant’s tricks, a parasite’s gluttony, a poor man’s distress, a rich man’s ambition, a harlot’s flatteries, all men’s unreliability. Comedies are full of instances of these… But if comedies are to give pleasure, they must incite the audience to laughter, which cannot be done if they keep their language serious and solemn, for the words that cause laughter are either stupid, or biting, or amorous” (Machiavelli 823), in such referencing and confirming his knowledge of the prime Roman stock characters as well. In the works of Plautus and the works of Machiavelli, neither playwright shies away from the use of crude humor and vulgar language with intention of shocking and humoring their audience. There are rarely – if ever – lessons to be learned or overarching messages for the audience to reflect on. What is presented is, as stated in the prologue of The Mandrake Root, meant to be taken at face value rather than examined with a closer eye. However, while Machiavelli does explicate this both in Clizia and in The Mandrake Root, if one does examine his work for deeper meaning, they may find political undertones uncommon to Plautus’ very simple and plain style, and similar to what is said in writings like “The Prince” and “The Discourses”. An example is Machiavelli’s discussion of advisors in “The Prince,” of whom a prince should be wary (Machiavelli 154); Ligurio may be viewed as an advisor to Nicia in this way, and we see that he cannot be trusted as he betrays his “master.” Thus, despite Machiavelli’s insistence that there needn’t be any political contemplation of The Mandrake Root, the interpretations exist and are worthy of one’s scrutiny in order to understand the relation of his literary and political pursuits.    It is important to acknowledge that Machiavelli is not the only to borrow from the style of Plautus, though he is perhaps the forebear of this tradition. Commedia dell’arte, a style of theater popularized in 16th century Italy, rose to prominence following the publication of The Mandrake Root in 1524. Commedia dell’arte is known for its use of ancient dramatic technique, including stock characters, simple and appalling language, and ironic circumstances. The Mandrake Root is said to have given birth to this modernized take on Plautus’ conventions, Machiavelli the agent in connecting the work of the early ages to the then present, and paving the way for the likes of Shakespeare. Though less credited for this dramatic works, Machiavelli is considered by many an innovator of modern European theater, and, in observing Roman influence on Machiavellian comedy, one may see how Machiavelli both refers to the greats of the past while also enhancing ancient tradition and subtly intertwining political subtext.