Although the five-act comedy was published in and first performed in the carnival season of , Machiavelli likely wrote The Mandrake in as a distraction from his bitterness at having been excluded from the diplomatic and political life of Florence following the reversion to Medici rule. Some scholars read the play as an overt critique of the House of Medici; and some scholars assert that the play is a mirror to his political treatises. The Mandrake takes place over a hour period. The protagonist, Callimaco, desires to sleep with Lucrezia, the young and beautiful wife of an elderly fool, Nicia. Nicia above all else desires a son and heir, but still has none.
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Summary of Machiavelli's La Mandragola. Arguably one of Machiavelli's finest works, Mandragola is a comedy that offers an in-depth look into the world of Machiavelli. The play's action takes place in the span of 24 hrs.
It is the story of Callimaco, a young Florentine who lived in Paris for 20 years. One day he overheard a fellow Florentine tell the Parisians about a woman of extraordinary beauty back in Tuscany. Compelled to see her for himself, Callimaco returned to his native land.
Once he saw her beauty he was determined to have her. There are several problems to his plan however. The first is that the woman, Lucrezia, is married and the second that her virtue seems above reproach.
Callimaco enlisted the help of Ligurio, a rascally marriage broker who had had dealings with Lucrezia and her husband, Nicia. Using his skills at arranging things, Ligurio devises plans to allow Callimaco to have his moment of bliss with Lucrezia. Pretending to be a doctor, Callimaco assures Nicia, whom is without the heir that he so desperately wants, that the ingestion of a potion made from the mandrake root will result in pregnancy.
Nicia accepts the advice, complete with the consequence that the first man to sleep with the woman who takes the potion will die the next day. With Nicia's money, Ligurio and Callimaco enlist the help of the friar. Frate Timoteo convinces the unwilling Lucrezia that it would be best to take the potion and sleep with another man at first, so that he might draw out the poison.
Though her conscience is heavy, she accepts the advice of her confessor and the reassurance of her mother. Nicia is persuaded to capture a young man Callimaco in disguise in the street at night and bring him in to take upon himself the fatal effects of the drug. The affair goes according to plan: Callimaco gets his night with the lovely Lucrezia and Nicia will have his heir. Nicia, however, is ignorant to the fact that the potion was simply a ploy to allow another man to sleep with his wife.
Worse yet for Nicia, he is also unaware of the fact that this plot was revealed to his wife the morning after and she has happily accepted Callimaco as her lover. The play is believed to have been first performed in , and most historians believe it was composed between and It was a tremendous hit at the time, mainly for its comedic qualities.
However, it may be what lies under the surface of the play that makes it a real masterpiece. One of the main themes in the comedy is the use of fraud, as none of the characters' objectives could be accomplished without it. Machiavelli makes it clear that fraud is acceptable, so long as it furthers a worthwhile cause.
In Mandragola, almost every character uses fraud. Nicia is the obvious example of Callimaco and Ligurio's trickery. From the beginning of Act I, we see their plans to take advantage of Nicia and Lucrezia's desire to have an heir, as well as Nicia's stupidity.
The first plan is to convince Nicia to take Lucrezia to the baths so that Callimaco might catch her attention and gain her love. Nicia believes that this is sound medical advice and, though reluctantly, persuades his wife to go along with the plan. When the plan is changed, Nicia again goes along with the new plan. Throughout the whole play, down to the very last scene, someone is tricking Nicia. Even his wife, the only seemingly virtuous character at the beginning, at the end has taken advantage of his stupidity and her situation and plans on fooling him with her affair with Callimaco.
Lucrezia is also the victim of fraud. Like Nicia, everyone is plotting against her. She is led to believe, with her husband, that the root potion is a sure means to a child.
Against her moral objections, she agrees, but only as a result of intense persuasion by her mother and Frate Timoteo.
Though for the most part Sostrata herself is innocent of fraud, it can be argued that she was not very concerned about whether the arrangement was fraudulent or not. She is willing to convince her daughter to do whatever is necessary to achieve her means, which is classically Machiavellian. One of the most ironic figures to be guilty of fraud, yet nonetheless one of the most guilty, is Frate Timoteo. Ligurio and Callimaco believe that they are fooling the priest, but Timoteo is shrewd enough to see through their plan and make sure he benefits as well.
He is also a willing partner in the fraud over Lucrezia. He knows what he is convincing her to do to sleep with a man other than Nicia and relies on her trust in him as her confessor to persuade her. More interested in the monetary gains for himself, he casts aside any moral obligations to end the deception.
The plot revolves around which character is shrewder than the next. Each person is driven by their desires: Nicia by his desire to have an heir, Ligurio to get some kind of profit out of the deal, Callimaco to get the girl, Sostrata to have a grandchild, Lucrezia to have a child and follow the will of God, and Timoteo to make a profit by being shrewder than everyone else.
In order to fulfill their desires, the characters use cunning and deception. The only exception to this is Lucrezia at the beginning of the play. However, when Callimaco reveals the trickery to her, she uses her own deception to attain her desires for a new, young lover. The end of the play is a happy ending, as all characters are satisfied with the new arrangement: Callimaco has the object of his desire whenever he wants, Ligurio has a place to stay and eat, Nicia will no doubt have an heir, Lucrezia has a new love, and Timoteo has his money and the satisfaction of knowing that he outsmarted everyone else.
The fact that all this deception has turned into a happy, peaceful state shows an interesting view of Machiavelli's world. This says that fraud is acceptable when it attains positive ends. In fact, as long as the results are pleasing to someone, it appears that fraud is a valid means of attaining them.
As the friar remarks, "in all things one must look to the result. In Mandragola, fraud prevails over force, in this case the forces of religion and intelligence. In the latter, it is no large feat, because of the stupidity of Messer Nicia.
He is easily persuaded, even though it seems unlikely that any other lawyer would have bought the ridiculous ploy. However, fraud prevailing over religion and morals seems to be the main theme Machiavelli wants to address. In the case of the Friar, with some ducats he is easily persuaded as well, even though to the reader it seems that he should be the hardest to persuade. It is likely that when the play was first performed, the scenario of the contemptible priest was very amusing as a commentary on the current state of affairs in Florence, which will be addressed later.
Although he is not fully aware of the whole plot, Timoteo knows that Ligurio and Callimaco are tricking him, and he is not morally above taking advantage of the situation. The same applies for his involvement in the convincing of Lucrezia. Deception and greed win over morality and Christian virtue. How and why Ligurio and Callimaco succeed despite of Lucrezia's virtue helps to reveal the structure of the play and the nature of Machiavelli's world.
Everyone achieves their respective goals by taking advantage of each other's desires. Machiavelli makes it clear that this is not only acceptable, but also the desired ending, judging from the rejuvenated characters at the end. To better understand Machiavelli's reliance on fraud in his works, one could look to his other main dramatic work, Clizia. Based closely upon a Roman comedy by Plautus, the action in Clizia revolves around a family torn apart by the father and son's love of a young girl.
The girl, who has lived in the family's house for many years and been brought up under their care, has become beautiful and desirable to the son. However, the son, Cleander, finds himself threatened by a rival for Clizia's love.
That rival is none other than his father, Nicomaco. Everyone in the household knows about the father's infatuation with Clizia, including his wife Soforina.
Nicomaco designs a plan to quickly marry off Clizia to his servant so that he can sleep with her himself. Echoing the contempt for religion and disregard for moral standards seen in Mandragola, Nicomaco believes that it is too scandalous to sleep with Clizia before she is married. His family sees right through his plan, however. Cleander, realizing that this is his father's plan, argues that if she must marry, Clizia should marry another servant, with whom Nicomaco would not be able to share her.
In this comedy, each family member tries to trick the other, and there are several tricks going on at once. In the end, it is the father who loses. On the night of the wedding of Clizia to the servant he chose, Nicomaco devises a plan to sneak into her bed and pretend he is the young groom. However, he is shocked and humiliated when he finds the next morning that in the place of the beautiful bride is actually another male servant who had been thwarting Nicomaco's advances all night.
For the time being, the wife is the victor. In this play, as well as in Mandragola, in influencing the outcome of human affairs, wit or fraud counts more than force. Yet another example of this can be found in Machiavelli's novella, Belfagor, the Devil Who Took a Wife, a wonderful window into Machiavelli's relationship with women.
In Belfagor, a man outsmarts a devil that came to earth to discover if wives really were the cause of the many male entrants into Hell.
Gianmatteo hides Belfagor when he is running from the authorities and creditors of Florence for the wife he took ran him into debt in return for specific instructions on how Belfagor will make him rich.
When Gianmatteo later overstepped the bounds of the instructions, Belfagor promised to kill him. But Gianmatteo drove the demon back to Hell by scaring him into believing that his wife was coming to find him. This novella joins the two former works in the theme of the superiority of wit, which mirrors Machiavelli's ideas in the Prince. As Timoteo says, Clizia and Belfagor reinforce Machiavelli's belief that "one must consider the final result.
The question of whether Mandragola should be read strictly as a comedy or whether Machiavelli wrote it as an allegory is a source of much disagreement. In the preface to his translation, Peter Bondanella writes that "although some critics have attempted to reduce this marvelous comedy to the status of a political allegory…none of Machiavelli's contemporaries i.
However, many writers disagree, stating that the similarities of the characters are too striking to personalities in Machiavelli's Florence to ignore. Theodore Sumberg, in his La Mandragola: An Interpretation, offers a comprehensive analysis of the play as an allegory. Machiavelli proved himself time and time again to be a witty, satirical writer. A quick look to any number of his works, including Belfagor, or his personal letters reveals a storyteller with a great deal to say, and a clever way of saying it.
The play was written during the worst years of Machiavelli's life. He was ousted from Florentine politics and spends his days unhappily on a farm. In one letter to Francesco Vettori, Machiavelli describes his situation as "having been cooped up among these lice, I get the mold out of my brain and let out the malice of my fate, content to be ridden roughshod in this fashion if only to discover whether or not my fate is ashamed of treating me so. The time period in which Machiavelli wrote Mandragola was a period of drastic change for Florence.