Shakespeare’s Machiavellians

Dr. Michael Bryson



COURSE DESCRIPTION: In Shakespeare’s time the threat of political chaos was often personified in the figure of the stage-Machiavel. This kind of figure is portrayed as being capable of any and all nefarious schemes and duplicitous actions. Elizabethans held a notion of the Machiavel as a soulless creature dedicated to endless manipulation, betrayal, and violence as means to power and advantage (not, of course, that such tactics were wholly unfamiliar in England). The question this course will ask, is how different are the tactics (both onstage and in the realm of “real life”) of the Machiavel from those of the King? Are Shakespeare’s Kings also Shakespeare’s Machiavellians?

This course will begin with a look at the works of Machiavelli himself, then move on to the stage Machiavel tradition, starting with Lorenzo, the "Machiavel" of Thomas Kyd’s 1592 play, The Spanish Tragedy, and moving through such Shakespeare plays as Othello, Hamlet, Richard II, Henry IV (1&2), Henry V, and Richard III.

EVALUATION METHOD: Midterm paper (5-7 pages), a final paper (8-10 pages), class participation.

ASSIGNMENTS: Two essays, as noted above, will be required. The first will be an analysis of a character or characters from one (or more) of the plays in terms of the concepts found in Machiavelli's The Prince. This essay will be due at the end of week 5. The second essay will include other historical sources (primarily contemporary to Shakespeare). This essay will be due Friday noon of finals week. A more detailed description of this essay may be found here.


Week 1: Introductions. The Prince: Machiavelli in 16th-century Italian politics. Ruling power by Human or Divine right? The “stage-Machiavel”: medieval Vice meets realpolitik on the gleeful confessional of the Elizabethan stage.

Week 2: The Spanish Tragedy. Lorenzo: The Machiavel as Catholic prince.

Week 3: Othello. Iago: The Machiavel as Venetian soldier. See the handout on contemporary debates on the nature of women.

Week 4: Hamlet. Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, and well…nearly everyone else in the play (maybe even Ophelia…): Is Hamlet Shakespeare’s ultimate Machiavel?

Week 5: Richard II. Richard and Henry: Kingship by divine right or by strength of arms? Henry Bolingbroke as English Machiavel.

Week 6: Henry IV part 1. Prince Hal: The politics of appearance and reality (but which is which?).

Week 7: Henry IV part 2. Prince Hal: Bargains and betrayals as means to power.

Week 8: Henry V. King Henry: The staging of heroism and leadership. Power as performance.

Week 9: Richard III. Richard: The medieval Vice as King.

(All books will be available at the Norris Center Bookstore.)  

Machiavelli--The Prince
Shakespeare--Othello, Hamlet, Richard II, Henry IV parts 1&2, Henry V, Richard III
Thomas Kyd--The Spanish Tragedy
Tim Spiekerman--Shakespeare's Political Realism