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Leicester Special Collections

Machiavelli

 Machiavel's The Prince

Front page of an edition of Machiavelli's discourses of Titus Livius along with The Prince and other annotations. Translated into English by Edward Dacres. 1674.

Montaigne was not the only European to leave his impressions on Shakespeare’s writing. There is so far no way of ascertaining that he read Machiavelli’s The Prince, published in 1532. Nevertheless, the ideas conveyed in the book were certainly hotly debated both in Italy and in England and are likely to have influenced Shakespeare when writing Richard III.  

Richard is the dramatic embodiment of the idea that cruel actions are sometimes necessary to achieve and maintain power. The clear conflict between such philosophical and political ideas and the prevailing Christian ethical and moral principles, as well as the notion that monarchs were the representatives of God on earth, led to the demonization of Machiavelli himself and the inclusion of The Prince in the Index  – the Vatican’s list of forbidden texts – in 1559.

In Protestant England, however, the text circulated in educated circles and was certainly read and debated. What is generally overseen is that one of the most important premises of Machiavellian thought is that systematic cruelty and tyranny will certainly lead to the rulers’ demise. The characters of Richard III and Macbeth failed to understand that. Shakespeare did not.