Shakespeare's answer to Machiavelli: The role of the Christian prince in the history plays

Stephen B Hollingshead, Marquette University


Machiavelli complains that Christianity makes men feeble, incapable of following the Romans in search of worldly glory. Christianity, he says, disposes men to suffer the domination of tyrants. Shakespeare rebuffs this challenge by showing that Machiavelli's prince is no antidote to the plague of perennial vendettas fought in the name of justice and honor. Shakespeare shows that this political disease can only be cured by the Christian virtue of mercy. He thus rebuts both Machiavelli's project and the Tudor doctrine of non-resistance, embracing instead the perfection of the classical virtues in Christianity. In the first tetralogy the desire of both factions to punish their enemies' injustices creates a seemingly irreconcilable conflict, which York claims he can resolve. But Shakespeare shows the culmination of York's Machiavellian consequentialism in the monstrous Richard III. Richard II undermines his own authority and justifies his own deposition by substituting his will for law. But Bolingbroke's murder of Richard begins a cycle of revenge that manifests the problem of whole-hearted commitment to justice as the principle human virtue. In 1 Henry IV Henry Monmouth learns the folly of his Machiavellian stratagem to win glory by creating the appearance of virtue. He learns that the only way to unify the political community is to overlook the faults of her subjects in order to foster merit in them. Shakespeare thus argues that the Christian virtue of mercy is the essential kingly virtue. In 2 Henry IV Prince Henry makes another effort to help Falstaff reform, but is forced to abandon the unrepentant knight to restore respect for the law. Henry V demonstrates an appreciation of the importance of appearances which accords with Machiavelli's teaching, but transcends Machiavelli's intent. Henry learns to use ceremony to inculcate virtue--not a Machiavellian conclusion, but one which makes use of a truth distilled from Machiavelli's powerful political calculus. Thus, Shakespeare rejects Machiavelli's consequentialism and repels his attack on Christianity by affirming the goodness of the classical virtues and their perfection in Christianity. But in rejecting Machiavelli's project, Shakespeare shows that he has nevertheless learned from Machiavelli's description of political reality.

Recommended Citation

Hollingshead, Stephen B, "Shakespeare's answer to Machiavelli: The role of the Christian prince in the history plays" (1996). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9634267.