Machiavelli’s La Mandragola and Jonson’s The Alchemist: From the Mandrake to the Philosophers’ Stone

Oseman, Arlene
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
Almost 500 years after his death, the name of Niccolò Machiavelli still has the power to incite ideas of unscrupulous self-promotion and the exercise of naked power. This notoriety is largely a consequence of the publication of a slim, history-making, conduct book, intended as a self-help manual for political leaders. On the basis of The Prince, Machiavelli is probably best-known as one of the architects of modern political science. He is also now recognized as an observant historian and noteworthy satirical playwright. But the different facets of Machiavelli as politician and creative writer cannot be compartmentalized. Rather, it is more helpful to see his various interests and occupations as being informed by a reasoned interpretation of his observations of the spectrum of relationships, personal, familial and political. I want to attempt to show how Machiavelli’s political theories informed his dramaturgical practices in portraying these different levels of relationship. Furthermore, I will try to demonstrate that this politico-artistic philosophy had a significant influence on contemporary literary practices, beyond the borders of Italy, or indeed, the continent. For instance, in England, Machiavelli’s fame – or infamy – preceded the first English translation of The Prince (1640) by more than half a century, as the name “Machiavel'? became a theatrical byword for cunning and deceit, used by English playwrights such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.
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