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Malcolm The Machiavellian Ruler Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4880 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Reaction to The Prince was initially-but only briefly-favorable; Catherine de Medici is said to have enthusiastically included it among other of Machiavelli’s writings in the educational curriculum of her children. However, within a short time the book fell into widespread disfavor, becoming viewed as a handbook for atheistic tyranny. The Prince, as well as some of Machiavelli’s other writings, were placed in the Papal Index of Prohibited Books in 1559 [1] . According to Discours sur les moyens de bien gouverner et maintenir en paix un royause, ou autre principaute. Contre Nicolas Machiavel, florentin [2] , by Innocenzo Gentillet in France, The Prince was held responsible for French political corruption and for widespread contribution to any number of political and moral vices. Gentillet’s interpretation of The Prince as advocating statecraft by ruthlessness and amoral duplicity was disseminated throughout Britain through the works of such popular, highly influential dramatists as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. In the Prologue to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, “Machevil” addresses the audience at length, at one point encapsulating the Elizabethan perception of Machiavelli by saying, “I count religion but a childish toy, / And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” Here and in the works of Marlowe’s contemporaries, Machiavelli was depicted as an agent of all that Protestant England despised in Catholic, High-Renaissance Italy.

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Rarely, until the nineteenth century, did mention of The Prince elicit anything other than unfounded and largely unexamined repugnance, much less encourage objective scrutiny of its actual issues. Machiavelli has been called the founder of empirical political science, primarily on the strength of the Discourses and The Prince. Taken in historical perspective, it is understandable that The Prince should have surpassed Machiavelli’s other works; for with this slim treatise the author confronted the ramifications of power when its procurement and exercise were notably peremptory-not only in his own country but throughout Europe as well. Commentators have come to weigh the integrity of Machiavelli’s controversial thought against the pressing political conditions which formed it. Some, like Roberto Ridolfi, have endeavored through their studies to dislodge the long-standing perception of Machiavelli as a ruthless character: “In judging Machiavelli one must… take account of his anguished despair of virtue and his tragic sense of evil…. [On] the basis of sentences taken out of context and of outward appearances he was judged a cold and cynical man, a sneerer at religion and virtue; but in fact there is hardly a page of his writing and certainly no action of life that does not show him to be passionate, generous, ardent and basically religious” (Ridolfi, Introduction).

Machiavellian conclusions, based on a psychological method, are productive of good drama primarily insofar as they can be shown to jostle against a traditional, Christian perspective on political power as governed by moral obligation. Machiavelli’s influence on Shakespeare is partly responsible for Shakespeare’s modern sensibility. Shakespeare lacked the conceptual language to come to terms with this historical break scientifically, but he was able to dramatize its effects. It is a measure of Shakespeare’s greatness that he was, among Elizabethan dramatists, the most disturbed by the course of thinking Machiavelli initiated. Jonson, Webster, Massinger, Ford, Marston, and many others, were affected by the “Machiavelli scare,” as Alexander Grosart termed it (Meyer); but only in the plays of Shakespeare does Machiavelli continue as a systematically disturbing influence, something much more than a source for the destructive, amoral stereotype of the Machiavel. Shakespeare alone seems to have intuited the extent to which Machiavelli’s ideas had irrevocably transformed political theory. Put otherwise, he was the only one who seriously grappled with the philosophical implications of a theory that most English writers knew only imperfectly and by rumor, but the uncanny logic of which Shakespeare managed to incorporate in his own thinking to the extent that it shaped his vision of history. While it has been speculated that these Elizabethan dramatists may have borrowed from Machiavelli, it is nearly impossible. In “Machiavelli and Elizabethan Drama”, in reference to the works of the contemporaries of Shakespeare, Edward Meyer poses:

I was struck by the number of times Machiavelli and Aretino were referred to, and the reckless manner in which, what I then supposed to be the former’s political principles, were cited and put into practice by the villains of dramatic literature. Having determined to investigate to what extent this had been done, a careful study was first made of Machiavelli: then the drama was reread. To my surprise, I found that what the Elizabethans reverted to so often as the maxims of the Florentine statesman, were, in four cases out of five, not to be found in his writings at all; but were perverted from the same in a manner infinitely unjust. The natural conclusion was, that they could not have been taken directly from the works of the great politician. This was strengthened by the fact that … the weightiest writings of Machiavelli remained un-Englished till Dacre’s version of the “Discorsi” in 1636 and of the “Principe” in 1640 (Meyer, 2)

While none of these playwrights borrowed directly from Machiavelli, it can be suspected that news of the politician traveled across the seas or that these men simply had a Machiavellian mind.

Machiavelli articulated several characteristics that he deemed appropriate for a prince, but the most important to Shakespeare were a certain allegiance to the “art of war,” a reality that it is better to be loved than feared, and a willingness to emulate the great political predecessors. Shakespeare dutifully follows these guidelines in creating his ideal kings.

It is my intention, through this paper, to argue that Malcolm typifies the Machiavellian king in Macbeth. Although there have been suggestions in the past that lead to this conclusion, critics such as Barbara Riebling and Jarold Ramsey only use the example of Malcolm’s loyalty test to prove his Machiavellianism. It is my belief that he embodies many of the other characteristics that Machiavelli outlines in his text. I will discuss the three rulers that surface through the text and then argue Malcolm’s Machiavellian qualities as opposed to the semi- or non-existent Machiavellian qualities of Duncan and Macbeth.

Duncan – the beloved king

Duncan rules by love and admiration. He is a “safe” king who will follow his people instead of insisting that his people follow him. In an article discussing a Machiavellian reading of Macbeth, Barbara Riebling agrees:

Duncan, however admirable a man, is by Machiavellian standards a dangerous king – a ruler whose gentle and trusting character has invited treason, civil war, and foreign invasion. By being a perfect Christian, Duncan succeeds in becoming a perfect lamb – a sacrificial offering on the altar of real-world politics. (Riebling 276)

In some of his works, Shakespeare’s ideals do not sync with those of Machiavelli. The Prince was once called a work of atheist tyranny [3] . Instead of having his kings be atheistic, Shakespeare makes them to be extremely Christian. For example, in Henry V, Henry, another example of Shakespeare’s ideal ruler, states: “But this lies all within the will of God/To whom I do appeal, and in whose name/Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on/To venge me as I may, and to put forth/My rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause” (I.ii.289-293). Henry leaves much to the hand of God, unlike a Machiavellian ruler would. Machiavelli argues: “And although they were great and wonderful men, yet they were men, and each one of them had no more opportunity than the present offers, for their enterprises were neither more just nor easier than this, nor was God more their friend than He is yours” (125).

Although not reinforcing his apparent “atheistic tyranny,” this supports the fact that he does not believe a king is anymore closer to God than any regular citizen. Shakespeare would have disagreed with this principle, and exemplified this disagreement when he created Henry V (as well as both of the Richards). Machiavelli’s work was considered atheistic tyranny for a reason: he presented no Christian beliefs whatsoever, where as Shakespeare’s Henry V was a devout Christian.

Again, Duncan maintains these harmful (in Machiavelli’s eyes) Christian ideals and rejects the Machiavellian principles, especially his philosophy that it is better to be feared than loved. A main idea of The Prince, that it is better to be feared than loved, becomes something that Shakespeare would visit in several of his works. Machiavelli theorizes:

Here a question arises: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse. The answer is, of course, that it would be best to be both loved and feared. But since the two rarely come together, anyone compelled to choose will find greater security in being feared than in being loved. . . . Love endures by a bond which men, being scoundrels, may break whenever it serves their advantage to do so; but fear is supported by the dread of pain, which is ever present (67).

Near the beginning of the play when he learns of the treason from the former Thane of Cawdor, Duncan is mystified saying “There’s no art/to find the mind’s construction in the face/He was a gentleman on whom I built/an absolute trust” (I.iv. 12-15). Machiavelli would argue against this. While seeming like the eternal skeptic, Machiavelli believed that no one truly could be trusted. He truly believes in loyalty, and to put some trust into those who have proven loyal, but not to put unguided trust into his kingdom, which is something Duncan has done.

Malcolm, the hero of our piece, first appears in the beginning of the play when the captain comes to inform Duncan of the current events in the battle. Because Duncan has been away from the battle staying at the home camp, Malcolm informs him of who comes to the camp. “This is the sergeant/Who like a good and hardy soldier fought/’Gainst my captivity.–Hail, brave friend!/Say to the King the knowledge of the broil /As thou didst leave it” (I.ii.3-7). Malcolm has been bravely fighting out with the soldiers in the war, unlike Duncan who becomes unaware of what happens out on the field. He relies on Malcolm to keep him informed. Ideally, the king should be more attentive to what happens on his own battlefield. Even though Duncan seems to be an inept king in the eyes of some, his followers adore him. He trusts everyone which eventually leads to his downfall at the hands of the treacherous Macbeth. Although his people loved him, Duncan was not a stable king. Macduff says to Malcolm “Thy royal father/Was a most sainted king” (IV.iii.109-110). Unfortunately for Duncan, in order to become sainted, one must be martyred. He dies for the cause of being an example to his son of how not to act when on the throne. He becomes too trusting of Macbeth who claims Duncan “hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been/So clear in his great office, that his virtues/Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against/The deep damnation of his taking off” (I.vii.17-20). As compared with Duncan and Macbeth, Malcolm appears as the only promising king. Macbeth knew Duncan’s greatest weakness, but Malcolm fled before Macbeth could discover any weakness of his.

Macbeth – almost a Machiavellian ruler

Macbeth begins the play as the violent war hero. As hero, he stands apart from other peers. King Duncan says of him, “It is a peerless kinsman” (1.4.58). In praising Macbeth directly for his service in battle, he says, “More is thy due than more than all can pay” (1.4.22). These are on the one hand the proper gestures of kingly gratitude, but they also point to a truth about the hero: that he is singular, inimitable, and in that respect, an analogue for the king himself. The hero, like the king, is a potentially threatening presence. Macbeth, as the king’s defender, resembles in his unchecked violence the rebels who have attacked the kingdom. According to the Captain who reports to Duncan, when Fortune had seemed to be smiling on Macdonwald “like a rebel’s whore,” “brave Macbeth […]/Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,

Which smoked with bloody execution,

Like valor’s minion carved out his passage

Till he faced the slave,

Which ne’er shook hands nor bade farewell to him,

Till he unseamed him from the nave to the chops,

And fixed his head upon our battlements. (1.2.14-23)

Macbeth has acted, by necessity, as a monster, a kind of killing-machine. The ritual exchanges between the king and Macbeth, the polite addresses and the king’s gift-giving, not only mediate a potential rivalry; they also reintroduce Macbeth to the peacetime role of royal retainer. Soon, at the insistence of Lady Macbeth, he only reluctantly, or with feelings of ambivalence, returns to his violent mode as a means of inaugurating his own prophesied sovereignty. But he has already begun to plot to seize the crown, just as he seized fortune from the warring rebels. And Lady Macbeth instructs him in the ways of a Machiavel: “To beguile the time/ Look like the time” (1.5.63-4).

By the end of the play, he has reverted to the mechanical violence of the war hero. It is his superstition that prevents him from acting effectively, with practical political ends in mind, because the witches’ prophecies have caused him to see deadly rivals even in his potential friends, like Banquo.

After Macbeth returns home from the battle and his encounter with the witches, Duncan awards him with the title “Thane of Cawdor” the title vacated by the traitor who is later executed. Even though the witches prepared Macbeth for it, the news still surprises him. Part of him does not want to believe that the witches were legitimate, but the other part of him is ambitious enough to want his honors. However, more news shocks him. Macbeth receives the title of Thane of Cawdor, but Malcolm receives the title “Prince of Cumberland.” This entitles Malcolm to the throne after Duncan’s death, an obstacle that the witches did not foresee for Macbeth. Macbeth reveals in an aside: “The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step/On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap/For in my way it lies” (I.v.49-51). He not only plans to commit regicide, but he plans to murder the heir to the throne in his ambition. This becomes one of his most Machiavellian decisions of the entire play. However, no matter how cruel this decision maybe, his conscience becomes his downfall.

After the murder of Duncan, Malcolm and Donaldbain are scared for their lives. They fear two things that prompt their departure from Scotland. First of all, they worry people will suspect Malcolm murdered Duncan in order to take over the throne. Secondly, they fear the real culprit will come after them next in order to kill off the chain of being. Malcolm vocalizes these fears and decides:

Let’s not consort with them

To show an unfelt sorrow is an office

Which the false man does easy. I’ll to England

to which Donaldbain replies

“To Ireland, I. Our separated fortune

Shall keep us both the safer. Where we are

There’s daggers in men’s smiles. The nea’er in blood

The nearer bloody” (II.iv.134-139).

They know the murderer will stop at nothing to overthrow Scotland’s monarchical structure, and will kill Duncan’s entire family in order to do so. Malcolm flees to England where he starts to gather armies to overthrow Macbeth and to take back the throne which belongs to him. As Machiavelli communicates in The Prince:

[I]n this way such a prince, if of ordinary assiduity , will always be able to maintain his position, unless some very exceptional and excessive force deprives him of it; and even of he be thus deprived, on the slightest mischance happening to the new occupier, he will be able to regain it (34).

Riebling agrees that this may be Macbeth’s most egregious fault when it comes to “ruling”. She references Machiavelli’s concept of “eliminating the entire bloodline of the former ruler when founding a new kingdom. Macbeth’s failures in this regard are obvious. … And because he feels insecure from the moment he seizes power, he continues to murder in order to feel safe” (Riebling 282)

Macbeth’s manner for a time is like that of King Claudius-seizing and maintaining power by craft and deception. In his article “Shakespeare’s Treatment of Tyranny”, V. Aravindaeshan argues:

Both Claudius and Macbeth are derived from Richard III as Hamlet is from Titus Andronicus. While Claudius is a treacherous and lecherous villain, the latter is an equivocating, hen-pecked, villain-hero. The difference lies in the one redeeming quality of the latter, namely, his troubled conscience. … though, once he attains power, Macbeth is haunted more by persecution than conscience (Aravindaeshan 41).

Machiavelli would believe that his conscience is what faulted Macbeth and was the downfall in his contention to be a Machiavellian ruler.

Macbeth does not exemplify a Machiavellian king; Lady Macbeth embodies more characteristics of a Machiavellian ruler. The almost superhuman strength Lady Macbeth rallies for the occasion and her artful and sly ability are shown through her meticulous attention to detail regarding the murder. When Macbeth returns to their chamber she goes back to the murder scene and cleverly smears the grooms with Duncan’s blood. However, her conscience had prevailed just a while before as revealed through her comment that she would have killed Duncan herself had he not “resembled [her] father as he slept.” Macbeth tries to act solely on impulse and in his best interest, however, he never succeeds without the prodding from his wife. Macbeth does not have the courage of his convictions.

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Malcolm – The Ideal Ruler

Malcolm starts to plan his attack on Macbeth when Macduff visits him in England, at the court of Edward the Confessor. Macduff serves as the Malcolm from Act I; he informs Malcolm of what has been happening since Malcolm has not been on the front line. Malcolm finds Macbeth’s actions as no surprise, and quickly responds: “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues/Was once thought honest” (IV.iii.12-13). He begins to question Macduff’s loyalty to Macbeth. Macduff swears that he is not “treacherous” (IV.iii.18). Macduff says that he has “lost his hopes” (IV.iii.25) in Macbeth and now comes to serve Malcolm. Malcolm questions Macduff’s motives for leaving his family so suddenly, an action that he will later regret. Malcolm tests Macduff’s loyalty even further. Malcolm questions himself, saying that he is unfit to be king. He claims that his lust, greed, and violence will obstruct his reign as king. Macduff initially tries to appease Malcolm’s wants saying “We have willing dames enough” (IV.iii.74) to satiate his lust and “Scotland hath foisons to fill up your will” (IV.iii.89) to please his greed. However, Macduff soon cannot placate Malcolm any longer and cries out “O Scotland, Scotland” (V.iii.101). His loyalty to Scotland overthrows him, and he not only states that Malcolm is unfit to govern, but believes “Fit to govern/No, not fit to live” (IV.iii.103-104). Malcolm was his last hope for Scotland, and so Macduff now cries: “O my breast/Thy hope ends here” (IV.iii.113-114).

Malcolm finally feels that Macduff has passed his test of loyalty and assures him:

I am yet

Unknown to woman, never was forsworn

Scarcely have coveted what was mine own

At no time broke my faith, would not betray

the devil to his fellow, and delight

No less in truth than life. My first false speaking

Was this upon myself. What I am truly

Is thine and my poor country’s to command (IV.iii.126-133).

Malcolm has never been anything but faithful to Scotland and this news pleases Macduff. Malcolm knows an effective king, a Machiavellian king, can trust no one.

After the battle between Macbeth and Malcolm’s armies ceases and Macduff assassinates Macbeth, Malcolm reenters the scene proclaiming the victory and claiming his throne. Ross informs Siward that his son has been killed in battle, and Malcolm, the good king, sympathizes saying, “He is worth more sorrow/And that I’ll spend for him” (V.viii.50-51). Macduff returns with Macbeth’s head and proclaims “Hail, King! For so thou art” (V.viii.54). All of his kinsmen rise up in agreement and then Malcolm proceeds to dole out rewards to his men. “My thanes and kinsmen/Hencefore be earls, the first that ever Scotland/In such an honor named” (V.viii.62-64). Also, he wishes that all those who were exiled by Macbeth’s tyranny return home to Scotland so that the country may rebuild.

Malcolm was already a strong leader who supported his father completely. He made prudent decisions, like fleeing when his father was murdered. He was aware of Macbeth’s tyrannical forces and probably suspected Macbeth was Duncan’s murderer from the minute of the murder. Macbeth obtained the crown by treachery, which already means that he is unfavorable with his empire. Macbeth tries to be smooth and cunning, but he fails at fooling Malcolm and eventually Macduff sees through his façade.

In reference to the “art of war,” Machiavelli explains:

A prince must have no other objective, no other thought, nor take up any profession but that of war, its methods and its discipline, for that is the only art expected of a ruler. And it is of such great value that it not only keeps hereditary princes in power, but often raises men of lowly condition to that rank (55).

Even though Duncan seemingly loved Scotland, Malcolm fights for his country, literally, on the front line. Before he becomes king, he fights alongside his kinsmen and is nearly captured. He not only treats his kinsmen as “his people,” but as his friends, therefore earning his people’s trust even before he becomes king. Macbeth also has a loyalty to the “art of war,” but he fights dishonorably, killing by “carv[ing] out his passage/Till he faced the slave/Which ne’er shook hands, nor bade farewell to him/Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops/And fixed his head upon our battlements” (I.ii.19-23). Later in the play, when Macduff slays Macbeth, Macduff approaches Macbeth and gives him a chance to save himself instead of dishonorably murdering him in cold blood.

Every king must realize that in order to rule efficiently, he must learn who he can and cannot trust. Machiavelli explains: “Men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, for everyone can see and few can feel. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are” (87). Duncan trusts everyone with whom he comes into contact, never weeding out the evil men from the good. He never suspects that Macbeth is out to murder him. Macbeth even doubts himself: “He’s here in double trust/First, as I am his kinsmen and his subject/Strong both against the deed; then, as his host/Who should against his murderer shut the door/Not bear the knife myself” (I.vii.13-16). Because he hides his true emotions so well, no one, with the exception of Lady Macbeth, and later both Banquo and his wife, suspects that Macbeth will commit regicide.

Malcolm understands that being feared can save you and being loved can lead to your downfall. He does not try and instill fear in his people, but he also does not fully trust anyone. He exhibits characteristics of a very diplomatic leader rather than an overly charismatic leader. Fortunately, Scotland longs for such a monarch. The other two rulers of the play were of extremes: either too kind and gentle or too oppressive. Malcolm did not fit into either extreme.

Finally, in order to be a successful king in the eyes of Shakespeare and Machiavelli, one must always look to the great leaders of the past and emulate their greatness and learn from their mistakes. Machiavelli articulates:

“[B]ecause men, walking almost always in paths beaten by others, and following by imitation their deeds, are yet unable to keep entirely to the ways of others or attain to the power of those they imitate. A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savour of it” (VI)

In the case of Malcolm, he could look at Duncan to learn what not to do when running a country. Scotland needs for Malcolm to be the combination of Duncan and Macbeth. He possesses Duncan’s loveable qualities, but has the cunning skills of Macbeth.

Throughout Macbeth, the concept ideal ruler becomes an extremely important topic for discussion. Duncan, although loving his country, does not exhibit the strength and skepticism that a king needs. Macbeth, although strong and skeptic, rules over his people tyrannically, instilling fear in their hearts. Machiavelli knew that it is better to be feared than loved, but Macbeth does not earn respect through fear which was the point Machiavelli tries to make. Machiavelli advocates loving one’s self, which becomes hard to do in Macbeth’s case. He cannot love himself after what he does to his king, his best friend, his “partner in greatness” (I.v.9), and his country.

Malcolm gains the respect of his country fairly and honestly. After he flees to England, his countrymen desire for his return. Once he returns, one Lord believes: “[W]e may again/Give to our tables meat, sleep in our nights/Free from our feasts and banquets bloody knives/Do faithful homage, and receive free honors/All which we pine for now” (III.vi.33-37). When Malcolm returns, the order of Scotland will be restored. He represents Scotland’s new order, free from the tyranny of Macbeth. He invites his friends home after Macbeth and his Lady are slain. Malcolm truly loves his country and does not only crave power. His patriotic attitude and diplomatic behavior produce the ideal king for Scotland. Machiavelli advocates:

“[F]or in the same way that landscape painters station themselves in the valleys in order to draw mountains or high ground, and ascend an eminence in order to get a good view of the plains, so is it necessary to be a prince to know thoroughly the nature of the people, and one of the populace to know the nature of princes” (32).

Both Malcolm and Duncan thoroughly knew the nature of their people. In one of his downfalls in his short reign as a ruler, Macbeth only feared for himself. He constantly worried about being blamed and overthrown for the death of Duncan, the beloved king. This fear blinded him to the world around him, and he never effectively rule because of his paranoia.

When applying Machiavellian principles to Macbeth, it becomes clear that Malcolm exemplifies the most Machiavellian characteristics of the ideal king. Malcolm maintains his allegiance to the “art of war,” understands the need to be respected through fear rather than loved, and learns from the mistakes of the great leaders of the past. His predecessors do not follow these guidelines, and therefore become ineffective leaders.


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