Mandragola by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An interesting farce comedy that essentially reinforces what Machiavelli’s been saying all along: “The ends justify the means”. Being that I read this in class, I wrote a required Play Reader’s Journal for this piece, and so I’m just going to use that as my review.
** SPOILERS FROM THIS POINT ON!!! **
Play Reader’s Journal for Niccolò Machiavelli’s Mandragola
I. Vital Statistics
1. Title: Mandragola (The Mandrake)
2. Playwright: Niccolò Machiavelli
3. Date of Composition: 1504; also 1524-1526
4. Period: The Italian Renaissance
5. Company/House of Initial Performance: Performed during the Carnivale in Florence
6. Setting of Play: Florence
7. Genre of Play: Comedy
II. Characters and Action
1. Callimaco Guadagno: a dastardly fiend who is “in love” / in lust with Lucrezia, and who desires to sleep with her.
2. Siro: Callimaco’s servant
3. Messer Nicia Calfucci: an old, “simple-minded”, and rich judge, who is also Lucrezia’s husband. He wants a son and heir.
4. Ligurio: a marriage broker and hack, who now hustles food out of people for a living, He helps Callimaco to get into bed with Lucrezia
5. Sostrata: Lucrezia’s mother, who doesn’t see anything wrong with her daughter having a lover, and a baby, along with a rich husband. (Is she the early incarnation of feminism?)
6. Friar Timoteo: a corrupt friar and man of the cloth who Callimaco convinces (read: pays) to play an integral role in the deception of Lucrezia and Nicia
7. A Woman: a person who introduces Machiavelli’s idea of women and introduces the themes they represent (I think)
8. Lucrezia: a beautiful and very virtuous woman, whose reputation for both precedes her. She is controlling of her husband Nicia
While living in Paris, Callimaco hears of the famed beauty and virtue of Lucrezia, the wife of a rich judge, Messer Nicia. He is so enamored with her that he returns to Florence to find, court, and sleep with Lucrezia. He cannot do so, however, because Lucrezia is married. Still, there is a loop hole for Callimaco: Lucrezia and Nicia have yet to have a child and heir, and Nicia wants a son more than anything.
So Callimaco, his servant (Sirio), a marriage broker (Ligurio), and a corrupt friar (Friar Timoteo) devise a plan to help Callimaco get into bed with Lucrezia. Callimaco will disguise himself as a doctor and prescribe Lucrezia the mandrake, a potion that will increase Lucrezia’s chances at having a child. The downside, though, is after Lucrezia takes the potion, the first man to sleep with her afterward will die. This isn’t true, of course; this is all a ruse that Callmaco throws onto Nicia so that Callimaco will be allowed to sleep with Lucrezia.
After a lot of scheming and plotting, Callimaco use Friar Timoteo to convince Lucrezia that having an affair on her husband is actually not morally corrupt, but is Lucrezia’s divine duty. Lucrezia, being the morally virtuous woman that she is, is very against this entire plan. In the end, however, her mother (Sostrata) and the Friar convince Lucrezia that this is her duty and she need not feel corrupt or ashamed. Reluctantly, Lucrezia agrees to the plan.
When Callimaco (disguised as the supposed sacrificial lamb who will sleep with Lucrezia and die from the mandrake) finally goes to Lucrezia and reveals his true identity, they sleep together. Lucrezia now knows that this entire mandrake deal is a farce and that she was set up and used by all the corrupt people in her life. She decides that she will then take her own piece of the pie, and so takes Callimaco as her lover. The plays ends with everyone essentially getting what they want while disregarding their piety altogether.
III. Themes and Resonance
Machiavelli certainly does not hold back in his critique of the church and of the Bible, both of which are deliberately misinterpreted in order to further the ends of evil. This particular quote from The Friar really stood out to me “As for whether the act is a sin, that’s easy: because it is the will that sins, not the body; and it’s a sin if it displeases the husband, whereas you are obliging him; or if you take pleasure in it, whereas you find no pleasure” (21). The Friar also tells Lucrezia that “her purpose is to fill a seat in paradise and make her husband happy” (21).
Here, Machiavelli shows us how easy it is for men to be swayed to the side of evil when what they desire is close at hand. Nicia wants a son, but is pushed into this crazy situation that he knows is wrong (morally and biblically), all because he wants an heir. The Friar is getting paid off with crazy coins to engage in this deception (the very act of which is a major insult to the Church and their system of exchanging morality for money). And of course, Callimaco, the scoundrel, is totally revamping the idea of “monogamous marriage” and introduces polyamory into a once pious household. This is an episode straight out of Days of Our Lives… the Italian Renaissance version.
The theme that stood out most to me is the one that was realized through Lucrezia: that, even though we may have an instinct of right and wrong, sometimes external power dynamics can exert such force on us that we are led astray from our own morals. I found it pretty amazing (and daunting) that though Lucrezia knew that laying down with another man was wrong, she gave into the religious preachings and proddings of the Friar to do “God’s work” and fall pregnant with another man. Machiavelli makes an interesting point about man abandoning his own inner compass for the sake of religion and allowing true evil to befall himself and his household as a result.
Another interesting take on this play is that one can say that Machiavelli has succeeded in demonstrating the viability of his own philosophy, “the ends justify the means”, above and beyond that of the Church. Can man truly be saved? Is the Church potent enough to really led men into the hands of God? Or is Machiavelli truly the only one who understands man’s true nature, and does man’s nature always win in the end, even against the omnipotence of God? All questions I considered when reading this piece.
In conclusion, though the points raised by the piece are interesting, Machiavelli’s overstated theme felt a little forced and unconvincing. This was mainly due to the style in which he told the story, mainly by using the Prologue and a lot of exposition. I think that if Machiavelli’s bitterness weren’t coming across so clearly, he could be more convincing on the page as to the Church’s corruption. While the Prologue was really entertaining and brazen, it pretty much killed any hope of subtlety and subtext. Therefore, the playwright’s intentions were made painfully clear. From a stylistic standpoint, I personally tend to be more convinced of a play’s message when I’m not being beaten over the head with it, where I can fall into the “showing” aspect of the piece more so than the “telling” aspect of the piece. On my part, I’m dying to know how the audiences reacted to this play in that time.
Rock on, READ on,