Machiavellian Woman in History

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The 'power behind the throne' is a worn-out stereotype. From classic literature like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in which the Marquise de Merteuil gleefully manipulates the sophisticated Vicomte de Valmont, to more modern instances like the brilliantly, unabashedly dangerous, manipulative, and even feared Sheri Palmer (of Fox's hit show '24'), literature and the arts are full of women who manipulate men for their own ends. In fact, far more common than women on thrones, in literature and perhaps even in history, are those behind thrones--the powerful females who in spite of gender and of not being directly possessed of ruling privileges manage to control and to hold in thrall the male kings of their times. Though this stereotype, like most, probably contains more than a grain of truth, the women of Shakespeare's plays take the idea of female power in a male-dominated system a step further by making the women in question not only powerful, but actual wielders of their influence in a very specific medieval mode: that of Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian aristocrat. was witness to the statesmanship of such luminaries as Cesare Borgia and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and brought the precepts he formulated from his experiences to his most famous treatise, The Prince. Written to help its author 'get in good' with the local ruling bodies of the time, The Prince, with it's exploration of the characteristics of effectively powerful rulers, went on to influence generations of Renaissance thought on leadership and power. Shakespeare's notions of history, as displayed in his plays Richard II and Richard III, deal not only with the oft-noticed Machiavellian tendencies of the kings themselves, but directly with those kings being surrounded, influenced, and manipulated by Machiavellian women who understand power dynamics. Machiavelli says that 'a prince must be shrewd enough to avoid the public disgrace of those vices that would lose him his state' , and in Richard II, the Duchess of Gloucester displays her knowledge and embodiment of this principle. Exhorting John of Gaunt, her brother in law, to kill the men who murdered her husband, she says that': [Gaunt] dost consent/In some large measure to [his] father's death/In that thou seest thy wretched brother die.' . Furthermore, she informs Gaunt, 'In suff'ring thus thy brother to be slaughter'd/Thou show'st the naked pathway to thy life/Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee' . Here, she is attempting to instruct him away from the public disgrace, as Machiavelli would put it, of the vice of weakness. By condoning the murder of his brother, the Duchess says, Gaunt is not only disgracing himself publicly, but showing himself weak, and thus open to assassination attempts. Though the Duchess, of course, doesn't know that Gaunt thinks the king himself is privy to the death of her husband (the Duke of Gloucester), and thus doesn't have the whole story, she is shown directly espousing Machiavelli's principle. When she says, in the same scene, that 'That which in mean men we intitle patience/Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts' , she speaks to Machiavelli's contention that a prince has a responsibility to be better and braver than the common man. Indeed, as Machiavelli says, 'what makes a prince contemptible is being considered'effeminate, cowardly, or indecisive' , and the Duchess of Gloucester in this scene is written by Shakespeare as woman deeply aware of this Machiavellian idea. Here, then, she (unlike, perhaps, Gaunt) is anything but effeminate, cowardly, or indecisive. She herself demonstrates, by urging Gaunt to action, the sort of qualities Machiavelli finds desirable in a prince or other ruler. Even the depressed Queen Isabel, whose role in Richard II is mostly to speak of her foreboding that something terrible will happen to her husband, displays Machiavellian characteristics in Act IV, scene iv, where she, walking with her ladies, encounters an old gardener and his servants. Though they are not nobles, she assumes they will talk of affairs of state, and accordingly hides herself and her ladies in waiting so that she can hear what they have to say. Here, she is, as Machiavelli would perhaps put it, 'playing the fox'. By the wily expedient of hiding herself so as to listen to the opinions of commoners, Isabel is keeping an eye on affairs of state. Machiavelli says that if one studies what he calls modern history, one sees many examples of 'how the man succeeded best who knew best how to play the fox' , , Hiding herself is perhaps an unethical action on the part of Queen Isabel, but one of which Machiavelli would approve, as he believes that 'as [men] are a sad lot and keep no faith with [a ruler]' , it is perfectly fine to break their trust (by, for example, listening in on their private conversations, as Isabel does). By performing an unethical but permissible Machiavellian action, Queen Isabel shows herself to be another of Shakespeare's female characters who display great awareness of Machiavelli's principles. Though at first glance a weak woman, left at home to fret over her husband, Isabel takes control of her surroundings as Machiavelli would have any ruler do. Here, again, Shakespeare shows us history as populated by Machiavellian women who are aware of what it takes to get and keep power. In Richard III, as in Richard II, Shakespeare seems to be showing us history through the lens of womanly power that is anything but womanly in the traditional sense--rather than being merely the powers often afforded to women in their capacity 'behind the throne', the powers Shakespeare shows his female characters as having are Machiavellian--these women embody The Prince's power. Early in the play, we see the power of Queen Margaret, who knows that, as Machiavelli put it, 'to be feared is much safer than to be loved.' Though she does not have the conventional power she feels she deserves (since she thinks she is the rightful queen, but does not occupy the throne), Margaret wields considerable power through her curses, which frighten their noble listeners and objects. She curses her rival for queenship, Elizabeth, and says she hopes that 'Long [will] die [Elizabeth's] happy days before [her] death;/And, after many lengthen'd hours of grief', she continues, 'Die neither mother, wife, nor England's queen'. Here, she shows the knowledge of the nobles around her which Machiavelli considers so important, and is thus able to speak preying on Elizabeth's greatest fears: the death of her husband and children. Another woman in Richard III is one who many scholars of women's place and power in literature find problematic: Lady Anne. Daughter-in-law of one man Richard has killed, and widow of another, Anne is first seen cursing Richard as murderer, only to allow herself to be courted and seduced by him later in the scene. (She later ends up marrying him). While many see Anne as a weak-willed woman as she goes from declaiming 'Cursed be the hand that made these fatal holes!/Cursed be the heart that had the heart to do it!/Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence' , as she mourns over the bodies of her dead relatives to accepting them murderous Richard's ring in only a few hundred lines, there is certainly an alternate reading to her actions. Faced with the ugly reality of Richard's imminent rise to power, Anne does what is expedient. Machiavelli says that a successful ruler 'has to have a mind ready to shift as the winds of fortune and the varying circumstances of life may dictate'he should not depart from good if he can hold to it, but he should be ready to enter on evil

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