Describe and analyse the qualities of a renaissance Machiavel as shown in the Spanish Tragedy and in Hamlet

Friday 14 November, 1997

Marcus Wischik

To adequately answer this question, it is necessary to find characters from both The Spanish Tragedy and from Hamlet that exhibit the characteristics of a machiavel (Plotting, secrecy and eventually murder). This is the difficult part, as most of the major characters in both plays exhibit some, if not all of these characteristics - while neither Heironimo nor Hamlet are villains, they both rely upon machiavellian tactics; they both feign madness to seem unthreatening, then proceed to strike when least expected:

I will revenge his death!
But how? Not as the vulgar wits of men,
With open, but inevitable ills,
As by secret, yet certain mean,
Which under kindship will be cloaked best.
The Spanish Tragedy III xiii 20-24

This behaviour is echoed by Hamlet following his meeting with his father's ghost. This insanity, this posturing and preparation for revenge, though for a good reason, is undoubtedly machiavellian. It is arguably the case that the insanity that both characters experience is not entirely faked, as both undergo extreme mental stress. This very real insanity is reflected by the disjointed and heavily end-stopped verse both Hamlet and Heironimo use when delivering soliloquies:

O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!
My tables. Meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain -
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word.
It is "adieu, adieu, remember me."
I have sworn't
Hamlet I v 105-112

It is not the case, however, that machiavellian behaviour is restricted to the lead characters, indeed not just restricted to the men. In The Spanish Tragedy, it is Bel-Imperia that provides the stimulus (the letter that falls from the sky, written in red ink) that transforms Heironimo from being just a malcontent into an avenger. This is not the only example of machiavellianism on her part; she takes advantage of Balthazar's and Lorenzo's preoccupation with their own intelligence and cunning to fool them into believing she is harmless - as Heironimo pretends to be mad, she pretends to be stupid:

Brother, you are become an orator -
I know not, I, by what experience -
Too politic for me, past all compare,
Since last I saw you; but content yourself,
The prince is meditating higher things.
The Spanish Tragedy III x 82-86

In essence, she convinces them both that she, being a woman, and women traditionally being rather passive members of the revenge tragedy, is in no need of further imprisonment. Indeed, she goes so far as to say that she is too stupid to understand what they are trying to do to her:

To love and fear, and both at once, my lord,
In my conceit, are things of more import
Than women's wits are to busied with.
The Spanish Tragedy III x 93-95

It is the stupidity she affects (Unlike Heironimo and Hamlet, her disability is completely feigned) that allows her to get into a position from which she can kill Balthazar. Indeed, her relationship with don Horatio started out as being a vehicle for her desire to avenge don Andrea's death. It is arguably the case that she is the most devious, intelligent and manipulative (Therefore machiavellian) character in The Spanish Tragedy.

Finally come the villains: Villupo, Lorenzo and Claudius. These characters represent the most blatant (and therefore failing) machiavels. They attempt to do things, through or to other people in order to establish themselves. It can be argued that Pedringano is a machiavel, though I believe that he would better be called a mercenary than a machiavel - he does things for money, rather than for power and influence. In The Spanish Tragedy, Villupo is the first of the machiavels to be exposed. He attempted to have Alexandro executed by blaming him for Balthazar's death. In doing this, he attempts to take advantage of the Viceroy's weakened mental state, following news of his army's defeat, and the news that his son is missing. It is only the timely intervention of the ambassador to Spain that forces him to admit:

Rent with remembrance of so foul a deed,
My guilty soul submits me to thy doom;
For not for Alexandro's injuries,
But for reward and hope to be preferred,
Thus have I shamelessly hazarded his life.
The Spanish Tragedy III i 92-96

His reward for his endeavour is his swift execution.

Lorenzo's schemes and strategies are both more subtle and on a significantly larger scale; he manipulates Bel-Imperia and people around her, attempting to bring Balthazar into her favour. This would be remembered by Balthazar when he would become king of both Spain and Portingale, and would then be rewarded. This desire for influence rather than for power, coupled both with his rather un-masculine part in the capture of Balthazar, and with his seemingly incestuous desire for his sister, makes Lorenzo seem an evil and heartless character. It is this evil and heartless nature that, to put it simply, gives Machiavelli, machiavellianism and all machiavels a bad name. As shown earlier, it is not the case that machiavellianism is an evil pursuit, and its methods can be used for seemingly just ends (Revenging a death, for example). It is from characters and people such as Lorenzo that The Prince has been called evil.

In Hamlet, villainous characters also utilise machiavellian techniques. It would seem that Claudius shared Heironimo's sentiments with respect to planning and executing his assassination - he waited until the old king was asleep in the orchard before poisoning him. Having done this, he followed one of Machiavelli's precepts almost exactly - he attempted to minimise disruption to Denmark by as many of the existing institutions, namely the queen:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this war-like state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight with dole,
Taken to wife
Hamlet I ii 8-14

Although this action was politically expedient, he would have done better, in the eyes of Hamlet at least, to wait for longer before doing so.

To conclude, it would seem that a renaissance machiavel is anyone who uses machiavellian ideas to effect others, whether it be for good or for ill. These machiavellian ideas and strategies range from subtlety and concealment, to murder and witness eradication. In essence, then, machiavellianism, in terms of the renaissance, is the process by which one person attempts to influence others by diverse means. Machiavellianism is not restricted to villains, as the heroic characters also make use of it. The definition of a renaissance machiavel ranges from the scheming evil of Lorenzo to the anti-heroic Heironimo.

1,299 words.
Copyright © Marcus Wischik 1997