4 / 10 / 96
"Hence it should be noted that in taking hold of a state, he who seizes it should examine all the offenses necessary for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke....For injuries must be done all together, so that, being tasted less, they offend less..." (Machiavelli 38).
This key paragraph of advice is given by Machiavelli to all aspiring rulers who are contemplating the act of obtaining a principality through the use of criminal methods. Macbeth is an example of someone who obtains his kingdom in a criminal manner, as he and his wife conspire together to kill the present king and blame his murder on his drunken guards, but in order for Macbeth to be considered completely Machiavellian, he would have to partake in all of the characteristics that Machiavelli urges for leaders of his sort to display. While Macbeth exhibits certain Machiavellian characteristics, he does not heed Machiavelli's advice regarding rulers who desire to obtain their principalities through crime, and through either the ignorance of, or disregard for, this advice, Macbeth cannot be considered Machiavellian.
In terms of this particular advice, Macbeth is completely lacking in Machiavellian foresight (the ability to foresee the ruin of one's own principality). Instead of gathering all of his potential competitors for the throne, as well as the likely accusers of immoral action, into one location and having them all killed at once, as evidenced in Machiavelli's recapitulation of Agathocles' treatment of the senators and richest people of Syracuse, Macbeth prolongs the violence, killing one man after the other, but never completely eradicating the presence of his enemies. The string of murders which Macbeth feels the need to perpetuate, from Duncan to Young Siward, follows the pattern that Machiavelli warned would occur with the misuse of cruelty and which Machiavelli wished to prevent. Machiavelli almost explicitly foretells the progress of Macbeth's life, saying:
"Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time than are eliminated. Those who observe the first mode can have some remedy for their state with God and with men, as had Agathocles; as for the others it is impossible for them to maintain themselves" (Machiavelli 38).
This almost directly mirrors the plight that Macbeth faces throughout each day of his cursed life after the murder of King Duncan. The list of people that he feels necessary to kill continues to grow with each passing day. He neglects to predict the members of the list as well as to exterminate the list of people in its entirety with one fatal blow--both of which were suggested by Machiavelli. As a result, Macbeth resorts to witchcraft in order to gain some sense of stability in his life and kingdom. He misunderstands the witches' prophecies, and thereby cloaks himself with a misguided sense of security. This leads him to his eventual death at the hands of Macduff, which is parallel to the doom that Machiavelli projects with the above-stated impossibility of self-maintenance in such a state.
While Shakespeare may have been attempting to discount Machiavelli's theory with his portrayal of the effect of guilt on Machiavellian-like rulers, Machiavelli may have anticipated this assertion and incorporated it into this notion of the impossibility of self-maintenance for crime-engendered rulers who perpetuate their crimes rather than committing them all at once. Instead of simply translating Machiavelli's statement to mean that a ruler thus disposed would be incapable of doing or thinking about anything other than which enemy he would have to kill next, and would thus be incapable of ruling over his kingdom, perhaps Machiavelli held a pre-conceived, if not fully examined or exposed, notion of the effects of guilt that arise among individuals acting in such a manner. This interpretation would seem to indicate that Machiavelli thought that it was the prolonged exposure to, and need to act in, such violent manners that generates these feelings of remorse and guilt, and that one overwhelming act of violence used in order to preclude the necessity of further violence would either quickly be forgotten, or be so powerful that it would numb the mind to such feelings. All of this, however, is mere speculation. Regardless of Machiavelli's true notions about guilt (or some such equivalent feeling), Shakespeare's representation of a Machiavellian character falls short, as Macbeth persists in a course of action directly opposed to that which Machiavelli advocates, and Macbeth can therefore not be considered truly Machiavellian.
Macbeth also neglects to comply with at least two other Machiavellian decrees. The first mandate that he does not heed is that ambition is only good if used for the enhancement of the state. In terms of the first, it is obvious that neither Macbeth nor his wife has any thoughts about the welfare and well-being of the state--their ambition is self-regarding, as is evident in Lady Macbeth's chastisement of her husband for not attempting to obtain the crown in the quickest possible fashion: "[thy nature] is too full o' th' milk of human kindness/To catch the nearest way" (Shakespeare 37).
The second decree that Macbeth fails to fulfill is that "a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but the art of war and its orders and discipline..." (Machiavelli 58). This points back to the literal translation of Machiavelli's comment that crime-engendered princes who prolong their violence are incapable of maintaining themselves. While this belief may also incorporate some early, unexposed notion of guilt, it is quite clear that it also refers to the prince's inability to think upon, practice, and develop the art of war. Macbeth is incapable of thinking about anything other than his own self-preservation and guilt at having committed so many murders, and is therefore unable to pursue Machiavelli's mandate.
This, however, is not to say that Macbeth portrays no Machiavellian characteristics. Before he kills Duncan to become King, he was a great soldier and had just defeated Norway and the Thane of Cawdor (Shakespeare 27). All throughout his rule as King, his soldiers fear him. While Machiavelli believes that it is better to be both feared and loved (and thus gain the respect of your people and military), it is better to be feared than loved if the prince has to do without one of these (Machiavelli 66). Although Macbeth most probably held the respect of his soldiers before becoming king, he continued to hold their fear throughout his rule, thereby meeting Machiavelli's advice.
An additional piece of advice that Macbeth emulates is Machiavelli's mandate that the prince should abstain from the property and women of his citizens and subjects (Machiavelli 67). Machiavelli justifies this claim by arguing that a prince is sure to come to ruin if his subjects hate him, and that hatred for the prince comes simply from the seizure of their women and property. In addition, Machiavelli feels that such avarice is self-enlarging, saying that "...causes for taking away property are never lacking, and he who begins to live by rapine always finds cause to seize others' property..." (Machiavelli 67). By seizing someone else's property, a prince becomes more avaricious than he was previously. He is thus willing to make up a host of excuses for the continuation of this greed and further procurement of other's property. Through this process a prince's greed for other's property and women rapidly increases, as does the hatred of his people from whom he is acquiring this property and these women. This, for Machiavelli, is a surefire way to ensure the eventual overthrowing of the king by an enraged mob of his former citizens. Macbeth evidently heeds this advice, as he completely disregards any desire for the acquisition of property or women belonging to others. His problem within this area of concern, as has been discussed earlier, is the fact that his ambition is used merely to benefit himself (obtaining the position of king), and not for the benefit of his kingdom.
While Macbeth exhibits certain Machiavellian characteristics, he does not wholly correspond to the advice and mandates that Machiavelli gives. In correspondence with Machiavellian values, Macbeth maintains the fear of his army, restrains himself from possessing the property and women that belong to others, and is not opposed to using force in order to obtain that which he desires. In opposition, he violates the essential rule for all princes establishing their rule through the use of crime--that all offenses and violent crimes necessary towards obtaining that rule should be done at one stroke. In addition, he neglects to utilize his ambition for the good of the state, and does not develop or practice the art of war once he obtains his kingship. Although Macbeth demonstrates several Machiavellian characteristics, Macbeth violates essential Machiavellian mandates and therefore cannot be considered entirely Machiavellian.
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This page was last updated on September 12, 1996.