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The Ethics of Power in Shakespeare and Machiavelli

Without exaggeration, Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513) initiates the modern study of politics as a science of the real–not how things ought to be, but how things are.

The most Machiavellian character in Shakespeare is the duke in Measure for Measure, a dark comedy. Taking a lesson from Machiavelli, the lenient duke (whose ability to rule has been compromised by accounts of his own vicious living) retires to a monastery, turning his power over to a man named Angelo, who imposes a strict new regime on the new city. For one family, the new regime is essentially a death sentence. Young Claudio is sentenced to death for unchaste conduct. His sister, Isabella, who is training to become a nun, sets out to save his life. Can she rescue her brother while keeping her virtue intact? Or must she resort to using the teachings of the wily Florentine as well? Is it possible to be an effective leader without resorting to morally questionable practices?

In this class, we’ll read (and act out) much of Machiavelli’s Prince and Shakespeare’s Measure and explore the questions these two works of poetry and politics raise about power, ethics, and virtue. We’ll also keep a close eye on how both works use (and potentially abuse) the Hebrew Bible to achieve their ends.



Sample Readings:

  • Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince
  • William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

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