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Machiavelli and Shakespeare:
Disguise as a Means to an End

Matthew Thomas Nilsson

The late American writer Kim Hubbard once said, “There is no disguise which can hide love for long where it exists, or simulate it where it is not.” Judging the ends of their plays, William Shakespeare, author of Twelfth Night, or What You Will, might have agreed with Hubbard’s quotation, but the author of La Mandragola (The Mandrake Root, translated into English) may very well have disagreed. Disguise, as a literary device, can take many forms, some of which both Machiavelli and Shakespeare used. In her master’s thesis, Jia-ying Tang breaks down Shakespeare’s use of disguise into two broad categories: same-sex disguise and opposite-sex disguise.[1] In order to divide further the device, Tang references Susan Baker; Tang writes: “Baker divides disguise into four kinds — the concealing disguise, the substitutive disguise, the task-oriented disguise, and the improvisational disguise.”[2] Though referring only to Shakespeare, some of Tang’s ideas can be applied also to Machiavelli’s Mandragola. While Shakespeare employed a broader range of disguise devices in Twelfth Night than Machiavelli in The Mandrake Root, both Shakespeare and Machiavelli implemented “task-oriented,” means-to-an-end disguise devices into their plays. However, Shakespeare’s used of disguise more broadly, in Twelfth Night at least, than that of Machiavelli, who, in The Mandrake Root, used a means-to-an-end device almost exclusively.

The plot of The Mandrake Root is rather simple: Callimaco is, as Machiavelli called him, “a young Florentine in love,”[3] who is infatuated with Lucrezia, the wife of Messer Nicia, who is widely considered a fool by the characters of the play. Callimaco enlists the assistance of Ligurio — “a clever parasite,”[4] according to Machiavelli — to trick Nicia into allowing Callimaco to bed Nicia’s wife. Ligurio and Callimaco together hatch a plan to convince Nicia — who is unable to have children — that a magic plant, the mandrake root, will produce him a child; the only catch is: the man that makes love to a woman consuming the root’s potion will die; the only way for that man to live is to for another man to sleep with the woman — then, the second man will die. Along the way, “a priest whose services are for sale,”[5] Brother Timoteo, is sought out by Ligurio to convince Lucrezia to go along with the plan because she is not as easily prodded as was Nicia, who, in his supposed foolery, agrees to the plan almost immediately.

Throughout the story, a number of characters wear disguises; the most notable among them being Callimaco — who assumes a disguise both “as himself as well as a disguise of himself”[6] — and Timoteo, who is the only other character to disguise himself as another person. In the end, Timoteo, along with her mother, Sostrata, successfully convince Lucrezia to take part in the plot. Nicia, Ligurio, and Timoteo (all in disguise, but with Timoteo disguised as Callimaco) kidnap Callimaco, disguised as a random lute player, and take him to Lucrezia’s bedroom (presumably after Nicia had already been there) so that Callimaco may make love to Lucrezia and allow Nicia to live. The play ends with a celebration and some comments on the part of Nicia which may leave the reader wondering what he really knows about the previous night’s goings-on.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, however, cannot be described so simply, so only the parts that are relevant to this piece will be discussed at length, with other portions of the plot inserted as illuminating details. In the second scene of the play, Viola is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother, Sebastian. She takes to Illyria disguised, in man’s attire, as Cesario, so she can become a page and, later, a close confidant of Orsino, Duke of Illyria. The majority of Viola’s duties for Orsino involve attempting to woo Oliva, a countess and member of the Twelfth Night ‘high court’ for him; however, Oliva wants nothing to do with Orsino and, instead, falls in love with Cesario, who is Viola is disguise. At the mid-point of the play, Sebastian arrives in Illyria and there is much confusion between him and the other characters because they mistake him for Cesario. Confrontations result from this mistaken-identity case between the plays characters and both Viola and Sebastian, separately, of course. At plays end, however, both Sebastian and Viola appear together and Viola reveals her true, female identity. After Viola’s revelation, Orsino pledges his love for Viola and Oliva the same to Sebastian. The main character that appears in disguise is, as has already been discussed, Viola, but Feste, the jester for Oliva’s late father, also appears disguised as a religious figure in a trick on one of the play’s characters.

Shakespeare and Machiavelli’s usage of disguise is similar, most simply, in that both men used very complicated and confusing devices in their respective works. In Shakespeare’s case, when played on stage during Shakespeare’s time, a man would have played the part of Viola, the English stage excluded women during his time. Then, when Viola disguises herself as Cesario, the man playing Viola would have to, in turn, disguises himself as a man, which he already is; hence, a complicated man-playing-a-woman-playing-a-man scenario.

Machiavelli, for his part, also employed a hard-to-follow disguise motif. When Nicia is initially brought by Ligurio to meet Callimaco, Callimaco pretends to be a doctor — by Ligurio’s orders — so as to convince Nicia that the mandrake root really can cure his child-rearing problems, which will allow Callimaco to bed Nicia’s wife. Ligurio, later in the play, devises the plan to have Callimaco captured and brought into Lucrezia’s bedroom, but one problem arises: Nicia already knows Callimaco as a doctor. To solve the problem, Callimaco is convinced to disguise his face so that Nicia will not recognize him and don a lute player’s garb. Callimaco’s role in the play, then, involves the complicated schema, as Harvey C. Mansfield pointed out in an essay in The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works, “of a disguise as himself [Dr. Callimaco] as well as a disguise of himself [the lute player].”[7] There is a definite similarity in Machiavelli and Shakespeare’s usage of disguise in that both utilized difficult-to-comprehend elements of disguise in their works.

Both The Mandrake Root and Twelfth Night deal with love through disguise, which is a further similarity between Machiavelli and Shakespeare’s implementation of disguise into their plays, though Machiavelli’s take on love differs greatly from that of Shakespeare. Viola falls in love with Orsino early in the play, but it is her male disguise that gains her a close enough proximity to the Duke to fall in love with him that keeps her from expressing her love for him.[8] Oliva, on the other hand, falls in love Cesario, and there is no indication that her love, though expressed towards a person who is not what Oliva thinks he is, is anything but genuine.

If the sort of love Shakespeare describes in Twelfth Night is true love, however, the same cannot be said for Machiavelli’s Mandragola. Throughout the majority of the play, Callimaco’s goal is to bed Lucrezia, nothing more. It is only after Ligurio’s insistence that Callimaco, at play’s end, actually says that he loves Lucrezia, but that may have happened only because of Ligurio’s persistence. In one of the final scenes of the play, Callimaco tells Ligurio of his night with Lucrezia; he says: “when I told her about my love for her, and how easily the stupidity of her husband might allow us to love happily . . . and how I would marry her as soon as god made other plans for Messer Nicia.”[9] Such a statement surly sounds to be true love, but throughout the rest of the play Callimaco speaks very differently of his intentions with Lucrezia; his discussion about her throughout the play sound much more similar to his statement to Siro, his servant, in the first act: “. . . I want her so badly that I am nearly out of my mind.”[10] Indeed, Callimaco does not say that his love is causing his to go out of his mind — he speaks only of his “want” for her. In any event, disguise is used by Callimaco in order to achieve his end of making love to Lucrezia. Though a love-through-disguise theme is used by both Machiavelli and Shakespeare, they differ in that Shakespeare’s characters experience true love while Machiavelli’s Callimaco, for much of the play, desires only sex.

Machiavelli and Shakespeare’s usage of disguise are further similar in that both men use disguise to hide what they feel are religion’s true intentions. Mandragola’s religious figure, Timoteo, is painted by Machiavelli as someone who cares only for money and would do anything to earn it. J.R. Hale writes, in the introduction to his translation of The Mandrake Root in Eight Great Comedies, that Machiavelli “does not scorn religion; in a way he does worse . . . He cheapens it so that it becomes a useful tool for the man who wishes to control.”[11] In other words, Timoteo is used by Ligurio and becomes nothing more than a means to Ligurio’s end of having Callimaco bed Lucrezia; Timoteo allows himself to become such a tool because of his desire for money. In 5.3, for example, Timoteo is congratulating himself on a job well done after the plan goes off, seemingly, without problem when he decides that he cannot be seen outside and he will “wait for [the others] in church, where my services bring a higher price.”[12] In this case, Timoteo is using the church as a means to his end of obtaining more money. He would have been provided money for his “services” outside of the church, but Timoteo is so greedy for money that if there is the slightest chance he can earn more money through some act, he will almost certainly perform that act.

Shakespeare, too, confuses the intent of religion by having Feste appear before Malvolio, a character in Twelfth Night who has gone mad, disguised as a religious figure, Sir Topas. Feste does so because of the prodding of Maria, Oliva’s servant, and Sir Toby. In appearing before Malvolio disguised as a religious figure, Feste takes on a role similar to Timoteo — that of the malleable religious figure. In addition, Feste’s role as Sir Topas is indicative of Shakespeare’s thoughts on religion and how it can, as is for Machiavelli, be manipulated. Machiavelli questions the role of religion in The Mandrake Root by making his religious figure care for nothing but money; Shakespeare accomplishes a similar goal by having Feste appear before Malvolio in disguise as a religious figure, making all religious figures appear as if they can be bought or convinced into doing anything.

In Twelfth Night and The Mandrake Root, Shakespeare and Machiavelli employ a character who discovers the true identity of a disguised character in the play, but does not give away that character’s true identity because of a self-interested motive. It can be argued that both Feste and Nicia know who a disguised character is in their respective plays: Feste with Viola, disguised as Cesario; and Nicia with Timoteo, disguised as Callimaco. Feste’s conversation with Cesario is interesting because he refers to him as sir in virtually every line. The only other characters in the play that Feste refers to as sir with any regularity are the members of Twelfth Night’s ‘high court’, Orsino and Oliva (Feste calls Oliva lady, modonna, or madam, which are all roughly the female equivalent to the word sir).

Feste addresses Orsino with sir in nearly every line. In 2.4, for example, Feste says to Orsino: “No pains, sir. I take pleasure in singing, sir.”[13] Feste speaks to Oliva in much the same way, simply replacing sir with a respectful female counterpart. Other characters of lower social standing, on the other hand, do not receive the same verbal treatment from Feste. Outside of Cesario and Orsino, Feste refers only to two other characters as sir: one of them, Malvolio, happened to be in Oliva’s presence; thus Feste calling him sir, is likely out of respect for Oliva. In the other case, the character had sir in his formal name.

The way Feste speaks to Cesario in 3.1, however, coupled with the way he speaks to Sebastian in 4.1, offer compelling evidence that Feste knows Cesario’s true identity. As Michael Pennington observed in Twelfth Night: A User’s Guide, “of all people’s, it could be the trained eye of the Fool [Feste] that sees through [Viola’s] disguise.”[14] In 3.1, Feste says sir to Cesario almost every line he speaks to him; sometimes, Feste says sir to Cesario as many as three times. In one example, Feste says to Cesario: “Not so, sir, I do care for something; but in my conscience, sir, I do not care for you. If that be to care for nothing, sir, I would it would make you invisible.”[15] Orsino is the only character that Feste would refer to with three sirs; Cesario certainly is not on the same level as Orsino, as Cesario is but a mere page of Orsino’s. In 4.1, Feste encounters Sebastian, who he mistakes for Cesario. Not once does Feste call Sebastian sir, however, which does not make sense, considering: Feste should think Sebastian is Cesario, for one; and, moreover, Feste had just spoken with Cesario an act earlier and referred to him as sir many times. Unless, of course, Feste knows that who he is speaking with is not Cesario because he knows that Cesario is actually a woman disguised as a man. The only reason, then, Feste would refer to Cesario as sir and not Sebastian is because Feste was taking a subtle jab at Cesario each time he said sir.

Feste and Cesario have an interaction in 3.1 which offers further evidence as to what Feste knows about Cesario’s true identity:

FESTE. Now Jove in his next commodity of hair send thee a beard.

VIOLA. By my throth I’ll tell thee, I am almost sick for one,

though I would not have it grow on my chin. Is thy lady within?

FESTE. Would not a pair of these have bred, sir?

VIOLA. Yes, being kept together and put to use.

FESTE. I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a

Cressida to this Troilus.

VIOLA [giving money]. I understand you, sir, ‘tis well begged.[16]

In the line just prior to the above passage, Viola gave Feste money as a sort of bribe to convince him not to reveal her identity; as Pennington observed, Oliva “resorts to giving [Feste] money, the one thing that always distracts him, and Pavlov-like, he sets about doubling it.”[17] After receiving the first payment, Feste makes a comment to Viola about her next “commodity of hair” and Viola finds herself worried once again that Feste might give her away. Feste does not, however, because Viola pays him off again, which leaves Feste contented because he is, as A.C. Bradley put it in an essay in Twelfth Night: Critical Essays, a “shameless beggar.”[18]

It can be similarly argued that Nicia knows the true identity of Timoteo, disguised as Callimaco and, in turn, Callimaco, as the lute player. In order for Nicia to fall for the poor disguise Callimaco implemented as the lute player — distorting his facial features without assistance of a mask — Nicia would have to be a true fool; all of the characters in Mandragola do indeed seem to take that much as a fact. In the introduction to The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works, however, Vickie B. Sullivan poses the question, albeit indirectly: just how dumb is Nicia, anyway?[19] In the play, Nicia desires nothing more than to have a child; he says himself in the play’s second scene, “I want children so much, I am ready to do anything.”[20] All Nicia wants is to have children and he is willing to use any means necessary to achieve his end. As Mansfield so eloquently questioned, however, Nicia’s “stupidity consists in his single-minded desire to have children. Why is this necessarily so stupid? If it were an intelligent desire, then Nicia could be intelligent.”[21] That is, in order for Nicia to be considered foolish, it must be assumed that a “single-minded desire” for children is foolish.

If Nicia’s stupidity is forgotten about, however, it becomes possible to view Nicia as an intelligent character capable of uncovering disguise. Take, for example, an exchange Nicia has when he, in disguise, meets the other characters — Ligurio, Siro, and Timoteo (as Callimaco) — also disguised and ready to capture Callimaco in disguise and put the next phase of Ligurio’s plan in motion:

NICIA. Oh, you’re all here. If I hadn’t recognized you, I’d

have given you all a whack with my sword! Are you Li-

gurio? And you Siro? And this other is [Callimaco]?


LIGURIO. Yes, counselor.

NICIA. Let’s take a look. Oh, [Timoteo’s] disguised so well that not

even the sheriff would know him![22]

Nicia is seemingly unnecessarily scrupulous of the other characters in disguise, which may leave the reader wondering what he does or does not know. Furthermore, when Nicia decides to investigate the matter further, he looks only at Timoteo, who is disguised as Callimaco — he does not closely examine any other character. If Nicia is truly as foolish as he is taken to be, surely he would have been more trusting. Instead, when Ligurio tells him that Callimaco is indeed Callimaco, Nicia needs to see for himself, almost as if he was expecting Callimaco not to be there.

As Mansfield suggests, it could be possible that Nicia knows he his being cuckolded, but plays the fool in order to achieve his end of having a child. “Instead of being forced to trust his tormentors . . . [Nicia] could be pretending to be forced,” Mansfield writes, “all the time laughing up his sleeve and counting on the character of Ligurio and Brother Timothy to make good on his trust.”[23] In his translation of the play, James B. Atkinson, one of the editors of The Comedies of Machiavelli, has Nicia providing Callimaco, at the end of the play, “with a house key, so that he ‘can get back in’ whenever he feels like it.”[24] His translation is slightly different than the one the writer is using, but he further illuminates the point that Nicia was knowingly cuckolded. Callimaco did not enter Nicia’s house at any point in the play other than the time when he bedded Lucrezia, yet Nicia is telling Callimaco to come “back in” his house. Nicia and Feste’s reactions to disguise are similar in that both appear to figure out that a character in their respective play is not who he says he is; neither put an end to the ruse because not doing so is of great benefit to both characters: Feste gets his money and Nicia his child.

Though Shakespeare used a variety of disguise devices in his plays, he and Machiavelli were similar in that both implemented a means-to-an-end, or task-oriented device. There are other ways, for sure, in which Shakespeare and Machiavelli’s usage of disguise were similar — many are discussed above — but the main similarity falls in their use of the task-oriented device. The uncovering of disguise happens to characters in both of Tang’s broad categories: same-sex disguise, when Nicia discovers Timoteo; and opposite-sex disguise, when Feste discovers Viola’s true identity. Not only is Shakespeare’s usage of disguise more broad than Machiavelli’s, it is equal opportunity — disguising a woman and then discovering her in much the same fashion that Machiavelli uses with Nicia’s discovery. Machiavelli and Shakespeare’s main similarity with regard to disguise, however, is that both men employ a disguise device with a motive all its own.


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[1] Jia-ying Tang. “Disguise: An Alternative Process of Identity-Fashioning in Shakespeare” (Master’s thesis, Northcentral University, 2003), 6.

[2] Tang, “Disguise,” 21.

[3] Niccolo Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” in The Portable Machiavelli, eds. Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 433.

[4] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 433.

[5] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 433.

[6] Vickie B. Sullivan, ed., The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli: Essays on the Literary Works (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 24.

[7] Sullivan, ed., The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli, 24.

[8] Stanley Wells, Twelfth Night: Critical Essays (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1984), 264).

[9] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 4.4.476. Reference is to act, scene, and page number.

[10] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 1.1.437.

[11] Sylvan Barnet, Morton Berman, and William Burto, eds., Eight Great Comedies (New York: NAL Penguin Inc., 1958), 67.

[12] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 5.3.476.

[13] William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night, or What You Will,” in The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition, eds. Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, and Katharine Eisaman Maus (New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1997), 2.4.67. Reference is to act, scene, and line.

[14] Michael Pennington, Twelfth Night: A User’s Guide (London: Nick Hern Books Ltd, 2000), 147.

[15] Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night,” 3.1.24-26.

[16] Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night,” 3.1.39-47.

[17] Pennington, Twelfth Night, 147.

[18] Wells, Twelfth Night, 21.

[19] Sullivan, ed., The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli, xvii.

[20] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 1.2.440.

[21] Sullivan, ed., The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli, 15.

[22] Machiavelli, “The Mandrake Root,” 4.9.470.

[23] Sullivan, ed., The Comedy and Tragedy of Machiavelli, 19.

[24] David Sices and James B. Atkinson, eds., The Comedies of Machiavelli (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2007), 18.

Last Updated: 8/12/16