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The Art of Villainy: Machiavelli and the Creation of the Fictional Villain
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Northeast Modern Language Association
Few political writers have had as much of an influence on literature as Niccolò Machiavelli. The Florentine and his ideas have inspired so many works throughout the years that one wonders if they should constitute their own separate genre. Although his presence is most keenly felt in early modern drama, whenever writers create a calculating villain or a speech on amoral politics, Machiavelli always seems to be standing over their shoulders.
To name but a few: early modern dramatists such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and John Webster; John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost; 17th century British poetry and prose writers who often saw the English Civil War in general and Oliver Cromwell in particular in light of Machiavelli’s writings; 18th century novelists like Henry Fielding and Choderlos de Laclos and dramatists like Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; 19th century novels like Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, etc. Although the Machiavellian villain seemed to fade somewhat during the 19th century, his influence on popular entertainment is as strong as ever. From Professor Moriarty and Fu Manchu, to Lex Luthor and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, to Voldemort and Tony Soprano, many popular villains seemed to have been composed in the shadow of their Florentine predecessor.
How does one writer seem to maintain such a hold on the popular imagination? Also, although Machiavelli may have inspired these writers, how have their own cultural backgrounds and historical contexts shaped their depiction of villainy? How is Shakespeare’s Machiavellian villain different from Ian Fleming’s, and why? By attempting to answer these questions, we hope to gain a better understanding not only of how our view of Machiavelli has changed over the years, but of how our ideas about villainy have also changed.
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