The Mandrake Root
(La Mandragola)

Usually when a person thinks of Niccolò Machiavelli, he immediately thinks of Cesare Borgia, ruthless power politics, professional amorality, and the oft-repeated maxim that says 'the ends justify the means.' In another time -- his own -- Machiavelli was more famous as a sometimes politician who had taken up a number of literary pursuits, specifically history, novellas, and comedic theater. Machivelli's most famous non-political work is his play La Mandragola, translated either as the Mandrake Root or simply the Mandrake. The Mandrake Root is Machiavelli's tribute to ancient Greek and Roman comedy, with particular attention paid to Aristophanes and Plautus (a work by the latter of whom apparently inspired him to write the play).

The story goes like this: Callimaco is a young Florentine man who has spent most of his formative life in Paris, wary of the political turmoil that has enveloped his native city in the time since he left it upon his parents' deaths, intending never to return. However, another Italian passing through Paris has related to him the tales of the grace and beauty of one Lucrezia, the young daughter of an important Florentine family, and Callimaco returns to catch a glimpse of her. Instantly smitten, he makes it his cause in life to get her in the sack. There's only one problem: Lucrezia is married to Signor Nicia Calfucci, an older lawyer in Florence. With his manservant Siro (the only character in the play who seems to have any common sense) and the conman Ligurio (described as a former marriage broker who "simply begs his meals now"), Callimaco comes up with a complicated plan involving himself, his two friends, a priest, Lucrezia's somewhat loose mother Sostrata, and eventually even Nicia.

Callimaco is aided by three factors: first, Nicia is a moron; second, Nicia is desperate for children but he and his wife are not intimate for various reasons; and finally, Sostrata is just as desperate for her daughter to have a child as Nicia and has a rather immoral past. Ligurio and Siro tell Nicia that Callimaco is a doctor who specializes in fertility problems, and he becomes convinced of this lie when Callimaco uses impressive-sounding Latin expressions stolen directly from a 16th century medical textbook in their otherwise mundane conversations. Suitably impressed, he reacts variously:

Christ, what a doctor! (In response to Callimaco saying "good day to you" in Latin.)
My God, this is the best doctor in the world! (Upon being told that there are many different potential causes for infertility in Latin.)
Oh, in the name of Saint Puccio's cunt! This fellow really knows how to talk -- the more I know him, the smarter he gets! (This follows a small paragraph about urine coloration.)

The plan is ridiculous. Callimaco tells Nicia that to get his wife all hot and bothered, he needs to make her drink a potion made from a mandrake root. There's a (completely untrue) catch, however: the man who immediately sleeps with Lucrezia after she has ingested the mandrake root will die in eight days. His solution is for the group of them to go into the streets and abduct a young man, rough him up, and throw him in bed with Lucrezia. That way, he'll be the one to die and the aged Nicia can get to work making some babies. Nicia is reluctant to be made a cuckold at first, but after Callimaco reminds him that all French noblemen (including the King) are cuckolds, he agrees. The point of the plan, of course, is that a disguised Callimaco is designed to be the "unfortunate victim." They enlist Brother Timoteo, a chronically bored priest who will do anything for money, to give the whole unseemly affair God's blessing and to disguise himself as Callimaco during the faked abduction. Amazingly, the plan goes off with a hitch and Callimaco reveals to Lucrezia his love for her and she decides to make the arrangement more permanent, and agrees to take on Callimaco as her full-time lover. The play ends with Nicia inviting Callimaco and his pals to dinner with everyone exchanging knowing (and not-so-knowing, in the case of Sostrata, Nicia, and the priest) winks and nods.

Not surprisingly, since the play was written by Machiavelli, there's a modern tendency to apply retroactive allegories to the characters. More specifically, there's a tendency to assume that Machiavellia was following in the tradition of that other great Florentine Dante Alighieri by writing a screed-as-satire against his political enemies. The other side holds that Machiavelli had no such intent, and that the Mandrake Root was simply meant to be a night of self-contained bawdy fun. In reading it, I think it's clear that the Mandrake Root actually falls somewhere in the middle. To understand why, however, it's important to know a little bit about Machiavelli's career up until that point.

Machiavelli was a lifelong diplomat and politician, with his most famous exploits being those related to his repeated (and often fruitless) quests for patronage as well as his service with Cesare Borgia, the favorite son of the notoriously corrupt secular Pope Alexander VI. It was relatively early in his career when Machiavelli was sent to France to negotiate with the then King Louis XII about the alliance between their two states and a war raging in the Italian peninsula. The experience at Louis's court left a bad taste in his mouth, and Machiavelli considered him the complete antithesis of the effective ruler profiled in his seminal work, the Prince. Various characters make disparaging comments about Louis in the Mandrake Root, including the part about his being a cuckold: in one fell swoop, Machiavelli was able to insult both a weak King and the loose morals of French women.

In 1512, Machiavelli was implicated in a plot to overthrow the government of Florence, leading him to be tortured and imprisoned for a year until Pope Leo X ordered his release and exile. It is likely that the Mandrake Root was written during his exile and my reading of it has it as an allegorical satire of certain situations rather than specific individuals whom Machiavelli detested. Nicia, an incompetent lawyer patently unfit for such a beautiful wife as Lucrezia, might be said to symbolize the ineffective ruling class of Florence. The priest obsessed with money (who, tellingly, is rarely found inside the church) should be a rather obvious commentary about simony and the avariciousness of the medieval Catholic Church. Lucrezia may represent the city or population of Florence -- an object of much desire who knowingly falls prey to the most absurd plot imaginable but who goes along with it anyway because there are few compelling reasons not to -- and Machiavelli's frustration with it. Including at the beginning of the play is a rant by Machiavelli that is probably the 16th century equivalent of a bitchy livejournal post in which the author snarkily comments about his or her achievements that go terminally unrecognized and unappreciated.

But even if there aren't any political implications to the play, it's still a pretty funny story. Since the Prince was never actually published during Machiavelli's lifetime (it was originally privately circulated), the Mandrake Root was one of his most famous public works while he was alive. It created something of a sensation when it was first staged, with one show having to be stopped after the fourth act because of the tremendous reception at one amphitheater (think of a less hostile version of the initial response to Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring). Most recently, the Mandrake Root has been the subject of a made-for-television movie in Romania, not to mention Italian and French productions. Stage versions have become more common in recent years also. Will this do anything to help Machiavelli's reputation among the masses? Probably not. But hey, didn't the man say that it's better to be feared than loved anyway?

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