Monthly Archives: January 2012

Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli

Philosopher, theorist, playwright
(1469 – 1527)

machiavelliAs a Florentine statesman, political philosopher, theorist, and playwright of the Italian Renaissance, Machiavelli addressed a wide range of political and historical topics while embracing strictly literary forms in his various publications.He came to be identified almost exclusively with the realist political theory that he described in The Prince (1513), which is basically a pragmatic guidebook for obtaining, and preserving, political power. Critics have long pointed out the incongruities between the republican philosophy that Machiavelli professed in Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius (1513–1517) that nations should be republics guided by the principles of liberty, rule of law, and civic virtue and the philosophy he described in The Prince, which has been variously hailed, denounced, and distorted as advocating an ends-justify the means approach to politics. His perspective in The Prince, inparticular, quickly gave rise to the term Machiavellian: deceiving and manipulating others for personal gain.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Machiavelli was born on May 3, 1469, in Florence, Italy, to an established middle class family whose members had traditionally filled responsible positions in local government. While little of the author’s early life has been documented, it is known that as a boy he learned Latin and quickly became a dedicated reader of the ancient classics. Machiavelli lived during the height of the Italian Renaissance, a ‘‘rebirth’’ of the arts and sciences that rivaled the accomplishments of the ancient Romans andGreeks. During this time, an interest in classical subjectsand techniques became popular, as shown in the art of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This interest in classical ideas is also reflected in the work of Machiavelli, who wrote much in support of the idea of republican government first developed by Plato.

Machiavelli’s first recorded involvement in the complicated political scene in Florence occurred in 1498, when he helped the political faction that replaced the dominant religious and political figures in Florence at the time. That same year, Machiavelli began acting as secretary to a sensitive government agency that dealt chiefly with warfare and foreign affairs. Machiavelli participated both in Italian politics and in diplomatic missions to foreign governments. He quickly gained political prominence and influence, so that by 1502 he had become a well-respected assistant to the republican head of state. His posts afforded him many opportunities over the next fourteen years to closely examine the inner workings of government and to meet prominent individuals, including Cesare Borgia, who became Machiavelli’s major model for leadership in The Prince. Read the rest of this entry

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Playwright
(1640–1689)

The early years of Aphra Behn, the first English woman to support herself by writing, are shrouded in some mystery. She was probably born in the village of Wye in the south eastern English county of Kent in 1640, but the identity of her parents is still not definitely known. Either when she was a teenager or slightly later in her early twenties she traveled to Surinamon the coast of South America. At the time, Surinam was an English trading colony, although it was later transferred to the Dutch. The experiences that Behn hadwhile she was there formed the basis for her later novel, Oroonoko (1688). When she returned to London around 1664, she married Mr. Behn, a trader in the city whose family origins were Dutch and German. Her husband probably died about a year later, and in the years that followed she began to circulate in court circles where shewas prized for her wit.

Sometime around 1667, Aphra Behn went to Antwerp on a spy mission for Charles II; at this time, she amassed numerous debts in the king’s service, and when she returned to England, she was imprisoned for them. She secured her release, but the king did not come to her aid. To pull herself out of her financial troubles, she began to write for the London stage, producing her first play, The Forced Marriage, in 1670. The play was staged by the Duke’s Men and was a great success. In seventeenth century England, it was generally customary for playwrights to receive box office proceeds for every third night that a play was performed. Since the theater going public in Restoration times was smaller than in Tudor or early Stuart times, most plays were staged for only a few nights. Behn’s The Forced Marriage had six performances and its author consequently received the production’s proceeds for two nights, a large sum that might keep a playwright sustained over months and even years.

Success and Failure

In 1671, the company for which Behn wrote, the Duke’s Men, moved into a handsome new theater designed for them by Sir Christopher Wren, and the author began to write plays at the rate of about one each year. Some of these (The Rover [1677] and The Second Part of the Rover) were successful, while a few others floundered and the author did not even receive one night’s proceeds. Except for one tragedy and a tragicomedy, all her works were in the genre of “comedy of manners” that the Restoration theater favored. In particular, she often railed against the custom of arranged murders common in her day. Behn seems also to have been an astute judge of public tastes. In 1670, the wildly popular actress Nell Gwyn had retired from the stage after becoming the king’s mistress; in 1677, Behn wrote the female lead in the comedy of manners play The Rover in an attempt to lure Gwyn out of her retirement and back to the stage. The actress obliged, helping to make the play a great hit.

aphra_behnThe following year, Behn wrote another work, Sir Patient Fancy, to include a role for the famous actress, and to honor her the playwright dedicated to Gwyn the publication of her work, The Feigned Courtesans in 1679. In these years Aphra Behn acquired her own dubious notoriety since herworks were often filled with the bawdy humor and suggestions of sexual license that were favored at the timeon London’s stage. By the 1680s Behn’s reputation as a dramatist of light comedies was well recognized, and her output of works was steadily increasing. Of all the Restoration dramatists, she ranked second only to John Dryden for the sheer number of her works. She produced three works, and another two in 1682. The last of these, Like Father Like Son, failed so miserably that the text was never published. In the prologue, too, she had included remarks that the censors found offensive, and she was arrested. While the outcome of her interrogation is not known, she was probably merely given a warning. But the incident, in tandem with the changing theatrical scene in London, seems to have discouraged Behn from writing for the theater for several years. Between 1682 and 1685, she apparently produced noworks for the London stage. In the years leading up to her arrest, too, the company for which she wrote, the Duke’s Men, entered on hard times, and by 1682 was forced to merge with The King’s Men in order to survive. Read the rest of this entry

Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné

Madame de La Fayette and Madame de Sévigné

madame de la fayetteTwo of the greatest prose masters of seventeenth century French were women: Madame de La Fayette (1634–1693) and Madame de Sévigné (1626–1696). Both were aristocrats who were prominent in the salon life of later seventeenth century Paris. Madame de La Fayette was a friend of the noble François de la Rochefoucauld, and together the two of them formed a literary circle that encouraged a restrained and commanding classical style. La Fayette became an author, and her masterpiece, The Princess of Cleves (1678), was first published anonymously. It is generally recognized as the finest French historical novel of the time. Set in the mid sixteenth century, its plot revolves around the efforts of a young aristocratic wife to suppress her passion for another man. The illicit couple’ slove remains unrequited, a fact that provided La Fayette with a springboard for examining the passions and their psychological effects, a central preoccupation of many of the French authors of the age.

By contrast, Madame de Sévigné did not devote her efforts to the writing of fiction. Instead she compiled a voluminous correspondence that is one of the remarkable literary artifacts of the age. A member of fashionable Parisian society for most of her life, she became an astute letter writer after her beloved daughter’s marriage. In the years following their separation the two exchanged almost 1,700 letters. They are generally informal and newsy, but they show a keen and discerning mind that was aware of all the best literary canons of the day. Although they are not formal in the manner of much Baroque state and diplomatic correspondence, they were nevertheless carefully crafted with a fine eye and ear for eliciting the best responses of those that read them. Above all, they show modern readers a letter writer who must also have been an astute conversationalist since, much like the conventions of salon speech, they ramble elegantly from one topic to another.

Religious Writing

Madame de SevigneIn the final decades of the seventeenth century, new moral influences at Versailles’ court led to a resurgence of religious and moralistic writing. Indeed much of French writing in the seventeenth century had been religious in tone, as elsewhere in Europe. The seventeenth century had opened with the great devotional works of François de Sales (1567–1622) and others who argued for a reform in the church and the amendment of individual lives. At mid-century the controversies between Jesuits and Jansenists had resulted in a steady outpouring of polemical tracts and satirical works like Blaise Pascal’s famous Provincial Letters.

Yet after 1680 a change in the tone in the literary circles surrounding King Louis XIV is also evident. In these years the king increasingly fell under the influence of his mistress, and later wife, Madame de Maintenon, an uncompromising moralist long credited with encouraging Louis to revoke the Edict of Nantes and to take other actions to uphold French Catholicism. At court, once gay theatrical comedies disappeared in favor of the new serious and “morally uplifting” operas of Jean-Baptiste Lully. Balls and other festivities disappeared, and many at court dedicated themselves to the devotional life. Among the great writers who took up this charge to moral perfection, Read the rest of this entry

Alexandre Hardy

Alexandre Hardy

Alexandre HardyPlaywright
(1575–1632)

Little is known about the circumstances of the French playwright Alexandre Hardy’s early life or education. He was born sometime around 1575, but later attempts by theater historians to construct his biography must be looked at cautiously, since few documents survive that allow us to construct his life. Like the Golden Age Spanish playwright, Lope de Vega, Hardy was similarly prolific, although his crowd pleasing style has more similarities to the popular commercial theater of the Renaissance than to the greater finesse achieved during the great age of achievement that developed in French theater by the midseventeenth century. In a long career Hardy claimed to have written more than 600 plays. Unfortunately, only 34 of these survive, a sampling that allows us to gauge his talents, which most critics have insisted lay in his lyrical poetic style. Hardy’s plots, by contrast, were often problematic, although his plays had a wide appeal.

At the time Hardy wrote for the Parisian stage, the medieval Confraternity of the Passion still controlled Paris’s chief theater, the Hôtel de Bourgogne. In 1402 the French crown had given the Confraternity a monopoly to stage religious plays in Paris. The organization developed as a guild of amateur actors until 1548, when the local Parliament or town council outlawed the staging of the traditional religious mystery cycles. In the same year, though, the confraternity remodeled a hall inside the former residence of the Dukes of Burgundy in the city, the Hôtel de Bourgogne, and began to stage farces and other light entertainments before a paid audience.

The group also rented out their facility to other troupes, and because they still possessed a medieval monopoly, anyone hoping to stage a drama in Paris had to do so under their auspices. In effect, the Confraternity thus became the chief royal censors, charged with inspecting the material that was to be performed before Parisian subjects. The theater in the Hotel de Bourgogne flourished for a while, but during the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), civil disruption in France exacted a toll on its popularity. Most tragedies written during this period served as a kind of literary commentary on the bleak course of the wars and never made it to the stage. Read the rest of this entry