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Why Should I Buy This Book

History has pretty much overlooked Niccolò Machiavelli’s Clizia, yet the play is certainly a fascinating and important theatre piece by one of history’s most brilliant and controversial authors. Moreover, Clizia has one of the most impressive pedigrees in theatrical history.

The play originated in a Greek comedy named Kleorou-menoi, or The Lot Drawer, by Diphilus. Written between 332 and 320 B.C., it is classified as a New Comedy, a late form of Greek comic drama featuring plots of domestic intrigue and stock dramatic characters—young lovers, faithful servants, wily slaves, identical twins, lecherous old men, and long-lost children—who appear in play after play.

New Comedy was considered pure entertainment, in contrast from the more politically aimed Old Comedy of Aristophanes, and its basic form—which still survives in situation comedies on contemporary television—was adapted by Roman dramatists—Plautus and Terence in particular— into the Latin dramas known as fabula palliata, or “comedies in Greek costumes.” The original play of Kleoroumenoi, which is now lost, was adapted a century and a half later by Plautus, who translated it as Sorientes (which also means The Lot Drawers), and, for a later revival, renamed the play Casina, after its (non-appearing) heroine. That is the script upon which Machiavelli based his Clizia in 1524.

Clizia is what Italian scholars call a commedia erudita, or “learned comedy.” Such plays were “learned” only in the sense that their authors required some learning (of Latin) to adapt them from Roman models; far from being “erudite,” the plays are without exception licentious, bawdy and topical. Both farcical and deliberately offensive, these “learned comedies” are composed of gross puns, hilarious confrontations, absurd characters, sexual escapades, visual gags, “stand-up” soliloquies to the audience, and a rambunctious sense of general disrespect, if not outright tastelessness. By 1570 or so, the commedia erudita (though it was not known by that name in its own time) had given way to the more refined and professionalized commedia dell’arte—which was known by that name, which translates as “comedy of artists.”

Machiavelli’s 1524 Clizia more or less previews the dell’arte form, with its protagonist, Nicomaco (a name, obviously, parodying the play’s author) being a precursor to the character of Pantalone, a wealthy but aged man who has an improper taste for young women. In 1609, Clizia, became a source for English Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or the Silent Woman.

Thus the dramatic historian can easily trace a continuous line of development running from the Greek Diphilus to the Roman Plautus to the Italian Machiavelli to the British Jonson—and probably to a host of modern “dirty old man” scripts for stage, film and TV writers as well. It is a minor masterpiece, perhaps, but one poised at a major junction in dramatic history.

If Clizia has been overlooked in the past five centuries, its author has suffered no such fate. But destiny has dealt Niccolò Machiavelli a cruel blow. Portrayed internationally as a conniving, immoral and evil villain from his own lifetime to the present day, he was in fact one of the greatest political scientists and diplomatists of all time; moreover, he was a man of distinctly republican (meaning democratic) views, who vigorously deplored tyranny in both words and deeds.

Born in Florence in 1469, Machiavelli became secretary to the Florentine Signoria (the equivalent of the Secretary of State in the United States) in 1498. There, for fourteen years, he artfully preserved Florence’s republican independence against the machinations of the deposed Medici rulers in his home town, of Pope Alexander VI in Rome and his brutal son Cesare Borgia, of the kings of Spain and France and the emperor of Germany, and of dozens of petty kings, dukes and warlords of city-states on all sides: Venice Milan, Naples and Pisa among them. An ideal man of the Renaissance, he created the first citizen militia in Europe and theorized the first model of a united state of Italy, which was not achieved until 1861.

These were truly amazing times, in which art, science, politics and literature conjoined more than a dozen provinces. When Florence needed new military weapons, Machiavelli commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to design them; when new town fortifications were required, Machiavelli hired Michelangelo to create their blueprints. And when Machiavelli began to write plays, he reached back to the ancient Roman dramatists for his models.

Unfortunately for him, however, the Medicis returned to power in 1512, and Machiavelli was thrown out of office, falsely accused of treason, and then jailed, tortured, and eventually exiled from his beloved Florence. Although eventually exonerated, his political career had ended. In a small village outside of town, he turned full-time to writing, and an unprecedented series of poems, plays, histories, biographies, discourses, letters, and essays flowed from his pen.

One manuscript, though not published until after his death, quickly became notorious: this was The Prince, a ruthlessly accurate description of (but not a prescription for) political manipulation, based on the cruelties of Cesare Borgia. Machiavelli gave his manuscript to the Medicis with the hope that they would bring him back into their Florentine government, but the Medicis had no intention of doing this, and soon “machiavellianism” entered the world’s languages as a synonym for political evil.

What have sadly been lost in his notoriety are Machiavelli’s literary genius, his absorbing wit, and his wide-ranging sense of delight. Although rigorously clear-minded and unsentimental (this can be seen immediately in Clizia, as well as The Prince), Machiavelli’s creative work includes a romantic and spiritual dimension, and an inspiring passion for freedom—which infused his political life as well as his literary endeavors.

On the surface, Clizia reveals more of Plautus than Machiavelli. The play is divided into five acts, which was the Roman standard, and it takes place within a single and near-continuous twenty-four-hour period, as was also proper in classical models. All the action is set on a single outdoor street, with characters arriving on stage while traveling to or from their homes, or from the church or marketplace; this form of staging requires little or no scenery (and no scene changes), and was ideal for uncomplicated stage presentation in both Plautus’ time and Machiavelli’s.

Most of the characters in Machiavelli’s play correspond with their counterparts in Plautus’ (although Machiavelli was the only one of the two to bring a Cleandro figure onstage), and that the title character (Clizia/Casina) does not appear in either play is also traditional, as unmarried women were not allowed to appear in public in ancient Greece, and hence did not appear in New Comedy. Finally, the play ends with the surprise arrival of a character that neatly resolves the plot in a single stroke: a classic deus ex machina (literally, a god on a flying machine) from ancient Roman times.

But Machiavelli also made a great many changes from his Plautine source. His play is actually less bawdy than his predecessor’s, and the overtones of homosexual humor in the bedroom scenes of acts 4 and 5 are far less direct than in Plautus’ version, where Lysidamus (the Nicomaco character) is unambiguously bisexual. By bringing Cleandro onto the stage, Machiavelli adds a lover to the plot, and somewhat humanizes the more coldblooded Plautine situation: we are even given to understand that Clizia loves Cleandro, too, making the romantic theme reciprocal unlike Plautus’ version, which was purely lust-driven. Machiavelli also adds a prologue, and songs between each act, which lend his play a more presentational style, and begins the tradition of the commedia erudita and dell’arte formats.

Machiavelli’s major changes from Plautus, however, are in his characterizations of Sofronia and Nicomaco. In Sofronia, the author has created a woman of more depth, intelligence, wit, fair-mindedness, and human compassion than can be seen in the Plautine original; indeed, Sofronia may be seen as one of the first dominant heroines in post-medieval drama, as she is both winning and winsome. And Nicomaco, whose name, of course, is a shorthand contraction of its author’s, is not drawn merely with tottering buffoonery: we surely sense in this role the author’s own ironic and self-deprecating laughter at his folly in the waning years of his own life, and a sense of repentance for his excesses.

Nicomaco’s repentance and Sofronia’s “victory” notwithstanding, however, no one can consider this play terribly enlightened with regard to the role of women in family life. Machiavelli simply accepts and passes on the tradition of the “silent woman” (Clizia) who has little or no say in her own affairs, and looks with comic derision—but not moral outrage—at the specter of forced sexual incest. Is derision enough? Contemporary readers and audiences must arrive a their own verdict.


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