Machiavelli gets a bad rap, and not without some justification. As nearly all MBA students, dime-store dictators and White House counselors can agree, The Prince offers things How to Win Friends and Influence People simply can’t deliver. Indeed, the sum teaching of Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) historical, political and philosophic texts all point to one overarching lesson: to succeed in this world, you better know how to scheme. And so it is the ancient art of bamboozling that is on full display in Machiavelli’s comedy, Clizia, a little-known play ostensibly about household management.

The plot follows Nicomaco, a lecherous Florentine who recently has taken notice of the beautiful, teenaged Clizia, an orphan girl he and his wife Sofronia have raised since adolescence. Nature appears also to have awakened the passions of Nicomaco’s son, Cleandro—to say nothing of Sofronia’s suspicions. The matriarch outright forbids her son to pursue the dowry-less Clizia, but foiling her husband’s machinations will take greater ingenuity. Nicomaco attempts to marry Clizia to his loyal servant Pirro in exchange for perpetual “visitation rights.” But Sofronia so masterfully contrives events that, by the play’s end, Nicomaco is returned, with all due opprobrium, to the role of dutiful husband. Cleandro and Clizia are set to be married and the entire household enriched anew by the (unexpected) extravagant dowry promised by Clizia’s long-lost father, who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

Like all of Machiavelli’s books, to appreciate the sundry lessons in the Clizia fully, one needs to pay careful attention to interpretive clues this craftiest of philosophers leaves throughout the text. The first big one we get is in the prologue. Here, after ordering his characters out onstage for an introduction (Machiavelli was quite the central-planner!), he notes, almost offhand, that “Comedies were invented in order to benefit and delight the spectators.” It is important here to notice Machiavelli’s assertion that the comedic medium is a vehicle for instruction as well as laughter. One way comedies educate is by providing cover (hey, that corruption bit was just a joke, Savonarola!) for the author as he or she profanes away.

This is precisely what’s at the heart of the Clizia. What initially appears as a ribald take on familial affairs is, in the final analysis, a lesson on what one has to sacrifice in order to rule. Suffice to say, Sofronia is no simple matriarch; she is an embodiment of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

One of the keys to Sofronia’s success is an uncanny ability to survey, with steely-eyed realism, the affairs of her miniature principality. Understanding human beings as they are, not as they should be, emancipates her from falling victim to ungovernable passions. To take only one example, a natural reaction to attempted infidelity on behalf of one’s spouse often results in the kinds of outcomes only Dateline executives can dream. So how does Sofronia react to the news her husband is conniving to sleep with (essentially, to rape) Clizia (essentially, his daughter!)? Instead of a slap or insult or pathetically breaking down, she does something else: she waits and she plots.

As she plots, she realizes something straight out of The Prince, Chapter 27: it is safer to be feared than loved. Without spoiling too much of the ending, Nicomaco, in a case of mistaken identity, finds himself in a compromising position with a person he thought was Clizia (a quick anatomical investigation convinces him otherwise). Fearful he may become the laughingstock of Florence, Nicomaco discovers a newfound fealty to Sofronia he never knew existed. And so it happens, with every character that draws near Sofronia, they wittingly or unwittingly do her bidding until her final plan comes to fruition.

Machiavelli, for all his widespread infamy, is an extremely complex, subtle writer. His two most famous books, The Prince and The Discourses on Livy, have a labyrinthine quality that can stupefy first-time readers. Better, I think, to start with his plays (his other original drama, the Mandragola, has much in common with the Clizia), which are, in the main, hilarious distillations of his political philosophy. So, remember, when your spouse catches you reading the “evil” Machiavelli, hold your peace; for in a month’s time, if you order things as the Florentine advises, those dirty dishes, unwashed clothes and overflowing garbage bins will be a thing of a past.

Image by Everett Historical

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