All the World’s a Stage

John Hodgkiss
A scene from the Handspring Puppet Company’s production of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses, directed by William Kentridge

Machiavelli’s The Prince was presented to the Medici family in 1513 with a dedication that turned out to be much more than a flattering formality since, for the next five centuries, it remained attached to the most influential treatise of modern political theory. Machiavelli began by observing that “those who strive to obtain the good graces of a prince are accustomed to come before him with such things as they hold most precious”—horses, arms, jewels—but he offered instead his thoughts on the conduct of princes. By the end of the sixteenth century poets and musicians would be offering the Medici something new, unprecedented, and precious: opera. Machiavelli, in dedicating The Prince, affected modesty: “I have not embellished with swelling or magnificent words, nor stuffed with rounded periods, nor with any extrinsic allurements or adornments.” He claimed to value truth over ornament—but opera would become the most magnificently embellished of cultural products, lavishly expensive to produce and sensually dazzling to the eye and ear, as it remains to this day.

Mitchell Cohen’s The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart has boldly placed Machiavelli and early modern political theory at the center of the early history of opera, reflecting creatively on the ways in which the reverberations of the great Florentine realist reached even into the musical realm. For just as The Prince was presented as a precious gift precisely because it described and prescribed the conduct of princes, so the operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries placed princes on the stage and let them sing their political circumstances.

Cohen focuses on Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the founding figures of the operatic form in 1607, singing his plea for Eurydice in the underworld kingdom of Pluto, and also on Monteverdi’s Nero, an emperor of extreme notoriety, working together with his scheming soulmate and eventual empress in The Coronation of Poppea (1642–1643). Monteverdi achieved an almost perfectly Machiavellian opera with The Coronation of Poppea, inasmuch as the two villains, Nero and Poppea, triumph without a moment of self-doubt and, after eliminating dissidents and rivals—including the philosopher Seneca—sing a rapturously beautiful love duet as they gaze upon one another in consummate mutual infatuation. Interestingly, the most important part of princely character, which Machiavelli called virtù—meaning not moral virtue but something closer to virile prowess (colloquially, perhaps, “balls”)—belongs not to the masculine basso register of Seneca but rather to the soprano register of a castrato, who sings the unscrupulous Nero.

Anyone familiar with the works of Verdi—which lie outside the scope of Cohen’s book—would immediately be able to point to his musical gallery of Machiavellian princes who use, abuse, and consolidate power, like the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto (set in the century of Machiavelli and the city…

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