Today Machiavelli is known almost exclusively as a political thinker, but to his contemporaries he was also an expert on herbs and poisons. Though his medicinal writings no longer exist, Machiavelli is cited twice in 16th-century manuals as an expert on spider poison. Likely, he would have been extremely familiar with the early modern association between poison and women’s bodies. The stuff of popular legend as well as medical phenomenon, the idea of women’s poisonous bodies – sometimes killing a man after sex – peaked around the time that Machiavelli was writing in the 1500s. Women’s association with poison permeated folklore as well as religious writings; Albertus Magnus, the Medieval saint and scientist, for example, recounts a small girl who was unaffected by her diet of spider venom (7.2.5).
Machiavelli’s interest in poisons appears where one least expects it. His comedic play, La mandragola (c. 1518), features a questionable mandrake potion that Lucrezia, the beautiful wife of an elderly and sterile lawyer, has to ingest to bear an heir. Little does she know that Callimaco, an unscrupulous Florentine student who is enamored with her, has concocted a plan: he will disguise himself as a doctor and convince Nicia, Lucrezia’s husband, that he has a mandrake potion that cures sterility. However, this miraculous drug has an unfortunate side-effect: after the woman ingests it, her body kills the first man she sleeps with. Nicia is desperate enough for an heir to agree to this ruse. What follows is an outlandish strategy, in which Lucrezia’s husband, priest, and mother agree to trick her into sleeping with Callimaco so that she might produce children.
It might initially be difficult to reconcile Machiavelli, the shrewd political theorist, with Machiavelli, the author of this blockbuster farcical play. Effectively a tragedy hidden inside of a comedy, the play makes up for what it lacks in political overtones with sexual innuendos. In it, Lucrezia is stripped of her consent, piece by piece, and is eventually cornered into sleeping with Callimaco. Pinned down by forces religious (the priest), social (the “doctors”), patriarchal (her husband), and familial (her mother), Lucrezia’s fertility and body are subject to exploitation by various stakeholders. Like Queen Caterina de Medici, who infamously rubbed feces on her genitals because her doctors told her to, Lucrezia’s body bears the burden of these fertility “cures:” she is forced to sleep with a stranger with questionable motives; she is required to ingest the poison. Callimaco’s ruse systematically capitalizes on the misguided biological tenets that legitimize the disenfranchisement of women, and Machiavelli’s parody exposes the farcical nature of these treatments. Machiavelli’s depiction of the parodic interactions between Nicia and Callimaco – two medically incompetent men who discuss the color of Lucrezia’s urine, her libido, as well as her body temperature – does not simply undermine Nicia’s virility, as is how critics have normally interpreted this scene, but rather it undermines the practice of medicine as a whole (2.5). It is possible that Machiavelli was interested in lighting a fire to the Medici’s reputation by caricaturing the medical profession more broadly because, as the name Medici suggests, they had historically been a family of doctors before they became political figures. This would change how we perceive Lucrezia, who was historically a symbol of Republicanism in Renaissance Florence.
The nature of the mandrake poison highlights complicated sexual stakes for the development of Lucrezia’s character in the play. Lucrezia’s body can accommodate what would otherwise kill any man. This tradition of women’s poisonous bodies might have started with the story of Sarah in the Old Testament, who was discouraged from having sex with her husband for a few days after her menses so that she could rid her body of toxins. The association with poison shows that women’s bodies were still perceived as posing a threat to the men who desired them, notwithstanding that they were considered the physically weaker sex. Valeria Finucci writes that “the view that females are always somewhat poisonous was very much in tune with the philosophical necessity to biologize cultural tenets and postulate female bodies as inferior to males and positively dangerous” (87). Though this is true, the medical danger inherent to women’s bodies also masked that they were powerful, thus undermining the notion that they were simply inferior.
The interchange between female precarity and subversiveness might have originated from Machiavelli’s source material for the play. Lucrezia participates in a genealogy she shares with her namesake Lucretia, from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Both characters are desired because of their loyalty and virtue; and just as Sextus pursued Lucretia, in part, because she belonged to another man, so does Callimaco go to great lengths to assert his dominance over Nicia (Ronald Martinez 14). However, Livy’s Lucretia commits suicide because she is raped by Tarquin, and through her suicide she excises her potential culpability in her own rape; instead, she becomes the sacrificial victim that triggers the ousting of the monarchy in Rome (1.57-59). It is precisely because of Machiavelli’s writings on Livy’s Lucretia that the development of his character, Lucrezia, is so surprising.
In his analysis of Lucretia in Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli writes that all women present a threat to rulers. He does not bar women who were raped from this aphorism. It isn’t easy to discern – at first – how Lucrezia, who begrudgingly submits to Callimaco, might pose a danger to rulers. Her rape is, by comparison, trivialized and stripped of all the grand pro-Republicanism of Livy’s Lucretia. Scholars have noted, however, that the ending of the play is ambiguous because the social balance and harmony ultimately depend on Lucrezia’s sexual satisfaction (Nino Borsellino 234). Luckily for Callimaco, Lucrezia decides she enjoys the act. Indeed, If she hadn’t enjoyed it – the way that Livy’s Lucretia most certainly did not – one imagines that it might have precipitated a disaster for many involved. As such, women’s bodies were vulnerable but also destabilizing, as is shown by Lucretia’s rape and subsequent suicide, which triggers the overthrowing of the monarchy in Rome.
By the end of the play, Lucrezia is almost in a position of power, though her power does not rest on her potential to help herself as much as destroy everyone around her: she possesses the tacit ability to expose the priest as well as humiliate her husband. Like her namesake, she could inform Nicia that Callimaco had attempted to emasculate him, thereby pitting them against one another. Lucrezia’s decision to play along with the ruse is what makes the play a comedy, and not a tragedy in the same vein as Livy’s tale.
This intersection of women’s vulnerability and power is prescient, preceding the #MeToo movement by several centuries, and now we all know what Machiavelli had known all along: all women – even the raped ones – are a threat to rulers. When seen like this, Lucrezia is no longer in a position of absolute precarity; rather, her body and gender pose a threat, but this threat is naturalized by her desire to continue having sex with Callimaco once the ruse is over. Machiavelli rewrites Livy from the perspective of a Lucrezia who doesn’t initially consent but does eventually desire Callimaco, regardless of whether or not they produce children, and regardless of whether or not he is who he pretended to be. Seen like this, Lucrezia’s sexual desire isn’t subversive, but rather necessary; she has to consent, in order to preserve the status quo of the play. Had Livy’s Lucretia consented, the Tarquins would have remained in power; the monarchy would have persisted. On the simplest level, the political order would not have been destabilized had Livy’s Lucretia consented to Tarquin’s advances, as Machiavelli’s Lucrezia eventually did.
As is often the case with Machiavelli, his views on these misogynistic tropes are ambiguous. Is he ridiculing these tropes? Is he exposing them? Perpetuating them? Perhaps the only tenuous certainty is that Machiavelli believes that – even under the most misogynistic circumstances – Lucrezia’s vulnerability is relative, and that it veils a potential threat. At the cost of her own reputation and even life, Lucrezia could effectively bring down the men who control her and disrupt the social order that contains her.
Finucci, Valeria. The manly masquerade: masculinity, paternity, and castration in the Italian Renaissance. Duke University Press, 2003.
Machiavelli, Niccolò, and James B. Atkinson. The Comedies of Machiavelli: The Woman from Andros; The Mandrake; Clizia. Hackett Publishing, 2007.
Machiavelli, Niccolò. Discourses on Livy. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Magnus, Albertus. De animalibus. Impressum Venetijs : Per Joannem [et] Gregorius de Gregorijs fratres, 1495
Martinez, Ronald L. “The Pharmacy of Machiavelli: Roman Lucretia in Mandragola.” Renaissance Drama 14 (1983): 1-43.
Mercuriale, Girolamo. De venenis et morbis venenosis Tractatus. Venice: Meiutum, 1464.
Cover Image Source
“Mandragora.” Circa 1390, Tacuinum sanitatis. Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Codex Vindobonensis. nov. 2644. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mandragora_Tacuinum_Sanitatis.jpg, 20 Nov 2022.