Today we celebrate the birthday of the prince of political persuasion, Niccolò Machiavelli. Born in Florence on this day in 1469, Machiavelli was a diplomat and writer during the Renaissance. He wrote a lot, but there is only one text for which the name of Machiavelli will also be associated, his political treatise “The Prince”.
Written in 1513 but widely circulated only about five years after his death in 1532, “The Prince” was Machiavelli’s treatise on how successful political leaders will make immoral or amoral choices to achieve their goals.
‘The Prince’ is considered one of the earliest pieces of modern philosophy and its ‘the ends justify the means’ principles have become so infamous, the type of amoral behavior described as Machiavellian. If you’ve ever heard someone called a “Machiavellian,” chances are he’s been caught doing some pretty shady political puppeteering for some questionable purpose.
Machiavelli’s influence is so extensive that it is almost impossible to begin talking about the aspects of culture that owe to his most famous work. So instead, here’s a list of some of my favorite characters in recent years who have embraced the Machiavellian lifestyle.
Kendall Roy – Succession
Any member of the Roy family could be labeled a Machiavellian. In fact, every character in the ‘Succession’ ensemble is quite ruthlessly Machiavellian. It’s kind of the premise of the show. But the one who best embodies the title is our assassin, both figurative and literal, young Prince Kendal ‘Logan’ Roy (Jeremy Strong). Who has Kendall not taken advantage of in the last four series? Whether it’s exploiting the company’s past sexual abuse to his advantage or literally killing a waiter, somehow Kendall always seems to end up on top.
Tommy Shelby – Peaky Blinders
Any fan of the 1920s Birmingham gangster show “Peaky Blinders” will be familiar with each season’s rough set-up. A new gang has a turf dispute with the Brummy Blinders, and family boss Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) is embroiled in a complicated plot that combines violent and political threats. Were it not for the brilliant setting, rousing dialogue, and phenomenal performance from Murphy, watching Tommy come out of another pickle would be exhausting. As with any good Machiavellian character, Tommy has a plan and he’s going to win, but not before a lot of people get hurt.
Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish – Game of Thrones
Obviously this list would contain a character from “Game of Thrones”. The entire premise of the show is essentially just people in bejeweled robes exploiting each other until the dragons finally burn them alive. But the top of the Machiavellian throne must go to Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen). While many other characters are born into real positions they are desperate to hold onto, Littlefinger is a finance minister born poor and good. With more to lose than most, the machinations of how he plays the “Game” are more ruthless than any other. Has Gillen ever played anything other than terrifying?
Marla Grayson – I care a lot
Most of the first Machiavellian characters that came to mind were male. There are many reasons behind this, but for now let’s focus on one of the best in recent years. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) in the film a bit neglected I am very interested is one of the most devastating portraits of an amoral con artist. Taking over the lives of older people to drain their savings during their later years is pretty wicked and a fine textbook Machiavelli.
Frank Underwood – House of Cards
For arguably the most concentrated depiction of Machiavellianism in action, look straight to Netflix’s remake of the British show “House of Cards.” Frank Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) journey from petty politician to President of the United States does not come without manipulation, betrayal and outright murder. The show ended without Spacey after allegations were made of his sexual misconduct, adding a grim sense of reality to Underwood’s nature.