“Conscience is but a word that cowards use:” Richard III’s Machiavellian Impulse
This thesis focuses on William Shakespeare’s play, Richard III and Niccolo Machiavelli’s political treatise, The Prince. This thesis begins by contextualizing the presence of Machiavelli’s work in Early Modern England. The first chapter of the work addresses the extent to which Shakespeare would have encountered Machiavelli before writing Richard III. The subsequent chapters then examine Richard III’s development as a “Machiavellian” ruler, and particularly how his political tactics align with those presented in Machiavelli’s The Prince. This thesis then argues that while Richard appears dramatically to audiences as a self-proclaimed Machiavellian villain, he ultimately fails to fulfill Machiavelli’s instructions and thus fails to maintain the power he has violently acquired. Richard employs cruelty irresponsibly and his conscience ultimately disrupts his ambitions and proves to be the most prominent factor that limits his ability to succeed as a Machiavellian prince. I argue that in rendering Richard’s failure to fulfill Machiavelli’s instructions, Shakespeare brings into question whether or not a purely Machiavellian ruler is a desirable or even practical possibility.