Comedy is not always made for simple entertainment, but can also be used to present social criticism. Social satire does just that, it disguises a social critique with humor, sarcasm, and wit. Machiavelli uses social satire as a form of high comedy in The Mandrake Root. The idea that all humans are self-interested and the corruption of the Catholic Church are two prominent issues Machiavelli sheds light on. The Mandrake Root is a high comedy because it uses satire for social evaluation.
Every character wants and desires something or someone by the end of the play. It starts with a love story, Callimaco lusts over beautiful Lucrezia. Only problem is that Lucrezia is married and the scheming begins. Ligurio, a former marriage broker, is hired by Callimaco to come up with a plan to get Lucrezia. Nica is Lucrezia’s husband and they have been trying for a baby boy with no success. Callimaco and Ligurio come up with a plan to trick Nica into letting another man sleep with his wife.
Callimaco pretends to be a doctor and tells Nica if Lucrezia drinks a potion that she will be able to become pregnant with a boy.
Callimaco also states that the first person to a sleep with a woman who has consumed this potion will die the very next day. Nica agrees to this plan and now just has to convince his wife to agree to the plan. With the help of their priest, Timoteo, they are able to convince Lucrezia it is the right thing to do. Timoteo is granted money for his favor of “forgiving” Lucrezia of any future sins. Lucrezia follows through with the potion, Callimaco in disguise is chosen to be the sucker that “dies” for sex with Lucrezia, and Nica now believe he will have his first-born son. The play is a tangled web of lies that begin with the root of self-interests in each character.
Machiavelli wants to make a point that not just some human beings but all humans have self-interest as motivation to their actions. He uses such extremes as killing a lover to paying off a priest to illustrate the way humans stop at nothing to get what they want. Each charter has their own motives that guide them throughout the play. Lurceriza is the only one who appears a victim until the very end. Lucrezia gets a taste of what a younger lover is like and decides to continue their affair behind her husbands back, not so innocent anymore. Even though Machiavelli is keeping the audience laughing, he is also showing a scary truth. Humans are very self interested by our very nature. Even if someone were to do a generous act it is to make themselves feel good by helping others. Any action you look at evokes a feeling from the source; it is impossible to have an absolute selfless act because gratification still comes to that person.
Satire helps Machiavelli reveal his thoughts of human nature without offending anyone. Comedy is often funny because it is true. The audience laughs because they see an over the top story on how to get laid, and how it is very similar to how every man plots in his head to get a woman in bed. It is relatable and comical without crossing the line. Audiences went to plays to have fun and unwind, they don’t want to hear a social critique. Machiavelli draws an audience in with comedy while still being able to voice his own opinion. The Mandrake root is able to show every character is self interested it is just a matter of who can outsmart their opponent. Life, love, and happiness becomes a game humans play with their own interest at heart. Satire is used for more than covering up Machiavelli’s thoughts on human nature.
During the time Machiavelli wrote his play the church was all power. The church was filled with corruption and scandal. Death was the proper punishment for blasphemy or for anyone who disagreed with the church. Machiavelli used his comical play to show how many saw priests but would never voice their option in public. The Mandrake Root gives us the charter of Timoteo, a corrupt priest, to poke fun at the Catholic Church. Priests are to have good morals, represent the opinion of Jesus, and live in Christ’s footsteps. Timoteo is embodies none of those qualities. He takes bribes from Callimaco to tell Nica this potion will work and a bribe from Nica to convince Lucrezia that a man dying from sleeping with her will be forgiven by God. Timoteo works as many charters as he can to his financial benefit.
Even his charter in the play is overweight, which can be symbolic of gluttony. To be fat in Machiavelli’s time meant you were well feed which could only come from money. Priest like Timoteo really did exist, even the pope was taking money, having love affairs, and ordering men to be killed. If Machiavelli were say, “ Priest are corrupt, not to be trusted, and scam everyone” he would have been killed. Instead he hides it behind a play of social satire. In modern times we might not see the critique of the church as being groundbreaking but for Machiavelli’s time it was.
It is hard pill to swallow that humans at their core are shellfish beings. History is able to show humans are greedy, gluttonous, and manipulative. From wars to charities each one has forces behind them wanting to do better for themselves. It does not matter if you are a convict or a man of god, our own desires can not escape us. At the end of The Mandrake Root everyone is seen as happy and laughing. The priest gets his money, Callimaco gets the girl, Ligurio gets his money, Nica thinks he will be getting a son, and Lucrezia didn’t even know she wanted a male mistress but now she does and has one. The ending teaches a lesson that if you are clever and deceitful your wants and desires can come true. Satire was used in The Mandrake Root to evaluate the social aspect of their time. Social satire is still used today for that very purpose. Comedians can be seen taking Machiavelli’s footsteps in critiquing modern issues of war, religion, and politics using satire in the form of high comedy.