Personal Morality in Julius Caesar and The Prince

March 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli and Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare are prime examples of texts which address universal issues in politics that remain relevant throughout time. The distinctive contexts and perspectives of the authors are highlighted through the exploration of personal morality in different government systems. While Machiavelli critiques morality and deems it a hindrance to the achievement and maintenance of power, Shakespeare questions its significance within leaders. Comparing the amoral principles of Machiavelli’s treatise against Shakespeare’s dramatic play reinforces the distinct purpose of the texts, one to teach and the other to challenge whether morals have a place within power and politics. Ultimately, the perspective of morality portrayed through both texts reflect the values and attitudes of the authors’ historical and social contexts, two distinct time periods during the Renaissance shaped by great political change.

Born in 1469, Florence, Italy, Machiavelli grew up in a period of political instability, taking an interest in this subject from an early age. By the time he was twenty-eight, he had already held multiple positions of power including Secretary of the Second Chancery and Secretary of the Ten of War. However, Machiavelli was stripped of his position in politics and exiled for conspiracy when the Medici family regained power.

Through The Prince, Machiavelli explores the fundamentals of gaining and maintaining power whilst clearly illustrating his perspective that an amoral attitude is required to be a successful leader. He alludes to many historical figures throughout the text to support his principles, drawing much of his inspiration from Cesare Borgia. In 1502, Machiavelli was sent to stop Borgia from invading the Florentine region and witnessed his ruthless, ambitious nature. He effectively used deceit and violence to uphold power with a drive that impressed Machiavelli. Borgia had “killed all the local rulers he could get his hands on”[1], and yet Machiavelli claims he “wouldn’t know what better advice to give … than to follow his example”[2]. The irony of using brutality to demonstrate a ‘good’ example of maintaining power, highlights his perspective that politics leaves no room for personal morality. This is further emphasised when he states that things which “look morally right” will “actually lead a ruler to disaster”, while “something else that looks wrong will bring security and success”[3]. Through this paradox, Machiavelli suggests that successful outcomes justify amoral actions, clearly a reflection of his distinct historical context, where he witnessed the effectiveness of political conflicts settled by war, violence and cruel acts. This also reinforces the distinct form of the text, a political treatise, reflective of Machiavelli’s personal motives to influence and instruct the audience, originally Lorenzo de’ Medici, of his principles to regain a job in politics.

Shakespeare, born in England 1564, also lived in a time of political trouble, where Queen Elizabeth had no appointed heir. This succession crisis led the people to question what would come of their government once the Queen had passed, with the daunting possibility of a civil war. Shakespeare used the well-known historical events of Julius Caesar, manipulating them to represent a form of what could happen in England. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare explores and questions whether personal morality has a place within politics. Brutus is the only character throughout the play who reveals his moral values. He says, “I love the name of honour more than I fear death”[4], where his honour and nobility are a recurring motif. However, when Cassius convinces him that they must murder Caesar in order to protect Rome from tyranny, Brutus faces moral anguish as his reason and ethics conflict. This is displayed through his soliloquy where he tries to justify his intentions through the analogy “lowliness is young ambition’s ladder”[5]. He uses symbols of ascension to illustrate how dangerous self-elevation is, while highlighting his own morality as he disapproves of Caesar’s desire for self-gain. His inner conflict is reinforced through the symbols of ‘sickness’ where he admits that he is “not well in health”[6] when his wife asks why he is troubled.

In the final scene, Antony honours Brutus, admitting that he “was the noblest Roman of them all” and that “all the conspirators…did that they did in envy of great Caesar. He only, in a general honest thought and common good to all, made one of them”[7]. This is a defining moment of the play as Antony’s Machiavellian-style character recognises Brutus’ personal morality and honours it. Although Shakespeare’s perspective is almost inconclusive, the final scene proposes that he is somewhat hopeful of a government after Queen Elizabeth, were morality exists. By presenting the struggle with moral conflict in the form of a dramatic play, Shakespeare allows the general public to question and form opinions on whether personal morality is a trait they value within their leaders. He is responding to his social context where the public was in a time of confusion and uncertainty by prompting them to form their own values and views.

Overall, comparing the treatment of personal morality within Julius Caesar and The Prince highlights the texts’ distinct attitudes and perspectives, which are significantly influenced by their individual contexts. Machiavelli’s text is reflective of his personal experience in politics during a time where Italy was under great instability. His witnessed the effectiveness of amoral principles to gain power, which led him to eventually write a treatise to achieve just that. On the other hand, Shakespeare challenges and prompts the audience to form opinions rather than presenting an explicit perspective of morality’s place in government systems. The form of a dramatic play emphasises his purpose to present his ideas to the general public so they can make judgements of their own. Ultimately, it is through the differing perspectives of morality that the distinct contexts of the authors can be demonstrated, further highlighted by the form of the texts and their different purposes.

[1] The Prince, chapter 7 [2] The Prince, chapter 7 [3] The Prince, chapter 15 [4] Julius Caesar, (1.2) [5] Julius Caesar, (2.1) [6] Julius Caesar, (2.1) [7] Julius Caesar, (5.5)

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