The Prince


Niccolò Machiavelli

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The Prince Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Niccolò Machiavelli

Born to a citizen family of Florence, Machiavelli served as secretary and second chancellor to the Florentine Republic from 1498 to 1512. During his tenure Machiavelli worked as an official and diplomat, traveling on missions to Louis XII, Emperor Maximilian, and Cesare Borgia. Machiavelli's political fortune changed in 1512 when the Spanish invaded Florence and helped to reinstate the Medici, the ruling family of Florence prior to 1494. As a consequence Machiavelli, who worked for the same government that deposed the Medici in 1494, was tried for conspiracy, imprisoned, and tortured. After years of political exile, during which he wrote The Prince, Machiavelli reentered public life in the 1520s. Machiavelli died at the age of 58.
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Historical Context of The Prince

The Prince is the product of the political turmoil that ravaged Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Within a divided Italy, the states of Florence, Venice, Naples, and Milan ruthlessly fought for control of the Italian peninsula. Meanwhile, the Roman papacy sought to enhance its earthly power through war and conquest. To make matters worse, the foreign powers of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire took advantage of the divisiveness and joined the Italian conflict, shifting alliances and pitting states against one another in an effort to gain valuable territory for themselves. As a statesman and diplomat, Machiavelli possessed an insider's knowledge of these conflicts. After observing years of fratricidal conflict, Machiavelli called for a unified Italy in The Prince and described the type of leader who could make that unification a reality.

Other Books Related to The Prince

The Prince bears the mark of its author's humanist education, which emphasized the works of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers. Indeed, the Italian Renaissance centered on the rediscovery of ancient thinkers. Among the ancient works that influenced The Prince, Plato's The Republic discusses the structure and character of states and their citizens. The Roman philosopher Cicero's works of political history, such as De re publica, shaped Machiavelli's own political philosophy. Similarly, the Ancient Greek historian Xenophon, particularly in Cryopaedia, impacted Machiavelli's understanding of princely governance. In Machiavelli's own era, the English statesman Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) likewise pondered the balance between political pragmatism and high ideals; however, unlike The Prince, Utopia presents the hope of a peaceful, socialistic – and hence, "utopian" – society.
Key Facts about The Prince
  • Full Title: The Prince
  • When Written: 1513-1514
  • Where Written: Machiavelli's farm at Sant' Andrea in Percussina, seven miles south of Florence
  • When Published: Manuscript copies of The Prince began to circulate in and around Florence circa 1516; printed versions first appeared in 1532.
  • Literary Period: Italian Renaissance
  • Genre: Political treatise
  • Setting: Renaissance Italy
  • Climax: Machiavelli urges Lorenzo dé Medici to use the tactics and strategies outlined in The Prince to unify war-ravaged Italy.
  • Antagonist: The "malice" of fortune; inept rulers
  • Point of View: First-person narration by Machiavelli

Extra Credit for The Prince

What's in a name? The adjective "Machiavellian" derives from Machiavelli's name, referring to a person who uses cunning tricks and dishonesty to achieve his ends. First appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1626, the word came into use following the widespread circulation of The Prince. "Machiavellian" is also used as a psychological term, referring to a personality type that tends towards manipulation and exhibits a lack of empathy.

The Machiavelli Fan Club. Among The Prince's many well-known devotees were English monarch Henry VIII, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, American president John Adams, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.