Niccolò Machiavelli was the name in political theory during the Renaissance. His most famous book, The Prince, was all about the tactics of rule. But his most famous quote, “It is better to be feared than loved”, is not really what he actually wrote. The full quote is “I conclude that since men love at their own will and fear at the will of the prince, a wise prince must build a foundation on what is his own, and not on what belongs to others.” That doesn’t quite mean the same thing. And the book doesn’t just describe princes, many early-modern republicans embraced Machiavelli’s ideas as well. But nevertheless, the narrative emerges of the scheming prince that takes power wherever they can. But that’s, of course, not always the case.
One author who really embraced Machiavelli in his storytelling was William Shakespeare. Some of his most famous leads are Machiavels– Richard III and Macbeth, to name a few. But not all of them were villains. Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s more heroic characters and is clearly cut from the Machiavellian pattern. The narratives here are not about the tactics inasmuch as they are bout the characters of each of the kings. Richard III and Macbeth both make the mistake of killing the wrong people and their personal flaws get in the way of total rule. Henry V, on the other hand, has had two previous plays to iron out these flaws and “when this loose behavior I throw off / And pay the debt I never promised, / By how much better than my word I am, / By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes” (Henry IV part 1, I.ii.77-80). Henry V’s problem is that he is inheriting an illegitimate crown and has to legitimize it during his reign. Which he does by waging a nothing war with France and marrying their princess. This is a very popular option, and Machiavelli was in favor of princes being popular, saying that “[a prince] must do all in his power to escape being hated”. But the English narrative surrounding leadership isn’t about the same things that the American narrative is.
In America, the narrative surrounding leadership is about earning the right to lead, sometimes through Machiavellian means. This is because America doesn’t have the same relationship with the “ruling class” as England does, obviously. American narratives are also quicker to villainize Machiavels than English narratives, because English narratives don’t necessarily require their leaders to earn the right to lead. The rightful leaders are rightful from the beginning. In American narratives, you have to earn the right to lead, and using Machiavellian tactics to rise to the top might be entertaining (see the US version of House of Cards), but is nit necessarily heroic. Henry V is going to be king, legitimacy or no. Whether or not Kevin Spacey becomes president is part of the tension of the show.
So what does any of this have to do with Disney?
Disney has 24 movies in their animated canon that have characters that could be described as political leaders, or at least have the titles of them. Of those 24 films, a surprising 17 of them have those leaders dealing with things that leaders deal with– casting judgement on criminals, hosting royal events (that one is popular), raising an army and waging war, and collecting taxes. Only eight of these were active antagonists. I phrase it like that because King Triton and King Louie serve the narrative function of antagonist, but are not the main “Disney Villain”, as it were, and because the Sultan was technically an antagonistic force because it’s his laws that prevent Jasmine from leaving the palace and marrying Aladdin but is not active in his antagonism.
Disney’s Machiavellian slant doesn’t really come from the famous misquote. Instead, it seems more to come from this more interesting and more in line with the “earning power” narrative:
“He who becomes prince by help of the nobility has greater difficulty in maintaining his power than he who is raised by the populace, for he is surrounded by those who think themselves his equals, and is thus unable to direct or command as he pleases. But one who is raised to the leadership by popular favour finds himself alone, and has no one or very few who are not ready to obey him.”
The basic idea is that a Prince surrounded by peers, or those who believe themselves to be their peers, cannot effectively rule. Not quite in the same vein as the “all men are created equal” sentiment, but it was written for the section detailing a Prince that governs a “civil principality” (1500’s for “democracy”), so it’s certainly relevant. In practice, it’s a bit murkier, but in film and fiction, it plays out fairly well.
The obvious choice for an example is The Lion King, which is all about kingship, enough that there’s a convincing argument that it actually parallels the two parts of Henry IV better than it does Hamlet, but that doesn’t as much matter. The philosophy of the film is based around the Circle of Life, and that predators, prey, and other members have their places in it. Scar upsets this by making his supporter base out of another group of predators, which leads to the over-hunting that causes the famine and drought seen when Simba returns to the Pride Lands.
Pictured: a systemic misuse of resources by the ruling class.
When Simba overthrows Scar at the end of the film (spoilers), he does so with the help of both predator (the lionesses) and prey (Timon and Pumbaa), and then restores the balance of the Circle of Life by kicking the hyenas out of his territory, and as we learn in the sequel, he also exiled the lionesses that supported Scar. In other words, the characters that supported Scar’s reign were those who believed that they would land in places of privilege under his rule, while those who supported Simba recognized their relative “place” in the kingdom.
Politics in the Renaissance weren’t especially big on social mobility.
The Lion King isn’t the only film that shows how a bad leader can effect a country. In Disney’s Robin Hood, Prince John collected taxes from the peasants of Nottingham while his brother King Richard was off crusading. In fact, Prince John was regent for a period of time while King Richard the Lionheart was off fighting in the Third Crusade, said Crusade (and various wars with France, because of course) being the reason for the high taxes. The Disney movie didn’t mention the Crusades, for obvious reasons. It also didn’t mention that Prince John would later go on to become King John and be so monumentally bad at kinging that the barons made him write the Magna Carta, which was the beginning of modern democracy, and there hasn’t been a King John of England ever since. There’s also a Shakespeare play about him. But historical accuracy aside, Prince John’s spoiled nature and sycophantic court are endemic of the “bad king” archetype that we have come to expect. But unlike with The Lion King, where resistance comes from without, Robin Hood and his Merry Men move within the kingdom to rebel against the leader. As a Machiavel, Prince John seems to follow the more traditional “better to be feared than loved” misquote, particularly through his enforcer, the Sheriff of Nottingham. But in that sense, he also fails as a Machiavel by those standards, as he himself is not feared at all.
Pictured: The result of almost 800 years of propaganda and literary slander.
But I could list Disney villains for days and recount how they act in Machiavellian terms. I mean, the DNA of Richard III (the character, not the person) is behind almost every scheming politician type, from Frank Underwood to Emperor Palpatine. And the point of this is to show that Machiavels don’t have to be the bad guys. But Disney leads that have to deal with the trials of leadership are in fact few and far between. However, I would make the claim that two budding Machiavels are featured in some of the most recent films Disney has released.
These would be Queen Elsa and Moana.
Moana is easier to argue for, and so I’ll start with her. Personally, I would hesitate to say that Moana is Disney’s Henriad, but Moana and Prince Hal make rather interesting foils. They’re both next in line for their respective terminal ranks, they both have good leadership skills, and they both have fathers that initially disapprove of their choices only for them to earn their father’s respect by the end. However, Hal receives this respect by abandoning his previous life (which he promised to do from the beginning), while Moana teaches her father and her people to love the ocean again. While Hal wastes his time slumming it in Eastcheap, Moana is shadowing her father and carrying out her responsibilities. Hal goes to war and kills his father’s enemies, but gets none of the credit. Moana goes to sea and saves the entire Pacific, and gets all the credit.
As a Machiavel without a western conception of power, authority, and nobility, Moana still fulfills several points of Machiavelli’s checklist by becoming a teacher for the island. Machiavelli himself said that “The prince is constrained always to live with that populace, but he can do well enough without those same noblemen”. Moana leading through teaching also fulfills the “leading those who are not your equals” in a much gentler way by her having mastered a skill that she then imparts onto others. And while someone in the future might also become a master wayfinder on the same level as her, the narrative gives her a way for her to pass on the title while retaining her position during the first “We Know the Way” sequence, where the Ancestor Chief focuses on settling the new island and sends out the new master wayfinder to find more islands. And yes, South Pacific imperialism was a thing.
Yes, the first Disney princess (but not Disney Princess) with diagnosable social anxiety is also a Machiavel. Queen Elsa is far from an obvious choice for this, in fact it’s stated in the movie that “fear will be her enemy” and we all know by now how Machiavelli thinks of fear, but as I looked further into my notes on The Prince, the more she seemed to fit with them. For example, Machiavelli warned that “[a prince] must do all in his power to escape being hated”. Elsa’s fear that the people of Arendelle will hate and fear her because of her powers causes the conflict of the entire film, and is why she continues to hide her powers even after her parent’s deaths. Arendelle’s political situation has “cultivated friendships with kings and princes so that they had to either help him with favors or confront him with caution”– by the end of the film, the nobles who had come for the coronation are ready and willing to escort Hans and the Duke of Wesleton home. And speaking of Wesleton, Machiavelli states that “There is no comparison between an armed man and an unarmed one. It is not reasonable to think that an armed man might be compelled to obey an unarmed one, or that an unarmed man might be safe among the armed mercinaries, whereas they will harbor distain for him.” While Elsa easily cuts all trade with Weselton at the end of the film, Wesleton has to be escorted by armed guards out of the kingdom, and his own mercenaries are nowhere to be found. Hopefully we’ll see more of Elsa’s reign in Frozen 2 and the new short in front of Coco, which might clue us in to more of the minutia of Elsa’s reign.
Pictured: A photo edit that I made that I will now use as much as I can.
Machiavellians in fiction are not going away, so long as people enjoy a good political thriller or the classic Disney-esque villains. But they’re more than just the one villainous archetype that we tend to ascribe the term to. A deeper study of The Prince and characters that follow the advice laid out in it opens the door (ha) to many more characters than just the Richards and Macbeths of the literary world. And, of course, the narratives will change over time as culture changes over time, but the foundation is solid enough that they’ve lasted this long. It’s just a question of what’s next.
Enjoy academic essays that study pop culture? Want more surprising parallels between Disney Princesses and Shakespeare characters? Think that I’m stretching the definitions of words that mean specific things? Like, comment, and subscribe!