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?