In 1532, Machiavelli published a treatise on prince craft (although it was probably written earlier). The idea of writing a book that would spell out how to rule was radical for its time. That Machiavelli’s guideline to getting and keeping power has remained relevant today is amazing.
Shane Clester has given the work a rough narrative form by illustrating the prince as a 10-year-old boy, making his way through a maze of adults. By making the prince a child, it makes Machiavelli’s advice seem more powerful — if a small child can make it work, it must be great advice.
The pen and ink drawings are clear and easy to read. Clester’s facial expressions are a treat – you can read the conniving, haughtiness, fear, or lust for power clearly. Clester has clearly had a great time with this, squeezing lots of additional layers of meaning into his drawings. When Machiavelli advises, “A Prince who does not understand the art of war cannot be respected by his soldiers, nor can he rely on them,” Clester has drawn the young prince in the barracks begging his men, “Hey you guys! Why aren’t you working? Come on, please?” And the soldiers are ignoring him. It perfectly captures the spirit of Machiavelli’s words.
So many of these ideas have seeped into the common consciousness that, while reading, it’s easy to think, “Yeah? And? This is a big deal?” The term “Machiavellian,” meaning scheming or conniving, has entered into everyday language. Even if you haven’t read The Prince, you have probably heard of, or been influenced by, his ideas.
Clester has done a great job making this an accessible work. His translations are clear and easy to understand. I particularly liked that he words the famous quote “It’s better to be feared than loved,” as “It is much safer to be feared than loved,” (p28) which seems more accurate when read in context.
But then there are moments where you get a glimpse of how radical this work was – Machiavelli barely mentions religion and the church as it would be, “presumptuous to comment on God’s works.” He recommends actions that run counter to the bible. For example, the bible says generous acts are a reward unto themselves. Anonymous generous acts are the best. Machiavelli says the exact opposite – generous acts are only worth doing if you get credit for them and they benefit you in some way.
One draw back to this adaptation is that it lacks context. I know it’s a famous book, but it would be nice to have an end note with some comment on what the world was like in the 1500s, what a big deal this work was when it was first published, and how amazing it is to still be in print 600 years later.