Like a prism, Shakespeare's plays are shot through with the political thought of his time; but like a prism, they omit no single ray, but refract a multitude of colours. In the much-cited 1993 volume, The Varieties of British Political Thought, 1500–1800, John Guy, Donald Kelley and Linda Peck delineate many of the recurring topics that informed political thinking before the Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century. The role of counsel in good governance, the proper education of a prince, the body politic as concept and informing metaphor, Tacitus, Ovid, and republicanism, resistance theory, Machiavelli and the new statescraft: these are but a few of the topics discussed throughout the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and hardly one fails to make an appearance in Shakespeare's works.
Of course, Shakespeare might not to everyone seem the most obvious source of political reflection on the Elizabethan stage. After all, it is Marlowe in The Jew of Malta who brings Machiavelli on stage, vaunting his free-thinking ways:
To some perhaps my name is odious,
But such as love me, guard me from their tongues,
And let them know that I am Machevill,
And weigh not men, and therefore not men's words(Prologue, ii. 5–8).
But it is Shakespeare, in Richard III, who creates a villain hero who, ‘set[ting] the murderous Machiavel to school’, embodies the new philosophy as a means to power and a principle of rule and not just as the signature of an exotic Italian villainy.