From Lord Petyr Baelish (Game of Thrones) to Scar (The Lion King), here’s a look at some of the characters in modern popular culture that prove that the trope is relevant even after 400 years.
Niccolò Machiavelli through his book, The Prince, written in the 1500s, a political treatise, inadvertently created a character trope called the ‘Machiavellian’ that would inspire countless fictional characters for generations - from Shakespeare’s plays to modern day television shows and films. Loki is perhaps the most well known character in popular culture today, who has quite a few traits of a Machiavellian character. The following is a list of the best Machiavellian characters in modern popular culture, often characterised by their lies, cunningness, and lack of moral codes with only their goals in sight.
Lord Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish - Game of Thrones
The greatest Machiavellian character of the modern era? Possibly. Lord Baelish or Littlefinger built himself from nothing but lies, scheming and manipulation. In fact there would be no war for the Iron Throne if Littlefinger did not set his plan in motion which caused a chain of events that eventually led to nearly everything that happened in Game of Thrones, apart from the White Walker invasion.
Gemma Teller Morrow - Sons of Anarchy
The Matriarch of the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Originals (SAMCRO), Gemma is deceitful, manipulative and someone whom you should not cross. The consequences of ending up on this overprotective mother’s bad side is like playing a deadly game of chess and one that she does not lose. Gemma may not be as ruthless and psychotic like Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, but she is far more intelligent and is not disillusioned about her strengths and weaknesses like Cersei.
Tony Soprano - The Sopranos
Characterized by moral indifference, and the hunger and desire to stay in power of the Soprano crime family, Tony Soprano is arguably one of the most underrated Machiavellian characters of this era. This ruthless and cunning operator stayed in power for as long as he did because he was an unwitting student of Machiavelli. In hindsight, if you are the leader of a powerful crime family, being a manipulative narcissist is an essential trait for staying ahead and staying alive.
Walter White - Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad is the greatest television show ever made, and Walter White is one of the greatest characters ever written for television. To appreciate this character’s intelligence, one needs to just analyse how even the viewers were conned into believing that Skylar White was the ‘Machiavellian’ character. The reality is Skylar was just an ordinary woman trying her best for her family, whereas Walter was the morally corrupt willing to sacrifice anyone to feed his own ego.
Scar - The Lion King
Scar from The Lion King is loosely based on King Claudius from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While a few points from the plot are similar, thematically it is very different from Shakespeare’s popular play. In fact the television show Sons of Anarchy was carefully written to thematically match Hamlet. Baahubali is in fact very identical to The Lion King with the plot and characters. Scar, unlike Bhallaldeva, does all his scheming on his own, he orchestrates the downfall of his brother and takes the throne for himself, like a true Machiavellian - living by the motto of ‘its better to be feared than loved’.
Colin Sullivan - The Departed
Another man who played a dangerous game of cat and mouse through manipulation and deceit. Of course he relied on a bit of fortune to stay ahead of his rivals. An argument could be made that his life might have turned out differently if Frank Costello had not groomed him to be a double agent inside the police force at a very young age.
Frank Underwood - House of Cards
Frank Underwood embodies what it truly means to be a Machiavellian character. A politician who knows how to play the game. A man who is utterly devoid of any morality and who has complete disregard of ethics, someone who is willing to break or bend all the norms that represent a civilised society - a perfect example of a Machiavellian character.
SS Colonel Hans Landa - Inglorious Basterds
The man that may have single-handedly ended World War II, in this alternative history in the fictional world of the Inglourious Basterds, must surely be the hero. On the contrary he is a truly evil man who leveraged the situation, which played out to his advantage to ultimately gain plaudits and credit for his actions. Throughout the film, Landa mentally toys with his adversaries - from Perrier LaPadite, Shosanna Dreyfus, Bridget von Hammersmark and Lt. Aldo Raine. Of course Aldo Raine does get the last laugh because Raine was not interested in playing games, he smashed through the game board and threw away the pieces.
Light Yagami - Death Note
Light Yagami was anything but a Machiavellian character in the first episode of Death Note - a good student at school, well liked and well respected. It is only when the power that comes with the Death Note corrupts him that his hidden Machiavellian trait kicks in and he becomes a master manipulator with the fate of the entire world in his hands. With each passing episode he loses his morals and ethics bit by bit.