Snape, Machiavelli, and the Redemption of Slytherin


By giving Snape the matronymic “Prince,” J.K. Rowling hinted that Machiavelli’s The Prince might hold some keys to her own intentions about this character. A fresh look at Machiavelli gives definitive answers about whether Snape redeemed himself in the end, what makes something Dark Magic, if it had to be a Slytherin Headmaster to defeat Voldemort, what it truly means to be a Slytherin, and how Slytherin power can be used for good.


Beta: Karelia. Delivered as a presentation at Ascendio, July 14, 2012.

Work Text:

Who here identifies as Slytherin? Who finds J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of Slytherins problematic? We can be angry with her rendition of Slytherin, but that only gets us so far. Even if she wasn’t able to carry them through, did she have more complete ideas about what it means to be Slytherin? I think she did. She gave pointers within the story to places we could find more about what’s important to us. Regarding the nature of Snape and Slytherin House, the signs point us to Machiavelli.

Niccolò Machiavelli was a 16th-century Florentine political strategist.  The Prince is his advice to anyone serving as a prince – that is, a political ruler. The term “Machiavellian” has come to mean cunning, scheming, or unscrupulous.

The Sorting Hat says of Slytherins:

Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends.

This is Rowling’s nod to Machiavelli’s statement, “In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no tribunal to which to appeal, one must consider the final result” [Machiavelli 62. See endnote 1 for full citation].

In high school, I found The Prince disturbingly amoral. I thought Machiavelli just encouraged bad people to justify their behavior. In the absence of context for his strategies, I was chilled by his ideas:

Men are so simple-minded and so controlled by their immediate needs that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.

Too cynical for me. I forgot about Machiavelli until I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Had Rowling named her most mysterious character after Machiavelli’s book? The half-blood part of his secret name was clear: all of the key figures in the series are half-bloods, required by the fact of their existence to choose sides. But Prince? Readers had noticed before 2005 that The Prince praises a “ferocious,” “shrewd” emperor named Severus who killed a rival named Albinus [Machiavelli 67]. Did she name Snape after this book twice?

So I took a second look, and here’s what I found.

• I found whether Rowling considered Snape to be redeemed.
• Whether she thought Snape was good.
• What defines something as Dark Magic.
• Whether she considered Slytherin to be redeemed.
• And even though bravery is the quintessential Gryffindor trait, how the hero could recognize a Slytherin as the bravest man he ever knew.

Book 7 opens with the torture of Charity Burbage, showing that under Voldemort’s regime, those who speak out will be killed. Anyone who hopes to survive must learn to speak subversively, in code, and hide their empathy if they want to live to fight for a better world.

One must understand this: a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things for which men are considered good, because in order to maintain the state he must often act against his faith, against charity, against humanity, and against religion [Machiavelli 61].

I didn’t understand, as a kid, how this could be excusable or good, but Snape’s story shows me. To survive Voldemort’s regime long enough to bring it down, he must act against Charity. There is nothing he can do for her except survive and keep fighting.

For there is such a distance between how one lives and how one ought to live, that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done achieves his downfall rather than his preservation [Machiavelli 53].

Unlike Charity, Snape will not betray his emotion; that would result in betrayal of everyone he’s fighting for. And Rowling fully intends for us to understand – in the end – that Snape is not indifferent to Charity’s death. They were friends.

How do we know? Because she called upon Snape with the same loaded words that Dumbledore used: “Severus, please.” We know it, too, from the same thing happening with McGonagall, the profoundly betrayed friend who bookends this last year of Snape’s life with her own repetition of a traumatic word: “Coward!” These are words that people say to Snape when he’s being most tested. Rowling shows only Snape’s outer mask so we cannot know his thinking. But by pointing us toward Machiavelli, she’s telling us Snape, a “new prince,” is acting against his own beliefs.

The quote continues:

And so it is necessary that he should have a mind ready to turn itself according to the way the winds of Fortune and the changing circumstances command him. […H]e should not depart from the good if it is possible to do so, but he should know how to enter into evil when forced by necessity [Machiavelli 61].

This is what makes Snape invaluable to Dumbledore. He can fool Voldemort into thinking him loyal, summon what it takes to kill, convince the Carrows he’s on their side. He is prepared enough to improvise. This is the skill he tries to impart the year he teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts. As with Potions, his first-day speech in class comes from Snape’s true self, and this one is his version of Machiavelli:

“The Dark Arts are many, varied, ever-changing, and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before. You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible. […] Your defenses…must therefore be as flexible and inventive as the arts you seek to undo.” [HBP 177]

Flexible and inventive. This is why Harry gets a low mark when arguing with Snape about “the best way to fight dementors.” Harry thinks it’s the Patronus. Not only does he know it works, but it can protect others who can’t cast one, and this protectiveness is at Harry’s core. Snape’s answer, in my guess, would have been that there is no single best way. It depends upon the circumstances. You may not be able to cast one at the time. Maybe it’s not safe to show your true self. You have to suit the defense to the Dark Magic. Inflexibility will be your downfall when fighting against what Machiavelli calls “the winds of Fortune” and Snape calls “a many-headed monster.”

Harry learns this three times during Deathly Hallows. In the flight of the seven Harrys, Lupin is aghast when Harry reveals his true self with his signature spell, Expelliarmus. Voldemort puts a Taboo on his name because he knows Harry will doggedly use it and Dumbledore is no longer around to tell Harry he can stop. In the Hog’s Head, he cannot fight dementors without revealing himself, Hermione, and Ron. Had he, for example, learned Occlumency and taught the DA, they could have escaped detection.

A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity [Machiavelli 53].

It is not about turning evil on the inside. It is not blanket permission to live destructively. Think again about Slytherin:

Those cunning folk use any means
To achieve their ends

There is nothing to say that these “ends” are good or bad. There are two principles here that are vital to Harry in the seventh book and he draws them from his Slytherin nature, not his Gryffindor nature: to take the long view and to prioritize according to a desired goal.  These are Slytherin values and they are things that anybody would be proud to teach their children. Both Dumbledore and Snape tried, in Book 6, to instill them in Harry. Dumbledore guilted Harry for thinking about Ginny instead of Slughorn’s memory: prioritize. I believe this is also why Snape gave Harry Saturday detentions when he wanted time for Quidditch and romance; any enjoyment Snape might have endured was merely a byproduct.* Harry was the Chosen One, poor sod, and that meant Dumbledore and Snape were training him according to Machiavelli:

A prince […] must not have any other object nor any other thought, nor must he adopt anything as his art but war, its institutions, and its discipline…. He should, therefore, never take his mind from this exercise of war, and in peacetime he must train himself more than in time of war…. As a result, because of these continuous reflections no unforeseen incident could arise when he was leading his troops, for which he did not have the remedy [Machiavelli 50-52].

No wonder Dumbledore and Snape seemed so pressed for time, teaching Harry Defense.

Therefore, it is not necessary for a prince to possess all of the above-mentioned qualities [such as sincerity and integrity], but it is very necessary for him to appear to possess them. Furthermore, I shall dare to assert this: that having them and always observing them is harmful, but appearing to observe them is useful: for instance, to appear merciful, faithful, humane, trustworthy, religious, and to be so; but with his mind disposed in such a way that, should it become necessary not to be so, he will be able and know how to change to the opposite [Machiavelli 61].

In his final year, Snape took this skill to its extreme. Machiavelli said:

Everyone sees what you seem to be, few touch upon what you are…. [Machiavelli 62]

But Snape could not afford to let anyone see what he was – for their own protection. He achieved this so seamlessly that nobody saw what he was except the people he chose to see his Patronus.

This gave me a new understanding of the Machiavelli quote:

In the actions of all men, and especially of princes, where there is no tribunal to which to appeal, one must consider the final result [Machiavelli 62].

At first, “the final result” was the phrase that stood out to me. But when considering Snape, the phrase I find most wrenching is “when there is no tribunal to which to appeal.”

This is what made Snape the bravest man that Harry ever knew.

He dedicated his life to an insanely difficult secret mission to take down a terrorist dictator while knowing he was not guaranteed any tribunal, any witnesses, any exoneration. No posthumous revelation that he was good all along, that he lived a vile and abhorrent lie to secure a better life even for people who hated him and wouldn’t thank him if they knew.

Consider Snape’s desires. He wasn’t tempted by the Hallows. What he craved was recognition. He coveted the Order of Merlin in Prisoner of Azkaban. He packed a world of hurt and neglect into asking Dumbledore, “You haven’t forgotten that [Sirius Black] once tried to kill me?” [PoA 391] Childishly, he envied Harry’s fame. Most painfully of all, when Dumbledore went on and on about Draco and Harry, Snape cried out for his fair share: “And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?”

Yet he consented to hide his true self, never seen truly, never reflected back from the world around him. Dumbledore alone knew his goodness – and in asking Snape to kill him, Dumbledore was asking Snape to break his last remaining mirror. In Machiavelli’s assumption – and in Rowling’s portrayal of Snape – the prince has a true self, and that self is good. After killing Dumbledore, he had one private truth remaining: his Patronus. As Mara T. Stein has said, the Patronus is a manifestation of the most loving self. His true self was beautiful; his true self was pure.

Rowling once explained why Snape didn’t get a headmaster’s portrait: “Snape had effectively abandoned his post before dying, so he had not merited inclusion in these august circles” [see endnote 2]. This burned me. Was she belittling him? Everyone in her series loves Hogwarts, even Death Eaters. Even the castle thought Snape without honor?


The castle is a mirror, too. She wasn’t saying that he did a poor job. She was saying that this man who loved and served Hogwarts with his life was willing to forgo even a posthumous exoneration. Surely the boy who grew up on Eileen Prince Snape’s stories, who thought of Hogwarts as magical dreams come true, would have longed to be acknowledged, if only because, like J.K. Rowling, he wished his mother could have lived to see this. But he gave that up. He broke all his mirrors. He Occluded his mission so masterfully that even the castle could not read him.

Dumbledore says there are things he would “entrust to nobody but” Snape [DH 684]. To understand how Snape’s abilities against Dark Magic exceed even Dumbledore’s, we have to understand what Dark Magic is. What distinguishes it from, say, a Confundus charm or a love potion? The answer comes directly from Machiavelli.

Those cruelties are well used (if it is permitted to speak well of evil) that are carried out in a single stroke, done out of necessity to protect oneself, and then are not continued, but are instead converted into the greatest possible benefits for the subjects. Those cruelties are badly used that, although few at the outset, increase with the passing of time instead of disappearing. Those who follow the first method can remedy their standing, both with God and with men […]; the others cannot possibly maintain their positions [Machiavelli 34].

Snape says the same thing about the damage from the ring:

“There is no halting such a spell forever. It will spread eventually, it is the sort of curse that strengthens over time” [DH 681].

Dark Magic is intentional harm that becomes more destructive over time. For example, the bite of a werewolf, or the abuse of a child, continues to damage long past the incident and may spread from the victim to others.

Only someone who has known the full darkness of committing harm and then felt such remorse that he’ll never be tempted again can undo such Dark Magic. Snape, former specialist in Sectumsempra, can heal a Sectumsempra wound; Molly Weasley cannot. Snape is deeply sorry he invented that spell; his understanding of what it takes to cast it plus his remorse creates the greater magic that cures it.

Only Snape, a reformed Death Eater, is powerful enough to travel all the way to the darkest Unforgivable, make it work because he means it, and still be greater than Avada Kedavra, great enough to travel all the way back and reintegrate his soul and not let the pain of it kill him because he doesn’t have that luxury; he must stay alive for the boy.

Machiavelli says that princes who carry out evil in a single stroke and then convert it into the greatest possible benefits for the subjects “can remedy their standing, both with God and with men.” That’s what Dumbledore and Snape planned together. That tells us Rowling believes Snape was redeemed.

When Snape cries out, “And my soul, Dumbledore? Mine?” about the planned death, Dumbledore’s answer is unexpected – and empowering: “You alone know whether it will harm your soul.” In the ensuing silence when Dumbledore is looking at Snape “as though the soul they discussed was visible to him,” Snape considers: Will he feel remorse and love enough to reintegrate his soul after it splits from casting, and meaning, the Killing Curse? He knows his own powers. The answer is yes.

Did Rowling believe Slytherin was redeemed, too?

I think she struggled with herself to show a redemption, and even more vitally, an integration. We see it in the naming of Albus Severus Potter and in Harry granting the title of “bravest man” to a Slytherin. Those gestures may seem paltry in the overall picture, but there is some content to them. Severus being the child’s middle name rather than the first name is significant and not an afterthought. It’s significant, too, that the one virtue Harry ascribes to Snape is the quintessential Gryffindor trait.

Gryffindor bravery is a specific type: fiery, protective, adrenalin-fueled. My guess is that the sword of Gryffindor must be retrieved “under conditions of need and valor” because it is keyed to recognize Gryffindors through that characteristic surge of survival adrenalin. It’s not sadism behind Snape’s idea to put it in the lake; he knew that Harry’s Gryffindor temperament would convert that feeling of crisis into the extra power he’d need.

During Book 7, Harry reaches adulthood by developing his secondary nature, his Slytherin side. He’s always been afraid of the Slytherin within him, not knowing how much of it is his own and how much from Voldemort, not wanting to acknowledge any common ground with enemies such as Snape or Draco. But his aim through the final book is not only to destroy Horcruxes but to survive to face Voldemort. This requires long-term strategy, subterfuge, even letting others suffer: things that do not come as naturally to Harry as instinct, truth-telling, and protectiveness. This requires Slytherin skills.

We see Harry grow into them. He withholds information and lies outright; he won’t answer Ollivander’s questions; he manipulates Griphook. Polyjuiced as a Death Eater, he gives Mr. Weasley a coded warning about being watched and endures a glare of hatred that lets him know just how it feels to be Snape, trying to pass protective information to people who don’t believe his good intentions. He learns to contain himself.

The naming of Albus Severus shows the integration of the hero’s primary and secondary traits. Harry doesn’t become a Slytherin; he becomes open to Slytherin. His acknowledgment of Slytherin bravery as equal, sometimes even superior, to Gryffindor bravery shows his ability to recognize the humanity even in those he dislikes.

I’m not saying Rowling did Slytherin justice. It requires much more work than it should to extract a balanced message. But she was open about showing the progress of her struggle. The author who gloated over Slytherin’s defeat for the House Cup is different from the one who showed brave Snape returning to the Dark Lord or Draco refusing to betray Harry. She gave us enough clues to find for ourselves, in her books and Machiavelli’s, the Slytherin gifts in her heroes.


1. All Machiavelli citations are from Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2005.

* August 2, 2016:  In the four years since I wrote this presentation, I have changed my mind about what Snape hoped to achieve by assigning Saturday detentions to Harry in Half-Blood Prince.  See chapter 6 of Snape:  A Definitive Reading for more.