I was having a conversation with a friend about House of Cards recently, and I shared with him that I love how deeply Shakespearean it is. He asked what I meant, and after talking about it for a few minutes, he suggested I write a blog post on the topic. I hadn’t done so because the subject has already been discussed in the media, and I’m new to the show (the first season is two years old and I only just finished it three weeks ago), so I’m not sure I have anything to say that hasn’t already been said. However, there may be others out there whose Shakespeare is a bit rusty and who would be intrigued to know a bit more; also, there are probably many of you who’ve noticed connections that I’ve missed, so I’d love to see how long our list of similarities and connections could grow through the conversation. I’ve only read one article (from The New Yorker) about the Shakespeare-Cards mashup, so if you’ve read more than me and something I write reminds you of someone else’s piece, well, all I can say is that we’re all pulling from the same source material and great minds do think alike. I also want to say that I’ve only seen Season 1 — so SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t watched the show; and don’t spoil anything for me in your comments, those of you who’ve seen all three seasons. Also, I haven’t seen the original British version, so I don’t know the degree to which anything I write below is true for that version.
Characters & Plot. From the first ten minutes of the first episode, I thought to myself: Sen. Frank Underwood is Richard III and Macbeth all rolled up into one character. He’s been promised a position of great power (Secretary of State), then he’s overlooked in favor for someone else. Now, he has a better right to complain than Macbeth: Macbeth was promised the kingship by the witches and not by the king himself, whereas Frank was legitimately led to believe he’d get the position from the President-elect, who later reneged. Even so, the moment Frank learns that he’s been looked over, he smiles at the President and accepts his demotion outwardly, though thinking, like Macbeth, that his rival for the post is “a step on which I must fall down or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies.” But Macbeth goes on to say right after that line, “Stars hide your fires; let not light see my black and deep desires.” Frank Underwood would never say that: he’ll deliver a moving eulogy, full of religious imagery, then go on to say he has no belief in God and feels no compunction about it. He doesn’t need his Lady Macbeth to tell him to “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath it”: he’s had that routine figured out for years. Which is why he’s ultimately more like Richard III.
In 2012 I took my students to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Kevin Spacey perform as Richard III. Admittedly, this was one reason the Shakespearean overtones seemed so immediately obvious: I always look at him on the show and think of him in that role. We sat in the front row, and at BAM that means your feet are on level with the actors’ feet. Spacey’s Richard was scary. He used the entire stage, and at certain moments he was toe to toe with us, which was both electrifying and terrifying. Watching him play Frank Underwood is similarly thrilling. Like Richard, he tells you right up front he’s been wronged and he’s going to do bad things to make things right — right for him, that is. He’ll help you or hurt you if it’s to his benefit, and — help or hurt — it won’t trouble him the slightest to do what needs to be done. We love Richard and Frank because they are preternaturally confident, and however bad they may be, you never stop admiring their self-assuredness. As the New Yorker article points out, it’s a real bummer when Richard gets killed; you know that he deserves it if we live in a moral universe, but you think to yourself, “Well, damn. Now the fun is over.”
Frank’s wife, Claire, is kind of like Lady Macbeth. She definitely provokes, encourages and helps him towards his greatness because it will mean big things for her as well. But she’s a fully developed 21st century character; she’s got her own non-profit, her own interests and power plays that sometimes cause her to cross Frank’s interests. If Frank is one part each of Macbeth and Richard, then Claire is maybe one part Lady Macbeth, but three parts Rosalind from As You Like It: beautiful, witty, scheming and wise. But that rotten part of her that is Lady Macbeth is enough to spoil the whole apple. Neither of these characters can have happy endings, but they’ll definitely have exciting ones.
Structure and Genre. Like Shakespeare, the writers of this show love to employ sly, witty, sometimes bitter asides and soliloquies. Frank — like Richard, Macbeth, Hamlet, Polonius, etc — reveals wonderful secrets during those moments when he looks at the camera to pull us out of the scene and into his mind. It’s part of his strategy for winning us over, and his look always says the same thing: you know I’m right. I have been seen clapping my hands with childish glee when he looks aside at us and says…nothing. Once he’s established his use of the aside, he no longer needs to use it for words. He just looks, as if to say, “See what I’m talking about? Tell me I’m wrong.” And, thus privy to his nefarious plots, we delight in being his confidantes and become complicit in his schemes. I’m sure there is a bigger meta-metaphor to be developed here, but I’m going to leave it at that.
Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and these plays are historical insofar as their characters were once real, flesh and bone people, and some of the events of the stories did certainly happen. But to go to them for a history lesson is to miss the point. Like our historical Hollywood movies today whose purpose is to tell us (we, the people of the present) as much, if not more about ourselves than the people of the past, so, too, did Shakespeare’s histories function. Furthermore, his treatment of certain historical characters has been controversial. Don’t believe me? Check out the website for the Richard III Society; their mission: to “secure a more balanced assessment of the king” since 1924.
House of Cards is only slightly different. Although its characters are purely fictional and not meant to embody any specific historical figures, its depiction of Washington and the power structure is real-ish, albeit straight out of the conspiracy theorist’s handbook. And it works for that reason: conspiracy theories are a lot more exciting than plain-Jane, banal, common sense reality. Although I know there are politicians who do bad things, I doubt that too many have ever been guilty of murder. Have journalists slept with their sources to get information? Probably, but I doubt it’s par for the course. So it’s consistent with a Shakespeare history: it does give us a peek into the world of politics and power, with its egos, its pushy lobbyists and sleepless interns, but we peek at it through gauze and smoke.
Alright, I’m sure there is more to say, but I’ll leave that for you, dear reader. Where have you seen Shakespeare hiding in the show?