House of Cards: Netflix Does Shakespeare

HouseOfCardsSay what you will about Netflix’s new model for serving up an entire season in one fell swoop, it works for me. I watched the series over the weekend and sticking with it for the duration helped me discover its Shakespearian side. The only question is: which Shakespeare?

At first it’s Macbeth with Frank “Thane of Cawdor” Underwood conducting nefarious acts of treason. In this version, there are no ugly sisters bearing the news of the thane’s forthcoming triumph. In fact his hopes are dashed in the very first scene. Nevertheless the shadow operation starts up immediately. Somethings’s afoot and once Lady Macbeth enters stage right, the die is cast. The two of them make a chilling Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth.

Robin Wright fills the screen with her statuesque beauty, square shoulders, and severe haircut. She’s no Beltway shrinking violet. While the thane is maneuvering Congress, Lady is hatcheting half her staff and making no apologies.

The early episodes center on the relationship of this power couple. Like in the original, Lady is ambitious and loyal to a fault. When Frank declares he’s just spent the night with Zoe, the reporter for the big DC newspaper, Claire bats not an eye, skips not a beat in her reply. “What can we get out of her?” she asks. It’s all we need to know.

One difference between the first Macbeth and this one: Lady Macbeth does not experience a downward spiral to insanity. Instead she gets soft around the middle. She starts feeling compassionate towards the poor and the sick. She scratches around for dollars that will get back the half of her staff she previously canned. She may not have been hurt when Frank had an affair, but when he betrays her prized non-profit, she shows her weakness. She finally consummates the affair with the suave artist that’s been brewing since about scene three.

By now the show is starting to look less like Macbeth and more like Richard III without the limp. In the former, the ambitious soldier organizes a coup d’état early. He’s the king right off the bat. The fun is in watching the slow decline to the eventual downfall in the fifth act. In Richard III the rise to ultimate power takes up most of the play. There the enjoyment comes from watching the machinations, maneuverings, and murders that lead up to the coronation, finally. The downfall happens quickly after that.

In House of Cards, the maneuvering takes twelve episodes before we even get to the second in command. I assume season two will bring us closer to full presidency before the eventual downfall. The seeds of this downfall were planted towards the end of the final act. They come in the guise of three reporters following up on Frank’s various misdeeds during the previous twelve stories. Could these be the three weird sisters? Or have we left Macbeth completely at this point?

There’s a lot in this series besides a scavenger hunt for literary precedents, but that’s a good place to start. My advice? Take it all in one dose. Like with Shakespeare, there’s intrigue here and it’s best to watch it quickly lest you forget by the fifth act what the thane did back in the first.

Good luck with the hunt.

Sue Lange




House of Cards: Netflix Does Shakespeare — 6 Comments

  1. I’m interested in this especially from a media point of view. This is a strange area for TV. Netflix is a new producer of media product, and their delivery is unique. And releasing the entire season all at once is a daring new idea as well. I’m really interested in seeing how this pans out.

  2. Um, Claire and the artist had already had an affair; she broke it off. Now she starts it again after Frank screwing with her Foundation. Then she breaks it off again because Frank’s convinced her he’s online to such power that she won’t even need corporate funding.

    Frank expects to do this as … VPOTUS? The political system stuff is fairly preposterous in so many ways from the gate, making this House Majority Whip a … DEMOCRAT? From … SOUTH CAROLINA? Have you guys ever read history or even read the contemporary political pages of your newspapers. O wait, you’re television people and you don’t have time to read anything much less daily political progression for years of your own country. You watch movies for that.

    That all said, it was good enough arc television that I did watch it, though not all at once. But in the way I do like to watch arc tv, whether streaming or dvd, without commercial interruption, two – three eps at a time, evening after evening, before going back to my history research and drafting pages for The American Slave Coast. It’s the way I read novels, but there are so few novels these days that I can read at all, after having read thousands of ’em already. Thank goodness, streaming, netflix and arc tv came along when it did. 🙂

    Love, C

  3. Hey Foxessa, thanks for the comments. The show actually has more problems than what you mention, I may post a more in depth review in the future. Thanks for bringing up these points.



    • Isn’t it a remake of the British series, House of Cards? I think when they adapted the original book in the UK, they decided a certain character was so good they couldn’t kill them off and rewrote the ending to keep them going for another 2 series. And it spawned the catchphrase “You may say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.”

      • It is a remake of the 1990 Ian Richardson House of Cards series. It was wonderful.

        Since no (contemporary?) American actor can approach the polished elegant, urbane, sophisticated malice that Ian Richardson effortlessly achieved, it was smart to make this version’s protag a rumpled South Carolinian. Nevertheless one does feel that John C. Calhoun would curl his lip at Underwood’s decadent exercise of purely personal political power rather than the pursuit of power in service to political and philosophical doctrine, which as a good South Carolinian should be eternal and expansionist white supremacy and the power of the south — which before the Civil War, was called, rightly, the Slave Power — particularly that of South Carolina.

        The stand out performance is that of Robin Wright as Claire, Spacey’s Underwood’s wife. She maintains within each scene Ice Queen’s smooth control — a steel magnolia — while managing to project through these small screens that there is volcanic rumbling behind the imperturbable exterior — without raising her voice. Unlike in the original, this time around it’s the wife who possesses Richardson’s elegance — she’s Best of Show.

        Love, C.

  4. C’mon–nobody sees Francis is Iago?! Even when he turns to the camera and says “this is the night that either makes me or fordoes me quite?” (or his version). He’s been passed over for promotion?! Supreme manipulator? Really? Nobody?