Why ‘House of Cards’ is One of the Best Shakespeare Adaptations of All Time
How well do you know your Shakespeare? Admittedly, a lot of us may be limited to the handful of plays covered in English class in high school (Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, etc.) but if you’re anything like me, your exposure to Shakespeare’s work goes a little deeper than that. I go to productions of his plays a least several times a year, and even tried my hand at a background part in a community theatre staging or three. There’s nothing like a bit of iambic pentameter to make me feel like the intellectual I sometimes wish I was (I’m definitely not).
All that to say that when a new screen adaptation of a work of Shakespeare comes along, my interest is usually piqued. And it’s long been a trend for those screen adaptations to re-set the action in a contemporary time period; some of most effective examples are movies like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (yes, the Leonardo DiCaprio one), Julie Taymor’s Titus, and more recently, Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. Generally speaking, these modern retellings usually retain most of the story, characters, and general themes of the source plays, and if they’re being especially faithful, use all the original, 400+ year-old dialogue.
But let’s look at a show that, on the surface, has nothing to do with Shakespeare: the Netflix juggernaut House of Cards. If you quizzed most people on the street, they’re tell you it’s just a political drama, which follows a ruthless U.S. Congressman named Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) as they betray and outwit their way towards the highest office in the land: the Presidency of the United States.
House of Cards has led the charge in establishing Netflix as a major producer of original, scripted programming, due largely to its movie-quality performances and production values. And aside from the industry awards it’s picked up, when the third season on Netflix accidentally leaked several weeks before its scheduled premiere, it was enough to set the Internet on fire, and it re-confirmed just how wildly popular the show has become.
I wonder, though, how many people pick up on how closely House of Cards mirrors one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, Macbeth. It’s certainly been noticed by critics, but I think the similarities go a lot further than a cursory comparison between Claire Underwood and Lady Macbeth, or by pointing out that Frank’s desire to usurp the “throne” of the President is a rough match to Macbeth’s evil ambitions to become king of Scotland. I can’t say for certain how intentional it was on the part of series creator Beau Willimon (though the connection is thought to have been more deliberate with the four-episode British version of House of Cards that ran in late 1990). However, even as I finished Season 3 of the show a few days ago, I couldn’t help but see more and more of the play as I went along.
Take the central relationship between Frank and Claire. As the Lord and Lady Macbeth of the show, they start out on a lower, but still influential rung: Frank is House majority whip, and Claire runs a Washington-based non-profit organization called the Clean Water Initiative. When the new president reneges on a promise to make Frank the Secretary of State, he and Claire decide to improve their position by any means necessary – however bloody their hands must get.
In Macbeth, meanwhile, the method of achieving power is more mystical, yet no less guided by the characters’ own decisions. Macbeth is visited by three witches, who give him a series of prophecies that first proclaim his promotion to a new feudal lordship (the thane of Cawdor) and later his ascension to the throne. No matter what the witches say, however, Macbeth’s rise to power always comes by his own hand and the hand of his wife; he is the one who kills the king, and has his rivals and their families assassinated or driven from the country.
The absence of witches and prophecies in House of Cards is simply because they don’t fit in a modern-day, pseudo-realistic depiction of Washington politics. Each step that Frank Underwood takes to gather more power can be seen in the context of similar actions by Macbeth: Frank routinely gathers “friends” and colleagues around him that evoke Macbeth’s friend Banquo: Peter Russo (Corey Stoll), Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), or even Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) at certain points. Later, as Frank’s suspicions about his various allies pile on, he removes them from the picture, either in terms of ending their careers or ending their lives. And yet, as time goes by, there’s the sense that some of these people may eventually come back to haunt Frank, just as Macbeth is dogged by the spirit of Banquo in the second half of the play.
And if Frank’s machinations don’t convince you, there’s his penchant for addressing the audience directly in soliloquies explaining his thoughts. These moments may be considerably shorter (and much less evocative) than Shakespeare’s, but they’re a creative choice that brings the show closer to the Bard than even the movies made explicitly about his plays.
As for Claire Underwood, her resemblance to Lady Macbeth works on multiple levels. First is Claire’s decision with Frank not to have children – it’s suggested that Claire sees children as a distraction from the rise to power, just as Lady Macbeth talks about preferring to bash out a theoretical child’s brains, rather than be swerved from her course of action. Then there’s Claire’s midnight scheming with her husband, and goading him to violence when he loses conviction – material that feels elegantly lifted from Act 1, Scene VII:
…Art thou afeard To be the same in thine own act and valour As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that Which thou esteem'st the ornament of life, And live a coward in thine own esteem, Letting 'I dare not' wait upon 'I would,' Like the poor cat i' the adage?
Or we can look to the strange and coolly logical relationship between Frank and Claire. At times, it seems devoid of sex or even love, a quality that intensifies so much in Season 3 that it reminded me of one of Macbeth’s final soliloquies, which he delivers when he hears about Lady Macbeth’s suicide: “She should have died hereafter/There would have been a time for such a word.” It’s a dispassionate comment meant to reflect just how soulless Macbeth has become, and given the way the most recent season of House of Cards ends, it might hint at where the show is going.
It’s not enough to simply point out the connections between Macbeth and House of Cards – by themselves, they don’t necessarily confirm the Netflix show as one of the best-ever Shakespeare adaptations. The reasoning is this: the strength of House of Cards as an adaptation actually lies in how it departs from the source text. It doesn’t matter how much of the series is inspired by a work like Macbeth: by expanding the story to cover dozens more characters and drawing in many more plot threads, House of Cards acts like a stylized delivery mechanism for a story that many viewers wouldn’t normally binge-watch. It makes the age-old tale not just palatable, but relatable. And best of all, it’s done without ever being overt about its inspiration.
Some adaptations of Macbeth are masterful works of cinema, but they’re all productions that only die-hards of one persuasion or another would seek out, and after seeing several of them, you could be forgiven for feeling like they just transplant the story from medieval Scotland to a new context. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, for example, takes a more direct approach to the plot and characters than House of Cards, but from the perspective of a non-cinephile or a Shaskespeare agnostic, it’s a black-and-white film from the 50s that does the Macbeth story in feudal Japan.
By contrast, House of Cards blends the Macbeth elements so smoothly with its other influences that I wouldn’t be surprised if a vast majority of audiences didn’t pick up on the connection at all. And if the most basic act of adaptation is to make something new out of another, earlier work, then House of Cards should be considered one of the best examples of it: it not only recreates Macbeth, but builds something even bigger on top of it. It’s an accomplishment worthy of even Frank Underwood’s ambitions.
What do you think about the connections between House of Cards and Shakespeare? Is the show a true adaptation in the way I argued? Or is it merely using Macbeth as an inspiration? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!