Spoiler Warning: The following will discuss House of Cards seasons 1 and 2 and the plots of some Shakespeare plays – which probably are not spoilers, as they were published hundreds of years ago.
In Shakespeare's day, the theatre was a place in which people of all different backgrounds could go and be entertained. From peasants to kings, everyone loved the stage. Shakespeare made a great deal of money from his plays for this very reason. Everyone watched theatre – much like how television is watched by the President of the United States and commoners like me.
If Shakespeare was alive today, he would probably be writing television – maybe for House of Cards.
House of Cards Season Three is set to be released all at once by Netflix on February 27th. The newly crowned President Underwood, along with his partner-in-crime and First Lady, will have to navigate Washington's political underworld in order to stay on top.
House of Card's Shakespearean connection has been discussed by actor Kevin Spacey. Like many of the Bard's villains and heroes, Frank Underwood will soliloquize, turning to the camera in order to confide in the audience: his plots, his schemes, and his true colors.
Underwood uses tried-and-true methods of Shakespearean villains in order to seize power.
Like Othello's Iago, he plants seeds of doubt in other's minds, allowing them to grow and fester. Underwood pretends to reject power so that it seems as if it has been forced upon him – a technique that Richard III uses by piously rejecting the crown that he intends to take. All the while, like King Lear's Edmond, Underwood seems to struggle to contain his enjoyment. Life is a game of high-stakes chess, and if pawns must be killed, so be it.
The similarity between Claire Underwood and Lady Macbeth is also uncanny, and is often remarked upon. While Claire does not seem to share Lady Macbeth's murderous appetites, she has illustrated that she is willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants. This ambition, combined with her husband's, has propelled the couple to the Oval Office.
However, the second season of House of Cards explored the couple's childless marriage – like the Macbeths, the Underwoods have to struggle with the idea that without any children, their legacy ceases with their deaths.
The Shakespeare connection can also be seen in the original source material, the BBC's House of Cards. Frank's English alter ego, Francis Urquhart, can barely get through an episode without quoting Macbeth gleefully to the audience.
But Frank does not quote Macbeth or Iago. In fact, he only quotes Shakespeare once, this is what he says:
"Cry 'Havoc' said he who fought chaos with chaos and let slip the dogs of war." Instead of a villain or trickster, Underwood chooses to quote Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, alluding to him as "he who fought chaos with chaos". Mark Antony fought the conspirators of Rome who murdered Julius Caesar. Driving them from the city, he battled Brutus's rebels, ultimately winning and being named one of the Triumvirate rulers of Rome.
Mark Antony is not a villain, or not, at least, in Shakespeare's canon. He is a noble orator, warrior, and politician, who fights to restore order after chaos and civil war threaten to destroy the state. By quoting Mark Antony, Frank Underwood reveals something about himself. He does not, unlike Francis Urquhart, as Macbeth or Iago, tragic villains. Instead, he sees himself as a ruler, a statesman, a speaker, a man of power.
What's more – Mark Antony wins. No one wants to see themselves as Richard III, the hunchback, murderous king who is doomed to die alone. But however Frank sees himself, he is now a victim of the genre that he has constructed. No matter who he wants to be, at the end of the day, he is a tragic villain.
And that, unfortunately for him, means that Shakespeare can tell us how his story ends.
Tragedy is like gravity: what comes up, must come down. Now that the Underwoods have reached the top, there is only one way to go. Frank Underwood is majorly and unequivocally screwed. After Richard III and Macbeth reach the throne, they are plagued by betrayal, guilt, paranoia, and fear. They are unable to enjoy what they have, because their means of gaining it have given them no security. They struggle to hide their wickedness while retaining their thrones. And ultimately, they die.
Shakespeare tells us that this season of House of Cards is going to be awesome.
House of Cards returns February 27th.
Do what Shakespeare would do. Watch it all in one sitting.