It's no secret that Netflix's original series "House of Cards" is greatly influenced by Shakespeare. In fact, in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Kevin Spacey (who himself has played Richard III, both in London and at BAM in Brooklyn, NY) said, “The great thing about the original series and Michael Dobson’s [sic] book is that they were based on Shakespeare. The direct address is absolutely ‘Richard III.’”
However, for those of you who haven't quite made all the connections, here they are (SPOILER ALERT, obviously):
Frank's breaking of the fourth wall parallels "Richard III": Some of Shakespeare's characters break the fourth wall (they talk to the audience, indicated in Shakespeare's plays with the reference Aside:), notably Richard III and also Iago, the villain from "Othello." In many ways, this makes characters that are, essentially, villains, much more palatable to the audience. They say funny things and create a rapport with us. They make us feel like they're our close friends. But be careful! If you let your guard down, they might just stab you (or push you in onto a subway platform in front of a moving train).
Frank, like Richard III and sometimes even Iago, is a likable villain: A character breaking the fourth wall, no matter what kind of crimes and murders he is committing, makes us feel like we are in his inner circle, like we are confidantes. Frank, Richard III, and Iago also make fun of all the idiots around them, and we don't want to be in that pool, do we? As Paula C. Blank notes in The Washington Post, "We can’t help but identify with him — because otherwise we’d identify with the fools."
There are major parallels between Claire Underwood and Lady Macbeth: Claire Underwood, like Lady Macbeth, is as power hungry, if not more so, than her husband. She, too, supports his rise to power by whatever means necessary. She, too, has no children (though in "Macbeth," there is one reference that Lady Macbeth might have formerly had a child, this child is not present in any way in the play, so it is likely that if there was a child, it died at a young age). She, too, is not particularly nurturing. She, too, is extremely scheming and cunning. She manages to turn what could have been a major media mess (admitting she had had an abortion on live TV) into a discussion about the prevalence of undisclosed rapes that happen in the army. We wonder if we will begin to see her unravel, as Lady Macbeth does.
There are major parallels between Claire and Frank Underwood's marriage and the Macbeth's marriage: The only people that Claire and Frank seem to care about other than themselves are each other. They really do seem to be in love (in our opinion). They support each other through thick and thin. They are open about their affairs. They calculate and plan together. And they both ultimately have the same goal: power.
Frank's unrelenting quest for power is similar to that of Macbeth's: On several occasions, Frank mentions that he greatly desires power over money and despises people who are the other way around. This is very Macbeth-ian. He, also like Macbeth, is ruthless and willing to kill anyone who gets in his way.
The president and Frank have a very Othello-Iago friendship: In the pilot of the series, Frank is extremely upset because the president decides to pass him over for the role of secretary of state, much like how Iago is angry because Othello passes him over for promotion and instead promotes Cassio. Though Frank smiles to the president's face, he secretly despises him. Now it seems possible that he could be trying to take down the president, as Iago does with Othello.
Frank Underwood's solo visit to the church after Peter Russo's death mimics "Macbeth": In Shakespeare's "Macbeth," the title character is terrified when he sees Banquo's ghost in his seat at his dining room table (Banquo is his good friend who he has had murdered). While Frank Underwood isn't exactly terrified by a ghost, he does talk to Peter Russo's ghost when he visits a church after he murders Russo. The viewer never actually sees Russo, just as in many productions of "Macbeth," Banquo's ghost is only visible to Macbeth. It is also our only tiny glimpse of Frank experiencing any sort of remorse for his gruesome deed.
Claire hinting at an affair between the president and Christina is similar to Iago's hinting at an affair between Desdemona and Cassio in "Othello": Claire subtly mentions to the first lady that she doesn't like Christina because sleeping with her former boss (Peter Russo) was unprofessional. This plants the idea in the first lady's head that Christina might be sleeping with her own husband. Iago plants these same ideas in Othello's head regarding Othello's wife, Desdemona, and Cassio. Both Iago and Claire know that sometimes it only takes a subtle hint to unravel an entire relationship.
Just as "Richard III" is only nominally historical, "House of Cards" is only nominally about politics: Though "Richard III" is technically a historical play (Richard III was a real person, after all), you definitely don't have to be interested in history to enjoy it. It ends up being more about Richard III as a character than about his evil deeds. The same goes for "House of Cards." We were initially hesitant to watch it, as we are not exactly intrigued by the details of the U.S.'s political system. However, the show is way more about the characters and their interactions, mainly Frank's, than it is about the day-to-day in the White House.
CORRECTION: There were two instances in this piece that referred to Frank Underwood as Frank Underhill. Changes have been made.
CLARIFICATION: There is a reference to Lady Macbeth perhaps having had a baby at one time in "Macbeth," but since there is absolutely no further evidence that they currently have children, we have assumed that this referenced child probably died at a young age, indicating that she does not, in the play, have children.
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