SHAKESPEARE, POPULAR CULTURE, and CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Monday, February 17, 2014
Yes, “House of Cards” is our Shakespeare by Daniel D'Addario
“The way it was displayed to us, long before Episode 1 was ever written in Season 1, was you are Lady Macbeth to his Richard III.”
That was “House of Cards” star Robin Wright, using English-major references to describe her TV series — and her relationship, therein, to the Kevin Spacey character — at a recent roundtable discussion with journalists. These sort of comparisons are as old as the “Cards” franchise itself, which began its life as a British TV series later adapted for Netflix. Spacey, who played Richard III in 2011 and 2012, has asserted that the show’s central device (not original to the American version) was a direct crib from Shakespeare’s play.
Molly Parker, who plays a newly introduced member of Congress in the second season, said at the roundtable that “my sense is that this show’s sort of Shakespearean in its scope and has that sort of ‘Richard III’ — those themes in ‘Macbeth,’ even.”
This seems, on its face, risible. “House of Cards” has been nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes, sure, but comparing it to the most enduring art in the Western canon is as overzealous as comparing “The Wire” to a novel by Charles Dickens — which happens constantly, too.
“House of Cards” is small-bore, in a sense: It shows us the machinations of politics, but no one ever senses that the nation will be meaningfully different if whatever it is Frank Underwood has set his mind to comes to pass, not least because his political positions seem largely contingent on preserving his power. Negotiations with teachers’ unions and dealings with state governments flit by as minor elements of the plot, which shows us power’s effect on the soul, but not, precisely, what power can accomplish.