If Richard III Had Married Lady Macbeth: The Shakespearean Pedigree of House of Cards

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With the Americanised remake of House of Cards now available on Netflix (at least in the United States), it’s a good time to revisit the original and to recall how it is shot through with Shakespeare.

House of Cards is the story of Francis Urquhart, Chief Whip of the Conservative Party who, denied a Cabinet post by the incoming Prime Minister (succeeding Margaret Thatcher, who fell in real life just after the series began), decides to seize supreme power for himself by lying, manipulating, using, backstabbing, blackmailing, and climbing over anybody who stands in his way. He does not even balk at murder. All the while, he pretends to be uninterested in the office—until he accepts it. Sound familiar?

Any resemblance to a certain crookback King is strictly intentional. The first episode opens, like Richard III, with an extended address to the viewer; drawing us into complicity with his villainy, Urquhart’s soliloquies become a signature element of the series.

Very much like Richard, Urquhart so thoroughly seduces us that we root for him in spite of ourselves. That is largely due to Ian Richardson’s indelible performance. Richardson, one of the great Shakespeareans of his generation, had just played Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company before taking the role of Urquhart; by letting Richard influence him, he created one of the most iconic characters in all of British television. Urquhart’s signature phrase—“You may think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”—is still widely recognized in Britain even today.

House of Cards borrows from the Scottish play even more blatantly than from Richard III. When it’s first suggested to Urquhart that he could be Prime Minister, he actually says “Glamis, and Cawdor, and King hereafter” and shortly his wife is insinuating that he should topple his leader. To be fair, he doesn’t need nearly as much persuasion as Macbeth did. Diane Fletcher’s movie debut was in Roman Polanski’s bloody Macbeth, so her brilliantly menacing performance as Elizabeth Urquhart can be said to have Shakespearean roots.

What about the remake, then? Few series would seem in less need of one, let alone an Americanisation. Still, the project has attracted A-list movie directors such as David Fincher and James Foley, raising hopes. And Kevin Spacey, who was widely praised as Richard III not long ago, is just about the only actor I would want to see in the pivotal role. But if you think he can eclipse Richardson, I couldn’t possibly comment.

[image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Francis_Urquhart.jpg; original uspecified, fair use claimed]


Author:James Cappio

James Cappio has taught philosophy in the Ivy League, practiced law on Wall Street, and now works as an independent writer and editor. Inspired by P.G. Wodehouse’s example to read all of Shakespeare's works within one year (2009–2010), he has been blogging about his passion ever since at shakesyear.wordpress.com.
  • Carter Nicholas

    One has to take exception to this complaint of “staginess” in Richardson’s “performance.” He was giving the script, as Spacey was; and the scripts differ. The conceptions differ; the vitality of the Shakespearean influence differs; two planets, sharing the same title, for trademark and marketing reasons more than for art. To blame Richardson for excellence in what was asked is, well, unpersuasive. Whatever was asked of Spacey, one would never deny, he made the most of it.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/haroldraitt Harold Raitt

    It was the “raising hopes” that confused me; surely hopes haven’t just been raised, but conclusively met and even exceeded?

  • http://www.facebook.com/haroldraitt Harold Raitt

    Unless, of course, the final para was simply a literary flourish to use the Urquhart quote, in which case, touché. I’ll have a go myself at the Richardson/Spacey comparison sometime soon 🙂

  • http://www.facebook.com/haroldraitt Harold Raitt

    Without being rude, you might have watched some of the new series before suggesting a remake had nothing to offer. It’s one of the subtlest, most adept political thrillers ever and exemplifies how Shakespearean performance has changed since Richardson’s brilliant but ‘stagey’ approach.

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