I binged watched House of Cards over a year ago, but recently in English Class, we’ve been discussing Shakespeare’s Othello, and it got me thinking about how similar the show and the play are. Though I somewhat enjoy a little Shakespeare now and then, his plays have never really stuck with me, they’ve never struck that one certain chord, and they’ve never changed my views on the world like movies or television shows.
Anyways, House of Cards is really just Othello, but in a different spectrum. Actually, scratch that. I think it would be more appropriate to call it Iago.
Congressman Frank Underwood is the Iago of House of Cards. Having been passed up on the role of Secretary of State due to his importance as the House Majority Whip, Frank and his wife, Claire, seek to exact revenge and ultimately gain power. Although he has few scruples, Underwood uses every opportunity to gain favor with those who can help him, and with those he finds weak, he squashes with manipulation and deceit.
One of Underwood’s pawns is Zoe Barnes, a young aspiring political reporter for the Washington Herald. Underwood uses her to release an unrevised copy of an educational reform bill to discredit an important Congressman, which also allows him to seize control of the bill. With control over the education bill, Underwood quickly climbs the power ladder since he is now seen as leader of the bill committee, which happens to be the President’s cornerstone policy. Finally, when every last drop of opportunity has been exploited, Underwood throws Zoe to the dogs, much like Iago with Roderigo.
Another pawn of Underwood’s is Republican member Peter Russo, who he manipulates by using Russo’s two flaws: his alcoholism and his combination of eagerness and trust. It’s not much different than Cassio’s demotion and potential demise, just a little reworked. Cassio valued his reputation to the point that he trusted others as much as it upheld his status, where as Russo values power as much as it makes him feel less lonely – thus validating him. The series seems to place the majority of it’s tragedy squarely on Russo’s shoulders, whose demise is the closest thing to Othello smothering his own wife on their marriage bed. He is Cassio, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose purpose is to be subjected to manipulation which he obviously isn’t smart enough to understand. Also, he is never the object of anyone’s emotional interest, much like Cassio.
Also, there is a glimpse of sexism in both HoC and Othello. Rachel, who is very my like Bianca, is found with Russo (Cassio), and then she is manipulated into further latching on to Russo rather unwittingly. Rachel goes along with it because Underwood’s assistant owns her, and while the relationship is different than that of Bianca and Cassio’s, she is ultimately powerless and controlled by a world dominated by men.
From the simple setting to the poetic metaphors and tones of Congressman Frank Underwood’s Southern accent, HoC feels like it is one step away from becoming an actual stage play. Underwood even utilizes asides that are used to break the fourth wall (Ferris Bueler style), much like those found in the theater. While I’m not sure if this style was adapted from the original British House of Cards or not, I’ve never watched it but it’s on my to-watch-list, the American version certainly has a lot of Shakespearean vibes to it. The inclusion of asides and other stage tropes used in the show really bring a unique type of story telling to television, a type I didn’t even know was possible.
For more asides check out this video in my Montages page: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O08gt8ub1qs
In conclusion, House of Cards is not absolutely based on Othello, but some of the show’s aspects and devices give off a Shakespearean vibe. The series definitely made better use of these tropes than most shows (the asides really grew on me by the finale) and I very much enjoyed the first season and I look forward to its return. However, I can’t help but feel that its likeness to Othello might have contributed to the lack of satisfaction I felt during the finale, which after a couple of exciting episodes, ended with a by-the-book tragedy ending.
Anyways, I anticipate the next season and I will most likely rewatch the first sometime in the near future. A lot of discussion has been had over this series and what it means for the future of television, which simply translates to: it’s a show worth watching. Trust me. Seriously, it’s on Netlfix. Go watch it. Now.