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Our Lady Macbeth Can Beat Up Your Lady Macbeth

posted by Robert Clark employees FacultyProfiles rclark Desktop House of Cards Premiere Jq4Vt3suh2Jl

After bingeing on House of Cards, then the original British series, The House of Cards, I wrote a post in this space six months ago noting that the American version of the show was more sexist, and less concerned with conflicts between social classes, than was the British series.  Now that the long wait for the second season is finally over, my thoroughly predictable if not downright obvious comments call out for revision.  

For those of you who do not know the series, the core story is of the rise to the Presidency of a corrupt and power-mad politician, Frances Underwood (Kevin Spacey). Underwood engineers drug and sex scandals, uses and then betrays a newspaper reporter, and contrives the failure of legislation simply to manipulate or destroy his rivals.  Underwood sees murder as just one among other acts he must commit to further his career, and he prefers to kill with his own hands.  As anti-politician as the current cultural climate has become, most ordinary citizens probably still do not imagine that senators and the vice-president have killed anyone at close range.  Such elements make House of Cards more melodramatic as well as much more fun than a series like the more realistic The West WingHouse of Cards does not shrink from portraying vicious evil, whereas the characters of The West Wing were flawed, but ultimately on the side of the angels.

Constant text messaging, video surveillance, invasion of privacy, the sins of the media, and competition with China make House of Cards a distinctly modern study of blind ambition and power. But if you were compelled to read Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth or Richard III in high school, House of Cards includes all of the treachery, violence, and adultery of those plays (as well as many plot points and character traits stolen from Shakespeare, as Michael Dobbs, the writer of the best-selling novels on which the show is based happily admits.)  The series neatly fuses timeless battles--pragmatists versus idealists--with contemporary challenges and in a Shakespearean way. No one is purely monstrous or purely heroic. What distinguishes the second season is that the female characters truly come into their own.

Robin Wright may be the best thing about House of Cards. She demonstrate all the ferocity of Lady Macbeth, and is also a far more complex and central character than her counterpart in the original British series.  I stand by my earlier view that the American show is more sexist and less incisive in social criticism than was the British original.  But Wright's performance is something rare in U.S. television, a woman with sexual allure, independent power, and little to no regret.  It is almost as if the rewriters of The House of Cards were determined to return us to the strong women characters of 1940s films, the likes of which we seldom see today.

Robert Clark

Robert Clark is the Director of The Writing Center and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Arts and Sciences.