Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

‘House of Cards’: Machiavelli and Shakespeare all in one

In this South African season of political ambitions, would you like to know what principles the Florentine philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli advised aspiring political leaders — specifically “princes” — to adhere to ruthlessly in the 16th century in his famous (or is it notorious) treatise, The Prince (1515)? Or what Shakespeare, holding up the mirror to the actions of ambitious nobles, shows us in Macbeth, but more particularly in Richard III (his most Machiavellian play) about the inner workings of power? Then watch the American television series House of Cards based on the novel by Michael Dobbs and an earlier BBC miniseries.

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are preternaturally convincing as a contemporary Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (minus the supernatural element), in the roles of Francis (Frank) and Claire Underwood, respectively, who seem to be chronically dissatisfied with their position in American high society on “The Hill” in Washington, DC. Having been Democrat majority whip for about a decade, Frank — whose initials tellingly gel into FU — is galvanised into vengeful action by President Walker reneging on what he took to be a promise of the position of secretary of state when the position becomes vacant.

With the help of his chief of staff, Doug Stamper (his right-hand man in everything, including some, although not all, of his dirty work), he unearths a compromising statement about Israel on the part of the secretary of state designate when he was the editor of a paper decades earlier, and harnesses the talents of an equally ambitious young reporter, Zoe Barnes, to get the news into the public domain. Once the unfortunate man is forced to withdraw, he uses Zoe to plant the requisite seeds in the media as a clever game of suggestion for having the person of his choice appointed to the position.

One might wonder why Frank refrains from targeting the secretary of state position for himself, but within a few episodes the reason comes into view — he is going after a bigger prize: the vice-presidency of the United States, which brings him within reach of the most powerful position in the contemporary world. And he does not let anything stand in his way, nor is he reluctant to sacrifice people, literally and figuratively, for the sake of attaining his goal. In the meantime his wife, who heads a charity organisation, has shown herself to be just as hard and uncompromising a businesswoman as her husband is as a politician.

I have only dwelt on the first season of the series, and I shall not reveal any more “recognisable” details of the deeds Frank has to perform ruthlessly to move closer to the real prize, lest I fall into the trap of being a spoiler. Suffice it to say that in his relations with other people in the narrative he alternates between joviality and harshness; the true Frank Underwood reveals himself only in his relationship with the audience. David Fincher and his series co-directors use the Brechtian alienation technique of Frank addressing viewers directly from time to time, and it is here that one sees callousness, relentless cruelty and unadulterated, raw ambition face to face, when Frank shares his darkest intentions and feelings with you as viewer — with the result that it makes one feel very uneasy.

After all, what is known as the “construction of the viewer” through the camera’s perspective in film theory has the corollary of engineering the viewer’s identification with the protagonist (even if he or she is revealed as being unworthy), with the consequence that, when they perform unconscionable actions, one is implicated as viewer, willy-nilly. Anthony Minghella does this in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), and everyone who has seen this film knows how it plays havoc with your feelings.

Have you spotted the resemblance yet between Frank Underwood and some of Shakespeare’s darkest protagonists, specifically the hunchback, Richard III, and to a lesser extent (given the role of the supernatural) Macbeth? And have those of you who are familiar with Machiavelli’s work recognised something of his “realistic” portrayal of the actions of princes who desire power, and who want to stay in power, in the thumbnail sketch I have provided of Frank Underwood? It would be much easier to do if you are familiar with the television series (and/or its predecessor series), or have read the novel.

For example, when Macbeth sets out to realise his witch-inculcated ambition to be king, he soon realises that half-measures will not suffice; one has to throw oneself into the fray with full conviction and firm resolve, no matter what the price you have to pay in guilt and conscience. Similarly, having set his sights on the throne, Richard, duke of Gloucester, cannot deviate from the path this sets him upon — one of fraud, deceit and cold-blooded murder, even of innocent children.

In these Shakespearian tragedies, however, the tragic hero/protagonist pays the ultimate price for his disturbance of the moral order. There is no indication that Underwood will have to do so; he is no “tragic” hero (because the compelling cosmic moral order that Shakespeare could still postulate has disappeared), and along the way there are other telling differences between them and Frank Underwood. He does not display signs of pangs of conscience for his cold-blooded deeds, for instance; on the contrary, he tells viewers directly not to waste their sympathy on those who have stood in his way, but were dispensable. And unlike the Shakespearian dramas, where one is not in any doubt as to the protagonists’ guilty awareness of a higher power, Frank Underwood makes it clear that he has no such illusions.

There is no space here to delve into the intricacies of Machiavelli’s teachings; some brief remarks will have to suffice. In chapter 15 of The Prince he remarks: “There is so great a distance between how one lives and how one ought to live that he who rejects what people do in favour of what one ought to do, brings about his ruin rather than his preservation; for a man who wishes to do in every matter what is good, will be ruined among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, or use goodness and abstain from using it according to the commands of circumstances.”

This must be seen in conjunction with Machiavelli’s counsel, that because it is so difficult for a prince to be both feared and loved equally by his subjects, and if he therefore has to choose between being loved or feared, he should choose the latter. His explanation is that the question, whether one is loved, depends on other people, while that of being feared depends on yourself, which is something one can control. Furthermore, Machiavelli distinguishes between fear and hatred, the latter being something the prince should prevent by refraining from taking the property of others. And he commends a reputation for “cruelty” under circumstances of war, something exemplified by Hannibal, whose legendary cruelty, in conjunction with his many “virtues”, ensured his soldiers’ loyalty and obedience.

Frank Underwood of House of Cards could not have been a better pupil of Machiavelli’s: he is far less interested in whether people love him than if they fear him, and he knows when “to use goodness and abstain from using it according to the commands of circumstances”. As for cruelty, like Hannibal and Richard of Gloucester, Frank does not hesitate to resort to it when he deems it necessary, which inspires fear in those who would harm him if they could. To sum up: in accordance with Machiavelli’s teachings in The Prince, Francis Underwood practices “virtue” in the new sense the Florentine gave to it, to wit, a careful, prudent alternation between what is ordinarily regarded as virtue and vice.

Today one does not get away with this as easily as in former times, before the advent of electronic communications and surveillance — something that is foregrounded in the series, and requires some nimble footwork on the part of Frank, Claire, Doug and others who serve their interests. All of this makes House of Cards a fascinating, insightful, but chilling study in power.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

  • ‘Disgusting, fascist, racist Donald Trump’
  • So you think that Orwell’s ‘1984’ could only happen under a political dictatorship? Think again!
  • Sleepwalking into a geophysical storm?
  • The American fascist, the Canadian activist and the French poststructuralist