Paula C. Blank is a professor of English literature at the College of William and Mary. Her third book on Shakespeare is forthcoming from Stanford University Press.
‘House of Cards,” whose second season will be released Feb. 14, may appear to be the ultimate Washington drama, a satire about political intrigue and corruption. But the show’s inspirations go back further than the 1990 British series — all the way to Shakespeare.
Last year we tracked Francis “Frank” Underwood, the cunning congressman from South Carolina played by Kevin Spacey, as he maneuvered and murdered his way to a nomination for the vice presidency. In Frank and his wife, Claire, there are hints of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, who plot to kill their king. Like the Macbeths, the Underwoods seem to have a very happy marriage, despite or because of their scheming.
In Frank’s vendetta against President Garrett Walker, we can glimpse Iago’s hatred for Othello, who passed him over for a promotion. And Shakespeare’s most diabolically entertaining serial killer, Richard III, seems an inspiration for the show’s most distinctive feature: the way Frank addresses the camera, revealing his real thoughts to his audience. Similarly, in his soliloquies and asides, Richard often shares his murderous plots with the audience, mocking the fools around him and inviting us in on the joke. We can’t help but identify with him — because otherwise we’d identify with the fools. Frank, like Richard, makes us accessory to his crimes by winning us over with his mordant charm and wit.
Of course, TV shows have been breaking the fourth wall since the 1950s, when George Burns quipped to the camera. But it’s always been a trope of comedy. We don’t expect it in a dramatic series, let alone in what may turn out to be a tragedy. Anyone who’s familiar with Shakespearean villains can guess where Frank may be headed. (Hint: “My kingdom for a horse!”)
There’s another “House of Cards” mystery Shakespeare might help us solve: Frank’s sexuality. Just past the middle of the first season, Frank returns to his undergraduate alma mater, the Sentinel, an all-male military academy that is honoring him with a library in his name. He tells the audience how much contempt he has for the place, where he was mercilessly hazed.
But Frank’s visit is not all about PR and hypocrisy. He also reunites with his closest male friend and sometime-lover, Tim Corbet. The two pull a drunken all-nighter together on the floor of the old library that’s about to be razed to make room for Frank’s. They reminisce about how they “messed around” and what it meant. “I was so drawn to you,” Frank tells him. “You meant something to me.” It’s the first time we see Frank genuinely moved. By comparison, his moments with us don’t seem authentic at all. At the end of the episode, Frank parts with his college sweetheart and snaps back into his familiar heartlessness.
Does this mean Frank is gay? Will he come out in the episodes ahead? The trailers for the new season are full of seductive hints. Among them: Frank grimly burying a ring in the dirt. Is it a wedding ring or a class ring? Is he putting his marriage or his college crush to rest?
If Shakespeare is the show’s ultimate inspiration, it may mean something else entirely.
Renaissance England wasn’t a utopia for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals; far from it. Puritans railed against boys playing girls onstage, concerned that men in the audience might imitate them. And there is no doubt that segments of society frowned upon certain sexual acts (at the time, sodomy was illegal for both sexes). Even so, there was no concept of sexual identity, no closet where one’s true sexuality might be hidden. The implicit presumption was that any man could have erotic feelings for other men, just as any man could for women.
And so Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe could casually note that even “the mightiest kings have had their minions” — i.e., male lovers. Shakespeare’s works, too, are matter-of-fact about same-sex love. For example: Antonio in “The Merchant of Venice” “only loves the world” for Bassanio and does so openly. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets address a beautiful man he calls “the master mistress” of his passion. But they caused no scandal at the time. More than a century passed before the homosexuality of the sonnets was debated, and Shakespeare’s sexual identity became a mystery to be solved.
Of course, being outed would probably hurt Frank’s political career, so he keeps his sexuality a secret. But “House of Cards” may be imagining political scenarios other than our own. It may be looking back to Shakespeare’s world and looking forward to a new world on the horizon.
Sure, gay characters on TV have long ceased to be outsiders, whether culturally or romantically. But even the new HBO show “Looking,” about three gay men in San Francisco, is being judged as if it were PR. It’s still about being gay.
“House of Cards” could be taking the next step, anticipating a day when the shock of non-heterosexual identities has truly worn off. Frank’s homosexuality in college surely means something, as he puts it. But it might not mean everything.
And that, in its own way, might mean as much as coming out of the closet once did.