House of Cards’ Lady Macbeth

Review of House of Cards (Season 1), Directed by David Finch

“Come you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here;

And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full

Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,

Stop up th’access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

Th’effect and it!”  (Lady Macbeth, Macbeth, Act I, Scene V)

In the beginning of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Lady Macbeth pleads with the powers that be to make her unlike a woman; to make her “top-full / Of direst cruelty” and to forget the nature of the fairer sex in order to ruthlessly scheme her husband to kingship. I could not help but think of this scene while binge-watching the new Netflix series House of Cards.

Kendrick gave a good overview of the show. It’s a noiry D.C. thriller worth a marathon or two. In the background of the trials and travails of Frank Underwood’s maneuvering to get to the top of DC politics is his high-powered wife, Claire. Cold, disciplined, and blonde, Claire is the Lady Macbeth of the dark tale, aiding Frank in his schemes and using her own power to bolster his. Like Lady Macbeth, Claire sacrifices many of her feminine qualities in pursuit of political gain, but as middle age approaches, she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her choices. Through Claire and Frank we see the ever-present dichotomy between power and love, self-service and self-sacrifice. The Underwoods chose the former, but Claire is the one who questions their decisions.

We get limited glimpses into the motivations behind Frank and Claire’s relationship, but Claire’s description of Frank’ marriage proposal in Chapter 6 reveals the contractual nature of their relationship.

You know what [Frank] said when he proposed? ‘Claire if all you want is happiness, say no. I’m not going to give you a couple of kids and count the days until retirement. I promise you freedom from that. I promise you’ll never be bored.’ He was the only man…who understood me. He didn’t put me on some pedestal. He’s a man who knows how to take what he wants.

Claire, promised “freedom” from normal family life, seems convinced that this is a superior outlook. She had no desire to be “put on some pedestal,” instead hoping ambition would be their mutual love.

At the beginning of the series, we see her fire over a dozen of her employees at her foundation, the Clean Water Initiative, with nary a doubt, in order to further the political goals of her husband. We learn that she has had three abortions in the past in an effort to protect her “freedom.”

But her ruthless resolve begins to waver. In Chapter 3, while on her regular jog through the cemetery, she is startled by an old woman–one of the witches from Macbeth, perhaps—who scolds her for her lack of respect for the dead. After this literal confrontation with death, Claire seems uneasy and more aware of her own inevitable mortality.

In the same episode, she courts an upstart non-profit headed by Stanford grad, Gillian, herself an example of what Claire could have been. Gillian’s earnest pursuit of improving the global landscape clashes with Claire’s hardened Machiavellian outlook. Moreover, in Chapter 9, we find out that [SPOILER] when faced with an unplanned pregnancy, Gillian decides to keep the baby even though it means being a single mother and giving up an opportunity to fulfill a professional goal. Gillian’s life and idealism remind Claire of what could have been. The two ultimately find themselves embroiled in a lawsuit that mirrors the conflict between Gillian’s idealism and Claire’s thirst for power.

Then, too, Claire is temporarily wooed away from her power games by a passionate affair, which serves to remind her of her own long-neglected passions for, as Kendrick put it, “the arts” and her “heart for helping the helpless and defending the weak.”

As the season progresses, Claire thinks about what she and Frank will leave behind. In the season finale, during one of their ritual cigarette-sharing catch-up sessions, Claire tries to bring this up with Frank who, in a previous episode, had wryly expressed to the viewers the extent to which he hated children:

CLAIRE: I was thinking about when one of us dies …

FRANK: Well, if it’s me and I’m sure it will be, you won’t be alone for long.

CLAIRE: No, I mean, what will we leave behind?

FRANK: We’ve accomplished a great deal. And I intend to accomplish a lot more for us.

CLAIRE: But for whom?

FRANK: For each other.

CLAIRE: But if we’re not … Ah, I’m being silly.

We next see Claire at the fertility office, attempting to remedy her previous pursuit of the Lady Macbeth-like goal of shaking off the nature of her sex.

Kendrick observed that Claire’s nobler interests “are often compromised by her own quest for power.” I think she is past “compromised” and pretty sold out to the idol of power. Even after her encounters with mortality, idealism, and passion, in the end, Claire chooses to return to Frank, and the never-ending quest for power that he represents.

Claire’s character shows the heart of the modern fallacy: that power is a god worth seeking and sacrificing for. Claire sacrificed three children through abortion to the god of power to maintain the “freedom” Frank promised her, only to glimpse the truth of their enslavement to death. She may have built something with the Clean Water Initiative, but she finds it used as an instrument and belittled by her husband. The fruits of their decades of pursuit of power are rotten, providing no comfort and no lasting joy.

House of Cards is worth watching to see the damaging effects of idolatry on the soul. Frank declares in the finale that he prays to himself, for himself. As his wife finds, this self-worship cannot escape inexorable death’s designs.

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