frankunderwood

Privileged Positions: House of Cards and Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian Monologues (22 April 2016)

“Since a ruler, then, must know how to act like a beast, he should imitate both the fox and the lion, for the lion is liable to be trapped, whereas the fox cannot ward off wolves…[b]ut foxiness should be well concealed: one must be a great feigner and dissembler.  And men are so naïve…that a skillful deceiver always finds plenty of people who will let themselves be deceived.”

-Machiavelli

At the conclusion of Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, after convincing Hamlet to sail to England, the stage is cleared for Claudius to address the audience.  Though not marked as an aside, Claudius uses these 11 lines to announce that he has sealed letters “conjuring to that effect/The present death of Hamlet” (4.3.62-63).  By this point in the play, audiences have little reason to trust the words of Claudius, but at this moment, he utilizes the empty stage as an opportunity to pull back the curtain of his deception to reveal to the audience the machinations of his plot.  This was a common theatrical device on the early modern stage, in which the soliloquy or the aside would offer characters a chance to directly address the audience.  In this particular example, Claudius drops the façade of the Machiavellian liar to reveal his true intentions.  In doing so, he reveals truths about himself to the audience that he had kept hidden from the rest of the characters within the play, confirming what they already knew—that Claudius could not be trusted.

Turning to modern representations of Machiavellian villains, this is a device employed with frequency by Frank Underwood in Netflix’s House of Cards, a political thriller that owes a great deal to the tradition of the stage Machiavel.

House of Cards

Machiavellianism, American style

Frank Underwood, the Democratic House Majority whip, is introduced to audiences as a ruthless pragmatist, directly addressing his audience to explain the principles that guide his philosophy. In this moment of revelation, it is not only important that audiences witness Underwood’s actions, but also that he shows himself capable of pulling back the veil that is assumed to exist between his character and his viewing audience.

Here, he, like Claudius, is revealing truths about himself to which only his audience will have access.  Through the later use of these asides, Underwood is presented as a consummate liar, a man capable of sabotaging the administration in which works from within and he is often heralded as a prime example of a modern Machiavel.[1]  He represents what modern writers understand to be an idealized form of Machiavelli’s Fox-Lion politician, capable of crushing those he feels have wronged him while deceiving the world into believing that he remains loyal to their cause.

Frank Underwood, like Claudius, participates in affirming for audiences what they already believe to be true.  In Hamlet, the moments in which Claudius reveals himself to be a treacherous usurper affirm that which audiences could only speculate upon prior to his confession.  In a similar vein, Underwood’s casual asides become revelatory for audiences, but what they reveal is political rather than personal. These tiny acts of revelation say a great deal about how House of Cards conceptualizes the modern political landscape.  Underwood is able to speak truths to the audience as if he were a kind of omniscient chorus, well versed in the inner workings of Washington politics and able to speak with an authority which other characters lack.  As the Machiavellian fox, capable of lying to and manipulating those around him, Underwood’s monologues seem to remove the veil of calculated dissimulation and therefore come as unfiltered truths about the political system, and in a sense they simply affirm what audiences already believe about the operation of power.  Even though we may know that they are presented through the voice of a liar, by framing them as asides directly to the audience, they are granted a significant measure of authority.  In these brief asides, the figure of the liar takes off his mask, but instead of revealing guilt, he reveals how easily he is able take the reins of the political system to his own advantage.

Similarly, this device places audiences in a privileged position of knowing what other characters do not.  In Hamlet, the titular character is never given the clarity of truth concerning his uncle that audiences receive thanks to the decision to stage Claudius’s confessions as spoken upon an empty stage.  Likewise, none of Underwood’s victims are given the privileged knowledge that we as spectators enjoy thanks to our frequent glimpses into Underwood’s rationale for his actions.   In essence, by revealing his status as a Machiavellian dissimulator, Underwood affirms the value of Machiavellian dissimulation.  By announcing himself as Machiavelli’s fox and granting audiences a privileged glimpse into the rationale of the fox, we affirm the maxim that a man must be like a fox if he is to succeed in the world of politics.  House of Cards, like Game of Thrones, utilizes Machiavellian thought to demonstrate the ruthlessness and dissimulation that these programs believe underscore successful politicking.  While certainly not an affirmation of the political beliefs of its characters, our introduction to Frank Underwood in House of Cards breaks the 4th wall to convince audiences of what they already believed to be true:  Washington politics is a game of deception and ambition where ruthlessness trumps idealism.

[1] It is worth noting that Machiavelli would likely despise men like Frank Underwood.  Much of The Prince is presented as a guidebook for ways in which a ruling prince can avoid being undermined by duplicitous schemers like Underwood.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Hated, Feared and Loved: Popular Representations of Nicollò Machiavelli (8 April 2016)

“A controversy has risen about this: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or vice versa.  My view is that it is desirable to be both loved and feared; but it is difficult to achieve both and, if one of them has to be lacking, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

-Nicollò Machiavelli

The word Machiavellian, denoting a duplicitous schemer or an unscrupulous politician entered into the English language in 1566,[1] decades before a formal English translation of Machiavelli’s most famous work, The Prince, would be legally available for the general population.

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Picured: An unscrupulous politician

 

In England, Machiavelli’s reputation proceeded him and this led to a tremendous interest in the early modern consciousness concerning exactly how his more controversial ideas should be handled.  He became the era’s go-to reference point for political duplicity, amoral scheming and atheism.  Historical villains were rechristened as followers of the Florentine and an entire theatrical archetype was invented to leverage an emerging public discourse which framed anything associated with Nicollò as a ready-made symbol of evil.

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Richard III, as understood by Tudor propaganda

This series of blogposts intends to examine not only the historic and literary history of representations of Machiavellianism, but also more contemporary representations and discourses, which remain closely connected to many of the same rhetorical movements and ideas that informed 16th century repudiations of Machiavelli.   While we may not have the same relationship to the Florentine as Elizabethan audiences did, we still express many of the same doubts and fears about men and morality that Machiavelli ignited in the early part of the 16th century.

Early modern representations of Machiavelli took the worst excerpts they could draw from The Prince and ran with them.  Marlowe, Shakespeare, Kyd, and countless other dramatists exploited the public fear of the Machiavellian image to construct dozens of scheming political climbers that would populate some their most famous plays.  Villains such as Claudius, Iago, Edmund and Richard III would become closely tied to the image of the Machivel. Tapping into a cluster of fears among English play goers, early modern representations of Machiavellianism tended to emphasis its amorality, its belief in justified cruelty and its connection to Southern Europe.[2]  While some of these writers may have had some amount of sympathy for elements of Machiavelli’s politics, when invoking the man himself, few popular representations of Machiavellianism offered any sympathy or nuance.   In the early days of representation, the figure of the Machiavel had lived up to his prodigious reputation.

Despite a long history of being transformed into a symbol of unrepentant villainy and amorality, Machiavelli still seems to inhabit a special place in our consciousness.  The word attached to his name still possesses tremendous currency, as we use it to discuss any number of politicians,[3] fictional characters,[4] sports personalities,[5] among countless others.  Further, in a political environment which sees increasing public support coalescing behind anti-establishment rhetoric and campaigning, here understood to represent politicians who don’t outwardly appear to ‘treat politics as a game,’ or who appeal to a sense of honesty and integrity that implicitly suggests that this integrity represents a break from the norm, a sizable population seems to be looking at modern institutions with the same wary eyes with which Machiavelli’s philosophical detractors wished to view their own world in the waning years of the 16th century.   Part of the fear that early modern audiences saw in Machiavelli was in his suggestion that politics was a game of misdirection and manipulation, a place where liars and cheaters stood above moral men.  As a result, Machiavelli was never far from the political fiction of his time, and the last four centuries seem to have done little to remove him from our imaginations.

One need to look no further than the recent resurgence of political thrillers to see that this suspicion still underlies a section of our popular culture in much the same way that it informed the popular culture of early modern England.  Richard III, the deformed usurper of Shakespeare’s The History of Henry VI Part III, who wishes to “set the murderous Machiavel to school,” (III.ii.193), bares more than a passing resemblance to modern popular figures such as Frank Underwood or Petyr Baelish,[6] whose political machinations drive the plots of their respective series.

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As political schemers, intent on raising themselves through the ranks by whatever means necessary, figures like Baelish and Underwood are cut from the same cloth that gave Anglophonic culture villains like Iago and Lorenzo.  While the pop culture Machiavel is still villainous, there is some newfound pleasure to be found in watching the devious and duplicitous anti-heroes maneuver their way into power.  The popularity of series that make explicit their Machiavellian theme suggests that there exists a disconnect between the way that audiences are conceptualizing real world politics and the way that we choose to stage and consume fiction about politics.   The next in this series of posts will look in greater detail at a few case studies to examine how Machiavellian political thought is being fictionalized in contemporary popular culture.

[1] “Machiavellian, n. and adj.”. OED Online. March 2016. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com.libezproxy2.syr.edu/view/Entry/111832?redirectedFrom=Machiavellian (accessed April 05, 2016).

[2] Despite being framed by writers as an atheist, Machiavelli is frequently connected to the other big early modern fear coming out of Italy, the Catholic Church.

[3] Virtually every candidate in the 2016 primary cycle has been compared to or compared against Machiavelli in some capacity.

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-22537324

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/the-infinite-mercy-of-bill-belichick

[6] Between the Lannisters, Tyrells, Martells and Lords Baylish and Varys, the political subplot of HBO’s Game of Thrones could best be described as a contest between a dozen Machivels trying to out maneuver one another.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.