“An essential aspect of the mind and art of Shakespeare, then, is his lack of self-consciousness. Nothing but a complete lack of interest in self-promotion, from which the careful publication of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are the only aberration, can explain Shakespeare’s invisibility. The lives of lesser men and women, insignificant members of his own family, the actors he worked with, the politicians and courtiers he knew or might have known, have all been scrutinized minutely, their every action tracked to the find the spoor of the bard, but they have yielded all but that.”
Why did the editors of the VSI series wanted to replace this little gem of a book with the one, by the exact same title, by Stanley Wells? I’ve always wondered. I can’t even find Greer’s book in the homepage of the VSI Series!
Maybe because in Greer’s book you also won’t find an attempt at finding the whereabouts of Shakespeare. Greer only wants to commit to a description of Shakespeare’s thought, i.e, only what we can read in his works.
Comparing both books, Greer’s book is a much more scholarly study of Shakespeare’s work, analysing in detail of some of the plays in thematic chapters: “Poetics,” “Ethics,” “Politics,” “Teleology” and “Sociology.” As can already be garnered from these chapter titles, the book is written in a very academic level. Maybe it was too much for the VSI series editors, but I still don’t understand why they published it in the first place. On top of that, Wells’ book completely replaces Greer’s (including the number) in the VSI series. I think it’s all rather lamentable.
Greer’s book is erudite, scholarly and engrossing at the same time and thereby an excellent example of how to make a reading of Shakespeare in the study approachable and interesting to a wider audience. For the Shakespeare uninitiated we’d say in Portuguese, “este livro é muita areia para a a camioneta” (literal translation: “this book is too much sand for the little truck”, but what it really means is “the book is something that is just too big to be handled by the uninitiated”)…But if the uninitiated wants to use it as the beginning of the quest, I think she or he would be in for a real treat, because Greer is able to pick out single threads of his mimetic arguments along the way that I’d be able to do just by watching the plays. In this day and age, where everything is all about multimedia, one might be compelled to go 180º and start thinking that watching the plays is going to expose some hidden nuggets of Shakespearean lore. Nope. I never thought attending theatre performances of the plays is the answer to understanding Shakespeare. Why? Because they’re highly allegorical, interpretative, and sometimes exegetical, full of “misleading” stage stuff, making language irrelevant, difficult to hear and to follow. The way to go is to use a mixed approach, as I’ve outlined previously. Maybe this is your perfect companion to the House of Cards TV Series. Maybe it’s not. People who haven't read Shakespeare with care tend to make easy sloppy comparisons between his work and stuff that is unspeakably inferior to it. Some people know something about Shakespeare, and some don't. Let me say to the latter. I have watched the entire first series of “House of Cards”. I enjoyed it so well, I’ll watch the second, third, and so forth, seasons, too, but I chafe at the idea of comparing it to Shakespeare. I recently watched the video version of Coriolanus. The similarities of this history to Julius Caesar and Macbeth are quite numerous and show the progression and growth of Shakespeare's craft quite clearly. “House of Cards” on the other hand, as good as it is, simply does not provide its creative staff the same opportunities for growth. Shakespeare's language is neither stilted nor archaic, but strikes our ears oddly because everything is stated in couplets with a very uniform meter of the iambic kind. There are no such poetical feats in any of the “House of Cards” performances unfortunately. Theatrical elements such as the size of the cast, the complexity of the interplay between them, the advance of the narrative and the use of crowds and bit players in Shakespeare far, far exceeds nearly anything contemporary dramatists on stage, big or little screen attempt, let alone accomplish. Finally, Shakespeare is able to effect vast mood swings and convey great emotional power simply through the script without music or action to reinforce it. What makes Shakespeare great isn't his plots, many of which are not his invention. What makes him great is his taking these old tales and setting them to clever rhyme and meter, and blending fart and pee jokes with highbrow references to mythology. I am kind of surprised that people think that Shakespeare's characters are one dimensional...really Macbeth or Lady Macbeth? They are "stock' characters? Honestly, I just don't know what to say to that. Each of them has an inner life, and while representing archetypes, they are also each psychologically complex particular individuals. Underwood and his wife are fun enough to watch, but they aren't real or deep; they don't resonant that way at all. I still think that it’s irrelevant whether “House of Cards” is aiming at a Shakespearian standard. It’s all beside the point to me. Underwood's asides to the audience evoke Richard III's, which communicates pretty bluntly what the character is all about. The lamentation that most of the characters are monsters is delivered by the characters themselves. For me the political machinations are by far the most interesting part of the show. Frank's smiley way of setting people up for a spectacular fall is fun to watch. In Shakespeare, Richard is 100% monster. In historical reality, the picture was much more complex, apparently because the real Richard, just like Frank, had the uncanny ability to motivate people to kill off his enemies, and in so doing to destroy themselves.
To argue whether "House of Cards" can be compared to Shakespeare is redundant. Of course it can - it is clearly based on specific Shakespearean characters (Richard III, Lady Macbeth, Iago). The argument is whether it is a worthy adaptation and how it fits with other contemporary adaptations/appropriations of Shakespeare (of which there are many).
NB: The British version was literally stunning, moving so fast and furiously, like a roller-coaster, where certain moments became indelible in ways that those who have only seen the Netflix series can only imagine. Ian Richardson and the lovely and astonishing Susannah Harker completely stole the show….