Of Roys and kings: “The shadow of Succession”

Brian Cox (Logan Roy). HBO, Succession. Photograph by Macall B. Polay/HBO.

I play this game where, every time Shakespeare is quoted or mentioned in a piece of pop culture, I yell “Drink!”—and since Shakespeare’s everywhere, I end up yelling it a lot. Fortunately, I only say it rather than do it, otherwise I’d be out of commission in no time, especially while watching the HBO series Succession.

Succession tells the story of super-rich media titan Logan Roy, played by award-winning Shakespearean actor (and author of The Lear Diaries) Brian Cox. Roy, of course, is a surname that instantly evokes monarchy: it’s the dominant syllable of royal, of course, but it’s also an Anglicized pronunciation of the French word for king—roi. Logan’s three children are vying to take his place as CEO of his media empire, and if that echo of King Lear isn’t enough, Logan’s first words (the first words spoken in the series, in fact) are “Where am I?” as he stumbles around in the dark looking for the bathroom (and ends up peeing on the carpet in a hallway). Like Lear, this aging monarch, losing his faculties and clinging to power, changes the structure of his children’s inheritance—seemingly on a whim—in a scene where Lear’s map becomes the Roy family trust agreement. Logan declares, essentially, that “we have divided in five our kingdom,” and the family struggle for power is on.

In interviews, Cox has compared his character to Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Lear, and Shakespeare’s tragedies inform Succession in multiple ways—from Logan’s daughter Shiv and her husband Tom’s resemblance to the Macbeths (including Shiv’s Scottish heritage) to Logan’s hearing bad news over the phone described as “dripping poison in his ear.”

Matthew Macfadyen (Tom Wambsgans), Sarah Snook (Siobhan “Shiv” Roy). HBO, Succession. Photograph by Peter Kramer/HBO.

But the series’s ongoing narrative most closely resembles Shakespeare’s history plays, which are similarly focused on family power, dynastic lines of succession, and threats to the ruling monarch from both without and within. The Roy family empire is besieged by corporate raiders and rebelling shareholders, but also vulnerable to scandals, incompetence, and palace intrigue from ambitious family members and long-time staff. “This is the day his reign ends,” Logan’s son—and one-time presumptive heir—Kendall declares.

No Shakespeare scene feels more Succession-ish than Act 3, Scene 2 of Henry IV, Part 1, in which the titular monarch dresses down his son Hal for being an unworthy heir to the throne. Henry IV, who as Henry Bolingbroke in another play (Richard II) took the throne from Richard and had to prove his worth to attract supporters, scolds his son Prince Hal for his “princely privilege” that’s left him less fit to rule than rebel Henry Percy, “gallant Hotspur,” who leads “ancient lords and reverend bishops on / To bloody battles and to bruising arms.” Henry IV and Logan Roy are both self-made men whose privileged children are untested but feel entitled to an inheritance they’re desperate for but haven’t earned. And to quote Henry IV from still another play (Henry IV, Part 2), “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” especially if you need to defend your throne from your own incompetent yet grasping children.

But back in Act 3, Scene 2 of 1H4, Henry tells his son that Hotspur is more worthy of the throne than Hal, who is a mere “shadow of succession,” i.e., a faint imitation of a king. The difference is, Henry wants Hal to grow up and assume his responsibilities; Logan bullies and infantilizes his adult children and has no desire to relinquish his throne, and his children are so damaged and unworthy that it’s genuinely hard to know who to root for.

Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy), Brian Cox (Logan Roy). HBO, Succession. Photograph by Peter Kramer/HBO.

So why do we watch these despicable people? It’s the same question we ask about Shakespeare’s more appalling creations, like Richard III or Coriolanus, and the answer, too, is the same: we watch Succession—and Shakespeare—because the characters, distasteful as they may be, are compelling, the writing is superbly entertaining, and wit and sharp humor percolate throughout, just as they do in Shakespeare’s comedies. Given that Succession’s creator is Jesse Armstrong—who, prior to this was best known as a comedy writer who co-created the British sketch series Peep Show, wrote on Armando Iannucci’s darkly comic series The Thick of It and Veep, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ianucci’s political satire In The Loop—this shouldn’t be surprising. Armstrong also has a touch of the Shakespearean genre of romance in his soul: he wrote a popular episode of the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror, entitled “The Entire History of You,” that’s a tragic story of destructive jealousy and in its way a high-tech satire of Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.

Further proof that Succession is a comedy? No ghosts appear, just as no ghosts appear in Shakespeare’s comedies… though you could make the argument that the invisible cat only Logan can see in the third season episode “Retired Janitors of Idaho” is Succession’s version of Banquo’s ghost—which, if true, reveals something pretty terrible about Logan.

Succession, Season Three. HBO | WARNERMEDIA.

That question that opens the series — “Where am I?” — identifies a theme of status and identity that recurs throughout Shakespeare’s canon as characters navigate their position on the corporate ladder or within the family power structure. This gets underlined at the Roy family Thanksgiving dinner when it’s revealed that Logan’s young grandson has problems with transitions because they’re “difficult,” and while Logan scoffs, yells, and ultimately hits the child, you can see he’s terrified by seeing his own fear reflected back at him: transitions are difficult for him, too.

Succession boasts about its Shakespearean inspirations loudly, proudly, and frequently crudely. When offered a larger role in the company, Logan’s longtime lawyer explains his role in the family dynamic with a history play example. “I’m just an attendant lord,” he says, “here to swell a scene or two.” Logan’s youngest son Roman, imagining some strategic moves he might make, clumsily invokes one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies while confusing it with another. “I land the deal, I kill Kendall, I’m crowned king. Just like in Hamlet… if that happens in Hamlet. I don’t care.”

And in a face-off with a competitor, who ostentatiously declares “that we’ve given up on poor Jesus and have started worshipping Shakespeare,” patriarch Logan Roy himself drops the mic when he encourages the rival to accept his business deal. “Would you like to hear my favorite passage from Shakespeare?” he asks. “‘Take the [fornicating] money.’”