Succession (2018-2023) has often been dubbed modern-day Shakespeare. But what exactly does this top-tier compliment allude to in terms of the show’s pacing, drama, wit, and tragedy? Turns out the Shakespearean connection goes much deeper than a simple note of praise for the Emmy Award-winning series. The literary influences weaved into the show’s trajectory and execution are part of a greater magic of language as a source of power and pain. Let’s dive into the key literary influences that shaped Succession‘s core themes and even foreshadowed its devastating end.
Spoilers Ahead for Succession Season 4!
Shakespeare and Succession
Though there is a multitude of Shakespeare parallels in Succession, the most significant work that informs the show’s plot is King Lear. The foundational concept of a divided inheritance for an aging, powerful patriarch is right on the nose of the original text. So much so that as the seasons progressed, fans began to turn to Shakespeare’s play for potential clues about the final outcome.
At the end of the day, these hunches to analyze any and all Shakespeare connections were not unfounded, given that the series finale mirrored the succession outcome of King Lear. Expressly, Tom’s last-minute ascent to CEO undeniably parallels the end of the classic play where Albany, the husband of Lear’s eldest daughter, ends up gaining the keys to the kingdom. Tom and Albany both are of a more meek or servile disposition and on agitated terms with their spouse.
Speaking of Shiv, the finale very deliberately likened her to another Shakespeare lead: Lady Macbeth. By throwing the vote and taking Waystar out of family control, Shiv displays, much like the Shakespearean heroine, how power and betrayal go hand in hand. Resigning her personal ambition to fulfill this parallel, she becomes a tragic figure. Though, may I add, not any more evil than the show’s male counterparts.
Further, in the same pattern as her brothers, the brutality of the corporate hellscape their father created has hardened her as an individual. Her cunning cruelty, which has long eclipsed her inherently servile husband, reinforced the Roy family’s brutality until the bitter end. Constantly dancing on the edge of disaster, Roy’s dialogue-heavy drama, where gutting insults are pure poetry, makes the show truly Shakespearean.
The Theater Connection
Adding to Succession‘s unique charm is the show’s extensive theater roots. As a recent Vox article explored, the show truly had theater in its DNA. A slew of the show’s writers—Lucy Prebble, Susan Soon He Stanton, Alice Birch, Miriam Battye, Will Arbery, Anna Jordan, Mary Laws, and Jamie Carragher—are all working playwrights. Additionally, executive producer, Frank Rich, is a former New York Times chief theater critic.
As for the cast, lead actors Jeremy Strong, Brian Cox, Matthew McFadyen, and Sarah Snook all have significant theater credentials. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Succcession’s writing, pacing, and acting synched up for a truly magical masterclass in drama.
In many ways, Succession succeeded by acting like a series of one-hour plays that come together to tell an engrossing, damning story of family, power, and trauma. In hindsight, some of the most memorable episodes (“DC,” “Hunting,” “Tern Haven,” “Chiantishire”) truly stand-alone in their storytelling power. Particularly, the show’s strictly linear plot and lack of explanatory dialogue keep audiences lingering on every moment while holding on for dear life. Every line, glance, and facial expression held multitudes.
I, for one, had to rewatch the show with subtitles to fully appreciate and enjoy its literary excellence. With viewers given much responsibility to slowly put together the pieces of each character’s background, there was no room to miss a beat in this tapestry of storytelling.
Dream Song 29
Another literary influence in the greater thematic thread of Succession is the poem “Dream Song 29” by John Berryman. Each of the finale’s titles—”Nobody Is Ever Missing,” “This Is Not For Tears,” “All the Bells Say,” and “With Open Eyes”—are from this somber poem about all-encompassing guilt and grief.
Given creator Jesse Armstrong has spoken about having the show’s plot fleshed out since day one, the continuity of “Dream Song 29” as this storytelling anchor is crucial to consider. Plainly, the poem reflects Kendall’s inner turmoil after the death of the waiter in the Season 1 finale. When Armstrong interviewed with Vulture in 2019, he noted that the prose holds “a terrifying sense of that feeling that Kendall has”—a despair that spills over in the season 3 finale when Kendall breaks down and confesses to Shiv and Roman.
After the series finale, it’s conclusive that “Dream Song 29” set the show’s tragic course. Regarding Kendall’s journey in particular, it’s now apparent in hindsight that our number one boy was finished the second the waiter incident occurred. It’s a pivotal mistake that cements him as a tragic hero.
Consequently, neither Kendall nor his siblings find redemptive character arcs. They are each trapped in their dysfunctional ways. All we can do is watch them oscillate between love and hate, acceptance and banishment, optimism and pessimism.
Although the ups and downs of the business side of the Roy family propel us through each dizzying season, the curtains ultimately close on a devastatingly bleak image. All of the siblings walk away alone, haunted, wounded, and grieving. The poison drips through…and the Shakespearean tragedy is complete.
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