Sunday, February 2, 2014

Supreme Hereafter: Power Parallels in Shakespeare's Macbeth and American Horror Story: Coven

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Beware, readers. In American Horror Story: Coven, something wicked this way comes. With witches and power plays at every turn, a few nods to Macbeth are always expected. But, when looking at Shakespeare's tragedy in conversation with Coven, even "surprise, bitch" takes on a whole new meaning.

There are plenty of ways to interpret Coven, but it's unlikely that tragedy is the first that comes to mind. However, the Macbeth parallels and themes in American Horror Story are hard to ignore and fascinating to analyze. So, let's take a closer look.

In case you dozed off during your high school English teacher's lecture (oh, sleep! The death of each day's life!) here's a Macbeth sizzle reel just for you. The play begins with Macbeth and his BFF Banquo heading back from battle and running into three witches. The witches predict that Macbeth will eventually be King of Scotland, and with the promise of that power, Macbeth (with a little help from Lady Macbeth) takes matters into his own hands. He murders the current king, claims the throne, and continues to kill a whole bunch of people (including Banquo and a few innocent children, ouch) on the premise of maintaining his illegitimately won power. In the end, Macbeth's ambition, brazenness, and paranoia are his downfall, when everything goes to shit and his nemesis, the noble Macduff, cuts off his head.

Of course, Macbeth is much more complex than this, and if you're really unfamiliar with the play, I'd highly recommend taking a quick glance over at Wikipedia. Or, if you're feeling ambitious (that's the spirit!) you can even read the full text here.

Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
So, what does any of this have to do with American Horror Story: Coven? While the witches may seem like the dead giveaway, the parallels and corresponding themes between Coven and Macbeth actually have much more to do with ambition, power, and the risk of immorality and violence that comes along when the two mix together.

When looking at Coven through the lens of Macbeth, Fiona Goode becomes our tragic heroine. In fact, Fiona's character arc mirrors Macbeth's so closely it's almost frightening.

Both Macbeth and Fiona Goode are at the center of a narrative all about power. In Macbeth's case, he begins as someone with the potential for power, and once the witches plant their prophetic seed, his ambition gets the better of him. On the other hand, when we first meet Fiona in "Bitchcraft," she is already at the top of the food chain as the reigning Supreme. But, as we learn more about her, we find that just as Macbeth commits regicide, Fiona was also guilty of Supremicide when she killed her predecessor, Anna Leigh Leighton. In Macbeth, power is about politics, but in Coven, the transfer of power is literal; as the new Supreme rises, the current one becomes weaker. Regardless, the same theme applies to both: one cannot have absolute power at the same time as another; the transfer must be swift, complete, and, often, violent. Total power is attractive and intoxicating, but no one, especially not Macbeth or Fiona Goode, is incorruptible.

In fact, some of the themes in both Macbeth and Coven include the idea that ambition often comes at the price of morality, and that power (or even the promise of power) can lead people to do horrific things.

In Macbeth, when the witches foresaw Macbeth as king, they also predicted that Banquo would father a line of kings. As a result, Macbeth had Banquo murdered (Banquo's son, Fleance, was also ordered to be killed, but he escaped at the last second, as all good plot devices do). Fiona Goode performs a similar set of violently immoral acts, such as setting out to kill the next Supreme in order to maintain her current power.

It is concluded.
But, for both of these characters, the cold-blooded murder doesn't end there. Macbeth and Fiona Goode alike are haunted by the person they killed. After all, they say blood will have blood. In Macbeth, Banquo's ghost appears to Macbeth at a royal banquet, and in Coven, we all know that Madison Montgomery returns to say her piece.

The "surprise, bitch" scene in Coven is, therefore, a lot more than just an internet meme. It's Fiona being met with the futility of her own plan, and, by extension, her own mortality and powerlessness.

However, it's only with the final realization that the genius plan has, in fact, been completely foiled, that the tragic hero's story comes to an end. (And Fiona certainly has all the markers of a traditional tragic hero: she is a woman of high stature, has a fatal flaw, is at least somewhat sympathetic to the audience, and is condemned to death after realizing her defeat). It's fitting, therefore, that in Coven's finale Fiona's life should end dying in Cordelia's arms, as Cordelia is to Fiona as Macduff is to Macbeth: a nemesis who was never seen as a viable threat, but who defeats the tragic hero and restores order to the land.

It's worth mentioning that Fiona's condemnation doesn't end there. Fiona Goode, unlike Macbeth, pays for her sins over and over again, stuck in Hell for all eternity with that infamous knotty pine. And, this, more than anything, reinforces the idea that once you fall down the rabbit hole of power, violence, and immorality, there's no return to innocence. Ever.

But, in addition to the similarities between Fiona Goode and Macbeth, Coven's concept of the Supreme can also easily be interpreted as parallel to Macbeth's promise of the throne. With the power of suggestion and the guarantee of success, the witches cause Macbeth to commit his heinous crimes in the name of ambition. But, what Coven's characters do in order to establish themselves as the rising (or reigning) Supreme is no different: Fiona kills Madison, Madison kills Misty, Zoe and Misty's lives are both lost in the pursuit, and even Myrtle's eventual burning at the stake serves to reinforce Cordelia's power.

The idea of the Supreme, can, quite easily, be considered the coven's true downfall, since the fight to reign Supreme decimates their numbers and pits the witches against each other over and over again. Even at the very end of Coven's finale, a curious new witch dares to ask: "what's a Supreme?" which only reinforces the fact that, while Cordelia's reign may be long and prosperous, this power struggle is a cycle with no end in sight.

Narratives of power are sexy and violent, and the fact that audiences loves to watch them is not even close to one of the Seven Wonders. But, when viewed in conversation with Macbeth, American Horror Story: Coven becomes infinitely more interesting and layered than it already is. Add in the fact that Macbeth is often interpreted as a play all about masculinity, while Coven is deeply steeped in the concept of femininity, and we definitely have a story of power for the twenty-first century on our very bloody hands.

Written by: Jacqueline Bircher
Jacqueline is one half of the team at the helm of Red Herry, and the whole brain behind almost every fish pun you can find on this website. She is a fierce advocate for helmets, ice cream, and the Oxford Comma.
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter and Tumblr.

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