The falling star of Succession, Kendall Roy: A fusion of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov

Top: Denzel Washington in “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, Middle: Georgy Taratorkin in “Crime and Punishment” (1970), Bottom: Jeremy Strong in “Succession”

What keeps your eyes glued to the screen of your laptop as you watch the latest episode of Succession? Is it Roman Roy’s matador-esque aura, Shiv Roy’s overconfident smirks, or Logan Roy’s by-now trademarked “F*ck off”? As much as we love the characters that make Succession the show that it is, it’s Kendall Roy, it’s always been Kendall, that keeps us watching and rewatching this show. After all, how could you deign to turn your head away from the camera zooming in on Kendall’s emotionless yet grief-stricken face, partially obscured by a shadow, as he walks down a hallway with Nicholas Britell’s richly discordant soundtrack swelling in your ears? Succession’s ability to translate emotions from screen to soul is straight out of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Kendall’s mental anguish is as visceral as Raskolnikov’s unendurable torment after his double homicide, while simultaneously as cold and brutal as one of Macbeth’s soliloquys. Yet we keep watching Kendall spiral deeper and deeper, commit betrayal after betrayal, and even when he commits his crime, we continue to retain a level of sympathy for him, just as one can still hold traces of sympathy for Macbeth, the misled hero-turned villain. Past the ability of Kendall’s character to engender sympathy through an ability to translate emotions from the screen, Kendall’s story shares many similarities with the tumultuous journeys of Macbeth and Raskolnikov. All three believe themselves to be ‘extraordinary’ individuals, destined for greatness, yet inevitably fall in their different ways. In creating a fusion of two famous (or should I say infamous) literary characters, Succession reinforces an archetype by drawing inspiration from two literary geniuses in a purposefully conspicuous way, which might just allow us to make some predictions about the events of season 4.

The whispers of power intoxicate Macbeth and Kendall from the beginnings of their journeys. The three witches foretell Macbeth’s fate when they hail him as Thane of Cawdor and future King of Scotland, while Roman is the messenger of Kendall’s destiny, mentioning how every intern on Wall Street knows that Kendall is to be crowned king and CEO of his father’s and family’s company, Waystar Royco. While Kendall’s path to (interim) kingship has a few bumps along the road (including a hemorrhagic stroke on Logan’s part), he eventually grasps the scepter and gets a taste of that sweet, sweet power — the fulfillment of what he knows has always been his destiny. Likewise, Macbeth’s path to power includes a few (much more intentional) bumps, but his scheming and plotting finally pays off when he is crowned King of Scotland. Don’t hold your breath, though, because both Kendall and Macbeth quickly have their power ripped away — Logan comes roaring back, while Macbeth realizes the futility of his position: “Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown / And put a barren scepter in my gripe, / … / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind; / For them, the gracious Duncan have I murdered” (Act III Scene I). What’s the point of Macbeth being king if Banquo’s sons will inherit his kingship, as the witches prophesized? Kendall and Macbeth must do something about this — they have to secure their destiny, fulfill their fate! And of course, the only logical way for Macbeth to do this is to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance. Kendall stages a coup with Frank and Gerri against his father in a very Macbethian manner, as Roman recognizes, calling Gerri “Lady Macbeth, gettin’ your little f*ckin’ screwdriver in.” We know the rest of this story: Kendall fails, Fleance escapes.

Enter Dostoyevsky’s Kendall Roy. “’One glass of beer, a sukhar — and in a single moment the mind gains strength, one’s thoughts grow lucid and one’s intentions firm!’” (13). Replace beer with cocaine, and out pops Kendall! After his failed attempt to figuratively stab his father in the back, Kendall falls back into his old drug habits, becoming a shadow of his former self, just as Raskolnikov is a shadow of the admired university student that he once was. As a result of their conditions, each commit terrible acts. Kendall’s search for his next high causes an innocent waiter to drown to death, while Raskolnikov murders two women — like Macbeth, in a much more intentional manner than Kendall.

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No: this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine, / Making the green one red” (Act II Scene II). Macbeth and Lady Macbeth each experience guilt through a fierce desire to wash their hands of the blood of their victims. Immediately after killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister, Raskolnikov washes his axe and his hands, then goes home to scrub the blood off his clothes in a desperate rage. Kendall breaks the glass of the door, cutting himself, then panickily washes the blood from him and his clothes. However, as Macbeth first realizes, all of the water in the oceans cannot truly wipe away what each of these characters has done. Like a shirt stained with blood, their guilt cannot simply be wiped away. Nonetheless, each character attempts to do so, pretending that everything is okay by trying (and failing) to maintain appearances — fake it ’til you make it, right? As Shakespeare continuously emphasizes throughout his works, life is but a play, or in Macbeth’s words, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player” (Act V Scene V). Kendall’s most notable stage is his big party, where his mask materializes in the form of a rich, green, Gucci turtleneck paired with his signature chain (“Too Much Birthday”, indeed). We see other variations of this mask throughout Succession — his flashy shoes meant to paint him as an in-touch venture capitalist and his L to the OG jersey that is paired with a cringe-inducing, hide-a-smile behind your hands, rap performance. Behind the curtains though, his mental state whipsaws, resulting in multiple breakdowns, just as Raskolnikov and Macbeth seem fine one minute, and on the brink of mental collapse the next. Raskolnikov reiterates Shakespeare’s point when he teases fate with the police investigator Zamyotov, filled with energy to the point that his head “began to go round a little; a kind of wild energy suddenly shone in his inflamed eyes and pale yellow, emaciated features” (187). Walking back, though, he has to enlist the help of his friend Razumikhin just to help him get home! The classic dinner scene is Macbeth’s stage — fine one minute, the next, seeing ghosts behind the curtains.

Left, Denzel Washington in a trailer for “The Tragedy of Macbeth”; Right, Jeremy Strong in “Succession” S1E10

And with that, we’re at what I believe is the best achievement of Jeremy Strong’s Kendall Roy — creating a modern-day Raskolnikov that is able to evoke emotions from the audience just as strongly as Dostoyevsky did. As Shakespeare does with Macbeth, Strong presents a character that might look borderline-fine on the outside, but to the audience, portrays the unimaginable mental anguish that is occurring on the inside. Lady Macbeth tells her husband to “Sleek o’er your rugged looks, be bright and jovial”, before Macbeth reveals the troubles of his mind: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” (Act III Scene II). Likewise, Kendall is trapped in a prison of his own making, with his conscience as his only cellmate, a mental state that Raskolnikov only knows so well: “If he has a conscience he will suffer for his mistake. That will be punishment — as well as the prison” (314). By the end of his journey, Raskolnikov’s mental state has worsened and is described in a manner reminiscent of those haunting looks that Kendall gives us every so often: “it was as though a fog had fallen upon him and wrapped him in a dreary solitude from which there was no escape” (523). Kendall’s subtle yet brutal visage draws from Shakespeare’s mastery of the theme of appearances versus reality, while borrowing Dostoyevsky’s skill of conveying a mental state to the audience. And it works! Kendall’s deadset, “rugged” look captivates, because we understand that this is just a mask, and beneath it, all his guilt roils like the seas that he’s made incarnadine from the blood of that poor kid.

Jeremey Strong as Kendall Roy in “Succession”

Is a guilty conscience punishment in of itself, as Raskolnikov suggests above? Both Raskolnikov’s later words and fate say otherwise. He continues by saying, “He will suffer if he is sorry for his victim. Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth” (314). There’s that extraordinary individual archetype! This archetype is first introduced in Crime and Punishment when an old article of Raskolnikov’s surfaces, in which he describes a somewhat extreme case of proportionalism. He first divides humanity into two groups of people: the ordinary, and the extraordinary; normal people and great people. Raskolnikov then postulates that everyone who is even a bit better than ‘normal’ is inherently a criminal (in varying degrees) — in order to do something new, the old must be violated. He takes this nihilistic claim a step farther with extraordinary people — if their conscience allows it, and they feel no moral struggle, they are justified in committing atrocities so that they can advance humanity. He gives a theoretical example in Isaac Newton, saying that if his discoveries could only become known by “sacrificing” the lives of ten or even a hundred people, then he would be completely justified in doing so. But his favorite example is Napoleon, of course. Raskolnikov believed himself to be a Napoleon, as Svidrigailov explains to Raskolnikov’s sister.

“Napoleon attracted him tremendously, that is, what affected him was that a great many men of genius have not hesitated at wrongdoing, but have overstepped the law without thinking about it. He seems to have fancied that he was a genius too — that is, he was convinced of it for a time. He has suffered a great deal and is still suffering from the idea that he could make a theory, but was incapable of boldly overstepping the law, and so he is not a man of genius” (586).

Each character’s egos spin up this belief in their fates as extraordinary individuals, as Napoleons. For Macbeth, it’s his egoism that allows him to believe the witches’ prophecy that destines him to be king, which he uses as justification for his ill deeds. For Raskolnikov, it’s his ego and deluded state of mind that convinces him that he is destined to take the “first step” in becoming a Napoleon — killing the pawnbroker without any remorse or second thought. Before the deed, fate and destiny are consistently referred to in a way that makes us roll our eyes — of course you have a choice in murdering an innocent lady. Raskolnikov overhears some people complaining about the pawnbroker, saying that someone would be justified in killing her as it would improve the lives of the hundreds indebted to her (proportionalism again!), and he thinks, “But why had he chanced to hit upon such talk and such ideas precisely now, when inside his own head there had just been engendered… precisely those very same thoughts?… This trivial, eating-house conversation had an extremely strong influence on him during the subsequent development of the affair: as though here some form of predestination, of augury had been at work…” (81). Yep, Raskolnikov, completely logical! In a similar, albeit watered-down way, Kendall’s ego convinces him that he is the only possible successor, and that it’s his destiny to inherit the crown. This irrational belief is what drives him to try and tear back the scepter from his father in the hostile takeover. While he might not be at the same level of Napoleonic-belief as Macbeth and Raskolnikov, he fulfills the same archetype — let’s just say a lite version of it.

Fate loves irony, especially in Macbeth, Crime and Punishment, and Succession. Macbeth and Raskolnikov believe their fate to be greatness and use this as justification for their immoral actions. Their true fates, however, sharply contrast the Napoleonic glory that they believed to be their destinies. Death and jail! The irony of Raskolnikov turning himself in and Macbeth fighting to his death is that these punishments were what was truly inevitable, but only because they committed their crimes in the first place. Their punishments were their fates only because of the crimes that were committed based on a belief in fate. These punishments were quite different, however. Consistent with Raskolnikov’s realization that he is not, in fact, a Napoleon, Raskolnikov’s fate is a real punishment in the form of prison time. A physical prison, that is, not a mental one. Raskolnikov admits to his guiltiness and immorality, accepting his punishment with open arms; Macbeth holds tightly to his belief in the witches’ prophecies, and accordingly, to fate. He doesn’t admit his immorality to the point of his death at the sword of Macduff, the man whose family he ordered the execution of. So, while the punishments were inevitable, they clearly took different forms. And Kendall? Is a true punishment part of Kendall’s fate? Yes, he’s broken down many times, and does so in spectacular fashion in season 3’s finale, but have there been any real consequences, outside of his guilty conscience? Season 4 will answer this question, and in doing so, will show the implications of Kendall’s two faces of Macbeth and Raskolnikov. Kendall has fulfilled all the other traits of this (emphasis on the quotation marks) “extraordinary” character archetype; season 4 will either fulfill this final requirement or leave Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky behind.

Before we undergo the arduous task of predicting the future, lets first ask why Succession creates such striking parallels with these two classic texts, past drawing inspiration from Macbeth and Raskolnikov’s ability to translate words into emotions. Not only do we see parallels between these character’s journeys and Kendall’s journey, but it’s also easy to pick up similarities in the themes of appearances vs reality with Kendall when we see his cloak and dagger strategy with Vaulter and are reminded of how Macbeth welcomes his soon-to-be victim, King Duncan, into his house with open arms, or perhaps when Raskolnikov quite literally uses his coat to conceal the axe that he murders the pawnbroker with. Life is but a play and appearances deceive, Shakespeare emphasizes, which Raskolnikov and Kendall reflect in strikingly similar ways by maintaining public appearances one minute and breaking down ‘behind the curtains’ the next. On the stage and behind the curtains alike, we see strikingly similar symbolism in these works — washing one’s hands and clothes of blood, trying to remove a stain that can never truly be removed. If we couldn’t tell by now that Succession is greatly inspired by Macbeth and Crime and Punishment, there are still all the allusions and direct references to these works — Roman mocking Gerri as “Lady Macbeth”, Roman mistaking the events of Macbeth for those of Hamlet (S2 E3), and Waystar shareholder Josh Aaronson reading Crime and Punishment (credit to u/antelope_tribe on Reddit) all make us swivel our heads to centuries in the past. Behind the scenes, the cast doesn’t try to hide this, with Brian Cox directly stating that King Lear was a major inspiration for his character, and Jeremy Strong mentioning in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter that he reread Crime and Punishment before season 2 and actively tried to embody Raskolnikov’s “monstrous pain” in Kendall (after which he references Shakespeare’s Richard III). The lack of nuance that Succession creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong uses in these parallels, allusions, and references points to the fact that the audience is meant to pick up on this and interpret it.

As with all art, the interpretation lies with the audience. While the range of interpretations is never-ending, two stand out — one pessimistic, one optimistic. Perhaps Succession is meant to remind us that Raskolnikov’s, Macbeth’s, and now Kendall’s, archetype still exists today, and hasn’t been left in the 19th century. As the witches propound at the very beginning of Macbeth, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” (Act I Scene I). It’s hard to argue that the twisted morals of Shakespeare’s 17th century play aren’t present in the corporate world of Waystar Royco, and even harder when we see Raskolnikov and Macbeth resurrected in the form of Kendall Roy, who walks in their shadows and leaves a trail of blood (literally and figuratively) in his wake. While Kendall’s intrinsic existence doesn’t necessarily echo the witches’ declaration, the events of season 4 could certainly drive them home. If Kendall doesn’t face real consequences and instead continues to live his life without truly ‘washing his hands’, well then, fair is foul, and foul is fair indeed. Or maybe Kendall continues the path of Macbeth, suppressing his guilt and committing further immoral acts in order to fulfill his Napoleonic fate. Whether or not Kendall receives punishment in that case, Succession would remind us that the evils of Raskolnikov and Macbeth still exist in this world. Is it too naïve to be optimistic with Kendall and Waystar Royco? By directing the audience to the inspiration that Succession draws from Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, Armstrong and company could be reinforcing the criticism of this archetype — just as Macbeth and Raskolnikov justified their immoral acts with fate, only for punishment to be the true inevitability, Kendall could face his reckoning. Whether or not he repents and accepts his punishment as Raskolnikov does, this path in Season 4 would remind us of the lighter side of this archetype, so to speak — the deserved fall of these characters. Morality and a sort of blend of karma and fate win out in the end — fair is not foul, and foul is not fair.

So, what will it be? Kendall always seems to have an unexpected move up his sleeve, but in order to follow (or purposefully deviate from) the path that has been laid, there are only a few possibilities, albeit wide-ranging in their specificities. I find that the most likely of these is one in which Kendall, consistent with his journey heretofore, takes a little bit from both Macbeth and Raskolnikov. The end of season 3 leaves us with Kendall reunited with his siblings, but now on the outside looking in due to his father’s ruthless betrayal of his own children. In the upcoming season, as he did at the end of season 2 and throughout season 3, Kendall will again attempt to take down his father — except this time, there won’t be any social media campaigns, no press releases, no care for appearances, only a driving sense of morality. Kendall won’t quite ever lose his desire for power — it’s intrinsic to him, it’s part of his nature just as it’s part of Macbeth’s — but this drive for repentance, this drive to right the wrong, will overpower this want for power and lead him to expose his own wrongdoings just as Raskolnikov does. Whether or not this ends up bringing Waystar and Logan down, Kendall will face a true punishment. Realistically, Kendall won’t be locked up forever, because that’d just be cruel to us watchers. What will likely happen is a court case in which Kendall sincerely repents, and just as Raskolnikov receives a ‘light’ sentence, Kendall will receive a sentence that will fulfill his inevitable and fateful punishment while also keeping him solely in the limelight. Whatever happens in season 4, Strong and Armstrong will continue to develop this Dostoyevsky-Shakespeare fusion of Kendall Roy, and in doing so will reinforce, explore, and maybe even disrupt this archetype of centuries past and present — and I can’t wait to watch.

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Learning about biology (CRISPR, synbio, immuno-oncology) and mediums of art (movies, music, paintings, books). Trying to think deeper by making connections.

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Learning about biology (CRISPR, synbio, immuno-oncology) and mediums of art (movies, music, paintings, books). Trying to think deeper by making connections.

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