“My dearest partner of greatness,” Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) addresses his wife from the battlefield. In Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) reads the letter in a feverish whisper, electrified not just by the news of her husband’s victory but by the prophecy of the witches, who hail him as “king that shalt be.” It’s a love letter of sorts, awash with the affection and intimacy of a man sharing with his wife his deepest hopes and dreams for their future. It’s also, of course, a piece of political intrigue, for the “greatness” Macbeth promises her is their ascension to the throne. Before Macbeth has even returned home, Lady Macbeth is already plotting Duncan’s death.
The Macbeths are literature’s iconic power couple: She couldn’t be queen without him, but he would never become king without her. Though they openly court evil (“Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell”), justify murder, and descend into madness, the Macbeths retain an irresistible allure. This might be said for any number of power couples. Indeed, coming out now, the film calls to mind other political duos in the public consciousness, real and fictional—Frank and Claire Underwood, Peter and Alicia Florrick, Bill and Hillary Clinton. And there are older paradigms too: Ferdinand and Isabella, Antony and Cleopatra. Adam and Eve—ambitious for knowledge, conspiring against God—might be the original power couple.
But in most of these older examples, women’s power was largely symbolic. The true power couple is only really possible in a world where women can command the same kind of political influence as their partners. As women claim more and more leadership positions, the power couple is surfacing in popular culture as a model for thinking about modern relationships. Even ABC couldn’t resist weighing in: Martha Raddatz’s question about whether Bill Clinton will perform First Lady duties like picking the china if Hillary is elected was really a question about power: What will this famous partnership look like when the wife sits in the Oval Office?
Power couples hold an unusual grip on our imaginations. “I’m only interested in attraction… That mix of entrancement and horror,” explains House of Cards writer, Beau Willimon. There’s the entwining of sex and politics, romance and power, in which power becomes the ultimate aphrodisiac and romance an extension of politics. When Macbeth wavers in their plot, Lady Macbeth questions his masculinity. In the film, her persuasion of him doubles as an act of seduction. “I dare do all that may become a man,” he insists, eager to please her. But is he really seduced by her or by the prospect of his own power? Are the two separable?
It’s intimacy that makes political couples the most fascinating of co-conspirators. Bernie Sanders’s senior policy advisor recently told The New York Times that Sanders’s wife “has his ear like no one else in discussions at a very high level… She is his confidante” (Jane Sanders has served as her husband’s chief of staff and later as a press attaché.) Private dreams grow bigger, more grand when you have someone to share them with. But they can also grow more dangerous: the spouse whispering in your ear, feeding your ambition, inciting you to action. As Marion Cotillard explains, the Macbeths want to create their own destiny. They’re thirsty not only for power, but “a change, something bigger than their lives.” When it comes to real life power couples, this shared scheming makes us uneasy. It suggests a secret world, an intimacy no one else can penetrate but which nevertheless exerts its machinations on the affairs of the world. We fear, too, that the political couple’s partnership is somehow more potent than the sum of its two parts.
Generalized anxiety about the Clinton marriage is the most obvious instance of this. In his 1992 campaign for the presidency, Bill made much of the fact that Hillary wasn’t a typical politician’s wife (decorative, demure) but a force in her own right: His slogan, he joked to voters, might as well be “Buy one, get one free.” But the public soon grew uncomfortable with the political clout an unelected woman was wielding in the White House. After her healthcare debacle, she was quietly steered toward more wifely activities. Of course, when Hillary became Secretary of State, Bill was castigated in turn for the political advantages his wife’s position afforded him. Her stature in the Obama administration helped him attract foreign donors for the Clinton Global Initiative, for instance. As a Clinton associate explained, “Bill Clinton’s been able to continue to be the Bill Clinton we know, in large part because of his relationship with the White House and because his wife is the Secretary of State. It’s worked out very well for him. That may be a very cynical way to look at it, but that’s a fact.”
Perhaps what we really dislike is the idea that marriage, a purportedly sacred institution, can be instrumental. In The Good Wife, another saga about marriage and power, Alicia separates from her adulterous, scandal-laden husband but maintains the semblance of a union for PR purposes. Not divorcing him pays off. When he becomes governor of Illinois, she leverages his connections to grow her law practice. Her image as betrayed but loyal wife—the press call her “Saint Alicia”—is useful too: Her high approval ratings eventually convince her to run for state’s attorney herself, a position previously held by her husband.
It’s hard not to see an echo of Hillary here. Her allegiance to Bill despite his infidelities warmed her image in the public eye. In the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, her approval ratings, once dismal, soared. During her 2008 campaign, pundits like Chris Matthews pointed to this to suggest that her power was somehow less than legitimate: “The reason she’s a U.S. Senator,” he argued, “the reason she’s a candidate for President, the reason she may be a front runner, is that her husband messed around.” Given Hillary’s policy achievements and political acumen, the statement—aside from being ugly—was also questionable. Her marriage clearly helped her, but who’s to say she wouldn’t have found another path to power in an alternate reality? When he asked her to marry him, Bill told Time, he qualified the proposal with, “But you shouldn’t do it.” She was, in his view, the most talented pol of their generation with the best command of the issues. Instead of marrying him, he said, she should go to Chicago and get into politics.
The real drama of the power couple lies in this internal struggle to share power—to prop each other up without in fact becoming the prop. For the women, this means carving out a role that isn’t just supportive or ornamental. There’s a good deal of hypocrisy in the accusation that women like Hillary or Alicia have “used” their marriages to climb the political ladder. After all, isn’t that exactly what their husbands did, brandishing attractive, accomplished women on their arms—women who supported and furthered their husbands’ political careers, only to be cast aside at the opportune moment? By seeking power in their own right, and even using their husbands to get it, these women are, in some sense, merely balancing the scale.
The power couple trope is about equality as much as it is about power, for the power couple is that rare and formidable thing—a marriage of equals. Macbeth imagines a marriage in which the wife’s ambition and capacity for political scheming equals her husband’s. Though the play punishes her for trying to exercise power (as a woman and wife, her power is seen as illegitimate), many critics have nevertheless read Lady Macbeth as a kind of proto-feminist. Eleanor Roosevelt used her influence over FDR to far more beneficial ends. Claire Underwood balks when Frank expects her to lay aside her aims in the service of his: “So what you’re saying is that my goals are secondary,” she chides him. The show’s second season opened with the Macbethian tagline, “Behind every great man is a woman with blood on her hands,” but as Claire ascends to UN Ambassador, it becomes clear she’s not content to stay in the background. Neither is Hillary. But don’t worry, Bill won’t be made to choose the china.
Correction: A previous version of this article misnamed the Clinton Global Initiative.