How Shakespeare Explains Game of Thrones

Apr 29, 2014 by


Matt Amaral –

(Spoiler alert, this post is for those who have finished all the Game of Thrones books)

Richard III: Now is the winter of our discontent.

Eddard Stark: Winter is coming.

I’ve recently immersed myself in all things Shakespeare. I’m reading books about him (of which there are a thousand it seems), I’m reading all his plays, I’m conducting an in depth study of Blank Verse and Elizabethan English, and I even watched Shakespeare in Love on Netflix. The more I read his plays, the more I see George R. R. Martin.

Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories (not as much his comedies) are essentially a game of thrones, where political intrigue, backstabbing, treachery, sex, murder, war, and greed rule with an iron fist the likes of which Tywin Lannister would be envious. Or should I say golden fist? Or if I do say iron fist would it then be the Crow’s Eye who is envious? Or Victarion? Or, as Romeo asks, is the moon envious? The more I read plays like Henry VI, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus, I cannot help but suspect that ole’ Mr. Martin is quite the Shakespearean scholar himself.

Just from a tragedy standpoint, both writers make no apologizes about killing off main characters in increasingly surprising and brutal ways. The lineage of Eddark Stark can easily be traced in blood to Othello, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. You read GOT and you are confronted with infanticide like Rhaegar’s children having their heads bashed in by the Robert Baratheon, and you can’t help but think of poor Macduff losing his family in similar fashion to Macbeth. When Hoat the Goat captures Brienne and Jaime, cuts off the latter’s hand and comes close to raping the former, you can’t help but think of Lavinia whose husband is killed in the woods on a hunt and she is raped, then, so that she cannot tell her story, her tongue is cut out, and both of her hands are cut off. In fact, reading both GOT and all of Shakespeare’s plays (GOT will take you much, much longer BTW), once you start seeing the connections, it is impossible to stop. It would be like asking Antony not to love Cleopatra, or Jamie to cease his love for Cersei— does not the intensity and forbidden nature of both romances leads to their respective downfalls? There, I did it again.

Then you start to see similarities in characters. How about Tyrion and Richard III? The long suffering wives: Portia, Hermione, Caetlyn Stark. How about Roose Bolton’s wife, talk about a bad gig (let’s not even talk about Jayne Poole, you know what I’m saying?). The war heroes: Jaime, The Knight of Flowers, Barristan the Bold, Lord Talbott, Othello, Mark Antony. The villains, Iago, the Bastard of Bolton. The fools. I am a fan of fools. I think there is something of genius in all of them, and I am enamored of a job that requires nothing but wit to get by. Shakespeare and Martin’s fools are often in precarious situations in which one bad joke could get them a hanging. And yet to be a joker you have to basically be the smartest wit in the room. From Moon Boy to Feste, the fools in GOT and Shakespeare seem to have been created in the same dark spirit of humour.

Of course you would have to be as blind as Maester Aemon at the end of his life in Braavos not to see the bloody connection between Jon Snow’s death and Julius Caesar. It is when Jon finally gives in and irrevocably takes a side that he is stabbed by conspirators. The Night’s Watch are not supposed to take sides in the game of thrones, and Jon struggled as Lord Commander to toe that line with Stannis and his men living amongst them. It was when Jon became ambitious, rallying Wildings and Crows alike to ride in response to the Bastard’s letter, that he was slain. Brutus reminds us of this same sin—ambition—in Julius Caesar. In his famous speech, soon to be topped by an even better one by Mark Antony, Brutus lays out for the people of Rome why Caesar had to be killed. “I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” This isn’t to say Jon Snow was similar to Caesar as a person or even as a ruler, but it does remind us of this: Shakespeare stole almost all his plots from existing stories and Martin seems to take some cues from Shakespeare as well. How about this theme: Great warriors are not necessarily great rulers. Think Robert Baratheon.

Where Shakespeare and Martin really come together is in their broader themes about nobility, honor, aristocracy, and war. In each man’s world there is a caste system in which you are destined to a certain life based on where in the hierarchy of power you are born. Martin calls the people at the bottom smallfolks, whereas in the Globe they were referred to as groundlings. Hamlet describes both for us thus, “…the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.” The plots of both works follow not the lives and struggles of these peasants, but those nobly born. One has but to look at the titles of Shakespeare’s plays to see whom the main characters are, and just look at the titles of Martin’s chapters to see much of the same. King Henry VIII, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, King Lear, King John, Richard III, might as well be Cersei, Eddard, Arya, Sansa, Jon Snow, Tyrion, Jaime. That isn’t to say others in the hierarchy (other characters, not the Others) aren’t important or sometimes the focus, but make no mistake—the world revolves around the rich and powerful, and both writers make that very clear.

That said, it isn’t necessarily something both men give a sense should be the right thing. These monarchical aristocracies are brutal, vile worlds in which life and death decisions are made and wars are waged on a whim. Yet these innocuous moves, played by the nobles as if with pieces on a chessboard, have horrendous consequences for everyone else. The game of thrones in Westeros destroys the country, kills and displaces all the smallfolk (and upsets critics of A Feast for Crows), who are often rounded up, raped, tortured, and murdered for simply living on land owned by a certain lord whose allegiance lies with the wrong wannabe king. Then there are the lives lost in the wars themselves by soldiers, farmers, sellswords, and knights, who die in battles waged by those who often never enter the field. Octavius Caesar reminds us of the cost of war when he asks the younger Pompey to give up, “And carry back to Sicily much tall youth/ That else must perish here.” The lives of your average person in GOT and Shakespeare are as afterthoughts to the rulers of the world.

And yet, as cruel as many of the characters are, there also remains a certain nobility of thought, and virtue. Amongst the Sers in GOT there is a spoken, and unspoken, code of conduct, even in the bloodiest part of battle. Amidst the war is an assumed ethic, which is why the Red Wedding is such an affront. It is not the bloodshed, the loss of one battle, nor even the death of a king that makes it so painful, it is the absence of honor. Robb Stark was given bread and shelter, and by the rules of all the land, he should have been safe while under the roof of the Twins. Walter Frei, like Macbeth, commits murder under his own roof after feeding and sheltering the King. This is why we hate the Red Wedding, and why Macbeth is more villain than hero.

Some of the best scenes in Shakespeare’s plays are the moments just before battle when the Generals meet in the middle of the battlefield to talk a little shit. While they hate each other, and are basically about to kill one another, they have these terse, tense talks in which little gets accomplished other than some memorable lines and a reaffirmation of a desire for bloodshed. Then, once one side has won and the other general is in fact dead, they are honored for their life’s work. There is this odd affirmation of their life in a death brought on by the actions of those doing the eulogizing—think Marcus Brutus and Mark Antony (in multiple contexts). GOT also has these great scenes in the middle of the field just before battle. There is something pure about the words waged just before a battle, because each man is going to back it up very soon by murdering as many people as he can. Maybe you have to be a man to appreciate that.

One related theme about honor I enjoy in GOT is Martin’s portrait of Cersei as a ruler. Through her, he shows us how evil leads to demise. We do not want Joffrey, or Cersei to succeed, and even though at times it seems they are winning, you get a sense from Martin (and Kevan Lannister, the sanest of that name) that Westeros is doomed while Cersei remains in power, which essentially means she is doomed herself. We are enamored with Cersei, we abhor her at the same time, and in the end she will be Macbeth whose every action leads to his own undoing. She cannot win because she is evil. Varys admits as much as he kills Kevan, telling him as he dies that he was in danger of undoing all of Cersei’s “good work.” Shakespeare himself has much to say about this, as even though his plays are “tragedies”, never does evil prevail completely. Romeo and Juliet has a silver lining, however unsatisfying; Hamlet kills his uncle and his mother dies, getting revenge for his father, so that’s good; Iago is captured and will be satisfyingly tortured; Julius Caesar gets the last laugh over the evil conspirators. Even Mark Antony’s demise with Cleopatra, while unfortunate, seems fitting because, well, you can’t marry homeboy’s sister and then keep getting with the ex (not to mention the dumb mistake of the sea battle). Mark Antony’s lusty life had run its course, and there is closure there. So while evil causes these tragedies, in the end the tide always seems to crash on the shore of the good.

Both authors are so enduring because they touch life often. In their characters we see ourselves, in their struggles we see our own, and in the unjust worlds in which they live we still see hope. This is why we still read Shakespeare, and this is why GOT is now on HBO, the pinnacle of all literary achievement. Of course Shakespeare’s stories have all been told, and we know how they all end. But what is next for George R. R. Martin and the world he continues to flesh out? Like Joan la Pucelle, will Daenerys ride in on her dragons and save Westeros when the Others break through the Wall? Will she hook up with Young Griff, the boy prince and end this game of thrones? Which king will fall next? Euron? Tommen? Has Stannis really been defeated? Will the Starks rise again? What is Littlefinger up to with Sansa? Has Tyrion finally found a woman he can love? Will Arya get to everyone on that list? If you want to know how it all ends, you might want to revisit the old Bard, because I can tell you—there are hints everywhere.

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How Shakespeare Explains Game of Thrones | Teach4Real.

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