I love Game Of Thrones! If you’ve ever read the books or seen the series on HBO, like me you might be amazed by the scale and complexity of the world author George RR Martin created. He wove together a rich tapestry of medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare. He used some of Shakespeare’s plots, commented and expanded on his themes, and adapted some of his iconic characters into a very rich and in a way, very modern story. Today I’m going to examine the components of Martin’s narrative that he embroidered off of Shakespeare’s plots, themes, and characters. If you like my take on this, or if you disagree, please leave a comment below! If you have any suggestions for other popular works adapted from Shakespeare, let me know and I’ll review them on the blog!
Part I: Story
Shakespeare wrote four plays that chronicle a series of civil wars where powerful families battled each other for the crown of England. Like Game of Thrones, the conflict was mainly between the kingdoms in the North and South:
Shakespeare wrote four plays about a civil war over control of a kingdom. His three parts of King Henry VI and Richard III chronicle the real struggle between the Yorkists in the north to take the crown from the Lancastrians in London in the South.
Part II: Themes
Power corrupts, especially those who go seeking it.
The death of chivalry and honor in favor of political backstabbing.
King Henry VI has a speech where he watches a great battle while sitting on a molehill, watching the tide turn back and forth between his soldiers and the Yorkists. As with Game Of Thrones, the more blood each side has on its hands, the harder it becomes to decide whom to truly root for. In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter- kingdoms are won and lost as arbitrarily as a game. All it takes is time, and a good player to win.
The silence of the Gods. Shakespeare’s King Lear is constantly making oaths to his gods and asking them to punish his enemies. Likewise, Gloucester places his faith in the gods to protect Lear and punish the usurpers Goneril and Regan. Nevertheless, the action of King Lear doesn’t show any kind of divine judgement- Lear is exiled, goes mad, is sent to prison, and finally dies. Gloucester loses his sight, his lands, and dies randomly right after he is re-united with his son Edgar. In both King Lear and Game Of Thrones, there is a persistent question as to the nature of the gods, or even the surety of their existence.
No where is this more apparent than at the end of the play King Lear, when, just as it seems that the Duke of Albany is about to reward the good people and punish the wicked, King Lear arrives howling, with the dead Cordelia in his arms. “Is this the promised end?” in horror at the gods’ apparent cruelty. In Game Of Thrones, the good characters pray to their old gods and new, but never seem to hear from them or sense their influence. Osha, the Wildling even suggests that the gods have no power in King’s Landing, where the special God’s Wood trees have been cut down.
Martin wove a rich tapestry of real medieval history, legends, and yes, Shakespeare.
Part III: Characters
Below is a list of my favorite GOT characters, with my interpretation of their Shakespearean roots.
Ned Stark- Humphrey Duke of Gloucester from Henry VI, Part II
◦ Ned is a Yorkist from the north of England, just as Winterfell is a powerful kingdom in the north of Westeros. King Robert makes Ned Protector Of the Realm when he dies, which makes him king in all but name, and tasked with taking care of Robert’s young son Joffrey until he comes of age. In Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, King Henry the Fifth makes his brother Humphrey Lord Protector before he dies, to take care of England until his infant son Henry VI comes of age to rule. Like Ned, Humphrey is loyal, blunt, and only interested in keeping the realm at peace. In both Westminster and the Red Keep, all the lords are conniving and ambitious, and only interested in advancing themselves politically. These two lord protectors are the only ones with the good of the kingdom in mind.
Both Ned and Humphrey are betrayed and executed by those ambitious lords around them for the same reason; they stand in the way of the lords in their quest for power. In Henry VI, Part II, Henry’s ambitious queen Margaret starts a smear campaign against Humphrey’s wife, then pressures the King to force Gloucester to resign. As if that weren’t enough, Margaret also secretly conspires to murder the noble duke. Similarly, In Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert), queen Circe puts her son on the throne and proclaims Ned a traitor. In both cases though, once the Lord Protector dies, the whole kingdom erupts in fights and arguments for the crown on all sides.
Ned Stark also resembles the heroes of Shakespeare’s Roman characters. He is cold and stoic as Brutus, and a devoted soldier like Titus Andronicus. Ned’s dire wolf is another connection with Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the wolf 🐺 is the symbol of the Roman Empire; packs of cold hunters who depend on each other for the survival of the family.
King Joffrey- Saturnine from Titus Andronicus– Joffrey is like the worst kind of tyrant- rash, proud, violent, and cruel. He lacks the maturity to make wise decisions and because of his privileged upbringing, he takes even the tiniest slight against him as an act of treason, and leaves a trail of heads in his wake. Worse still, he is easily manipulated by his mother Circe, who teaches him to act and feel superior to everyone else, and never care for the good of anyone but himself. In that way, he is very much like a Roman Emperor like Nero or Caligula, whom Shakespeare adapted into Saturnine.
Saturnine from Titus fits all these characteristics. When we first meet him, he leads an angry mob into the streets of Rome, demanding to be made emperor, and threatening all out war if he doesn’t get his way. He also turns on the loyal soldier Titus, who helped him win a war and win his crown, just because Titus wouldn’t give Saturnine his daughter in marriage. In the clip below from the 1999 movie Titus, Emperor Saturnine (Alan Cummings) is furious just because Titus wrote some mean scrolls about him, after Saturnine killed two of Titus’ sons, and banished a third.
King Robert Baratheon- Edward IV from Richard III.
◦ In the first book of the Game of Thrones series, Robert is the King of the Seven Kingdoms, having won a civil war to take it away from the Mad King Araes Targaryen. Edward in the play Richard III has just won the crown of England after a civil war against the mad King Henry VI. Both men were powerful warriors and used to be strong and handsome. People loved and feared him, but now the pressures of keeping the throne has literally consumed them.
Next had come King Robert himself, with Lady Stark on his arm. The King was a great disappointment to Jon. His father had talked of him often: the peerless Robert Baratheon, demon of the Trident, the fiercest warrior of the realm, a giant among princes. Jon only saw a fat man red-faced under his beard, sweating through his silks.
Jon had noticed that too. A bastard had to learn o notice things, to read the truth that people hid behind their eyes. Two seats away, the king had been drinking heavily all night. His broad face was flushed behind his black beard”
In this passage from Thomas More’s History Of Richard III, (Shakespeare’s primary source for the play), More chronicles how Edward went from a handsome young king, loved and feared by all, into a gluttonous, lecherous, sick old man, who was consumed by care.
He was a goodly personage, and very princely to behold: of heart, courageous; politic in counsel; in adversity nothing abashed; in prosperity, rather joyful than proud; in peace, just and merciful; in war, sharp and fierce; in the field, bold and hardy, and nevertheless, no further than wisdom would, adventurous. Whose wars whosoever would well consider, he shall no less commend his wisdom when he withdrew than his manhood when he vanquished. He was of visage lovely, of body mighty, strong, and clean made; however, in his latter days with over-liberal diet , he became somewhat corpulent and burly, and nonetheless not uncomely; he was of youth greatly given to fleshly wantonness, from which health of body in great prosperity and fortune, without a special grace, hardly refrains. This fault not greatly grieved the people, for one man’s pleasure could not stretch and extend to the displeasure of very many, and the fault was without violence, and besides that, in his latter days, it lessened and well left.
-Thomas More, History Of Richard III, c. 1513
There are also similarities in how the characters died. King Robert was killed by a wild boar, while King Edward was killed by his brother Richard, whose sign was a white boar. As a bonus, the stag that is the sigil of House Baratheon, is also the seal of King Richard II, the king who, in the Shakespearean tragedy that bears his name, started the civil war when he was murdered in the Tower Of London.
I’m not actually the first person to mention this connection between Robert Baratheon and Edward IV. In the British newspaper, The Guardian, the author compares several characters from Game Of Thrones, to historical English events: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/0/game-of-thrones-vs-history-which-real-characters-and-events-insp/robert-baratheon-and-edward-iv/
Little Finger -Lucio from Measure For Measure, Iachimo from Cymbeline, Bawd from Pericles, etc. Shakespeare has a host of character like this lord of Westeros, the Master of Coin. He is cowardly and cynical, but he is also very clever and understands people’s weaknesses, especially sex. Like Bawd from, Little Finger has grown rich off brothels, and like many real life government he turns his prostitutes into spies. This gives him not only cash, but dirt on every lord in the 7 kingdoms. He only worries about Ned Stark, (who can’t be bought), and Vares the eunuch, who can’t be seduced. Little Finger is basically an oily politician and exploits the power of lust in the men of King’s Landing.
John Snow– Edgar and Edmund in King Lear Philip the Bastard in King John.
◦ Snow is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark. He’s aware of what he is, so he joins thieves and rapers as a knight of the Night Watch to make a life for himself, just as Edgar becomes a mad beggar in King Lear once he is accused of attempted murder. He has few illusions and like all the base-born children in Shakespeare:
He was who he was, Jon Snow, bastard oath breaker motherless, friendless, and damned. For the rest of his life, however long that might be- he would be condemned to be an outsider, the silent man standing in the shadows who dares not speak his true name.”
◦ Unlike Jon Snow, Edmond in King Lear uses deceitful and cruel cunning in order to advance his position in life. Snow doesn’t try to change the rules, but both of them know that no one is going to give them anything. Early in book one, Jon learns to accept the cruelty of the world, and to accept what he is:
Let me give you some council, bastard, never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.
Song Of Ice And Fire, p. 57.
🦁 Tyrian Lannister –
Obviously he shares some parallels with Richard III, with his small size and the fact that he is the most hated member of a powerful family. In fact, Peter Dinklage who plays Tyrion played Richard the Third back in 2004. In terms of his personality however, Tyrion has neither the cruelty, nor the bitterness of Richard. For this reason, I would argue that Tyrion more closely resembles Sir John Falstaff.
◦ Like Falstaff, Tyrion laughs at his physical form as a way of disarming his enemies.
◦ Both Characters are famous for talking their way out of anything.
◦ Both characters are down on their luck for most of the books
◦ Most Of all, Tyrion and Falstaff are survivors – they will do anything to stay alive, good or bad. They are also unapologetic about acting cowardly and deceitfully to avoid death. In Falstaff’s famous ‘Catechism speech,’ he mocks the concept of honor and how it frequently gets men killed.
‘Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that
calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks
me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I
come on? how then? Can honour set to a leg? no: or
an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no.
Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is
honour? a word. What is in that word honour? what
is that honour? air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it?
he that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? no.
Doth he hear it? no. ‘Tis insensible, then. Yea,
to the dead. But will it not live with the living?
no. Why? detraction will not suffer it. Therefore
I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon: and so
ends my catechism.
Now observe this passage where Tyrion reacts to the death of a noble night, who died in a battle that he survived, by pretending to be dead:
“Good my lord,” the messenger said. “Lord Brax was clad in plate-and-mail when his raft overturned. He was so gallant.” “He was a fool,” Tyrion thought, willing his cup and staring down into the wind depths. Crossing a river at night on a crude raft, wearing armor, with an enemy waiting on the other side–if that was gallantry, he would take cowardice every time. Song of Ice and Fire, 765.
My favorite part of the books is the way Martin writes the female characters. All the female characters are dealing with the fact that women have very little power or say in their society and they all use Shakespearean means or methods to get what they want.
🦁 Circe- Tamara and Lady Macbeth
◦ Sexuality and cruelty. Tamara is compared to a tiger 🐅, while Circe’s house sign is a lion 🦁
◦ Martin likely derived her name from the witch from the Odyssey, who turned men into animals.
◦ Men fear what she will do to them
◦ Lust for power for herself and her family.
Hermione From The Winters Tale ❄️ 🐺
◦ Kindness and mercy are her weapons as well as her will and devotion to her friends and family. Even Tyrion is impressed by her integrity.
🐺 Aria- Imogen from Cymbeline
◦ If it’s a mans world, pretend you are one! She learns to use a sword ⚔️ and uses her small size and gender to sneak away from her enemies.
🐉 Daenerys Targaryen- Cleopatra!
◦ Crafty and beautiful
◦ Uses her sexuality to gain a powerful man’s protection
◦ Her dragons 🐉 make her a goddess, elevating her beyond a woman and even a queen. In a society that opposed and ignored women, female monarchs needed to practically deify themselves in order to get the same respect as their male counterparts.
Just as the real Cleopatra claimed to be a descendant of the goddess Isis and Elizabeth I was part of the cult of the virgin queen, The Mother Of Dragons has a mythic power that commands fear and adoration.
In the final chapter of book one, Daenerys tries to simultaneously say goodbye to her warrior husband Khal Drogo, and to get her few remaining soldiers to swear loyalty to her. She dresses him, she braids his hair, she puts him atop a pyre, and waits for a star to pass overhead to give his funeral a cosmic significance:
“This is a wedding too.”
The pyre shifted and the logs exploded as the fire touched their secret hearts. She could hear the screams of frighten horses and the voices of the Dothraki. “No,” she wanted to shout to him, “No my good knight, do not fear for me. The fire is mine. I am Daenerys Stormborn, daughter of dragons, bride of Dragons, Mother Of Dragons.”
This mirrors how, once Cleopatra loses Antony and knows that the Romans are coming to capture her, she says goodbye to Antony, and asserts herself as queen.
Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life.
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell’st the world
It is not worth leave-taking. Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene ii.
Dany does the same thing. She lights the pyre to help her husband ascend to the heavens, taking his place among the stars. Then, she sits on top of the pyre along with her three dragon eggs. Miraculously, she survives the fire and the dragons hatch, thus establishing her as the true heir of House Targarean and the Mother Of Dragons.
After witnessing the queen embracing her serpentine children, the blood riders that swore oaths to defend her husband swear again to defend her, promising to help her win the Iron Throne. Her power to command loyalty can win her the throne, and unlike Robert, keep it!
There are enough comparisons between Shakespeare and GOt that one playwright even adapted Shakespeare to resemble a Game Of Thrones story. Below is a poster of
Play Of Thrones, an adaption Of The Henry VI plays that, as I’ve mentioned, are full of characters and scenes similar to Game Of Thrones:
In conclusion, these two works prove that Shakespeare has a timeless appeal that has inspired countless writers to adapt his stories and characters.