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Shakespeare & Beyond

Masters of borrowing: Links between Shakespeare and Game of Thrones

Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus

If you’re a fan of the Game of Thrones TV series or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, you may have noticed some echoes from Shakespeare’s plays. This blog post explores two of them: one, a historical power struggle that provides a multi-play dramatic structure; and two, a direct allusion to a famously repulsive moment in Titus Andronicus.

The War of the Roses

Any history nerd worth their salt could have told you the clear connection between A Song of Ice and Fire and the War of the Roses, even before the author cited his source material.

In a nutshell, the War of the Roses was primarily about the fight between two branches of the Plantagenet family, the Lancasters and the Yorks, to win the English throne. Now, let me rewrite that sentence: In a nutshell, A Song of Ice and Fire is primarily about the fight between the major houses of Westeros, two of which are the Lannisters and the Starks, to win the Iron Throne. It’s a pretty clear comparison when you distill it down to one line… never mind the differences in complex politics, relationships, and dragons.

HBO’s hit television series, Game of Thrones, is based on A Song of Ice and Fire. Written by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, the show is now part of a long tradition of borrowing themes from the War of the Roses, both the historical and the fictional.

Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (a book published in 1577) combined history and legend and served as a major source for several of Shakespeare’s plays—King Lear, Macbeth, and the histories. Shakespeare covers the War of the Roses in four plays: Henry VI Parts 1-3 and Richard III. The plays begin with the death of Henry V and close with Henry VII’s rise to power, covering decades of betrayal, bloody battles, murders, and exiles in between—perfect fodder for a book or television series.