Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 159
Based on his knowledge of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, Harvard's Dr. Jeffrey R. Wilson knew just how HBO's Game of Thrones would play out. Jon Snow, the illegitimate son, was a Richard III type, who would win the crown (and our hearts, in a love-to-hate-him kind of way). But Daenerys Targaryen, as a kind of Henry VII, would defeat him in battle and win it back, restoring peace and order. Turns out he was wrong about all of that.
But as Wilson kept watching, he began to appreciate the other ways Game of Thrones is similar to Shakespeare—like the way that both Shakespeare and George R.R. Martin’s stories translate the history of the Wars of the Roses into other popular genres.
Wilson’s new book, Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, explores some of the ways that Shakespeare influenced Game of Thrones… as well as some of the ways that Game of Thrones has begun to influence Shakespeare. Wilson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Dr. Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the Why Shakespeare? section of the University's first-year writing course. His new book, Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, was published by Routledge in 2020.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published Tuesday, January 19, 2020. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City California. Special thanks to DC-based playwright Allyson Currin for identifying the Game of Thrones clips that appear in this episode.
Henry VI, Part 1
Start at the beginning of Shakespeare's War of the Roses tetralogy by reading Henry VI, Part 1 from The Folger Shakespeare.
Masters of borrowing: Links between Shakespeare and Game of Thrones
Read Kate Long's post about some of Game of Thrones' most Shakespearean moments.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Sometimes it sounds like this.
[CLIP from Richard II. Derek Jacobi is King Richard.]
Let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.
WITMORE: Sometimes it sounds like this.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 2.]
JOFFREY BARATHEON: (whimpering) No. No. Please don’t.
SANSA STARK: Arya, leave him alone! My prince. My poor prince. Look what they did to you.
JOFFREY: Don’t touch me!
WITMORE: And sometimes, you can hear both and say, “Hey, those seem the same to me!”
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. We often talk about Shakespeare being a pop culture phenomenon in his day. And it’s certainly fair to call Game of Thrones a pop culture phenomenon for ours.
While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the audience for the knights-and-dragons slash-‘em-up grew remarkably year after year, jumping—according to Forbes magazine—from 9.3 million viewers in season one to 32.8 million by season seven. Nearly 20 million people watched the final episode, which is unheard of for any show that’s not a live sporting event.
Dr. Jeffrey R. Wilson of the Harvard University Writing Program watched Game of Thrones too. But he did it—at least at first—for a completely different reason. He saw, underneath the sex and violence, an unmistakable parallel. A parallel to Shakespeare. After the first few episodes, it became clear to him that the plot of this HBO epic tracked really, really closely with the plot of Shakespeare’s first tetralogy, the four Shakespeare plays looking at the monarchies that fought the Wars of the Roses.
Dr. Wilson looked into this idea further and now he’s written a book—appropriately titled Shakespeare and Game of Thrones. Considering, first that we’re a Shakespeare podcast, and second, that this is one of the most popular TV shows in decades, we thought: Well, why not? Let’s hear more.
Here are all the necessary caveats. Our producer has tried his best to make sure that this conversation is relevant to everyone, whether you've watched Game of Thrones or not. There are plenty of online guides to help fill in the blanks anywhere that we've failed in that. And if you hear character names—which you will—and you wonder why we don’t tell you who they are; well, Game of Thrones and the books that spawned it have—according to one account—2,320 different characters. So we trust you'll understand as you listen to this podcast which we call, “Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown.” Jeffrey R. Wilson is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Jeff, I remember at some point—before I even watched Game of Thrones—I heard that it had something to do with the War of Roses, but when did you catch on to this?
JEFFREY R. WILSON: It's probably about halfway through the first season that I'm watching it, and I start to recognize these parallels between Starks and Yorks, and Lannisters and Lancasters, and Targaryens and Tudors. And I said to myself, "I know exactly how this is going to end."
So we're going to see, after Cersei, as a Margaret of Anjou, kills Eddard Stark, as a Richard Duke of York.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 1.]
EDDARD STARK: Your son has no claim to the throne.
JOFFREY BARATHEON: Kill him! Kill all of them, I command it!
WILSON: We're going to see the Stark that's furthest down in the line of succession, Jon Snow as a Richard III. He's a character that the audiences find sympathetic and that we cheer for, like Richard III.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1.]
JON SNOW: Where were you before? I could have used your help with Sansa.
ARYA STARK: She doesn’t like your queen, does she?
JON: Sansa thinks she’s smarter than everyone.
WILSON: He's going to help dethrone the Lannisters and empower the Starks. And then he's going to turn against his own family, kill them off, rise through their ranks, and become king of Westeros, leaving audiences to sort of wrestle with, “Do we sympathize or do we hate this character that we used to love?” Until, then, he is going to get unseated by this long-lost claimant to the throne, who's been hidden away in this far-off land.
BOGAEV: In a... in a tree.
WILSON: Daenerys Targaryen, as a Henry VII, who will then marry one of the Starks. What's up, Arya? And unify the families, and then usher in this age of peace and prosperity in Westeros. I just think, you know, "Wow, what could have been?"
BOGAEV: Oh yeah, so you... Well, but that's interesting. You got off on a wrong foot then.
BOGAEV: It must have been very exciting viewing, when you were proven wrong.
WILSON: Right. Magnificently incorrect. And as George R. R. Martin said—and I learned this the hard way—anyone who thinks that they know how his story's going to end, based on knowledge of the sources that he's using, will find themselves mistaken.
BOGAEV: Yeah, that's really true. All the monsieur les faits out there who know their Shakespeare got really a comeuppance. So you didn't read the books?
WILSON: I didn't read the books. I started watching it a little bit. As soon as I recognized the Shakespearean, historical parallels, I sort of watched the first couple seasons out of a sense of professional obligation. And then, for the next few seasons, I watched it just for pure joy. Then, you know, as we get to the final few seasons, it maybe slid back into professional obligation again.
BOGAEV: Hmm. Yeah, I can see that. Although, you just pointed out some of the ways it really deviated from Shakespeare, for anybody who's listening who watched Game of Thrones. But it very much follows the structure of War of the Roses. Or really, the narrative does. So maybe you could lay that out for us, because it is really interesting, as you point out and throughout your book, how George R. R. Martin… he's following Shakespeare's first tetralogy to a point, or using it as a source.
WILSON: Yeah, exactly. So Game of Thrones draws its central storyline from this historical source material in the Wars of the Roses. The Wars of the Roses has the House of Lancaster, whose emblem is the red rose, and the House of York, whose emblem is the white. The Yorks are unseated by this upstart House of Tudor, and then that inaugurates this period of prosperity in England that includes the reigns of Henry VIII and then his daughter, Elizabeth I. The central parallel in “A Song of Ice and Fire” in Game of Thrones is kind of the Starks as the Yorks, the Lannisters as the Lancasters, and the Targaryens as the Tudors.
And it's really clear that Martin knows about the Wars of the Roses, but it's really unclear what the relationship between Martin's adaptation of the Wars of the Roses and Shakespeare's adaptation of the Wars of the Roses in his history plays is. So is this a case of Martin and Shakespeare are two different authors who are working with similar source material? Or is it the case that Martin has Shakespeare's history plays on his desk and he's referring to them and he's been influenced by those history plays in the way that he's telling his own version of the Wars of the Roses?
And it's complicated even more because Martin's not giving just a straight adaptation of the Wars of the Roses. Instead, Martin is adapting the heavily politicized version that Shakespeare contributed to, what's called the Tudor myth.
BOGAEV: Oh, and now you're getting into the layers and layers of this. And I want to just back up for a second, because—
BOGAEV: And maybe ask a not very scholarly question. Because Martin has talked about this, so you maybe know exactly why it is that he chose this War of the Roses. Why that? Maybe this is speculation, but why was that particularly resonant: that period of history, or Shakespeare's treatment of that period of history?
WILSON: Yeah, so one of the questions I had when I started working with this material is why even go to the history at all? Why not just tell this Tolkien-style fantasy narrative? And one of the fascinating discoveries is that Martin didn't start with fantasy and then add history to it. He started with the history.
BOGAEV: Oh, you mean like a Hilary Mantel type kind of treatment?
WILSON: Exactly. Exactly.
BOGAEV: Oh. Uh-huh.
WILSON: And so the big question for me is how do we get from that to then having dragons and zombies, and long-lost princes and princesses?
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 7, Episode 7.]
JON SNOW: And we can destroy them with dragonglass. If we don’t win this fight, then that is the fate of every person in the world.
WILSON: What I think happened, if we think about Shakespeare looking at the Wars of the Roses; when Shakespeare looks at the Wars of the Roses, it's just chaotic history, but he finds generic form. So the first thing he finds is tragedy.
Shakespeare's first tetralogy is structured as the series of one tragedy after another. But then at the very end of Shakespeare's first tetralogy, in the last act of Richard III, we shift to what's called heroic romance. Heroes versus villains. Good conquers evil. And the similarities between that kind of heroic romance and what you see in fantasy literature, I think, kind of, recognition of those proto-fantasy elements in what's called the Tudor myth; the way that Shakespeare told this story, not as history, but as mythologized history of heroes and villains.
When Martin recognizes that genre in the way that Shakespeare told the story of the Wars of the Roses, it inspires him to bring elements of fantasy to this historical allegory that he's telling and embellish it with all of these fantasy creatures and characters that we then see that are what Game of Thrones is now so well-known for.
BOGAEV: And you're saying the Tudor myth is what Shakespeare explored. Tell us more about that.
WILSON: The Tudor myth is this notion that developed over the 16th century under the Tudor dynasty; that Richard III is this demonic villain whose physical deformity kind of symbolizes an evil soul, as well as the generations of political chaos that had plagued England ever since Henry IV broke the hereditary line of royal succession in his rebellion against a divinely-placed Richard II.
So, Richard III, in the Tudor myth, is defeated in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth by Henry Tudor, who is, on his father's side, the grandson of Owen Tudor, who secretly married Katherine, the widow of Henry V. Then on his mother's side, he is the great-great-grandson of John of Gaunt and his mistress and their illegitimate children, who were born out of wedlock, had been legitimized during the reign of Richard II.
This history gives this young Henry Tudor a tenuous claim that is shrouded in secret marriages and bastard births to being the last surviving Lancaster. God guided England out of this chaos and civil war and generations of destruction into the hands of the glorious Tudor dynasty.
BOGAEV: Well, that sounds… when you put it like that, I mean, I got completely lost in the genealogy, and it sounds like a mess. Then you come around to this theory that it's all planned. It's all god's great plan, and it's actually very orderly, which I can see why that would be very convenient for a play-writer or a screen-writer to work with because it's so structured.
WILSON: Yeah, and one of the fascinating things about Game of Thrones is that it feels just like chaos one story after another after another. The end of every story is the beginning of another story, which is kind of what we are familiar with from television, right? That's how television works. But then you get this overarching narrative that is a really simple knights-and-dragons narrative. You start to see that this is not just chaos, but there's a really standard narrative governing all of this chaos in Game of Thrones.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1.]
JON SNOW: I don’t know how to ride a dragon.
DAENERYS TARGARYEN: Nobody does, until they ride a dragon.
JON: What if he doesn’t want me to?
DAENERYS: Then I’ve enjoyed your company Jon Snow.
BOGAEV: Well, you write about this in the book that one of Martin's primary source materials was Thomas B. Costain's four volume History of the Plantagenets, which sounds like a real drag. But the way you describe it, it's apparently monumental and incredibly entertaining. What is it about this book?
WILSON: Costain's four-volume History of the Plantagenets is the one source that I've seen that Martin has singled out as where he draws his knowledge of the Plantagenets from. Costain is writing popular history, and like most historians of the late 19th century, early 20th century, Costain is pretty hostile toward Shakespeare, saying, "Oh, he embellished history."
But at the same time, Costain's volume about the Plantagenets starts with the birth of Richard II and ends with the death of Richard III. So even though he's oppositional to Shakespeare, the way that Costain is telling this period of English history is deeply influenced by Shakespeare.
The way that I think about it is that it's probably less the case that Martin was directly reading Shakespeare's history plays about the Wars of the Roses. It's probably more the case that Martin was deeply influenced by historical fiction and popular histories that were themselves deeply influenced by the way that Shakespeare told this narrative of the Wars of the Roses. And so he stands at, kind of, one level of remove from Martin and the sources that Martin credits for his knowledge of this period of history.
BOGAEV: You know, we're talking about Wars of the Roses, but really, the way that you look at them is more as a phenomenon: something that's broader than just what happened between 1455 and 1487. It's almost as if you talk about it as a metaphor or a category for any time period, “In which,”—and this is a quote from your book—"In which power disputes within groups make them vulnerable to conquest from external enemies." Explain that for me, how you think of it.
WILSON: Yeah, so one of the things I think we can do is we can theorize outward from the Wars of the Roses to a kind of generalizable, sociological concept.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 1.]
ROBB STARK: I understand you don’t trust Lord Greyjoy.
CATELYN STARK: I don’t trust Lord Greyjoy because he is not trustworthy. Your father had to go to war to end his rebellion.
ROBB: Yes, and now I’m the one rebelling against the throne. Before me it was father. You married one rebel and mothered another.
CATELYN: I mothered more than just rebels; a fact you seem to have forgotten.
WILSON: So by structuring its plot on the Wars of the Roses, but then detaching that event from its historical moment, Game of Thrones helps us theorize what a War of Roses is: fractious squabbling that occurs among competing leaders within a group. It sows discord and division. It weakens solidarity and defenses against outside sources. And then it allows these foreign enemies to overtake the divided group with relative ease as it, kind of, gnaws away at itself.
CATELYN STARK: Why in the name of all the gods would you—
ROBB STARK: Because I need you to negotiate with Renly Baratheon. He’s rallied an army of one hundred thousand. You know him, you know his family.
CATELYN: I haven’t seen Renly Baratheon since he was a boy. You have a hundred other lords.
ROBB: Which of these lords do I trust more than you? If Renly signs with us, we’ll outnumber them two to one. When they feel the jaws beginning to shut, they’ll sue for peace. We’ll get the girls back.
WILSON: So you see that in the First Part of Henry VI with this hatred between the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of York. That division allows the French forces to overtake the English forces. You also see it, of course, in Game of Thrones, where these wars between Starks and Lannisters and Targaryens lead the humans to lose battles against the White Walkers. But then you also see it in life. You see it in politics. And so this plot typology that I've been describing, we see a—kind of, a War of Roses, is where these power disputes within groups make them vulnerable to conquests from external enemies.
BOGAEV: Wow, when you look at it that way though, it seems as if almost any war would fit into the Wars of the Roses category.
WILSON: Or any group behavior. You know, you see it on sports teams. The question in Game of Thrones is: are Cersei and Tyrion going to be able to put their personal disputes aside for the sake of Lannisters, and the Targaryens going to be able to put their civil wars aside for the sake of humankind?
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 2.]
TYRION LANNISTER: Dorn is the safest place for her.
CERSEI LANNISTER: Are you mad? The Martells loath us.
TYRION: That’s why we need to seduce them. We’re going to need their support in the war your son started.
WILSON: So you see these kind of layers of conflict that happen in both Shakespeare's history plays and in Game of Thrones.
BOGAEV: It's interesting about the Richard III parallels, because you said one of the biggest things that Shakespeare's tetralogy and Game of Thrones have in common are that they're both exploring what happens to a country that ruled by, as you put it, “A petulant, entitled, impulsive, and weak leader.” At the beginning of your book, you give us capsule description of the rulers of England, starting in 1066. And I notice that as you go through your history, all these weak rulers, they all start to show up in the portions of the lineage that were written about by Shakespeare.
So it's kind of a... it made me think of a chicken and the egg question, you know? Which came first? The petulant leaders and then Shakespeare started writing about them or Shakespeare's plays about royals who then went on to become the ultimate examples of petulance?
WILSON: Yeah, I mean, if you think about… if you scale back and you look at Shakespeare's works, he was obsessed with monarchy, and he was also obsessed with tragedy. I think an argument can be made that one of the thesis statements of Shakespeare's career is that hereditary monarchy is doomed to failure.
In the histories, the weak ruler is a fascinating character, because you get a couple different versions. You get the morally weak ruler, who has power, but has no idea of what the difference between right and wrong is. You then also get the politically weak ruler, who simply doesn't know how to exercise power in a productive and healthy way.
The fascinating thing about Shakespeare is that he never lets those stories remain restricted to the character. There are always cultural implications. And so in the first tetralogy especially, what we see is this factionalism is the outgrowth of the Child King. There's this amazing quote, and I think it's the First Part of Henry VI, where the Duke of Exeter says—I won't get this exactly right—but he says, "This jarring discord of nobility, this shouldering of each other in court, this factious banding about of favorites, 'tis much when scepters are in children's hands."
And I think we still see that today. When you have a weak, ineffectual ruler, then it creates this counselor infighting and these fractious bands, and we see what happens when scepters are in children's hands.
BOGAEV: Yeah, this is interesting, because you keep saying hereditary monarchy, and—if I were English proper, I would understand at what point there was hereditary monarchy, versus elective monarchy. But can you just remind us how this worked in English history?
WILSON: Yeah, so usually when we think about English monarchy, we assume that it was always the case that the crown passed from the eldest son to the eldest son to the eldest son, but that was actually a later development in English history.
So earlier in English history, much more prominent was a system of elective monarchy, which is... This is why toward the end of Hamlet, he says, "The election lights on Fortinbras." People are deciding who's going to be the next king. You know, the reason that Macbeth is upset in act one is because he thinks he's going to be chosen as king.
But as we get closer to Shakespeare's time, we start to get a more—it wasn't formalized, but it became much more conventional for the crown to pass through patrilinear succession from the oldest male child to the oldest male child. I think Shakespeare's first tetralogy shows just what a disaster that kind of system can be, because there's no place for merit in that system. And so much of the conflict that arises in Shakespeare's first tetralogy is by people looking at Henry VI and saying, "I could run the country so much better than this guy," and, "Let's see what happens if I try to make that real."
BOGAEV: You know, on a very different tack, another similarity between Shakespeare's Henry tetralogy and Game of Thrones is that they're both just so incredibly long, which is also convenient for a television series.
WILSON: Yeah, exactly, and I don't know—there's got to be some certain kind of personality that, you know, loves Shakespeare's history plays because you love creating genealogical charts and referring to encyclopedias that explain character relationships and so forth. I am one of those personalities. And there's usually a strong overlap with people who like to create daily itineraries on family vacations, but I so often have...
BOGAEV: We're the annoying, organized people, you're saying?
WILSON: Right. Exactly. There's just a certain type of reader who loves these sprawling, sociological narratives that have massive casts of characters. That have these interweaving stories, and they're just epic in scope. They go on and on and they expand outward. George R. R. Martin is clearly one of those people.
I often have to remind my students. I say, "You know, Shakespeare's supposed to be hard." Right? It's supposed to be difficult to understand what's going on in these texts, but I think we can forget how extremely difficult these texts are—Shakespeare's first tetralogy, “A Song of Ice and Fire”—for first time readers to come to these texts and just try to understand what is going on here. But then I also think that there's a connection between the labor that we have to do to understand what's going on in these texts and the love that we have for these texts. In the book, I theorize this as an example of the Ikea effect.
Some researchers did this amazing experiment where they had people put together some Ikea furniture, and then they had a professional carpenter put together the same furniture, and then they asked people, which of these pieces of furniture do you want? The one that you built or the one that the carpenter built? And most people chose the one that they built. And so the Ikea effect means, for example, we don't work so hard to raise our children because we love them so much. Instead, we love our children so much because we've had to work so hard to raise them.
And when we return to the literature, I think just the immense amount of labor that is required to understand what is going on here and to enjoy these texts spills over into just the intense passion that fans of Shakespeare, fans of Martin, show for these texts. You have these amazing fan cultures that grow up around Shakespeare's history plays, so there's @HollowCrownFans on Twitter...
BOGAEV: Yeah, that's true, and there's this...
WILSON: There are the Winter's Coming fan community. There's the amazing Twitter account @ShakesOfThrones.
WILSON: And you get these fan communities that grew out of people who've just spent so much time working to understand what's happening in these really difficult texts.
BOGAEV: Okay, complete 180 now. Is there a possibility anywhere in your mind that Martin did not get his inspiration from Shakespeare?
WILSON: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. Because there's so much uncertainty that's going on here. But at the same time, we do have quite a number of examples of Martin referring back to specific moments in Shakespeare that at least can certify that Martin is generally aware of Shakespeare and is a thorough reader of Shakespeare.
So we have Robert Baratheon gored by a bore during this hunting accident that recalls Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 7.]
ROBERT BARATHEON: Stinks like death. Don’t think I can’t smell it.
WILSON: We have one of Martin's characters saying, "Heavy is the head that wears the crown," which is a reference back to the second part of Henry IV. We have the noble bastard Jon Snow, who looks very similar to the bastard in Shakespeare's King John.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 1.]
ARYA STARK: How did you survive the knife through the heart?
JON SNOW: I didn’t.
[Jon and Arya hug.]
JON SNOW: You still have it? Have you ever used it?
WILSON: We've got this army of moving trees that attacks Asha Greyjoy, that's a clear reference to Birnam Wood in Macbeth. There's Jon Snow's assassination, clearly recalls Julius Caesar's assassination. The Thyestean Feast in Titus Andronicus is clearly echoed with the Frey pies.
But when we think about how, specifically, does Shakespeare's first tetralogy inform a Game of Thrones, we're really kind of in the realm of conjecture and speculation there.
BOGAEV: You know, despite all these parallels, you do raise the point in your book that the TV show has different writers than the book series. And the show, as you said, outpaces Martin's ability to write more of the books at one point. So you have the writers' and the studios hand at work and the TV shows, and it's just, like, even more onion skin layers of Shakespearean influence, isn't it? David Benioff, he's no slouch as a writer either. He was a novelist before he was in TV, I mean, who knows what the TV writers knew about the first tetralogy?
WILSON: If we want, kind of, a window into the way that Shakespeare's Elizabethan theater world worked, Game of Thrones is a fascinating example. Because both have deep, deep collaborations between individuals and groups, and there are financial interests involved.
So the way I think about it is, if you remember back to 2016, the new Oxford Shakespeare edition makes these international headlines by announcing that computer-aided scholarship has determined that Shakespeare collaborated on, I think, 12 of his plays. First comes the play that we now call Part Two of Henry VI in 1590. Then in 1591—again we think—as a kind of sequel to that earlier Part Two of Henry VI, Shakespeare and Marlowe and some others write the play we now call Part Three of Henry VI. And then, 1592 is the sequel to those plays. Shakespeare, we think by himself, writes Richard III, so now we've got a trilogy of plays. And then, Shakespeare and some of his colleagues go back and write a prequel to all of this: the play we now call the First Part of Henry VI.
So there's clearly analogies we can draw to franchises like Star Wars, which have told a story, but the order in which they made those texts does not mirror the order in which the events in the story happen. But the fascinating thing with Game of Thrones is that, where the Elizabethan theatrical scene kind of fosters Shakespeare, the person who would then go on to write the second tetralogy all by himself and become, kind of, the most celebrated English language author. So where the Elizabethan theatrical scene sort of identifies and nurtures individual talent; with Game of Thrones, we see a corporate entity literally taking the narrative away from the author and finishing it not with his direct involvement, for the sake of making more money.
BOGAEV: And you can never really remove money from any of these conversations. I mean, would you have written a book about how Game of Thrones is based on a Thomas Nashe play, or even a Christopher Marlowe play?
WILSON: Right. Exactly.
BOGAEV: No, it wouldn't sell your book [LAUGH].
WILSON: The material for the book never would have come about in the first place, because Shakespeare's so infused throughout modern storytelling that people are being Shakespearean. They're influenced by Shakespeare, without realizing it, or they're influenced by Shakespeare and they're trying to hide that influence. And so you have, in Shakespeare studies, all of these fascinating conversations about, kind of, what's the right metaphor to describe the way that Shakespeare shows up in modern literature and culture?
So you have, for example, Kevin Wetmore and Adam Hansen talk about Shakespearean echoes. Valerie Fazel and Louise Geddes talk about the Shakespeare user as different people who are using Shakespeare in different ways.
The metaphor that I develop in the book is called the Shakespearean slingshot. Artists position themselves behind Shakespeare, and just like a slingshot in cycling, they leverage Shakespeare to get a little bit of momentum, but then they dart out from behind Shakespeare and they go into all these directions and leave Shakespeare behind to kind of fade into the distance.
You see this really prominently with television. So there's Game of Thrones, that's—as we've been talking about—related to Shakespeare's first tetralogy; House of Cards, based on Richard III; Sons of Anarchy, based on Hamlet; Empire, based on King Lear; Star-Crossed, a show that was based on Romeo and Juliet.
BOGAEV: Although, the studios never... or the networks never really advertise it that way.
WILSON: But you have artists who are using Shakespeare for inspiration or to launch their narratives. But then, especially in the marketing of things, often the Shakespeare name is completely eliminated in contrast to film, such as Baz Luhrmann's film titled William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, where Shakespeare's clearly being used to promote and leverage things.
The really fascinating thing about Game of Thrones is that, as soon as Game of Thrones caught on, became this massive cultural phenomenon, you get this sort of reverse slingshot, where suddenly now Shakespearean productions are being marketed as Shakespeare for the Game of Thrones generation, or Shakespeare meets Game of Thrones. So now Shakespeare's trying to draft off of the momentum of Game of Thrones in the exact same way that Game of Thrones and other texts use Shakespeare to create momentum for themselves before launching out into their own endeavors.
BOGAEV: It's funny. I was going to say Shakespeare's spinning in his grave. But actually, I think as a good theater business man, he would understand the slingshot effect quite well.
BOGAEV: He'd go for that Game of Thrones marketing ploy. Okay, my family are all huge Game of Thrones fans, so they insisted that I ask you this lightning round of who is the most Shakespearean character in Game of Thrones? And before you answer, my money was on Daenerys, mother of dragons.
[CLIP from Game of Thrones, Season 8, Episode 6.]
DAENERYS TARGARYEN: [in Dothraki] Will you break the wheel with me?
[Dragons roar in the background.]
BOGAEV: Because she's a displaced ruler in an insane royal family, and she goes mad with power, and she dies at the hand of the person who loves her most, which seems to me so Shakespearean, but not to the letter of the plays. And Littlefinger comes in second; dead ringer for Iago. But you have to choose, now, one person.
WILSON: Excellent choices, Barbara. I would probably have to go with Tyrion. Tyrion is such a great mixture of comedy and tragedy; of the lighthearted, the clown-ish moments, of the irreverence. But then also very, very difficult pain and suffering that he has been through. You see him changing his narrative of shifting from antagonist to protagonist. And then, he's a survivor, so maybe that makes him not Shakespearean, because he makes it to the end of the play. He's a Horatio.
BOGAEV: That's true. I was going to say, you got a little shaky at the end there. This has been so interesting, and I wasn't sure what a conversation about Game of Thrones and Shakespeare was going to be like, so thank you so much for that.
WILSON: Absolutely, Barbara. It's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
WITMORE: Doctor Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the Why Shakespeare? section of the University's first-year writing course. His new book, Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, was published by Routledge in 2020. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Our podcast, “Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.
We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City California. We’d also like to thank DC playwright, Allyson Currin, for poring through all eight seasons of Game of Thrones to find the clips used to illustrate this episode, even though we know that—for Ally—this was no sacrifice at all!
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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.