On Shakespeare in the Age of Trump, Part II

 

Tyrant coverStephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics (subtitled Shakespeare on Power in the UK; an interesting shift in focus) is not an academic book; it is an extended version of an editorial he wrote for the New York Times one month before the 2016 election. Tyrant does just what its title implies: it examines Shakespeare’s treatment of tyrants and tyranny across a range of plays. And, like most of Greenblatt’s popular books, it is elegantly written, wry, perceptive, and sometimes just a bit self-involved.

Shakespeare has always been political, and the people who try to argue otherwise are a) wrong; and b) the same people who claim that all classic literature is somehow apolitical and not of its time. Greenblatt’s capsule studies of 2 and 3 Henry VI, Richard III, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and Coriolanus offer a rogues’ gallery of tyrants to choose from, but the true strength of this book lies not in the exploration of the tyrants themselves, but of their enablers, their followers, and their opponents. Greenblatt clearly takes pleasure in using Shakespeare as a commentary on the turbulent presidency of Donald Trump without once mentioning his name, and his references range from the ham-handed (Jack Cade intending to “make England great again”) to the amusingly subtle (the blink-and-you-miss-it use of the word “grab” in relation to Richard III’s treatment of women).

I took issue with several elements of Greenblatt’s original 2016 editorial, and he does address some of those in the book. First, he offers an extended discussion of Jack Cade, a character I thought was missing from the original editorial, and he does not lose sight of the fact that Cade has been suborned from on high by the duke of York to sow chaos amongst the common people so that York can step in to seize power. And I am forced to admit to my own bias as a fan of the first tetralogy; the very thought of comparing “the erudite, dangerously charismatic Richard and the inarticulate buffoon who won the 2016 election” was one that “may have sent the playwright spinning in his grave,” according to my original analysis. Unlike the president, I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong.

As Constance Grady remarks in her review for Vox, one of the strongest threads in Greenblatt’s book is “how forcefully it troubles the pleasure of the tyrant, and with what moral clarity it examines its mechanisms.” Because there is pleasure in watching Richard of Gloucester rise to power through Henry VI Part III and Richard III. He implicates the audience in his schemes, winking at them, drawing them in, even seducing them to a degree. As Greenblatt aptly observes, “the play does not encourage a rational identification with Richard’s political goal, but it does awaken a certain complicity in the audience, the complicity of those who take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humour of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable” (81). And because it is a play—a work of fiction—the audience can do so without consequence.

In the theater, it is we, the audience, watching it all happening, who are lured into a peculiar form of collaboration. We are charmed again and again by the villain’s outrageousness, by his indifference to the ordinary norms of human decency, by lies that seem to be effective even though no one believes them. Looking out at us from the stage, Richard invites us to not only share his gleeful contempt but also to experience for ourselves what it is to succumb to what we know to be loathsome. (81-82)

Ouch. There are plenty of us—myself included—who look at supporters of Donald Trump in utter bafflement, wondering what they see in him that they find so appealing, but don’t think twice about finding Richard III to be a compelling character. Part of the brilliance of Shakespeare is that when he holds up the mirror to his audience, we see things we would rather not see.

I still don’t think Trump and Richard III are the same, just for the record, even if an audience’s reaction to both is, on some level, unsettlingly similar. Richard is nothing if not clever, and, as Professor Eliot Cohen argues in his review of Tyrant for the Washington Post, his soliloquies offer a glimpse of “a complex if terrifying trajectory of a kind that would elude Trump, a considerably more static figure.” Donald Trump completely lacks Richard’s rhetorical capability and charisma–of course, Richard has the benefit of being a fictional character written by a magnificently talented playwright, based on an admittedly unfinished treatise by an equally talented philosopher. Trump, on the other hand, is the mediocre son of a rich man who has coasted to power on nothing but crude bravado, other people’s money, and a complex system of inequalities that privilege him most when he deserves it least. Thus, while there are some superficial similarities between the two, Greenblatt’s reliance on this particular comparison seems a bit overstretched at times.

Greenblatt’s analysis of those around Richard is far more effective. Of the chapters on Richard, Chapter 5 (titled “Enablers”) is the strongest, implicating not just the characters in the play but those of us in the audience who go along with his schemes in spite of their appalling consequences. “There are almost no morally uncompromised lives,” Greenblatt argues; “virtually everyone grapples with painful memories of lies and broken vows, memories that make it all the more difficult for them to grasp where the deepest danger lies” (71). In this, he focuses primarily on George of Clarence, whose affection for his brother and his own suppressed guilt about his prior actions blind him to Richard’s treachery.

What Greenblatt leaves out is another character who, at least early on, falls into the category of those who respond to Richard’s rise with fear: “those who feel frightened or impotent in the face of bullying and the menace of violence,” but who ultimately forms the heart of the resistance against him (66-67). This is Elizabeth, the widow of Richard’s elder brother King Edward IV. Her initial reaction is to go along with Richard, not because she supports him or believes that he is out for anything other than blood, but because she has no other option. All the men surrounding her are following his lead, and to resist would put her in greater danger than staying silent.

Shakespeare’s source for Richard III, Sir Thomas More’s unfinished History of King Richard III, fleshes out Elizabeth earlier in the narrative than Shakespeare does. More’s Elizabeth makes it abundantly clear from the start to the reader, and to other characters, that she does not trust Richard one inch. “Troweth the protector,” she demands, “that I perceive not whereunto his painted process draweth?”[1] When she does capitulate—handing over her son to the Archbishop of York, acting on Richard’s orders—she does so knowing that she is signing her child’s death warrant, and only surrendering because she has no other choice. Her arguments are completely sound, but they cannot stand against armed men.

Shakespeare excises this sequence, but devotes the majority of Act 4, Scene 4 of Richard III to Elizabeth. She enters in grief, mourning the murder of her sons in the Tower of London, and, after encountering the otherworldly Queen Margaret (who was historically dead but dramatically resurrected by Shakespeare to comment on the action), she manages to defeat Richard in an extended argument of 230 lines in the Folio text. Greenblatt briefly discusses this scene, primarily as an illustration of Richard overreaching and misusing tactics that have worked for him in the past, and in that, it serves his larger discussion of tyranny well enough.

I see something quite different, and I’ve written about it at length elsewhere. Yes, Elizabeth is clearly nauseated by Richard’s proposal to marry her daughter after having murdered her sons. But that does not stop her. She fights through her disgust and rebuts him, line by line, and in doing so, makes him look ridiculous to the audience that, for the first half of the play, gloried in his rhetorical prowess. Greenblatt allows that Elizabeth has already allied with the forces waiting to bring Richard down from abroad, but he doesn’t acknowledge her theatrical victory, fragile as it seems.

Rereading that scene in the light of recent events brought to mind two courageous, articulate women: Professor Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Both of these women faced down an overwhelmingly hostile interrogation by unsympathetic, sexist old (white) men with intelligence and grace. Where they differ from Shakespeare’s Elizabeth is that Elizabeth wins the argument and the war. Richard may dismiss her as a “relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman,” but the audience knows better.[2]

When I read Greenblatt’s 2016 editorial, I responded with the following on Twitter:

Response to Greenblatt 2016

Even though we lost (and, make no mistake, we lost), and in spite of all the setbacks we’ve had since then, all the abuse and gaslighting and horror, we are fighting back. We remember our history. We don’t buy the lies. And we are done with tyrants.

ETA: I forgot to mention one other odd omission in Greenblatt’s analysis that has come up in other reviews of the book, namely Angelo from Measure for Measure. However, there is an excellent essay by Peter Herman on just this topic, related to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, that appeared in the Times of San Diego on 24 September 2018.

[1] Sir Thomas More, The History of King Richard III, ed. Richard S. Sylvester (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 38. Spelling modernized.

[2] William Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.431.

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Decolonizing Popular Medievalism: The case of Game of Thrones

This paper was originally presented in absentia at the 2018 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America plenary session titled “Building Inclusivity and Diversity: Challenges, Solutions, and Responses in Medieval Studies,” organized and chaired by Nahir I. Otaño-Gracia.

***

Decolonizing Popular Medievalism: The Case of Game of Thrones

While not universally accepted, it is not uncommon for those of us in medieval studies to point to popular medievalism as our introduction to the field, whether via J.R.R. Tolkien, historical novels, video games, or the biggest phenomenon on television right now, Game of Thrones. And, as many scholars have discussed in detail, popular medievalism bears little resemblance to the actual medieval period, which makes any movement to decolonize the field even more challenging.

This paper offers a specific test case for how one might begin to decolonize popular medievalism from within, a process that has already begun and that I have watched with great interest over the past year. On July 30, 2017, the Twitter hashtag for Game of Thrones was overtaken by a protest (#NoConfederate) against the creators’ new proposed series for HBO that imagined an alternate universe where the Confederacy had successfully seceded from the Union and still openly practiced slavery.[1] This convergence of media attention and activism also brought to the forefront conversations about Game of Thrones’ deeply problematic attitude toward race and racism—one that draws on scholarship about the actual Middle Ages as well as discourses concerning race theory and the rise of white supremacist movements in the United States over the past several years. With a media property as widespread and popular as Game of Thrones, it is at least possible to alter the larger public view of the Middle Ages, but in order to do so, popular medievalism must take a good, hard look at the kinds of narratives it is perpetuating and the damage those narratives are doing.

In the 2014 issue of Postmedieval, ‘Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages’, Daniel Lukes remarks that medievalism in general (and neomedievalism in particular) “tend[s] to exalt one particular type of Middle Ages (a Eurocentric, Western white one) in a fantasy of an isolated West.”[2] As is likely not a surprise to anyone in this room, it is extremely important to distinguish between this kind of neomedievalist discourse and the medieval past that we study and attempt to communicate to our students, particularly when the creators of these neomedievalist texts fall back on tired assumptions about the medieval period to defend their own questionable choices.

As early as the beginning of Season 2, Game of Thrones, a series that prides itself on an immersive medieval-esque setting, has been critiqued for its clumsy handling of racial issues. The introduction of the Dothraki, for instance, a nomadic warrior tribe based vaguely on the Mongols, falls prey to a variety of damaging Orientalist stereotypes. They kill one another for no reason at all and their ‘conquests’ are usually excuses for pillage and rape. While, as Carolyne Larrington has examined, there are some cultural touchstones—the Dothraki use of kennings in spoken language or the ambiguous role of the dosh khaleen—they remain largely one-dimensional, a nameless, interchangeable horde of warriors whose primary purpose after their reintroduction in the sixth season is to terrify any and all enemies of the Mother of Dragons.[3] Unlike the Mongols, to whom Larrington compares them in an extended discussion, they have no written language, and their motivations remain occluded to the reader and the viewer.

Fantasy author Saladin Ahmed argued in 2012 that racial dynamics in Game of Thrones tell us more about contemporary America than about any kind of imagined medieval past.

Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire, like the Lord of the Rings, is the work of a brilliant and conscientious writer who is nonetheless writing in his own time and place. The United States in 2012 is, far too often, and even with a black president, still a culture rich in racist stereotypes and xenophobic fear-mongering. Expecting a writer to remain entirely unstained by this is expecting a person to live underwater without getting wet. If we still find troubling racial assumptions and caricatures in fantasy—whether on the page, or on the big or small screen—this probably tells us more about our culture-wide problems than it does about a single writer’s, or a single show’s issues. A Song of Ice and Fire is indeed our American Lord of the Rings, and if Westeros has its race problems, they are simply a powerful reflection of America’s.[4]

I would extend this analysis to include not just contemporary politics and culture, but also the particular strain of medievalism that author George R.R. Martin brings to bear in his novels. The first book was published in 1996, when feminist and postcolonial readings were still relatively uncommon in medieval studies. He has specifically mentioned the Hundred Years’ War, the English Wars of the Roses, and the Crusades as inspirations, and much of the available historiography of these periods focused almost exclusively on the viewpoints of white men; even when others could be found in primary sources, white perspectives were overwhelmingly privileged. Although much has changed in academic medievalism since then, its popular counterpart remains trapped in assumptions born in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and we can see those reflected in the racial and gender disparities at work in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones.

Academics have begun to push back against these assumptions, particularly in light of their co-opting by white supremacist movements in recent years. In articles for Vice and The Public Medievalist, respectively, Kathleen Kennedy and Shiloh Carroll have taken Game of Thrones to task for its adherence to Orientalist notions of race, while an article in TIME Magazine last summer brought a number of academics, including Shiloh Carroll, Carolyne Larrington, and myself, into dialogue to discuss the flawed medievalism underpinning the series.[5] Carroll’s forthcoming book Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Brewer, 2018) includes a chapter, ‘Postcolonialism, Slavery, and the Great White Hope’, that addresses these issues in more detail, alongside sustained analyses of gender and sexuality.

In the meantime, similar conversations have been happening in certain portions of the vast and multivocal fandom devoted to Game of Thrones, primarily on Twitter and Tumblr and spearheaded by a combination of women and people of colour. In summer of 2016, shortly after the end of Season Six, two female Tumblr bloggers (one a woman of colour) posted an extensively detailed essay (meta in fan parlance) addressing the intertwined issues of race and gender in A Song of Ice and Fire. Unfortunately, they, and others who venture into these debates, encountered opposition from other fans who believe that Martin’s universe is in some way authentically medieval—or, perhaps more infuriatingly, deride them for not just being able to have fun, a common criticism levelled at feminist and postcolonial critics of popular media. Indeed, the above-referenced meta begins with the following introduction:

 Where to begin? It’s a tricky question. We’re talking about a series that has dragons and direwolves and ice zombies. As a truly charming anon asked me recently, why should we care what’s sexist, racist, ableist? This is a world where there are dragons, after all.

 

The converse question to that is–this is a world in which there are dragons, direwolves, and ice zombies. If you’re choosing to build a world (because Martin built this world, even if some of those building blocks are based in our own), why are you choosing to include sexism and racism when you could have all of that be burned away in the face of the dragons you’re talking about?[6]

Earlier in February, Steven Attewell, a political historian who runs the blog Race for the Iron Throne, published a series of posts on the region of Dorne that drew heavily on Edward Saïd’s Orientalism and offered a cogent critique of Martin’s underdevelopment of characters and plotlines that led to the clumsy and frankly offensive handling of all things Dornish from Game of Thrones’ fifth season onward.[7] His choice to also post this series in full on the Westeros.org website as well as on Tumblr makes it more likely for a larger swathe of the fandom to encounter it than those who habitually follow these debates. (Nor is it altogether surprising that these arguments gain more traction when coming from a white man than from female or non-binary fans of colour, but one cannot claim that fandom avoids the problems of the rest of the world.)

While publishing academic books and articles on this subject allows us to reach other academics, in order to truly begin to decolonize popular medievalism, we who know our history and its complexity should push back more firmly and more publicly on these topics. The articles by Carroll and Kennedy are an excellent start, although viewers have yet to see any satisfactory change in Game of Thrones itself, and given that the show has only a single season left, meaningful improvement seems unlikely. That being said, activist April Reign’s #NoConfederate protest drew enough attention that work on that proposed series has since been suspended—indeed, HBO CEO Richard Plepler remarked several months later that the network had “screwed up” in its early attempts to publicise it.[8] Could this kind of protest work for popular medievalist media? Potentially. But unless it becomes clear that viewers have lost patience with this frustrating and damaging overreliance on antiquated, colonialist, and sexist assumptions about the Middle Ages, popular media will continue to fall back on them. Just as importantly, the inclusion of diverse directors, writers, producers, and actors in future media depictions of the medieval period will allow us to decolonize both behind and in front of the camera—as long as medieval stories are being primarily if not exclusively told by straight white men, that is the medieval history we’re stuck with.

[1] Hope Reese, “Meet the activist who wants to keep HBO’s Confederate from being made,” Vox (4 August 2017), https://www.vox.com/conversations/2017/8/4/16098256/no-confederate-hbo-game-of-thrones. April Reign, the activist who spearheaded the protest, was also responsible for #OscarSoWhite in 2016.

[2] Daniel Lukes, “Comparative neomedievalisms: A little bit medieval,” Postmedieval 5 (2014), 3.

[3] Carolyne Larrington, Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016), 190-92.

[4] Saladin Ahmed, “Is Game of Thrones too white?” Salon (1 April 2012), https://www.salon.com/2012/04/01/is_game_of_thrones_too_white/.

[5] Kathleen Kennedy, ‘Game of Thrones is even whiter than you think’, Vice (18 October 2016), https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8gexwp/game-of-thrones-is-even-whiter-than-you-think; Shiloh Carroll, ‘Race in A Song of Ice and Fire: Medievalism Posing as Authenticity’, The Public Medievalist (28 November 2017), https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-in-asoif/; Olivia Waxman, ‘Game of Thrones is even changing how scholars study the real Middle Ages’, TIME Magazine (14 July 2017), http://time.com/4837351/game-of-thrones-real-medieval-history/.

[6] bitchfromtheseventhehell and lyannas, “I agree with farty old man GRRM,” the one that leads them is a she-wolf [Tumblr] (9 June 2016), http://bitchfromtheseventhhell.tumblr.com/post/145690854453/i-agree-with-farty-old-man-grrm-and-id-like-to.

[7] Steven Attewell, “Politics of the Seven Kingdoms: Part IX (Dorne),” Race For the Iron Throne (18 February 2018), https://racefortheironthrone.wordpress.com/2018/02/15/politics-of-the-seven-kingdoms-part-ix-dorne/.

[8] Antonia Blyth, “HBO CEO Richard Plepler on Confederate Backlash: ‘We screwed up’,” Deadline (3 October 2017), http://deadline.com/2017/10/hbo-richard-plepler-confederate-backlash-vanity-fair-summit-1202181519/.

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour #7: Queen on Fire

I know I missed last night’s cocktail, mea culpa. But I wanted to make sure this one got in before the premiere started.

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Queen on Fire

1oz La Fée Absinthe

4oz Water

1 Sugar cube

 

Gold sugar rim

 

Dip sugar cube in absinthe and place on absinthe spoon above glass. Set on fire. Whenever you’re ready, douse with water. Enjoy while watching the world burn.

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(Note: I don’t actually recommend drinking absinthe this way. It’s kind of a pain in the rear, to be honest, and just dissolving the sugar cube using water is much easier.)

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Laura Hudson wrote an excellent essay this week defending Cersei, and I’m not going to quote all of it even though I want to.

“Although some of the hatred directed at Cersei (both by characters in the show and fans of it) pertains to the selfish and politically foolish decisions she makes, from her initial embrace of the Faith Militant to her destruction of the Tyrell alliance, her experiences in the halls of politics and the way she practices power cannot be disentangled from her experiences as a woman. While Jaime shied away from political clout, perhaps because it was always on offer and he had nothing to prove, Cersei has desperately sought it out, at least partly as a remedy for the powerlessness she has felt throughout her life. Nor has it ever truly provided security: Even after she ascended to the most powerful position in Westeros as Queen Regent, she still was not immune from the traumas that have haunted her life — from being “sold to some stranger like a horse” to Robert Baratheon drunkenly raping her to the Walk of Atonement itself — all of which were caused, or at least not prevented by, the men closest to her.

 

Cersei’s most villainous choices originate in this primal sense of deprivation and fear, her need for enough power to protect both her family and her brittle sense of autonomy. Even Cersei’s relationship with her brother is an act of rebellion that allows her to reassert control over her own body, which is otherwise treated as a tool for sex and birth to be controlled by men. Her vendetta against Margaery is similarly related to a fear of losing the two things she cares about most: political power and the love of her sons.”

It still makes me angry that the show cut the last sentence of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy to Cersei—that she would die at the hands of her ‘little brother’. By depriving Cersei of that motivation, we lose the anchor behind so many of her actions. But Lena Headey is so amazing in the role that we still get some of that background communicated even though it’s not in any of the dialogue.

 

I don’t think she’s going to survive this season. I’m going to miss her terribly when she’s gone. (Also, my money is totally on Jaime as the valonquar who will kill her.)

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour #6: Requiem for Castamere; or, A Lannister pays his debts

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(Image: “Tywin Lannister” by Michael Komarck in The Art of A Song of Ice and Fire, 2005)

Requiem for Castamere; or A Lannister pays his debts

¾ oz Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

¾ Martell Cognac

¾ Dolin red vermouth

1 tsp Bénédictine

2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

2 dashes Angostura bitters

 

Gold sugar rim

Cocktail cherry

 

Like most other things involving Tywin Lannister, approach with caution.

 

This drink is based on the Vieux Carré, a Louisiana concoction from the late nineteenth century when drinks were insanely strong and Peychaud’s* bitters were used medicinally. It seemed appropriately intimidating for the late Lannister patriarch.

I knew that for Tywin it would need to be complicated, because Tywin Lannister is nothing if not really fucking complicated. Also evil. Pure, complex, frustrating, brilliant evil.

So, as you may or may not have guessed from the ingredient list, each of the ingredients represents a family who Tywin has fucked over in one way or another.

Northern Harvest Rye for the Stark family and the Army of the North, whose massacre Tywin orchestrated at the Red Wedding.

Martell cognac for Elia Martell raped and murdered in King’s Landing with her children; and for Oberyn Martell, killed in trial by combat against Ser Gregor Clegane.

Dolin red vermouth for House Tully whose lands have been devastated by Lannister’s armies during the War of the Five Kings. Alternately, for Houses Reyne and Tarbeck, wiped out by Tywin Lannister and immortalized in “The Rains of Castamere.”

The bitters for his children, all of whom he has in some way destroyed.

Oh, Tywin. The Lannisters wouldn’t be Lannisters without you. But, dear God, you’re a terrible father. And a terrible human.

Previous Posts

  1. Intro & Martini of Whisperers
  2. The Red Viper
  3. Queen of Roses
  4. Impin’ ain’t easy
  5. A Drink Has No Name
  6. Requiem for Castamere; or, A Lannister always pays his debts

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour #5: A Drink Has No Name

 

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Speaking of likeable murderers, it’s hard to find a better example than Arya Stark.

Much like Tyrion, Arya is easy to love. She’s clever and quick-witted, she’s deeply empathetic, and she wants revenge for her slaughtered family. She’s also a skilled assassin who can literally put on other people’s faces.

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A Drink Has No Name

1oz Godiva chocolate vodka

1oz Godiva raspberry vodka

½ oz Mozart chocolate liqueur

 

Layer Mozart followed by both vodkas

Cocktail cherry impaled on a sword

Silver sugar rim

 

I am not a bartender by trade, so sometimes when I try something ambitious, it does something else. That is what happened with this drink. What I imagined was a pool of chocolate and a cherry at the bottom of the glass and a lovely layer of clear vodka above it. That is not what happened, as you can see from the photograph. It still, however, tastes pretty good! If I were just going for taste, I’d use Chambord instead of raspberry vodka, but that’s okay.

 

Which is to say this drink tastes like chocolate and raspberries (with a hint of cherry), and it kicks like a mule. So I do think it works for Arya Stark.

Arya’s chapters in A Song of Ice and Fire are amongst the most compelling and the most horrifying in the series, for it is through her eyes (and later those of Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth) that readers truly experience the devastation of war at first hand. As Septon Meribald aptly points out in A Feast For Crows, “it is being common-born that is dangerous, when the great lords play their game of thrones” (Brienne VII). Arya is a Stark, and therefore not common-born, but she is forced into disguise after her father’s execution as she tries to find the remnants of her family.

 

Instead, she finds herself with a front-row seat to a parade of horrors that illustrate that there are elements on all sides of the War of the Five Kings who will use that as an excuse to inflict atrocities on innocent people. Her chapters are also some of the most rewarding to reread, because the careful reader can find seeds of events like the Red Wedding or glimpses of how various other timelines fit together since she’s mostly moving around the Riverlands, at the centre of the action.

 

Every protector she has is taken from her and she’s forced to kill in order to survive. She’s nine years old when the story begins. Witty and adorable as Arya is, this is horrifying on a very real level, and Martin does a great job of bringing those two elements of attraction and repulsion into balance in her narration. (That she’s too young—for now—to be sexualized probably helps.)

 

Like Tyrion, Arya hits her breaking point at the end of A Storm of Swords when she finds out that her mother and elder brother have been horribly murdered right when she was on the point of reuniting with them. She decides to go to Braavos, on the far side of the Narrow Sea, to train as an assassin so she can return and take revenge on the people who murdered her family—she’s even got a handy list that she recites every night before she sleeps. Names only fall off that list when they’re dead.

I don’t agree with some of the choices the show has made with Arya, most notably the screenwriters’ insistence on making her bash other women when her book counterpart goes out of her way to help women in trouble. But we got a truly thrilling moment at the end of Season 6. One of the names we—and Arya—have long been waiting for has finally fallen off that list.

I have long joked about my concern that Walder Frey, one of several poster children for all that is horrible about Westeros, will somehow survive to the end of the series. At least as far as HBO is concerned, that is not the case. Much like with Varys, I refuse to think about travel times and merely rejoice in the beautifully Shakespearean nature of Arya’s revenge.

Taking a page from the Revenger’s Manual of one Titus Andronicus—who stole it from a gent named Thyestes—Arya infiltrated the kitchen staff at the Twins, killed two of Walder’s sons, and baked them into a pie.

LIKE YOU DO.

But it’s Walder Frey. So I’m kind of okay with it.

All I want is a reunion for my beloved Stark siblings, but all of them have gone down such dreadful roads. Differently dreadful, but all horrible. But winter is coming, and the wolves need to stick together.

Previous Posts

  1. Intro & Martini of Whisperers
  2. The Red Viper
  3. Queen of Roses
  4. Impin’ ain’t easy
  5. A Drink Has No Name

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour #4: Impin’ ain’t easy

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(Image: “Battle of Blackwater Bay” by Morgan E. Brewer, from Draw ‘Em With the Pointy End)

I knew going in that there are two essential ingredients for any cocktail meant to evoke Tyrion Lannister.

  1. Bitters
  2. Whisky

(Source: thenerdsofcolor.wordpress.com)

Even with that in mind, my brain kept wandering over to the Negroni, which is both one of my favourite drinks and also a bit off-putting at first because Campari. However, there are some delightful variations, several of which I happen to love, most particularly the Boulevardier.

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Impin’ ain’t easy

1 oz Bulleit bourbon

1 oz Campari

1 oz Dolin vermouth

Dash Peychaud’s bitters

 

Twist of flamed orange

Gold sugar rim

 

The main difference between a Boulevardier and a Negroni is the base spirit—bourbon instead of gin. Some people use rye (and the original recipe may actually call for it), but I found that my go-to Crown Royal rye was a bit overwhelming, so if anyone has a recommendation for a good rye in a Boulevardier, I’d like to hear it. For now, I’m happy with bourbon, since it’s a little smoother and a sweeter to offset the Campari.

 

I also had the worst time coming up with a name for this drink because Tyrion is both intensely quotable and very difficult to pin down. Finally I went with the incredibly stupid name that popped into my head when I first decided on the drink because I was sick of racking my brain and wanted to post this already late entry.

It’s not at all surprising that Tyrion is one of the most popular characters in the fandom, and he deserves it. He’s complex, challenging, and witty. He’s genuinely sympathetic and wants to do the right thing when he can. He hates the characters who are worth hating–

–and respects the ones we respect.

Unfortunately, the world is not kind to Tyrion. Despite his wealth and privilege, his disability means that he is constantly treated like a second-class citizen.

I remember being genuinely struck in my first reading on the amount of time Martin spends describing how Tyrion gets around. As an able person, it hadn’t even occurred to me when thinking about fantasy settings, just how ridiculously difficult it must be to get around someplace like the Red Keep or Winterfell or—god forbid—the Eyrie. Most of the other characters take things like stairs and passages for granted, but Tyrion can’t.

 

Tyrion is also a survivor of sexual abuse, although his methods of coping are perhaps not the healthiest. He doesn’t have issues with women—he has subscriptions. Late in A Storm of Swords, and in Season 4 of Game of Thrones, after having been convicted of a murder he did not commit, Tyrion reaches his breaking point and decides that murder might be the answer to his problems.

 

Spoiler: It isn’t.

Dragons, however, might be. I’ll be curious to see where he ends up this season.

 

While I could write more about Tyrion, I’d mostly just be parroting the excellent series of essays about Tyrion by Emmett Booth. It’s book-based, but if you’ve read them, it’s well worth a look.

And some more gifs. Tyrion is probably the most gif-able character on this entire damn show.

And, having done that, I leave you with Tyrion’s own advice: Drink and know things.

Previous Posts

  1. Intro & Martini of Whisperers
  2. The Red Viper
  3. Queen of Roses
  4. Impin’ ain’t easy

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour #3: Queen of Roses

First of all, oops. This was supposed to go up last night but didn’t. Mea culpa. As such, there will be two entries today.

Queen of Roses 1.jpg

(Image by Jen Bartel from Draw ‘Em With the Pointy End)

I confess, the first time I read the books, Margaery Tyrell made far less of an impression on me than her redoubtable grandmother the Queen of Thorns, but I have a weakness for mouthy old ladies, perhaps on account of having grown up with two though-they-be-little-they-be-fierce Indian grandmothers. But later rereads have prompted me to look more closely at her character, particularly in light of the choices made by the showrunners and screenwriters on Game of Thrones.

But before we get into that, let us drink to Queen Margaery. You were the smartest person in the Great Sept that day and I wish that had been enough to save you from Cersei’s towering inferno. Here’s to you. RIP.

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(The second bottle whose label isn’t clearly visible is Chartreuse)

Queen of Roses

1 ½ oz Boodles gin

½ oz lime juice

¼ oz green Chartreuse

Top with dry sparkling wine

 

Gold sugar rim

Twist of lime

 

This is a small variation on the French 75, a cocktail I fell in love with in 2011 when I tried it at the French 75 bar in New Orleans. All I’ve really done is substitute lime for lemon and add a little bit of Chartreuse for a nice, herby kick. I’ve tried a few different gins in this drink and my favorite is probably Flag Hill Distillery’s Karner Blue Gin, but Boodles has a similar citrus note and works very well. In lieu of simple syrup, I did a gold sugar rim for House Tyrell since the drink itself comes out a lovely pale green, perfect for the late rose of Highgarden.

 

George R.R. Martin has remarked that, had he known the books’ scope—and that his planned “five-year gap” between Books 3 and 4 would ultimately fall apart—he would have made most of the younger characters several years older, but that isn’t how it worked out. The showrunners decided to keep it simple and just age everyone up a year or two.

 

One of the characters affected in sadly not unexpected ways is Margaery Tyrell. In the books, she is fifteen when we first encounter her as Joffrey’s fiancée, but with the show ageing her up to 18, and casting the 30-year-old Natalie Dormer in the part, I had a sneaking suspicion as to where they were going. And I say this as a huge Natalie Dormer fan. Her portrayal of Anne Boleyn on The Tudors was the best I’ve seen since Geneviève Bujold, and that is saying something. Furthermore, on Game of Thrones, she did a wonderful job with the material she was given, and it’s not her fault that material was flawed.

I normally love the costumes on Game of Thrones, but some of Margaery’s early dresses were a bit…um. Much? But I will forgive pretty much every one of those bizarre cutouts because of that spectacular Purple Wedding gown.

(Source: Pinterest)

Anyway. Costume digression over.

In the books, one of the main sources of Margaery’s power—perceived or otherwise—is her ability to build alliances, if not quite friendships, with people who might otherwise be her enemies. We see the most clearly in her interactions with Sansa, although she makes at least a few attempts to charm Cersei, all of which fail miserably, because Cersei refuses to trust any and all other women (more on that another day).

I did appreciate that we got to see Margaery on her own in the show. The way the revolving POVs function in the books, we only see her through Sansa (romanticized at first, later betrayed and wistful), Tyrion (curious and mildly perturbed), and Cersei (paranoid and, by the time we get to her POV, unbalanced). I do think that the show plays up her duplicity and manipulation—maybe they’re taking Cersei at her word (a dodgy proposition at best) or they just can’t conceive of women using other ways to gain power.

Case in point. I still don’t buy that Margaery wasn’t part of the conspiracy to murder Joffrey—after all, she was the one who handed him the poisoned wine glass, even if someone else added the Strangler to it. The show wants us to believe in Margaery’s innocence (c.f. the exchange between her and Olenna about her bad luck with husbands) but I just don’t believe it. Those two are thick as thieves, and it was a dangerous plan, so I doubt Olenna would send her precious granddaughter in blind. Sansa, yes. Margaery, not so much.

And, of course, Margaery was doomed pretty much the second she was separated from her grandmother. Olenna keeps her safe and watches out for her the way nobody else can, and as soon as Olenna’s gone, Cersei is able to move in for the kill.

 

One thing I do enjoy in the show is how Margaery and Cersei are set up as foils—one rules through love, the other through fear (clearly both have read their Machiavelli); one is constantly surrounded by other women, the other is always alone, trusting nobody; one has a brother who she loves completely and would do anything to protect, the other has a funhouse mirror of herself with all the power she lacks, who she adores and resents in equal measure. There is so much I could say about these differing modes of queenship, but I will just point out that I’ve already said it in print here (see Chapter 1).

 

House Tyrell may be lopped, but the roots remain. As do the thorns. Drink up.

 

Previous Posts

  1. Intro & Martini of Whisperers
  2. The Red Viper
  3. Queen of Roses

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour #2: The Red Viper

Red Viper 2.jpgDrawing of Oberyn Martell by Holly Fedderman, from the fan anthology Draw ‘Em With the Pointy End (2015).

I’ve decided to follow a vague order of “cocktails that don’t taste too similar” rather than trying to make any sort of pattern out of character choices, so…there’s that.

As anyone who has encountered me in full ASOIAF/GoT fan mode can attest, I am overinvested in all things/characters Dornish. I have been since Oberyn Martell first strolled into my reading of A Storm of Swords in the summer of 2002. His death prompted me to set the book down for about an hour before I was emotionally prepared to continue (for context, I read the entire thing in two days because there were points at which I literally could not put it down if I’d tried). The Red Wedding was bad enough, and on top of that, I just couldn’t handle it. Quentyn’s in A Dance With Dragons was bad, but I saw it coming in a way that I just didn’t with Oberyn (I call this the “George, you’ve hurt me too many times before” routine).

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The Red Viper

1 ½ oz Old Overholt rye whisky

¾ oz Carpano Antica red vermouth

¼ oz Fernet Branca

 

Twist of flamed orange

Cocktail cherry* stabbed with a spear

 

Note: According to my husband, any drink named after Oberyn Martell should also include a muddled raspberry at the bottom to acknowledge his rather, um, colourful end. I don’t disagree, but I didn’t buy them today, so we don’t have them.

 

The drink, however, is delicious, as is also appropriate for something named after Oberyn.

 

The plan when I began this project was to make half-portions of each drink so we** could try two per evening without being irresponsible. But a half-portion looks ridiculous in a glass, and since a proper cocktail recipe includes a photograph of the drink, I’m just making one of each and we’re trading halfway through.

 

At least that’s the plan. Husband appears to be hanging onto the Viper. Can’t blame him. It’s a variation on the well-known Manhattan cocktail that is sometimes called the Fanciulli. The addition of Fernet Branca instead of a few dashes of Angostura bitters adds an herbal note to the drink, plus Fernet has a weird anaesthetic side effect where sometimes your tongue starts to feel tingly.

 

So…Oberyn Martell. We hardly knew ye.

 

He’s introduced so dramatically. I mean, seriously. Most of our interactions with him happen from Tyrion Lannister’s perspective, and it’s weird that Oberyn happened to encounter baby Tyrion shortly after his mother’s death.

 

            Tyrion had to grin. “You were speaking of my sister?”

“Cersei promised Elia to show you to us. The day before we were to sail, whilst my mother and your father were closeted together, she and Jaime took us down to your nursery. Your wet nurse tried to send us off, but your sister was having none of that. ‘He’s mine,’ she said, ‘and you’re just a milk cow, you can’t tell me what to do. Be quiet or I’ll have my father cut your tongue out. A cow doesn’t need a tongue, only udders.’”

“Her Grace learned charm at an early age,” said Tyrion, amused by the notion of his sister claiming him as hers. “She’s never been in any rush to claim me since, the gods know.

“Cersei even undid your swaddling clothes to give us a better look,” the Dornish prince continued. “You did have one evil eye, and some black fuzz on your scalp. Perhaps your head was larger than most…but there was no tail, no beard, neither teeth nor claws, and nothing between your legs but a tiny pink cock. After all the wonderful whispers, Lord Tywin’s Doom turned out to be just a hideous red infant with stunted legs. Elia even made the noise that young girls make at the sight of infants, I’m sure you’ve heard it. The same noise they make over cute kittens and playful puppies. I believe she wanted to nurse you herself, ugly as you were. When I commented that you seemed a poor sort of monster, your sister said, ‘He killed my mother,’ and twisted your little cock so hard I thought she was like to pull it off. You shrieked, but it was only when your brother Jaime said, ‘Leave him be, you’re hurting him,’ that Cersei let go of you. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ she told us. ‘Everyone says he’s like to die soon. He shouldn’t even have lived this long.’

A Storm of Swords, Tyrion V/Chapter 38

 

We don’t just learn about Oberyn here—we also learn about Elia Martell, who, prior to this scene, was a mere footnote in the books. Rhaegar Targaryen’s wife, raped and murdered by Gregor Clegane the Mountain that Rides during the sack of King’s Landing. Oberyn gives us a brief glimpse into who that woman might have been, beyond the awfulness of her death.

 

Of course, it is Elia’s death that becomes the counterpoint for Oberyn’s own demise. His goal is to force Gregor Clegane to confess his crimes publicly, and to implicate Tywin Lannister, his liege lord, for having given the order. Secondarily, he’s there to defend Tyrion’s rights in trial by combat, but we get the impression that is very much a side goal.

 

Which is where we get that wonderful, horrible refrain:

 

 

To Oberyn, his death isn’t about him. It’s about Elia. It’s about the horror that’s been clawing at his insides for nearly fifteen years. He comes within a hairsbreadth of revenge, and never gets to enjoy it.

 

 

YOU ARE A LIAR, OBERYN MARTELL. YOU ARE A FILTHY LIAR. TYRION AND I BOTH AGREE ON THIS.

 

This scene is viscerally upsetting. He’s supposed to win. Strictly speaking, given that the Mountain dies (temporarily) soon afterward, he does win. Except that it’s a Pyrrhic victory in the worst possible sense. And getting it from Tyrion’s perspective—knowing that Oberyn’s death also means his own—doubles the impact partly for his distance (since he doesn’t know Oberyn well but clearly likes him) and partly because the stakes are so very high.

 

And the worst part of it all is that Oberyn dies–supposedly–exactly the way his sister did. One assumes Clegane is telling the truth, given the circumstances. But it is only in A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons that the full ramifications and consequences of his death become clear.

 

There are plenty of excellent essays out there that point out the rampant problems with Martin’s treatment of the Dornish in general, and Oberyn’s family in particular, but I will save that for a different post.

 

Amusing sidenote: The autocorrect on my tablet has decided that the name Oberyn must always be rendered in allcaps. I can’t say this seems wrong to me.

 

* I make my own cocktail cherries because I am weird, but for this drink (and, really, in general), I recommend getting Luxardo Maraschino cherries packed in liquor. They taste exponentially better than the ones packed in grenadine.

** Since I want someone other than me to taste these and confirm that I’m not the only one who will drink them, I’ve enlisted my husband. Well, by “enlisted,” I mean this was his response to my request.

 

Previous Posts

  1. Intro & Martini of Whisperers
  2. The Red Viper

Game of Thrones Cocktail Hour: Intro & Martini of Whisperers

So we’re a week away from the much-anticipated seventh season of Game of Thrones, so I thought I’d make a stab at trying to blog every day for seven days by combining my Game of Thrones fandom with my weird love of vintage cocktails.

GoT - Cersei - Drink.gif

There are plenty of Game of Thrones-themed cocktail lists out there, and I admit to having perused several of them before deciding to just wing it with my own bar books and imagination. As such, most of these are not original to me, and I will provide appropriate citations where relevant.

Here’s what I intend to post every night from tonight until the premiere next weekend (though if I come up with additional recipes that I like, I’ll just keep posting until I run out).

1 cocktail recipe, meant to evoke a specific character.

Ramblings about the character, the recipe, whatever it’s based on.

I’ll be up front and say that I am far more familiar with the books than I am with the series–I’ve only rewatched Seasons 1 and 2, while I’ve read all five of the books at least twice and the first three more like seven or eight times. So the ramblings may well err on the side of book canon rather than show canon, but I’ll try to flag that up when it happens.

This is not going to be anything resembling an exhaustive list of characters, and mostly focuses on characters I like. Which is to say there will not be a cocktail for Littlefinger or for Ramsay Bolton because I don’t want to mix undrinkable cocktails. It is also in no particular order, which brings me to Round One…

 

*******************************

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Martini of Whisperers

3oz Lillet Blanc

1oz Old Tom Gin

3 dashes orange bitters

I bought a bottle of Lillet Blanc years ago and it has been sitting in the back of a cabinet since then, so I’m happy for an excuse to open it. Varys, you deserve it. This drink is based (loosely) on the Liberté cocktail, but I like the balance between the citrusy Old Tom and the not-quite-sweet Lillet. It’s a complex drink, and it’s stronger than it tastes, so be cautious with seconds.

It should have a twist of orange for garnish, but I had run out of those. Alas. Next time.

Varys.jpg

Lord Varys is one of the most mysterious characters in the Game of Thrones universe. He tells Tyrion Lannister what he claims is his life story, but it’s difficult to know how much to believe from a spymaster. Not to mention his expanded role on the show where he joins Daenerys’ fledgling court in Meereen and is returning to Westeros as part of her council.

(I refuse to think about travel times and am operating on the assumption that Varys has access to a TARDIS or some sort of teleportation device.)

He claims, on more than one occasion, that he is acting for the good of ‘the realm’, whatever that means. We do know that he is in league with Illyrio on the far side of the Narrow Sea and is encouraging war between the great houses, and it remains to be seen what his endgame is.

What I do know is that he is a survivor, and a dangerous one.

So, here are several thoughts I have about Varys. Most of them are about the books, but I love how Conleth Hill plays him on the show, so the two tend to blur together in my mind.

  1. I want to know a lot more about his history, but it seems doubtful that we’ll ever find out the full story. But what I’m most curious about is how he managed to move from being Master of Whisperers for King Aerys straight into the same gig with King Robert. Presumably he had something on someone high up.
  2. I do think that show!Varys and book!Varys will diverge, partly because of a plot element that the show has generally played down–the Blackfyre family and its rebellions against the Targaryens. There are a number of interesting (and, I think, convincing) theories that Varys’ plots are in support of the Blackfyres and their latest pretender, fake!Aegon, but since that plotline has been dropped from the show, it appears that we are either jumping ahead in Varys’ book plotline and he eventually switches allegiances to Daenerys, or that Varys is being conflated with another character in Dany’s storyline.
  3. It is not made clear in the show how Varys’ “little birds” suddenly became willing to work for Qyburn, c.f. their smooth execution of Cersei’s wildfire plot in the Season 6 finale. We do know a number of very disturbing things about them, most notably that Varys has removed all of their tongues so they won’t reveal the secrets they discover. Ugh.
  4. I do wonder how much Varys and Littlefinger’s networks overlap. By necessity they must, since the two of them often have the same or complementary information. Or possibly there’s just a whole diplomatic corps in King’s Landing that we never hear about who just spend all their time gossiping about all the craziness going on. I like this idea.

Anyway, we’ll see how this experiment goes. Drink and know things!

Most Out of Order: On Shakespeare in the Age of Trump

Shakespeare is having a tough time under the Trump administration, but that shouldn’t surprise anybody. In our quest to claim him as a timeless genius, we forget how timely his work often is.

 

Shakespeare has always been political. That is simply a fact.

 

In October 2016 there was an editorial in the New York Times that compared then-GOP candidate Donald Trump to Shakespeare’s ‘bloody villain’ Richard III—a comparison that may have sent the playwright spinning in his grave, given the contrast between the erudite, dangerously charming Richard and the inarticulate buffoon that won the 2016 election. Now, over the past weekend, a production of Julius Caesar at New York’s Public Theatre lost two of its major donors—Bank of America and Delta Airlines—after their version of the doomed Caesar appeared with the orange hair and bellowing delivery that has come to encapsulate all that is shameful about America today.

 

But at least this time he got stabbed? Hooray?

 

There is nothing new about this. Theatre—and the arts in general—have always offered us an opportunity to poke powerful figures in the eye and see what happens. That is why totalitarian regimes always target the arts first—they can’t control us if we’re able to laugh at them, to see through them.

 

Which is why the Shakespearean adaptation I’m waiting for is Henry VI, Part II. Why, one may ask? Nobody has heard of it outside of certain circles. It’s got “Part II” in the name, so where’s Part I and why would you stage them independently? Who the hell is Henry VI and why should we care about him?

 

All of these are valid questions, but not to the purpose. It might help to know that the original title of the play when it was first performed was The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two Noble Houses of York & Lancaster, which is frankly a more accurate representation of what happens in the play. It’s a complicated story with an enormous cast, high body count, and some seriously pointed politics—and it is one of a handful of plays that launched William Shakespeare’s theatrical career. (And, no, Game of Thrones fans, the names are not at all coincidental.)

 

One of the two hinges on which the plot hangs is a popular rebellion that takes up the entirety of Act Four. Although purportedly led by one Jack Cade, a bricklayer with a talent for short, pithy catchphrases, the rebellion actually represents a deadly rift in the kingdom’s power structure because the factions of York and Lancaster have come to support party over country. Cade is a symptom of a much larger disease, and the play makes this crystal-clear, as we the audience learn before Cade even appears that he has been ‘suborned’ by the powerful Duke of York to stir up trouble.

 

Here are a few choice examples of Cade’s political rhetoric:

 

“I am able to endure much.”

 

“I fear neither sword nor fire.”

 

“Ay, there’s the question; but I say, ‘tis true.” (responding to “That’s false”)

 

“Can he that speaks with the tongue of an enemy be a good counsellor or no?”

 

“Then are we in order when we are most out of order.”

 

“My mouth shall be the parliament of England.”

 

“There shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it”

 

If this all sounds familiar, it should.

 

What is vitally important to remember about Cade, however, is that he is a member of the commons. He is a bricklayer and illiterate; thus, while his methods are questionable, the rest of the play makes it clear that his actions aren’t without reason. The country is being bled dry by foreign wars. The commons are being taxed to support quarrels between aristocrats. Cade and his followers want to focus on what is most English about England, not the dying dream of conquest abroad, because they feel that that is the only way for them to hold onto what little power they have.

 

But Cade’s energies have been harnessed to a noble patron (York), and thus he ends up serving York’s schemes, not his own. Nor is anybody surprised by this—a character informs Cade point-blank that “The Duke of York hath taught you this”—but while Cade is eventually captured and killed, his rhetoric and his blatant disregard for truth lives on to divide England for another two plays and usher in even more bloodshed.

 

(Note: It is the contention of the New Oxford Shakespeare that much of Jack Cade’s Rebellion is the work of Shakespeare’s collaborator Christopher Marlowe. Given Marlowe’s track record of tackling controversial issues, I’m going to assume that he was in it to take down the man.)

 

Which is all to say that we may want to blame Trump and his deplorables, but the fact is that we’re all being played by those with the greatest wealth and influence, and we cannot—must not—forget that.

 

To donate to the Public Theater, go here.

For those of you interested in Jack Cade and the Henry VI plays, Brave Spirits Theatre, a company in Washington D.C. looking to do a full Histories Cycle in 2020. Their Patreon is here.