On Shakespeare, Civil War, and the ending of Game of Thrones
Some have compared the final two episodes of Game of Thrones to the ending of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, particularly the Scouring of the Shire, where the forces of the wizard Saruman rampage through Frodo’s beloved Shire (cut from Peter Jackson’s film trilogy). Given George R.R. Martin’s own comments on his love for, and frustration with, Tolkien’s narrative, it’s a good start, if perhaps not the perfect comparison. When the heroes ‘win’, they don’t really win, and even if you do make it home, the home you find isn’t the one you left. As is so often the case, Game of Thrones dials it up to eleven, and Daenerys Targaryen, in a fit of rage, madness, or pure ruthlessness, sets her one remaining dragon loose on the city of King’s Landing, all but leveling it to the ground, before Jon Snow kills her for the greater good. From the ensuing power vacuum, the kingship over all but the North, which is given status as an independent realm, passes to Bran Stark by election, and the implication in the final scenes is that Westeros has returned, more or less, to business as usual.
But others have pointed to an older inspiration, namely William Shakespeare. Jeffrey R. Wilson uses ‘spoilers’ from the fifteenth century to predict an alliance between Jon and Daenerys, while the Twitter user ShakespeareofThrones invokes Macbeth’s combination of supernatural and human conflict to explain why the Night King plot ended where it did, and why the final conflict had to be over the Iron Throne. Both are good readings (if from earlier in the season), but, as I often tell my students, I’m here to complicate things a bit.
The final battle was not, as one might have expected, between the living and the dead. It instead hinged on the question of who was the ‘rightful’ heir to the Iron Throne and who deserved to rule the Seven Kingdoms. Was it Cersei, who was the sitting queen at the beginning of the season? Was it Daenerys, who crossed half the world with dragons to claim it? Or was it Jon Snow, recently revealed to be the son of Daenerys’ elder brother, and thus, technically, the heir to House Targaryen by traditional male primogeniture?
Shakespeare’s answer: It doesn’t matter.
There is no rightful ruler; there is only the ruler who wins. And, as Cersei herself remarked in the first season of Game of Thrones, “you win, or you die.” She won, and then, in the final scene of “The Bells,” she died. Daenerys, too won. And then she died in the finale, her body carried off by a grieving Drogon to parts unknown. Jon did not win, and he survived. What can we read into this?
Here, we turn not to Macbeth, but back to the history plays, specifically the first tetralogy depicting the Wars of the Roses. In these four plays (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III), the English throne is the prize, but as the conflict drags on, it becomes far more about revenge and bloodlust than any political or dynastic claim.
In Henry VI, Part 2, characters go to great lengths to enumerate their claims to the throne. The Duke of York, for instance, gets a convoluted speech explaining why he should be king of England, and the response—“what plain proceeding is more plain than this?”—is almost always used as a laugh line. By the end of that play, however, things get personal when fathers, brothers, and sons begin to die, and their living relatives vow increasingly violent revenge. And when the charmingly villainous Richard of Gloucester confesses to the audience that he too seeks the crown halfway through 3 Henry VI, he enumerates his connection to the king not to bolster his claim to the throne but as a list of people he needs to murder in order to take it: “Between my soul’s desire and me— / The lustful Edward’s title buried– / Is Clarence, Henry, and his son young Edward, / And all the unlook’d for issue of their bodies.” (3.2).
Henry VI, Part 3 is nothing if not a full-on bloodbath. In Act 1, the duke of York’s youngest son Rutland is brutally murdered as he begs for mercy, and in the following scene, Queen Margaret taunts York with a handkerchief soaked in Rutland’s blood before she and her allies stab him to death. In Act 5, York’s three sons avenge their father and brother by stabbing Margaret’s son to death in front of her, and the play’s penultimate scene is the brutal murder of King Henry VI by Richard of Gloucester, who then explodes in a virtuosic soliloquy of ambition, bitterness, and self-loathing. “I have no brother, I am like no brother,” he says. “I am myself alone.”
The three final claimants to the Iron Throne—Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow—shared a tangled, bloody history like the warring nobles of Shakespeare’s tetralogy. Of the three, only Daenerys had a direct blood relationship to a reigning ruler of the Seven Kingdoms, and that ruler was Aerys II Targaryen, the “Mad King,” hardly a ringing endorsement. But the show was clearly invested in the idea that Jon, as the secret son of Rhaegar Targaryen (Daenerys’ elder brother) and Lyanna Stark, was somehow the most legitimate of the three, which, aside from being contradictory and unnecessarily confusing, also undermined much of the emotional and thematic thrust of the War of the Five Kings.
We didn’t root for Joffrey even though he inherited the throne directly from King Robert Baratheon (sure, we knew he wasn’t Robert’s son, but it was never officially declared). We didn’t root for Stannis even though he was, strictly speaking, the next in line after Robert since Joffrey was illegitimate. (Those who did root for him did so because, until he started setting family members on fire, he seemed like a pretty decent dude and was the only claimant to the throne who paid any mind to the threat of the White Walkers.) And anyone who rooted for Cersei probably did so because some people just like to watch the world burn.
In short, none of these claimants was any more legitimate than the others, and since the showrunners chose to undermine Daenerys’ character in order to make their One True King look better, it smacks of lazy storytelling. It’s not a coincidence that Daenerys, who, up to the point of “The Bells,” was no better and no worse than any of the other claimants to the Iron Throne, was penalized far more for her choices than any of the men who came before her. Stannis burned people alive. Renly entered a civil war for no reason other than fame and the lulz. Joffrey was…Joffrey. Tommen did his best but was ultimately ruled by those around him (not unlike Shakespeare’s Henry VI). And we viewers had no illusions about how awful Cersei was, though the script seemed insistent that Tyrion—supposedly one of the cleverest characters on the show—underestimate her at the worst possible times.
I remarked on Twitter recently that Shakespeare’s plotting techniques (playing with genre, tormenting his audience, and killing likeable characters in terrible ways) have more than a little in common with George R.R. Martin’s. Showrunners Benioff and Weiss, on the other hand, seem more interested in creating moments of shock and spectacle without earning them through consistent plot and characterization, and they are consistently willing—indeed, eager—to sacrifice women to further the plots of men. While it was absolutely possible to bring Daenerys to the point at which “The Bells” found her—isolated, rejected by the citizens of Westeros, enraged by the cold-blooded murder of her closest friend—the ‘snap’ seemed to many viewers (myself included) unearned. A few more minutes, maybe even an old-fashioned monologue, would have got it done. Furthermore, the alignment of Daenerys and her followers in the finale with unmistakeably Fascist imagery and the clumsy attempts to equate her destruction of the slave economies of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen with her eventual rain of “fire and blood” upon King’s Landing was downright offensive.
Daenerys could have had a tragic arc—a genuine tragic arc. Shakespeare did it with Margaret of Anjou, stretching that arc across four plays. If we watch the plays in chronological order, we encounter Margaret as a young girl in the final act of 1 Henry VI, and we watch her play the English game of thrones in Part 2, a game that costs her the man she loves. By 3 Henry VI, she is a cold-blooded murderer, stabbing the duke of York after taunting him with the death of his young son. But she turns in that play, clawing with increasing desperation to preserve her husband and son’s legacy in the wake of Yorkist victory, until King Edward and his brothers murder that son in front of her. She curses them over his body, and those curses are made manifest in Richard III alongside political conspiracies to oust the house of York from the throne once and for all. Nor is it a coincidence that these two plot arcs—the supernatural and the political—come to a head in Act 4, Scene 4 of Richard III, a scene that features three powerful female characters—Margaret, the Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth—one of whom beats Richard at his own rhetorical game.
(Sure, the play isn’t over until Henry of Richmond kills Richard in battle, but Richard loses the war the second he underestimates his sister-in-law Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s track record on women is very much of his time, but even he does better than the showrunners of Game of Thrones.)
At the end of Richard III, the new king makes no claim to dynastic legitimacy (Hi, Bran!), aside from referring to himself and his future bride Elizabeth of York as “the true succeeders of each royal house.” Indeed, his final speech concludes with a threat to any who might try to claim the throne from him—“Let them not live to taste this land’s increase / That would with treason wound this fair land’s peace”—and the assertion that “civil wounds are stopp’d.” An Elizabethan audience, only a few generations removed from the wars of York and Lancaster, would have well known that different conflicts plagued the reigns of Henry and his descendants, including their own queen Elizabeth I, who, in the 1590s, had yet to proclaim a successor.
Rather than privileging one claimant over another for eleventh-hour reasons and shortchanging all of their female protagonists while they’re at it, perhaps a happier ending for everyone in Westeros would have been the splitting of the Seven Kingdoms into its constituent parts. Drogon did everyone a great service by destroying the Iron Throne (and how much did I love that part? So much), and it was disappointing to see everyone just shift back to the status quo.
That part, however, does chime with Shakespeare’s ending. Henry of Richmond, a nonentity if ever there was one, takes the throne from the charismatic, murderous Richard. The world goes on, everything is tied up neatly, and we all go home.
It’s a pity civil wars aren’t that simple. Even Shakespeare knew that; he wrote his history plays in opposite order, and ended not with Richard III but with Henry V, whose epilogue reminds the audience that everything fell apart shortly after the titular king’s glorious victory at the battle of Agincourt.
“Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
By which the world’s best garden be achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and, for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.”
 The show appears to be conflating Jon’s storyline in the books with that of a character calling himself “Aegon Targaryen” and claiming to be the son of Rhaegar and Elia Martell who was believed to have been murdered with his mother and sister on Tywin Lannister’s orders during the Sack of King’s Landing…only they’ve already made reference to this other Aegon in earlier seasons.
 I say this as an avowed Cersei fan; she is a great character, and I would never, ever want her to be in charge of anything.
 I’m not defending her colonialist rhetoric or her willingness to play God with the lives of many nameless brown people. But every claimant believed they were doing the right thing, that they were chosen to rule. Plus, it’s not like Jon Snow has any room to talk, given that his battle tactics thus far have amounted to a full Leeroy Jenkins during the Battle of the Bastards and screaming at a dragon at the Battle of Winterfell.