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The fantasy drama, “Game of Thrones,” captivated viewers with its characters and plot twist. But where did George R. R. Martin find the inspiration for writing the series, “A Song of Ice and Fire”? Two out of the many inspirations he had were, Shakespeare and the War of the Roses. Shakespeare and Martin share many themes in their works, most notably is the greed for power and the value of honor. The historical conflict of the War of the Roses served as the inspiration for a couple of Shakespeare’s plays and the foundation of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.
The starting point for War of the Roses first started in 1377, when King Edward III died. His oldest son died a year before his father and so Edward’s 10-year-old grandson, Richard II, succeeded the throne. However, the late king still had three surviving sons, and this outcome left many lingering claims to the throne with the red rose of Lancaster, which descended from Edward’s third son, and the white rose of York, which were descended from his fourth son. This split started England’s bloodiest civil war.
In 1399, the Lancaster’s first gained the throne when Henry IV overthrew his cousin Richard II. Henry’s reign lasted for a while until his death in 1422 and his infant son became king. When Henry V was king, he was frail and dominated by his advisors. They eventually convinced him to marry Margaret of Anjou to gain French support. Despite her beautiful and innocuous image, Margaret was merciless to anyone who threatens her power especially to Richard of York.
Richard of York was a close advisor to the king and a loyal general, but he was not a fan of Margaret. He criticized their incompetence of the war against France, and this led to his exclusion from court and was exiled to Ireland. York later returned with an army to reconstruct the court and was later appointed Protector of the Realm after Henry suffered a mental breakdown. A year later, Henry recovered, and Margaret convinced him to revoke York’s position, and once again York fled and raised an army; however, he was unable to seize the throne and was later killed in battle. His son, Edward, pressed on and had himself crowned Edward IV.
Edward had great success against the Lancaster military forces and managed to capture Henry and forced Margaret to flee in exile with their son, Edward of Westminster. In his early years of reign, King Edward made a significant political mistake by secretly marrying a minor noble’s widowed daughter and backing out of his arranged marriage with a French princess. His powerful ally, Earl of Warwick, was outraged and allied with the Lancaster side along with King Edward’s brother. Margaret sent her army to fight King Edward, but her troops were defeated, her son was killed in battle, then later the previous king, Henry, was murdered in the Tower of London. The Wars of the Roses was thought to be over until in 1483, King Edward died, and the bloodshed continued once again.
Although his 12-year-old son was supposed to succeed him, Edward’s ambitious younger brother, Richard III, declares himself king and states his nephew illegitimate because of Edward’s secret marriage. Richard kept the 12-year-old and his brother in the Tower of London, and the two boys ultimately vanished. For awhile Richard’s reigned seemed secured, until the forces of young Henry Tudor, representing the Lancastrian line, came across the English Channel and killed Richard in battle in 1485. Henry Tudor became King Henry VII, the first Tudor king. He then married Elizabeth of York, the elder sister of the disappeared princes, and finally putting an end to a war that lasted for nearly a century.
In the book series by George R. R. Martin, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” there is a power struggle for the Iron Throne among the seven Houses of Westeros following the death of King Robert. Robert’s heir is his 13-year-old son Joffrey is immediately announced king through his manipulative and ambitious mother, Queen Cersei Lannister. When Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, Robert’s closest and dearest friend as well his chief advisor, discovers that King Joffrey and his brother and sister are the product of incest between Cersei and her twin brother Jaime “The Kingslayer” Lannister. Eddard attempts to dethrone Joffrey, but he is later betrayed and executed for treason. In response to Joffrey’s false claim to the throne, Robert’s brothers Stannis and Renly both lay separate claims to the throne.
During this period of instability, two great houses of the Seven Kingdoms starts making attempts to become independent from the Iron Throne. From the house of Stark, Eddard’s eldest son Robb is proclaimed King in the North by his bannermen after the execution of his father. Then off to the coast of Westeros the ruler of the Iron Islands, Balon Greyjoy, uses the opportunity to declare the Iron Islands independent and launches raids in Stark territory in order to gain more lands. Also, so, with King Joffrey, Robert’s two younger brothers, Stannis and Renly Baratheon, the Robb Stark, and Balon Greyjoy the War of the Five Kings are in full progress. Although this war later ends when they were either assassinated or killed in battle and thus leading to the complete end of the war.
There is also someone else worth mentioning from the series and that someone is Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of Aerys II, the last Targaryen king before Robert usurped the throne. East of Westeros and across the sea, Daenerys older brother, Viserys Targaryen, marries her off to a powerful warlord. Throughout the series, Daenerys slowly becomes an independent and intelligent leader and her rise to power is aided by the momentous birth of three dragons, hatched from eggs given to her as a wedding gift. The three dragons soon become a symbol of her bloodline and her legitimate claim to the throne.
Right off the bat, there are many similarities in both Shakespeare’s plays of the War of the Roses and Martin’s War of the Five Kings. Family is turning against each other and shifting alliances. When King Edward III dies in England, and King Robert dies in the book, “A Game of Thrones,” it sets off a war of succession between his friends, family, and enemies. Both Shakespeare and Martin use the events from the War of the Roses to explore how rulers seize and justify their power.
Many characters in both Shakespeare and Martin’s works have an intense lust for power and are willing to do anything for power. In “Richard II,” Henry uses military force to overthrow King Richard, and he also makes sure that Richard II legally abdicates the throne and names Henry as his heir. In the first book, “A Game of Thrones,” Cersei tears up King Robert’s will, bribe the city guards and forces Robert’s loyal friend, Eddard Stark, to publicly confess to treason Cersei tells Eddard that, there are clear consequences to winning and losing the throne. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground” (A Game of Thrones 448). Meaning that winning means a great deal of power and losing is death. Anyone fighting for the throne– for the power that it comes with– must do whatever is necessary to win. Power is the central themes for both Shakespeare’s plays and Martin’s series of “A Song of Ice and Fire.”
Another theme both Martin and Shakespeare share is honor. Many people define honor as fulfilling an obligation and respect others. The characteristics of the major characters in “Richard II” are all tied to honor. In act one, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, calling each other traitors and being a traitor is highly dishonorable. Having to be called a traitor deeply upsets them both. “Mine honour is my life; both grow in one: / Take honour from me, and my life is done” (Richard II 1.1.187-188). To them, honor is a matter of life and death and both Henry and Mowbray are willing to give their lives for their honor.
Another example is when Gaunt, John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster, has a rant against Richard and states, “Love they to live that love and honor have” (Richard II 2.1.822). In this Gaunt is saying that honor is crucial to a good and long life. He also suggests that Richard is not honorable and therefore he will not live a good life, nor will he live for a long time. Henry provides another example of valuing when he’s crowned king. At the end of the play, Richard is removed from power, and those who conspired against Henry were killed, however, he decides to pardon Bishop of Carlisle. His reason: “For though mine enemy thou hast ever been, / High sparks of honor in thee I have seen” (Richard II 5.6.28-29). Carlisle’s life has been spared because he had maintained his honor even though he was an enemy. Sparks of honor are enough to be granted a pardon and can create a mutual sense of respect.
However, that is not always the case in all of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Henry IV Part 1”, Falstaff, a drunk who enjoys women and a disgraced knight, believes the opposite of what the characters in “Richard II” believe. Falstaff’s behavior is opposite of the definition of the word honor, his ideas about honor is a valuable insight.
Can honour set a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? air” (Henry IV, Part I 5.1.2756-2761)
He makes a compelling argument by stating that honor is nothing useful, that it does and is nothing.
In the third book of “A Song of Ice and Fire” honor is a major motivating force and serves as one of the ways to define the characters. An example is when Lord Frey was displeased about Robb Stark’s engagement to a common girl, Jeyne Westerling, although he was promised to marry a Frey girl. This act was an affront to their honor because it suggested that Robb did not value and respected them enough. That offense was enough for the Freys to murder Robb, Jeyne, Catelyn (Robb’s mother), and the rest of the Stark bannermen at the Red Wedding. “‘He shamed us, the whole realm was laughing, we had to cleanse the stain on our honor.’” (A Storm of Swords 725). The Freys had no choice, but to uphold their honor.
Similarly, earlier in the book, when Robb was left with no choice but to execute Richard Karstark, a minor lord and an ally to Robb. Karstark killed two unarmed Lannister boys they were holding prisoner and ignored Robb’s authority by acting on his own. “‘Karstark killed more than a Frey and a Lannister. He killed my honor’” (A Storm of Swords 231). Robb executed Karstark because his honor is more important than Karstark.
Like Falstaff in “Henry IV,” Jaime is considered one of the most dishonorable figures in the series. When Jaime became a member of the Kingsguard, he swore an oath to protect his king, King Aerys (the one Robert Baratheon ousted), but he broke that oath by murdering Aerys. This act earned him the title of Kingslayer, a constant reminder, and testament that lacks honor. When he became a member of the Kingsguard, he swore an oath to protect the king at all time. He broke his vow and earned the title of Kingslayer, serving as a testament that he broke his oath. Catelyn Stark even confronts him by asking, “How can you still count yourself a knight, when you have forsaken every vow you ever swore” (A Clash of Kings 796). Jaime responded:
So many vows they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other (A Clash of Kings 796)
The reason why Jaime killed King Aerys is that the king was hurting innocent and the weak, therefore he was forced to break his oath and become the Kingslayer.
In short, the War of the Rose served as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s plays. He wrote a couple of plays from these events and most of his characters from his plays were influenced by the complex individuals from England’s great civil war. Most notably in his plays “Richard II,” “Henry IV” part one and two, and “Richard III.” George R. R. Martin drew inspiration from War of the Roses to create the fictional War of the Five Kings. Martin and Shakespeare shared many similarities, especially themes, two of the themes were greed and honor. Without the War of the Roses and Shakespeare’s influence on Martin, the great fantasy drama “Game of Thrones” would have been very different.
- Hacht, Anne Marie, editor. Shakespeare for Students: Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays and Poetry. 2nd ed., vol. 3, Gale, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/pub/1RIK/GVRL?u=pima_main&sid=GVRL. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
- Jordan, William Chester The Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia for Students, vol. 4, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1996, pp. 176-178. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2897600654/GVRL?u=pima_main&sid=GVRL&xid=02a747f0. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
- Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones: Book One of A Song Of Ice And Fire. New York: Bantam Books, 2011, c1996. Print.
- Moss, Joyce, and Lorraine Valestuk. World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them. Vol. 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: Celtic Migrations to the Reform Bill (Beginnings-1830s), Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/pub/1TWH/GVRL?u=pima_main&sid=GVRL. Accessed 6 Nov. 2018.
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- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Clash of Kings.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2018.
- SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Storm of Swords.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2018.
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