Masters of borrowing: Links between Shakespeare and Game of Thrones

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

The War of the Roses

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

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

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

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

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande. 1577. Folger STC 13568.5 Vol. 1

According to Holinshed and Shakespeare, the war ends with the marriage of Henry Tudor (Henry VII), a Lancastrian, and Elizabeth of York, beginning the Tudor reign (in truth it was not so simple). Here’s where the comparison breaks down: If you tuned in for the Game of Thrones finale, [SPOILER ALERT] you saw that things did not end in a marriage uniting two great houses (sort of)… though the idea had been floated by several characters.

The War of the Roses was so named because the house of Lancaster’s symbol was a red rose, while the York symbol was a white rose. After marrying Elizabeth of York, Henry VII took on a red and white rose to represent the union of the two houses under the Tudor reign. Game of Thrones fans may notice that the House Tyrell rose looks very similar to the Tudor rose.

Titus Andronicus and Game of Thrones

For an even more direct link between Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, you need look no farther than Titus Andronicus. Elizabethan theatre-goers, much like GoT fans today, could not get enough of the play’s drama and blood—lots and lots of blood.

Titus Andronicus
[Titus Andronicus] The most lamentable Romaine tragedie of Titus Andronicus As it was plaide by the right honourable the Earle of Darbie, Earle of Pembrooke, and Earle of Sussex their seruants. 1594. Folger STC 22328
In a pivotal scene in Shakespeare’s play, Titus serves Empress Tamora a pie, which she later discovers is made from her two sons. He then kills her. Sound familiar? In the show, Arya Stark (in disguise) cooks Lord Walder Frey a pie made of his two sons. She then discloses the contents of the dish before revealing her identity and slitting his throat. Both culinary and murderous exploits were acts of revenge. Readers have not yet encountered Lord Walder’s demise in the book series, so what you see in the show is from D.B. Weiss and David Benioff… and Shakespeare.

Game of Thrones [edited]

WALDER FREY: “Where are my damn moron sons? Black Walder and Lothar promised to be here by midday.”

ARYA STARK: “They’re here, my lord.”

WALDER FREY: “What are they doing?… Tell them to come here… now”

ARYA STARK: “They’re already here, my lord.”

Titus Andronicus

TAMORA: Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?

TITUS: Not I; ’twas Chiron and Demetrius…
And they, ’twas they, that did her all this wrong.

SATURNINUS: Go fetch them hither to us presently.

TITUS : Why, there they are, both bakèd in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
’Tis true, ’tis true! Witness my knife’s sharp point.

[He stabs the Empress.]

Titus Andronicus
The lamentable and tragicall history of Titus Andronicus, with the fall of his five and twenty sons in the wars of [t]he Goaths, with the ravishment of his daughter Lavinia by the empresse [t]wo sons, through the means of a bloody Moor, taken by the swor[d] of Titus in the war, with his revenge upon them for their cruell an in humane [sic] act. To the tune of Fortune my foe. 1661. Folger L252a
With the close of Game of Thrones—however satisfying or unsatisfying—and the promise of spin-offs and years of fanfiction, the chain of adaptation and borrowing will continue. It’s true that there’s no such thing as an original story, but that is what attracts us to “historical” and fictional works. It is the recognition of what we already love that draws us to the same stories over and over again.