Exeunt! If thou dost protest too much over SPOILERS in this Game of Thrones and Shakespeare connections list!
About the headline: before you get all indignantly puffy-shirted, “stole” could also be translated as “borrow,” “lifted,” or “was inspired by" - and George R.R. Martin would be the first to tell you that Shakespeare borrowed, lifted, and was inspired by others himself. Martin is quite clear about the sources he used for A Song of Ice and Fire - and the show runners are not shy about sourcing, either.
You’ll get no argument out of them about things Game of Thrones took from Shakespeare: “Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it's the execution that is all-important. I'm proud of my work, but I don't know if I'd ever claim it's enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own,” Martin has said.
What’s on Martin’s shopping list? The Wall in the North was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Martin was greatly inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien, calling the author’s work “my great model.” And Martin drew heavily from the Wars of the Roses, three decades of wars between two houses within the same family. Martin has also taken inspiration from his own television writing, as well as popular and classic historical fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy.
But what about the Bard? What are some of the similarities between Game of Thrones and Shakespeare? Well, both authors love a mass killing at a gathering, tragic love affairs, misunderstood and flawed characters, and bitter ironic twists. Who doesn’t? Read on to see all the ways Martin and his show runners "borrowed" these things and more from William Shakespeare...
Falstaff - Robert Baratheon
Falstaff: A women-chasing drunkard and braggart who has varying means of access to power. The character appeared in three of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, as well as Henry V. Falstaff could be counted upon for humor and irreverence, as well as intense drama and deep sadness.
Robert Baratheon: A bastard-making, bed-hopping king who loves to laugh, flash his famous temper, and unevenly wields his power before making a messy exit.
Banquo - Eddard Stark
Banquo: The general fought alongside Macbeth and was his friend until Macbeth grew suspicious and paranoid, twisted by the prophecy of the witches. The witches also tell Banquo his sons will be kings. Macbeth grows to distrust Banquo and has him killed. Banquo returns as a ghost to haunt Macbeth.
Eddard: Ned is a childhood friend and trusted former soldier of King Robert Baratheon. Things begin to turn for Ned once he becomes Robert’s Hand. Robert begins to side against his friend, albeit reluctantly. After the king’s death, Ned is betrayed by Littlefinger and King Joffrey has him beheaded with his own sword, Ice. Ned appears to Bran and Rickon in the crypts of Winterfell after his death.
Iago - Littlefinger
Iago: As Othello’s trusted advisor, Iago schemes and plots to bring about Othello’s ruin through a series of manipulations, never directly killing anyone. Iago’s motivation for ruining Othello’s life is because he is slighted by not being promoted up the ranks and given his rightful place in the world.
Littlefinger: Petyr Baelish comes from humble beginnings and suffered injuries and a deep eternal emotional scarring at the hands of Brandon Stark over Catelyn Tully when they were young. Baelish has mastered the game to gain power and ruin any house or person he needs to in the process. His never-ending manipulation makes him dangerous, but many still underestimate him because they never see the literal or figurative blade in Littlefinger’s hand.
Portia - Margaery Tyrell
Portia: A clever and beautiful wealthy woman who knows how to maneuver through society and use the social standards to her advantage. In The Merchant of Venice, she’s at the mercy of her father’s ambitions and the law of the land, but manages to find something for herself along the way.
Margaery: She finds herself in the exact same position as Portia, being matched with different men. When she’s betrothed to Joffrey, Margaery finds a way to manipulate the marriage for the good of House Tyrell. She plays the game to a fault and is only thwarted by the overly confident High Sparrow, who doesn’t understand the depths of Cersei’s deceit.
Macbeth - Cersei Lannister Baratheon
Macbeth: The Scottish general is given a prophecy by three witches declaring him the future king of Scotland. Macbeth sets about making the prophecy come true, first by killing King Duncan, before dissolving into murderous paranoia and isolation.
Cersei: As a young girl, Cersei received a prophecy from the witch Maggy the Frog that foretold Cersei would outlive her children and become queen through bitter circumstances. Even as she tries to escape the prophecy, Cersei comes to embrace it in the end, taking the Iron Throne in the wake of Tommen’s suicide and the decimation of her enemies at the Great Sept. Cersei’s reign won’t be far off from Macbeth’s.
Lady Macbeth - Cersei Lannister Baratheon
Lady Macbeth: She drives her husband toward the Scottish throne with ruthless ambition as she pursues her own title of queen. In the end, Lady Macbeth is driven mad by her part in the murder of King Duncan and commits suicide.
Cersei: Keeping the Iron Throne for her children appears to be Cersei's initial drive. She plots to have her husband, the king, killed. She revels in her hatred of him and outplays just about everyone. She gains the throne, but at the cost of her children and Jaime’s love and devotion. The major difference between Cersei and Lady Macbeth is that it’s hard to imagine Cersei taking her own life unless it involved taking as many people as she possibly could with her.
The Wars of the Roses House Badges - The House Tyrell Sigil
The Wars of the Roses: The wars involved two opposing sides of House Plantagenet, the House of Lancaster and the House of York, fighting for rule of England. Inspired by the sporadic three decades of war between the two houses, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and Richard III.
The Lancasters were represented by a red rose; the Yorks, a white rose. The wars were named after the badges of both houses, or so many have come to believe. The white rose was one of many symbols used by the House of York. The Lancasters adopted the red rose toward the end of the wars. It was Shakespeare who perpetuated the idea of the red and white roses as their definitive badges, hence giving the series of conflicts its name. Historians came to call them the Cousins’ Wars.
House Tyrell: Martin created a sea of sigils for the houses in A Song of Ice and Fire, including the rose of House Tyrell.
The Wars of the Roses - The War of the Five Kings
The Wars of the Roses: AKA The Cousins’ Wars, the Wars of the Roses spanned from 1455 to 1485. Inspired by the three decades of war between the two houses, Shakespeare wrote Henry VI Parts 1-3 and Richard III.
The War of the Five Kings: GRRM’s War of the Five Kings is sparked by conflict between House Lannister and House Stark. Of course, to Shakespeare’s depiction of the Wars of the Roses, Martin added sex, dragons, Children of the Forest, giants, and White Walkers, among other things.