Late in A Storm of Swords, Tyrion Lannister goes on trial for the murder of King Joffrey, his 13-year-old nephew. The plot is obviously inspired by not only the historical mystery of “Princes in the Tower,” but also Shakespeare’s depiction of the event in the play Richard III. A clear indication of George R.R. Martin’s nod to the play itself, beyond historical facts, is the effects of being born deformed and ugly on the central character and the dynamics between the outer and inner worlds.
===This article contains TV spoilers ===
Appearance and an Ungrateful Public
Despite all of Richard III’s villainy, Shakespeare makes the audience pity Richard with his twisted and stooped body, as he explains his cause for bitterness toward the world. In his opening monologue, Richard takes the audience into his confidence:
“I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain.”
Richard is basically saying, “Look, I’m so ugly that even dogs bark at me. Since nobody is ever going to love me, I’ll hurt you all.”
The speech might be merely an attempt by Richard to flex his manipulative skills, but the psychology rings true and almost converts the audience into his accomplice. Richard plots to turn his brothers Edward IV and Clarence against each other in “deadly hate” and goes on to a killing spree that includes child murders later in the play. Since then, many literary works have explored the symbolic meaning of characters’ appearance and nature as well as the lasting psychological effects of childhood deformity or trauma.
The parallel setup between Tyrion Lannister and Shakespeare’s Richard III is immediately recognizable from the first novel. Curiously, Martin seems to have turned Richard upside down when he writes the dwarf. Both authors highlight the tension between physical appearance and the mind within. (Richard might be evil, but his intelligence and charm are undeniable.) For Tyrion, the world sees him as a monster and a “demon monkey” because of his looks; even his father and sister are disgusted with him. It has made Tyrion cynical and angry like Richard on the one hand, but on the other hand he is more readily sympathetic to other people’s suffering and misfortune, rather than the lashing-out and destruction brought by Richard.
While Shakespeare condemns Richard for his nephews’ murders, Tyrion is completely innocent of his nephew’s death. However, with a little preplanned manipulation by Littlefinger and a full-out campaign by Cersei, he is quickly convicted in the court of public opinion even before the trial commences. Being ugly does not help (especially compared with his beautiful siblings), and some of his unpopular but necessary policies before the Battle of Blackwater come back to bite him.
In a dramatic court scene, Tyrion curses the ungrateful citizens of King’s Landing that he wishes he had let their enemy sack the city, instead of risking his neck (or nose) to defend it; consequently he is humiliated and condemned for a crime he did not commit (A Storm of Sword and Game of Thrones, episode 406).
An ungrateful and easily fooled public makes several appearances in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Both Martin and Shakespeare are acutely aware of the many shades of gray in the game of politics, including the importance of the leaders’ physical appearance and public sentiment. The masses are often irrational and reactionary. The first lesson any leader has to learn is to control the message to public, and a favorable and relatable image is one of the key components of an effective campaign.
===TV spoilers ===
Switching to the Enemy’s Side
After the public turns against Tyrion, he literally escapes a death sentence and flees King’s Landing
A macho and brave Roman general, Caius Martius Coriolanus wins a brutal battle against Volscian army and brings glory and riches to the state. However, the Roman public turns against him when Coriolanus campaigns for a seat in the senate, as he lacks political savvy and refuses to hide his impatience and contempt for any man who has not bled for Rome. The citizens find him guilty of treason and throw him out. Enraged by the betrayal, Coriolanus switches sides to the Volscian and leads his former enemy to attack Rome.
Tyrion and Coriolanus also share a dramatic military victory before their downfall. Early in the play, with his superhuman strength, skills, and courage, Coriolanus single-handedly breaks the Volscians’ defense in the siege of the city Corioles (thus being named “Coriolanus”). He is a supermacho man who has grown up without a father. His mother is devoted to him and grooms him into a pure and extreme image of masculinity with little political finesse and less sympathy for flabby citizens with petty demands for respect and grain.
Tyrion has had his own improbable victory, but he is the reverse of Coriolanus in every respect. He is by no means a warrior but rather most ferocious in the library. In the siege of his city, he is on the defense. He has no mother, and his father can barely stand the sight of him. He cuts a figure farthest from the ideal of masculinity. He does not particularly enjoy blood-letting and probably thinks muscle is overrated. His weapon is his brain.
Whether Martin consciously reversed the external traits of Coriolanus point by point in his creation is unknown, but he has given this outwardly anti-Coriolanus Imp almost the same fate. On the other hand, Tyrion is similar to Richard III on the outside but is the opposite within.
In the end, Coriolanus brings Rome to her knees, but is foiled in the last moment by his loyalty to his mother (a typical case of Oedipus complex) and abandons his invasion and pays for the decision with his life. Tyrion no longer has a mother or anyone else within the walls of the Red Keep to halt his revenge.