Reversed: Tyrion as Richard III and Coriolanus

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Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) on trial. © HBO.

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:

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Sir Laurence Olivier giving Richard III’s famous soliloquy. Image: © London Film Productions.

“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.

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Tyrion with his beautiful siblings. © HBO.

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).

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Tyrion unleashes his rage at the ungrateful spectators at his trial, who have long forgotten his sacrifices at the Battle of Blackwater. © HBO.

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

This story line echoes the transformation of Coriolanus.

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Ralph Fiennes as the eponymous Corialonus in the 2011 film. © Magna Films.

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.

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Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) fighting during the Battle of Blackwater. Image: Helen Sloan, © HBO.

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.

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Coriolanus’ mother, wife, and son beseech him to resolve his dispute with Rome. Artist: Soma Orlai Petrich, 1869.

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.

 

Jun Yan is a spontaneous, home-grown Shakespeare fan. Her day job is pharmaceutical writing.

18 Comments

  • Reply November 20, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    Years ago – verily decades ago in fact – I saw a production of “Coriolanus” with Robert Hardy playing the title role. He’s in his 90s now and when he does occasionally still act tends to play elder statesman type roles but he had the gravitas to carry off a Shakespearean hero in his heyday. I don’t know if anyone ever saw the 1980s BBC series “The Cleopatras” (it was on YouTube at one time – not sure if it’s still there). It was a truly terrible [though one can have a laugh in a sort of ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ way] but Robert Hardy and the late Richard Griffiths as a Pharaoh called “Potbelly” were perhaps the only two good things in it.

    I know book Tyrion is a darker character than show Tyrion, but I’m still rooting for them both. Hopefully the ghost of Tyrion’s departed mother won’t appear to him to make him “throw” the battle and I’d like him to do better in ASOIAFD/GoT than Richard III did at Bosworth Field. I can’t find the other thread just at the moment but I’ve a feeling Olga who comments on this site quite regularly mentioned something about Shakespeare’s character of Richard possibly being a representation of somebody who was active in Shakespeare’s own lifetime masked in the stage persona of Richard. I can’t think which person off the top of my head though. I’d never thought about Coriolanus possibly being a counter-factual inspirational for Tyrion but now Jun has mentioned it gives me something on which to ponder.

  • Reply November 21, 2014

    Jun Yan

    Coriolanus is not frequently revived until I think Ralph Fiennes did the movie (co-starring Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Gerald Butler). Then I saw two other revivals, one at Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company (live, directed by Michael Khan) and one in London starring Tom Hiddleston (video). Hiddleston is too young for the role and lacks the gravitas. I find it interesting that the play is getting renewed attention, which is not surprising as Shakespeare’s treatment of democracy and politics and public hysteria is as poignant now as ever.

    • Reply May 27, 2015

      dre7861

      I too saw the Shakespeare Theater Company’s version of Coriolanus (as well as a visiting Royal Shakespeare Company version). I thought STC’s take with Peter Paige as the title characters was one of the best Shakespeare performances I’ve seen. While the RSC version was a powerful performance, the STC production was one of the few times the Americans outdid the Brits in performing Shakespeare.

      Having seen two really vibrant productions of Coriolanus, I think the play lends itself well to modern sensibilities and has a muscular energy that some “classic Shakespearean plays” lack. I have to admit that it has become a favorite of mine… but then I tend to like the more obscure Shakespeare plays, such as Pericles.

      I do have a slight correction, David Muse was the director for that STC production (unless you are talking about an earlier production) while Michael Khan acted as the Artistic Director for the company.

      • Reply May 30, 2015

        Jun

        Yes you are right. The STC production was directed by Muse. Kahn directed the accompanying Wollenstein. What a fascinating double bill, and especially in a political town like Washington. Both were great! I am never able to choose one favorite Shakespeare play because I like a number of them for different reasons, and my thoughts change with age and life experience.

        It so happens that I am in Stratford-upon-Avon today, paying my homage to the Bard. What a coincidence that you are commenting on Shakespeare today.

        • Reply June 3, 2015

          dre7861

          I hope you enjoyed your visit. When I was at Stratford-upon-Avon [mumble, mumble] years ago I saw a phenomenal production of Twelfth Night by the Royal Shakespeare Company! It was one of those productions that stay with you for many, many years!

  • Reply November 21, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I should have said that the version I saw was when the BBC showed productions of Shakespeare’s “Roman” plays:- “Coriolanus”, “Julius Caesar” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” in the 1960s. Apart from R Hardy, the only actors I can remember are Mary Morris as Cleopatra and Keith Michell (who later played Henry VIII in ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ in the early 1970s) as Anthony. In my above post I should have said “The Cleopatras” was a truly terrible series and not left the statement hanging without a noun. I recall my then history teacher saying that “Coriolanus” was difficult to stage because of the battles it featured.

  • Reply November 21, 2014

    Olga Hughes

    Yes Watcher, The Tragedy of Richard III may have been an attack on Robert Cecil, who is said to have been hunchbacked. It is actually pretty clear the play is a satire, Shakespeare was not only discussing a contemporary in Cecil but it follows the traditional literary ‘warnings’ against tyranny popular at the time and seen in various of his plays.
    Coriolanus is more of a direct reference to the rising class conflicts in the early 17th century.

  • Reply November 23, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    This whole thread is so interesting. I’ve never seen Coriolanus, but after reading this article, now I would very much like to see it — or at the very least, Ralph Fiennes’ movie. I think the theme of the public turning against a hero, or even just a lionized person, is quite compelling in today’s media-driven world. The BBC Sherlock has a whole plot arc based on Holmes’ warning to Sherlock that “the press will turn, Sherlock. They always do.”

    • Reply November 24, 2014

      Jun Yan

      Besides Coriolanus, I suggest also the speech to public by Antony on Caesar’s funeral in Julius Caesar. It is very informative in today’s context. I cannot help chuckling whenever I read this part or see it acted. People have not changed at all.

      • Reply November 25, 2014

        Watcher on the Couch

        Oh yes, in the play there is the speech where Antonius works up the crowd with his oratory e.g.”…for Brutus is an honourable man”… I know that one should not take Shakespeare’s treatment of historical themes as true history yet in this instance the real Antonius did inflame the masses – and if I remember correctly the innocent Cinna the poet was killed in mistake for Cinna the conspirator. From what I recall Shakepeare used “Plutarch’s Lives” as a source.

        As for the popular press working up people nowadays. Unfortunately a few years ago a child was killed in the UK by a paedophile. The less responsible section of the press in the land went to town with articles on paedophiles. Somebody saw something like “paed” (for paediatrician) next to a woman’s name in the telephone directory and went round and trashed the woman’s car. It’s frightening that someone would not know the difference between the words for a child molestor and a children’s specialist doctor.

  • Reply November 24, 2014

    Jamie Adair

    Something else that’s very thought provoking is the military — and hypermasculine– culture in Coriolanus. E.g., “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…” You could argue that society’s lack of respect for Tyrion is because he does not fit into the warrior/man ideal of his subtly military oriented society. Tyrion will never be a massively built fighter like the Mountain (or have the knightly demeanor of his brother).

    • Reply November 25, 2014

      Jun Yan

      The more I read Shakespeare, the more I am convinced that he invented psychoanalysis, and everyone else from Freud on mostly just ripped off Shakespeare …

      • Reply November 26, 2014

        Jamie Adair

        Oh my gosh – that’s funny. I can’t remember if I asked you this before, but Jun, who do you believe Shakespeare was? Do you think he was secretly a noble man? What made him so intelligent?

        • Reply November 26, 2014

          Jun

          I don’t know. I have not studied both sides of the argument and their evidence on this matter. I’m no historian so I can’t possibly tell you whether he was Christopher Marlowe or some other noble man or several noble men. I do find it hard to believe that a noble men would write Henry IV to Henry V, in which half of the airtime is given to the drunks, wenches, low-lives, and village people. Henry V contains some very anti-war stuff from lowly soldiers’ perspective that I don’t know how a noble man could easily obtain.

          I’m not a theater scholar, either (yeah, sometimes I wonder what business I have with Shakespeare anyway), but it seems to me that references to the theater life and acting are made repeatedly, and there is experimentation in the form of theater. For example, Antony and Cleopatra is set like a modern movie with locations ranging half way across the world. Macbeth contains special effects that make me wonder how the original staging is done. Who is more likely to know theater so intimately, a nobleman who also wrote plays that got staged or an actor and playwright who eats, drinks, and breathes this stuff every day for decades?

          Perhaps the most important argument (for me at least) is how earthy and human the plays are. They are not built upon philosophical principles or abstract theories of life and the world. The characters and stories do not conform to any school of thoughts or theories or teach us any morals. They are bursting with dirty, messy, voluptuous life forces. I have to believe that the writer is someone whose mind was not contaminated by too much education from an early age. This is someone who has lived and loved a lot, like Falstaff.

          What made Shakespeare so intelligent? What made GRRM so insightful? I happen to think that too much education does not a wise man make. On the contrary, I know many a mind constricted, closed, and deceived by formal education.

          • May 27, 2015

            dre7861

            One of the reasons why Marlowe, Jonson or others are put forth is that they were all University men, whereas Shakespeare probably had to quit Grammar School in his teens. The thought being that only someone incredibly educated could have been so profound a thinker and dramatist. I personally find that educational snobbery. History is filled with great and profound thinkers who were self-taught and who never received a formal university education.

            Modern conspiracy theorists make the mistake of equating modern education with Elizabethan education. For most of his childhood, Shakespeare live in an upper middle class family – his father was an important town official in Stratford-upon-Avon – which meant he had the luxury to attend school. This “Grammar School” taught a curriculum in the arts and languages that rivals modern college/university curriculums. In this school, Shakespeare read in Latin and learned by rote Ovid, Virgil and Plutarch! Classes took place 6 days a week throughout the year and from early in the morning until dusk. No summer vacations, no spring breaks, no parent teacher days off, no study halls, no after school activities, no recess except for lunch.

            But the piece of evidence that Shakespeare wrote his own plays actually lies within the plays themselves. Growing up in Warwickshire (the area where Stratford-upon-Avon resides), it should come as no surprise that Shakespeare’s plays are chock full of Warwickshire phrases, Warwickshire slang, Warwickshire pronunciations and Warwickshire grammar mistakes. He names plants and flowers that reside in Warwickshire and calls them only by their Warwickshire names. His plays are filled with the common folk going about their daily activities that are extremely accurate depictions that only someone intimately acquainted with them could replicate. A year or two before Shakespeare wrote his greatest play, “Hamlet,” his own son, Hamnet, died suddenly leaving him no male heir to continue the family name. It is at the same time that Shakespeare turns away from writing predominately comedies and instead starts writing predominately tragedies. Coincidence? While much of his life is a mystery, we know from church records that in the years before he wrote “A Merchant Of Venice” and “Othello” that Shakespeare lived in a parish in London where his nearby neighbors were Jews and Free Blacks, not a common occurrence in Elizabethan England. There is a line in “Othello” about Iago which goes that his conscience can “stretch like a piece of chevril.” This metaphor can only be properly understood by knowing how glove-makers stretch a piece of soften leather (chevril) to fit the frame for the glove. And guess what, Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker. If Shakespeare plays were written by someone else, that person went to a lot of trouble filling them with tiny facts and idioms that would only make sense if someone who had lived the life of Shakespeare could have written. When it comes to conspiracy theories I believe in the Occam’s Rule – that the simplest solution is the best.

  • Reply November 27, 2014

    Jun Yan

    Correction to my above comments: Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, two of frequently cited suspects to substitute for Shakespeare, were not aristocrats. Other aristocrats are sometimes mentioned, eg, Sir Francis Bacon. The problem with Marlowe, of course, is that he died in 1593. So unless he was (as spoofed in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”) a vampire, he could not have written the important tragedies credited to Shakespeare. While admitting my own ignorance on this subject, I think the argument that the “real Shakespeare” was of noble birth will not easily convince me.

  • Reply November 27, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I can’t remember whether I said this on another thread but one of my teachers back in the day said there was a school of thought that Kit Marlowe might have become as great a dramatist as Shakespeare had he lived longer. Some people do seem to love a conspiracy theory and with certain folk such theory seems to be that a person other than Shakespeare wrote the plays ascribed to him. I don’t know why some parties have difficulty in accepting that a person other than an aristocrat could write something worthwhile. Shakespeare lived at a time when there was a rising merchant class and education was becoming available to people who were not the gentry (admittedly not to all – that wouldn’t happen in England till 1870). The Medieval guilds – before Shakespeare – put on Miracle plays. Now I don’t know if those actors learned their words orally [or should that be aurally, by ear] but someone in each guild must have made up the words.

  • Reply May 30, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    Dre seems to know more about Shakespeare than I do – and I’m the English person! Reading through my earlier comments after several months I note that I did not mention that in the truly terrible “The Cleopatras” Robert Hardy played Julius Caesar. I live further north in the English Midlands than Warwickshire and accents and sayings can vary from county to county. Going back a bit (1997) there was a TV cartoon adaptation of Terry’s Pratchett’s “Wyrd Sisters” and the character from the theatre troop spoke with something of a Brummie accent. Of course Mr Prachett is reputed to have been something of a satirist so the whole programme (based on a book) may have been a satire of “The Scottish Play”>

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