This article contains minor spoilers
The scene opens on a battlefield.
“Somewhere off in the far distance, a dying man was screaming for his mother. ‘To horse!’ a man was yelling in Ghiscari, in the next camp to the north of the Second Sons. ‘To horse! To horse!’ High and shrill, his voice carried a long way in the morning air, far beyond his own encampment.”
Above is a paragraph from an early Tyrion chapter in The Winds of Winter, the yet-unpublished sixth book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series; George R.R. Martin has read it in public. Does it hit you with a sense of déjà vu? Do you have a tingle of recognition in the back of your mind? If yes, you might be remembering a famous battle scene you have read or seen before:
“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
These are the last cries of King Richard at Bosworth before he was slain in Shakespeare’s play Richard III, Act 5, Scene 4.
Martin makes no secret that he mixes old things to make new ones. The inspirations for his ASOIAF series range from history to mythology, from Tolkien to Stan Lee, and, in some of his interviews, he has mentioned Shakespeare. The passage above is a great example of how he uses Shakespearean material in much the same way he uses historical events and figures — vaguely familiar but generally unrecognizable.
As far as I know, the only specific Shakespearean source to which Martin has admitted is Falstaff — as one of several sources for Robert Baratheon. There are a lot more connections that he has not talked about. Nevertheless, he seems to have acknowledged that the very technique of mixing multiple sources for his own use was directly learned from the Bard himself. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Martin said (emphasis mine), “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.”
In this and subsequent articles, I’ll dig into some characters and stylistic elements in the ASOIAF series that seem to share significant similarity with those in Shakespeare’s plays. The first example is a pair of kindred spirit: Iago and Petyr Baelish, aka “Littlefinger.”
Predators of the Mind
Iago is a mere ensign harboring a bigger ambition in Othello’s army. In the play’s opening scene, he tells the audience that, after having been passed over for a promotion to lieutenant, he has decided to destroy his boss, Othello, and his professional rival, Cassio, out of hatred. Through a series of intricate lies and tricks, Iago succeeds in getting Cassio kicked out of the army, making Othello suspect adultery between Cassio and his wife Desdemona, and nudging Othello into murdering Desdemona. Once Othello discovers the truth, he commits suicide.
Widely regarded as one of the most evil villains in literature, Iago’s power comes not from his social position or brute force, but purely from his meticulous scheming and his ability to bring out the worst in people. He plants seeds of suspicion and resentment, and lets them foment into the victims’ self destruction. He is a predator of the mind.
Few writers have attempted to recreate a villain as clever and terrifying as Iago. Agatha Christie made a valiant effort in the novel “Curtain,” Hercule Poirot’s final case. In this case, the Iago-inspired murderer is a rather meek, almost faceless, middle-aged man Norton. Christie rightly notes that the brilliance of Iago’s evil is his lack of any overt action. Norton kills no one with his own hands, while Iago kills only two “weaker” characters: his wife Emilia and an already-wounded accomplice Rodrigo.
I have not seen any literary character who comes as close to Iago as Petyr Baelish, a minor lord from a dreadful patch of barren land. After a humiliating childhood and adolescence as a ward of the Tully family, he pulled himself up to the position of Master of Coin at the court by manipulating Jon Arryn, the Hand under King Robert Baratheon, through his puppet Lysa Arryn (nee Tully). He is at least partially responsible for engineering the wars that have engulfed the Seven Kingdoms. All the while he has never dirtied his well-manicured hands with blood, much like Iago. No, their deadliest weapon is whispers into others’ ears. It would be extremely difficult to convict them of murder in the modern court of law.
Below is Littlefinger’s explanation to his protégé Sansa on how he induced the assassination of King Joffrey:
“When I came to Highgarden to dicer for Margaery’s hand, [Lady Olenna] let her lord son bluster while she asked pointed questions about Joffrey’s nature. I praised him to the skies, to be sure … whilst my men spread disturbing tales amongst Lord Tyrell’s servants. (A Storm of Swords).”
Littlefinger also deftly set up Tyrion Lannister as the fall guy by arranging for a dwarf show on the wedding:
“And Joffrey . . . you can lead a king to water, but with Joff one had to splash it about before he realized he could drink it. When I told him about my little surprise, His Grace said, ‘Why would I want some ugly dwarfs at my feast? I hate dwarfs.’ I had to take him by the shoulder and whisper, ‘Not as much as your uncle will.’1 ”
The exchanges between Ned Stark and Littlefinger in A Game of Thrones mirror those between Othello and Iago. Ned and Othello are simply too straightforward and nearsighted, like most of us, to suspect the vast and baroque maze in the heads of men like Littlefinger and Iago. Ned did not entirely trust Littlefinger, but was won over by his “honesty,” when the latter told Ned not to trust him. Reverse psychology has never played so beautifully.
Vast and Baroque Plans
Both Iago and Littlefinger are experts at devising complex plans that involve multiple players and maximizing situational advantages to achieve their goals. For example, to destroy the Moor, Iago first gets Cassio drunk, which leads to a drunken brawl, and Cassio subsequently injures a local Cypriot nobleman. With political tensions already high in Cyprus, Othello has no choice but fire Cassio so as not to endanger his army. Subsequently, Cassio goes to Desdemona and begs her to convince Othello for his reinstatement — at Iago’s “helpful” suggestion. Desdemona’s pleas only confirm Othello’s suspicion, which is also planted by Iago. The chain of events is so circumspect and convoluted that none of these characters can be expected to connect the dots, and neither would we if Iago hadn’t explained his every move to the audience with monologues and asides. We should remember that George R.R. Martin himself was once a fairly accomplished chess player and chess tournament director. He is almost as good as Shakespeare in devising many steps ahead in a game, so far ahead that no one else realizes the pattern and purpose of these moves.
We don’t have the benefit of entering the evil imaginations of Littlefinger, but we have had a few glimpses from his rare moments of semi-confessions. It is not until almost the end of A Storm of Sword that some of his maneuvers are revealed. He masterminded Jon Arryn’s murder before the start of the series, which directly led to Ned’s obligation to go to King’s Land and serve as the Hand. Ned’s investigation of Jon Arryn’s murder inevitably ended on Cersei and Jaime’s secret, which resulted in his open confrontation with Cersei. The rest we all know. Moreover, it has been speculated by some fans, but not yet confirmed in the novels, that Joffrey was not the real culprit for Ned’s beheading. Instead, Littlefinger may have planted the idea in Joffrey’s head with a few words.
Driven by Love?
An important element in this game, as Christie and Martin both seem to understand, is the lack of apparent motives. Shakespeare stumbles slightly here: Iago claims that he just wants proper recognition for his hard work, and then adds, not very convincingly, that perhaps Othello seduced his wife Emilia in the past. The problem is that he has no practical gain once Cassio is fired, yet he carries on with his plan toward the ruination of Desdemona and, subsequently, Othello. The motive problem has led to some modern speculation that Iago is in love with Othello and jealous of Desdemona, despite his frequent protestations “I hate the Moor.” The source Italian story on which Shakespeare based his play suggests that Iago is in love with Desdemona and wants to emotionally destroy Othello out of jealousy. On the other hand, Christie furnishes no motive at all for Norton in “Curtain” except for the thrill of watching people suffer.
Littlefinger similarly tells Sansa that his protection from suspicion is not only his alibi at the time of Joffrey’s murder but also that “I had no motive.” (Game of Thrones, episode 406) I don’t believe him. I am not entirely convinced by the “chaos is a ladder” declaration, which argues that he is creating chaos just to elevate his status at court and garner more (yet unrealized) power. It is too general and too vague. There are many ways to climb the ladder, including firmly supporting the ruling party (the Lannisters) and becoming indispensible, like Varys has done. Every character in ASOIAF has their specific and very human motives. Littlefinger should be no exception.
Out of necessity, Martin cannot write any viewpoint chapters for characters such as Littlefinger and Varys, but one can make deductions from the few revelations available. For example, why did Littlefinger murder Jon Arryn to push the kingdom into chaos? The direct result of the murder is bringing Ned Stark to King’s Landing, where Littlefinger can more easily get access to his wife and eliminate him. Why does he want to eliminate Ned? The TV series provides an even clearer answer than the novels: He wants Cat. Only Cat. Getting rid of her husband would have been a natural first step. Besides, Littlefinger has no love for the Starks, as the scar left by Brandon Stark on him must be reminding him every day. Unfortunately, not everything goes as planned, and Littlefinger has limited influence on Lord Tywin’s strategies (note that neither Tywin nor the Freys initially planned to kill Catelyn). So he can’t have Cat after all. As for engineering Joffrey’s death, he might not be lying when he suggests to Sansa that it is a kind of revenge for the Red Wedding. We only need to look at the outcome of the Purple Wedding to understand Littlefinger’s motive: he now has Sansa. The girl looks so much like her mother, only more beautiful and, even better, allows him to play Pygmalion. Her access to power over the entire North is just icing on the cake. And why does he frame Tyrion? Because he is Sansa’s husband. He has to go as well. Littlefinger’s motive may well be his brand of love. Similarly, it is possible that Iago’s motive is less about power and more about the ruination of his romantic rival, which might be either Othello or Desdemona. Coincidence?
It’s impossible to predict what is going to happen to the evil genius Petyr Baelish in the final novels. Will he meet the same comeuppance as Iago in the play? Curiously, Iago’s crimes are revealed and he is arrested in the end, but he does not die on stage, unlike most villains in Shakespearean tragedies. It is unlikely that Littlefinger should win the entire game of thrones, but he could nevertheless remain standing in the end.
All Game of Thrones images are copyright HBO.
- A Storm of Swords [↩]