The Parallels Between Shakespeare and George R. R. Martin


Lena Headey in ‘Game of Thrones’/Image © HBO

“There is nothing new under the sun.” Idiom or parable, regardless of how you would characterize it, it’s most certainly widely accepted – and oft lamented – wisdom. In a period where it seems as if our modes of entertainment are increasingly full of recycled ideas, remakes and re-imaginings, the phrase has taken on a sour note. It is shorthand for our collective desire for something new, something original. But let’s look at the larger truth: Stories – and the writers who create them – are not birthed in a vacuum. Fiction, no matter its form, is largely the melding of inspiration from various sources. There are a handful of names that continuously thread their way through the tapestry of literature – Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, to name a few. As we’ve talked about before, William Shakespeare holds perhaps the most prominent spot in most literary family trees.

Shakespeare’s 38 plays and 154 sonnets remain fixtures of not only literary education, but of theater, television, and film. His works still today speak to basic human truths. Shakespeare, like the contemporaries following in his prodigious footsteps, took inspiration from all corners – ancient Greek novels, myths and legend, historical events. In doing so, Shakespeare shaped the literary landscape for generations of writers. It can be seen most clearly in the current writer whose own influence will likely be the subject of a fair share of articles, term papers, and dissertations: George R.R. Martin.

Martin has long been candid on his belief that his ideas are not “enormously original.” Nor is it a secret that actual historical events are a tremendous inspiration for Martin’s epic world – specifically the Wars of the Roses. Like Shakespeare, George R.R. Martin employs his various inspirations (from medieval history to Tolkien to Shakespeare) as anchor points for the fantasy he is spinning. What is fascinating when looking at a contemporary writer like Martin is the way his influences can be traced and strands of his literary DNA unraveled.

The influence of William Shakespeare on Martin – similar to the influence of the Bard on Tolkien – can first be seen in shared themes. Perhaps the most common motif throughout the six current volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire is the corrupting influence of power and the quest for it. Within George R.R. Martin’s characters lurk echoes of Shakespeare – particularly in the various Houses of Westeros. Characters ranging from Robert Baratheon to Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister owe a debt to the characters throughout Shakespeare’s works. There are strains of Falstaff in the boorish nature of Robert Baratheon. In Ned Stark’s tragic tale we can see the influence of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York – his strained relationship with King Henry VI’s wife (in ASOIF, Cersei Lannister) or his service as Lord Protector (or King’s Hand). In a larger sense, both the central conflict in Westeros, and the families driving it, rely on the inspiration of Shakespeare. While Martin often cites the Wars of the Roses as a central underpinning for his fantasy world, it is likely Shakespeare’s deft dramatizations of the statecraft behind the conflict in plays like Richard III and Henry VI that sparked Martin’s imagination.

Beyond the clear lines that can be drawn from Shakespeare to George R.R. Martin (with stops along the way for the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, and Pratchett), Shakespeare and Martin share a remarkably similar sensibility and approach. Much like Shakespeare, Martin generously draws on actual events to underpin the world he has crafted. Both writers blend their unique voices with bits of history and myth to flesh out the stories they create. Martin, however, has the benefit of calling on Shakespeare through subtle allusion to enhance the emotion, drama, and brutal intrigue that define his works. Of course, in that sense Martin is simply doing as all writers before him – including the likes of William Shakespeare – have done: paying credit to those that inspire his work. There is nothing new under the sun, but at times the world of fiction is all the better for it.