Machiavelli's "The Prince" In Compared "The Game Of Thrones"

Machiavellian concepts have been discussed throughout history. They have been discussed, even to the extent that there are classes on its’ very topic. These discussions, however, have mostly surrounded political theory, as one would expect. Despite this, Machiavellian concepts have an impact on other subjects as well, even popular culture. Game of Thrones, the fourth most-watched television show in the United States certainly has an impact on popular culture (Nielsen 2019). Game of Thrones is especially relevant because the story’s basis comes from the War of the Roses, a series of civil wars in Europe between 1455 and 1485 involving the noble families Lancasters and Yorks, the descendants of King Edward III, in a power struggle for the throne (History. com 2009). The War of the Roses contains important lessons on power being fleeting, therefore Game of Thrones can give those same lessons with a pop culture spin on them. The television show Game of Thrones is also based on George R. R. Martin's best-selling book series 'A Song of Ice and Fire. ' The story is about nine noble families, both deceitful and virtuous, who are all “playing” The Game of Thrones, fighting to have control of the Iron Throne and the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Machiavelli wrote The Prince as a guide for leaders and princes in his time, specifically the Medici, on how to rule and how not to rule. Because both of these works explore the concept of a ruler's power and how to keep it, this paper will explore the various Machiavellian characteristics from specific examples in his book The Prince compared to Game of Thrones themes including power residing in masculine qualities and virtue in leaders. It will also cover the character decisions regarding the power of Cersei Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. Lastly, the question of power itself will be discussed with perspectives from both works.

The story of Game of Thrones has several different storylines that occur, but with three main stories. The first storyline is one surrounding the noble families in conflict, fighting for control of the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms. At the beginning of the story, Cersei Lannister’s family sits upon the throne. The second storyline follows Daenerys Targaryen, the last descendant of the previous kingdom’s rule who has been exiled but plots her return to take back over what she believes is her rightful throne. The third storyline tells the story of the Stark family, who grapple with virtue throughout the story, and have an ultimate goal of saving their family and the Seven Kingdoms from evil. The characters and the themes throughout Game of Thrones present many Machiavellian ideas, especially those of power.

In Machiavelli’s time, it is safe to say power only resided in the hands of men. In Game of Thrones, this is hardly the case. The show demonstrates strong-willed and powerful women, something Machiavelli may not agree on as a product of his time and evident in his writing. In Chapter 25 of The Prince Machiavelli says, “. . . because fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her. . . She favours young men. . . because they command her with greater audacity” (Machiavelli 81). In this statement, he compares women to good fortune and considers it necessary to command and abuse them. Although there are controversial scenes containing the harsh treatment of women in Game of Thrones as well, Machiavelli’s sexism bleeds into his lack of giving women any sort of power in his books, while Game of Thrones practically revolves around the power of women. While Machiavelli may not agree with the gender of the show’s main characters he may, however, agree on their presentation of power in a masculine likeness. Before Daenerys Targaryen begins her rise to power, she is a timid and gentle young woman, truly embodying traditional gender stereotypes. Throughout the trials and tribulations she suffers, her character develops an aggressiveness, confidence, and viscousness. In Season 1 Episode 10, “Fire and Blood,” Daenerys walks into a fire with dragon eggs, and emerges unburnt with three baby dragons just born, now known as the “Mother of Dragons. ” Since this pivotal moment in the story and even despite her new gendered name, her power and authority are solely based on her unmatched ability to control these new ravenous dragons with newfound strength. It is because of these masculine qualities of confidence, strength, and aggressiveness she develops that she is able to obtain power and prowess over people throughout the show. Daenerys goes on to command an army of 8,000, take over the city of Meereen, and eventually attack the capital of King’s Landing in the last season. Without this character development, she would have remained a reserved and quiet woman, incapable of ruling and commanding an army of dragons (Clapton and Shepard). Throughout The Prince, Machiavelli points to a prince’s “prowess” as one of their most defining characteristics as a leader, something Daenerys has gained along with the adoption of these other masculine qualities.

One of the principal themes throughout Game of Thrones is virtue and the idea that one should always do the right thing. The Italian term virtu is also discussed at length in The Prince. When Machiavelli refers to it, however, he is speaking of not only the moral aspect but also of courage, fortitude, generosity and the ability of one to be a successful leader. In Chapter 19, “How princes should honor their word,” Machiavelli speaks towards all the good virtuous qualities that a prince should have. However, he also says, “A prince, therefore, need not necessarily have all the good qualities I mentioned above, but he should certainly appear to have them. I would even go so far as to say that if he has these qualities and always behaves accordingly he will find them harmful…” (Machiavelli, 57). In this statement, Machiavelli is holding a prince to a different moral standard than as someone like Ned Stark may in Game of Thrones. Ned Stark is the head of the Stark family and in Season One leaves his home to serve as the Hand of the King. At first, he did not want to leave but is eventually convinced, because of his honor, that to serve the King is the right thing to do. In the Capital of King’s Landing, he is doing research for the King and uncovers a secret of Cersei Lannister, the King’s wife. He finds out that the Kings’ children are not biologically his children but instead the result of an incestuous affair between Cersei and her twin brother. As a man of honor, he confronts Cersei with the hope she will own up to her mistake. However, the King suddenly dies of a hunting accident and Cersei uses this new power through her son, the heir, to silence Ned with her secret. Ned’s fortune begins to disappear from the moment he leaves with the King. His “tragic obsession with honor and duty. . . oblige him to make a series of errors. . . ” ultimately resulting in him losing his head (Kirby 2-3). Machiavelli would certainly hold Ned Stark to a different standard as Hand of the King. With such an influence on power, Machiavelli would have advised Ned to do what needed to be done to keep his life and his position, despite the moral implications.

Cersei Lannister began at the start of the story as simply the King’s wife. However, as the show unfolds the audience is able to see her selfish and powerful character. Unlike Ned, Cersei is willing to do whatever it takes to keep her son and her family in power. Not only did she engage in an incestuous relationship with her brother, but she willingly let a good an honorable man die. Machiavelli states, “Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous, and to make use of this according to need,” and Cersei does just this with Ned (Machiavelli 50). Cersei’s willingness to do what it takes whether virtuous or not paints her as a good ruler in Machiavelli’s book. However, Chapter 15 goes on to say, “. . . a prince has of necessity to be so prudent that he knows how to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which would lose him his state… (Machiavelli 51). Cersei is so wrapped up in her own power and self-sufficiency that she is viewed with an evil reputation by her people because she not only acts unvirtuous to others but also treats them horribly. In Season 8 Episode 5, “The Bells,” Cersei is preparing for an attack on the capital and opens the gates of her castle to allow the people of King's Landing in. They rush in and feel more protected once they are inside the gates. However, Cersei’s intentions were not to keep her people safe but to use them as a human shield, convinced the attacker would not murder all of the innocent people. She was wrong. Because of actions like these, Cersei will never be viewed as a good or moral leader by her people. Although she does not follow Machiavelli’s guidelines on appearing to be a good leader, she is certainly a feared leader, which is preferred in Machiavelli’s eyes. He says blatantly, “It is better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (Machiavelli 54). Cersei ultimately decided she will not be a loved leader, but she will be a feared leader at all costs. Being loved or feared, moral or immoral, and pampered or crushed are all examples of very binary concepts brought up by Machiavelli throughout his works. Cersei Lannister demonstrates another binary concept throughout the show saying, “When you play the Game of Thrones you either win or die, there is no middle ground” (“A Golden Crown”). In another effort to win the game, Season 5 surrounds Cersei’s fight for power against a new queen, Margarey, who has married Cersei’s son Tommen. Margarey also craves power and tries to convince Tommen to send Cersei away. Cersei sees a possible solution to her problem when the Sparrows, a religious sect, begin shaming and beating “sinners” in the community. Cersei appoints the High Sparrow as the High Septon of Kings Landing which gives him ultimate power. Cersei then informs the new High Septon that Margarey’s brother Loras has had relations with other men, and the new enforcers, the Faith Militant, arrest him and torture him to confess. Margarey lies at trial in her brother’s defense but is caught and gets arrested as well. In the excitement of having power over her son back, Cersei goes to the jail to taunt Margarey, but the High Septon makes it known that Loras has told the Faith Militant of Cersei’s inscesctuous affair and she is arrested, her plan turning against her. Cersei’s greatest mistake was giving up her power in order to have the Sparrows do her “dirty laundry” for her. Machiavelli speaks about giving up power to others, especially in regards to the Church. He says, “Nor did he realize that by taking his decision he weakened himself. . . and strengthened the Church by adding so much temporal power to its existing spiritual power, which gives it such authority” (Machiavelli 13). Machiavelli’s ideas of how a prince should rule, with prowess and doing what needs to be done, do not fit in with sharing power, especially power of that of a Church which already can hold spiritual power in people’s lives. He urges other leaders to not get involved with the Church because of religious radicals in his own time, relating to the Sparrows as religious radicals in the Game of Thrones world. If Cersei had not given up her power to the Sparrows as Machiavelli would have advised she would have saved herself much trouble, including her son’s eventual suicide because of her actions.

On the other side of the Game of Thrones world, Daenerys Targaryen is making efforts to gain power, control and experience ruling so that she may one day take her rightful spot on the Iron Throne in King’s Landing to rule the Seven Kingdoms. After Daenerys’ dragons are born, she has added a bit of power on her side, and sets off to the city of Astapor. Here, she expresses an interest in purchasing the best army in the Seven Kingdoms. This army is the Unsullied army, and they have been brought up as slaves to be sold. Daenerys’ dragons destroy the cruel army master, freeing the Unsullied. Even though she needs an army, Daenerys tells the Unsullied that they are free men, and if they are willing, to join her cause to free the rest of the slaves and “break the wheel” in the Kingdoms. They join her wholeheartedly. Daenerys befriended the Unsullied, showed her virtue as a leader, and gained their trust. In the same case The Prince states, “the government will know it cannot endure without the friendship and power of the prince who created it…” (Machiavelli 18). Daenerys knew in order to gain a loyal army she needed to create a friendship of trust with the Unsullied, allowing her to become more and more powerful. Machiavelli also speaks to gaining political power in his Chapter 6, “New principalities acquired by one’s own arms and prowess” by saying, “the opportunities given them enabled these men to succeed, and their own exceptional prowess enabled them to seize their opportunities;in consequence their countries were ennobled and enjoyed great prosperity” (Machiavelli 20). Daenerys is able to have more success in her pursuits now that the army is fully hers and her power is the result of her own actions. Daenerys and the Unsullied set off to take control of Slaver’s Bay and liberate all of the people enslaved there. Grey Worm, the leader of the Unsullied and Daenerys’ new commander, sneaks into the city, arms the slaves and provokes an uprising among the people so she is able to take over. Daenerys meets the slave masters with fear and crucifies them for their heinous actions of owning and torturing slaves. Because of this, a masked group called the Sons of the Harpy begin to riot against their new Queen, killing some of the Unsullied in protest against her. This group is upset at the injustices caused against them when the laws were instantly changed because of Daenerys. Like saif by Machiavelli, “whoever becomes master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself; because, when there is a rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions, never forgotten despite the passing of time and the benefits received from the new ruler” (Machiavelli 18). The slave masters in this instance are the ones inciting the rebellion, in their view they have lost their liberty of owning slaves, as has been the custom in Astapor for thousands of years. After much debacle between the Unsullied and the Sons of the Harpy’s Daenerys leaves Astapor somewhat stable and in the hands of a trusted advisor in order to continue her journey to take over the Iron Throne. However, the city is taken over by someone new who reverts the city back to its old ways. Daenerys allowed the people of Astapor to keep more power than she should have, leading to her eventual failure in leading the city and “breaking the wheel” of power as they know it. Daenerys eventually sees she has made a mistake and by the conclusion of the series will fix this mistake.

The ending of Game of Thrones can be described as controversial at the least, with both audience members and characters hoping for a happy ending, but instead getting many surprises. However, someone who has studied Machiavelli’s ideas on political theory may not have been so surprised. Daenerys eventually makes it to King’s Landing and prepares the armies that she has acquired alongside Jon Stark, Ned Stark’s adopted son and his forces, to attack the city. Tyrion Lannister, Cersei’s brother and the new advisor of Daenerys, pleads with her that if the city rings the bells they are surrendering. Daenerys takes her dragon, decimating Cersei’s fleet and army as she goes. After much damage and many lives lost, the bells at King’s Landing ring “surrender. ” However, Daenerys has learned from her time in Astapor that if she hopes for change, letting the city live is not an option. “Whatever the conqueror’s actions or foresight, if the inhabitants are not dispersed and scattered, they will forget neither that name nor those institutions; and at the first opportunity they will at once have recourse to them…” (Machiavelli 19). Daenerys unleashed her dragon to breathe fire onto all the people of the city, utterly destroying them and every last part of the city, until it is rained ash. The criticisms of this scene were many, with loyal audience members craving Daenerys to take her rightful spot on the throne as a good and virtuous queen. Jon Stark, who is concerned with the good of the Seven Kingdoms, goes to talk with Tryrion who convinces him that Daenerys is now a “Mad Queen,” having gone crazy and destroying the entire city. Jon, who considers himself a protector of the realm kills Daenerys after hearing this. While many may agree with Jon and Tyrion, Machiavelli would not. Daenerys did what was necessary to obtain power and her ends certainly justified her means as she was the rightful ruler looking to make the world a better place. Daenerys has almost perfectly developed from a mere girl, to a powerful leader willing to do what it takes for that power. She has learned from ideas such as Machiavelli’s, but Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister along with many others simply got in her way of power.

The ideas of political theory that surround Machiavelli’s opinions of 1513 Italy, although ancient, are not stagnant in simply the subject of government. His concepts have elucidated the pop culture television series Game of Thrones, with clear references to each other's ideas. The concepts of power residing with masculine qualities and leaders requiring virtue to rule well support each other throughout both works. Cersie Lannister displays Machiavellian qualities, but is too “in over her own head” to tap into the potential she has to be a true Machiavellian leader. Daenerys Targaryan evolved as a leader into something Machiavelli would fully support, however due to unfortunate views of others she was taken down. The concept of power itself is complex in the Game of Thrones world as it was in this history it was based on and in Machiavelli’s world. In Season 2 Episode 3, “What is Dead May Never Die,” a riddle is told by a man named Varys to Tyrion Lannister: “Three great men sit in a room - a king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each man bids the sellsword, ‘Kill the other two’. Who lives? Who Dies?”

Tyrion immediately responds that it “depends on the sellsword. . . he has a sword-the power of life and death. ”

Varys then asks “if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power?”

This concept of “illusory power” may seem to not coincide with Machiavelli’s opinions, as he did write several books on power and the exact things to do in order to gain and keep it. However, illusory power goes hand in hand with Machiavelli’s concept of virtue: courage, fortitude, generosity and especially the ability of one to know how to play the game of politics and do what needs to be done in order to be a successful leader. “The winner will not survive because of his status as a king, a priest, a rich man, or even a sellsword. The victor will be the person who recognizes the illusory nature of power. . . For you see, real power lies neither in force, nor faith, nor wealth. It lies in knowing the rules of the game of thrones” (Iuliano 1).

31 October 2020
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