You Say “Shakespearean” Like It’s a Good Thing…

NOTE: If you haven’t watched Game of Thrones through the most recent episode, then beware that there are SPOILERS. I also discuss plot points in Shakespeare’s history plays, but if you’re worried about being “spoiled” on those, well, I just don’t know what to tell you.

Game of Thrones, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, has been dominating conversations about television and pop culture in general for five seasons now. However, many of the reactions to the most recent season of the show have begun to echo some of the criticisms leveled at the books. As this piece points out, much of the early acclaim for the franchise was based on the fact that Martin’s books and their TV adaptation subverted the audience’s expectations in terms of narrative and tone. No mainstream fantasy franchise had dared to be so dark and cynical, killing off virtuous heroes and dealing frankly with sex, violence, and moral shades of grey. However, there’s a growing perception that both the books and TV show have gone to the same well once too often, making the franchise seem more and more like a wallow in misery that tries to keep our interest with cheap shock tactics.

Given the growing ambivalence about Game of Thrones and its source material, it might seem like high praise to say that it echoes the work of Shakespeare. This isn’t exactly a new or controversial position, since countless articles have been making the comparison since the show premiered in 2011. It’s also somewhat true, as the show shares certain features with many Shakespearean history plays, such as a wide cast of characters and plots driven by intricate schemes aimed at seizing political power. However, I’m not so sure that the comparison is a flattering one, given that the last few books and the most recent season remind me in particular of the Henry VI plays. In fact, the similarities between the Game of Thrones franchise and the Henry VI cycle suggest to me that some of the broad parallels between the business of theatre in the 1590s and the television industry of our own time explain many of the creative shortcomings of both bodies of work.

It’s a bit misleading to speak of the Henry VI plays as a trilogy, at least in the sense of the word as we use it today, since there’s some debate over which plays were written when, and in what order. Only Part 1 has an original title that refers to Henry VI, while the other two were initially published under different titles. When the First Folio came out after Shakespeare’s death, it grouped all three together under Henry’s name. Still, all three plays do seem to have been written and staged within a fairly short span of time: there are references to all three in contemporary sources during a time when the theatres were shut down by plague, which means that they would have been written and performed between 1590, when some of their source material was published, and late June of 1592, when the pestilence hit. Furthermore, characters and plotlines carry over from play to play, inviting those audience members who might be familiar with an earlier installment to refer back to its events.

It’s common for those teaching the history of early modern English plays to liken them to today’s television – they were often collaborative efforts, they were produced fairly quickly, and they were considered a disposable art form that lived or died on popular acclaim or the lack thereof. It wasn’t uncommon for especially successful plays to spawn a sequel or two, which suggests that there was some appetite for multi-part storytelling of a sort roughly similar to a show like Game of Thrones.

Premium cable television and Elizabethan theatre are also roughly analogous in terms of their audience. Both are popular mediums, in the broad sense. Although, as Shakespeare scholar Andrew Gurr has noted, only about 15-20% of the population in and around London attended plays very often (Shakespearean Stage, 213), the people who did come represented a decently broad cross-section of upper- and middle-class society. HBO occupies a similar niche in today’s culture: it’s in about 35 million households, and those who don’t have it may be watching specific shows like Thrones via DVDs, piracy, or other means. In both the present-day TV industry and Shakespeare’s theatre, there was an imperative to produce work that would convince an audience with at least some disposable income to invest in a ticket or subscription.

The Henry VI plays are also like Game of Thrones in that they’re based on narratives with which their audience might already be somewhat familiar. It’s too much of a stretch to call the plays straight adaptations, in the way that the show adapts A Song of Ice and Fire. Still, Shakespeare (and his possible collaborators – for simplicity’s sake I’m referring to him as the author) pulled from works such as Holinshed’s historical chronicles and dramatized their events, albeit far more freely than Game of Thrones adapts the books. Even if Shakespeare’s audience hadn’t necessarily read his sources, many of them were familiar with the broad outlines of the story he was telling. Anytime that’s the case, it leads to certain expectations for the work, whether it be a play, TV show, or movie. Audiences are looking for the ways in which that work either meets or subverts those narrative expectations, and playwrights and showrunners alike are acutely aware of that fact, which dictates some of their most important choices in terms of writing and producing the work.

The Henry VI plays share some other narrative characteristics with Game of Thrones, most notably in the fact that their dramatic action spreads out over such a vast array of characters and locations that it leaves both the plays and the show without a firm center around which they can revolve. Although it can be fun to follow the vast array of plot complications, they tend to crowd out meaningful character development and can lead to storylines whose immediate relevance to the larger action isn’t always clear (I mean, seriously, when in the Seven Hells is Daenerys going to get to Westeros, already?). The Henry VI of the plays is a nonentity, starting out as a child king and failing to make much of an impression even once he’s grown up, so you can’t really pin a unified dramatic cycle on him. The action around him jumps between multiple feuds that are undermining the kingdom of England, leaving the realm weak and divided. The conflicts introduced in the first play build throughout the second and third, growing into a civil war that reaps a harvest of corpses, until the future Richard III kills King Henry himself in the wake of a final, decisive battle.

That’s the general arc of the trilogy’s overall plot, but within the individual plays, or even within single acts of those plays, characters tend to come and go so quickly that there aren’t many that we can latch onto and sympathize with, especially if you’re looking for a “good guy” to root for. In fact, Richard of York, who’s a title character in the first published version of Part 3 (the original title was The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke, and the death of good King Henrie the Sixt, with the Whole Contention betweene the two Houses Lancaster and Yorke – so…hey, maybe Henry VI, Part 3 isn’t such a bad title after all!), doesn’t last past the first act of that play. Perhaps the best example is Act 4 (and yes, I know the act structures were imposed on the text when they were printed, not when they were first performed) of 2 Henry VI, which sees an entire rebellion begin, fall apart, and end while the play’s other plot threads have yet to be resolved. The overall effect sometimes approaches the episodic nature of a TV show, in which an entire discrete dramatic arc can play out within a single installment. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Game of Thrones doesn’t do this as much as other shows, but it has at times, and to great effect. The introduction, development, and ultimate demise of the Wildling Karsi took less than half an episode, but her presence helped to make that Season 5 episode,  “Hardhome”, a series best.

I mean, seriously, call it
I mean, seriously, call it “Wars of the Roses: Electric Boogaloo,” *anything* other than this.

As with Game of Thrones, most of the characters in the Henry VI plays aren’t especially sympathetic. Most of the major figures are selfish schemers, trying to grab or hold onto power for themselves while the ineffectual king basically goes around wishing that everyone could have unlimited puppies and ice cream and just, you know, get along. Upstanding characters who actually try to serve the greater good, like Talbot in the first part or Gloucester in the second, tend to end up dead, and often long before the end of the play. Anyone who’s seen their share of noble Starks get offed before a season of Thrones comes to a close knows the feeling. The device of unexpectedly killing off the good guys can provide a sense of thrilling novelty at first, but I don’t think I’m the only one who, after a while, just wants the White Walkers or the Tudors or whomever to just swoop in from nowhere and wipe out all of these awful people, already.

In addition to similarities in terms of plot, both Thrones and the Henry VI plays also share a tendency towards violent sensationalism, which can lead to prioritizing the wow-did-you-see-that moment over more subtle surprises. It also gives the show, in particular, a tendency towards the sadistic. Now, a sadistic scene here or there can work well; as this piece points out in passing, even Lear has that horrific moment where Gloucester’s blinded onstage. But when the viciousness is as sustained as it is on Thrones, or in other lower-tier Shakespeare plays such as Titus Andronicus or the Henry VI cycle, it quickly becomes wearying. Even TV critics who remain positive about the show overall seem unanimous in their desire for Thrones to kill off the despicable Ramsay Bolton, who routinely flays and murders his victims, in what’s become one of the most off-putting strands of the larger narrative.

No one in the Henry VI plays has expertise in making coats out of human skin (at least that we’re aware of – God only knows what little Dickie Plantagenet is doing offstage before he turns into a kingslayer and the future Richard III), but there’s still a pretty ugly streak running through many characters’ actions. The rebel Jack Cade decapitates a noble lord and his son-in-law in the second play and parades their heads through the streets, telling his followers to make the severed heads kiss at every intersection. When would-be king Richard of York is defeated and captured in the third play, he’s made to wipe his brow with a handkerchief stained by the blood of his dead 12-year-old son (whom we saw slaughtered in the previous scene while begging for his life), has a paper crown placed on his head while being taunted by his enemies, and is finally stabbed to death, with a promise that his head will be mounted on the walls of the city of York. Granted, these events are sort of matters of historical record, assuming you accept Shakespeare’s sources as accurate, but he still chose to put these scenes in the script, when they could just as easily have been reported after the fact or glossed over entirely.

Damn, Queen Margaret, that's cold. Like, White Walker cold. 1777 print from the Folger Library.
Damn, Queen Margaret, that’s cold. Like, White Walker cold. 1777 print from the Folger Library.

Less sadistic but no less sensational are the scenes where characters conjure evil spirits to serve their purposes. It happens at least twice, first with Joan La Pucelle in Part 1, then with the Duke of Gloucester’s wife in Part 2. As with the brutal killings that I just mentioned, Shakespeare made a conscious choice to put these scenes onstage, and these events are arguably much less integral to the overall narrative, since they’re one-off events that don’t advance the plot in the ways that supernatural presences in roughly contemporary plays like Faustus or Macbeth do.

We know the character of Joan as Joan of Arc, and fact that she’s depicted in the first play as a whore who uses black magic to oppose the English demonstrates something about the overall tone of these plays, and how they bear yet another resemblance to Game of Thrones. The show has been criticized for wallowing in misery and displaying a cynical view of human nature. I’d argue that the plays do something similar, albeit not nearly to the same degree as the show. In both cases, a kingdom falls apart as the result of many people indulging their worst impulses, with those who try to do right and act for the greater good paying for their efforts with their lives. When the last Henry VI play ends, the title character is dead, the king who sits on the throne has a dubious claim to it, and his evil brother has already begun putting his plans in motion to seize power and destroy all who stand in his way. There’s the promise of Richard III’s eventual downfall for the audience to look forward to, but that’s so far in the future as to be irrelevant when the curtain goes down (figuratively speaking, of course, as there was no actual curtain that had to be raised and lowered in the public theatres of the time).

Good saint gone bad: Joan attempts to conjure some evil spirits in this 1795 print from the Folger Library.
Good saint gone bad: Joan attempts to conjure some evil spirits in this 1795 print from the Folger Library.

Despite the excessive sadism, sensationalism, and plot complications, both Game of Thrones and the Henry VI plays can still be pretty enjoyable. Nor are they bad commercial propositions: as The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare points out, the first Henry VI play (or one of them, anyway, it’s a little unclear) set a box office record for 1592. The plays aren’t done too often today, but they were popular enough that Shakespeare wrote three of them, plus Richard III, which usually stands alone but also continues some of the plotlines from Part 3 and has often been combined with some of the better speeches from that play. We’re mostly left to guess as to what made the Henry VI plays so popular with their audiences, since the Elizabethan era was a little short on bloggers and recappers who could collectively serve as a gauge of plays’ popularity (“What Titus Andronicus Gets Wrong About Chopping People Up and Serving Them In a Pie”), but I wouldn’t be surprised if their sensational qualities played a big role in their success. It is, in my considered scholarly opinion, usually pretty cool to see people conjure spirits and fight battles, even if it’s within the context of a dramatic work that doesn’t hang together especially well. In a similar manner, Game of Thrones has mastered the art of creating moments that spark enthusiastic discussion, whether it’s by the water cooler or on Twitter.

However, the fact that the Henry VI plays (probably) culminated in Richard III points to a final conclusion: at their best, popular forms such as the early modern English theatre or TV in the 21st century can also create something that’s more than just a collection of eye-popping moments. Yes, there are plenty of sensational deaths in Richard, but it also works much more cohesively in terms of characterization, plot, and style, among other elements. People may be talking about Game of Thrones now, and shelling out money for HBO subscriptions because of it, but I’m curious to see if it will be able to transcend its model of giving us shocking moments from scene to scene and instead develop in its final seasons into something of more lasting import.