power

“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

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Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Nasty, Brutish, but Definitely Not Short: Game of Thrones and the History of Power

It might seem counter-intuitive to talk about a fantasy television series as having anything meaningful to say about history. But Game of Thrones‘ self-conscious evocation of the medieval world, as well as the fact that so many of its storylines are drawn from historical events in our own world, suggests that it does indeed have something it wants to tell about history—about the ways in which individuals engage with the social and cultural forces that seem to move times, societies, and cultures forward. In the clip shown here, Petyr Baelish, the corrupt and ruthless Master of Coin, explains to Varys his vision of the world and the rules that govern the way it works.

In essence, chaos provides cunning and ruthless people the ability to rise to the top; not for him the illusions and grand visions of a just society. Power, and the ability to seize it, are the things that matter most to Petyr, and indeed to many of the characters of the series. Baelish’s words could also just as easily describe the vision of history that the whole series articulates (and to an even greater extent A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic fantasy novel series upon which it is based). In this framework, the sense and order that we attempt to impose on the past are necessary fictions designed to paper over the bloody, visceral, and terrifying truths that remind us as viewers and readers of our fleshly mortality.

The St. Sesbastian-like body of the prostitute Ros, pierced by the arrows wielded by the supremely sadistic Joffrey, in many ways stands as the ultimate expression of Game of Thrones’ theory of history. The actions of the great and powerful, the Lannisters, the Tyrells, the Targaryens, the Starks, become the ones recorded in the great books of learning. The lives of those affected, their bodies left broken and bloody, even the very narratives of their deaths utilized for those who seek their own aggrandizement, are a potent reminder of the price of history. They are the grisly detritus of the actions of these lords and ladies and kings who wield the power. The spectacle of Ros’s death is an unpleasant and viscerally shocking reminder of just how violent and unsettling history can be. For women and the poor, who have little agency or voice of their own, their bodies become the only way they can communicate their historical presence.

The series constantly begs the question: who is to blame for this horrific and chaotic state of affairs? Eddard Stark, for not doing the pragmatic thing and joining his force with Renly’s, thereby possibly averting the civil war, his death, and the ruin of his family? Robert Baratheon, for so many things: his bitterness at being forced to wed a woman he didn’t love, all for political expedience, his mistreatment of her (which leads to her successful plot to kill him and plunges the kingdom into chaos?), his unwillingness to take an actual hand in governing? Varys the Spider, the eunuch who has secretly plotted to bring back the exiled Targaryens, all the while claiming that he only wants what is best for the kingdom? All of the above? None of the above?

In this world, everyone is guilty and yet all are, paradoxically, somewhat innocent. At least, their actions can in part be explained by the forces, social, cultural, personal, that undergird and seethe beneath the surface of Westeros, that always threaten to burst free and plunge everything into chaos. The actions of the past are not contained there, discrete and easily deciphered, but instead continue to mold the present. Characters frequently find their actions circumscribed by the legacies left them by their parents, or by ancestors who have been long dead. The political chaos that erupts from the second season onward is just as much a result of the wars of centuries past as it is of the actions taken by the characters in the present.

Game of Thrones attempts to do away with the neatly defined explanations for what causes significant political and social change. The many competing plot-lines that nearly constantly intertwine and intersect with one another create an incredibly complicated skein of cause-and-effect that make it nearly impossible to impose some sort of large, explanatory meta-narrative on the events that unfold. All that can be said with any certainty is that the world that emerges from the convulsions of the end of the previous era is one characterized by even more political and social violence than the admittedly bloody ones that preceded it.

The historian Robert Rosenstone has compellingly suggested that the filming of history is “about loss of control; loss of sense; loss” (236). Game of Thrones, whatever its flaws and however troubling its representational politics, nevertheless challenges its viewers to come to grips with this powerful, almost sublime, sense of history. In a world that seems to live in a perpetual present (to riff off of Jameson’s claim), Game of Thrones stands as a potent reminder of the unsettling nature of history and that, I can’t help but think, is a good thing.


T.J. is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film and TV Studies in the Department of English. His dissertation examines theories of history as articulated in epic films and TV series set in antiquity. He teaches courses on film, popular culture, race, and gender, and in his free time enjoys watching The Golden Girls and nerding out over the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and their various adaptations. He frequently blogs at Queerly Different. You can follow him on Twitter @tjwest3.