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22 January 2020

The original Game of Thrones? How Shakespeare inspired modern Prestige TV

Though George R.R. Martin took much of his inspiration from J.R.R Tolkien (including his initials) for his epic fantasy series Game of Thrones, there is an undeniable Shakespearean air to many of his characters and narratives. This is no more evident than in the character Cersei Lannister, portrayed by Lena Headey on HBO’s adaptation of the same name.

Keeping the Iron Throne for her children appears to be Cersei’s initial drive. She plots to have her husband, the king, killed. She revels in her hatred of him and outplays just about everyone. She gains the throne, but at the cost of her children and Jaime’s love and devotion. The major difference between Cersei and Lady Macbeth is that it’s hard to imagine Cersei taking her own life unless it involved taking as many people as she possibly could with her.

Macbeth’s cautionary tale of unbridled ambition and reckless desire also features heavily in both the original BBC series and US adaptation of House of Cards. Originally set in the Thatcherite House of Commons in the late 1980s, Beau Willimon transfers this power struggle to Washington D.C. The original House of Cards was said to draw from Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth and Richard III, both of which feature main characters who are corrupted by power and ambition. Ian Richardson, who played Francis in the BBC series, has a Shakespearean background and said he based his characterisation on Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard III. Both Richardson and Spacey frequently break the fourth wall and soliloquise as Francis, further adding to the programmes’ staged feel.

Robyn Wright plays Claire Underwood, who goes further than Lady Macbeth ever could by usurping the throne herself. Initially complicit in the scheming her ambitious husband undertakes, she soon finds herself absent from Francis’ grand plans. In retaliation, she claims that power for herself.

Vince Gilligan’s seminal Breaking Bad owes much of its mastery to Shakespeare. Skyler, the protagonist’s extremely hard-done-by wife, took a turn as the play’s steely villainess urging Walt to kill Jesse to preserve what was left of their mutual safety. Like the prophecy that opens Macbeth, Walt’s cancer diagnosis sets him on the road to an escalating sequence of paranoid power-grabs, leading to the deaths of those closest to him followed by his own. Breaking Bad channelled the Macbeth vibes most explicitly in the penultimate episode with Walter’s muttering at the gate of his bunker, just one ‘tomorrow’ short of Macbeth’s famous soliloquy.

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