Political Science and Game of Thrones (Spoiler Alert)

Kit Harington at HBO's "Game Of Thrones" Season 3 Seattle Premie

Braving the crowd at Best Buy on Thursday evening, I was able to take advantage of the super sales and purchase a behemoth TV. While I was at it, I also was able to score a Game of Thrones box-set. Clearly, the only logical thing to do upon my return was marathon the series on my crisp, clear, 50-incher. As I was tied into the gripping series, I began to realize something that may be pure coincidence, or perhaps truly correlated. My realization was that our professor, Mika LaVaque-Manty, may enjoy Game of Thrones so much since it is chocked full of tidbits of political science, from Machiavellianism to the beliefs of Hobbes.

Whether George R.R. Martin is familiar with Machiavelli or not, I do not know. Aspects of Game of Thrones would suggest that he knew it inside and out. An influential piece of Machiavellianism in the show is that which concerns staying a prince. In Chapter XVII of “The Prince” by Machiavelli, he describes whether it is better to be feared or loved as a ruler. He argues that it is good to be feared, but never beneficial to be hated. Clearly, Prince Joffrey did not read any Machiavelli as a boy. He becomes a ruler hated by many, which is the first violation of what Machiavelli says a prince should do.He blatantly ignores all recommendations from those smarter than him, and makes rash decisions based on anger. Machiavelli would probably cringe when watching the young brat rule, since he has no clue on what one should do.

Three_dragons

Despite Prince Joffrey being a poor ruler, the Lannisters as a whole comply to Machiavellianism more proficiently than Joffrey does. One thing Machiavelli says leaders need to be is a mix of a fox and a lion. The fox aspect is necessary to outwit those against them; the lion is to overpower opposition. It is clear in the Lannister family that the brother-sister/lover pair, Cersei and Jamie, contains a blend of fox and lion. Clearly, she is a fox since she is so sneaky. She is constantly scheming, whether it was involving the death of Jon Arryn or otherwise. Jaime is the lion since he is such a ruthless man, which can be seen when he throws Bran out the window, or through his many violent killings throughout the series. Although these characters are disliked by many, they contain a few examples of what Machiavelli would consider to be the proper traits of rulers: Feared by many, not necessarily hated by all, clever, formidable, and others. However, this is not quite all of them.

This may be based on personal bias due to my intense love of the Starks, but it seems as though the ruler who is truly a Machiavellian example is Robb Stark. IN Chapter XVIII, Machiavelli states that the full quality set a truly good ruler should have is “to appear merciful, faithful, humane, religious, upright, and to be so, but with a mind so framed that should you require not to be so, you may be able and know how to change to the opposite”. Robb Stark definitely fits these characteristics, which explains why he is such a beloved character in the series.

Thomas Hobbes

Another time in which parallels between political theory and Game of Thrones is when the work of Hobbes appears. In Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, he states that if one man is better than another, the lesser of the two will always find a method in which he can overcome the superior. Due to this, all men are equal from an overall perspective, despite some having advantages in certain areas. A point in the show in which this shows up is when Stannis is able to kill Renly. In combat, Renly would probably be considered superior. However, Stannis is capable of using trickery to overcome Renly and kill him. This also ties into Machiavelli’s theory about what makes a good leader, showing that Renly fell because while he was a lion, he was not a fox. This is why he could not withstand the test of time.

Another prominent character in the series that is able to overcome a disadvantage and defeat those who, on paper, would be better than him is Tyrion. Despite being a dwarf, he is able to play an essential role in the series by outwitting characters that are stronger in battle than he is. On the flipside of that token is a character that has no wit, but does have physical brawn. This character is Hodor. He is quite possibly the dumbest character in the show, but has a physical gift. Clearly, these people also demonstrate characteristics both Hobbes and Machiavelli speak of.

A final theorist who shows up in Game of Thrones is Max Weber. In his work, “Politics as a Vocation“, he discusses power, which is an essential aspect of the series. He defines power as being the ability to make someone do that which they do not want to do. This shows up with a number of powerful characters. They are able to make the “pawns” in the show (soldiers, spies, assassins, etc.) do what they want them to, even if the person carrying out the action does not necessarily want to do it. An explicit example is when Robert Baratheon uses his power to force the attempted murder of Daenarys Targaryen, a young woman who is pregnant. This is something most people would have objected against if it were not for Robert’s power, but since he is so powerful, they did not so much as question the decision…vocally at least. The only one who did was Ned Stark, a person who also held a great deal of power. This shows that those with power are able to convince others to do what they wish, and those without power do not have this ability.

Whether Mika likes Game of Thrones simply due to coincidence and outstanding “assets”, or because it is a vulgar embodiment of political science is not fully defined, but regardless, it is impossible to ignore the parallelisms that exist. From The Starks to the Lannisters, all are playing political games.

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6 comments

  1. johnoett · December 4, 2014

    Game of Thrones is one of my favorite shows, and I have always been fascinated by its complex political nature. I wholeheartedly agree with you about Joffrey-Machiavelli would consider him foolish and would not have been surprised by his death. Conversely, I disagree with what you have to say about Robb Stark. While he is beloved by his people and armies, his decision making is, in the end, directly contrary to Machiavellian principles. When he makes the decision to execute the military leaders that killed the Lannister children, he is operating on purely moral grounds, ignoring the ultimate consequences of his actions. When he does so, he loses half of his forces, putting himself, his family, and all of his remaining forces in danger. This is a prime example of what Machiavelli warns about-trying to make ethical decisions that are not prudent and end in unfavorable events. If Robb were a Machiavellian ruler, he would not have killed his military leaders because he would have realized that keeping half of his standing army was more important than holding a few people to high ethical standards.

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    • patricksponaugle · December 4, 2014

      I actually disagree with your assessment of Robb’s poor decision making. Since the Lannisters held his sisters captive (only one, but they assumed Arya was also held) and (at least on the show) the Starks believed Theon Greyjoy held his brothers captive, allowing Rickard Karstark to not pay an egregious price for the outrageous action of murdering innocent Lannister hostages put all of his family at risk (since theoretically Tywin Lannister could negotiate with Theon to put the boys under his control or have them punished, and of course punish the Stark girls.)

      Although there was a moral component, there is a compelling practical argument for the punishment.

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  2. patricksponaugle · December 4, 2014

    I enjoyed your article, specifically Machiavelli’s observation that it isn’t beneficial to be hated. Normally that part is dropped and only his advice of “better to be feared than loved” makes the rounds.

    I do want to point out that you have your Baratheon brothers confused. Stannis had the lesser military forces than his younger brother Renly, and so resorted to assassinating him through magical means. Your article states that Renly killed Stannis.

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  3. joshblum2014 · December 5, 2014

    That was a fun blog to read. I love Game of Thrones partially because it is so political (the gore, nudity, and violence is cool too). I like the comparisons you made between the political theorists and the Game of Thrones characters. I think the show as a whole encompasses Machiavelli’s principles because, after all, Littlefinger loves to say how he “plays the game of thrones” to see who will rule.

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  4. noahblum · December 6, 2014

    Game of thrones is one of my favorite shows so I really enjoyed reading this and when we read Machiavelli, I immediately thought of the show. Like you, the first thing that came to mind was how horrible of a ruler Joffrey was and how he was the furthest thing from a Machiavellian ruler as he relies completely on fear for his rule (and he’s not even good at that). I too love the Starks, but none of them are proper Machiavellian rulers (except maybe future John Snow) because they care too much about their values, honor, and family. While they are noble concepts, they hinder their ability to rule so as a house they ultimately fail. In my opinion Daenerys Targaryen is maturing into quite the Machiavellian ruler; she is loved by her people but is still feared with dragons and the unsullied to back her up.

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  5. ashdh · December 6, 2014

    I enjoy this post because it relates stuff that we learned in class to a more relatable piece of media. I think Game of Thrones is a great way to think about certain thinkers that we have learned about. Machiavelli definitely defines actions of some of the crueler characters in the show and brings up questions of what role morality plays in political action. Power is also a big theme in the show that you do a great job of describing. I think that power struggles like the ones outlined in the show have happened in history and continue to happen like Weber says, but in a more subtle way that we do not always recognize.

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