It’s no surprise to find Macbeth‘s influence in A Song of Ice and Fire; both stories are steeped in political desire and the supernatural, pulsating with an undercurrent of psychological torment. But why present Stannis Baratheon, the most just and duty-driven of all characters, as a parallel to the greedy and ambitious Macbeth?
If for no other reason, to do what George R. R. Martin does best–smash up the literary tropes and make them his own. With a “justice” tweak in the Macbeth narrative, Martin has a conversation with Shakespeare and his readers, challenging them to a new question: if horrible deeds are committed in the name of duty and justice, does that relieve the heart and conscience? In this essay we’ll compare the narratives and motifs of Macbeth and the Stannis storyline, and explore what the common metanarrative foreshadows for our One True King of Westeros.
AT A GLANCE
Even though Martin has not publicly confirmed the Stannis-Macbeth parallel, the storylines are similar enough to prick our literary subconscious:
- Macbeth is a lord and highly competent military commander who aspires to higher office; so it is with Stannis.
- Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to consult the Witches upon hearing their prophecy; so Lady Selyse urges Stannis to speak with the Red Woman.
- The Witches help Macbeth along his quest for the throne; so does the Red Woman with Stannis.
- Macbeth commits murder that escalates in moral revulsion; so does Stannis.
And, if we take the show arc into account (which we will, to a certain extent), a fifth similarity is in the circumstances of the characters’ deaths; a prophecy that emboldens them to think they cannot be defeated in battle, but turns out to be wrong–or gravely misunderstood, in Macbeth’s case.
Now for the differences. First and foremost, Stannis has a legitimate claim to the throne whereas Macbeth has none. Another difference is in character. While Macbeth is prone to lies and equivocation (“false face must hide what the false heart doth know”), Stannis speaks in plain language, the hard truth as he sees it. He also has a deeply ingrained sense of justice which Macbeth lacks.
In fact, Stannis bears more similarity in terms of demeanor to the classical, stoic leaders from Greek and Roman history; Martin has even said that there is a lot of Tiberius in him. Ancient Greek drama parallels also bleed over into the plot–the sacrifice of Shireen in Season 5 of Game of Thrones strongly echoes Iphigenia in Aulis, Euripides’ tragedy in which Agamemnon gives his daughter to the gods in exchange of fair winds. Stannis is also much like the lead characters from two of Shakespeare’s Roman plays; the title character from Coriolanus–fierce in battle, but overly proud and unliked–and Brutus from Julius Caesar–a man who prioritizes his public duty over private loyalties, with dire consequences.
Even considering these character differences and the influences of Greek and Roman figures, the allusions to Macbeth within Stannis’ storyline are overwhelmingly abundant on multiple analytical levels: similarities in plot, characters, themes, symbols and motifs. But why Macbeth, and why Stannis? Macbeth’s ambition is generally considered to be his tragic flaw–through this parallel, is Martin therefore trying to showcase Stannis as an overly ambitious contender for the throne? With so many other ambitious contenders for the Iron Throne, it seems an almost redundant to focus on this theme in particular. But perhaps there’s more to consider for this Stannis-Macbeth parallel beyond ambition.
To be sure, Macbeth demonstrates ambition through his actions to secure the throne. But, upon close examination of his language, we actually find very few references to ambition or, indeed, any personal desire for the throne. Lady Macbeth expresses more innate ambition for her husband, even mocking his hesitance and doubt early on in the play. Even Shakespeare scholar AC Bradley remarks on Macbeth’s absence of personal desire, asserting that he commits his crimes as if they were an “appalling duty.”
As in all of Shakespeare’s high tragedies, the core of Macbeth is inner torment. In terms of structural narrative, the play is hailed as one of the most orderly of tragedies, with evil deeds leading to inner torment which then culminate in ruin. The old adage “the wages of sin is death” comes to mind, but in Macbeth we learn why; it’s not because of societal or theological punishment–it’s because of man’s own psychological decay.
So how does this relate to Stannis? It is entirely possible that Martin intends to send Stannis down a Macbethian path of psychological decay–especially when we consider five recurring themes and motifs:
- Natural vs. supernatural
- Clean hands
- Loss of sleep and appetite
- Repression of the heart
- Hero vs. villain
In the following sections we’ll compare how each of these themes and motifs are handled in both stories, and what they mean for both Macbeth’s and Stannis’ character arc.
NATURAL VS. SUPERNATURAL
The natural and the supernatural are central to both Macbeth and ASOIAF, with a stark contrast between the earthly, human realm and the magical, divine realm. Macbeth pauses in the first act as he questions whether supernatural influence is good or bad:
This supernatural soliciting
cannot be ill, cannot be good. If ill,
why hath it given me earnest of success
commencing in a truth?
…If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me without my stir.
– Macbeth, I.iii
Likewise, Davos ponders the same when Stannis asserts the power of Melisandre’s art:
“The flames do not lie, Davos.”
Yet they require me to make them true, he thought. – A Clash of Kings, Davos II
Since we do not have Stannis POVs, Davos is our window into his world. It’s a deliberate choice on Martin’s part for kings not to tell their own story, and an effective one; through Davos we not only get a view from the ground of the unfolding of events, but a surrogate for Stannis’s conscience which is otherwise largely inaccessible. As a natural foil to Melisandre’s supernatural influence, Davos also represents the earthly world and speaks of it with reverence:
“I know the seas and rivers, the shapes of the coasts where the rocks and shoals lie. I know hidden coves where a boat can land unseen. And I know that a king protects his people, or he is no king at all.” – A Storm of Swords, Davos V
Davos continually seeks to ground Stannis and pull him away from the supernatural. But, like Macbeth, Stannis draws strength from the supernatural after setbacks and failures. Despite his frustration and anger at the loss of Blackwater, Stannis keeps Melisandre close as he continues his quest for the Iron Throne.
Speaking of Melisandre, let’s look closer at her character as a parallel for the witches in Macbeth. For all her power and ethereal beauty, Melisandre is a more flawed and human medium between the natural and supernatural, whereas the witches in Macbeth are very much outside the natural realm of comprehension–powerful creatures of prey that reel Macbeth into their world, pulling him further away from the natural until they lead him to believe he is immortal. Macbeth is, of course, not immortal; it is his own misinterpretation of the riddle-like prophecy that proves to be his undoing. In ASOIAF it’s Melisandre whose own human error prevents an accurate reading of the flames, something she acknowledges freely:
“You swore it would work.” The king looked angry.
“It will…and it will not.”
“Speak sense to me, woman.”
“When the fires speak more plainly, so shall I. There is truth in the flames, but it is not always easy to see.”
– A Storm of Swords, Davos V
Even though much of Melisandre’s art is projection and glamor, we can trust that she has power to read the flames–it’s just difficult. As in Macbeth, prophecy is a delicate matter, its promising power confounded by lack of transparency.
When we talk about the natural vs supernatural we’re also talking about order in the world of men and women, specifically in the line of succession. This theme is especially appropriate for when Macbeth was written in the early 1600s. The political atmosphere had changed and so had Shakespeare’s royal patron; James I from Scotland assumed the throne after Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, and so Shakespeare looked to Scottish medieval history–fraught with political uprisings and superstitions–to write a cautionary tale about how a man’s ambition to disrupt the natural order ends in his own ruin.
Not long into A Song of Ice and Fire, our perception of the natural order has been thrown into complete disarray. The waters are muddied through civil war, bastardy, and self-crowned kings competing for the Iron Throne (never mind Daenerys amassing her army across the Narrow Sea). In a world of chaos and conquest, Stannis’ claim is legitimate. Why not seek help from the supernatural world to aid his quest for duty and natural order?
And yet there’s something about the crossing of these worlds that makes us wary. As with characters in Macbeth, characters in ASOIAF who deliberately try to manipulate the natural realm through supernatural means generally do not succeed–in fact, their efforts usually result in undesired consequences. Dany’s attempt to bring Drogo back to life through Mirri Maz Duur resulted in horror, and Cersei’s childhood desire to know her future backfired when she received Maggy the Frog’s ominous prophecy–which has all but come true. And let’s not forget about dragons, which are the supernatural incarnate. Over the course of Westeros history there have been many failed attempts to wake dragons, and Stannis himself provides us with the highlights:
“Nine mages crossed the sea to hatch Aegon the Third’s cache of eggs. Baelor the Blessed prayed over his for half a year. Aegon the Fourth built dragons of wood and iron. Aerion Brightflame drank wildfire to transform himself. The mages failed, King Baelor’s prayers went unanswered, the wooden dragons burned, and Prince Aerion died screaming.” – A Storm of Swords, Davos V
The Aerion Brightflame tale is particularly harrowing–he imagines himself so high above the natural world that his body cannot suffer the consequences of drinking what might as well be radioactive lighter fluid. He turns out to be gravely wrong. Again, we are reminded that venturing too far from the earthly realm is to play with fate, and playing with fate is like playing with fire (literally).
Of course, not everyone who plays with magic and dragons and fire in ASOIAF is unsuccessful. Daenerys is miraculously invulnerable to the flames of Drogo’s funeral pyre, the same night she hatches three dragons from petrified stone. Another exception is Bran, who has greenseeing abilities and a magical connection with his wolf. Very broadly speaking, these characters’ magical feats are presented as more internal, organic developments in their arc–in essence, a melding of the natural and supernatural. This isn’t to say that a character like Bran faces no challenges from the magical realm, but those challenges look very different from what Stannis encounters in his efforts to manipulate fate through an external influence.
Perhaps the big question isn’t whether Stannis is justified by his use of magic and the supernatural, but how these supernatural and natural worlds will interact once they collide. It’s a question that haunts characters, too–as Davos walks through the halls of Dragonstone, Salladhor Saan walks beside him and ponders what will happen if Melisandre is able to wake the stone dragons:
“If the red woman brings them to life, the castle will come crashing down.” – A Storm of Swords, Davos V
A castle represents fortitude, protection, shelter, even internal order. The idea of dragons waking from stone and causing these things to crumble reminds us that supernatural feats come at natural costs with potentially devastating consequences. But for now, for Macbeth and Stannis, those natural costs are tangible and made of something dearer than stone–flesh and blood.
In both Macbeth and the ASOIAF POVs in which Stannis appears, ‘cleanliness’ and especially ‘clean hands’ represent the absolution of blame and guilt. Shortly after Renly’s death, Stannis recounts a harrowing dream he has of witnessing the murder as it happened:
“I dream of it sometimes. Of Renly’s dying. A green tent, candles, a woman screaming. And blood.” Stannis looked down at his hands. “I was still abed when he died. Your Devan will tell you. He tried to wake me. Dawn was nigh and my lords were waiting, fretting. I should have been ahorse, armored. I knew Renly would attack at break of day. Devan says I thrashed and cried out, but what does it matter? It was a dream. I was in my tent when Renly died, and when I woke my hands were clean.” – A Clash of Kings, Davos II
In the last sentence, Stannis not only proclaims the cleanliness of his hands but his conscience. In contrast, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have to face the real blood on their hands after King Duncan’s murder:
Go get some water,
And wash this filthy witness from your hand. – Macbeth, II.ii
A little water clears us of this deed:
How easy is it, then! – Macbeth, II.ii
Macbeth’s and Lady Macbeth’s hands are bloody not only from their direct involvement in a king’s murder, but also from their unlawful bloodlust for the crown. Stannis’ hands are clean not just because he didn’t slay Renly himself (even if his shadow did), but because he would be justified even if he had slain him with his own hands; the second Baratheon brother is the rightful heir to the crown, the third brother challenges him, therefore the second has a right to kill him.
And yet the deed weighs heavy on Stannis. Despite his denial of his part in the murder (and lack of knowledge, if we are to believe that Melisandre sent the shadow unbeknownst to him), his nightmare is evidence that he feels it innately. As we learn from Macbeth, the bloodstain of guilt is hard to wash away:
“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?” – Macbeth, II.ii
“What, will these hands ne’er be clean?” – Lady Macbeth, V.i
Even though Stannis does not talk about his own hands again in the narrative (at least not yet), later on in the same chapter we do find him considering another’s hands in addition to deeds that cannot be washed away:
“It was justice,” Stannis said. “A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward. You were a hero and a smuggler.” – A Clas of Kings, Davos II
This lecture is directed to our resident Onion Knight, who knows something about hands; he had part of his taken away by Stannis as penance for his past sins. While Stannis views this from a detached perspective, a sort of “nothing personal” quid pro quo transaction in the name of justice, it means much more to Davos:
“They remind me of what I was. Where I came from. They remind me of your justice, my liege.” – ACoK, Davos II
The conversation illustrates how differently Stannis and Davos process good and bad deeds. Whereas Stannis thinks on deeds as matters to be dealt with through external means (loss of knuckles, gain of knighthood), Davos internalizes his past, reflecting on who he was and where he came from. The knighthood has transformed Davos into a new man—but he acknowledges his past self as a smuggler, literally carrying the weight of it around his neck for “luck.”
Interestingly, Stannis doesn’t seem to apply his “good acts and bad acts” logic to himself. He pushes away internal judgment of his deeds, applying reasons of practicality and justice as if they were cleansing water. Meanwhile, it is Davos who serves as a moral compass for the reader as we journey through Stannis’ story–a conscience that flinches at the morally unclean and unnatural. When Stannis orders him to sail beneath Storm’s End, unseen in the black of night, Davos seems to recoil at the idea:
“My lord, you must have the castle, I see that now, but surely there are other ways. Cleaner ways.” – ACoK, Davos II
This time, Stannis’ logic and practicality win over Davos’ gut instinct. However, as with the Macbeths, it is Stannis who must confront the bloodstain of guilt in the narrative to come.
LOSS OF SLEEP AND APPETITE
While the ‘clean hands’ motif symbolizes guilt and absolution, it is only a symbolic representation of internal struggle. To understand how deeply affected Macbeth and Stannis are by their deeds, we look to another subtle but important commonality they share; deterioration of basic human function.
Macbeth talks of the importance of sleep in the first few acts, how loathe he would be to have it disturbed or to eat in his meal in fear. In Act III, his feast is disturbed by the ghost of Banquo, the friend he killed to further prophecy. But sleep is the especially meaningful motif:
Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep”—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labor’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast. – Macbeth, II.ii
You lack the season of all natures, sleep. – Macbeth, III.iv
Later on, Lady Macbeth also suffers from nightmares and lack of sleep as guilt consumes her. The Macbeths’ deeds weigh so heavily on their consciences that basic human functioning is impaired.
We see the same symptoms befall Stannis early on in his narrative. Before we even encounter him in the aftermath of Renly’s death, Davos’ son discloses that the king suffers from poor sleep:
“Since Lord Renly died, he has been troubled by terrible nightmares,” the boy had confided to his father. “Maester’s potions do not touch them. Only the Lady Melisandre can soothe him to sleep.” – A Clash of Kings, Davos II
Not surprisingly, Melisandre plays a significant role in the sleep motif. She is not immortal, but not quite mortal, either—there are inhuman aspects about her, seemingly induced through study of her art. She doesn’t eat, barely needs to sleep and hopes to someday require no rest at all. But Melisandre is aware of the limitations of her king’s mortality, telling Davos that she dare not make another shadow son with Stannis as his “fires burn so low” that doing so might kill him.
And Stannis’ fires continue to burn low. Even though A Clash of Kings is the only book in which his poor sleep and appetite are directly mentioned, multiple characters notice his thin, worn appearance through A Dance with Dragons:
The look of him was a shock. He seemed ten years older than the man that Davos had left at Storm’s End when he set sail for the Blackwater and the battle that would be their undoing. The king’s close-cropped beard was spiderwebbed with grey hairs, and he had dropped two stone or more of weight. He had never been a fleshy man, but now the bones moved beneath his skin like spears, fighting to cut free. Even his crown seemed too large for his head. His eyes were blue pits lost in deep hollows, and the shape of a skull could be seen beneath his face. – A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
The king stood outside his tent, staring into the nightfire. What does he see there? Victory? Doom? The face of his red and hungry god? His eyes were sunk in deep pits, his close-cropped beard no more than a shadow across his hollow cheeks and bony jawbone. – A Dance with Dragons, The King’s Prize
Although this deterioration of sleep and appetite may be directly due to Melisandre’s shadow-binding ritual, it nevertheless represents a loss of humanity at the most fundamental level. We are reminded that Stannis and Macbeth are not immortal or completely armored by prophecy. Try as they might to use magic to augment and fortify their political positions, they suffer weakening of their first fortress, the body. And if the body can be weakened, we wonder what else may be vulnerable within it.
REPRESSION OF THE HEART
Repression of the heart and conscience is perhaps the most significant motif in both stories. Martin has stated multiple times that he agrees with William Faulkner’s quote, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” Not surprisingly, Faulkner has cited Shakespeare as his single greatest influence–even pulling the title for The Sound and the Fury from a Macbeth monologue.
Within the story of Macbeth, we encounter overflowing language and symbolism related to the heart, the keeper of conscience and emotion. In the first few acts, Macbeth talks of his heart as a witness to his deeds–it knocks, it knows, it pales in fear, and it throbs. This all changes in Act IV, when Macbeth takes control of his heart to make it do his bidding.
From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. – Macbeth, IV.i
No more will Macbeth’s deeds and his heart be at odds with each other; they will be in agreement, and there will be no hesitation when he resolves to commit his deeds, ever-increasing in moral revulsion.
As we pan back to the ASOIAF material, let’s be honest with ourselves: at first glance, Stannis doesn’t appear to have much of a heart. He’s cold, harsh, and bitter. But on closer read of the POVs that Stannis appears in, we realize that this cold and supposedly unfeeling man is a lot more sensitive than we thought. This is the same Stannis who mourned his parents’ death so deeply he renounced his faith, who once nursed an injured hawk back to health, and whose maester bore a paternal love for him above his other brothers. This is the same man who grieved that his eldest brother slighted him and denied him Storm’s End, giving it to young Renly instead. This last point could be argued—that it was an annoyance at a breach of etiquette more than genuine hurt feelings—but why not both?
When we meet Stannis in A Clash of Kings, he already bears a highly symbolic standard; a banner whose flaming heart sigil engulfs a stag, the standard of his house. As he marches beneath the fearsome banner, characters take note of just how tiny the stag is:
The device on his sun-yellow banner showed a red heart surrounded by a blaze of orange fire. The crowned stag was there, yes . . . shrunken and enclosed within the heart. – ACoK, Catelyn III
Only Melisandre kept pace, bearing the great standard of the fiery heart with the crowned stag within. As if it had been swallowed whole. – ACoK, Davos II
What remains of Stannis’s own house, his former identity, is small and swallowed. In a way, he’s already at the level of Act IV Macbeth who has sacrificed his heart—his former self—for a different heart. He uses the flaming heart as a proxy for his own and it comes at a cost–not just to himself, but to those below him. Following defeat, Stannis’ men feel disheartened as they do in Macbeth:
“The few loyal men who remain to me are losing heart. They waste their days drinking and gambling, and lick their wounds like beaten curs.” – A Storm of Swords, Davos V
And none serve with him but constrained things
Whose hearts are absent too. – Macbeth, V.iv
The reason for lost battles can be argued from a political/military stance, but stepping back and looking at the big thematic picture, soldiers losing heart beneath two leaders who have forsaken their own hearts highlights the societal impact of a leader’s internal conflict. As heart and conscience bow down to more heinous and immoral deeds, both characters grow more desensitized, resigned to the cause. Stannis stays duty-driven, but there are glimpses of his psychological torment:
Stannis Baratheon stood grim-faced by the funeral pyre as the lad’s body was consigned to the flames. Afterward the king had retreated to his watchtower. He had not emerged since … though from time to time His Grace was glimpsed upon the tower roof, outlined against the beacon fire that burned there night and day. Talking to the red god, some said. Calling out for Lady Melisandre, insisted others. Either way, it seemed to Asha Greyjoy, the king was lost and crying out for help. – A Dance with Dragons, The Sacrifice
Let’s turn back to our Scottish play for advice on these matters of the heart. When Macbeth asks what can be done to relieve “that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart” to help his wife, driven mad with guilt, a doctor replies that only the patient can heal themselves. This brief conversation tells all; in a bloody play where characters strive for the most ambitious heights–the crown, immortality–it’s the fragile human heart which is the greatest casualty in the end.
This is why the Iphigenia in Aulis parallels in S5 of Game of Thrones don’t provide a whole lot of metanarrative satisfaction. The execution of plot is there, but the take-home is completely different; Agamemnon is not only rewarded by the gods with fair winds for sacrificing his daughter, but there’s also a deus ex machina element which saves the girl from suffering—she disappears before the knife falls. In contrast, Stannis must watch his daughter burn knowing that there will be no divine intervention. If (when) Shireen burns in the books, we can imagine the horror of this scene will be all the more compounded by Stannis’s memory of watching his parents’ ship go down at Storm’s End, realizing there would be no mercy from the gods. However, it seems that Stannis has already made up his mind:
“I never asked for this crown. Gold is cold and heavy on the head, but so long as I am the king, I have a duty . . . If I must sacrifice one child to the flames to save a million from the dark . . . Sacrifice . . . is never easy, Davos. Or it is no true sacrifice.” – A Storm of Swords, Davos VI
It’s noble and terrifying at the same time. This is the man who will put aside his very first duty–protection of his child–for what he perceives as a greater duty in terms of impact. However, circling back to the supernatural/natural themes, killing one’s own child is a clear breach of natural order. If Stannis continues to follow in Macbeth’s footsteps, the ultimate punishment for this kind of disruption of order will not come from society or the divine–it will come from within as he wastes away. Stannis may wear a flaming heart on his breastplate as a favor of the divine, but the fires of the real heart behind the armor are already burning low. So, the greatest tragedy of Stannis’ reenactment of the Azor Ahai myth may not be the failure of prophecy; more likely, it will be the deterioration of that inner fire he neglected to tend, even amidst the external war and chaos.
HERO VS. VILLAIN
In Stannis’s final episode of Game of Thrones, there is an almost comedic abundance of Macbeth parallels. Lady Selyse goes mad with guilt and commits suicide, like Lady Macbeth. Stannis is outnumbered and defeated in battle against the Boltons, left to reckon his sins with the knowledge that they were committed for a prophecy that led him astray. He is killed by Brienne, a sort of Macduff substitute in the scene who delivers his final justice. It’s a fine retelling of Macbeth’s demise, but limitations of the medium prevent the show from portraying a more nuanced Stannis narrative.
In ASOIAF, we are often reminded that Stannis is the rare man who can put himself aside for duty, making the greatest personal sacrifice for greater humanity. Flawed though he may be, Stannis is ready to face the greatest enemy to save a kingdom:
“…I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne.” Stannis pointed north. “There is where I’ll find the foe that I was born to fight.” – A Storm of Swords, Jon IX
In fact, with all the Macbeth narrative and metanarrative parallels laid out in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, it’s somewhat refreshing when Martin aligns Stannis with a new Macbeth character towards the end of A Dance with Dragons—Macduff, the hero of the play.
Macbeth and Macduff are very similar characters. They are both excellent leaders, brave, skilled on the battlefield, and perseverant of their goals. Even their names are similar. The differences are where the mirror bends, showing them as perfect opposites–Macduff is loyal to his king and country, whereas Macbeth is not. Macduff is committed to restoring the natural order, whereas Macbeth is swallowed by the witches’ prophecy. Macduff can handle his emotions, whereas Macbeth cannot. Even the dramatic function of their climactic hand-to-hand combat is twofold; first, it serves as a narrative conclusion of the battle for Scotland; and second, it is a metaphor for the struggle of hero and villain within.
Martin goes one step further with the Shakespearean narrative–instead of having a different character play hero to the villain, it is Stannis who plays them both, embodying character traits of each and reenacting their deeds. In A Dance with Dragons, the method Stannis uses to take Deepwood Motte directly quotes the method that Macduff uses to take Dunsinane Castle–a camouflage tactic involving soldiers carrying tree boughs to make their movement look like trees closing in instead of an army. It’s smart and resourceful, but the most admirable trick here is Martin’s: by aligning Stannis with both Macbeth and Macduff through plot and character, he further underscores Stannis’ complex character dichotomy through single representation of both hero and villain. This classic “tragic hero” presentation also removes the necessity for Stannis to be judged by someone else, so it is unlikely that Brienne or any other character will swoop in as a Macduff stand-in. In the end, it will likely be Stannis who delivers his own justice–something he has never done before.
By filtering the Stannis storyline through the Macbeth metanarrative, perhaps what Martin is trying to tell us is quite simple: a man who intends to be a good king must first reconcile the good and evil inside himself. Whether Stannis is able to achieve this reconciliation is the question–as of now, he looks outward to the next battle, not to the turmoil within. But if the Stannis storyline continues to hit the main anchor points of Macbeth as it has thus far, he will likely suffer the consequences of at least one more incorrect reading of the prophecy which will be even more devastating than his defeat at Blackwater. How this development informs his next actions and any possible introspection will provide critical insight for his character arc as a whole. Will Stannis’ conscience buckle under the weight of his deeds? Or will he somehow come to terms with his actions, and resolve to keep on fighting until the end? Ambiguity reigns in ASOIAF, but one thing is certain: Stannis Baratheon’s ultimate foe is not in the North. Stannis’ greatest foe is himself–an internal conflict more compelling than all his external conflicts combined, and a hero vs. villain battle which, in turn, reflects the good and evil forces in Westeros at large.
8 thoughts on “Stannis Baratheon: Macbeth Revisited”
Reblogged this on The Clanking Dragon.
Great work – thank you: I really enjoyed reading this and thinking about it! I come more from a Shakespeare background, only knowing the tv series Game of Thrones, and I really Ioved reading the Martin quotes. I wonder if the difference mentioned re. right to the throne is as strong as put here. In Macbeth’s day, leadership could be earned, as primogeniture was not necessarily the rule. As a foremost warrior, he may well have had a genuine chance at becoming king, probably reflected in the scene where Duncan names Malcolm as his heir – not a necessary action if primogeniture were in place. Thanks, again – had heard of your work: glad I’ve now started reading it, and looking forward to more!
Hi Danielle! Thank you so much for your comment and I’m sorry this is such a belated reply. I love your thoughts regarding right to the throne. In ASOIAF there’s also the “right” to the throne by conquest, but primogeniture (thanks for the word!) counts for a lot. You’re right, it doesn’t count for as much in Macbeth’s day. I think underscored the difference because, in the past, Stannis stans have been very quick to point out that his birthright makes him unlike Macbeth.
Thanks again so much for the comment! I have a new essay coming out in a couple days about witches in Macbeth and in ASOIAF/GOT. I think you’ll enjoy it.
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Fantastic – busy with a couple of shows, but I’ll try to look out for that, thank you!
Fantastic analysis! I’ve love Shakespeare since I was a kid, especially Macbeth (my first foray into his work), and it’s fascinating to see the Macbeth parallels being drawn between Stannis and the titular character, especially in the way it plays out in the show. I’m a huge Stannis fan, particularly because of how nuanced and dynamic he is in both his strengths and flaws, so the fact that he manifests traits of both Macbeth and Macduff in the book makes me hopeful that he might get a less tragic end there. Despite this, and possibly as a solely show viewer, I might be one of the few people who wasn’t upset with the way Stannis’ story concluded. While I felt truly sorry for the devastating end to the Baratheon line and legacy, I can say it was truly a Shakespearean tragedy.
Thanks for reading! Yes, Macbeth truly is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. I usually say my favorite is King Lear, but Macbeth is such a close second!
Some time has passed since I wrote this essay and I have to say I agree with you that the show did a fantastic job with his final character arc. I might have been more unfair to the show than I intended to be because I got carried away with book nuance. But there’s still plenty of show nuance, and Stannis’ final episode was definitely dramatically satisfying for all the Macbeth parallels!
Thanks again for the comment, it’s a joy to discuss.
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