One can almost see the sombre face of Eddard Stark looming up behind these lines:
For let the gods so speed me as I love
The name of honour more than I fear death.
– Julius Caesar, II.ii
Hailed as Shakespeare’s great political tragedy, Julius Caesar presents the delicate balance between the private and public self; a central conflict for both Ned and Brutus. The parallel is likely intentional, especially considering that George R. R. Martin has named Julius Caesar as one of his two favorite Shakespeare plays. Throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, the conflict of private self vs. public self persists as a vibrant theme–a duality of opposing concepts, much like ice and fire. It is also congruent with Martin’s ultimate conflict; the heart at war with itself.
By examining Ned’s orientation as a Brutus figure, we can identify how Martin incorporates thematic elements of Julius Caesar early on in his series. We will also take a look at common symbols and motifs which solidify the parallel between Shakespeare’s play and A Game of Thrones. Finally, we will review how Martin continues to build on this fundamentally Shakespearean conflict with other characters and plot-lines throughout his series.
Before delving into thematic analysis, let us first review the basic plot of Julius Caesar.
There is growing concern amongst the Roman senate that Julius Caesar is becoming too powerful and a threat to the Roman republic. The senator Brutus is approached by another senator, Cassius, who has hatched a conspiracy to murder Caesar. Caesar is Brutus’ friend, but Brutus fears that Cassius is right; Caesar might abuse his growing power to the detriment of the Roman state. After much internal philosophical debate and many ominous portents–thunderstorms, nightmares, comets, prophecies–Brutus decides to carry through with the plot for the greater public good. Caesar is stabbed to death on the Ides of March. Marc Antony finds Caesar dead and is appalled by this unconscionable act. He employs the power of rhetoric, presenting Caesar’s will to sway public opinion. The Roman state tailspins into war and chaos in the power vacuum that follows. When Brutus loses a key battle and doom appears imminent, he commits suicide by impaling himself on his sword. Marc Antony finds his body and determines that Brutus was truly the most honorable of Romans.
At first, the likeness between Ned and Brutus might be difficult to see. But taking a step back, the similarities in character structure sharpen into focus. Both Ned and Brutus dedicate themselves to the public sphere but are ultimately rejected by it. Both are reputed as the most honorable of men. Both are tragic heroes, their best intentions eclipsed by fatal flaws and the machine of politics. Even their differences are reflective of each other; Brutus carries out a murder conspiracy, and Ned seeks to solve one. Brutus is governed by his sense of public duty while Ned is ultimately governed by his personal loyalties.
Ned and Brutus are also positioned similarly in relation to a key figure in their stories; they are each the trusted friend and advisor of a great ruler, whose changing nature they begin to question:
“When I know the truth, I must go to Robert.” And pray that he is the man I think he is, he finished silently, and not the man I fear he has become.
– Eddard IV, A Game of Thrones
“[Caesar] would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.”
– Julius Caesar, II.i
Ultimately, it is their individual ideologies that lead them down very different paths. Brutus puts aside his friendship with Caesar and murders him, thinking that it is for the public good. Ned seeks to save Robert’s soul by urging him to act honorably and save the lives of children–specifically when he implores Robert not to kill Daenerys:
“Daenerys is a fourteen-year-old girl.” Ned knew he was pushing this well past the point of wisdom, yet he could not keep silent. “Robert, I ask you, what did we rise against Aerys Targaryen for, if not to put an end to the murder of children?”
– Eddard VIII, A Game of Thrones
Even though Ned’s ethics may be noble to the modern reader, it is nevertheless dangerous for him as he imposes his private values on the public sector. Ned is also consumed by personal matters and the trauma of his past–a side we don’t see as much in the show, but in the books we are witness to Ned’s nightmares and haunting memories from Robert’s Rebellion. On a subtextual level, it’s the weight of these private matters that prevent Ned from tending to the public dimension of his job.
Brutus also imposes his private values on the public sector with dire consequences. Through his actions he endorses a policy that any act, no matter how bloody, is permissible if it is for the “general good.” (This is also reminiscent of Stannis, a thought which we’ll return to.)
Despite these thematic parallels, one might still be skeptical of a Ned-Brutus character alignment due to broad differences in the narrative. After all, it’s difficult to divorce Brutus’ character from the act of murdering Caesar; even with the inverse parallel of Ned trying to save Robert’s soul, is it too much of a cognitive stretch to imagine any character as a Brutus analogue if they do not commit murder?
It almost seems that Martin himself felt the need to narratively address that cognitive dissonance. In Eddard’s last chapter, in the Black Cells, Varys suggests that Ned did kill Robert:
– Eddard XV, A Game of Thrones
Only the dramaturgical, once-mummer Varys could deliver such a striking and theatrical line. The assumption of this murder by “mercy” statement is that Ned sacrificed Robert’s life by telling Cersei he knew the truth about Joffrey’s parentage, even though he was trying to be merciful to Cersei’s children. Therefore, Ned left Robert vulnerable, in effect “killing” him. Although it is murder in the abstract and clearly unmeditated, it nevertheless satisfies the Julius Caesar narrative parallel; both Ned and Brutus kill their friend and public leader due to through strict adherence to personal ethics.
Of course, the failure of Ned and Brutus to balance public and personal matters not only results in the death of a friend and public figure, but in an even more personal death–their own.
Another commonality between Shakespeare and Martin is their love of poetic justice, which is the concept that characters are punished by the same injustice that they themselves have wielded. Our two tragic heroes of interest are no exception. In Act III, Brutus swears that he will kill himself on the same dagger with which he killed Caesar if it is for the benefit of Rome. In Act V, he does exactly that–and remarks that his intentions are twice as pure as they were when he killed Caesar.
In both symbolic and literal fashion, Ned “falls” on his sword, Ice, once brandished in the deaths of others. In the beginning of the story, Ned executes a man of the Night’s Watch who has abandoned his public duty. At the end, Ned is beheaded for failing in his own public duty–with his own sword. Arguably, Ned couldn’t carry out his public office due to his own private trauma; the same might be said for the man who deserted the Night’s Watch after the horrors he witnessed beyond the Wall. Ned also dies because he yields his honor and honesty; it could be seen as a symbolic suicide, the death of his own integrity when he pronounces Joffrey the rightful heir and king. It is almost all too bitter, until one considers Ned’s fate in the context of the beheading of another innocent: Lady.
In the direwolf incident at the Trident, Ned does what the King says. He chooses public duty over private loyalties, overruling Sansa’s pleas and killing her innocent direwolf to satisfy the queen. Later on, when Ned is in the Black Cells, he tells Varys that he will not tell the queen what she wants to hear. But then Varys reminds him of Sansa:
“Surely you did not think I’d forgotten about your sweet innocent, my lord? The queen most certainly has not.”
“No,” Ned pleaded, his voice cracking. “Varys, gods have mercy, do as you like with me, but leave my daughter out of your schemes. Sansa’s no more than a child.”
– Eddard XV, A Game of Thrones
On his death day, when Ned “forsakes” his integrity and lies about Joffrey’s legitimacy, he is lying to protect Sansa. It can be seen as symbolic penance for once forsaking her and killing Lady. After all the turmoil of his time at King’s landing, Ned Stark chooses private loyalty over public duty to save his child–as he once did in saving Jon Snow. And so his story comes to a close.
SYMBOLS AND MOTIFS
Martin alludes to Shakespeare not just by use of thematic and plot material, but also by heavy borrowing of symbols and motifs. This is how an author solidifies a literary parallel; by making connections on multiple analytical planes. To gain further insight into the parallels between A Game of Thrones and Julius Caesar, let’s take a closer look at some of their shared symbols and motifs.
LETTERS AND WILLS
Many written documents pass between hands in Julius Caesar and in Ned’s story. Like spoken rhetoric, the written word is powerful in politics; but it is more personal, wielding especially great power over the addressee.
Towards the beginning of each of these stories, an ominous letter serves as a call to action. Ned is in his bedchamber with Catelyn when Lysa’s letter arrives, accusing the Lannisters of murdering Jon Arryn. Ned might have been unsure whether to accept the handship before the letter came, but now he knows that he must.
In Julius Caesar, Brutus paces his garden, trying to decide whether to kill Caesar. Then, a letter arrives–it reprimands him for sleeping on the job while Rome is at stake. The audience knows the letter was forged by Cassius, but Brutus does not know this. He takes the letter to heart, and it strengthens his resolve to act.
In addition, the written wills of Julius Caesar and Robert Baratheon both factor prominently into narrative turning points. It is often argued that if Ned had taken more public action with Robert’s will, he might have saved his own life. In fact, this is exactly what Marc Antony does with Caesar’s will and succeeds in swaying the public opinion.
Unlike Ned and Brutus, Antony is a chameleon and master of rhetoric, able to finesse public opinion and quickly adapt to an ever-changing political climate. In terms of these qualities, Antony occupies the same juxtapositional character space as Tyrion, who proves a more successful Hand of the King than Ned. However, when we think about the big things that happen to Antony in the play, it’s interesting how similar he is to Ned. Like Ned, Antony finds the great leader dead and has to deal with the aftermath, conspirators all around. And, like Ned, Antony is entrusted with the will of his dead leader. Unfortunately, Ned fails as Antony due to his mishandling of Robert’s will and his absence of rhetoric.
STATE OF UNDRESS
Martin and Shakespeare take care to note when their characters are in a state of undress, often for thematic purpose.
For Ned and characters in Julius Caesar, these are almost always scenes which concern both personal matters and imminent danger:
[Thunder and lightning. Enter CAESAR, in his night-gown]
Nor heaven nor earth have been at peace to-night:
Thrice hath Calpurnia in her sleep cried out,
‘Help, ho! they murder Caesar!’ Who’s within?
– Julius Caesar, II.ii
In this quote, Caesar tells how he has been awakened from sleep by his wife, screaming after a nightmare she had that he was murdered. Shakespeare does not have to include the stage direction of Caesar being in his nightgown, but he does so because it is important–he wants to illustrate the intrusion of the public sphere on the private sphere.
We see a similar intrusion in the two chapters where Ned is described in a state of undress. In Catelyn II, Ned stands naked before a window in their Winterfell bedchamber. Catelyn notes that he looks “small and vulnerable.” Then comes Lysa’s ominous letter. Later on, in Eddard XIII, Ned is “naked and stumbling” when he responds to a knock at his door. It is the summons to Robert Baratheon’s deathbed.
State of undress is a reminder of domestic privacy, a more personal life which the public arena should not reach. And yet it does; ominous portents and events bridge the gap until public and private life bleed into one other.
NIGHTMARES AND STATUES
Speaking of ominous portents, this is another element that George R. R. Martin famously loves to import from classic literature. In fact, Martin has even revealed that the comet which makes its first appearance in A Game of Thrones was inspired by the herald comet in Julius Caesar (SSM).
Aside from the comet, Ned’s dream about Lyanna’s statue weeping blood is perhaps the most striking symbolic allusion to Julius Caesar:
“Promise me, Ned,” Lyanna’s statue whispered. She wore a garland of pale blue roses, and her eyes wept blood.
– Eddard XIII, A Game of Thrones
Ned has the dream the night before Robert dies. Interestingly, there’s also mention of a nightmare of a bleeding statue the night before Caesar dies:
“Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home:
She dreamt to-night she saw my statua,
Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts,
Did run pure blood:”
– Julius Caesar, II.ii
But beyond the similarity of these portentous nightmares, statues by themselves are deeply important to the Starks of Winterfell and to the ancient Roman world. In ancient Rome, statues celebrate a man’s public persona. They are typically sculpted during his life and displayed outdoors for all to admire. In the Winterfell crypts, the statues are buried deep below the ground. They are private, constructed upon death, consulted in contemplation.
Taking this difference into account, perhaps these dreams of bleeding statues also indicate a subtle thematic inversion–the death of one’s public self is the nightmare in Julius Caesar, but in A Game of Thrones the nightmare is the bleeding out of the private self.
LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP
Expressions of love and friendship appear frequently in Julius Caesar and Ned’s arc.
In both stories there’s a nostalgia for early days of friendship, yet the memory is at an emotional distance due to context. Characters in Julius Caesar fondly remember how they went to school together; Ned and Robert reminisce on their times as wards at the Eyrie, and fighting together in the Rebellion.
The word “love” is used in reference to true heartfelt feelings of friendship. It is also used in rhetoric, to leverage personal relationships for political gain:
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
—Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
– Julius Caesar, III.ii
Here we see Brutus appealing to the public and trying to sway their opinion, telling them how his love of Rome exceeded his love for Caesar and that was why he killed Caesar. In A Game of Thrones, Ned also uses “love” in his public appeal to Robert after the direwolf incident at the Trident:
All Ned could do was take her in his arms and hold her while she wept. He looked across the room at Robert. His old friend, closer than any brother. “Please, Robert. For the love you bear me. For the love you bore my sister. Please.”
– Eddard III, A Game of Thrones
As readers, we understand that these are true heartfelt expressions–not shallow, courtly niceties. For Ned and Brutus, the use of “love” in rhetoric represents a dangerous cross-contamination of the private and public realm.
OTHER CHARACTERS IN ASOIAF
The conflicting interests of public vs. private self should ring familiar in the greater context of A Song of Ice and Fire. Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, and Stannis Baratheon orbit this theme on different planes, each burdened with their own sense of honor.
Jaime killed Aerys II in an act which saves the public from wildfire; however, he henceforth lives with a “shit for honor” reputation and privately suffers, trying to reckon the meaning of true honor. But, in Jaime’s story, that meaning of true honor feels subservient to the theme of loyalty. Brutus spends a mere scene determining his loyalties; Ned wavers once or twice, but ultimately chooses loyalty to his family. Jaime’s arc is an entire fantasia on all the oaths he has sworn, kept and broken. And yet he delays with his determination of loyalty–five books into the series, and readers are still waiting for Jaime to choose a side. In this manner, Jaime has very strong overtones of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s prince of procrastination. However, his fundamental inner conflict seems to be a variant of Brutus’s inner conflict–one that is more consciously focused on private matters to inform his public self.
Jon possesses perhaps the most directly allusive scene to Julius Caesar and Shakespeare in the entire series. In a callback to Caesar’s assassination scene, Jon is mass-stabbed by conspiring members of the Night’s Watch. Like the Roman senators, the Night’s Watch seek to execute their leader who seems too guided by his private principles (fighting for Winterfell) rather than his public duty (impartiality). In this way, Jon is positioned as Caesar, but with Brutus’ conflicts and the moral compass of Ned Stark. One could even say that the conflict is passed down from Ned as the family legacy.
And, of course, there is Stannis Baratheon. Stannis more clearly aligns with Brutus’ character values than any other character in the ASOIAF series; he prioritizes the public good over private concerns. His willingness to burn children, including his own, is testament to that. It bears mentioning that in my essay Macbeth Revisited: Stannis Baratheon, I argue that Stannis is positioned as Macbeth with a twist: Stannis pursues the crown and commits atrocious deeds because he believes it is his public duty, not because it is his personal ambition. This claim is congruent with thoughts about shared qualities between Brutus and Stannis–especially considering how the Brutus’ inner conflict seems to inform Macbeth’s. As Ornstein alludes in his essay “Can we define the nature of the Shakespearean Tragedy?” no other tragic hero in Shakespeare endures the moral torment shared by Macbeth and Brutus (Ornstein 1985).
An acknowledgement: so far, we have only discussed the private vs. public self conflicts as they relate to male characters. This is not to say that these themes cannot apply to female characters, because of course they can and they do. However, the reader experiences such conflicts as they are steeped through the setting of a highly patriarchal society, where a man’s political and social identity is defined by his public service, and a woman’s political and social identity is usually defined by the public service of her male relations. Both Shakespeare and Martin are hyper-aware of this and challenge the notion that women’s public service roles are merely auxiliary.
To maintain the classical stoic tone of the Roman period, Shakespeare must challenge this idea largely through thematic material. In Julius Caesar, Portia and Calpurnia appeal to their husbands, Brutus and Caesar, with their womanly instinct that they know something bad is afoot. Brutus’ and Caesar’s rejection of their wives’ concerns is a symbolic rejection of their private self, and a rejection which ultimately leads to the crumbling of their public selfhood.
In A Song of Ice and Fire, women like Daenerys, Catelyn, Cersei, Sansa, and Arianne are actively playing the game, telling their own stories, and revealing to the reader their struggles with private desires and public duty. Perhaps what bars us from thinking of these woman as analogues for male characters in Julius Caesar is the highly masculine nature of the play as it is associated with the rejection of women and emotions–which Shakespeare criticizes.
If Shakespeare’s message is that it is unwise to elevate public duty over private loyalties, Martin counters that message in A Game of Thrones by showing us that there is equally great danger when the duties of office aren’t tended to as well as personal loyalties. Therefore, the common fatal flaw that Ned and Brutus share is twofold:
- Failure to balance private values and public duty
- Misjudgment in translating their personal ideology into public policy and with little regard to the political consequences
From a meta-analysis point of view, perhaps Ned’s greatest legacy of all in A Song of Ice and Fire is this rich conflict of public and private self. It’s a thematic foundation which takes root and grows, branching out through the series and testing its characters and readers on the meaning of honor, loyalty, and mercy.
Literature will never solve the perennial problems of politics–Shakespeare and Martin both know this. However, what it can do is nourish our thinking about the human condition in a political context. In the words of Marc Antony, “You are not wood, you are not stones, but men.”