In Triple Aspect: Witches of Macbeth and A Song of Ice and Fire


One of the most easily recognizable archetypes in literature, yet transmutable into so many varying forms. Old, young, wise, prophetic, repulsive, tempting, ugly, beautiful–for every one witch characteristic, there seems to be a corresponding opposite.

Macbeth’s three Witches are old and ugly hags, endowed with the gift of prophecy. They begin and end the play—indeed serving as a centerpiece of the story—as they feed Macbeth’s ambition.  Lady Macbeth is, likewise, a witch figure. She is young and mortal, bereft of prophetic powers, but aligns herself with the Witches and has seductive power as she impels her husband to do wicked deeds.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, there are many more types of witches. Melisandre comes to mind  as the most prominent, plot-driving witch in the story, but there is also Maggy the Frog, Mirri Maz Duur, Ghost of High Heart, Lady Stoneheart, and even Cersei.  Quite the collection of sundry characters, and yet they are all witches or “witchy” in some way.

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Sanrixian (Mallory Dorn)

The common thread between these women appears to be their power, whether magical or not, in addition their propensity to reject societal expectations of idealized femininity.  Let us boil down the cauldron a bit; the witchy hell-broth reduces to a corruption of three female archetypes that ASOIAF readers are very familiar with: maiden, mother, and crone. That is to say, the witch presents as the maiden, the mother, or the crone in role or appearance, but with a corrupted, flipped version of her fundamental nature.  The maiden is innocent and pure, but the maiden-witch is a seductive temptress. The mother is nurturing, but the mother-witch is poisonous. The crone is a wise and trustworthy old lady, but the crone-witch’s prophetic wisdom is cloaked in riddles.

Such conclusions are at the crossroads of literary analysis and psychoanalysis, and that’s no accident. Archetypes are figures that are important in both literature and psychological theory. Not all writers consider the psychological implications of the archetypes they use, but William Shakespeare and George R. R. Martin certainly do. The psychoanalytical level in their stories is like a pulsating bass line beneath the richly woven themes and structure, bonding the reader with the story on a deeply personal, visceral level. Going forward in this essay, let us take a closer look at the witches in Macbeth and A Song of Ice and Fire, determine their alignment as maiden, mother, or crone, and discuss the psychological impact of this extremely fascinating female archetype.

The Triple Hecate by William Blake

First, considering the witch in terms of three sub-archetypes, let us talk about the importance of things in three. The number three can represent many fundamental human concepts of the world–heaven, earth, and hell; birth, life, death; past, present, future; id, ego, superego.  It’s a power number that appears richly in myth and religion. Hecate, the triple form goddess. The three Fates who spin, measure and cut the thread of life. The Father, Son and Holy Ghost. In Macbeth, the three Witches often speak three prophecies at a time.  In ASOIAF, The Faith of the Seven is seven-aspect, but really, there are two gendered groups of three and one non-gendered. In a way, the witch is a very similar archetype to the Stranger, a catch-all archetype for those who don’t fit into or have fallen from the other roles. However, the witch is gendered female, and so she takes on the role of Maiden, Mother, or Crone as she subverts the feminine qualities associated with each of those aspects.

So, before delving into deeper analysis of the maiden-witch, mother-witch, and crone-witch, let us sort the most prominent witchy characters from Macbeth and ASOIAF.  Some might embody characteristics of more than one type of witch and this is indicated that in the chart below, but all present with one dominant sub-type:

Maiden-witch Mother-witch Crone-witch
Melisandre X * *
Maggy the Frog X
Mirri Maz Duur * X
Ghost of High Heart X
Lady Stoneheart X
Cersei * X
Witches X
Lady Macbeth X *

Some might choose to class Old Nan as a witch–her tales of yore parallel and foreshadow events in ASOIAF in a way that feels almost supernatural.  Old Nan’s stories are a testament to her wisdom and her alignment as a pure Crone archetype, but she never explicitly delivers them as prophecies. A crone-witch must have the gift of prophecy; it’s what transforms wisdom into something more powerful.  

Of course, Macbeth and ASOIAF aren’t the only works in which the three witch sub-types appear. The concept of the witch in triple aspect has been perpetuated by myth, by fairytales, by Disney, and while sometimes those witches are very interesting characters, at other times they just feel flat, cartoonish, and sloppily written. Thankfully, Shakespeare and Martin are not sloppy writers. The witch contextualizes rather than sensationalizes the plot. Patriarchal ideas about gender are interrogated rather than embraced.  The craft of the story-writing is heightened by thoughtful, purposeful use of  archetypes. Let us continue to explore that and more by delving deeper into the psychoanalytical roles of the maiden-witch, the mother-witch, and the crone-witch.


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Slender she was, graceful, taller than most knights, with full breasts and narrow waist and a heart-shaped face. Men’s eyes that once found her did not quickly look away, not even a maester’s eyes. Many called her beautiful. She was not beautiful. She was red, and terrible, and red. – A Clash of Kings, Prologue

The maiden-witch archetype possesses the maiden’s beauty and her allure. However, the maiden is also virtuous, innocent, virginal, beautiful–qualities that charm and captivate in a courtly, proper way. By contrast, the witch flips the maiden archetype and those innocent charms become darkly mirrored as seductive power.  As a testament to her erotic magical powers, Melisandre tempts Stannis who is otherwise an almost asexual character.

However, as seen from Maester Cressen’s narrative, there’s something about Melisandre that’s not beautiful at all. There’s something quite terrible about her. This juxtaposition of beauty and terror is reminiscent of a quote from the opening scene of Macbeth:

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Hover through the fog and filthy air.” – Macbeth, I.i

“Fair is foul and foul is fair” fuses opposites: what is sinister is also benevolent, what is beautiful is also ugly.  It’s interesting how Macbeth receives the prophecy from the Witches, but Lady Macbeth is the one who persuades him into pursuing it, encouraging him to “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t.”  Again, here is the fusion of opposites–something beautiful hiding something evil, which parallels the concept of the maiden-witch. There is also a lot of sexual innuendo in this line, and many stage and film productions show Lady Macbeth straddling Macbeth while she delivers it.

Lady Macbeth also portrays characteristics of the mother-witch which will be discussed very soon, but like Melisandre she is predominantly a maiden-witch for her role as the seductive woman who instigates evil deeds, and for her sexually-charged language.  

It is this ambiguity of beauty vs. ugliness which not only contributes to a feeling of apprehension and dread, but parallels themes of good vs. evil and, on a deeper level, the equivocation of the soul. The maiden-witch stirs in us this inner disquietude; her erotic power makes her all the more beautiful, her beauty makes her power seem all the more sinister.


“I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,

And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.” – Macbeth, I.vii

Even though this monologue from Lady Macbeth is her only reference to motherhood, it’s a shocking and horrifying vision of a mother-witch; a woman who rejects nurturing qualities in favor of behaviors that are violent and harmful.  The mother-witch might or might not have magical powers, but it is her subversion and perversion of the mother figure that makes her a witch. We see the mother-witch in many fairy tales and Disney: the evil stepmother in Cinderella, the Evil Queen from Snow White, Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, even Cruella de Vil who preys on little puppies.  

Probably the most iconic representation of the mother-witch in ASOIAF is Lady Stoneheart.

Azad Injejikian

In the literal sense of the word, it is awesome to witness the rise of Lady Stoneheart–a wrathful, revenge-driven husk of Catelyn Stark.  Death is the driving force behind this transformation, but even before Catelyn’s death there are hints of Lady Stoneheart. The Stark matriarch is successful and generally happy within the patriarchal structure of Westeros, but not when the rules of that system are broken and she ends up with the short end of the stick (i.e. raising her husband’s bastard). Catelyn is a fantastic character and well-beloved by many, but it is also no surprise that a lot of readers absolutely loathe her–largely because they associate her with an evil-stepmother character. As mentioned before, these witchy archetypes can evoke very visceral reactions! But Catelyn doesn’t fully yield to a venomous nature until she has the most important thing stripped from her as a mother–her children. Right after Robb dies, Catelyn kills Walder Frey’s disabled son–her first real act as a mother-witch. When she rises from death, the transformation is complete: she is Lady Stoneheart.

Another example of the mother-witch is Cersei. She might be a loving mother to her own children, but towards Sansa–who looks to her as a surrogate mother–she is venomous. Perhaps the prophecy Cersei received as a child partially shaped this behavior; the crone-witch Maggy the Frog dashed young Cersei’s hopes as the maiden and mother she wished to be. Now, as Maggy’s prophecies come true and Cersei loses her identity as a mother, like Catelyn, she becomes more enraged and vengeful, not to mention jealous of younger, more beautiful women.  

Magali Villeneuva

The quote from Lady Macbeth at the top of this section seems to suggest that she, too, was once a mother, and yet there is no other reference to her child in the play. All that can be assumed is that the child died. Lady Stoneheart, Cersei (assuming her children all die in the books, as they have in the show), and Lady Macbeth form their own trio of mother-witches who have lost their children, lost their identification as mothers, and henceforth gravitate towards the witch archetype in rage, grief and frustration. However, Lady Macbeth has more in common with Cersei’s behavior and psychology than she does with Catelyn’s. The two women have significant internalized misogyny, resent their limitations as women in society, and cow their male partners for not being manly enough. Each woman states she would prefer to be a man for the sake of having a man’s privileges. Lady Macbeth even invokes the spirits to unsex her, to strip her of all feminine qualities which she considers weak:

Come, you spirits

That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,

And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full

Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;

Stop up the access and passage to remorse,

That no compunctious visitings of nature

Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between

The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,

And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,

Wherever in your sightless substances

You wait on nature’s mischief! – Macbeth, I.v

Some will erroneously claim that Macbeth is a misogynistic play because of passages like this, but they’re neglecting to see it as the author’s own critique on society.  While using the witch archetype as a central figure in his play, Shakespeare embraces gender and misogyny as main themes and, by the end, presents the danger and destructiveness of rejecting feminine-coded qualities like grief and remorse.  

Martin also interrogates certain societal values of Westeros in similar fashion. Cersei and Lady Stoneheart are mother-witch characters who were once hopeful young maidens, and then nurturing mothers. Their characters aren’t just “women gone bad,” but a macabre expression of feminine rage in a repressive patriarchal system.


“Please,” begged Melara. “Just tell us our futures, then we’ll go.”

“Some are here who have no futures,” Maggy muttered in her terrible deep voice.

 A Feast for Crows, Cersei VII

Matt Olson

As mentioned before, the crone-witch takes the crone’s quality of wisdom and powers it up to prophecy.  She often speaks in riddles, like the Witches to Macbeth, Maggy the Frog to Cersei, and the Ghost of High Heart.  The crone is normally a trustworthy old lady; in contrast, the crone-witch and her powers are not to be trusted. Daenerys even thinks on Mirri Maz Duur as one of the three great betrayals of her life.  

A big question concerning all these crone-witches is whether they have any gift of prophecy at all, or whether such prophecies are self-fulfilling.  There are two answers to this question:

1) Yes, of course they have the gift of prophecy–it’s fundamental to their archetype.

2) Well, it depends–it’s the mortal perception that makes the immortal/supernatural realm what it is.

The second point is especially applicable to the Macbeth Witches, who are farther removed from the realm of humanity and represent nothing in a way. They are construed as “fantastical” (I.iii.53), vanishing “bubbles” (I.iii.79) and “Melted as breath into the wind” (I.iii.82). As Macbeth says after hearing their prophecy, “this supernatural soliciting cannot be ill, cannot be good…nothing is, what is not.” Yet it his perception of them that make them what they are.  He eventually chooses to believe in and pursue the prophecies, setting the wheel of fate in motion.

But, as a general rule, the wheel of fate is not kind to those who seek out the crone-witch and attempt to manipulate her prophecies. What characters crave from the crone-witch is wish-fulfillment, but to dabble in the realm of the magical comes at a great cost–usually, sanity or life. Lady Macbeth goes mad and kills herself. Macbeth dies, his legacy nonexistent and his memory besmirched.  In ASOIAF Cersei has her fortune told, but what she hears haunts her for the rest of her days. Mirri Maz Duur tells Daenerys that she can bring Drogo back to life, but in a life-for-life exchange Dany’s baby is born hideously deformed and dies, and Drogo is an undead horror. As for Stannis, it seems his psychological suffering is just beginning as a result of the sacrifices he’s made to Melisandre’s Red God.

A mortal crossing into the magical realm is not just a structural transgression, but also a psychological regression. Characters are drawn to magical thinking because it validates the id which operates on the pleasure principle—wishes fulfilled instantaneously by thought. However, children learn at a young age that they can’t have nice things at no cost. So ,when characters in literature turn to magic to tell or fix the future, psychologically these characters are actually regressing into their past and into infantile behaviors, seeking instant gratification at great costs.  We vividly see time turning against Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as they chase the future. Lady Macbeth’s past sinful deeds drive her mad with guilt. In Macbeth’s case, past, present and future all seem to bleed together until he is absolutely numb:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing. – Macbeth, V.v

Macbeth has become like the witches; nothing. And that is the closest to the supernatural realm and immortality that his ambition can carry him.  

Macbeth and Witches by Charles Henry Granger


It bears mentioning again that these are not strict categorizations, nor has every aspect of every witch been explained according to this triple aspect model.  Beyond the mother-witch, there is a lot to say about the mothering and reproductive imagery that often accompanies crone-witches. The Witches’ cauldron is like a womb, round and big where things get put in and come out as something else.  Likewise, Mirri Maz Duur is a crone-witch with her magic powers and the promises she makes to Dany (ultimately betraying her), but she also serves as a midwife, delivering a deformed monster-baby from Dany’s womb. Not to mention Melisandre’s unique role as a mother-witch, and how she births a shadow-baby! In general, a lot more time could be spent talking about each of these witchy characters and how they present as all three sub-archetypes.

A more in-depth discussion of this model might also discuss how witches usher in life crises for the characters who interact with them, and the specific nature of these crises according to witch sub-archetype. For example, the maiden-witch with her seductive power ushers in a crisis of passion vs. dispassion (Stannis deciding to fight for his claim to the throne with Melisandre’s help), the mother-witch causes a crisis of attachment vs. independence (Sansa coming into her own after surviving Cersei), and the crone-witch ushers in a crisis of knowledge vs. uncertainty, which has been touched on in the section above.

For now, this broad analysis of witches in terms of maiden, mother, and crone offers a unique lens through which to view A Song of Ice and Fire and Macbeth.  The witch triple-aspect model illuminates themes of gender, good vs. evil, as well as what can be examined as the author’s own critique of these concepts in society.  And, of course, a psychoanalytical perspective has the potential to shed light on the reader’s own response and connection to the story. After all, the real interest of Shakespeare’s and Martin’s stories is not in the archetypes and fantastical elements themselves, but in what they represent for the human condition–a topic of bottomless depth.  


Stannis Baratheon: Macbeth Revisited

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.


Even though Martin has not publicly confirmed the Stannis-Macbeth parallel, the storylines are similar enough to prick our literary subconscious:  

  1. Macbeth is a lord and highly competent military commander who aspires to higher office; so it is with Stannis.
  2. Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to consult the Witches upon hearing their prophecy; so Lady Selyse urges Stannis to speak with the Red Woman.
  3. The Witches help Macbeth along his quest for the throne; so does the Red Woman with Stannis.
  4. 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.

Macbeth and the Witches (Barker, 1830)


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.

The Three Witches (Fuseli, 1782)


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.

Macbeth About to Murder King Duncan (Dudley, 1890)


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.

Macbeth Act III (Meadows, 1846)


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


Lady Macbeth:

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.

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Stannis Baratheon by Mallory Dorn


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.

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Macbeth and Macduff (Selous, 1864)


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.