“You win or You Die”: Game of Thrones and Machiavellian Amorality (15 April 2016)

“However, how men live is so different from how they should live that a ruler who does not do what is generally done, but persists in doing what ought to be done, will undermine his power rather than maintain it.”

-Machiavelli

Note:  Spoilers for the first four seasons of Game of Thrones and for Richard III

One of the major reasons that early modern audiences reacted so negatively to Machiavelli’s political philosophy stemmed from the idea that he advocated for amorality in both politics and in life.  Treating politics as a science, Machiavelli urged rulers to focus their attention on preserving themselves and their state, even if this meant doing things that were traditionally understood to be immoral.  This was not an altogether unfair reading, as Machiavelli did suggest that rulers should be more concerned with appearing noble and moral than with actually being noble and moral.[1] However, this translated into the popular consciousness as Machiavelli advocating for a total discarding of traditional morality in the name of personal gain.  As a result, stage Machiavels—a term used to describe theatrical characters meant to be associated with Machiavellian politics—were not only framed as amoral, but they tended to treat this amorality as something that offered them greater insight into how the world actually functioned.

This language of embracing the material reality of the world against an idealized vision of how we would like the world to operate became a key topos of many of the well-remembered early modern Machiavels.  Richard III argued that morality and social decorum were merely niceties that could be overlooked if one were powerful or ambitious enough.  In arguing for his right to use whatever means necessary to seize power, he famously suggested that “[c]onscience is a but a word that cowards use, /Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:/ Our strong arms be our conscience,” (V.iii.309-311).  Here, Richard expresses the belief that structures of idealism and morality, things like conscience, honor or love exist only to discourage the strong from seeking power.  In essence, the early modern Machiavel articulates a belief that social conventions are arbitrary constructions designed to keep men in line.

As I mentioned last week, a good case study for examining modern interest in Machiavellian politics can be glimpsed in HBO’s Game of Thrones.[2]  Much of the early series focuses on the political aftermath of the death of king Robert Baratheon and the ensuing series of civil wars and back-room politicking that occurs as a result.   Central to this conflict is the complicated political maneuvering undertaken by courtly figures such as Petyr Baelish and Cersei Lannister who, among others, frequently articulate the idea that the only way that power can be maintained is by acknowledging that one must be willing to engage in wrongdoing in order to secure oneself in an a disorganized and chaotic political environment.

Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish discussing what truly makes one ‘powerful’.

If Game of Thrones has a central thesis, it is a conscious rejection of idealism and a desire to ground high fantasy in a ‘veneer of reality’ that often slides into cynicism. Characters like Cersei and Petyr are drawn in direct contrast against figures such as Eddard Stark and his son Robb, who stand in as representatives of a kind of idealized heroism aligned with more traditional fantasy heroics.  Following the Machiavellian injunction to focus on “how things are generally done” rather than how “they ought to be done,” Game of Thrones constructs for itself a universe in which conventional ideas of morality and heroism fail.

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Eddard Stark’s Execution.  Such is the fate of idealistic men in Game of Thrones.

In this environment, good men die, because in the world of G.R.R. Martin’s Westeros, good men are frequently being undermined by individuals who better understand how the world works.[3]  The series embraces a decidedly Machiavellian logic concerning what makes a successful politician and through five seasons, the series shows little sign of subversion.

Petyr Baelish may as well be echoing Richard III when he comments that, “Chaos isn’t a pit.  Chaos is a ladder.  Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again.  The fall breaks them.  And some, are given a chance to climb.   They refuse, they cling to the realm or the gods or love.  Illusions.  Only the ladder is real.  The climb is all there is.”[4]  For pop culture Machiavels like Baelish, nothing matters except the acquisition of power.  Everything else is immaterial.  Thus, as one of the most successful Machiavels in Westeros, Baelish’s words seem to ring true throughout the series, as ideals like love, family and trust constantly fall short when those who embrace them are forced to confront the ‘realists’ of the series, who tend towards dissimulation, deceit and violence.[5]  Game of Thrones may not consciously be invoking the rhetoric of Machiavelli, but the series seems to affirm the Machiavellian idea that those who understand how power operates (in this case amorally) succeed where others fail.

The major difference to draw out between how early moderns thought about this aspect of Machiavellianism and how modern audiences think about it stems mostly from how much credit we are willing to give the Machiavellian position regarding the nature of men.  Game of Thrones is often praised for its more ‘realistic’ depiction of fantasy topos and for its rejection of an idealistic image of medieval fantasy.  While Baelish and Richard III are both the villains of their respective series, Richard III ends with the Machiavellian usurper defeated in righteous combat by the divinely ordained King Henry VII.  In the world of the early modern, the just order is preserved and the good, righteous ruler replaces the amoral Machiavel.[6]  In contemporary fiction such as Game of Thrones, even when it seems clear that the villainous Machiavel is a character we are meant to revile, the show seems to still affirm that they do simply have a better understanding of how the world works than the characters they manage to out maneuver.  While figures like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish may not be the heroes of our fiction, in a series such as Game of Thrones, they certainly seem to have a better understanding of the amoral, calculating political environments in which they traffic.  In moments such as these, modern audiences seem much more willing to accept Machiavelli’s argument that how the world works and how we would like it to work rarely align.

[1] “[A ruler] must be prepared to vary his conduct as the winds of fortune and changing circumstances constrain him…not deviate from the right conduct if possible, but be capable of entering upon the path of wrongdoing when this becomes necessary.”

[2] Game of Thrones remains incredibly popular through its 5th season, drawing in over 8 million viewers for its season finale:  http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/game-of-thrones-finale-ratings-jon-snow-cersei-1201519719/

[3] Petyr Baelish betrays Eddard Stark:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdmnL1lY-UM

[4] For a more detailed examination of what Baelish’s politics can teach us about history, see:  https://metathesisblog.com/2015/01/13/game-of-thrones-theory-of-history-nasty-brutish-but-definitely-not-short/

[5] In some cases, as with Eddard and Robb Stark, the ideals of loyalty and love prove to be actively detrimental, as a belief in the importance of those concepts result in the deaths of those characters.

[6] Also, Henry VII was the grandfather of Elizabeth I, so this ending worked to affirm the authority of the Tudor monarchy.


Evan Hixon is a first year PhD student in the English Department.  His studies focus on Early Modern British theater with an emphasis on Shakespeare, political theory and Anglo-Italian relations.  His current research work examines the rise of English Machiavellian political thought during the reign of Elizabeth I.

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