Throughout history, a handful of authors have established character tropes and story elements that have filtered down throughout literature. To this day, the writings of Chaucer, Homer, Faulkner, and others remain influential and are often reflected in modern works. However, no writer can claim more influence on media than William Shakespeare. His dramatic and comedic plays brought literature to the common man, and through his work, he changed the way society has viewed storytelling. George R. R.
Martin, arguably the leading fantasy writer since the days of Tolkien, implements Shakespearean elements into his ubiquitous saga Game of Thrones. Employing themes of revenge and delay, along with deft visual storytelling, Martin implements components from Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a new generation of literature; and in the process, he builds upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet and furthers the tragic nature of the work. King Hamlet’s murder, at the hands of his brother, has a profound impact on young Hamlet’s life; he is first introduced in a state of complete melancholy, and throughout the story the implications of his father’s death consume him.
Shakespeare, beginning his tragedy with a young, depressed boy grieving over the loss of his father, instantly evokes deep sympathy from the readers. When Hamlet first encounters his father’s apparition, the ghost pleads for Hamlet to avenge his astonishing death. Here, Hamlet battles with trepidation, but when he realizes the ghost’s authenticity he declares “with wings as swift / as meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (Shakespeare 1. 5. 35-37).
Hamlet establishes remarkable emphasis on honor by vowing vengeance for his ather, and in doing so, he subliminally reveals that honoring his father is his sole purpose for living. Hamlet puts all of his personal aspirations aside in order to avenge his father, and the readers better connect with him due to his honor and virtue. Hamlet’s devotion to retribution shines when he famously asserts “Oh, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (4. 4. 65-66). He has abandoned all of his individual wants in order to uphold his honor and virtue-he deems any thought outside the realm of revenge worthless.
Creating a tale centralized around a depressed boy seeking revenge captivates the readers and elicits empathy and attachment for him from them. Attempting to mimic the audience’s relationship with Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play, in his novel, Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin begins one of his character’s storylines in a similar fashion. In the celebrated Game of Thrones, young Robb Stark lives in a parallel state of despair and anger after witnessing his beloved father being beheaded by the unlawfully named king.
Stark’s father was one of the only men who knew that the king had no real blood connection to the previous king, and thus had no claim to the throne. The king was born from an incestuous relationship between his mother Cersei and uncle, and in order to keep this information secret, Cersei commands her adolescent, arrogant son to execute Stark for treason. Battling with misery, when he realizes the true reason for his father’s execution, Stark confronts Cersei: “my father learned the truth. That’s why you had him executed” (Martin 3. 12). Out of honor for his father, Robb vacates the kingdom and assembles an enormous army. He determines to acquire revenge against the unlawful and immoral royals who executed his father, and in doing so, he hopes to gain the throne that rightfully belonged to his father.
After proving himself victorious in many battles, Stark confides in his mother Caitlin, “I have won every battle, yet somehow I’m losing the war” (3. 482). Robb’s rage and desire for retaliation drive him to destroy his enemies and rule the attlefield, and although he has established his military prowess, he feels that the real fight is avenging his father and taking over the kingdom. Furthermore, Lord Stark’s victory in avenging his father hinges upon the mobility of his troops. In order to safely pass the largest river in the continent, access to a bridge owned by Lord Walter Frey may be one of the deciding factors of the war. Assembling an army and setting out to attain vengeance, Stark immediately takes action after his father was murdered, whereas Prince Hamlet is inactive for a majority of the play.
In molding Robb Stark as a sound, resolute teenager in direct contrast to adolescent, immature Hamlet, Martin creates a more likeable protagonist than Shakespeare, which removes character appreciation from Hamlet. In Game of Thrones, Robb Stark overcomes his inexperience and demonstrates proper leadership time after time, whereas Hamlet tries to mask his internal struggles in order to avenge his father’s death. In a traditional literary tragedy, the protagonist falls by means of hamartia, or a fatal flaw, and in both Hamlet and Game of Thrones, the young, royal sons postpone their quests due to emotional decisions.
Throughout the play, Hamlet internally struggles between whether he should honor his father by killing his uncle or not. This constant questioning of morality causes him to not know “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles” (Shakespeare 3. 1. 58-60). For Hamlet, revenge is not a matter of right and wrong, but rather a matter of right and right—the indecision he has is a result of him wondering which method is the most moral.
He begins to question his entire existence and subconsciously feels that killing his uncle would strip him of his morality and dignity. These conflicting thoughts take such a toll on Hamlet that he begins to contemplate suicide. After this soliloquy where he battles between each avenue of vengeance, Hamlet finds his opportunity for revenge. When he sees Claudius praying, he whispers “A villain kills my father, and, for that, /1, his sole son, do this same villain send to Heaven” (3. 3. 77-79).
Eventually, Hamlet comes to the conclusion that killing a praying man would cause him to go to Heaven, so he postpones his revenge. Here, Hamlet struggles with the morality behind the revenge, which proves to be another reason for his delay. Throughout the play, Hamlet does not stand firm in his resolutions, and the conglomeration of the missed opportunities and inner conflict cause the readers to sympathize with him and understand the difficult decision he’s facing. Although the specifics regarding their inner struggles differ, both Hamlet and Robb Stark are plagued by inaction and subsequently meet their tragic ends.
Understanding that the only path to success is through Lord Walter Frey’s kingdom, Stark promises to marry one of Frey’s daughters for safe passage. He fully intends on upholding his promise, until he meets a medic named Talissa and shortly thereafter falls in love with her. Having been in a relationship with Talissa for a few weeks, Stark impregnates and marries her, breaking his promise of marrying one of Frey’s daughters. During their wedding, Stark recites “Father, smith, warrior, mother, maiden, crone, stranger.
I am hers and she is mine, from this day, until the end of my days” (Martin 3. 612). The original agreement of marrying Frey’s daughter for assured passage was in Stark’s best interest, as his hope of avenging his father would not have been possible without it. Consequently, this marriage made out of love instead of duty paves the way for Stark’s demise. As opposed to Hamlet, Martin employs Stark’s inability to forego love as his hamartia, which leads the reader to sympathize with Robb and find him relatable.
The reader’s relationship with Stark enables Martin’s Game of Thrones to captivate the reader to a greater extent than Hamlet, which does not as efficiently distinguish and give credit to Shakespeare’s work as the paramount tragedy. George RR Martin continues to enchant the readers through theatrical elements found in the Red Wedding scene, as this eliminates the possibility of Robb Stark seeing his mission to fruition. Because Robb Stark breaks his promise with Walder Frey, he attempts to have his cousin marry Frey’s daughter instead of himself.
For the wedding, Lord Frey invites all of the Starks to his dining hall, and the initial environment creates an uplifting, positive mood. The room is open with the tables all facing towards the throne, and bright lights burst through the door, filling the wedding with a heartening overarching mood and hopeful atmosphere. However, he then closes the door and the mood completely changes—Stark and his family are in a closed frame, essentially trapped and unable to move. The lighting dims and the setting is now incredibly dark, which causes Robb and his family to grow anxious.
Feeling imprisoned in this dining hall, the lighting and mood foreshadow his family’s demise. The only people that have light displayed on them are the Starks, which illustrates that they are the only people in attendance that are not in the know. Lord Frey then stands up on his platform, with everyone in the room standing below him, and he says “I would be remiss if I did not offer the new princess a wedding gift” and then proceeds to have his men kill Stark, his pregnant wife, mother, and all his men in attendance within seconds.
In this tragic scene, Robb Stark and his entire family die, which is tragic not only because many beloved characters were killed, but because Stark cannot achieve what he devoted his entire life to—revenge. The theatrical elements in this scene make Robb Stark’s death more tragic and impactful than Hamlet’s because Hamlet’s delay only postponed his mission, whereas Robb’s delay made his mission impossible. In a world of fantastical dragons and beasts, reality only makes itself known in the relationships of the characters.
George R. R. Martin, through his storytelling and theatrical elements, naturally causes the readers to become entranced by the setting, characters, and themes of his series. The increasing attachment to Robb Stark due to the arousal of empathy regarding his deceased father and his own death advance the drama, tragedy, and impact of his gruesome death beyond Hamlet. George R. R. Martin utilizes Hamlet as a stepping stone to create an adaptation of classical tragedy that exceeds the original due to his proficient visual effects and ability to captivate the audience.