Good and bad princes are typically easily distinguishable, regardless of the time period from which they rule. For today’s rulers, we tend to gravitate towards leaders that we like or leaders who are popular. Standards for rulers have changed over time, but in the middle ages rulers were judged by a very strict set of criteria in which rulers were meant to be feared by all and loved by none. Kings and Princes of the middle ages were not necessarily popular as they are today. Instead, they strived to be competitive and feared.
Niccolo Machiavelli wrote a series of works regarding the guidelines that princes were to follow in order to be successful rulers. He gives examples of both successful and unsuccessful princes and greatly details how their behaviors and actions made them either successful or unsuccessful. HBO’s television series, Game of Thrones, is popularly known today as a representative of the medieval ways of live and kingship. Many of the characters in Game of Thrones are actually modeled after Machiavelli’s descriptions of princes in his work, The Prince.
Interestingly, we are able to study these characters and find the Machiavellian aspects in all of them, even if the characters themselves are not explicitly Machiavellian rulers. Game of Thrones’ Viserys Targaryen exemplifies Machiavelli’s ideas about princedom in that he focuses on the importance of war and the Dothraki culture, but his ignorance of the majority of Machiavelli’s advice would displease Machiavelli, himself. Viserys Targaryen embodies very specific characteristics of the prince that Machiavelli describes. The primary example that Viserys personifies is that of a prince only concerned with war.
In The Prince, Machiavelli writes, “…for war is the sole art looked for in one who rules” (Machiavelli, 37). Machiavelli explains that princes should keep their focus on war and the preparation for war in order to be a good ruler. Viserys, as stated in the first episode of Game of Thrones, is only concerned with starting a war and recapturing the throne for himself. He knows that the only way for him to acquire power is to start a war with those currently on the throne. Machiavelli explicitly advocates this idea because he believes that “it is the surest way to acquire power” (Machiavelli, 37).
This hunger for war is the most prominent Machiavellian factor in Viserys’ personality. Every action that he carries out derives from his need to win back the throne, which he knows can only be done by obtaining a powerful army and ensuring his victory in war. Furthermore, Viserys not only acknowledges that he must prepare for war, but he also immerses himself in the study of war. As Machiavelli points out, “…a Prince should read histories, and in these should note the actions of great men, observe how they conducted themselves in their wars, and examine the causes of their victories and defeats…” (Machiavelli, 39).
We know that this is true because Viserys introduces Khal Drogo to Danaerys and describes his victories in battle. Before this, Viserys would have had to study Khal Drogo’s actions as a leader and warrior. He knows about the success of the Dothraki warriors as a whole, as well, meaning that he has been studying the leader and his society. Because of this, we know that Viserys has been preparing, at least mentally, for a victorious battle. Viserys also takes advice from Machiavelli in that he takes on the challenge of adopting a group of people that speaks a different language.
Machiavelli explains that a prince acquiring a state that speaks a different language must “go and dwell there in person” (Machiavelli, 3). Viserys does this, immersing himself in the Dothraki society along with Danaerys rather than sending her away with the warriors and staying home. He always appears interested in the Dothraki culture and the reasons for their rituals. Specifically, he makes inquiries about the events at the wedding in the first episode, showing that he does have general interest in the Dothraki warriors and their violent rituals at the wedding receptions.
While Viserys does take on these Machiavellian qualities, he seems to widely ignore most of the pertinent advice that Machiavelli gives. Machiavelli states that, “Such Princes are wholly dependent on the favour and fortunes of those who have made them great, than which supports none could be less stable or secure, and they lack both the knowledge and the power that would enable them to maintain their position” (Machiavelli, 15). Viserys only comes to power through his promise to let Khal Drogo marry his sister, Danaerys. Because of this, Viserys will always be indebted to Khal Drogo and will never truly be the leader of the Dothraki warriors.
He will never truly have the respect of the Dothraki warriors as long as Khal Drogo is alive and because he did not honorably take the Dothraki group like a good prince would have. As Machiavelli says, Viserys lacks the knowledge that a real leader needs in order to maintain power over such a strong group of people, especially because Viserys has not defeated the Dothraki leader. Viserys’ selling of Danaerys for Khal Drogo’s allegiance will not make him trustworthy because he has not really tried to gain the trust of the Dothraki.
This means that the warriors, and especially Khal Drogo himself, do not ever truly feel allied to Viserys. Because the Dothraki do not see Viserys as a leader, they do not feel inclined to protect him, either. We see this in episode 7, in which Khal Drogo kills Viserys and none of the surrounding warriors try to defend him. Khal Drogo killed Viserys because he made a threat to Danaerys and the future Dothraki prince. Machiavelli writes, “Wherefore the injury we do to a man should be of a sort to leave no fear of reprisals” (Machiavelli, 4).
Machiavelli warns against this exact threat, saying that a prince should only make threats if there is no chance that someone will take revenge on him. Viserys ignores this advice in that he directly threatens Danaerys and her unborn child in front of Khal Drogo and all of the Dothraki warriors. He should have been aware that even the threat of danger against the Dothraki’s kaleesi and future king would have repercussions, but he ignored them and allowed his anger to drive his actions, instead. Because the Dothraki people were already distrustful of Viserys, they had no reason to defend him when Khal Drogo demanded that he be killed.
Viserys’ death scene is ironic in this way because Khal Drogo melts the gold over his head, which is meant to be symbolic of Viserys’ crown. This is even more ironic because we know that Viserys is not really worthy of the crown and Khal Drogo and his warriors seem to share the sentiment. Because of Viserys’ behavior and general ignorance, Machiavelli would likely be disappointed in his course of action throughout his character arc in the television show. Machiavelli would probably agree that although Viserys’ odds of gaining the Dothraki’s trust are not in his favor, he does not behave well enough to deserve that trust anyway.
He would know, as we do, that Viserys’ fixation on obtaining the throne by the means of war prevents him from being able to be a good prince. Since he ignores most of the advice that Machiavelli gives, especially the important pieces of information, Viserys does not qualify as a good prince. Viserys lives up to Machiavelli’s standards for princes in that he focuses on the importance of war and the Dothraki culture, but he ignores the majority of Machiavelli’s advice. Therefore, he is not a very well-rounded prince and ultimately dies at the hands of the Dothraki because of it.