Violence, bloody wars, beheading, rape and incest, other-worldly creatures and prophesying witches, politicking and intrigue, and characters with uncertain futures—does it sound like an attempted commentary on the latest Game of Thrones trailer? Nay!
Let me borrow a line from the beloved, bearded author whose penchant for bumping off heroes and those not so heroic has kept readers and viewers gasp in absolute horror to explain this. “Allow me to pose this question to you—how many of you have heard of William GODDAMN Shakespeare?” asked George R. R. Martin while defending his decision to knock off key characters who found favour with the audience. Didn't the Bard do the same with his characters?
Over the past 400 centuries, many creative geniuses such as Russian great Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose nihilistic portrayal of characters—the philandering Arkady Svidrigailov of Crime and Punishment and Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov (the second brother in The Brothers Karamazov)— was inspired by Shakespeare's nihilist Macbeth and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who drew parallels between Alex of A Clockwork Orange and Richard III, have liberally quoted, copied and borrowed from the Bard.
It is then hardly surprising that men and women from an imaginary world inhabited by dragons and a girl riding them, wolves, witches, kings and knights bear semblance to those in the repertoire of the Bard. By his own admission, Martin bums off much from literature and history to imagine an era and place where greed for power and desire for retribution reign supreme and stomach-churning barbarity is a commonplace occurrence.
Many characters from A Song of Ice and Fire or its HBO adaptation, the Game of Thrones, who are directly or indirectly involved in the pursuit to occupy the iron throne, have their counterparts in the Bard's works. While some of Martin's characters share stark similitude to Shakespeare's, others have traits that can be traced in people in the latter's plays.
Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish and Iago
When it comes to manipulation, trickery and plotting, Martin's much reviled 'Littlefinger', who sells lies and whores to ascend the ladder of power, is much like the lying, malevolent master manipulator Iago in Othello. Iago plots the downfall of the Moor of Venice and everyone around him after he was overlooked for a position that he thought was rightfully his and possibly because of a romantic interest he harbored for Desdemona. Baelish was smitten by Catelyn Stark who never reciprocated his feelings, but trusted him as she considered him to be a friend. A friend he was not. Much like Iago for whom those around him are just pawns in the larger scheme of things, Baelish uses, abuses, manipulates, betrays and destroys even those who trust him when he thinks it suits him. Nonetheless, despite the large body count they perpetuate, they rarely spill blood with their own hands (Iago kills his wife Emilia and fatally wounds Roderigo, while Littlefinger gets little action in terms of actual violence).
Cersei Lannister and Lady Macbeth
From Melisandre to the Tyrell women, conniving, power-hungry ladies who are willing to kill even kids are aplenty in the works of Martin. But if there is one woman who could could give the rest of the venomous ladies in Martin's works a good run for their money, it is the arrogant, spiteful, winebibber Cersei. The Bard too had a woman that beats all others when judged by the degree of turpitude—the nefarious Lady Macbeth.
While Lady Macbeth's avarice is no match for the lust for power and her brother that Martin brings into the character of Cersei, the two are alike in their readiness to resort to any means to silence or destroy those who stand in their way. Conscience may prick Lady Macbeth, but for Cersei there is no such redeeming quality except perhaps her love for her children from her brother.
Hamlet and Oberyn Martell
'Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.' Two princes who were consumed by vengeance, Hamlet and Martin's Oberyn Martell, seem to have paid little heed to Chinese philosopher Confucius who said this oft-quoted line. While Shakespeare's vengeful prince is a brooder who mouths some of the iconic lines on existence, Red Viper of Dorne is a hot-headed warrior who is equally skilled in the ring and bed. However, it is hard to miss a pattern found in both these men. They live to avenge— Hamlet his father's death and Martell his sister's—and die in doing so.
Jon Snow and Ceasar
While the Julius Caesar is a play that is less about the Roman general himself and more about his friends, foes and friend-turned foe, it isn't too hard to find similitude between Caesar and the bastard son of Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, Jon Snow. Like Caesar, Snow is honourable and from the little that we get to know about Caesar from Mark Antony and Brutus, he was a loyal friend much like how Snow was to the Starks despite Catelyn Stark's dislike for him.
The death of these two too are alike. While Snow meets with a tragic end (as we know it) by the hands of his own brethren, it was the dear friend Brutus who played a key role in Caesar's assassination.
Walder Frey and Macbeth
Sure, Macbeth's character is a lot more etched than the Martin's Walder Frey, but the two share similarities in their willingness to kill those who trusted them and took shelter under their roofs. Ambition, Lady Macbeth's greed and the prophesies of the three witches prompt Macbeth to murder King Duncan who visits him at his castle. Frey, the lord of the Crossing and the head of House Frey, a vassal to House Tully, was enraged after Robb Stark refused to marry one of his daughters and the assurance of protection from Lord Tywin Lannister cemented his plan to ruthlessly slay Robb, Catelyn and most of their bannermen in one of the most brutal bloodletting scenes, famously known as the Red Wedding, in the entire show.