SPOILER WARNING: If you aren’t caught up on Game of Thrones, you probably should go take care of that before reading this article. Especially considering the limited amount of time you have to catch up before the new season starts.
Imagine for moment: you are a commoner in a pre-industrial kingdom. After a hard day’s work, you head over to the local tavern for a couple of drinks and to discuss the news of the day. The big gossip concerns the recent murder of the young king. The boy’s father had been, in his youth, a famous and well-respected warrior who elevated his family to the throne via martial prowess and the recruiting of powerful allies, but, in his later life, he had been given to excessive eating and drinking, becoming weak and ineffectual until finally dying under mysterious circumstances, leaving the crown to his eldest son, a pubescent boy that was considered by many to be unfit to rule and, it was rumored, an illegitimate child with no right to the throne at all. Amidst these allegations, the young king turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, with nearly all fingers pointing towards the king’s uncle: a shrewd and cunning man, with physical deformities that had caused many to distrust him, a distrust now seen as being completely warranted.
Pop quiz: Where are you: London in 1483 or King’s Landing in the 300th year after Aegon’s Conquest?
A Song of Ice and Fire and its mega-hit television adaptation, A Game of Thrones, have taken the world by storm, appealing to hardcore fantasy fans and casual viewers alike thanks to its vivid cast of characters, wanton sex and violence, and high stakes plotting in which no character seems safe.
This is because, like most good stories, beneath all the dragons and snow zombies, A Song of Ice and Fire is based on the truth. It presents us with a history with which we’re vaguely familiar, rearranged in a more exciting order with slightly more boobs and ultimately using that vocabulary to show us some interesting things about ourselves. Such is the case with the way the story of Richard III of England has been tweaked to become the story of Tyrion Lannister.
So, let’s start with a brief recap of everything you’ve forgotten about Richard III, or “Ricky Three,” as I like to call him: Ricky was born into the wealthy and influential house of York, at the time the ruling house of England. Born with a hunchback and useless left arm, Ricky was deemed a bit of an embarrassment amongst his family. However, his existence and presence within the ranks of his house was tolerated because his intellect made him a useful advisor and a good military strategist. However, once the Yorkist King Edward IV started to take ill, Ricky, through some fancy footwork including a politically advantageous marriage to a woman from a recently defeated rebel house and the systematic removal of rivals from amongst his own party’s followers, managed to get himself named the chief advisor to the new king, the twelve-year-old Edward V. He then, under pretense that Edward had been born out of wedlock, had him and his younger brother imprisoned in the Tower of London as pretenders to the crown and then dispatched one of his knights to murder them so that he could take control for himself.
Is this sounding familiar?
Let’s run down the list: Like Richard, Tyrion is a member of an influential and wealthy family. Like Richard, Tyrion has a physical abnormality, dwarfism, which makes him an object of distrust even (and especially) amongst his own family. Like Richard, Tyrion makes up for his lack of physical ability with his intellect and ability to strategize (see the explosive Battle of the Blackwater, which served as the climax of the show’s second season). Like Richard, Tyrion marries Sansa Stark, a surviving member of a rebel house that, to all appearances, has been eliminated as a serious threat to the regime. Like Richard’s nephew, Tyrion’s nephew, Joffrey, is a young king, elevated to the throne because of the mysterious death of his predecessor. Also like the young Edward V, Joffrey is rumored (and, the audience knows, is) a bastard, whose claim to the Iron Throne is false. The only difference is that, while Tyrion is framed and accused of Joffrey’s murder, we know he didn’t do it, whereas we know for a fact that Richard was responsible for Edward’s death.
Or do we?
In fact, a lot of what we “know” about Richard, we know because of a man who wasn’t even born until almost 80 years after Richard’s death: William Shakespeare, whose play Richard III, though not the originator of many of the classic features of the Richard story, is the version that has cemented the popular image of the king.
Based on forensic examination of the king’s remains, recently rediscovered beneath a parking lot, of all places, we now know that, far from the one-armed hunchback Shakespeare creates, the real Richard had two perfectly healthy arms and, while there is some evidence to suggest that he suffered from scoliosis that may have caused one shoulder to sit higher than the other, the deformity would have likely been so minor that the king’s clothing would have covered it up. Surviving contemporary accounts even describe him as a pretty good-looking guy.
Furthermore, despite it being “common knowledge” that he murdered his nephews, the so-called “Princes in the Tower,” historians cannot quite agree on that either. While most still hold with the proposition that Richard arranged to have his lackey, Sir James Tyrell (note the last name, Game of Thrones fans), enter their cell and murder them, some contend that the guilty party may have been Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s right-hand man, who fell out of the king’s favor very shortly after he died. He is even named as the murderer in some historical documents. Others speculate that Richard’s successor, Henry VII murdered them after he took power to prevent them from trying to take the crown from him, as he had repealed the decree that declared Edward IV’s children illegitimate so that he could marry the Edward’s oldest daughter to strengthen his claim. Still others claim that the pair died of illness while imprisoned. The trouble is, the date of their death is not known. It’s just known that they were last seen alive sometime around 1483 so there’s no way of knowing who was or wasn’t in a position to kill them. Richard is simply assumed to be the murderer because of those classic three criteria for murder: means, motive, and opportunity, alongside a fair amount of prejudice. The same criteria that, in Game of Thrones, make Tyrion the prime suspect in Joffrey’s murder.
There’s also the simple fact that, even if there was doubt in Shakespeare’s day over who killed the princes, the playwright had a vested interest in painting Richard as black as possible. Namely, the fact that Elizabeth I, the reigning monarch, was a direct descendent of Henry VII, who we’ve already mentioned was Richard’s successor. He took power through the Robert Baratheon method of violent rebellion followed by strategic marriage, establishing the Tudor Dynasty. Thus, it would’ve been very important for Shakespeare to make it abundantly clear to the audience who was the good guy and who was the bad guy in this little play.
So that’s how we get this image. So what does this mean in the context of our favorite piece of Sunday night escapism, so soon to return to our television screens? Well, that, while it is unjust and ignorant that last season ended with Tyrion being wrongfully convicted of Joffrey’s murder and it’s only through luck that he didn’t die for it, it is understandable because we are all guilty of the same thing. While we can debate all we like, the fact is we don’t have all of the information necessary to firmly say that Richard murdered Edward. The Tudors took firm control of the narrative in 15th and 16th century England the same way Cersei took control of the narrative at the end of last season. When you have nothing but reputation and the words of a person’s enemy to go off of, what other choice do you have? When everyone around you already thinks you’re a monster, it’s tough to not lapse into the role. To borrow some quotes:
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them—
Why I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determinèd to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
-Richard III, Act I, scene i
“I am guilty of a far more monstrous crime. I am guilty of being a dwarf… I wish I was the monster you think I am. I wish I had enough poison for the whole pack of you. I would gladly give my life to watch you all swallow it!”
-Game of Thrones, Season 4, Episode 6: “The Laws of Gods and Men”