Stannis, Shireen and Tragedy: Coming to Terms with Game of Thrones

Everybody’s talking about Game of Thrones. Everybody’s writing about it too, which is precisely why I’ve tried to avoid it since I started blogging. But we’re eagerly awaiting the end of the most controversial series yet, and I’ve been ruminating on the heady mix of violence, sex and realpolitik that has attracted both criticism for its perceived exploitative nature and praise as one of the greatest shows in television history.

Horrible things have happened to people in series 5. You’d think this wouldn’t be shocking, given that horrible things happen to people in every series, but the 9 episodes we’ve seen so far have featured some of the most uncomfortable and heartbreaking scenes in the show’s history.

This week we reached episode 9 which, if you’re unfamiliar with the series, is traditionally where “it all kicks off”. And it did.

Princess Shireen of the House Baratheon, a sweet, bright and generally adorable child who spent much of her life locked in a tower thanks to a facial deformity, was burnt at the stake. She was killed by the priestess of a fire god on the orders of Shireen’s father, a fanatic convinced that the sacrifice of a king’s blood will grant him victory in war and save the remainder of his army.

I was never on the Stannis Baratheon bandwagon. As more and more people claimed that he’s the best of the bad bunch in Westeros and we need him to take out the Boltons and fight the White Walkers, I was one of the cynical viewers who saw a belligerent, callous fundamentalist who has been burning people alive since series 2.

Yet I always thought – or rather, hoped – he had redeeming features. He’s usually a good judge of character, which is why he has kept Davos around for so long and saw Jon Snow as more than Ned Stark’s bastard (“That was never Ned Stark’s way”). He rewards loyalty, which is why he never forgave his brother for giving Dragonstone, the castle he defended during Robert’s Rebellion, to their younger brother Renly.

Above all, I thought there may be hope for Stannis because he loved his daughter.

That child’s screams kept me awake at night. The moment when she begged for her life was the closest I’ve come to tears in five seasons.

There has been a lot of controversy in this series, largely down to fans struggling with that old chestnut of bad things happening to good people. But like Slate’s Amanda Marcotte, I see Game of Thrones as the descendent of a Renaissance tragedy. And as any geek who’s read enough tragedies will tell you, in most of the greatest plays of that period innocents suffer as much as the guilty.

Many such plays – and probably all the ones you read at school – focus on the intrigues of kings and nobles to explore themes of justice, morality and the state. Of course, most of the plots are focused less on good governance and more on the sex lives and violent tendencies of the characters, but in the Renaissance they were basically the same thing. A bad person could be a great politician, but they would ultimately corrupt the state:

A prince’s court

Is like a common fountain, whence should flow

Pure silver drops in general; but if’t chance

Some curs’d example poison’t near the head,

Death and diseases through the whole land spread.

– John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, Act I Scene I.

This notion was everywhere in the Renaissance. It was a product of the approach to politics in a period of absolute monarchs: especially in the British Isles, the notion of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ dictated that the monarch was at once a physical body and the embodiment of the nation. Everything the monarch said or did was inherently political; if the monarch was corrupt, so was the state. (This theory was one of the central tenets of both my dissertations, and I’ve been waiting years for this to become relevant to something.)

Fast-forward 400 years and head to Westeros. Stannis believes he’s been chosen to rule by the Lord of Light – like monarchists throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, he’s a believer in the Divine Right of Kings – and is obsessed with establishing his authority. Everything that he says or does is a reflection of the state he believes he should preside over.

So let’s look at what he’s achieved. He’s burned hundreds of heretics. He’s a megalomaniac who never lets good governance get in the way of his ego. He commits adultery so he can use witchcraft to kill his rival – his brother – and his military reputation takes a beating when he loses at Blackwater. With Melisandre, he has committed the double sin of fawning over his favourite (like Edward II) at the expense of good policy and being too susceptible to female influence.

He’s ticked pretty much all the boxes on “things people disliked in their Renaissance leaders”. As a result, his state has deteriorated. He has fewer people left to rule, his military prospects are still being damaged, he failed to make a key alliance with Jon Snow at The Wall, and Ser Davos has become ever more vocal in his dissent.

As his prospects have worsened and his enemies have closed in, Stannis has been driven to more and more desperate measures – and he’s lost most of himself along the way. His megalomania has become all-consuming. And when he’s run out of “king’s blood” to shed and Shireen is the last option left, the last vestiges of his humanity die with her.

That’s why her death is so horrifying, why her screams are allowed to ring in your ears. You’re hearing what Stannis is hearing, only to watch him stand in silence. You feel the change in him as he becomes the kind of man who is capable of that crime. It’s the end of Stannis Baratheon as we knew him.

Despite his plan to save his state by taking Winterfell, it’s clear he’s done the state far more harm than good. By killing Shireen, he’s embraced the one sure-fire sign of a nation in decline that we see across Renaissance theatre: like Richard II, he’s childless. The barren setting of the frozen North suits his reign nicely.

With a succession crisis looming and his most outspoken critic due to return, it’s pretty obvious Stannis is doomed. Even if he does reach Winterfell and supplant the Boltons, it won’t be the end of the war.

He’ll probably also lose another of his staunchest supporters: Stannis’ capacity for cruelty has finally surpassed Selyse’s, and it will be interesting to watch the changing dynamic between Lady Macbeth and Agamemnon. Given that that mythical Greek king was eventually killed in revenge by his wife and her lover, I wonder if Selyse will take Melisandre or Stannis with her.

But ultimately, the telltale sign is not Davos, Selyse or the horrified looks on his soldiers’ faces. It’s in the conventions of tragedy: evil is purged in the final bloodbath and we’re always left with the suggestion that someone will pick up the pieces. In plays from Macbeth and Hamlet to The Duchess of Malfi and John Ford’s The Broken Heart, there is always a sense that stability will return.

Stannis doesn’t offer stability. In Renly and Shireen, he’s killed both his heirs and represents a vulnerable, ultimately failed state.

So he can’t win, and he has to die. Comfort yourselves with that, fellow mourners.


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