I was reading Macbeth recently, and when I reached Act 5, Scene 5, I was reminded of another scene that bore a striking similarity to it: a scene from the Season 5 finale of Game of Thrones. It occurred to me that the character of Stannis Baratheon had a lot in common with Macbeth in the particular moment I had in mind. This lead to me to examine the whole of Stannis’s character arc in light of the play of Macbeth, and I was astounded by the similarities I found between the two. I defy George R. R. Martin to deny that he derived some inspiration for the character of Stannis from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I present my findings below.
The first time we hear of Macbeth in the play is in Act 1, Scene 2, when a captain calls him “brave Macbeth” and describes how he stormed the forces of the rebel Macdonald and then killed the traitor in single-combat. Duncan, King of Scotland, then rewards Macbeth for his service by making him Thane of Cawdor. This is a high honour, but Macbeth wants more.
In both Martin’s books and in the TV adaptation, we hear things about Stannis from other characters before we actually meet him. Lord Varys tells Eddard Stark that Stannis is “known for his prowess as a battle commander.” Stannis destroyed the ships of House Greyjoy after they rebelled against King Robert. Prior to that, he fought for his brother during Robert’s Rebellion, and in return for his service he was made Lord of the island of Dragonstone. Stannis saw this as a slight and was not pleased. He wanted more.
We first encounter Macbeth in Act 1, Scene 3 of the play. Macbeth is riding home after the battle and meets three witches on the road. The third witch greets him and predicts that he “shall be king hereafter.” Similarly, the first time we meet Stannis he is with Melisandre, a priestess of the faith of R’hllor, the closest equivalent to a witch that we get in Martin’s world, at least from the point of view of unbelievers. Melisandre claims that she has looked into the fires and seen that Stannis is the reincarnation of the legendary hero, Azor Ahai, who shall defeat the White Walkers and become King of Westeros.
Macbeth informs his wife of the prophecy of the witches, and Lady Macbeth becomes quite obsessed with the prediction. Eventually, she does not believe that the prophecy will come true unless Macbeth makes it happen. She convinces him to murder King Duncan in his sleep and blame the deed on the king’s sons.
Stannis was in fact introduced to Melisandre by his wife, Selyse, who converted to the new religion. Therefore Selyse is also very excited about her husband becoming king. However, Melisandre becomes a consort to Stannis to the point where he she is more like his wife than Selyse is. So Melisandre plays the dual role of Lady Macbeth and witch, as she constantly whispers in Stannis’s ear about how to think and act. Together, they create a shadow-demon that kills Stannis’s younger brother, Renly, who was opposing Stannis’s claim to the throne in the wake of their older brother’s death. The blame is placed on Brienne of Tarth, a female knight who was one of Renly’s kingsguard, and also happened to be in love with him.
After Duncan’s death, Macbeth becomes king of Scotland, but he is paranoid of losing the throne because Duncan’s sons still live. Furthermore, the witches predicted that Macbeth’s friend, Banquo, would father a line of kings. Macbeth therefore sends murderers on missions to kill all of his rivals. After Renly’s death, Stannis is not the king yet, although he believes himself to have the only rightful claim. In a similar move to Macbeth, Stannis arranges for Melisandre to lay down a curse, using blood-magic, that will cause the deaths of all three of Stannis’s chief rivals. In Martin’s novels, Stannis also burns Mance Rayder, the king of the wildlings, and his infant son alive, as they pose a future threat to his rule.
The final victim killed on Macbeth’s orders is the young son of Macduff. This is the first child that Macbeth has ordered to be killed, and it is this act that provides Macduff with the motivation to fight and kill Macbeth in the final act. To follow Stannis’s story past this point, we have to look beyond what Martin has published and instead look to the Game of Thrones TV series, where the scriptwriters claim to be writing according to Martin’s notes. Near the end of Season 5, Stannis’s army is later trapped in a blizzard, and Melisandre assures him that the only way to end the foul weather is to burn his young daughter, Shireen, alive. He does so, and it is this act, more than any other, that seems to doom his enterprise to failure.
Shortly before Macbeth’s final battle with an army of rebels, a servant informs him that Lady Macbeth has committed suicide. In the scenes leading up to this, Shakespeare shows that the Queen was riddled with guilt for all the deaths she and her husband had had a hand in. Likewise, at the beginning of the Season 5 finale, Stannis is gearing up to fight Ramsay Bolton when a soldier leads him to a tree which his wife has hung herself from. Evidently, she could not live with herself after agreeing to sacrifice her own daughter for her husband’s royal ambitions.
Macbeth charges into his final battle thinking himself protected by a new prophecy of the witches that he shall not die by the hand of “one of woman born.” Of course there is a literary loop-hole: Macduff was removed from his mother’s womb by Cesarean section, and so not technically “born.” Macduff avenges his dead wife and son by beheading Macbeth.
Similarly, Stannis’s forces are vastly outnumbered by Ramsay Bolton’s army, and yet he still charges into battle. At this point it is not clear whether he still believes himself to be Azor Ahai reborn. Melisandre has fled his camp, and we may never know if he actually believed in the prophecy as Martin never wrote any chapters from the perspective of Stannis. In the end, it is not Ramsay who kills Stannis, but Brienne of Tarth, who avenges her slain master, Renly. It is not clear from the TV series how Brienne kills Stannis, but Stannis does have his back against a tree and Brienne swings her sword horizontally, so a beheading is also likely here.
Am I saying that George R. R. Martin “copied” Shakespeare? Not at all. It would not even be a sin if he had, as Shakespeare “copied” many of his stories from other sources. After all, Stannis’s story is far more complex than the summary I have given above, as I have left out many details from the books that were not relevant here. Furthermore, in terms of Martin’s novels, Stannis’s story is not yet over, and may yet conclude differently to how it did in the TV series.