You Win or You Die

… when you play the Game of Thrones. The similarities between Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I (1H4) and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones (GoT) are uncanny, and have not gone unnoticed. With the BBC’s Hollow Crown mini series, which featured 1H4 in the second episode, there was a surge in comparisons between the play and Martin’s books and the resulting HBO series; dozens of news articles and reviews reference the two works of literature in connection with each other. But are these comparisons founded in real similarities in the texts? Beyond turbulent monarchies, and violent battles what do GoT and 1H4 actually have in common?

As it turns out, a great deal. Not only are several major plot points between the stories similar, they are in some respects identical. Both stories open with a king who is holding a throne that they have, at best, a tenuous claim to. Shortly into both stories the kings begin to lost the loyalty of nobles families who helped them gain power to begin with. Robert Baratheon is wary of the heirs of the previous king, which mirrors King Henry’s hesitance to ransom Mortimer, as he was the rightful heir to Richard II. Percy, upset by the king’s refusal to pay the ransom for Mortimer, begins to plan his rebellion, gaining support from other noble families (1.3. 180-186). The noble families of Westeros also form alliances in an attempt to overthrow the ruling family. Both stories then include scenes of combat which led to similar portrayals of gore and violence in the TV series.

The similarities between the plots of 1H4 and GoT are rather straightforward, but when it comes to comparing some of the major characters the commonalities are more nuanced. In both stories there is a prince who behaves in a manner that is unbecoming for nobility, though the nature of their behavior is vastly different. In 1H4 Hal is, by design, keeping company with questionable people and breaking laws, in order to lower others’ standards for him (1.2.188-210). In GoT Joffrey is, by nature, a spoiled and sadistic young man. The development of the princes proceeds very differently from here. Hal uses the war as an opportunity to improve his father’s opinion of him by fighting valiantly and behaving honorably. While Robert Baratheon dies before the battles of the war are fought, it is unlikely he would have held Joffrey in higher esteem as he becomes more vengeful and unpredictably vicious. The paternity of Joffrey is called into question in GoT, and it is eventually determined that he is not the son of Robert Baratheon at all. Hal is King Henry’s son, but the king wishes that he was not (1.1.87-90) and Falstaff, pretending to be the king, again raises the question Hal’s paternity, “…I have partly thy mother’s word, partly mine own opinion…” (2.4.390-391).

There are some major differences between GoT and 1H4 that set the narratives apart. 1H4 has far fewer women the GoT, which means there are no questionable engagements or mothers upending the world for their children in Shakespeare’s play. It does not, however, preclude 1H4 and GoT from sharing a penchant for sexism. Hotspur refuses to speak with his wife about his plans for rebellion because she is a woman and therefore is incapable of keeping a secret (2.4.105-110), and when Hotspur is acting rashly he is told that he is behaving like a woman (1.3.236). 1H4 is devoid of the gratuitous violence against women that characterizes GoT. Additionally the stories end very differently. In 1H4 the King remains on the throne and Hotspur, who started the rebellion is killed. In GoT, Robert Baratheon is killed, and four books later the throne is still not securely held. Which reflects an important difference in the two stories; 1H4 is based on historical events and figures, and as such is narratively constrained, while GoT is set in an imaginary kingdom and free from the constraints of history and reality.

The trend of comparing 1H4 and GoT is based on actual textual similarities, in plot, themes, and to some extent characters, not merely the scenes of gore from their respective television series. However, even though GoT may be more popular in modern times, that does not excuse describing 1H4 as “Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones.” If anything, GoT can be called ‘Martin’s Henry IV Part 1’.