This article contains spoilers for House of the Dragon episode 6.
“Now is the winter of our discontent.” Those are the first words in William Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Bard’s most infamous “history” play and a continued source of inspiration for everything from House of Cards to Game of Thrones.
Aye, George R.R. Martin’s beloved “A Song of Ice and Fire” text, and the HBO series it spawned, are obsessed with Richard, both as the Shakespearean fiend who basked at his own wickedness and in the historical personage that many students of history, including Martin, think got a raw deal. It wasn’t until 2013 that the rumor of Richard having a hunchback (or at least a curved spine) was confirmed when archeologists discovered his unmarked grave beneath a parking lot. But the popular image of that disfigurement is legendary thanks to the Bard, which makes the ignominy of his final resting place seem strangely apt. What better crypt for England’s last medieval king, and the man who became Shakespeare’s greatest villain, than the asphalt of a car park?
Even so, his somewhat misshapen bones do not match the description of Richard as provided by the famed Elizabethan playwright. At one point the play’s antihero laments that he is “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.” Shakespeare played up Richard’s deformity, suggesting his physical disfigurement signaled the rot in his soul, because he knew his audience: Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather was the one, after all, who had Richard deposed and killed on the field of battle in 1485, becoming King Henry VII in the process.
Tyrion Is the Historical Richard III
All of this history, both of Richard and his play, was used by Martin in the creation of Tyrion Lannister. As the youngest son of Lord Tywin Lannister and a dwarf, Tyrion is a character who we’re introduced to in the first episode of Game of Thrones by him announcing, “All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.” They were looked upon even worse by the Weserosi public.
After Tyrion becomes Hand of the King during the brief reign of Joffrey Baratheon, smallfolk put on plays in which he’s called “the demon monkey;” and after that king, and Tyrion’s nephew, is murdered, Tyrion becomes the instant scapegoat. He shouldn’t have been surprised. As we later learn, even when he was still in the crib, stories were told about “the monster that had been born to Tywin Lannister,” complete with tail, claws, and one red eye.
Unlike Richard, Tyrion was never king, but like Richard—or at least according to his advocates—he was wrongfully accused of murdering sweet young nephews by scurrilous propaganda. And the most lasting of these lies came down from no less than Shakespeare, who moved historical facts around to fit his narrative. In the play, for instance, Richard murders his brother George, the Duke of Clarence. In reality, George was put to death by the king before Richard. But why let that get in the way of a villain so blackhearted that he’ll smirk to the audience about his misdeeds via sarcastic asides?
So yes, Tyrion is based on the real person who inspired Shakespeare’s legend. But in last night’s episode of House of the Dragon, Larys Strong (Matthew Needham) became Shakespeare’s legend in Westerosi garb.
Larys Strong Is Shakespeare’s Richard III
Sniffing a flower as he luxuriates on a couch in the chambers of Queen Alicent (Olivia Cooke), Larys is the very portrait of malice and self-satisfaction when he reveals his triumphs: It was he who set a fire in Harrenhal, consigning his father, the Hand of the King, and his brother Ser Harwin Strong (Ryan Corr) to the flames. And he did it specifically so his queen would have her wish. Now her father Ser Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) can return to court and presumably become the Hand of the King once more.
It is a sinister revelation of kinslaying by Larys, particularly because he was never directly asked by Alicent to do the deed—he just acted on it and now presumes “you will reward me when the time is right.”
This is a shocking turn of events, even for readers of George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, on which House of the Dragon is based. That book, which is a fictional history text about the Targaryen family written in the voice of an archmaester more than a century after the fact, is filled with innuendo and contradictory accounts of events (just like real history). And when it comes to the death of Lord Lyonel Strong and his oldest son, the cause of the fire remains one of the great mysteries in the lead-up to the Dance of the Dragons.
“The cause of the fire was never determined,” writes Martin’s archameaster Gyldayn. “Some put it down to simple mischance, whilst others muttered that Black Harren’s seat was cursed and brought only doom to any man who held it… Mushroom suggests that the Sea Snake [ Corlys Velaryon] was behind it, as an act of vengeance against the man who had cuckolded his son. Septon Eustace more plausibly suspects Prince Daemon, removing a rival for Princess Rhaenyra’s affections. Others have put forth the notion that Larys Clubfoot might have been responsible; with his father and elder brother dead, Larys Strong became the Lord of Harrenhal.”
After brushing past Larys, Martin’s alter-ego goes on to most strongly suggest in detail that King Viserys ordered the blaze, silencing the only man who could confess to being the father of Princess Rhaenyra’s illegitimate children. Of course, the House of the Dragon showrunners have already confirmed to us that other revelations made in their series to the Fire & Blood canon came from Martin. Historical accounts can be unreliable like that. Yet in this instance, the rather banal and bland motivations prescribed to Larys in the book, versus what we got on the screen, is striking.
House of the Dragon reaches for something much more, well, Shakespearean. Like the fictional version of Richard III, Larys was born with a deformity: his clubfoot is a pejorative for the twisted ankle he came out of the womb with. All his life he’s been called “Larys the Clubfoot.” Those words undoubtedly stung, just as being called a “demon monkey” gnawed at Tyrion. But unlike Tyrion, Larys reveals no wish to change folks’ minds; instead he is the soft-spoken and malevolent schemer of the Bard’s play.
As aforementioned, Richard III’s brother George was put to death before Richard’s reign. Yet in Richard III, the scheming Richard hires cutthroats to sneak into the Duke of Clarence’s bedroom—where they stab him to death.
This is hardly any different than Larys Strong employing three men from the Red Keep’s dungeons to burn his own older brother alive. And he does this not only for personal advancement but also as leverage. He now has what amounts to blackmail on a queen whose sense of moral superiority exists only in her own mind. He thus becomes her proxy and her only confidant going forward. Hence his long soliloquy about the horribleness of family… which sounds a little bit like an Elizabethan aside.
It should also be noted that Shakespeare’s Richard III really did have his nephews, who were heirs apparent to the crown, murdered (unlike the slander uttered against Tyrion Lannister). However, before the children were slaughtered in their sleep, Richard began spreading propaganda against them at court, whispering that they’re illegitimate bastards.
We imagine Rhaenyra and her sons should therefore watch out, for accusations of bastardy hold a little more water for boys for her sons. And Larys has already revealed he likes getting his hands dirty, and that he considers children little more than a weakness. While smirking about going through his own life now unencumbered by a father or brother, he even muses to the queen that “love is a downfall.”
This doesn’t sound too far removed from what Littlefinger once said about chaos and ladders on Game of Thrones. The realm would come to weep from the carnage such sentiments wrought. And, unfortunately for Westeros, Larys seems to share such sensibilities.