Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen (IMDB)

Game of Throne’s Daenerys Targaryen Is Niccolò Machiavelli’s Perfect Princ[ess]

If Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today he would enjoy the politically-charged and fantastical world of Game of Thrones, particularly the moral struggles of Daenerys Targaryen.

Too often mislabeled the counselor of evil par excellence, Niccolò Machiavelli ends his treatise De principatibus—The Prince—invoking a “redeemer” who shall save enslaved Italy from the domination of foreign powers that have left her gravely wounded and “almost without life”. An exhortation to action that prophesizes the rise of this redeemer and a new age for Italy and its peoples, this concluding, 26th chapter, differs quite conspicuously from the rest of The Prince, Machiavelli’s guidebook of political advice for leaders. If we consider The Prince through the optic of its concluding chapter, as Maurizio Viroli proposes in Redeeming the Prince (Princeton University Press, 2014), it becomes evident that the scope of Machiavelli’s project regards “issues of redemption and foundation”, the “love of country and of glory,” more than it does the banality of evil (65). In fact, if we approach The Prince by reading backwards, if you will, many common misconceptions about Machiavelli, perpetuated on both scholarly and popular fronts, can be dispelled.

This prophetic undertone remains crucial to the economy of redemption within which Machiavelli crafts the entirety of The Prince. In Chapter 6, Machiavelli initiates his analysis of the foundation of new political orders “acquired with one’s own armies and one’s own virtue.” Despite the many difficulties inherent to the foundation of new political realities, Machiavelli nevertheless identifies that, when the times are ever so propitious, a prodigious leader with the proper talents and skills can successfully embark upon this monumental undertaking. Viroli emphasizes that Machiavelli intriguingly unravels Chapter 6 around the figures of armed prophets, Moses among them. Such an individual at once possesses not only the physical force to demonstrate power and abilities, but also “the power of persuasion sustained by an alleged divine inspiration” (Viroli 25). Prophecy without force leaves words empty; force without prophecy leaves actions deprived of greater meaning. It is in the fusion of these two figures, the political founder and the armed prophet, that Machiavelli reveals the balance of conditions necessary for the successful initiation of a new and grand civic order: for a redeemer to rise, break the wheel of an oppressive status quo, and achieve glory.

If Machiavelli were alive today, perhaps these hopes for a redeemer would be found not in any prince, but rather a princess. Enter Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, rightful Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains. Perhaps he would also grin, with that iconic smile of his, at how the arc of her character development throughout the seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones—particularly the seventh—unfolds within a dynamic that probes fundamental questions of politics and leadership, the same questions that Machiavelli himself examined in the 16th century. Consciously or unconsciously, Game of Thrones’ creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have fashioned a spectacular mise en scène of the principles that Machiaveli outlines in The Prince.

Of all the “Machiavellian” maxims commonly taken out of context, the most (in)famous concerns “the end justifying the means” at any cost whatsoever. This misrepresentation is derived from Chapter 18, where Machiavelli states:

A prince, especially a prince new to power, cannot observe all those qualities for which men are deemed to be good, for it shall often come about that he will have to act inhumanely, uncharitably, and irreligiously in order to maintain power. It is required that he have a mind prepared to act according to how the direction of the winds and the variations of fortune require. And, as I have already said, if he is able, he should not depart from doing good; but he must know how to enter into evil, if necessary.

True, Machiavelli instructs a ruler to be ready to enact any means possible to maintain power and to preserve order in the realm. Yet, he qualifies this assertion within three parameters. First, the prince does not have free range to conduct evil, but must strive for goodness as the primary measure of actions. Second, as a faithful translation of the Italian sapere entrare nel male indicates, the prince must know how to enter into evil and to what extent evil actions are required given the circumstances at hand. The final, and often ignored, qualification defines when a ruler can in fact enter into evil: “if necessary”; that is to say, when all other options fail.

In Season 7, Episode 6, “Beyond the Wall”, Daenerys and her chief advisor Tyrion Lannister engage in a dramatic debate that parallels many problematics treated by Machiavelli in The Prince. In the previous episode, “Eastwatch”, Daenerys defeats a contingent of Cersei and Jaime Lannister’s forces with Drogon, the largest and strongest of her three dragons. Daenerys gives the conquered soldiers a choice: “Bend the knee and join me. Together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or refuse and die.” After Dickon and Randyll Tarly, members of a reputable family, refuse to pledge allegiance to her, she commands Drogon to burn them alive, a decision that stuns and haunts Tyrion. Now at Dragonstone, Daenerys’ ancestral home, Tyrion confronts her about this seemingly rash act, and she retorts, “That was not impulsive! That was necessary.”

Daenerys’ hasty self-defense and Tyrion’s subsequent response point to Machiavelli’s contentions regarding evil actions. In Chapter 8 of The Prince, he distinguishes between abuses of cruelty and well-used cruelty:

One can call cruelty well-used (if it is licit to speak well of evil) in all those instances when it is used swiftly and by necessity—and not repeated thereafter—in order to ensure one’s power and to safeguard the greatest, overall benefit of one’s subjects.

Having again ascribed the caveat of necessity to a prince’s employment of evil actions, he further specifies that cruelty should be utilized expeditiously and in a fashion that does not oppress one’s subjects, but that sets an example so as to maintain their continued favor and loyalty. The even-tempered Tyrion ultimately concedes that Daenerys will at times “need to be ruthless if [she’s] going to win the throne.” But he also calls attention to the results of abusing cruelty. Referring to the rule of his deceased nephew and the current reign of his sister, Tyrion tells Daenerys: “You need to inspire a degree of fear, but fear is all Cersei has. It’s all my father had, and Joffrey. It makes their power brittle because everyone beneath them longs to see them dead.” When well-used, cruelty instills a sense of trepidation that, in turn, gradually morphs into a sense of observance and conformity, which ultimately upholds a ruler; when abused, cruelty incites hatred that could very well lead to a ruler’s downfall.

Pointing to his sister as a negative example, Tyrion suggests that an overreliance on fear presupposes an overuse of cruelty. Once a ruler’s actions fatally blur the fine line that separates fear from hatred, as Cersei’s have done, maintaining power becomes increasingly difficult because popular favor deteriorates. In Chapter 17, one of the most famous of The Prince, Machiavelli deliberates whether it is better for a ruler to be feared or loved. Claiming it better to be feared than loved (since it is difficult to achieve the ideal situation of being both loved and feared), Machiavelli explains:

Fear takes hold in people through the terrifying prospect of being painfully punished, and, in this way, fear never leaves them. Nevertheless, a prince must make himself be feared in such a way that, if he does not procure love, he avoids hatred, for one can most certainly be feared without being hated.

In Season 7, Episode 2, “Stormborn”, Olenna Tyrell echoes Machiavelli’s advice as she urges Daenerys not to underestimate the value of the people’s fear and not to overestimate the value of their love. Acknowledging the tragic fate of her granddaughter Margaery, Olenna states, “I can’t remember a queen who was better loved than my granddaughter. The common people loved her; the nobles loved her. And what is left of her now? Ashes. Commoners, nobles, they’re all just children really. They won’t obey you unless they fear you.”

As Olenna emphasizes to Daenerys, no matter the extent of one’s strength and prowess, a ruler cannot hold power without the support of the populace, whose moral constitution she likens to the whimsical fancies of children. To bolster his assertion for why it is better to be feared than loved, Machiavelli diagnoses the intricacies of human nature:

About people, we can say generally that they are ungrateful, fickle, fleers of danger, and ambitious to gain. If a ruler attends to their interests, they are all for the ruler. They offer their blood, their property, their lives, their children, as long as a ruler’s need for them seems distant. But as soon as this need for them becomes more apparent, they will turn against a ruler.

In Chapter 9, he stresses the need “for a prince to have the people as a friend” and, accordingly, to strive constantly to ensure their unquestioned loyalty: “Therefore, a wise prince must think of a way through which citizens will always, regardless of what the circumstances may be, need him and his power, and, as such, will always remain faithful to him.” With her continued promises to “bring peace back to Westeros”, to “destroy the wheel that has rolled over everyone, both rich and poor”, and to offer better lives to all her subjects, Daenerys has undoubtedly inspired this spirit of fidelity among her subjects.

In Season 7, Episode 4, “The Spoils of War,” Ser Davos Seaworth questions Missandei, a former Astapori slave whom Daenerys liberated, on how and why she came to serve her queen. Missandei responds by declaring her unwavering loyalty to Daenerys: “She bought me from my master and set me free. I serve my queen because I want to serve my queen, because I believe in her. […]All of us who came with her from Essos, we believe in her. She’s not our queen because she’s the daughter of some king we never knew: she’s the queen we chose.”

Daenerys’ storyline traces her development as the queen she claims to be, not just any queen, but a queen that breaks the stagnant mold of past generations of rulers—a redeemer. This does not mean to say, of course, that she has mastered the art of leadership and has nothing left to learn. On some occasions, she is blinded by her ideals and fails to take into account the practical realities that she faces. In other instances, she acts abruptly and limits her gaze only to circumstances within an immediate line of sight. In the same conversation at Dragonstone in Episode 6, Tyrion instructs Daenerys that she must learn the importance of strategy, of simulating, of keeping up appearances, of molding her legacy ever so astutely:

You need to take your enemy’s side, if you’re going to see things the way they do! And you need to see things the way they do if you’re going to anticipate their actions, respond effectively, and beat them! Which I want you to do very much, because I believe in you and in the world you want to build. But the world you want to build doesn’t get built all at once, probably not in a single lifetime.

As Tyrion counsels Daenerys, a ruler must learn to adapt to the ever-changing interplay of circumstances and necessity, not on impulse, but in a prudent fashion that renders the appearance of control and of lacking, as Machiavelli says in Chapter 15, “the infamy of all vices that either remove one from power or allow one to hang on to it.” To illustrate the disorienting variability of reality, Machiavelli asks his potential prince to contemplate the following perplexity: “If one thinks about it, is there not supposedly virtuous conduct that will lead to leaders’ downfalls, and other demeanors, supposedly evil, that result in their security and well-being?”

How a leader accomplishes this delicate balancing act is treated in Chapter 18, where Machiavelli insists: “Everyone sees what you seem to be, but few know who you really are.” It is here that he suggests a prince “know well how to employ the instinctive qualities of animals and the rational qualities of humans.” Both are necessary for political survival and for the symbiosis of ideals and reality. When a ruler must resort to more animalistic modes of conduct, Machiavelli proposes two examples that should be emulated:

A prince should take the fox and the lion as models, for the lion cannot defend itself from traps and the fox cannot defend itself from the wolves. It is necessary therefore to be a fox in order to recognize traps, and a lion in order to shock the wolves. Those who simply act like a lion do not understand what they are doing.

Daenerys also must come to understand that noble intentions will only get her so far, and that she will sometimes have to fall back upon the more bestial and instinctive side of her being. In fact, she will have to resort to the very beasts through which her family originally obtained its preeminence and power. As Olenna Tyrell tells her, “The Lords of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No, you’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” It is no coincidence that a prime feature in Season 7 of Game of Thrones is Daenerys’ increasing willingness to use the brute force of her three dragons, Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion, in the face of adversity. Yet, no matter how earnestly rulers try to adjust themselves to changing times and circumstances, Machiavelli instructs, they can never fully elude the unexpected winds of fortune and chance. Daenerys dramatically learns this lesson in Episode 6 as she watches the Night King fatally throw a spear into Viserion’s side, and remains emotionally paralyzed as that magnificent creature falls lifelessly from the sky.

Of all the “Machiavellian” architectonics within which the character of Daenerys is constructed, the most unapparent and overlooked channel that links her to The Prince—and that uniquely positions her as the type of leader Machiavelli intended—is a prophecy. The prince who was promised will bring the dawn. Notably proponed in the show by Melisandre, a priestess of the Lord of Light, the ancient prophecy foretells the advent of a leader who, not unlike the redeemer in the final chapter of The Prince, will usher in a new dawn and dispel darkness from the world. When Melisandre recounts the prophecy in Season 7, Episode 2, Daenerys remarks, “I’m afraid I’m not a prince.” Missandei interjects and calls attention to the prophecy’s linguistic syntax: “Your Grace, forgive me, but your translation is not quite accurate. That noun has no gender in High Valyrian, so the proper translation for that prophecy would be,’The prince or princess who was promised will bring the dawn.”

If Game of Thrones insists on anything, it is that gender has no relevance in determining what an individual can be or do. Machiavelli concurs. This sentiment is demonstrated, for example, through his repeated citations in both The Prince and the Discourses on Livy of the tenacity exhibited by Caterina Sforza on various occasions. For Machiavelli, a leader, regardless of gender, can become great only when he or she learns to take opportunity by the reins in order to fulfill his or her own self-envisioned destiny. When he exhorts his redeemer, Machiavelli notes of all the historical and mythological examples he references in The Prince: “Although these men were rare and marvelous, they were only men, and they all had lesser occasions to prove their worth than you do at present.” First and foremost, a prince or a princes must believe in his or her self. And if any character in Game of Thrones demonstrates an insurmountable constitution of personal fortitude, it is Daenerys: “So many men have tried to kill me, I don’t remember all their names. I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods, not in myths and legends. In myself. In Daenerys Targaryen.”

The Prince and Game of Thrones present themes as relevant in contemporary times and places as in Renaissance Florence or in the seven kingdoms of Westeros. Aiding our constant interrogation of the qualities and actions befitting a great leader, they compel us to consider the ethos of leadership in our own societies. Beyond whatever practical insight they may afford us, The Prince and Game of Thrones also reciprocally inform the respective viewing and reading of one another. Just as The Prince elucidates the politics of Game of Thrones, so too does Game of Thrones provide a lens through which we can approach Machiavelli with fresh eyes and see him more clearly, even as if for the first time. Rather than an unequivocal proponent of evil, Machiavelli is a prophet of redemption who confronts reality at face value but without losing sight of the marvelous possibilities and realities that humans are capable of achieving. Much more than the skewed connotations associated to his name, Machiavelli was a visionary who believed in the finesse, transformative potential, and glory of grand politics.

As evidenced in his letter to Francesco Vettori dated 10 December 1503, Machiavelli proves to be, like us viewers of Game of Thrones, a friend of fantasy and an eager participant in the world of imagination:

When evening comes, I return home. Before entering my study, I take off my day clothes, full of mud and dirt, and I put on clothes suited for a king’s court. Dressed as such, I enter the ancient courts of great rulers, who warmly welcome me. There, I feed on that food which alone can nourish me and for which I was born: I speak unashamedly with them and question them about their motivations and actions. Out of kindness, they answer me. Four hours pass. I do not experience any boredom, I forget all worries, I do not fear poverty, and I am not even afraid of death. I live completely through them.

Indeed, Machiavelli would very much enjoy the politically charged and fantastical world of Game of Thrones. He would elatedly watch Daenerys embark on grand campaigns in Essos, free slaves, build armies, and later cross the Narrow Sea to return to her rightful home So too would he be pleased to enter the court of Dragonstone and marvel at her dragons’ flight. He would willingly offer his counsel to assist her redemption of Westeros and her ascent to the Iron Throne, indeed her ascent to glory. There is no doubt about it. To the Mother of Dragons, Machiavelli would bend the knee.

* * *

Note: All citations of The Prince are the author’s translations of Machiavelli’s original text in Italian.