The Shame Game, from Guinevere to Cersei: Adultery, Treason and Betrayal

in Treason: Medieval and Early Modern Adultery, Betrayal and Shame, ed. Larissa Tracy, 371–397 (Leiden: Brill, 2019).

By Larissa Tracy

A woman steps out into harsh, bitter sunlight. Naked and shorn, she faces a public that only weeks before feared her, revered her, heralded her every move, and worshipped her as their queen, or queen mother. Publicly shamed, she affects contrition and begins her penance. Each step is agony on her bare feet; each movement is torment to her limbs, weakened by starvation and dehydration. She steps gingerly through puddles of filth and feels the slime of the street upon her skin as she winds her way through the narrow city streets thronged with people who taunt her, hurling insults and rotten food at her. But this is her only option: Confess to fornication, incest, treason, and the murder of her husband, the king, endure public humiliation and shame; or face death, execution as a traitor—an even more shameful end. So, the people see her naked, and they stare at the body that has given birth to kings. This she can endure.[1]

The last three episodes of Season 5 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (1991–), leads up to this moment as Queen Mother Cersei Lannister’s grand plans for wresting control of the throne and her youngest son, Tommen, away from his guileful bride Margery Tyrell and her House, backfire. Her uncle Kervan, called to King’s Landing to serve as the Hand (the King’s chancellor), urges her to confess to adultery with her cousin Lancel, take her punishment—a public walk of shame, naked, through the streets of King’s Landing—and spare the Lannisters, and her son, any further embarrassment.

Cersei’s punishment echoes numerous medieval literary accounts of public humiliation for adultery, providing a visual framework for understanding the gravity of this penance and the accusations of adultery as treason that necessitate it. As Carolyne Larrington writes, in addition to its elements of high fantasy, the Game of Thrones series encompasses “very real questions about the politics of kingship, religious faith and social organization.”[2] Often, the events of Westros and contemporary politics mesh together in uncomfortable ways for modern audiences, especially regarding treason and justice.[3] In the case of all queens who fornicate with someone other than their king, Cersei is also guilty of treason (not to mention the regicide of planning her husband King Robert Baratheon’s untimely demise).[4] Even more than Guinevere, one of the most famous adulteresses in medieval literature—known in modern popular culture and a significant amount of the medieval tradition for her disastrous liaison with either her husband’s best knight, Lancelot, or his nephew/son Mordred, and whose mauvaise renommée [bad reputation] resounds through the centuries—Cersei’s reputation will suffer from this spectacle more than she realizes. This moment in the modern series Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire (hereafter GoT/SoIF) captures the essence of medieval punishment for adultery, when the aggrieved party is not simply the wronged husband but the King, while ignoring the larger question of that betrayal as treason.[5] However, numerous medieval literary accounts of infidelity emphasize the treacherous nature of adultery itself, when the betrayal of a royal husband by his wife is not a private or personal act against the body of the king but a public act against the body politic that legally amounts to treason. Medieval literary sources like Marie de France’s twelfth-century Breton lai Lanval (c. 1155–1170), the early-fifteenth-century adaptation Sir Launfal, and the late-fourteenth century stanzaic Morte Arthur (hereafter sMA) echo chronicle accounts like those of Elizabeth Shore, employing legal definitions of adultery and treason as symbiotic acts wherein the betrayal of a king by his wife results in not just a private sexual crime but in a public crime against the entire state.

A shorter version of this article was originally published online as “The Shame Game: Medieval Adultery, Public Shaming, and Game of Thrones” (June 14, 2015): http://www.longwood.edu/gotcerseishaming.html.

It was reposted by Salon.com, Business Insider, Elite Daily, Entertainment Weekly, The Wrap, Women in the World (New York Times), La Prensa (Peru), Series Adictos (Spain), Game of Thrones Greek Community (Greece), and Spoiler TV (Poland). I am grateful to Asa Simon Mittman and Kevin Whetter for their comments and suggestions regarding this iteration.

[1] George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire: Vol. 5, A Dance with Dragons (New York: Bantam Books, 2011), 931–41; this is also the final scene of the fifth season of the HBO series Game of Thrones: “Mother’s Mercy,” S5 E10 (June 14, 2015).

[2] Carolyne Larrington, Winter is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (London: I. B. Tauris, 2016), 1.

[3] Larrington, Winter is Coming, 5. Katha Pollitt makes this point in her article “This Season, ‘Game of Thrones’ Cut Deep: In a Fantastically Misogynist Imaginary World, A Highly Qualified Woman gets Close to Winning Power,” The Nation (August 31, 2017), observing that “Daenerys is Hillary Clinton with dragons.” https://www.thenation.com/article/this-season-game-of-thrones-cut-deep/ (accessed August 31, 2017).

[4] The adultery and incest between Cersei and her brother Jamie produces the heirs to the throne that have been passed off as the children of Robert Baratheon. King Robert is killed while hunting boar, having drunk drugged wine to cover this up as other characters close in on the truth. This is major thread running through most of the novels and is alluded to repeatedly. George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire: Vol. 1, Game of Thrones (New York: Bantam Books, 1997), esp. 485–8, 507–13, and 528 and George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire: Vol. 2, Clash of Kings (New York: Bantam Books, 1999), 61–2, 410–2.

[5] While Cersei’s punishment comes long after the death of her husband, her adultery and treason are running plot lines throughout the books and the HBO series, and, essentially, it is only when she is in a position of political weakness that she is tried for adultery. She faces other charges but avoids another trial by blowing up the Sept at King’s Landing with most of her political enemies in it at the very end of Season Six: “The Winds of Winter,” S6 E10 (June 26, 2016).