Rhetorical and Serious Men in GAME OF THRONES


One of my favorite critical insights to introduce into British Literature surveys comes from Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence. I will quote Lanham here as he is discussed in Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally – where I first learned of Lanham’s work. Basically, in the opening pages, Lanham describes early modern disagreements between foundational/orthodox thinking and what he calls “rhetorical” revision. From this, there are two archetypes – the serious man and the rhetorical man. Here’s the serious man:


In other words, the serious man is firmly bound to an orthodox tradition. He believes in a single reality that is realized in a cultural vision. Reality is “out there,” and everything we create and do should accurately, almost mimetically honor that reality. When I teach early English literature, the ultimate serious man is Gawaine: fiercely bound to a rigid code of honor that he can’t keep, even as he continues to pursue a heroic quest despite his failures. (I’d love to hear an argument against this).  By contrast, here is the rhetorical man:


A much more complicated figure, and one who challenges the stability that the “Serious” man claims he lives by. You could argue that Shakespeare’s Henry V rejects the rhetorical in the form of Falstaff to become serious, or you could contend that the very act of becoming a serious man is rhetorical. But a more obvious example of the rhetorical man is Iago: gifted in manipulating social scenarios to “what is useful.” The rhetorical man is Machiavellian, and not in the sense that he likes to poison rivers. The rhetorical man is Machiavellian in that he resists the governance of “fortune” and seeks to create his own through virtu.

For GAME OF THRONES fans, the comparison is obvious. The Starks are serious while the Lannisters are rhetorical. In last week’s stunning episode, the Starks depend on and constantly invoke a stable order that the Lannisters use only to their advantage. It’s why Robb Stark is so boring – even when he defies a command, he does it for the right reason. But Tyrion Lannister is rhetorical to the core – it’s what makes he’s still alive. Where that puts everyone else (Jon Snow? Bram? Arya? Joffrey? All of the other people whose names I can’t remember) . . . I’ll leave up to you.

2 thoughts on “Rhetorical and Serious Men in GAME OF THRONES

  1. I think this is really interesting Andy, but if I’m understanding this correctly, Tyrion (and MAYBE Jamie) are the ONLY Lannisters who would qualify as men of Rhetoric. Tywin, Cersei, and Joffrey seem to veer closer to the Serious side of the spectrum – they all rely on a single definition of reality, it’s just a definition oriented around brute force rather than honor. Each thinks that success rests entirely on the ability to conquer your enemies, that as long as you follow these “rules” you will win people’s fear and respect. They don’t seem to have any sense that social perceptions are more slippery, or that manipulating a situation means more than slaughtering everybody you’re at war with, regardless of the social context. This is why (VAGUE SPOILERS) Tywin, genius as he is in some regards, is also stupid enough to think that The Red Wedding is a good idea. He doesn’t realize that the enormous social transgression will likely do immeasurable dammage to his hold over the people he wants to rule, because he can’t perceive of a reality where brute force is not immediately met with fear and deference.

  2. Tywin really does seem committed to a vision of reality that he’ll do whatever to protect. So I think you’re absolutely right there; for the most part it’s the older characters who are serious. Joffrey is indeed committed to a single vision. But I’d say Cersei and Jamie are entirely rhetorical – Protean, in their way because they never stop changing. They thrive on contingencies. Margaret Tyrell seems to fit in this boat as well, although the show has done a really good job to never totally clarify her motives with her actions. The Starks, though, are such a good example of the “Serious” archetype, even if those categories fall apart (Lanham noted this). I can imagine Robb and Gawaine hanging with Sam the Eagle and glowering on everyone who is having a good time.

    Big question: what about Dany? It’s almost like she’s the perfect mix of the two – committed to a stringent virtue and yet capable of being whoever she needs to be for the moment. I realize those are contradictions, but that’s kind of my point.

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