What's More Violent: Shakespeare or 'Game of Thrones'?

The stories in Shakespeare's plays and 'Game of Thrones' are often bloody, but which are ultimately more violent?

Since its 2011 debut, Game of Thrones has sparked controversy over its graphic depictions of violence.

The show is notorious for killing off characters in savagely medieval ways — by sword, lance, knife, poison, molten gold, rats, dogs, crossbow, defenestration — while leaving little to imagination. Some critics have condemned the show’s violence, particularly the scenes involving rape. But others have praised the show for accurately portraying the brutal realities of medieval life.

“First, Game of Thrones has always seemed a TV show, at its core, about presenting a more brutal and realistic vision than similar sword and sorcery epics like Lord of the Rings,” wrote Eric Deggans for NPR.  “This is a series which tries to marry the most realistic vision of Medieval-era life with a fantasy world where dragons are real.”

Critics might be split about the show's creative decisions, like including explicit rape scenes, having characters discuss key plot elements in the nude (sexposition, as coined by a critic of the show), or showing a pregnant woman getting stabbed in the belly five times. But what's uncontroversial is the fact that this kind of violence in popular culture is nothing new.

Violence in the works of Shakespeare

For some context, take a look at the history of what’s considered Shakespeare’s most graphic play, Titus Andronicus. The tragedy, loosely based on Roman history, is a vicious cycle of revenge between a queen, Tamora, and a general, Titus, both of whom are bent on killing and torturing each other’s children.

In one scene, Tamora’s sons take Titus’ daughter Lavinia deep into the woods where they rape her, chop off her hands, and cut out her tongue so she won’t be able to reveal what’s happened. Here’s Lavinia begging for a quick death before the scene:

Lavinia: O, keep me from their worse than killing lust

And tumble me into some loathsome pit,

Where never man's eye may behold my body:

Do this, and be a charitable murderer.

Tamora: So should I rob my sweet sons of their fee?

No, let them satisfy their lust on thee.

-- Titus Andronicus, Act II Scene ii, Lines 175-180

Sweet sons, indeed. 

Titus Andronicus is traditionally considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, with violence so gratuitous that it borders on farce. But Titus was extremely popular when it came out in the late 16th century.


Audiences of this time, between the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, seemed to have a penchant for tales of revenge, and it was common for productions to feature extreme violence. And this preference wasn't arbitrary. These plays reflected, at least in exaggeration, what life and society were really like, as theater scholar Jonas Barish wrote in his 1991 essay Shakespearean Violence: A Preliminary Survey:

“As long ago as 1940 (in Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642) Fredson Bowers cited numerous instances of violent behavior in society at large—of private duels fought in disregard of the laws forbidding them, of grudge assassinations performed by hired ruffians, of the use of lingering poison and other stealthy forms of murder for disposing of one's enemies—to demonstrate that the playwrights who brought violence onto the stage were not being merely melodramatic, not merely catering to the appetite of their audiences for bloody deeds remote from their experience, but realistic as well.”

Titus eventually fell out of fashion, and it would go largely ignored by production companies for generations. Two centuries later, in 1765, the English writer Samuel Johnson doubted whether a contemporary audience could even stomach the play:

“...the barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience.”

Then in 2006, decades after the play fell somewhat back in favor with critics and historians, a production of Titus at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in the U.K. made headlines after causing some audience members to faint, feel sick and suffer sleepless nights.

Shakespeare’s other plays contain brutal scenes, too. There's the eye-gouging in King Lear, the beheading in Macbeth, and the stabbing in Julius Caesar.

(Michael Cronin as the blinded Gloucester and Timothy West as Lear)

But how exactly does Shakespeare's violence stack up to Game of Thrones?

The answer depends on how you measure it: qualitatively or quantitatively.

Examining body count alone, Game of Thrones is far and away more violent, as evidenced by this video of every single death in the show, compiled by Digg.

For comparison, here's a chart showing the body count in Shakespeare's bloodiest plays:

With a body count in the thousands, Game of Thrones is markedly more violent than the plays of Shakespeare. Game of Thrones also probably dispenses with its characters in more ways than Shakespeare does (I've listed some of the most notable manners of death above). But that's not to say that Shakespeare was a one-trick killer, as this breakdown shows:

Qualitatively, deciding which set of stories is more violent is a matter of opinion. Are you more affected by the mutilation of Lavinia, or the torture scenes featuring Game of Throne's Ramsay Bolton? 

(I wonder where Reek stands?)

The answer might depend on medium. Is there any marked difference between witnessing violence on a stage versus on a screen?

That's exactly what the Royal Shakespeare Company and research firm Ipsos MORI want to test.

Researchers plan to monitor the heart rates of 30 audience members during three live performances of Titus Andronicus. Then a second group, similar in age, gender and theater experience, will have their heart rates recorded while watching a screening of the play at a movie theater.

“We want to see how the audience reacts physically to the production,” said Becky Loftus of RSC. “Are people so used to things like (Quentin) Tarantino and Game of Thrones that they’re not shocked anymore by theater magic, or theater blood and gore?”

The results are scheduled to be published in November.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

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