Ambition and Reputation: The Personal Politics of Gender

In 510 BCE, a Roman woman by the name of Lucretia was threatened and raped by the king’s son. Daughter of the chief magistrate of the Roman kingdom and wife of a governor, Lucretia demanded justice of her father and then committed suicide while the men of the court debated their plan of attack. Lucretia & Her dagger It took another man, Brutus, to rally his fellow Romans around Lucretia’s death, bring down the tyrant Tarquins and establish the republic.

Lucretia killed herself because her reputation had been, in the thinking of the time, irretrievably damaged. Sextus Tarquinus’ attack had certainly damaged his reputation (and that of royalty in general as far as Romans would be concerned), but, on a personal level, it had created an unendurable shame for Lucretia. She preserved her honour by taking her own life.

That choice would have seemed foolish to Cersei Lannister. When her reputation was threatened as news of her incestuous affair with Jaime came to Ned Stark’s attention, she incredulously spurned his suggestion that she flee with her children. As Cersei notes, in the game of thrones, you win or you die, and she intends to win. Cersei Lannister with a dagger

To Cersei, reputation was important but only in terms of preserving the outward trappings of good reputation, not the inward satisfaction of rectitude. Lucretia’s choice would have been unfathomable to Robert Baratheon’s queen who channelled her anger at Robert’s obsession with Lyanna, his long-dead betrothed, into the promotion and preservation of her Lannister legacy on the throne. Cersei was not focused on her personal relationship with that royal power – that was the purview of her father, Tywin Lannister. This lands the queen in trouble when, after Robert’s death, Tywin is all too eager to marry her off again, no matter how unhappily, if it will secure the Lannister family.

Cersei’s unhappy experience with her own desires discounted against the concerns of family ambition resembles that of many medieval and early modern noblewomen such as Lucrezia Borgia. lucrezia_borgia presumed portrait This Lucrezia, known to popular memory as a poisoner and accused of incestuous relations with her brother Cesare, was three times married in pursuit of family ambitions. Today, scholars are reopening the debate about Lucrezia’s independence of action in her family and with regards to her marriages, such as in Diane Yvonne Ghirardo’s recent “Lucrezia Borgia as Entrepreneur” Renaissance Quarterly 61:1 (Spring 2008): 53-91 who quotes a contemporary observer as characterizing the duchess as “a very intelligent woman, astute”.

That description seems tailor-made for another ambitious courtly woman in Westeros: Margaery Tyrell. Margaery Tyrell plotting The Tyrells control a different type of wealth than the gold of Casterly Rock: in this case it is the gold of Tyrell grain that makes them rich. As Matthew Yglesias claims, thanks to both the immediate appeal of foodstuffs, a renewable and vital resource, especially in hard times, as well as the savvy use of their resources made by Margaery and others, House Tyrell is wealthier than House Lannister.

Coached by her ruthless grandmother, the Queen of Thorns, Margaery marries Robert Baratheon’s equally ambitious younger brother, Renly, hoping to secure the seven kingdoms as his consort. When Renly is assassinated, Margaery is heartbroken not at the loss of her husband but at the loss of her opportunities as this conversation with Petyr Baelish proves. She doesn’t just want to be “a queen”, she wants to be “the queen” and Renly was her best bet until his death. Now Margaery must rethink her plans.

Both Margaery and Cersei have to watch their reputation, however, as their political power is subordinated to that of the men in their lives and their relationships are dependent upon remaining lily-white in the public eye. Margaery’s managing of her brother, Loras, her first husband, Renly and her second suitor, Joffrey, are all that give her hopes of gaining that ultimate prize in royal status. Cersei must subdue the truth of her incestuous affair to stay in her position as queen mother or face certain and utter condemnation should the truth ever leak irretrievably. In any case, neither woman has the wherewithal to pursue the throne directly as Danaerys Targaryen prepares to do.

What are the historical cautions for a Targaryen queenship? Stay tuned for the next installment here at this blog!



Filed under history, pop culture

2 responses to “Ambition and Reputation: The Personal Politics of Gender

  1. Quick, secure the television rights to this!

    • J Liedl

      If only someone hadn’t beaten me to the punch with The Borgias! But maybe we can get a talking head appearance or two somewhere discussing awesome women in history?