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First-year students examine ‘Game of Thrones’ through Shakespeare’s lens

Any illusions that the HBO series based on George Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series is breaking new ground in entertainment were pretty much shattered by the second meeting of professor Paul Zajac’s First Year Seminar, “Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones.”

English professor Paul Zajac with student from his Shakespeare's Game of Thrones FYS

English professor Paul Zajac (left) discusses similarities between “Game of Thrones” and Shakespeare’s plays to first-year students Jacie Wood, Kat Pensabene, and Dominic Giuliani.

Any illusions that the HBO series based on George Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” series is breaking new ground in entertainment were pretty much shattered by the second meeting of professor Paul Zajac’s First Year Seminar, “Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones.”

That’s right — Shakespeare and “Game of Thrones” in the same sentence — the same course title no less. Zajac, a Shakespearean scholar, English professor and “Game of Thrones” fan, designed the course for his first-year students to discover the connections and similarities between the works of the renowned Renaissance playwright and the ultra-violent, wildly popular fantasy series.

“We use both authors to help the first-year students develop the college skills they’ll need,” says Zajac about the multi-faceted mission of first-year seminars in general. “The subject or topic of the course is important, but we also place more emphasis on developing the writing, reading and speaking skills that other classes will take for granted.”

All but two of the students came into the seminar avid fans of “Game of Thrones” — or GoT as it is known among its record-breaking 26 million viewers per episode. But most of these recent high school graduates have only sampled Shakespeare and none had read his “Titus Andronicus,” the first assigned play, a bloody and violent revenge tragedy written in collaboration with George Peele and believed to be the Bard’s first tragedy.

Kat Pensabene is one of the two students in the class who had not watched “Game of Thrones” but unlike many of her classmates was quite familiar with Shakespeare.

“When I first found out that I was assigned this class, I had not watched or read anything ‘Game of Thrones’ ever,” says the first-year student from Mt. Laurel, N.J. “So I binged watched all the way up to season four just so I wouldn't be left behind, and I was not surprised at all by the way these two things connected. The time periods are sort of different but by watching the show I knew that the plots and characters would be very similar.”

The graphic representation of violence, students and professor agree, is key — it demonstrates the compelling difference between showing something or merely telling someone about it.

“HBO isn’t doing anything new with the violence,” says Zajac. “Shakespeare didn’t pull any punches either. He even puts cannibalism in front of his audience in Act Five of ‘Titus Andronicus.’”

Both Shakespeare and Martin deal with power struggles and the seductiveness of power, the paranoia that comes with being at the top and the role of violence in a civilized society. Although today Shakespeare may be considered high art or culture with a capital “C,” Zajac says that in his day his plays were enormously popular with the masses who gathered to watch public executions and paid a penny for standing room only in the theater.

The Gen Zers in Zajac’s class move seamlessly between the two works separated by more than 400 years. Lively classroom discussions are the norm with each of Zajac’s students eager to analyze their favorite TV show against the backdrop of Renaissance literature.

“The class has been extremely eye opening to the distinct similarities between the HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’ and various Shakespeare plays,” says Jacie Wood of Manchester, Md. “I was not expecting it to be so easy to draw connections between the two. I think the idea behind the class is a great way to connect something current to classical writing.

“Personally, I find it easy to follow along in class and contribute to discussion when I can use something that I'm familiar with to connect it to.”

Violence drives the plot in both “Titus Andronicus” and “Game of Thrones,” Wood says.

“The violence helps establish who’s who,” she says. “It’s more realistic to the point where you can’t believe that you saw what you saw.”

Classmate Dominic Giuliani learned that violence has been prevalent in entertainment since at least the Renaissance, and wasn’t surprised to find a first-year seminar anchored in Shakespeare and “Game of Thrones.”

“I was expecting unique class choices and believe the comparison between these works is relevant,” says Giuliani, a first-year student from Scranton, Pa. “Modern day has a fascination with medieval and Renaissance motifs, and studying Shakespeare shows where many tropes found in modern fantasy (such as Martin's ‘Game of Thrones’) stem from, helping us to better understand modern entertainment.”

Zajac can’t help but smile as he primes the class discussion with thought-provoking questions. His students are thinking critically and creatively — their responses are animated and insightful.

“It’s my sincere wish and what I fully expect will happen by the end of the semester that they will be making connections between the two texts that I never dreamed of,” he says.

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