Well, everyone, this is our last post before our summer vacation! We’ll be off for the next two weeks or so, but in the meantime, Game of Thrones is back on the air, and I don’t think many of you will be surprised to learn that I still hate it and question everything that’s happening. As such, I figured it was time to take another look at a minor character who has always stuck with me: Shae. Shae’s book and show counterparts couldn’t be farther apart. But if I’m being honest with myself, it’s another change from the books that I somehow actually enjoyed in the show. Part of that is because I doubt the show could handle Shae’s book storyline well because it’s consistently proven itself incapable of treating its female characters with any kind of respect.
Trigger warning for victim blaming, rape, sexual abuse, and murder up ahead.
In both show and books, Shae is a sex worker whom Tyrion Lannister meets at a war camp and eventually brings back to King’s Landing. In the show, she falls in love with Tyrion. Tyrion, though, knows that his father won’t approve of his relationship with her. As such, he tries to hide her from his family by getting her a job as a servant in the castle and only meeting with her in secret. When Tyrion fears that Shae will soon be discovered, he arranges to have her leave King’s Landing. Originally, Varys attempts to offer her money so she can live in comfort across the sea, but when it becomes clear that Shae cares little for money and truly loves Tyrion, Tyrion decides to break her heart. He calls her names, points out that they’re in two different classes, and claims they have no future together.
The show presents this as for Shae’s own good—after all, Tyrion’s just trying to keep her safe and she’s being stubborn—but it is abusive. Tyrion’s made this decision for her against her wishes, even though she has told him repeatedly that she’s willing to take all the risks. Not only that, Tyrion hurts and betrays her in the process. It’s no wonder then, that when Tyrion is framed for Joffrey’s murder, Shae returns to testify against him. Later, when Tyrion breaks out of prison, he finds Shae in his father’s bed and murders both of them.
Shae’s storyline follows a similar path in the books—she engages with Tyrion, he keeps her hidden from his family, and in the end, he murders her here as well. The big difference between show!Shae and book!Shae is her relationship with Tyrion. In the books, Shae doesn’t love him and only sees him as another job. She is a sex worker and he is her employer. That’s it. Unfortunately for Shae, though, Tyrion has an unhealthy obsession with sex workers, and he latches onto Shae and starts projecting feelings that aren’t there. Many years ago, Tyrion engaged with another sex worker named Tysha, and the two of them did fall in love. However, their relationship ended traumatically when Tyrion’s father found out and had them both raped as punishment. Tysha was raped by a bunch of guardsmen, and afterwards, Tyrion was also forced to have sex with her.
Tyrion never quite recovered from what happened. He doesn’t just pay Shae to sleep with him, he also pays her to pretend she loves him and has her call him things like “my lion”. In the show, this is a phrase that Shae calls Tyrion out of genuine love and affection, but in the books, it’s a power fantasy for Tyrion that Shae obliges because it’s what she’s paid to do. Tyrion lets all this go to his head. He falls in love with Shae and is convinced she loves him back. He is, like most of the characters, an unreliable narrator. Tyrion may be a semi-decent person in the show, but in the books, his flaws are much more obvious. He has PTSD and depression, not to mention internalized ableism due to his treatment at being a dwarf, and he ends up taking his frustrations out on everyone else. At one point, an innkeeper won’t let him a room because none are available, and when she’s murdered later on, Tyrion thinks it’s justified. He’s classist, looking down on the smallfolk. He’s also misogynistic and entitled—after marrying Sansa, a literal child bride and prisoner of war who’s only eleven years old, he gets upset that she doesn’t want to let him rape her, and in the books, he nearly does rape her. Book!Tyrion blames Sansa for not wanting him and consistently fails to take into account that her dislike for him is not just because he’s a dwarf, but because she’s a child and his family murdered hers. These flaws help make Tyrion a well-rounded character. He has his internal struggles, but he’s also the cause of other people’s struggles. This helps show us that no one, even fan favorites, are wholly good people incapable of being in the wrong.
With all of Tyrion’s flaws, it also comes as no surprise that Tyrion also starts seeing himself as entitled to Shae. He might love her, but he also abuses her, and his love comes with an unhealthy dose of obsession. We never get to see from Shae’s point of view to know how she feels about this, but as Tyrion is a lord and she is a sex worker under his employ, there is an irrefutable power balance that places Shae in danger the minute Tyrion employs her. At one point Tyrion even goes so far as to have sex with her while she’s sleeping.
Normally for these appreciation posts I like to pull quote from the books, but we’ve decided that since most of the quotes feature sexual abuse, posting them may be inappropriate. This particular instance, which takes place while Shae sleeps, is on pg. 340 in the softcover version. Tyrion sees Shae sleeping naked, marvels at her youth and beauty—he even questions how a “whore” can looks so “clean” and “innocent”—and then, even though he wanted to let her sleep, decides to have sex with her anyway, because seeing her naked turned him on. When Shae wakes up, she doesn’t act distressed by what Tyrion did, but regardless of how she feels, it was still a rape. Not only was she asleep, there’s a power imbalance between her and a lord, a man who’s developed an unhealthy obsession with her. She is incapable of saying no to him, which means that she’s also incapable of saying yes.
Like in the show, Tyrion is also framed for Joffrey’s murder in the books, and Cersei gets Shae to testify against him, which Tyrion takes as a betrayal. But while the show implies that Shae chose to testify of her own volition, the same cannot be said for book!Shae. She’s a victim of circumstance. The queen finds her and demands she testify against Tyrion after a prince is murdered. Shae is a smallfolk caught up in the eponymous game of thrones, and one wrong move can get her killed. She would have had no choice but to testify, and as Tyrion was nothing more to her than an employer, it’s not actually a betrayal on her part, despite what Tyrion thinks. He is the one who paid her to do a job, and he is the one whose fantasies got the best of him.
I am glad that the show changed Shae’s storyline and made her love Tyrion. However, though the way the show changed her dynamic with Tyrion allowed her some agency, it wasn’t the best decision the show could have made. The original storyline was much stronger because it allowed for Tyrion’s character flaws to show through and because it showed male entitlement over a woman who just needed to make a living. Giving us this storyline, while also giving us Shae’s perspective during it, would have resulted in even more agency for Shae, despite her unfortunate end.
But I don’t believe Game of Thrones’s writers understand what an unreliable narrator Tyrion is. The show has continuously removed his flaws and unlikeable traits in order to turn him into a saint. Part of me even suspects that they failed to realized that book!Shae never loved him to begin with, and that that might be where the change came from. As much as it pains me to praise the show, I think it did a much better job with Shae’s character than it’s done with others. However, it still ended up painting Shae as deserving to die due to her betrayal. And a lot of that is in part because of how it presents Tyrion as a victim who can’t possibly do wrong.
In the books, it’s only possible to come to that conclusion if you fail to realize that Tyrion’s an unreliable narrator and that his relationship with Shae has an abusive power imbalance from the start. The books tell a story of a sex worker navigating through a situation trying not to get killed, and when she does what she needs to in order to avoid Cersei murdering her, Tyrion murders her instead as punishment. I would hardly say that the books did a super awesome job with Shae. It’s all from Tyrion’s point of view, so in order to fully appreciate the story, a read must first look past their own misogyny, whether internalized or not, recognize that a fan favorite character is in the wrong, and sympathize with a sex worker, a person most people view as dirty and undeserving. When all is said and done, it’s not a lot to ask to view sex workers as people instead of objects, but these are things that many people won’t notice. And as Shae dies and Tyrion never really comes to terms with his behavior, the meaning here can easily be lost.
Nevertheless, I find show!Tyrion much less interesting than book!Tyrion precisely because of changes like these. Because everything Tyrion does in the show ends up being justified, he can’t make mistakes and grow from them, and the story fails to engage its audience with a well-rounded character who’s more than capable of doing bad things. Show!Tyrion might be “nicer” than book!Tyrion, but he’s also not a fully formed character anymore and if he’s not being confronted with his own failings and being forced to grow or change through any kind of arc, then what’s the point in watching him?
I’ll take the books over the show any day, but even the books didn’t do the best job with Shae. Her story ends when she dies and Tyrion never revisits what he did. Instead, he goes back to mourning what happened with Tysha and feeling sorry for himself. In some ways, this is realistic—sex workers have high-risk jobs, get taken advantage of often, and most people don’t care when they get hurt. The implications in Shae’s storyline are subtle and not that obvious and that’s why it’s so easy for many fans to write off Tyrion’s treatment of her as justified. But realism is not an excuse. We’ve mentioned before that one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s problems is that we don’t have any smallfolk point-of-view characters. Changing that would greatly help show the differences in the lives of both the smallfolk and nobles and how the nobles and lords take advantage of and abuse people. Had Shae been a point-of-view character, the contrast between her thoughts and Tyrion’s would have helped tell the audience that Tyrion was in the wrong, and that being a sex worker and pretending to love someone because that’s what you’re paid to do and you need to make a living somehow doesn’t automatically mean a woman has to be committed to a man obsessed with her. If, somehow, this series is ever adapted again, this is just one of the many things I would change.