Often in fiction, audiences are forced to question the nature and intent of characters, as a person may be unreliable due to their tendency to lie, perhaps due to mental illness or even due to simple delusion within the character's own self. The book and television series A Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as A Game of Thrones, is no exception. The Red Keep is home to a wasps nest of would-be friends and seeming enemies who will surprise you with every new encounter. But there is at least one character whom George R. R. Martin wrote with complete bold-faced honesty: Queen Cersei Baratheon, of house Lannister.
“I have dreamed of giving up the crown ... You know what stops me? The thought of Joffrey on the throne, with Cersei standing behind him whispering in his ear." - King Robert Baratheon
It's easy to look at Cersei, as either an audience member or a citizen of Westeros, and see her as a woman made of pure evil, deserving of every scorn and suffering that befalls her. She's beautiful, she's rich, she's utterly ruthless, and aside from her sweet smiles to the ladies of her court and her flirtatious laughs at a lord's bad joke, she makes no mystery of her intentions and offers no apologies. It's natural to write off such a woman as nothing more than a plot device to keep the story rife with conflict, as there are characters like Joffrey Baratheon, Cersei's firstborn son, or Ser Gregor Clegane (“The Mountain”), who both seem flatly depraved merely because they enjoy cruelty. Cersei, though, is not so simple a creature; while Queen Cersei’s actions are often cruel, her motivations and goals are much less transparent than her wicked nature.
When we are introduced to Cersei, Martin lays out her character simply: Cersei is to be feared, mistrusted, and acknowledged as a dutiful mother and unloved wife. The very first impression given of her is in an exchange between Eddard and Catelyn Stark in which Ned, already established as our touchstone of honor and decency in the series, expresses a deep dislike of the Lannister family and refers to the Queen as "the Lannister woman." Catelyn, who will over the series be depicted as a direct foil of Cersei, then warns Ned to speak respectfully due in part to "the Lannister woman's" rank as queen and also because, "... Her pride is said to grow with every passing year." Once the royal family is introduced to the reader, almost immediately King Robert Baratheon openly slights Cersei in requesting a visit to the Stark tombs. When she protests with the seeming good reason of wanting to rest and freshen up after a long journey, she is met with silence and a glare. As the series continues, we learn Robert wished to visit the tomb to pay respects to Lyanna Stark, the love of his life who was stolen from him and murdered. In spite of his marriage to Cersei, Robert continues to harbor intense love for the dead woman, even so far as calling out "Lyanna" on his wedding night with his wife - an injury from which Cersei never recovers in her seventeen years of marriage.
Our next insight into Cersei comes from Jon Snow, the humble and respectful bastard son of Ned, and his impression is a lasting one on the reader. He declares that yes, she is beautiful as all have said, with flowing golden hair and emerald green eyes, dressed in jewels as a queen should be, but that at a mere fourteen years old Jon "could see through her smile.” Jon Snow, already established as a trustworthy and honest character, describing the Queen this way shows us that Martin wants the reader to mistrust her, to see her beauty as a facade that hides ill intent. Shortly after this, Cersei is witnessed seeming to conspire against Ned Stark as well as her husband King Robert, whom she plainly says "loves her not," and speed her son Joffrey to the throne with her twin brother Jamie Lannister. Then, horror of horrors to the incredibly taboo-conscious contemporary consumer of fiction, the twins engage in sex with each other, are caught in the act by seven-year-old Bran Stark, and shove the child out a window, hopefully to his death. If the audience clung to any remaining hopes that Cersei was anything but a vile wretch, those hopes flew out the window along with Bran.
Repeatedly she is mocked, repudiated, and slandered (even if the rumors are completely true) by her husband, younger brother, father, counsel, and the general populace of her kingdom. Due to her well-known temper and tendency to overreact, the only people who will criticize her to her face are her husband, brother Tyrion, and father Tywin - three men in her life one would hope would be considerate of her feelings and her sense of self. She seeks validation and finds none, so she turns to her brother Jamie, whom she considers not a separate person but a piece of her whole self; she turns, also, to her children and hopes for their successes to be her refuge. Despite her loves and other positive elements of her life, she still feels a need to prove herself and her place in the world. The theme of Cersei's life appears to be that she will never have the respect she feels she deserves, she will always feel like a lesser being (largely due to being a woman), and she will never be able to find happiness. Based on what we know about Cersei, it's hard to feel sympathy for her. It's easy to say she doesn't deserve sympathy, or any kind of consideration, as to what compels her to do and say such terrible things. But, like all well-developed characters, there is reason bubbling beneath Cersei's gold-plated surface.
As a child, her beloved mother was taken from her at nine-years-old during the birth of Tyrion. She resented the baby and tormented him often; a possible genesis of her inclination toward causing immense suffering in those she felt had wronged her. After her mother's death, her already stern father became cold and distant. Cersei, the oldest born but without rights of inheritance due to being female, often tried to train herself to be like her father to prove herself to him. Such training was in vain, as he not only refused to acknowledge her but also seemed to harbor resentment against her when Jamie was named to the Kingsguard, thus preventing him from ever being able to inherit lands or titles from his father. At one point - actually, several points - Cersei openly demands that Tywin name her heir of his land, Casterly Rock. He laughs at her and tells her he would never do such a thing; that she is a woman and should accept her place. Even her younger brother, a deformed dwarf who is also despised by their father, treats her poorly as he thinks her to be impulsive and hot-tempered (among other things). Cersei, however, sees herself as cunning, as a ruling player in "the game of thrones.”
Ultimately, her true Achilles' Heel will be her ego; narcissism is a tremendous factor in nearly all of Cersei's thoughts and actions. All people experience narcissism; self-love is not unacceptable in and of itself, but Cersei's narcissism falls into the realm of clinical narcissism: an inflated sense of one's own abilities and abnormal need for affirmation from others. Even Narcissus, for whom narcissism is named, fell in love with his own reflection. What could be more an example of this disorder than falling in love with your own twin sibling? In A Storm of Swords when Jamie is forced to shave his head and grow a beard to disguise himself while on the road, he thinks, "I don't look as much like Cersei this way. She'll hate that." When she unflinchingly describes to a disgusted Ned Stark that she and her brother have been lovers most of their lives, and proudly boasts that all three of her children are fathered by him and not her husband, her ego is at its peak. Cersei expresses that she and Jamie are one person in two bodies. What better way to honor herself than to take herself as a lover and make children?
Even her children, the lights of her life, are simply pieces of her own pride. When her son is ruler of the kingdoms it means, in a way, that she is ruler of the kingdoms. When Tyrion bargains away her daughter Princess Myrcella to the lords of Dorne to be wed, Cersei is filled with grief and expresses her grief as rage. Unable to see that her daughter is now safely away from the war, Cersei sees the act only as an attack against her, a way for her younger brother to steal a piece of her and disrespect her. She warns him she will have her vengeance; he pities her foolishness.
Her deeply narcissistic traits are undeniable, but as with many narcissists it's almost impossible to blame her for her behavior. Narcissism is rooted in deep insecurity, as well as feeling unloved and without respect: this is Cersei, this is who she is when broken down to her bare bones. The firstborn of a great house, born with her brother clutching her foot as they came into the world, then wed to a man whom she never wanted and who never wanted her, and given the useless role of queen beneath a drunken, oafish king. Her desires to be a leader, a ruler, and a decider of her own fate are all dashed with every major event of her life - she will never be allowed to rise to the position to which she aspires, no matter how much blood she's willing to shed. She wishes to be a great Lord of Casterly Rock, but she's a Lady, and will never be a Lord.
Cersei speaks her true feelings to Robert when arguing for a punishment, as she does not feel Robert is being "kingly" when she is calling for an immediate and aggressive response: "What a jape the gods have made of us two. By all rights, you ought to be in the skirts and me in mail." If ever a character in fiction made herself known, laid out her intentions plainly, it is Cersei. Though she may appear treacherous and sneaky, when one examines her behavior it seems more the fault of those who interact with her to trust in her. She smiles and plays a queen's role, but it's difficult to call her fake or underhanded because she does not see her actions as immoral or unjust. She feels life is unjust and we can only hope to keep our heads above water. Her hand is clearly laid out the entire time, and as she explained to her son Joffrey, "Everyone who isn't us is an enemy."
Martin has created a true villain in Cersei, with her antics becoming increasingly severe as depicted in the book series, and Season 4 will be bringing many new challenges and games for the Queen. The audience's reaction to her seems to reflect perfectly reflect her role in the series: hatred and subsequent dismissal. As important a character to the series as she is, seldom is Queen Cersei mentioned in speculation, seldom does the tempestuous fanbase, who question and ponder and predict what comes next, care to consider her or her fate; while they loathe her, they also find her almost inconsequential - never the opponent in the game of thrones she thinks herself to be. But does this sentiment not speak of the true tragedy of the woman? The emptiness of her life, and the continued denial of the respect and affection she has craved all her days. Should the day come when viewers of A Game of Thones find themselves witnessing the end of Cersei, she will likely find herself as Sir Walter Scott said of "the wretch" in his poem My Native Land: "...Shall go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung - unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung." In spite of herself, we can hold hope that perhaps she'll surprise us, as Cersei Lannister may be more than she seems.