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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Star Wars: A Tragic Tale of Shakespearean Tragedy

            Looking at the Star Wars series as a whole it paints a fairly sad picture. A man driven to madness by the death of his family, seeks out and systematically destroys everything he loved leading up to his death as he sacrifices himself to kill his cruel mentor. This is because the story is not Luke’s, but Anakin’s; it is about his eventual transformation into the monster Darth Vader, and his eventual redemption through death.

            One of the defining elements of a Shakespearean tragedy is that everyone dies at the end. This is almost true from Anakin’s perspective, as the only living remnants of his old society is his son, who he has recently tried to kill, and his daughter who he has never met. In some ways the end of the old Jedi order can be compared to the end of Chivalry in the middle ages, brought on by the advent of new technology like crossbows and guns. This is best evidenced in Return of the Jedi when it is not a knight’s sword (a lightsaber) that slays the dragon (the Rancor) but cunning and a rock.

            The loss of chivalry pervades the films. In the brief period between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope the Jedi have been entirely forgotten, and the Force is thought of as a misguided religion, alike to Greek mythology today. The lightsaber is thought of as an “elegant weapon for a simpler time” as the age of its use has passed, as evidenced by the three active users in the galaxy.  This loss of chivalry is also a notable element of Shakespearean tragedies as revenge leads to disaster and murder, an antithesis to chivalry.

            Anakin is a tragic hero as he displays both good and evil, though ultimately forfeits himself to the dark side. This is one of the critical elements of Star Wars that makes it such a perfect example of a tragedy, things appear black and white with the light and dark side but still have grey characters creating a realistic environment. There were many points when Anakin could have turned back, and the final tipping point is when Mace Windu threatens Palpatine and offers him the chance to help or betray him. Of course for the rest of the series to take place he needs to choose the evil option. That is when the true tragedy begins.

            His train wreck begins with one assisted murder, but leads to the death of billions. Darth Vader is portrayed as truly evil, but in reality he is regretting his actions, but unwilling to do anything about his current situation, being essentially powerless, watching all the destruction fly past him, obeying as he is told like Palpatine’s attack dog. He is not the villain in a retrospective look, even if his initial appearance sets him out to be, a reverse of the typical tragic hero, but it only seeks to reinforce the nature of his descent, and the difficulty his life has been.

            Vader is not traditionally thought of as a hero, and especially would not have been in 1983, but now with the whole story told he is a hero transformed into a villain through circumstance, but also his own choices. This is what makes him the traditional tragic Shakespearean hero, one whose villains make him one of their own, and whose choices define him.

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