Star Wars: a Shakespearean tragedy in six parts

By Joseph Barber

The Star Wars series 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 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 in the end. This is almost true from Anakin's perspective, as the only living remnant of his old society is his son, whom he has recently tried to kill, and his daughter, whom 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 seen 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, similar 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, shown by the three active users in the galaxy.

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 he ultimately gives himself over to the dark side. This element of Star Wars makes it a perfect example of a tragedy: things appear black and white, but "grey" characters give it a touch of reality.

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, to seed the rest of the series, he needs to choose the evil option. That is when the true tragedy begins - with one assisted murder, leading to the deaths of billions.

Darth Vader is portrayed as truly evil, but in reality he regrets his actions but is powerless to stop acting as Palpatine's obedient attack dog.

In retrospect he appears less the villain, even if that's how he initially looked.

His part is the reverse of the typical tragic hero, but it reinforces the nature of his descent, and the difficult life he was dealt out.

Vader is not usually thought of as a hero, and especially would not have been in 1983. But with the whole story now told, he is a hero transformed into a villain through circumstance and bad choices.

This is what makes him a tragic Shakespearean hero, one whose villains make him one of their own, and whose choices define him.

Joseph Barber, Year 13, Hillcrest High School

- NZ Herald

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