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Article, Geek U, Literature

Shakespeare, Sophocles, and…. George Lucas?

by Jason McLarty

Imagine this, you walk into your English class sit down and the chalkboard (do they still use chalkboards in school or have they all gone dry erase?) has the words “Heroic Tragedy” scribbled very largely across it.

“Great,” you think, “another lame play/novel written by some guy who’s been dead for a century at least.”

The teacher walks in and instead of telling you to pull out that god awful huge textbook they pop in a DVD and you’re watching…..STAR WARS?

Yes, that could happen. No really it could.

I’m not ignoring the classics, because they truly are classics. Stories such as Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, and other notable works can teach us many things about social commentary or writing styles for starters. Why stop there? Why not augment the classics by showing kids the parallels in their own favorite media?

Don’t you think that might get the kids more excited about reading Shakespeare or Greek plays?

Some may not agree with my take. Some may even say that films like Star Wars offers not literary merit and are purely entertainment.

This is my response. I am going to prove that the Star Wars saga (yes, even the prequels) can offer the same content as great works such as Macbeth and the works of Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone).

A lot like Oedipus Rex and Antigone, the Star Wars saga is a cautionary tale on the dangers of pride and absolute power.

Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? A lot of philosophers venture to suggest as much, that even with the best intentions power can seduce a good person into the darkness. Can honorable intentions protect us when we justify questionable decisions by the end result?

We’re going to see that we really are not limited to classical literature to explore these questions anymore. We have a number of different mediums that explore these questions in today’s culture. These go beyond what the academic community considers literature of merit. Comic Books, Movies, and even video games explore these themes to the same degree if not more so.

Long thought to be a classical representation of the hero story structure, George Lucas’s Star Wars saga actually follows the structure of a heroic tragedy. Instead of Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Darth Vader, takes the place as the story’s protagonist.

The character of Anakin Skywalker shares characteristics with several classical tragic heroes. A tragic hero possesses all the characteristics of a hero except they possess a tragic flaw that causes them to fall. Many times this is do to some form of irony where the reader has knowledge that the hero does not.

Much like Oedipus from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Anakin sought to avert fate and in doing so caused its fulfillment. Anakin believed his decisions were true because his intentions were good. In truth, these decisions, much like Antigone’s Creon, ultimately lead Anakin to the dark side and become Vader. Anakin’s desire to be powerful seduced him further and further into the abyss just as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth coerced her husband. In sharing these traits, Anakin exemplifies the definition of the tragic hero.

Stories about fate often carry with them the irony that those who arrogantly try to escape destiny end up causing it. This is the case with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, where a young child born to a king is prophesied to kill his father. The King and Queen abandon their child to die, only for a stranger to find the child and name it Oedipus. The child grows up and on a journey to the city of Thebes ends up killing the king, his birth father, in a dispute pretty much over who had the right of way.

No, seriously that was the argument.

As the story progresses Thebes is cursed and Oedipus, its new king, sets out to cure it and in his arrogance believes that he can beat fate. Anakin Skywalker shares this flaw with Oedipus. In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin sees a vision of his wife Padme dying in childbirth. He believes that if he is powerful enough he can stop fate. In his pursuit to avert fate he butts heads with with mentor and friend Obi-Wan, who resembles the role of Creon, Oedipus’s second in command and uncle/brother in law, in this story. Anakin feels that Obi-Wan is working against him to keep him from gaining the power he needs. This action is similar to Oedpius’ reaction to Creon bringing news from Tiresias, the prophet. Oedipus accuses Creon of coercing Tiresias of creating lies that put the blame on Oedipus for the city’s curse.

In seeking out increasing power Anakin believes he has the best intentions. This brings out the similarities with Creon. In Antigone we see a different Creon from his role in Oedpipus Rex. Here Creon has assumed leadership of Thebes and is locked into a war against the city. He denies burial rites to Polynices and declares him a traitor. Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter, defies Creon and buries her brother. Creon then punishes Antigone as an example to uphold order in his city during wartime. Creon feels that his actions are in the best interest of his people. It isn’t until his wife and son are dead that he realizes the error of his ways.

Anakin follows a similar path in believing that absolute power would help him bring peace to the galaxy. In his conversation with Padme in Attack of the Clones he describes what Padme labels as a dictatorship. He carries this belief into Revenge of the Sith when he tries to explain his choice to joing the dark side to Padme. His descent to the dark side is urged onward by Palpatine as Anakin searches for a way to save his wife from her foretold death. This search for greater power ultimately seduces him into the darkness.

Anakin’s descent into Vader began with his desire to be the strongest and most powerful jedi. This desire is very similar to the lust for power that Macbeth feels uponWe see the beginnings of this in The Phantom Menace and it continues into Attack of the Clones when Anakin returns from rescuing his mother and killing all the Sand People. He claims that Obi-Wan and the council are holding him back and not letting him grow in power. He feels that if he had more power he could have saved his mother. Palpatine feeds this desire by subtly encouraging these feelings.

In Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine orchestrates Anakin to feel slighted by the Jedi Council by appointing him to the Council outright. When the council refuses to acknowledge Anakin with the rank of Master, Palpatine feeds into Anakin’s pride by stating the unfairness of the treatment, urging him to take his own actions. Anakin is seduced by the flattery, much like how Lady Macbeth urges her husband into killing.

Macbeth’s knowledge of the future from the Weird Sisters and his thirst for power creates the perfect foundation for him to be coerced into committing murder to assume the throne. One could also reason that Macbeth’s knowledge of his ascension is also another similarity shared with Vader. Anakin was taken into the Jedi order by Obi-Wan with the knowledge that many believed him to be the chosen one, the one who would bring balance to the force. This knowledge created an expectation in Anakin’s mind that fueled his pride and thirst for power.

The road to hell can be paved with good intentions, as many do not even realize they are beyond redemption until it is too late. After Padme’s death, Vader had committed every possible atrocity under the belief that his intentions were pure, that the ends justified the means. He did not realize it until it was too late. It was not until Return of the Jedi that Vader had the opportunity to redeem himself by saving his son Luke from Emperor Palpatine. This decision, that defining moment is what allows Vader to be considered a tragic hero. Vader would solely be considered a true villain if he had never acted against the Emperor to save Luke.

We can see similar actions in stories outside of the films such as the Force Unleashed game series where Vader trains an apprentice in secret to act against the Emperor. However, in these examples Vader’s motives seem altogether selfishly driven, which contrast his selfless act to save Luke that ends in his own death.

The Star Wars saga does present a valid example of the heroic tragedy by classical standards. We’ve found how Darth Vader shares many of the same characteristics of well known tragic heroes like Oedipus, Creon, and Macbeth.

I hope we are near a future where stories like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Superman are taught alongside classics like Shakespeare, Sophocles, and other classics. This would not erase the importance of these classics, it will amplify their meaning in the modern day and may even increase the appreciation of such works by the next generation.



One thought on “Shakespeare, Sophocles, and…. George Lucas?

  1. Great article and good point. I remember in highschool we studied “Gattaca” the same year we looked at “1984” (book version). Personally, I found it much easier to come up with insights and interpretations from “1984” than it was from “Gattaca”.

    I think the problem with studying modern movies such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings compared to classic literature and tragedies is that there is less room for interpretation and realisation. For example, comparing the film to the novelisation “1984”, you were essentially led by the director’s vision – you are shown what the world is like. The first sentence of the book mentions the clock striking 13 – but that doesn’t happen normally. The reader must interpret it to mean that for the clocks to be striking 13 in reference to military time, which begins to form the world that the book is set in. Its a lengthier process, but more thought provoking, and invites the reader to consider what they are reading.

    Similarly, in the real King Arthur tales, compared to the plethora of good and bad Arthurian-based movies, there is so much to interpret on religion, prophecy, morals, etc, that gets lost or is presented in a one sided fashion leaving less for interpretation.

    On the other hand, studying comics like Hellblazer or The Sandman, or even Shade the Changing Man could be an interesting. I’ve found that these (especially the Shade / Hellblazer crossover issues) deal with interesting issues while giving the reader enough visuals to keep entertained, but not hinder interpretations of the characters’ speech, thoughts and actions too much.

    I’m glad that some movies get studied – Bladerunner, for example. And I remember one year we looked at Braveheart (for what specific purpose I can’t remember now). I am cautious, though, that despite what other media might have to offer in terms of interpretable themes, it may make students lazier when coming up with insights from these stories.

    Posted by Debs | July 20, 2011, 8:09 pm

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