“The Tragedy of Anakin, the Chosen One” traces the fall of Star Wars’ eponymous Anakin Skywalker – from an adolescent youngling, saddled with the weight of destiny and an intense dislike for sand, to a murderous lord of war feared across galaxies. Priya Ramesh’s essay examines the elements of Anakin’s journey through the archetypical framework of Aristotelian Tragedy, pitting them against those seen in William Shakespeare’s iconic “Othello” and “Hamlet”. Features and themes of tragedy are explored throughout all three works in this essay – light versus dark, rise and fall; reckoning and redemption.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
When reading for A Levels, a genre I particularly loved analysing and exploring was tragedy. Tragedy is often complex and involves characters with complex and layered personalities, as humans are in real life. The presentation of characters with understandable flaws and misgivings allows each reader to connect with a tragedy, and facilitates the portrayal of the human condition at its barest, replete with scars and overwhelming imperfections.
Tragedies are driven by the presence of a central ‘protagonist’ — a tragic hero. In some cases, the essence of a tragedy is that it shows the disintegration of the tragic hero’s world, compounded by his own actions. The hero is made to suffer and faces inner turmoil; his circumstances may sometimes cloud his judgment, leading him to make pernicious choices and find himself further mired in distress and misery, offering us a striking view of human frailty in the face of suffering.
The Aristotelian tragic hero is a widely-used skeleton for a tragic hero, and the Greek mythical character of Oedipus serves as a popular example. However, there is a character closer to our time, and to the pop culture sensibilities of our generation, who also exhibits the characteristics of an Aristotelian tragic hero – Anakin Skywalker, more popularly known as legendary über-villain Darth Vader. If one views the entirety of the first two Star Wars trilogies (Episodes I-VI), the story could easily be described as ‘The Tragedy of Anakin, The Chosen One’.
We can establish the following as some of the crucial components of a tragic hero:
- Noble in birth and character
- Possesses a fatal/tragic flaw (hamartia)
- Commits a terrible mistake, therefore suffering a fall from grace (peripeteia)
- Pays a terrible price for it, gaining knowledge and insight (anagnorisis)
- Accepts responsibility for actions
- Dies with dignity but is ultimately redeemed
James Earl Jones, who provided the iconic booming voice of Darth Vader in the original trilogy, acted as Claudius in Hamlet and, more notably, the titular role in Othello. His comments on Othello in an essay, entitled ‘The Sun God’, could apply to Anakin too: “He’s more endowed with humanity than anyone else… and possessed of the desire to be better than anyone else: to be kinder, to be more just, to be more responsible than anybody else.” It can thus be seen that Anakin Skywalker actually exhibits many parallels with characters such as Othello and Hamlet and may conform to the type of a tragic hero.
Nobility in Tragic Characters
Nobility in birth and character is one box to check in the Aristotelian framework for a tragic hero. In Star Wars, Anakin is not only of noble birth, he is immaculately conceived. In almost Christ-like fashion, born to a slave mother on the desert planet of Tatooine, Anakin had no father and was conceived from the ‘Force’ itself, making him the ‘Chosen One’ who will bring balance to the Force. Through the first meeting of Anakin with the travelling Jedi party of Qui-Gon Jinn, we also see that even as a child, he has a naturally good-natured character about him and even imparts ideal wisdom, as he reminds his mother that “the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other”.
This is similar to both Othello and Hamlet, since they are both considered to be of royal lineage. In the first few scenes of Act I of the respective plays, they show through their eloquent speech and wise behaviour that they are indeed noble characters. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and matriculates at the renowned Wittenberg University as a scholar. As Ophelia summarises, Hamlet possessed, “The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state, / The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!” (3.1.151-155) which suggests that beyond his royal lineage, Hamlet was a well-rounded character who was the nation’s darling and acted as such.
Similarly, Othello’s actions in Act 1 assert that he is a man worthy of respect, especially as a black man rising through the ranks of a white city-state to be one of the most important members of its society. His confidence is charming, as he declares his noble background – “…I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (1.2.21-22) – and orders his men to refrain from drawing their swords when encountering Brabantio and his entourage (1.2.59). The construction of this scene puts Othello on a pedestal akin to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus tells his disciples to stow away their swords, when Judas, the back-stabbing disciple, arrives with Roman Legionaries to arrest him. Othello’s insistence that “(his) parts, (his) title and (his) perfect soul / Shall manifest (him) rightly” (1.2.31-32) suggest that even in the face of allegations, his reputation in Venetian society as a noble man precedes him. This is further dramatically shown by Shakespeare, since as they enter the Duke’s court in the following scene, the Duke notices Othello first and Brabantio is an afterthought — despite Othello being a Moor and Brabantio being a Venetian and senator. All in all, Othello shows himself to be ‘more fair than black’ (1.3.291), as put by the Duke.
Nobility is a crucial aspect as it shows that these heroes are of a higher nature than a common man and thus would generally be taken to be less susceptible to flaws. This, of course, is what amplifies the impact and magnitude of the impending downfall.
Hamartia – Analysing the Fear of Loss
For all there is to admire about these characters, each of them has one crucial character flaw — or hamartia — that amplifies the magnitude of their suffering and paves the way for their undoing. In Episode I, Yoda already foreshadows a dark future for Anakin, when he says to him, “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” The fear of loss, and his abject failure to cope with it, is arguably Anakin’s greatest flaw. After his mother is kidnapped and tortured by a species known as the Sandpeople, Anakin has recurrent premonitions about her death. And yet, he is too late to rescue her and can only watch as she dies. In a fit of cold-blooded rage, he slays the Sandpeople. Jedi work on principles of pacifism – never kill, and if one must, never do so without a just, society-serving cause. Anakin’s loss of cognizant decision-making in the face of loss and his choice to murder the Sandpeople serves as the first sign of his hamartia manifesting itself in action, leading to his fall from grace as a respected Jedi. Another aspect of Anakin’s fatal combination of flaws — his hubris — is seen with the imagined loss of his wife, Padmé. He screams, “One day, I will become the greatest Jedi ever. I will even learn how to stop people from dying.” When turned down for a promotion to be a Jedi Master, Anakin starts to believe that he is more powerful than the Jedi can imagine and that they are holding him back in achieving his full potential. He over-indulges in the notion of being the Chosen One and sets himself up to be the harbinger of justice and fairness to the galaxy.
Anakin’s inability to truly control his actions in the face of fear and/or loss is mirrored in Othello. Othello, despite his attempts as identifying as a Venetian or Christian, is still very much an outlier in his society and this may translate to fearing for his reputation upon hearing of Desdemona’s alleged infidelity. Othello’s inability to objectively think through this and separate facts from conjecture rises from his inability to make sense of a situation where he is to lose his reputation as a man for being cuckolded. This plunges the Moor into mental torment as Iago begins with a mere suggestion of an affair between Cassio and Desdemona. Othello’s inability to manoeuvre past nuanced fabrication means that he stakes everything on his ancient’s words. His reaction is at once extreme and exaggerated, as seen in “Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content!” (3.3.351) and “Farewell: Othello’s occupation’s gone” (3.3.360).
Moreover, just as Anakin literally struggles between the light and the dark, Hamlet and Othello figuratively face the same conflict. For example, when Othello arrives to kill Desdemona, he does ‘with a light’ in the darkened bedroom, which dramatically poses him to be a self-perceived minister of justice. His complex gives rise to his declaration that “she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (5.2.6) as he eggs himself on to extinguish the ‘light’ of Desdemona’s life, which has inherent dramatic irony in contrasting how the symbolic light of justice is used to create an empty dark void where there was a life. This perhaps leads to the consideration of Othello’s self-indulgent delusion of his own role.
On the other hand, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is perhaps his very ability to analyse, at length, what happens around him, which gives rise to entertaining hesitation and ceaseless brooding over morality and mortality. A pensive young man who frequently indulges in lengthy soliloquies, Hamlet undergoes internal strife as he debates himself on the veracity of the Ghost, the ‘righteous’ act of punishing Claudius for murder and the fact that he himself would be deemed a sinner were he to commit the ultimate revenge in killing Claudius. Ultimately, despite taking up the responsibility of setting wrongs right in Denmark and protecting his father’s legacy, Hamlet weakens his nation’s position through his endless deliberation between rather unrestrained outbursts of violence.
Antagonists – Activating Hamartia
At the same time, the collapse of these three tragic protagonists is not completely unaided. There is an antagonist – a character in place to amplify the effects of their tragic flaw.
Anakin is constantly egged on by Palpatine, also known as Sith Lord Darth Sidious, who manipulates and activates Anakin’s fear of loss:
Palpatine: You have much wisdom, Anakin. But if I were to die, all the knowledge you seek about the true nature of the Force will be lost with me. Learn the power of the Dark Side, Anakin. The power to save Padmé. [Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith]
He thus manages to convince the Chosen One into leading the Jedi Purge — a genocide of all young children identified to have the potential to be Jedi — and helping to establish a neo-fascist rule of the Empire in the Galaxy. Palpatine’s influence is particularly seen in the confrontation between Anakin and (the second of two) Sith Lord Count Dooku in Episode III. In the previous episode, Dooku had chopped off Anakin’s hand in battle and here, Anakin overpowers him and holds him at lightsaber-point. Anakin hesitates as Jedi are not supposed to kill, as previously detailed, and yet, Sidious entices Anakin into acting on his rage and personal vendetta. Palpatine notes, “It is only natural. He cut off your arm, and you wanted revenge. It wasn’t the first time, Anakin. Remember what you told me about your mother and the Sand People” [Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith]. Palpatine’s role is reprised by the Ghost in Hamlet, who emotionally traps Hamlet by setting him expectations of his duty as a son and even a human, as seen in “If thou didst ever thy dear father love—…Revenge his foul and most unnatural mer” (1.5.23, 25) as well as “If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not” (1.5.81).
More similarities with Palpatine are to be drawn with Iago, who capitalises on his knowledge of Othello’s fears to drive him into destructive darkness and kill his love, as seen when he remarks that “the Moor already changes with my poison” (3.3.337). The effect of this is seen in the transformation of Othello’s language, especially in Act 4 and 5 when it breaks down into incoherent exclamations, such as in “Death and damnation! O!” (3.3.399) and “O blood, blood, blood!” (3.3.454). Furthermore, his speech begins to extensively mirror the vile nature-replete imagery of Iago’s soliloquies, such as “or keep it as a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in!” (4.2.61-62) which enhances the dramatic irony and tragedy of how Othello has fallen for Iago’s manipulation, just as Anakin’s delusions of grandeur in Episode III demonstrate how Palpatine has successfully entered his mind.
Peripeteia – Embodying the Evil They Despise
Eventually, through their own poor choices, as well as the presence of a key malignant influence, our heroes fall and this culminates in one defining moment of peripeteia.
Anakin’s ultimate moment of downfall is when he nearly chokes his wife Padmé to death, when she whimpers that she does not recognise him anymore (“Anakin, you are breaking my heart!”). Anakin’s peripeteia is heightened here as he becomes the very thing he swore to destroy and fatally chokes the very person he swore to save by learning the ways of the Dark Side.
As captured in his final monologue where he recognises himself as the ‘malignant Turk’ (5.2.351) – the dangerous enemy of the Venetian state – in defiance of his role as a protector of Venice, Othello too ends up becoming the enemy he has been sworn to defeat.
Similarly, Hamlet, who despises Claudius for committing murder, despises his own destiny for having to resort to murder (“The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!” (1.5.189–190)). Ultimately, after his overly-pensive tendencies yields nothing but a negative spiral, his mind gives into the violence and resigns to the fact that ruthlessness may be the only way to go, as seen in “Oh, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (4.4.65-66)
The harrowing element in the peripeteia is that the tragic heroes, once of noble intent and respectable stature, fall prey to their own flaws as well as circumstances and end up becoming the very evil they sought to destroy.
Anagnorisis – Final Moments of Reckoning
The presence of a moment of anagnorisis is also a common thread across all three tragic heroes’ stories, and one that contributes to deriving sympathy from the audience for the characters.
Devoid of any other acquaintances and indebted to Darth Sidious for saving him and enabling him to live on through his now-famous suit, Anakin becomes Darth Vader and resigns himself to serving the Empire. However, Vader’s moment of anagnorisis or awareness arrives at the end of Episode VI (Return of the Jedi), when he is wounded in a duel with his son, Luke, who will not flinch towards the Dark Side, despite Vader’s attempts to appeal to him. Vader sees his son — the last trained Jedi — be brutally electrocuted by Sidious and, in that moment, recognises that ‘there is still good in him(self)’, to borrow Luke’s words. Vader moves to do his part to redeem himself and kills Sidious, even though it injures him fatally, and he dies with dignity, re-becoming Anakin rather than remaining the machine that was Vader.
Othello’s final act of killing himself is comparable to this, as he attains awareness of the gravity of his actions and his violent rashness and decisively kills himself, wishing to be remembered as one who did ‘the state some service’ (5.2.351) and ‘one that loved not wisely, but too well’ (5.2.356). He seeks to do what he can to set things right and, in his view, what is ‘right’ is to uphold his state-sanctioned duty of removing anyone who threatens the order of Venice — in this case, himself. Just as Vader removes his mask to become Anakin again, Othello becomes eloquent and gifted in speech once again, reminiscent of what he was before the tragedy.
Hamlet’s anagnorisis occurs before the climatic sword-fighting scene, where he too is restored to his earlier self of calm after the tempestuous shifts in his mental state, as seen in his acknowledgement that “his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy”. (5.2.226) At the end, he says, “if it (death) be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now… the readiness is all.” (5.2.234-37) in which he finally relinquishes his incessant contemplation to free himself and act to kill Claudius, while embracing death himself, such that it allows Denmark under Fortinbras to start afresh.
Tragic Narrators – Remembering the Tragedy
Ultimately, just like how Horatio and Lodovico were on scene to record and relay the truth of Hamlet and Othello’s tragedies, Luke Skywalker’s presence ensures that Anakin’s final acts are not forgotten and facilitates catharsis, cementing his position as a tragic hero.
As one of the defining science-fiction franchises of the last century, Star Wars stands prominently in many of our memories. To understand now that there is a literary aspect to it perhaps sheds light on how literature, beyond the constraints of a syllabus and set texts, can be found in numerous realms of our lives and society. The Star Wars saga was a well-constructed tragedy sheathed in the action-packed TIE fighter chases and the incandescent glow of lightsabers, and, much like Shakesperean tragedies, serves to expose the harsh reality that even the most brave and most skilled of us are susceptible to unsettling downfall; their catharsis thus reminding us to take a good look at ourselves and assess our own fallibility.
Ashmore, J. (2006) Othello and Anakin. Lone Star College-North Harris English Department. Available from: http://www.lonestar.edu/18163.htm
Reeves, C.H. (1952) The Aristotelian Concept of the Tragic Hero. The American Journal of Philology, 73 (2), 172-188
Shakespeare, W., and E. A. J. Honigmann. (2001) Othello. London: Arden Shakespeare.
Shakespeare, W., Bate, J. and E. Rasmussen. (2008) Hamlet. New York: Modern Library.
Waiting to start university in fall, PRIYA RAMESH only first studied Literature while she was at Victoria Junior College but grew to treat her texts as gospel. When she isn’t nursing her existential despair by playing at being intellectual, she writes about football for FourFourTwo and The Guardian. She particularly enjoys works of dystopian fiction, is often prone to telling bad jokes, and could be an insect.
photo credit: vecteezy, Filipe de Carvalho