Friday, December 7, 2018

Star Wars and the Question of Canon 2: Shakespeare in Space.

In my last post I raised the question of what type of story we are dealing with when we talk about Star Wars.  I believe there is an answer to that question, however, it involves a bit of effort to understand it.  The good news is we can use some old, familiar tools to do it.  Perhaps the best place to start is with the text and the author who helped Lucas and Co. structure the outline for the OT, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Using Campbell’s text as a jumping off point, I’d like to use it to help examine what kind of story the first trilogy really is, and why the answer to that question is so important in terms of the narrative coherence of both the characters, and the overall narrative events they find themselves in.

I’d like to argue that Campbell helps us to understand the characters as archetypes which contain certain literary echoes or resonances as part of their narrative ingredients.  It is precisely the existence of these echoes which accounts for why they seemed so familiar to audiences, even when they were seen for the first time back in 77.  I’d also like to argue that it’s these same resonances which should help determine the way we view the main cast of characters for the first three films.  It makes sense to think of the trio of heroes, and the two villains, as almost a re-shuffle, or recombination of old archetypes that have arranged elements of old, familiar plot devices and narrative twists into something that contains callbacks to works of the past, while still maintaining an artistic identity of its own.  
I’ve decided to focus on the OT and not the prequels.  The reason for this is has to do with a fundamental difference that I believe exists between to two trilogies.  For all the creative effort put into the prequels, they tend to come off more as technical, rather than any artistic achievements.  A lot of it has to do with the shortcomings of Lucas as a storyteller mentioned in a previous post.  The big takeaway there was that it is possible for Lucas to have creative ideas, but he always tends to have a difficult time realizing and fleshing these concepts out unless he has the assistance of other, more skilled minds.  The prequels are the best illustration of this.  Whereas the first trilogy was the result of several skilled talents working together to create something new and yet familiar, the prequels are a textbook example of uninspired invention over Inspiration.  

The idea comes in part from J.R.R. Tolkien, yet Tolkien himself seems to have derived the difference  between literary invention versus Inspiration from Coleridge’s dichotomy between Imagination and Fancy.  If that’s the case, then I would have to say that the difference between Invented Fancy and Inspired Imagination is what separates the bad, competent, or merely good, from the genuine works of art.  The OT qualifies as the latter, while to prequels are stuck in the former.  I also want to argue that just because an archetype in Star Wars may have made an earlier appearance in a work of fiction that is hundreds of years older, that doesn’t make the films uncreative, or mean that they are the same kind of artistic work as the stories they were drawn from.

Like I said, it’s all a bit involved.  However, if you’ll bear with me, it can also be pretty fun to think about.  Let’s start first with Prof. Campbell’s text, shall we?

On Archetypes, and their Appearances.

Perhaps it’ll always be a problem to summarize an idea that takes an entire book to describe.  The best short description of Joseph Campbell’s ideas comes from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is his statement of the most persistent theme in oral tradition and recorded literature: the myth of the hero. In his study of world hero myths Campbell discovered that they are all basically the same story, retold endlessly in infinite variation.  He found that all storytelling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth and that all stories, from the crudest jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the Hero's Journey: the "monomyth" whose principles he lays out in the book.  

“The pattern of the Hero's Journey is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time. It is as infinitely varied as the human race itself and yet its basic form remains constant. The Hero's Journey is an incredibly tenacious set of elements that springs endlessly from the deepest reaches of the human mind; different in its details for every culture, but fundamentally the same.

“Campbell's thinking runs parallel to that of the Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung, who wrote about the archetypes: constantly repeating characters or energies which occur in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures. Jung suggested that these archetypes reflect different aspects of the human mind — that our personalities divide themselves into these characters to play out the drama of our lives. He noticed a strong correspondence between his patients' dream figures and the common archetypes of mythology. He suggested that both were coming from a deeper source, in the collective unconscious of the human race (4)”.

It works as a base line concept for Campbell’s and Jung’s ideas.  All I would add is that I think the archetypes apply more to the mental – objective situation that the dreaming subject experiences.  In this definition, dreams, and hence, stories are essential due to the fact that there is always a corrective aspect to them.  In other words, archetypes, or stories, are the mind’s way of protecting itself from harm, even if it means protecting the subject from themselves.  This is an irony that might account for the way we simultaneously embrace and resent the best works of fiction.

There is one aspect of Campbell’s work that bears directly on the purpose of this post.  When Campbell uses the idea of just one hero who appears under a thousand, different disguises in all potential works of fiction, is he being serious or just hyperbolic?  With all due respect, I think Campbell is just a bit more cautious than that.  I think he knows better than to believe that the existence of the Monomyth means that every fictional hero that falls into this pattern is the exact same character.  While he does lay out a compelling case for the recurrence of certain elements in the Hero’s Journey, I don’t recall him anywhere saying that this makes all such myths one and the same story.

There is an upside to this, however.  Just because no two stories are alike, that's still not to say they can't be about the journey of the hero.  If this is the case, is it possible for the creative ideas and narrative elements that make up the hero figure in one story to be reshuffled and appear in a different story, while still maintaining an almost genealogical connection to the earlier source material?  For instance, the character of Gandalf in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is not the same type of character as Odin, from Norse Myth.  For some reason, that never stopped Tolkien from giving the character a physical description that is eerily similar to that of the mythical Lord of Valhalla.

I can't help thinking that what's going on in such cases is an imaginative process which transmutes certain narratives traits from one story to another.  This doesn't mean that Gandalf is exactly the same character as Odin, or that the character John Wayne plays from one movie to the next is the exact same character.  There are whole worlds of difference between a character like The Searchers' Ethan Edwards, and the figure Wayne portrays in both Fort Apache and Rio Grande.  The former is a precursor to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, while the latter is a disciplined and level-headed army officer.  One is crazy, the other is sane.  However, it is possible that the narrative elements that make up a figure like Edwards can be reshuffled into Travis Bickle while still maintaining a necessary level of separation between the two.  There are enough differences between the respective narratives of each film to qualify them as different, and yet the main characters in each share similar traits.

I believe something similar has been going on with the first Star Wars trilogy.  I think the traits of characters past are making a reappearance in the figure of the hero, and the two main villains.  Because of this, I'd argue we are dealing with an archetypal story that can bear a bit more digging into. 

Renaissance Echoes.

In tracing the creative genealogy of the main cast of Star Wars, what I'm most struck by is that I keep winding up at the same place.  Each of the major characters, Luke, Vader, and the Emperor, all have their own analogs in the works of playwrights who are considered among the best authors of all time. Specifically, the analogies boil down to four: Dr. Faustus, Macbeth, King Lear, and Hamlet.

If you're still reading, I know it sounds crazy, yet the more I study the nature of the hero and the two main villains, the easier it becomes to notice character traits or elements from the same three plays, one from Marlowe, the others from Shakespeare.  If I have to offer an explanation of this line of thinking, then all I know is that I read a lot, and like to think about what I've read.  Sometimes if you pay attention long enough, you begin to notice similarities emerging between characters in two or more differing stories.  The difference is I don't recall setting out to find the echoes between Lucas, Shakespeare, and Marlowe.  The funny thing is they just seemed to happen on their own.

The good news is I don't have to make this argument in a vacuum.  Others have noticed these Elizabethan traces as well. Among them are Ryan Britt at Inverse.  Even an illustrious  institution as the Folger Shakespeare Library devoted not one, but two pages to the subject.  What comes as a real surprise is that even the official Star Wars website would bring this idea up.

However, while these pages provide a good start, in some ways, they don't go far enough.  For one thing, they are too general.  They like to bring up the writings of the Bard and just apply them to the OT at random.  While I believe there is a thematic applicability to be had between the works of Shakespeare and the work of Kurtz and the Lucases, I also believe that they can't just be applied anywhere in the in the text.  For one thing, if you take one character or motif from a play, there is always the chance that you can misapply them to the wrong spot in the corresponding text.  The figure of Hamlet, so far as I can see, works when related to just one character.  It doesn't apply when discussing others, such as Leia or Han.

As I've said, the biggest echoes I can discover center around the hero and two main villains of the first trilogy.  That makes my task easier, as I have only three characters to examine in order to see how they reflect and transmute these echoes from the Golden Age of Drama.  The most obvious one to start with is:

Luke Skywalker: Denmark in Outer Space.

On the surface, they are two different people.  Everyone's favorite Jedi is just one citizen among many in an undefined, alien universe.  In fact, in terms of origins, he seems to be one of the most unremarkable.  He spends the majority of his growing up years in what amounts to a galactic equivalent of the sticks, and later on, in one novel, he is mentioned as having "that straight-out farm boy honesty (465)".  It makes him sound much closer to the main character of Stephen King's The Stand more than any other fictional character out there.  At least that's how it sounds in terms of setting and description.

Shakespeare's most famous character, on the other hand, belongs to a royal household in the medieval court of Denmark.  He is a part of the royal bloodline, which meant if nothing had got in the way, he would have been in line to inherit both throne and crown.  What he would have been like as a leader is unknowable from one perspective.  From a more symbolic approach, it's at least hinted that he might have done well.  The trouble is the events of Shakespeare's narrative got in the way.  That's sort of the trouble about being a fictional character, in order to hold the audience's attention, bad things have to happen.  The basic rule of thumb seems to be: the more messed up things get, the better your story will succeed.  So no, based on a surface examination, the two characters have nothing in common.

It's when you turn from a literal surface, to a more symbolic - thematic examination of both figures, that certain interesting parallels begin to emerge.  Perhaps it helps to gain perspective to realize that one of the basic facts about fictional characters is that they are not, in the strictest sense, fully formed personalities.  They are rather a collection of narrative ideas that gradually coalesce into the various protagonists and side characters in any possible work of fiction.  This applies just as much to the hero of Star Wars as it does to Hamlet.

In this case asking for similar personality traits can take us just so far.  A better idea is to ask what thematic traits both characters have in common.  The most apparent trait shared by Luke and Hamlet is that each starts out with a similar perception of themselves and the world.  This perception is not one of arrogance.  Instead, it is best described as Romantic.  If you want, you can borrow from the terminology of William Blake and describe Hamlet and Skywalker as beginning where any self-respecting hero should start, at a moment of innocence.  This state can be a liability if something should come along and smash it all to pieces.  This brings us to the second shared trait between the two.

Both characters experience a moment of crisis when their world is scattered into disorder.  The narrative question then becomes whether a new order can be made out of the new situation.  This seems to be one of the oldest aspects of creative fiction.  It could be that this search for order is what generates the narrative tension that keeps movie-goers glued to their seat, or the reader turning the page.  The irony is that the crisis for both characters involves sudden revelations that revolve around father figures.  In Hamlet's case, it's about what has happened to his father.  Lucas's character is all about who he winds up stuck with as a dad.  I'm pretty sure it does a number on the mental stability of both characters (to an extent anyway, if Hamlet's constant hesitations, and Luke's general behavior in ROTJ is anything to go by).

The important element is that neither character gets left hanging.  It is true that Hamlet qualifies as a tragedy, yet it is also something of a creative innovation.  While the main protagonist is dead by the end of the final curtain, he has managed to achieve something that sets him apart from most tragic heroes.  He has achieved a desired goal of deposing a tyrant from the throne, and found some measure of justice for the victim of a murder.  From this perspective, Luke manages to achieve a whole lot more.  Both have gone on from innocence to experience, and have gained a new sense of order from the ordeal.

I think the words of Bard scholar Theodore Spencer can offer the best insights here.  There is a passage in his work, Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, where he gives a description of the changes a character goes through.  Spencer is talking about Hamlet, yet I'd like to argue that the words apply just as much, on a thematic level, to the figure of Luke Skywalker at the end of the first trilogy.

"Throughout the fifth act, Hamlet is a very different man from the distracted undergraduate he was at the beginning.  At the beginning there was a horrible split between his view of the world as it should be and the world as it is.  At the end he is reconciled; and his reconciliation has both matured and ennobled him.  He sees himself no longer to in relation to...a vicious king; the immediate is replaced by the universal...

"...He is no longer in the tumult, but above it; he is no longer "passion's slave," but a man who sees himself as a part of the order of things...To be resigned, as Hamlet is resigned, is to be made, by experience instead of by theory, once more aware of the world's word's order.  The last time we know Hamlet emotionally, he has transcended his own situation; he is no longer a victim of it.  That is why we feel so moved, so in a way glorified...(108-9)".

Darth Vader: A Tension of Opposing Forces.

What makes this character interesting is that, on closer inspection, he turns out to be a literal study in unified contrasts.  There seems to be not one, but two Shakespearean echoes in this character.  The first one, Macbeth, at least sounds obvious when you think about it.  It isn't until you consider whether King Lear should be added to the mix that things get interesting.

Again Spencer can be of assistance.  The figures of Lear and Macbeth revolve around ideas of re-integration and dissolution, respectively.

"One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that although he uses the same materials for the achievement of size and universality in his great tragedies, he creates in each a distinctive and particular world.  In Macbeth, as in King Lear, the individual, the state, and external nature are seen as interrelated parts of a single whole, so that a disturbance in one disturbs the others as well - and yet the atmosphere and tone of the two plays are very different; we may say that Lear is a play that opens out, whereas Macbeth is a play that closes in.  Lear's sufferings end in release, but Macbeth, in the course of his career, becomes trapped by his own crimes, until he sees himself, at the end, as a captured animal...

"In Macbeth, there is nothing like the purgation of King Lear.  As the action of King Lear progresses the main character loses his bad qualities; in the course of Macbeth, the main character develops them...Macbeth grows into evil; that is why those critics are right who describe the play as a more intense study of evil than any other.  Unlike King Lear it portrays, not the whitening, but the blackening of a soul (153)".

The curious fact about Vader, however, is how the ideas of both blackening and whitening somehow come together.  When he first walks on-screen, he is already a caged animal of sorts.  Audiences at the time probably didn't expect much more from him than that.  That the character actually was able to develop beyond his initial starting point came as something of a revelation that is probably too old now to leave as big an impact on post-millennials the way it did in their parents generation.  Still, result was the same.  What audiences saw was a villain somehow whitened right before their eyes.

The original character of Vader seems to illustrate these two themes in one, single personality.  What Spencer describes as the blackening of a man's character derives from the classic Tragic structure associated with the figure of Macbeth.  In addition to this, there's also an interesting sort of counterpoint going on.  This is the idea of a kind of re-integration most often cited in connection with the figure of Lear.  The irony is that the basic idea behind both Classic and Elizabethan Tragedy is that of dissolution.  Something is rotten in Denmark, or Scotland, as the case may be, and the only solution is to dissolve the troublesome element. In Shakespeare's case, the rotten element is Macbeth.

In contrast, the theme of re-integration was generally connected to more upbeat stories, such as straight-forward tales of adventure, or narratives derived from traditional folktales.  From the time of Aristotle to Shakespeare, it was very rare for an audience to see a play in which elements from Tragedy and re-integrative Comedy were combined.  It is possible that the reason the character of Vader leaves such an impression is because he is the very expression of such a successful combination of both Tragedy and Integration.

The key to Vader's character is his initial set-up, followed by it's slow almost deliberate deconstruction.  He is a figure who is slowly taken apart as the three films play out.  He enters on an imposing note that strikes terror into everyone he comes in contact with.  By the end, he is revealed as someone who can barely speak above a whisper.

This presents an endless stream of ironies as we see him go through the motions of the story.  When the narrative is complete, the audience should be aware that when we first see him, no matter how imposing his stature, he is little more than a puppet on a string.  At the end, when he's at his lowest, he is also paradoxically asserting his own will for the first (and last) time in who knows how many years.

In this regard, the comparisons with Lear may become a bit more understandable when Vader is seen  as an element out of harmony with the larger universe of which he is a part.  In other words, the character is a microcosm in conflict with the larger macrocosm.  Those are two phrases I first encountered in the pages of Stephen King's book-length, non-fiction study, Danse Macabre.  It's an old concept, and it's to King's credit that he is able to get as much mileage out of these old terms as he does.  In particular, his studies of the works of Shirley Jackson, Bram Stoker, and contemporary authors like Anne River Siddons, Peter Straub, and Richard Matheson are all worth a closer reading.

For the purposes of this paper, however, it is somewhat interesting to realize just how old the macro/microcosm theory is.  Apparently, Shakespeare was using them even back in his day.  The one play where this dramatic device is the most visible on the surface is the aforementioned King Lear.

"(Caroline) Spurgeon's analysis of the imagery in this play brings out very clearly how closely interwoven are the world of Nature and the world of man.  There is "an overtone", she says, "running through the crisis of the tragedy, the fury of the elements, described, be it remarked, wholly in terms of the human body.  They are wild, fretful, unquiet...with these, the old king, with his heart-struck injuries, is contending, tearing his white hair...The destruction which Lear invokes in the elements to accomplish in the macrocosm, "that things might change or cease," actually occurs, of course, in the microcosm of Lear himself (140)".

"That is what happens in King Lear: everything is turned loose...and the instruments for which Shakespeare wrote his score are stretched to the limits of their tonal capacity.  Re-enforcement through expansion, expansion through re-enforcement, in the worlds of nature, of the individual and of the state, each inseparably linked to the others so that when one falls, they all fall - such is Shakespeare's technique in King Lear (141-42)".
Looked at from this perspective, then, Vader is an interesting kind of innovation.  He is a dramatic hybrid, combining elements in two disparate ideas displayed in separate Elizabeth plays.  The character is what you get if you take an epic, and a tragic dramatic figure and mash them into a new compound personality.

Like Macbeth, Vader is an addict for power.  The more he achieves, the less meaning life seems to have for him.  Like  Lear, however, his ultimate trajectory is one that takes a surprising turn upward, instead of straight down.  The catalyst for this change in direction is best indicated by Spencer and Spurgeon in the above quote.  The only thing that can initiate any kind of change (for better or worse) is for the character to be confronted a crisis which acts as a transformative agent of that individual's entire world.

The one sliver of stability comes from the fact that he has kids.  It is a fact which might come off as something of an impossibility for him, even if, or rather because of their existence.  It's a fundamental contradiction that a man like Vader could have any familial ties to hold him by a remaining tether of mental stability.  His parenthood is a fact that can't exist, and therefore the impossible becomes an undeniable reality.

While the big reveal about Vader in Empire is perhaps the most iconic moment in the OT, I don't think enough attention gets paid to how the news affects the man who delivers it.  This is a rather neat dramatic trick.  Since Vader is the one to make the revelation, it automatically focuses the audiences attention on the hero, while almost deliberately pushing villain out of mind, if not all the way out of sight.  Because of this, we don't take as much time to consider how the villain is mentally digesting this vital piece of information.  It could be that this is one of the finest and unsung examples of narrative misdirection done well in a work of fiction.  We are all given a clear picture of how the impossible message affects the main character.  What about the messenger?  What happens if you've dedicated your life to insanity, and then, one day, discover that you can't even escape into madness?

Space Faust: The Emperor.

I suppose it is possible to level the charge that of all the characters examined here, the over-arching villain of the Star Wars universe is the least complex.  When he makes his big appearance in episode 6 he is, perhaps, open to the charge of both acting and talking in cliches.

We learn very little about him, other than the fact that he's power mad, and has an ego the size of the Himalayas.  Aside from that, all he does is mull around looking sinister and issuing vague threats, and then delivering just one mode of attack before being quickly dispatched.

I would reply that if the figure of the Emperor is a walking cliche, then it still doesn't explain why the film accomplishes so much with so little.  The very first impression I was left with by the character on my very first viewing of the movie was a more or less superb sense of menace.  It seems clear the writers were aiming for as dark a character as they could get away in the parameters of the Far Away universe.  For me, the extent of their success is  measured by the fact this character probably marked the first time I grasped the basic idea (for lack of a better word) of evil as a concept.  I never had the words for it at the time, yet it always hit me near the end of ROTJ, and my thoughts would be something on the nature of: "Oh, so you're a bad guy.  Or, considering my age at the time, it would have been more like, "You're a very mean, BAD, man!"

Looking at the character today, I wonder if anyone appreciates the layers of dramatic irony about this individual. For one thing, it is obvious he has the skills necessary to be both a commanding and effective, albeit dictatorial, leader.  He must have some talent if he has been able to dredge up an entire army at his disposal.  The curious thing is how it all goes just so far.  There's something lacking in his mind that makes him unable to think around the necessary corners he needs to achieve his goals.  Instead, they can't exist for him because he fundamentally doesn't seem to know to to relate in participation to some pretty self-evident evident aspects of human nature.

For instance, he knows Vader as something like a power junkie whom he can keep hooked through the nose and back.  Stephen King puts their relationship into sharp perspective when we take into consideration these following words from The Drawing of the Three, "You may not like the candy-man, but you do love the candy, don't you (123)".  In addition, part of the power this character wields over his subordinate seems to be based on a sense of fear that is implied, yet never stated.  That the script has no need to drive this point home might be one of its unrecognized strengths.  Because of this, I'd argue that, aside from Vader, the Emperor is unique in that he is the one of the two characters in the OT who stands out for being the one, single element of the Gothic genre in an otherwise straightforward space fantasy.

I'd even go so far as to posit that the Emperor is the modern expression of another old archetype.  This archetype is best described under the label of the Faust figure.  This is a character of both ancient and modern literature notable for both the depth of his knowledge, and the reach of his ambition.  The closest Elizabethan analogue has to be Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus.

The Renaissance play tells the tale of a a German university graduate who enters into the typical deal with the devil pact, and who spends the majority of the story's action having to come to terms with the repercussions of his decision.  It's one of the most straightforward narratives in the history of literature.  The main reason for the survival of the play's reputation seems to be for a reason similar to that of Hamlet.  The audience is presented with a fictional personality that almost demands we pay attention and try to figure him out.

In terms of motivation, Faustus seems to be one of those character who are fundamentally abstracted from reality.  He is presented as one of the greatest minds in 17th century Europe, and yet his achievements mean very little to him.  For the majority of the play he seems to be in search of an ill-defined sense of satisfaction.  At the heart of the character is a single-minded desire to be the ultimate of everything.

Andrew Moore is a critic who perhaps comes the closest to laying out the themes that make the character resonate even in an age that lacks all the reference points of it's original audience:

"One might, then, interpret the magical contract administered to Faustus by Mephistopheles and signed in the sorcerer’s own blood as a metaphor for a more ordinary type of commitment. After all, despite the supernatural elements of Doctor Faustus, the protagonist gets himself into trouble by making a very common mistake: he imagines that having power will make him free. Faustus pursues magic because he wants to live a life unconstrained by laws, a life in which his will is unencumbered and uninhibited. He wants to transcend the laws of physics, to kill with impunity, to glut himself on pleasures, and to dominate other people.

"Early in the play, for example, Faustus describes the potential benefits of selling his soul in expansive, limitless terms. He wants to contract with Lucifer so that he might “live in all voluptuousness,” and have demon servants “To give me whatsoever I shall ask / To tell me whatsoever I demand, / To slay mine enemies and to aid my friends” (1.3.91-3). He goes further:

"Had I as many souls as there be stars,
I’d give them all for Mephostophilis.
By him, I’ll be great emperor of the world     
And make a bridge through the moving air
To pass the ocean with a band of men.
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributory to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany. (1.3.100-109).

"Faustus offers us a tempting vision of human freedom, that through our own cleverness or some kind of moral loophole we might be escape the consequences of our choices... The conjurer has convinced himself that freedom means a life without consequences, and that such freedom can be acquired through human genius. So thoroughly has he convinced himself of this that he believes he has tricked Mephistopheles into serving him, because though the demon and the power it promises are real, its place of origin and the source of its powers are somehow — probably — not. In this moment, Marlowe masterfully illustrates the mental gymnastics humans sometimes perform in order to reject the idea that our actions have necessary consequences.

"It is quite common for us, like Faustus, to believe that power and freedom are the same, and that by increasing our power we will increase our freedom. But, Marlowe’s tragedy consistently complicates this easy equation. That Faustus can only acquire his power by binding himself to the Devil is meant to illustrate the intractability of human limits. By transcending the traditional boundaries of the human condition, Faustus only succeeds in introducing new, more terrible limitations. This is not a liberation, so much as it is a substitution of one set of rules for another. Faustus imagines he can escape the bounds of the human condition to occupy some horizonless zone beyond the reach of gravity’s pull, somewhere where his will can operate unimpeded by obstacles. The impulse is seductive, and familiar to many of us. But through the image of the contract, Marlowe suggests such a life is not possible for humans; for humans, it seems, boundaries cannot be dispensed with, merely exchanged (web)".

Like Faustus, Lucas's character is a man held in thrall by his own desires.  Unlike Marlowe's character, he seems to have kept his goal for power and dominance  always in the forefront of his mind, and developed the skill necessary to achieve it.  However, he seems to face the same quandary as the unfortunate Doctor in that he can never shake an awareness of his own inferiority.  He is unable to find satisfaction in life because none of it holds any value for him. His entire life is of one of estrangement and alienation.  The irony is this turns him into a kind of human parasite who can only relate to the extent that he can dominate others.  In this, he is more of a slave than his apprentice.

Conclusion: An Elizabethan Epic in Sci-Fi Trapping.

In an attempt to discover what Star Wars is and why it matters as a work of art and entertainment, I have discovered a curious series of echoes between the original trilogy and four key plays of the Renaissance era.  This discovery was neither intended on my part, nor does it answer the question of whether these echoes are accidental, deliberate, or if they are even there to begin with.

In terms of the Shakespearean elements themselves, I don't recall setting out with them in mind.  The train of thought that led to their discovery was noticing the minor detail of visual similarities between the main characters of both ROTJ and Hamlet.  That moment of realization is the sole, discernible catalyst for the content of this post.  Seeing isn't believing, however.  So it was relief to find out I wasn't imagining things by discovering others had noticed the same Elizabethan resonances in the films.

As for whether these echo points we're intentional, I think the method of composition for the films can answer that.  As stated before, the behind the scenes details reveal that the OT is a patchwork quilt of different concepts and ideas contributed by multiple authors.  Several disparate ideas somehow managed to come together during the collective writing process to form a more or less cohesive narrative.  The ironic part is that certain elements consisted of archetypes drawn from classical and baroque drama.  Aside from the Shakespearean correspondences, there is the trio of main characters, who could form a potential symbolic triptych.

A Triptych, sometimes known as a Power Trio, are the narrative phenomenon of a main character backed by two supportive characters.  It's a trope or narrative device that can be discovered in other franchises.  What is noteworthy to an extent is the symbolic value that can attach to this particular device.  In classical thought, the triad can be a symbol for the three element of the human personality: the intellect, the psyche proper, and the appetites, or emotions.  These are the functions such characters can serve in a work of fiction.  In Star Wars' case, you could say that Leia is the intellect, Han is the the perfect embodiment of the passions, and Luke is the first person I that glues them all together.

Like all the other elements, the idea of the main characters ultimately forming a symbolic trio seems to have occurred more or less on it's own, with no one any longer able to say definitively who came up with the idea.  They seem to be elements of a story that was, to an extent, composing itself one slow bit at a time.  It is the very fact that these elements and archetypes appeared at all that leads me to believe that actual artistic inspiration was at work.  If that is the case, then the very existence of such imaginative inspiration is cause enough for me to argue that such works that can be called inspired deserve a certain amount of deference when it comes to how they are received by audiences.  This would include knowing when to leave well enough alone.  Still, this isn't that kind of a world, and you know what they say about beggars.

As for what this means in terms of any ultimate theme for the story, the best I can suggest is to bring back the two terms of micro and macrocosm.  Taken together, they describe an idea that also dates back to the age of both Shakespeare and Plato.  Once more it helps to turn to Theodore Spencer for good starting point on the subject:

"(In Shakespeare's day, sic) the commonest of all comparisons was that between man and the universe, between microcosm and macrocosm.  First mentioned in classical times, it became a () platitude, and as we look back on the sixteenth century it seems the most universal and most revealing symbol for the whole concept of nature's order and unity, and for the glorification of man's place in the universal scheme.  If, as Romei says, " is no other but a little model of the sensible image of the world intelligible," it becomes all the more important to understand man's nature and the essential role which speculation assigned to him (20)".

Ruth Leila Anderson provides the perfect description of man's nature and role as a microcosm in her Elizabethan Psychology and Shakespeare's Plays:

"The Elizabethan, whose mental habits were averse to abstractions, found in the doctrine...a concrete embodiment of psychological thought.  He considered man an epitome of the entire universe, a little world unto himself.  Inasmuch as man has a body composed of the four elements, he partakes of the nature of inanimate substances.  Like plants he has a vegetal power, and like beasts such powers as those of voluntary motion, appetite, and sensation.  His intellectual faculties - reason, understanding, and a will inclined to the pursuit of good - enable him to communicate with incorporeal natures.  To state the resemblances differently, the lowest part of the body corresponds to earth, the thorax or middle portion to air, and the head to heaven.  The series of relationships between man and the universe is extremely elaborate, for in him all natures are bound up together (61)". 

It is possible that what the OT films present is a sort of modern update of these two intertwined concepts, and hence the over-arching theme of the films is how a person can order their life in relation to the harmony of life, or whatever cosmic Force or forces that are ultimately responsible for it.  In this case, the ultimate theme of the OT would have to be along the lines of man's understanding of himself in relation to the universe and life in general.

We could even take this concept and reverse it by casting the films back all the way back into Elizabethan garb and its related concepts.  In such a play the Empire would be a medieval style kingdom, and the Force itself could be styled as something like the Macrocosm or any suitable stand in.  In Renaissance terms, Star Wars would be like Hamlet discovering he's not Danish at all, but Scottish, and that Macbeth, of all people, was his real dad, and that he is being held as kind of prisoner by Dr. Faustus.  The action of this alternate play would then concern Hamlet's attempts to both free Macbeth, and try and stop Faustus once and for all.  With this in mind, perhaps it's best we got the original trilogy and not such a strange, convoluted mash-up.

With any luck, however, perhaps the above mash-up does help to give at least some idea of how the first Star Wars trilogy is itself a kind of echo of earlier ideas and themes, as well as being a work that stands in relation to a larger literary tradition.


  1. (1) I've had a copy of "Hero with a Thousand Faces" for, like, twenty years now and have still managed never to read it. And I bought it for the Star Wars connection, of course!

    (2) "Whereas the first trilogy was the result of several skilled talents working together to create something new and yet familiar, the prequels are a textbook example of uninspired invention over Inspiration." -- I like the prequels more than you do (though probably not by much), but this is a very appropriate way of thinking about them.

    Personally, though, I think there's something to be said for a film that does well at invention even if there's an absence of inspiration. I'd argue that film is both an art and a (series of) craft(s), and that high-performing craft is always worth appreciating. There's a limit to it, I guess; but there's also a limit to high-performing inspiration which occurs in a vacuum devoid of quality invention!

    The sweet spot, obviously, is a film which works on both levels. And the OT is that, in my book, for sure.

    (3) Playing devil's advocate here, is it possible the the prequels operate on a different playbook that Campbell, but DO operate on a specific playbook that we simply aren't aware of? If so, I wonder if that would change anyone's mind about them?

    (4) That comparison (if only indirectly) of "Taxi Driver" to "The Searchers" is intriguing. I'd have never thought of that, but there's something there: two movies about unrepentant bastards who perform odd acts of heroism toward the end. Also, despite any similarities, two incredibly great movies.

    (5) Do you suppose Lucas studied Shakespeare at any point/ Or any other dramatists from that era? Not that he'd have had to; so many of Shakespeare's works became so firmly lodged in the cultural consciousness that one obviously need not have ever read (or seen) a word from him in order to be affected by him. Forever swimming in that pool of the cultural subconscious is ol' Willy S.

    (6) Could the argument be made that in the prequels, Anakin/Vader are Othello to Palpatine's Iago?

    (7) "I would reply that if the figure of the Emperor is a walking cliche, then it still doesn't explain why the film accomplishes so much with so little. The very first impression I was left with by the character on my very first viewing of the movie was a more or less superb sense of menace." -- It really is kind of amazing how well the Emperor works in VI. It's almost like he's not a character at all, but a pure distillation of evil. As that, he's awfully effective, in my opinion.

    (8) I have to admit, I can imagine an Elizabethan-style stage production based on the Star Wars trilogy working relatively well. There'd be some obvious challenges, but given how important the character dynamics are, I think it could be done. And adapting it into Elizabethan times would be an interesting way to go about it, for sure.

    (9) Great post! I'm enjoying these.

    1. (1) I'll admit there are still bits of that book, mostly in the second half (in particular a chapter titled, for whatever reason, "The Virgin Birth") where I'm just left mentally scratching my head and wondering what the heck is he even trying to say?

      Still, despite such passages, I'd have to say it's proven too darn useful to just disregard. I even got a copy with a photo of Hamill on the cover.

      (2) That's a good point. I really should have worked in the fact that, yeah, invention can have its place. If it didn't I doubt I'd still be reading Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels (basically Tolkien collaborating with Monty Python), or watching shows like "Darkwing Duck".

      The trouble is I didn't know if this would make a sideline issue that would take away from the topic at hand. I never meant to say invention wasn't of value, or anything like that. Decisions, decisions.

      (3)(6) The best I can suggest is that the basic classical Tragic setup would be the best possible model to follow, at least as far as I can see on that score. In that sense, seeing the devilish duo as part Othello and Iago respectively, does make a kind of sense.

      The trouble is, even if these were the templates they were working with, I'm not sure they were able to pull it off with any real success, at least not for me.

      For instance, when I think of what could have been made better, I just had this idea that Anakin should have been like this John Connor type, a great military leader, and make Obi Wan like this scared grunt under his command, and it is Anakin, instead of Ben who recognizes the other's abilities with the Force.

      In this scenario, the Jedi are all pretty much a thing of the past, yet there ar still fragments of history lying around, and both characters are able to find Yoda, who is already in hiding. He's reluctant at first, yet he agrees to train both of them, only it is Obi-Wan who begins to outstrip Anakin in prowess. This just fuels the latter's jealousy, making him easy pickings for the yet to be Emperor.

      This is a very streamlined version, and it's the best alternate idea I had. So...(shrugs).

      (4) I'd always assumed that the relation between "Searchers" and "Taxi Driver" was a kind of common knowledge in much the same way everybody seems to know the Campbell connection. I remember discussing that relation in a film class.

      (5) Mike Kaminski does highlight that Kurosawa was influenced by the Bard. And Lucas does mention the idea of "two clowns" coming from traditions "like...Shakespeare", so who knows? If the material was there waiting to be picked up from the start, that would be pretty darn interesting.

      (7) I think there are critics out there who probably don't appreciate the value of simple, yet well written villain. Why else do people still remember Vincent Price and Christopher Lee so fondly?

      (8) I wonder how people would react if it were done in classic Shakespearean style, i.e. no background scenery except the stage itself; occasional direct address to the audience etc. That would mean viewers having to really adjust their mental settings a bit.

      (9) Thanks, every little bit helps!


    2. (2) Movies are such a collaborative art form that in some ways, judging them by the same standards as you would Tolkien or whoever seems like a misstep. After all, you can always be reasonably sure that Tolkien's intent is being properly expressed. But the production realities of a movie bring up SO many questions, such as: what if a costume delivers the wrong message (as it relates to authorial intent), but there was some sort of a problem on the set that day which made it impossible for that not to happen?

      I don't mean to suggest that movies and other collaborative art forms should not be read using conventional means, of course. I'm a firm believe that they can be and should be.

      (7) I don't have the expertise to speak to this, but here's where my mind immediately goes: ancient forms of theatre were often (I say this assuming it is true, but not really quiiiiiite knowing for a fact) very basic, so that when a villain was presented, that was all you really needed to know about him. That he WAS a villain was good enough; no need to understand how he got to be that way. Palpatine -- even in the prequels, to be honest -- kind of fits that mold. So, I'd expect, do many of the more villainous of the characters Price and Lee portrayed.

      (8) It's an interesting idea, isn't it? I see no reason it couldn't work. I know there have been some outdoors stage productions based on "Star Trek" episodes (, and if that can work then surely this could, too.

    3. (8) Oh-my-gosh, I didn't even know this was freakin' thing!

      It certainly does boost the chances of some kind of Star Wars production succeeding. It reminds of something I pointed out once before, a one man show about the movie "First Blood".

      A good video review of this piece can be found here:

      One thing it does sort of make me curious about is whether it's possible to pull off something like Ridley Scott's "Alien".