The fear is strong in this one, says Tony-wan Kenobi.
Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the human condition. Most of his tragedies are still popular today because they show the lives of individuals who have everything they could possibly need for happiness, but are undone by one central and eventually all-consuming flaw. Othello is undone by jealousy, Macbeth by ambition, Romeo and Juliet by the rashness of young love, Hamlet by indecision.
But for the ultimate popular tragedy of fear, we have to look not to Shakespeare but to Lucas, and the story of Anakin and Padme.
Anakin is a child of unparalleled destiny, the Star Wars equivalent of a ‘great man’ in Shakespeare, but in the three Star Wars prequels, we get to see the growth of the emotional cancer that will undo his life, the lives of everyone he loves, and the lives of half the galaxy to boot. A child of slavery, he has preternatural skills that see him rise from obscurity to become the favourite of first Qui-Gon Jinn, then Obi-Wan Kenobi in turn (and there are tragedies in turn to be written of the hubris of both men), but Anakin’s path is ultimately guided not by the two would-be father figures in his life, but by the exotic and the stabilising forces of its women. Apparently ‘begotten, not created,’ he has never had a father figure in his life until Qui-Gon takes him under his wing, but his mother, Shmi, has been all the stability and wisdom he knows. Then he meets Padme Amidala, and a whole other mystery of women is if not unlocked to him, then at least released, set free in his mind and body – an admiration of her beauty and her kindness, her cleverness in setting up doubles to fool potential assassins, and her strength of character. Like him, she’s come from almost nowhere to a position of greatness, and is determined to use it while she has it for the betterment of her people. Like him, she may well be out of her depth, but she tries. Every day, she makes the effort to engage in the politics her people need, in an attempt to outflank the forces of the Trade Federation and its encroachment on her planet. For her part, Padme sees a simplicity, a quiet honesty in the young Anakin that allows her to simply be Padme the girl, not Amidala the queen.
Anakin goes away from everything he’s known in life for two reasons. Firstly, the thrill of the wider universe, as most distinctly embodied by the glamour that is Padme. But secondly, to become a great man who can return and free his mother from her bondage. When that great hope is turned to ashes, we see the beginnings of the dark side that will eventually overwhelm these doomed lovers. No victory against others, no mastery of his emotions will ever bring his mother back, and something that is brittle inside Anakin begins to crack with the death of his mother. When a man holds great power in his hands, beware the influence of the mundane tragedies of life. The pain of his mother’s death in spite of his power and greatness, that equalising mortality that touches even him, becomes a flame, a cold flame of fear in the man destined to bring balance to the Force.
As time moves on and Anakin grows up, while Padme, to be fair, appears not to age at anything like the same rate, the two become close on a whole new level, the padawan learner who sees the quick way to do everything, who knows he has more power in him than those who try to teach him things, finding calm and quietness in the former queen, now an ambassador. When they reconnect, Padme still finds Anakin to have that simplicity that comes from easy prowess, and that and his increasing power call to her, despite the dangers of their love in a galaxy still sleepwalking into darkness. Love is forbidden to a Jedi for purely practical reasons – strong emotional attachments unbalance the judgment, and make us do the wrong things for the right reasons, and vice versa. But as love grows between Anakin and Padme, so too does the fear in his heart, fanned by the whispers of his friend, Chancellor Palpatine. As strong as his love is, one day, it will all be turned to excoriating pain by the death of Padme, and more than anything in the cosmos, Anakin fears that pain, that galaxy-consuming pain and loneliness that comes when those we love die and leave us behind.
The rest of the relationship between Padme and Anakin is almost a philosophical play, she telling him that yes, one day she’ll die, and so might he, but that’s how life works for every ordinary person – the point is to live and love each other while they’re here and, as it turns out, pass a legacy of love on to their children. But Anakin can’t be soothed by the platitudes that apply to ‘ordinary people’ because for over a decade, people have been telling him that he isn’t one of them, that he’s special, and especially powerful. There must be something he can do, there must be. Like Coriolanus, or Julius Caesar, or even Doctor Faustus, he becomes more and more obsessed with one goal – in his case defeating death, not (and here’s the irony of immature fear) especially for the sake of Padme, but to save himself from the wailing, soul-ripping pain and loneliness of the loss of her. He lost one woman who was his whole world when he was just a child. He will not lose another now he is a powerful man.
The irony bites through their lives, but in seeking to do whatever is necessary to keep her by his side, he becomes more and more a stranger to her, and the simplicity and honesty for which she loves him is snuffed out by secrecy and darkness and an increasing willingness to do unthinkable things. In his quest to keep her, he changes into a man she wouldn’t want to keep, and he loses her while she’s still alive, a fact which pushes him over the edge into the depths of the Dark Side, and, like any lover spurned, he rages at the cosmos for the wrongness of things. Far from getting roaringly drunk and falling into bed with the first warm body he finds though, Anakin goes the intense route, embarking on a killing spree that seals his fate, and ultimately seals his broken, burning body in the bio-suit that gives the galaxy the face of Darth Vader.
Padme gives birth to her two babies and then – in true Shakespearean style – dies immediately, her heart broken by the enormity of her love betrayed, and never mind the raising of the children.
Ultimately, Padme and Anakin are a couple destroyed by fear and insecurity, and by an unwillingness to live in the moment of their happiness by one partner. They’re an object lesson in enjoying the now, and in making the most of every moment of shared happiness, rather than dwelling on the pain that some potential ending down the line might bring. The ending will take care of itself, as and when and how it will. But if you’re lucky enough to find someone who loves you, love them back today in any way you can.
NB – avoid the killing spree if you can. Just a tip.