The Roots of Villainy: Medieval Rascality in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

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Spring 2014


Emperor Palpatine is one of the most famous screen villains of all time. This video explains what makes the Emperor so iconic, through reference to an important literary predecessor and the historical context surrounding the original release of Return of the Jedi (1983) in theaters. First and foremost, the Emperor clearly resembles Archimago from Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590) in several important ways. Both villains are evil sorcerer figures, whose feeble, elderly appearance belies their incredible "magical" powers. Furthermore, Archimago and the Emperor both reflect the important socio-political issues of their day. For the Protestant Spenser, Archimago represents the threat of Roman Catholicism to the Reformed English Church of Elizabeth I. Return of the Jedi, meanwhile, addresses its original audience's fears of nuclear annihilation through the Emperor's planet-destroying Death Star. In fact, the Empire in the film can be seen as an allegory for Cold War-era Russia. Finally, both the Emperor and Archimago prefer to manipulate others into achieving their evil aims, rather than performing their own dirty work. How many other modern movie villains have their roots in medieval and Renaissance literature?

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