Commentary by: Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams
In time so long ago begins our play; In star-crossed galaxy far, far away…
We all knew this was coming. It was only a matter of time before I started covering the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series by Ian Doescher. In a new feature, once a month the Biweekly Book Review will be covering one of the books in this series, in between the newer releases!
But in an exciting turn of events, I won’t be diving into this alone! I am delighted to say I will be joined by my university friend Dr. Nora Williams, a Star Wars fan and all around amazing human with a PhD in Early Modern Drama.
We’ll be going in release order rather than story order, so let’s kick things off with the first volume: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars; Verily, A New Hope
Arezou: I laughed out loud when I first saw these books at the store, because really, on at first glance it’s quite funny to imagine campy sci-fi served on an English Lit 101 plate. But the longer I sat with it, the more natural it seemed. Both Star Wars and Shakespeare are such widely known cultural touchstones in the English speaking world. How many of us have referred to one or the other – or possibly both – when trying to make a larger point about storytelling, because that’s what our listener would recognize most readily?
Nora: I love the idea of this series and of combining two such recognizable and beloved entities. Star Wars tolerates a high level of camp and silliness, as does Shakespeare, so overall it’s a good marriage. The illustrations are great fun—kudos to Nicholas Delort for hitting the right balance between recognizable Star Wars characters and vaguely ‘Renaissance’ costume elements.
I particularly liked the idea of adding soliloquies for characters like Darth Vader and R2-D2 (although, as I’ll mention again later, I was disappointed that Leia didn’t get much solo time with the audience. (Get it? “Solo.”)). These added a great bit of originality to a text that otherwise replicates the film almost shot-for-shot. I also loved the idea of R2 as a deep intellectual who chooses only to communicate in beeps and squeaks for his own ends.
Arezou: Although I strongly dislike the way Leia gets overlooked, I will say, that I’m glad he took advantage of the way the medium allows for multiple soliloquies to expand on characters that otherwise don’t get a lot of time and probably should. The one I’m thinking of in particular is Uncle Owen’s soliloquy (1.4), which I’ll talk about a bit more below.
I know for many the appeal of Star Wars lies in the pew-pew and the space battles and the action, but what always strikes a chord with me is the characters, their personal journey and their interactions with others. Shakespeare’s style doesn’t really lend itself to extended fight scenes – not that Doescher doesn’t try, which we’ll see – so I really went in expecting a lot of characters self-reflection, which we definitely got.
Nora: There are some really fun callbacks to Shakespeare’s plays, including the opening sonnet-chorus from Romeo and Juliet, and a mash-up of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’ from Julius Caesar with the St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V in 5.4. That latter speech, in particular, positions Luke as a “leader of men” in a way that the film doesn’t quite, I think—interesting to see that development through the use of speeches and soliloquies. It does make me wonder if Doescher intended to stop after this first book, because he does kind of go for broke on the Shakespeare references here—pretty much every famous speech gets a nod somewhere.
Arezou: Since my first year of university, I haven’t really had to read or engage with Shakespeare on a critical level. The most I’ve done is passively watch adaptations of some of his work. So when we say that he’s really going for it with the references, we mean it. And they are obvious. I haven’t even read Henry V and I recognized the St. Crispin’s Day speech. For crying out loud, after the Chorus does their title crawl prologue, the first line is “Now is the summer of our happiness/Made winter by this sudden fierce attack”. This parallel to the opening lines of Richard III is so clear, that as soon as I read it I thought “Oh it’s that kind of adaptation.” I’m curious to see if he maintains this degree of well-known callback or scales it back once it becomes clear he’s going to write more of these.
Nora: It was also really interesting to see how Doescher developed a story that is a textbook example of the three-act structure into a five-act play. I did think that the ‘second act’ of A New Hope took a while to get going—we didn’t even get Luke and the gang onto Vader’s starship until Act 4—but otherwise I think it mapped surprisingly well.
Arezou: Whenever I had to teach three-act structure to high school students, I would use A New Hope as my frame of reference (whenever the kids had actually seen it, that is). That said the translation to five-act went over pretty smoothly thanks to the changing set pieces within the story, even if some of them turned out pretty short, and others felt longer than they should have.
Nora: I also note that Doescher takes absolutely no stance on the “who shot first” debate in the Han/Greedo cantina shootout (3.2). The stage direction just reads “They shoot. Greedo dies.” That’s an appropriately brief direction for a Shakespeare-style play, so I guess the debate will rage on!
Technical Comments – Nora
While it’s impressive that Doescher was able to sustain iambic pentameter over 3,076 lines (172), I did feel that sometimes he prioritized metre over poetry. By that I mean: even Shakespeare doesn’t marry himself to that steady, repetitive metre for the length of an entire play! There are certain lines that feel stilted or awkward because they’re crammed into the iambic pentameter, and the metre sometimes suggests alternate pronunciations that don’t exist elsewhere in the universe (see “Coruscant” scanned as “Cor-oo-scant” rather than the more usual “Cor-oo-scant” in 1.6.3). It also could’ve done with a scene or two in prose. In fact, I would’ve been really excited by an approach that thought about which characters might speak in verse versus prose, and under what circumstances. What if the Imperial register felt more stately and restricted, while the Rebellion’s verse felt freer? Or perhaps Leia—princess, diplomat, future general, overall badass—might speak in verse in her official capacity but in prose with Han and Luke? It will be interesting to see how Doescher’s verse style develops as the series goes on; he may, like Shakespeare, start experimenting more in his later works.
We typically say that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed, not to be read. I think we could complicate that idea a little bit (after all, the plays usually survive to the present day in the form of texts designed for readers!), but: this strikes me as a text written with readers rather than actors in mind. One reason for this is that the Chorus seems to take on an explanatory role much more often than we see that in early modern plays. While Shakespeare’s most famous Choruses (Henry V and Romeo and Juliet) do provide summaries of the action, they don’t typically describe action that we would be able to see with our own eyes, or gloss the characters’ emotions. Doescher’s Chorus does just that, however; see, for example, his comment on Luke’s first encounter with his father’s lightsaber:
Now holdeth Luke the weapon in his hand,
And with a switch the blade explodes in blue.
The noble light Luke’s rev’rence doth command:
That instant was a Jedi born anew.(2.2.58-61)
Particularly the line about the “Luke’s rev’rence” strikes me as explaining an emotional state that a theatre or film audience would be able to see through the actor’s performance. This isn’t necessarily a critique; it’s just interesting to note.
Canonical Comments – Arezou
The text doesn’t mess too much with Star Wars canon, it’s a fairly straightforward retelling of the story. There are however, little moments that jumped out at me.
This book decides to include Han’s confrontations with both Greedo (3.1) and Jabba (3.3), the latter of which is something added in the special editions. As someone who doesn’t mind the special edition DVD’s (I especially like the inclusion of Hayden Christiansen as Anakin’s ghost) the one scene I could’t wrap my mind around was the inclusion of the Jabba scene. First of all, it removes some of the mystique surrounding him, it lessens the stakes of Han’s conversation with Greedo and on that note, it’s also the exact same conversation a second time. Han’s line in the film, “even I get boarded sometimes. Do you think I had a choice?” is repeated twice, as is his line in the play: “even I from time to time have boarded been. Dost though believe that e’er I had the choice”. Doescher makes the meta-textual joke here, by having Han say that he’s already said this once before, but it’s so blink-and-you-miss it. Also interesting that he takes the approach of definitively going with the special editions as far as these scenes are concerned, but as Nora said, doesn’t take a stance on who shot first!
Though neither of us cared for the exclusion of Leia when it came to who got a soliloquy (more below) I will say I love that Uncle Owen got one. Leia’s identity onscreen is wholly separate from her biological parents. She has Bail and Breha’s last name, she is fully a part of Alderaanian society. She is, without question, their daughter. Luke, on the other hand, has retained his father’s last name rather than taking on the one of the family that actually raised him. Therefore it becomes a lot easier for the audience to forget that Owen and Beru are the ones that raised him, that made him the man he is. They’re the ones who loved him, bandaged his scraped knees and took him to Tosche station before he was old enough to drive himself. All this to say that I loved Owen’s monologue reflecting on giving up his own dreams to raise Luke and create a stable home for him (1.4). Darth Vader might be your father, Luke, but Owen is 100% your dad.
Nora: When I saw Vader’s first little soliloquy in 1.2, I immediately started fantasizing about a Leia soliloquy (or several). What an opportunity to build up a character who is beloved of so many but doesn’t get as many lines as the dudes in the movies!! Alas, my hopes were dashed. While Vader, R2-D2, C-3PO, Luke Skywalker, Uncle Owen, Obi-Wan, random Stormtroopers, Grand Moff Tarkin, and Han Solo all have soliloquies and asides—that is, moments when they speak directly to the audience—Leia has not a single line alone on stage or in confidence with the audience until 5.1. Even in that scene—her first opportunity for direct address in the entire play—she shares the stage with Luke, and Doescher draws a equivalency between Luke’s loss of Owen, Beru, and Obi-Wan with Leia loss of *checks notes* her entire planet including her father and the leadership of the Rebellion.
Arezou: A never-ending source of annoyance to me is the way Luke’s loss of 3 people – two of whom were his parents in practice if not in name, sure, but the third of whom was a guy he knew for…hours at most? – is given more weight that Leia’s loss of her home, her family, everything and everyone she’s ever known. At least she has some opportunity to lament her loss in this when she does not in the film, but I really resent the way it’s sandwiched between Luke’s similar laments, and the conclusion drawn is that both are bad, but Leia is resolved to pour her grief into helping Luke through his?? I understand that Luke is the protagonist of the story, he is the audience’s guide and he is the one whose origins we got a glimpse of. In 1977, we had seen Owen, Beru and Obi-Wan, but had no context for Alderaan, Queen Breha, Bail Organa or their role in building the rebellion, so I can reluctantly admit that from an audience standpoint, it might feel more natural to sympathize with Luke because we have experienced his loss as well to an extent.
But Doescher is at an advantage – he’s writing this in 2013. The Disney acquisition is on the horizon, the prequels are not only out, but are currently being rewatched and appreciated by an entire generation that either dismissed them or grew up feeling ashamed of loving them. By this point, most are familiar with Bail Organa and his role in the rebellion at the very least. Arguably, we are more familiar with Bail than we are with Owen and Beru (is my “Bail Organa is the best – and hottest – dad in the galaxy” bias showing? It might be), so why not grant a little more time to Leia allowing her to feel her loss. You can tie it back in to Luke and his struggle at the end if you absolutely must. That might actually be really in character for Leia, who we know canonically tends to put literally everyone else’s problems ahead of her own.
Nora: I’m salty about this partly because I’m writing a book at the moment about the misogynist dramaturgies of Shakespeare’s plays. My basic argument is that early modern plays tend to support patriarchy through their very structures—their “bones,” as it were—and as much as I like a lot of elements of Verily, A New Hope, I do have to note that it falls right into that very same trap. Moments of direct address like soliloquies and asides create opportunities for the audience to peer inside a character’s mind, and to access their inner thoughts and feelings. When certain characters get those opportunities and others don’t, that’s a choice that the playwright makes, and it has consequences for how we are invited to see and understand the characters. I mentioned before that the play positions Luke as a “leader of men” by giving him its equivalents of Shakespeare’s infamous battle cry speeches, like the St Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” etc.). He also gets the most introspective speeches, like Doescher’s equivalent of “Alas, poor Yorkic” from Hamlet. Why not give that speech to Leia, who has been with the Rebellion for more than a hot second and has lost on a scale that Luke, at this point in his hero’s journey, would struggle to comprehend? Why do droids get more opportunity to develop their subjectivities through direct address than Leia?
While we’re here, I was actually a little annoyed that the big St Crispin’s Day, rallying the troops speech didn’t go to Leia, who has actually taken up a leadership position as a result of her father’s death on Alderaan. It felt jarring to me that Luke had suddenly stepped into that role just by virtue of what? being sort of a Jedi? as of five minutes ago? I don’t know. I would’ve liked Doescher to take the opportunity to give Leia more of a role, especially given all the development she’s had in the universe since the original trilogy’s release.
Arezou: This is another of those things I’m interested in watching develop through the books. Will Leia stay in the background or take a more prominent role as she does in the films? Another huge missed opportunity, which granted would have taken liberties with the text of the film – but then again R2-D2 talks so I guess we aren’t worried about that – would be to give Leia her big introspective monologue right after the Empire tortures her. Though she gets absolutely no time on screen to process her torture, or the fact that the man who ordered it done was her biological father, I’d argue the moment is hugely important for who she is as a character down the line. This is one of the reasons she cannot ever bring herself to truly forgive Vader and accept his redemption (oh look, I brought up Bloodline again), and I’d also argue that seeing a man so far fallen to the dark that he cannot recognize his family in the Force is part of what terrifies her about her son’s fall to the dark later (oh and I brought up Ben Solo. You’re all shocked I’m sure). I know Doescher didn’t know any of this at the time, the Bloodline or the Ben stuff, but it is an indication of how little the text of the film considers Leia’s struggles important, that it is so easy to bypass the torture and resulting internal struggle of one of your main characters.
Join us next month for our next instalment: The Empire Striketh Back.
Special thank you to my collaborator on this series:
Nora is a Lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama and Literature at the University of Essex. She is currently working on her first book, Canonical Misogyny: Staging Sexual Violence in Early Modern Performance. You can follow her on Twitter @noraj_williams