Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back

Commentary by: Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

I ask you, Ian Doescher, who is this for?

The Empire might strike back, but I guarantee it doesn’t strike back quite as hard as two art-major Star Wars nerds who’ve spent a year in quarantine and have nothing but time.

That’s right, I am back with my friend Nora to dive into the second instalment in the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series, The Empire Striketh Back. The movie is one of the greats. This adaptation though…

The last thing you want your reader to ask as they make their way through the book is “who is this for?” and yet there we were, one Shakespeare scholar and one Star Wars scholar trying to make sense of which one of us this was made for. Short answer? We can’t say. Long answer? Let’s dive in.

Overall Impressions

Nora: I’m not angry, Ian. I’m just disappointed. 

Arezou: Ian, we just wanna talk. We have several questions for you.

Nora:I mean, where do we start? With lovesick, swooning Leia? With the racist rationale for Yoda speaking exclusively in haiku? With the anti-Semitic equation of Sith and Jews? (I’ll circle back to all of these.)

Arezou: I could – and will – elaborate at length about taking the first Star Wars movie that went beyond B-movie sci-fi to become much more tense, suspenseful and epic in tone and then robbing it of all of that.

Nora: A lot of the things that felt fun and cute in Verily, A New Hope really grated on me in this follow-up. We’re transitioning here from a one-off joke to a full-blown series, and it feels like maybe Doescher felt some growing pains in the process. For example, the minor-character soliloquies start to feel excessive, especially when every random creature seems to get one. Do we need the Wampa complaining that he didn’t get to eat Luke and the AT-ATs mourning their fallen comrades and the Exogorth complaining that it didn’t get to eat the Millennium Falcon crew? It’s too much. It’s too much! 

Arezou: Speaking of too much! One of the great things about The Empire Strikes Back is how it gets the action scene out of the way early (regular readers will know I don’t much care for action scenes, either on screen or in text), and the rest is all character development. Even the chase scene with the Falcon is character development for Han and Leia – which OH BOY do I have some feelings on. But in his determination to give every character (and in the case of the AT-ATs, object) a soliloquy, I swear the action scenes went on for far too long. Plus, deep dives into the perspective of the Wampa or Exogorth is best left to things like the FACPOV series, not to a retelling of the whole narrative.

Nora: On a similar note, what’s the end game of R2-D2’s English-language asides? There’s a hint in A New Hope that he has reasons of his own for choosing to speak in beeps and squeaks to the other characters. Is there a payoff coming down the road? Or is this a dead-end gag? 

Apart from feeling repetitive and unnecessary, the excess of soliloquies also kills a lot of the suspense. Lando tells the audience that he’s working with Vader right away (4.3.30-36), which demolishes the ambiguity and anticipation of the scenes in Bespin. Han and Leia spend a ton of time throughout talking to the audience about how much they love each other, which sort of kills the emotional journey. The result is that the payoff falls flat—and not just because Doescher messed with two of the most perfect lines ever written (we’ll come back to this, too!). 

Arezou: One thing we didn’t mention last time, and probably should have, was that everyone no matter if they’re Imperial like Tarkin or more “common” like Han, speaks in verse. Every single one. This book gives us our first prose-speaking character in the form of Boba Fett. The reasoning behind this, according to the Author’s Note is “who better to speak in base prose than the basest of bounty hunters”. Now, taking off my newly-minted Boba-Fett-stan glasses for just a second, I can see why he thought this was a good idea, but I will definitely dive into why I disagree with the choice below for canonical reasons.

Another thing I’m going to circle back to, is that utter lack of suspense. It’s not just because we know the story, but if I were to imagine this as a play being performed, I can’t imagine what on Earth the audience would stick around for when anything worth learning over the course of the story is spelled out for you in very lengthy soliloquies long before they’re supposed to become known.

Nora: I’m sorry to say almost all of Leia’s lines are about Han. This has the effect of reducing Leia to a fawning, puppy-eyed girl rather than a badass future general and current leader of the Resistance. I can only hope that Doescher redeems himself on this front later in the series. 

Arezou: Believe me, readers, we were this close to having a whole section just about Leia again. And in a way we do, as you’ll see. But we decided to leave off harping on her characterization for a second time, mostly because there really is nothing to say. It’s just not there. Her lone speech that isn’t about Han in some way is half about Lando and half about C-3P0?! Come on, Ian.

Canonical Comments – Arezou

The primary problem with this text, from a canonical point of view, is frankly the absolute lack of tension within the story, a story that when seen onscreen never loses that suspenseful quality no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

If you’re reading this book, it is safe to assume this is not your very first time experiencing the story of The Empire Strikes Back. Doescher is assuming this in any case, because significant plot points are so spelled out in advance that if this were the first attempt at telling the story it would be a poor one indeed.

One that Nora briefly touched on above is the reveal – in his very first lines, mind you – that Lando Calrissian is going to betray them to Vader. Now, we already know this going in, but it isn’t just that he hints that betrayal is inevitable. He’s basically dancing out of the building singing “don’t be suspicious”, before debating how exactly he should behave for maximum deception. That taints every single interaction the characters have with him. Though in the film Leia remains wary, we the audience are supposed to waver. Sure she’s nervous, but does she have any reason to be? Then when the deception is discovered we ask ourselves how intentional it was. Can the heroes trust his help now that it’s all over? But we never get that chance here. It’s all spelled out for us.

But the biggest problem is the removal of all the tension surrounding the character of Darth Vader, and specifically his identity as Anakin Skywalker. This is noticeable in two places. The first is when he is contemplating his pursuit of Luke Skywalker and muses to himself “This Skywalker must have some link to my life past” (1.7.50-51). Alrighty then. By this point in the story, you aren’t meant to believe there is any connection between the two other than Vader’s interest in Luke’s abilities with the Force. Until the Emperor tells him that he has reason to believe this Luke is the son of Anakin Skywalker, you never really know what Vader is thinking with regards to Luke. This exchange with the Emperor is also preserved: “–and I have no doubt this boy is kin to Anakin Skywalker” (3.2.33-34) followed by Vader saying in an aside “Yet that the boy is kin to Anakin I did not see” (3.2.38-39). Really?? You didn’t see?? Then what on Earth were you just talking about, with “my life past”. Ian, I have several questions.

Sandwiched between these two moments is a scene that I find so baffling and frustrating that poor Nora has heard me rant about it for far longer than the scene would take to read. Act II scene 6, a scene that is 35 lines long, is the moment in the movie where Admiral Piett walks in on Vader putting his helmet on and tells him they’ve found the Falcon. This is a very brief exchange and yet we have, you guessed it, another soliloquy. But not some personal reflection of Piett’s on how he needs to stay alive or anything. No, here we have him spotting the back Vader’s head and ruminating on the mask he wears both literal and figurative! So here’s the thing.

The beat in the movie is so fast. Like SO fast. Just as you’re saying “wait, what, there’s still a guy in there?”, the helmet is on and it’s back to business. We don’t really get to see Vader’s face until Luke removes his helmet moments before he dies, as he turns to the light. That is the first time we view him as a conflicted man, rather than a mechanical monster. Contrast this to how we meet Kylo Ren in the films. This character could have been Vader-lite if he hadn’t removed his helmet so early in his first movie. But in doing so, we get a pretty clear visual representation of his figurative mask that he wears beneath the literal one, all playing out on his face. Essentially, exactly what we see Piett saying here. Only thing is, this isn’t what we’re supposed to be feeling yet. If we sympathize with him now, then how will we feel horrified when we finally hear him tell Luke he’s his father? If this had come out after The Force Awakens I might have thought Doescher was trying to Kylo Ren the whole thing, but it came out the year before, so it leaves me scratching my head.

The final canonical note I want to touch on is something I mentioned already above and that is Boba Fett and the way he speaks. If we’re going solely based on The Empire Strikes Back then yes, I can understand why you view the character as base. But Doescher published this in 2014. He has the advantage of Attack of the Clones existing for his viewing pleasure. Look at the environment in which Boba spent his childhood. Look at how his father speaks, particularly to Obi-Wan. This is not an uneducated street rat of a man. I’m not suggesting he speak with purple prose that would be out of character. All I’m saying is that by giving him the prose and keeping someone like Han in verse, Boba is being situated “below”, made somehow more base than the scoundrel he is chasing. To Nora’s point below, it also makes me wonder how the other clones as well as Jango Fett will be treated when we meet them in a few months time.

Technical Comments – Nora

I said last time that Doescher sometimes prioritizes metre over poetry, and I feel the same way here. There’s very little (if any) experimentation or variation – even when it would be warranted. There are two significant departures from blank verse, however: Boba Fett speaks in prose—the only character to do so—and Yoda speaks in haiku. The former choice is interesting mostly because of what it implies for future installments in the series: will all the clones speak in prose? 

Yoda’s haiku are another matter. Doescher is at pains to justify this choice to his readers in the “Afterword:” “Yes, I know: Shakespeare never wrote in haiku. […] And yes, I know: the five-seven-five syllable pattern I adhere to in Yoda’s haiku is a modern constraint, not part of the original Japanese poetic form. Most haiku are simpler than Yoda’s lines and do not express complete sentences as Yoda’s haiku do—I know, I know!” (166-67). None of these issues bother me, particularly; what does bother me is Doescher’s invocation of Yoda’s “eastern sensibility” and his assertion that “making all of his lines haiku” helps to “express” the ways in which “Yoda is […] almost like a sensei” (166). In case we were ever in any doubt that it was a white guy writing these things, here’s a pretty strong indicator. 

For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate the difficulty of distinguishing Yoda’s speech when allof your characters are approximating early modern poetry, and therefore just about everyone is already playing with syntax in the way that Yoda does in the movies. The haiku are twee, but I don’t think they’re necessarily problematic of themselves —it’s the reach to “eastern sensibility” and its associated “wisdom” that makes this choice an Orientalist trope rather than merely a playful bit of poetry.  

Doescher creates a similar problem for himself with Darth Vader’s soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 7, which draws upon a well-known speech by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

–Hath not a Sith eyes

Hath not a Sith such feelings, heart and soul,

As any Jedi Knight did e’er possess?

If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you

Blast us, shall we not injur’d be? If you

Assault with lightsaber, do we not die?

(1.7.32-27)

And so on. I feel compelled to point out Mr. Doescher that being a Sith is not at all the same as being Jewish. If you want to humanize a villain using a well-known speech from Shakespeare, you actually have a lot of options. Richard III! Iago! So! Many! Options! Equating choosing the Dark Side with being Jewish is just deeply, deeply anti-Semitic. If you don’t understand why, please go do the reading and then come back. 

On a more pedantic note, there are some odd moments that stick out to me, as someone who spends an obscene amount of time reading early modern plays. Some of the stage directions are a little funky.  When Luke is in the Wampa’s cave in Act 1, Scene 3, for example, the stage direction reads: “Enter LUKE SKYWALKER, hanging upside down from balcony.” First of all, how does one “enter” while “hanging upside down”? More likely, this kind of entrance would actually be a “discovery,” where a curtain is drawn back and a tableau is revealed, already in place. Early modern theatres actually have a dedicated space for this type of setup, appropriately known to modern scholars as the “discovery space.” This is an opening at the back of the stage that leads into the tiring house (backstage area), which is normally covered by a curtain. This is, for example, the “arras” that Polonius hides behind (and gets stabbed through) in Hamlet

But even beyond that, you wouldn’t really see the word “balcony” in an early modern stage direction—mostly because there’s no evidence that they referred to the railed platform above the stage as a balcony. We mostly see it referred to as a “gallery,” instead, and stage directions that refer to it tend to use the term “above.” See, for example, the so-called “balcony scene” in Romeo and Juliet (Act 2, Scene 2), in which a balcony is never once mentioned. 

Similarly, in Act 1, Scene 5 of The Empire Striketh Back, a stage direction reads: “Enter ZEV aside, flying.” “Aside,” in the early modern theatre, is a really specific term that means a line that only certain people are supposed to hear. An aside might be only to the audience, or it might be to another character. When stage directions call for actors to enter in disparate parts of the stage, they usually use the term “apart.” This is niche, and petty, and I’m probably belabouring the point, but it bugged me.  

Don’t F*ck With Genius

Nora: No, I’m not talking about messing with Shakespeare. Who cares, he’s dead, and a lot of the plays aren’t that great anyway. Yes, that is my professional opinion. 

No, I’m talking about obliterating one of the single greatest romantic exchanges ever to grace a screen. I’m talking about the two lines that, perhaps more than any others, have inspired otherwise vanilla couples to test out a little bedroom role play. I’m talking about that pinnacle of emotional payoffs: 

Leia: I love you

Han: I know

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Doescher ruins it. How?! I hear you ask. How could he possibly destroy such an iconic, beautiful, perfectly simple and yet unbearably heavy moment? Reader, I do not know. 

Arezou: I do. He ruined it with soliloquies.

The closer we got to this scene, the more apprehensive I got. Every other dialogue exchange resulted in monologues that went on for way too long, even when it was something that should have been a quick exchange or even total silence, like with Piett’s scene mentioned above. So I went into that carbon freezing chamber on Bespin fully prepared for “I love you/I know” to transform into two very long, overwrought confessions of love that Darth Vader and Boba Fett would for some reason be very happen to stand around and listen to. Such was my relief that that didn’t happen, that I didn’t even clock how flat this line falls the first time around.

Nora: I suspect that, if we asked him, Doescher would try to make this a verse issue. I am here to tell you that “I love you. / I know.” works perfectly well as an iamb (light-strong) followed by an anapest (light-light-strong), which is a construction that Shakespeare uses pretty regularly. In addition, there are lots of verse experts who would say that—particularly in his earlier plays—Shakespeare’s characters tend to use messed-up verse when they’re experiencing strong emotions. Strong emotions like, perhaps, knowing you might never see your love again because one of you is about to be frozen in carbonite?? Yep, emotions like those. So it’s well within the realm of poetic possibilities for this to be a half-line with an anapest. That wouldn’t even be the weirdest thing Shakespeare ever did with verse. 

But apart from any of that, Doescher just makes the line bad. The beauty of “I love you. /I know.” is its simplicity, the emotional weight of their entire relationship up to this point condensed into five words. The stakes of it are so flippin’ high, and they have only seconds to get the message through. “O, I do love thee wholly, Han” sounds more like teenage Juliet on her non-existent balcony than like Leia, a commander who has lived her entire adult life in war. 

Just try to picture Carrie Fisher hurling that line to Harrison Ford in a wave of fear, anger, and sorrow, the way she does so beautifully in the movie. You can’t. You cannot do it. Because it’s a terrible line. 

Arezou: Let’s talk stakes and strong emotions for a second. Part of what makes this line so beautiful is the desperation of it. You can feel the emotion building to a boiling point, within Leia, made all the more prominent because everything about Han indicates that the man has given up. The body language is defeated, he doesn’t have a witty comeback. They just tortured him and didn’t even ask any questions. This is a man who knows its over and there is no point. Whatever he feels for Leia, there’s no point in telling her. As far as he knows he has seconds left to live, so why saddle her with that?

Then we have Leia. Her entire future is in flux, her life after this moment is so up in the air she doesn’t know if she’s going to have to live on Bespin forever or end up back in the clutches of the Empire. Everything about her fate is, as far as she knows, in the hands of others. But her feelings, her heart and who it belongs to, those are things she can still control for the time being. And so, as her emotions hit that boiling point, in a last minute move, the last she might ever get to make for herself, she simply tells Han “I love you.”

That’s some good shit right there.

Up above, I went on and on about the lack of suspense throughout the book, and unfortunately Han and Leia do not escape unscathed. They spend most of the movie together, and are snarking at each other almost the entire time. It’s that crackly banter that makes them such a memorable couple. The appeal in their banter – and in similar dynamics in other pieces of media – is that while the words themselves are indifferent or even rude, it is what they are not saying that reveals where their hearts lie. The space in between the words to so speak. The line “Captain, being held by you isn’t quite enough to get me excited”, doesn’t look like the thing a woman wrestling with her feelings would say. But the way she says it? That tells another story entirely.

Some of their banter absolutely works. Act III scene 1 in particular gives me some strong Beatrice/Benedick vibes (sorry Nora, I know you don’t like Much Ado About Nothing!). In small doses this dialogue is fine. But the problem is that ALL of their dialogue is like that. They are constantly openly flirting with one another and using the word “love” in their asides to the audience! Love!! Why do we know about the love they have before they tell the other?

If Doescher wanted to add some flavour to his ceaseless soliloquies (and hey, maybe even give Leia some character growth?) then he might have made at least some of her asides about how she’s afraid to let herself fall in love because literally everyone and everything she has ever loved blew to pieces. Can she trust her heart with another again, and let down her walls? Give her a little conflict! Take the implied and make it explicit! But then, we’d have to cut the Wampa speech and we can’t have that.

Nora: If it absolutely had to be more Shakespeare-y, he could have just done “I love thee.” That would’ve worked. That would’ve been fine. Instead, we have this overwrought nonsense. 

Arezou: Imagine for a second if he’d decided not to change a thing. Just keep it as “I love you/I know”. It doesn’t fall in at all with the meter that comes before or after. It would be jarring. And therein lies its power. The moment takes the audiences breath away every single time, and that would have been his opportunity to do it in text. But no. We can’t have nice things.

***

Next month we wrap up our look at the Original Trilogy with The Jedi Doth Return! Join us then!

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

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