Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return

Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

We’re Not Mad, Just Disappointed: A Star Wars Story

It’s that time again.

Time for Nora and I to read a for-fun adaptation of a well-loved classic, and take it far too seriously. But you know what? Something being for fun is absolutely no excuse to not put any thought into it. Or to put really weird thought into it.

In any case. Star Wars: The Jedi Doth Return.

Overall Impressions

Arezou: I should probably start by saying that my expectations were simultaneously too high and also at rock bottom because Return of the Jedi is my favourite of the Original Trilogy movies.

Nora: I want to be mad, Ian, but really I know this is my own fault for getting my hopes up. There’s just…there’s just so much wrong. 

It’s not like Star Wars movies are especially notable for their scintillating dialogue, but there are a few really great lines, and Doescher botches almost every single one (including the reprise of I love you / I know). I will give him credit for handling the first part of Yoda’s death scene well (2.2)—but it works mostly because Doescher doesn’t stray too far from the movie version of the scene—that is, until Yoda actually dies. At that point, the scene sort of falls apart, a victim to over-long speeches and poor pacing. Immediately after Yoda’s death, for example, Luke gives a despairing monologue: ‘O Fate, what hast thou brought into my life– / How shall I live, when all I love have died?’ (2.2.137-38). First of all, slow down drama queen. ‘All I love have died’? What about Leia (who, by the way, still hasn’t had any space to mourn the loss of her entire fucking planet)? What about Han and Chewie? Or R2-D2, who’s standing right there next to you?? Later in the same scene, he literally says to R2: ‘I cannot face the future by myself. / What shall I do, R2?’ (2.2.165-66). YOU ARE NOT ALONE BECAUSE R2 IS RIGHT THERE AND YOU ARE TALKING TO HIM RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE ASKING HIM THIS QUESTION ABOUT BEING ALONE THUS PROVING THAT YOU ARE NOT ACTUALLY ALONE. 

Ahem. 

Arezou: OK. I cannot stress this enough: words mean things.

Part of the reason I love this movie so much, is that woven in the middle of all the sci-fi weirdness, there are some truly wonderful bits of dialogue that land like an emotional gut punch (in a nice way). We went on and on last time about how “I love you/I know” was over-embellished to the point where it lost all its punch. But fine, whatever, it’s in the past. So why on earth, when it came time to repeat the exchange, did you ALTER it? Why did it go from “O, I do love thee wholly, Han” to “O, I do love thee, Leia dear” (5.1.105)? Now granted, some cynical part of me knows that the second “I love you, I know” exchange was probably included in ROTJ to balance things out, to have Han tell Leia he loves her before the (at the time) whole series ended. But to have them repeat the exact lines to each other, roles reversed is a wonderful and deliberate choice. It’s a callback that advances both characters, where Han is now *in this* enough that he’s ready to actually tell Leia he loves her, and Leia is now secure enough in that affection to be just a liiiiittle cocky about it. Love to see it. But we don’t get it here. What, was Leia’s phrasing too flowery for a guy to say?

Then we have the whimper of a delivery of my favourite line in this entire trilogy: “I am a Jedi, like my father before me”. There is nothing wrong in theory with how the line is written, as the sentiment is still technically there. But there’s something off about “I am Luke Skywalker, Jedi Knight, just like my brave and noble father” (5.2.184-186). Putting aside the fact that there are simply too many words here, the line as written is doing way more than the line of dialogue in the movie is meant to do. First he declares “I am Luke Skywalker” (ok, that wasn’t really in question?) “Jedi Knight” (k, sure, use the title Ben Kenobi mentioned to you literally once) “just like my brave and noble father” (looks like we’re projecting some feelings onto daddy dearest, aren’t we?). The line in the movie is beautiful for both it’s simplicity and for the strangeness of its construction. Luke speaks in a fairly straightforward, every day sort of way, but the declaration he makes, the speech is almost elevated. I’d argue it sounds more like what a normal person like me thinks of as “Shakespearian” than the line meant to sound like a Shakespeare delivery. No, the meter wouldn’t work, but like “I love you/I know” last time, maybe that would have been for the best. Makes it stand out all the more.

Nora: Also: he really went with “Jabba of the Hutt”? That construction of Jabba’s name doesn’t make any sense—“the Hutt” would have to be a place for this to work, which it isn’t, unless we’re talking about Pizza Hut referring to itself that way in ads from a long time ago? And that just makes me think of Pizza the Hutt from SpaceBalls. 

Arezou: On that note, the use of “Lando of Calrissian” followed immediately by “General Calrissian” was so jarring I had to ask Nora about the technicalities of naming during that era. Shouldn’t it have been “Lando Calrissian of Bespin?” Yes. Yes, it should have. But hey, as long as it “sounds” Shakespeare, I suppose it’s alright. Is this nitpicking? Buckle up, because there’s gonna be a whole lot of that.

Dramaturgy and Stagecraft – Nora

Dramaturgy, broadly speaking, is about the structure of a play: the stuff that holds it up and keeps it together. It’s both something a play has and something you can do in relation to a play. Sometimes, a theatre will hire a dramaturg to work on this aspect of a particular production, or to advise generally about this side of the rehearsal and development process. But whether or not a dramaturg is working on a play, dramaturgy is still important. (Aside: hire dramaturgs! And pay them! They do amazing work!) 

Someone who’s thinking dramaturgically can tell you about what’s happening under the surface of your play: what assumptions the text makes, what information is being communicated about the world of the play, and what structures of power and influence are at work, for example. 

I have this theory about soliloquies in Shakespeare and early modern plays: I call them “dramaturgical frames”. What I mean by this is that they set up the action that see after them, and they provide the audience with commentary on what comes before them. And they make particular invitations to the audience about how they should understand the world of the play. Of course, not all audiences are going to take up that invitation; but it’s interesting to think about how a script prompts its audience to view the action of the play through a particular lens. 

It’s not particularly groundbreaking to say that male characters tend to have more soliloquies in Shakespeare, and it’s not that surprising that Doescher holds to this trend, especially given that the Star Wars franchise, overall, gives far more lines to male characters. (In fact, this is true across film and television in general.) What’s more interesting, to my mind, is the framing of the play around the language and perspectives of these men. 

What do I mean by that? Well, soliloquies are moments where the characters share truth with the audience—think about R2-D2’s confessions to us in English, where he tells us that he’s choosing to speak only in beeps and squeaks to the other characters. We’re privy to a part of his character that the rest of the play-world is not. This kind of intimacy can create a feeling of affinity and confederacy with the character: we’re part of an “in-group” that gets to know his inner thoughts and feelings, even when he keeps them from other characters. 

When it comes to R2-D2, this is pretty benign; he is one of the good guys, after all. But let’s think for a moment about what happens when Doescher starts to give extensive and frequent soliloquies to characters like Darth Vader (1.1.42-58, 2.4.1-28, 3.4.1-12, 3.4.79-102, and 5.2.211-231) and the Emperor (2.1.5-54 and 5.2.82-120). Now yes, on the one hand, this is a thing that Shakespeare does, too: some of his most famous soliloquizers are characters like Richard III and Iago, who self-consciously establish themselves as baddies from the beginning. But when given the opportunity to play around within a Shakespearean dramaturgy, why not examine what it means to give so much alone time with the audience to such odious figures? If soliloquies are partly about building empathy for a character, and creating that confederacy between audience and character, what does it mean that we’re being invited here to associate ourselves with the leaders of the Empire, repeatedly, and at length? And even if we could claim that there’s value in creating an affinity with Vader, who eventually repents and finds “Anakin” again, why spend so much time with the Emperor? 

Now, yes, proportionally speaking, we get more time with Luke overall in soliloquies than we do with either Vader or the Emperor. But I still think it’s interesting to note which characters Doescher chooses to beef up through these moments of direct address, and which he doesn’t. 

Going to bat for the Tuskens – Arezou

I can’t even begin to explain where the Tusken thing. came from. It might have been the bitter realization last year that the “Sand People” were the closest thing to Middle Eastern representation I’d ever seen in Star Wars prior to the introduction of Dr. Pershing in season 1 of The Mandalorian. Partner that with Din Djarin’s comments in that same show about how the Tuskens were the indigenous species of Tatooine and the humans were the settlers, and suddenly I’m rooting for the Tuskens.

Essentially, I feel very protective of them.

Modern canon, currently including both seasons of The Mandalorian, and Sabaa Tahir’s short story from the first From A Certain Point of View has gone a long way to humanizing the Tuskens and I am HERE. FOR. IT. I have high hopes that this trend will continue in both Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett, both of which are presumably at least partially set on Tatooine.

So imagine my rage when I get to Act II, scene 2 of this and find what can only be described as a staggeringly racist take on the Tusken Raiders, made all the worse by the fact that it’s Luke who is speaking. Luke. One of the colonists on their homeland.

In the scene in question, Luke has just realized that Leia is his sister, and he processes it with – what else – a soliloquy. He kicks things off reflecting on the fact that he and Leia have definitely made out before, and how odd that is, but rather than moving on, a full 20 lines (2.2.266-286) are devoted to an “ancient tale of Tatooine” warning of the…um…dangers of incest. Now to anyone reading it who is somewhat familiar with the Western literary canon, it’s quite clear that the tale he is telling is loosely based on the story of Oedipus. In it the central character, a Tusken Raider, “join’d with his mother in a bond most strange and quite unnatural”. When they find out, the mother hangs herself and the son blinds himself. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So, Ian wants us to know he’s read the classics. Great. But I have two questions: why have we given 20 full lines for a very rushed retelling of Oedipus Rex when we won’t give Leia half that time to develop in any way, shape or form? We have theories on that front (see below). But my second question is perhaps harder to answer and that is: why was this necessary?

I get that Ian probably picked Tuskens because they are the “other”, the non-humans, on the planet where Luke grew up, so it makes sense that those are the legends he might have heard. BUT. I question this decision: “At night upon the sands of Tatooine, his howl may still be heard, a warning to those who would break the sacred fam’ly bond through passions of the body” (2.2.283-286). That’s right. The Tuskens are now mythical beings who do unnatural things and now as a result, literally howl at the moon in warning. Not to make this crass, but Tuskens are near enough to human that the two species can reproduce. I’m not 100% convinced they aren’t actually some form of human themselves. And even then, in the Star Wars universe, there is such a wide variety of sentient species that I shouldn’t be classifying them as “human” and “non-human” with any kind of hierarchy. That’s something the Empire does, in only employing humans in their ranks.

What I am trying to get at, is going out of your way to get in a dig at the Tuskens, to other them further than the text EVER does, just doesn’t sit right with me.

And don’t give me the excuse of this is “modern canon”. The first hint of this that I’ve seen is in Terry Brooks’ novelization of The Phantom Menace, which was published in 1999. The information was available. Also, maybe we don’t punch down at the non-humans never given a chance to advocate for themselves?

Hashtag Huttslayer Forever

Nora: We’ve complained before on this blog that Doescher allows more character development for random space creatures than he does for Leia, and that trend continues here. The rancor keeper gets more opportunity to lament the death of his charge than Leia gets to say anything at all—35 lines in Act 1, Scene 4 go to the rancor keeper. Leia’s longest speech in this play is only 24 lines (4.1.26-50) and is focused not on any aspect of her characterization but rather on the role that the Ewoks will play in the rebellion’s success on Endor. This is also the very first opportunity Leia gets—two and two-thirds of a play later—to process any aspect of the loss of Alderaan. And it’s honestly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick: 

There is a saying back on Alderaan-

Or rather, should I say, there us’d to be

For now no sayings there are heard at all-

(4.1.34-36)

Arezou: ROTJ is that weird sci-fi entry in Star Wars where there are just SO many creatures running around. Not inherently a bad thing, of course. But I do question the decision to give ALL of them more time than Leia is given. Like Nora said, the rancor keeper gets his chance to lament the loss of his pet. OK fine. Whatever. But the rancor itself also has time to sing a death song. Salacious B. Crumb, the monkey-lizard is turned from giggling rodent to a character with actual lines? Entire exchanges are held in Huttese and in Ewokese. And still, Leia seems to only exist to serve the (mostly male) characters around her.

Nora: Backing up a bit, Leia also gets precious little chance to have feelings about being enslaved by Jabba. In 1.4, Doescher lets her elaborate in response to Han’s question (“And where is Leia?” 1.4.147) compared to the movie, but her lines only serve to minimize and trivialize the harm that Jabba has done to her: ‘I am quite safe and, as of yet, unharm’d, / But bound unto this wormlike lump of hate’ (1.4.148-49). Now as much as I appreciate that Doescher doesn’t give us an implied or literal rape in this scene, there’s also a huge spectrum of possible violence between rape and “unharmed.” She is literally chained to Jabba the Hutt. There are ways to let her reassure Han and also communicate that this experience is harmful (like, I don’t know…a soliloquy?? Oh wait, I forgot, those are just for the men and the random space creatures. Silly me.). 

Arezou: She f*cking STRANGLES Jabba the Hutt and…nothing. No moment to reflect on what all that means to her. I know this was published before Bloodline made Huttslayer a thing but come on. All the men are given the space to process the slightest thing that happens to or around them. Leia declares her intention of killing him, then is given 10 lines (1.5.97-106) in which to do it. Half those lines just…explain to the audience what she’s doing (again making me wonder if this was ever intended to be performed), then the rest are him cursing and condemning him for the general wrongs to others. At least let some of this be about what he did to you and your loved ones?

Nora: Part of me wonders if Doescher’s insistence on avoiding any meaningfulinteriority for Leia is a misguided attempt to present her as a “strong female lead”? Because we all know that in order to be “strong” you’re never allowed to have any emotions or character development, ever. But then again, her once moment of contemplation—when she learns that Luke is her brother—minimizes her own strength in the force and positions her as inferior to Luke (3.3.316-333). I don’t know. I’m trying to make it make sense, but I suspect it’s just a whole lot of garden-variety misogyny. 

Arezou: I have nothing to add to this except “stoic and expressionless and without feeling” does not equal “strong” by any stretch of the imagination, and writers would do well to remember this. Though it is a little weird that both she and Luke reflect back on their relationship and while he questions their kiss in ESB, she doesn’t so much.

Final Thoughts

Nora: It’s honestly all becoming so predictable at this point, and I can only pray that with a new trilogy starting in the next installment, we’ll also get some life injected into this series. 

Arezou: The prequels are my favourite trilogy overall, partially due to nostalgia, but also partially due to how well I feel they work as one coherent story. No excuses, Ian. But lots of pressure.

***

Next month we’re jumping into Prequel-land with The Phantom of Menace! I’m a prequel stan, Nora less so. Let’s see how this goes (fingers crossed Padmé gets her due!

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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