Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace

Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

We’re back and we’re ready to get into these Prequels! I am a big prequel fan, Nora isn’t. Buckle up kids.

It’s time to get weird and political, and make some QUESTIONABLE choices. Let’s dive into The Phantom of Menace by Ian Doescher.

Overall Impressions

Arezou: I was both excited and nervous to hit this point in our read-through because I cannot state often enough how much I love the prequels. I suppose having no expectations anymore helped. But I’ll admit part of my nerves stem from me getting the impression that Ian belongs to that certain generation of nerdy men who think that everyone agrees the prequels are a mess and in need of fixing when I’d argue they make the most coherent whole. If he felt at liberty to change things about his beloved Original Trilogy, what will he do when he doesn’t feel the same kind of reverence or pressure? Fortunately, he doesn’t actually change all that much, which is a huge relief.

Nora: I will confess that I had very low expectations coming into this one, after the disappointments of the first trilogy. But I have to say, there were some high points here. I appreciated that Amidala got some soliloquies—and the first one (2.1.1-43) was even pretty good, giving us some insight into the character that we wouldn’t get from dialogues with other characters. I also really liked that Shmi Skywalker got the opportunity for a soliloquy in which to grieve losing Anakin, and to sort through the complex feelings of love, hope, and loss she experiences in that moment (3.1.305-19). We’ll ignore that it’s a poorly-written speech, with unnecessary repetitions and a weirdly liturgical structure that doesn’t really make sense in the moment. Doescher’s not great at writing a mother’s interiority, but after the almost complete absence of interiority for Leia in the previous trilogy, I’m giving him points for the attempt here.

Arezou: I completely agree. I was worried that a story that arguably hinges on the decisions of two women – and really, the entire saga hinges on their decisions – would be given the Princess Leia treatment, and have them relegated to the sidelines. Fortunately that doesn’t happen, but I’d also argue they aren’t given anywhere near the nuance that characters both major and minor got in the earlier instalments. Yes, we have the soliloquy from Padmé fairly early on, but what about as her story arc progresses and things change around her? This is the movie where she is featured most prominently, but she falls back into reciting her plot without much interiority disappointingly quickly. But this seems to be a trend with Padmé across mediums so maybe this isn’t entirely on Ian. No one knows what to do with her.

Nora: I also think that some of the political machinations fit this genre better than they fit in the movie. The back-and-forth of the Trade Federation, the Galactic Senate, and the legality of the various blockades and invasions suits a verse play, and puts me in mind of Shakespeare’s histories (which, interestingly, were also written “out of order,” with all three parts of Henry VI and Richard III premiering several years before Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V). I’m not sure we can give Doescher credit for this, exactly, but it will be interesting to see if this holds true for the later installments of this trilogy, which have oft been criticized for being overly-technical in their approach to galactic politics. 

Canon Comments – Arezou

Let me start by saying that Jar Jar was….a CHOICE. And I’ll get into why it canonically makes no sense in more detail below.

I get it. I do. The Phantom Menace isn’t for everyone. It’s goofy and a lot of it is squarely aimed at the kids it was meant to draw into the Star Wars fold. Kids like me. But that’s not to say that the story it tells is unimportant! Ian makes some choices here, both in terms of the themes and alarmingly in terms of the actual plot that alter the motivation and intent behind key moments.

One such moment comes fairly early on, when Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar are making their journey to the Naboo surface in the bongo. If you remember the movie, you know they bump into a few increasingly large underwater creatures, prompting Qui-Gon to quip “there’s always a bigger fish.” Ian had two choices here. Either play the moment for laughs, or dive into the overall meta-commentary of Qui-Gon’s statement arriving on the eve of the biggest fish of them all, Palpatine, making a power play for control of the galaxy by making a bunch of smaller fish fight and eat each other.

But we get neither of those, because we know how much Ian likes his creatures to have random soliloquies and more interiority than half the main cast. So instead we have the questionable choice of giving each fish several occasions to speak, wherein they reveal either their dark designs agains the occupants of the bongo, or EXTREMELY bafflingly in one case, reveal that no less a group than the JEDI ORDER sent them to this spot to protect Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan. You heard right, Master Yoda has a giant fucking fish on speed dial apparently.

OK moving on from the silly and onto the serious. We need to talk about Padmé again. Or specifically, Padmé, Sabé and “Amidala”.

I had somewhat expected that prior to the reveal of the deception, that whoever was in the Queen regalia would be listed as “Amidala”, while Padmé would be called by her name when in handmaiden mode. I also understand this is complicated in a script as different actors need to know when it’s their turn to speak. Which once again begs the question of whether or not Ian intended this to be staged. If he did, then why have an Amidala at all, when no one will presumably see it? If he didn’t intend for it, then why list Sabé at all before the end. It’s also interesting to note that he only calls her Amidala when it’s Padmé in the makeup. So we know there is a decoy, but he’s trying to preserve the identity of the true queen? A strange choice.

He also seems to have a strange understanding of the subtle point that while Sabé does dress as the queen, she never actually makes decisions for her. He caught on to it a little too hard when the group is deciding whether or not to leave Naboo. Sabé defers to Padmé, and rather than leaving it at the simple and vague “we are brave, Your Highness”, he adds on her elaboration of “we shall go” (1.5.73). I want to be charitable and say this is a meter thing but part of me feels like he didn’t understand this exchange at first and assumes no one else did either.

He then later swings way to hard in the other direction in Act III scene 5 after the party arrives on Coruscant and is greeted by Palpatine. In the film, it is Sabé who steps off the transport and greets the Senator, but when they’re conversing back at his apartment, it’s Padmé who is speaking to him. There is a scene transition and an entire costume change. But because Ian keeps the order of scenes flowing exactly the way it does it the movie, he just has other characters step offstage, while those who need to remain do so. Which means he has Sabé conducting an entire political conversation with Palpatine, making decisions for the future of Naboo, and deciding how to act in the Senate. He’s clearly envisioning this as being performed since he doesn’t just change character names. But he also doesn’t give the actors time to change, meaning he has now altered the context of the scene and altered Padmé and Sabé’s working relationship. I don’t know why he couldn’t add a little nothing blurb in there that wasn’t in the movie. He had no issue adding a random scene with two Jedi that accomplished nothing. That probably would have been better served here.

Technical and Staging Comments – Nora

Technical

Let’s be honest, the title is a mess: The Phantom of Menace. What does it even mean? The ‘phantom menace’ of the movie’s title is the rising Sith threat lurking in the background, right? It’s ‘phantom’ in the sense of unseen. So what is the phantom of menace here? Doescher seems to want it to mean “menacing phantom,” echoing the movie title. But the grammar doesn’t quite work that way: instead it seems to put emphasis on the “phantom” part of the equation, rather than the “menace,” whereas my reading of the movie’s title is the opposite. The “menace” is the important part, the noun, and “phantom” modifies it; in Doescher’s construction, it’s the other way around, with “menace” modifying “phantom.” 

This is pedantic, I know, but it exemplifies something about Doescher’s work that irritates me across the board: he’s not as good at doing the Shakespeare thing as he thinks he is. Throughout all the plays we’ve read so far as these types of errors, which “sound” Shakespearean but aren’t grammatically correct, or don’t quite mean what he seems to think they mean (cf. “Jabba of the Hutt”). 

This is especially irritating given that, in an interview for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast, Doescher constructs himself as a “Shakespeare guy,” who wants to “do more justice to Shakespeare” than the type of parodies that just “put ‘—eth’ on the end of a word” to make it “sound Shakespearean.” He may not just stick “—eth” on the end of a word, but Doescher often rearranges syntax with a similar emphasis on “sounding Shakespearean” at the expense of grammatical sense. 

Similarly, Doescher sometimes makes references to Shakespeare’s plays that don’t work in the context of the Star Wars stories he’s telling. I’ve commented on this before, with his deeply antisemitic “Hath not a Sith eyes” speech in The Empire Striketh Back. The standout example here isn’t as offensive, but it is just as wrong: when Darth Maul slays Qui-Gon Jinn, Qui-Gon says: “Et tu, Sith? Then fall, Qui-Gon Jinn!” This is a reference to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Caesar is famously betrayed and stabbed by his Senators in Act 3. The line Doescher is referencing—“Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar”—communicate Caesar’s surprise at being stabbed by someone he considered loyal to him. “Et tu, Brute?” means “And you, Brutus?” As in: Even you? You, too? You, of all people? The second half of the line then becomes a surrender: if even my loyal friend Brutus wants me dead, then I will fall. Hopefully it is obvious that this line does not in any way apply—or even make sense in—the battle between Darth Maul and Qui-Gon. They are already enemies! It is obvious that Darth Maul wants to kill Qui-Gon! “Et tu” expresses surprise, but Qui-Gon cannot possibly be surprised to find a Sith attacking him. It makes no sense, Ian. It makes no sense.

Staging

I’ve said before that Doescher doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of whether these plays are written for readers, as sort of “closet dramas” that might be read aloud but would be unlikely to be staged, or written for with a full performance in mind. He mentions in his “Afterword” that he envisions “the actors running from one side of the stage to the other” during the pod race (p. 171), which would seem to imply that he imagines this as a script that could be used for an actual performance. But other aspects of the text complicate this notion. 

For example, as in the earlier trilogy, the battle scenes often consist of characters describing what they’re doing (in excruciating detail). In the lightsaber battle between Qui-Gon, Darth Maul, and Obi-Wan (5.3), we get more description than action, with long speeches from each character telling the audience exactly what is happening: 

QUI GON: The power generator cavity/Unknowingly we three have stumbl’d ‘pon./He thumps on Obi-Wan, who falls below/Onto another platform. Feel my blow!

MAUL: I fall, yet do not fear the landing, nay-/For falling is but prelude to a climb./Ere. he hath from the dais jump’d to me/I’m on my feet, for battle well prepared.

(5.3.27-34)

These lines mostly describe action that, if this play was being staged in a theatre, the audience would be able to see for themselves and would not need narrated to them

Oh, Jar Jar…

Arezou: As somebody who actually likes Jar Jar while recognizing the problematic elements, I took a lot of issue with his portrayal here.

I question the choice to have him tell the audience he speaks “high” English, but is slipping into Gungan patois to put everyone else’s minds at ease. Why? What’s the purpose beyond making him schemy? Ian, my man, Darth Jar Jar was never going to be a thing, and you making him some kind of clever manipulator here isn’t going to change that.

Beyond the questionable choice to distinguish Jar Jar’s speech from that of his fellow Gungans in some kind of class separation, code-switching thing, there are the canonical implications for the saga as a whole which I don’t think Ian considered, further fuelling my “this man doesn’t like the prequels at all” fire. Jar Jar cannot be some kind of clever manipulator who is playing a game with the humans. If he is, then his subsequent choices in Attack of the Clones make absolutely no sense.

Palpatine sends Padmé away from the Senate before a crucial vote, ostensibly for her own safety. Knowing she won’t want to be unrepresented, Palpatine banks on her choosing the easily-manipulated Jar Jar to stand as her representative, then takes advantage of this to plant the idea of granting him emergency powers over the Senate to kick off the Clone Wars. Which Jar Jar does unquestioningly. Absolutely none of this is possible if Jar Jar is so educated in human ways, and is playing them and manipulating them into believing he’s an idiot. He’s supposed to be an idiot. He’s supposed to be sweet, and naive, and well-intentioned but ultimately not up to the task of galactic politics. That’s the point, and yet for some reason this was dismissed in favour of…what, exactly?

Nora: Look, nobody had high hopes for how Doescher would handle Jar-Jar Binks, given his track record with Yoda and the Ewoks. But Ian. My man. Why—why—? 

I think we’re all agreed at this point that Jar-Jar Binks is a racist stereotype of an Afro-Caribbean man. Doescher somehow takes this to the next level by ham-fistedly attempting to portray Jar-Jar’s plight as a member of an oppressed race (the Gungans). Now I want to say that I think Doescher was attempting something commendable here, in his desire to humanize Jar-Jar and give him some agency in the story. But intention is not the same as effect, and Doescher makes a number of, frankly, racist missteps. 

It seems like Doescher is modelling this version of Jar-Jar, at least partly, on Shakespeare’s Caliban (“Your kind did teach / Me human language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to move your human heart” (1.3.40-2)). That’s fine, as far as it goes, but Doescher doesn’t appear to have thought this analogy through to its conclusion. For one thing, despite his emphasis on Jar-Jar’s code-switching from “high” Shakespearean English to the patois we hear in the movies (“It doth befit the human prejudice  / To think we Gungans simple, low, and rude” (1.3.30-1)), none of the other Gungans appear to code-switch. There are two problems here, to my mind: one is that this still constructs the poetic English that Jar-Jar speaks in asides and soliloquies as “high” culture, implying that any other dialect is “simple, low and rude.” Secondly, it creates problems for the portrayal of the Gungans generally, given that they speak the patois that has just been identified for us as “simple, low, and rude” even when they’re speaking to each other. There are so many ways around this, but honestly I get the impression that Doescher just didn’t see a problem. I don’t know, man. I’m trying to make it make sense, but it just doesn’t. 

Final Thoughts

Arezou: It could have been worse, and also now I’m afraid for The Clone Army Attacketh.

Nora: I will give credit where credit’s due, but there’s still a lot wrong here.

***

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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