Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge

Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

Two-thirds of the way there. Only the Sequel Trilogy ahead. Onwards!

Overall Impressions

Arezou: Look, this was always going to be a tough one for me. Revenge of the Sith is my favourite Star Wars movie. I’ve often maintained that it was “Shakespearian” in its tragedy, whatever that meant. More epic than your average sci-fi I suppose? More dramatic and character driven, with big emotions that would seem out of place in the overall pew pew of it all. But then again this is Star Wars we’re talking about. It’s never been typical sci-fi.

Though I still stand by my initial “Shakespearian” definition for Revenge of the Sith, I don’t think that means it was particularly well-suited to such a literal take on the idea. It struck me while we were making our way through the prequels that Ian Doescher is likely one of those who grew up disliking the prequel trilogy and when it came time to adapt the stories, didn’t seem to hold on to what made them so special in the first place.

The prequels may not be perfect, but they’re also not so broken that you can fix them by glossing over what made them special in the first place.

Nora: My overwhelming impression here is that it’s just so…clunky. From the very first line of the Prologue, the verse halts and thumps along: “‘War!’ is the cry that doth through space resound: / The good Republic faces bold attack / From Dooku, he whose evil doth abound” (Prologue 1-3). While we are finally getting some really basic verse variations in this installment (feminine endings! at last!), Doescher’s poetic skills aren’t really improving as the plays go on, which is kind of disappointing. It’s my own fault, really—I should know better by now! 

A lot of the stuff we’ve been griping about since the beginning is still present here: he’s giving away key plot points, muddying really good lines, and failing to understand basic dramaturgical principles. As I’ll get into later, I’m still wondering a) whose story this is supposed to be and b) who and what this work is for. And I’m still not at all sure what the endgame is for sentient R2-D2 (if there is one at all). 

Finally, let me just say: it’s not a “Rumor” if it’s actually true, Ian. 

Canonical Comments – Arezou

In an adaptation of the story, rather than an addition to it, there are naturally going to be choices and changes that I don’t necessarily agree with or like. Things like not specifying that Anakin kills the younglings in the Council chambers takes part of what made that moment so chilling right out of the text. But then, the medium of a play isn’t exactly conducive to that kind of visual, so while I mourn the loss I also understand it.

I also don’t understand the need for a lengthy scene where two Jedi essentially go “isn’t it weird that the Clone order manual has orders 65 and 67 but not 66?”. Like…this was written in 2015. The Fives arc of The Clone Wars already happened the year before. Some of the readers already know what happens when you ask too many questions and the good soldiers start following orders. Fives died because of it. There is no fix for this scene. No other way to phrase it. It shouldn’t have happened because not only is it a bad idea to imply that some Jedi knew what was happening and failed to stop it anyway, but it also cheapens one of the more meaningful, emotional Clone Wars story arcs.

In any case, my bigger gripes with the treatment of canon in this play is more centred on the characters rather than the plot. Specifically, our big three: Padmé, Anakin and Obi-Wan. The issues with Anakin’s characterization arise mostly from a format issue (see: The Power of Silence below). But Padmé and Obi-Wan suffer immensely through the lines of dialogue they are given, both reading as wildly out of character.

Granted, the problems with Padmé’s character here are not entirely Doescher’s fault. Beyond there being very little to work with in the source material, he’s also not the first author to fall into the trap of reducing Padmé to wife of Anakin and mother of his children. Matthew Stover did the same in his novelization. This is clear in how we see him giving Padmé more to say than Leia ever got, but at what cost? Her big soliloquy (1.2.129) which comes after she tells Anakin she’s pregnant is not in service to her character, but to his. I’m not one to advocate taking lines away from a female character when we have so little to begin with, but this is something that would have been better suited for Anakin (again, see below). It then becomes starkly clear that although Doescher had the space to grant Padmé more agency than she was given in the movie, he for some reason doesn’t take it. Anakin/Vader is given a death speech (5.2.204) while he lays on the shores of Mustafar while on fucking fire, but Padmé who is slowly but surely losing the will to live gets nothing then just dies. Why not use the occasion to either justify that creative choice or else imply that something else might be going on? Palpatine draining her life force? Just a really nasty health complication? That second one isn’t all that out of line considering the state of maternal health care in the GFFA is so abysmal she went nine months with no scan to tell her she’s carrying twins. Sure it’s not canon, but when has that been a deterrent in these books?

Then we have Obi-Wan. My sweet General Kenobi.

I am aware that the prequels have been meme’d to death and though I haven’t done the math on it, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that at least half of those memes come from Revenge of the Sith. And of those I’m willing to bet a good chunk of them come from Obi-Wan’s lines of dialogue. What can I say? The man is sassy. I would argue, though, that it goes beyond Ewan McGregor’s delivery, or beyond the need for comic relief. It’s actually really important from a character standpoint.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is good at his job. Like, really good. Best in a generation and then some kind of good. The perfect cross between what a Jedi were, what they are and what they could/should be. Is my bias showing? Yes, a little. And that’s not to say he isn’t without his flaws. For all his strength of character, the environment in which he lives has not permitted him to thrive, or to practice balancing the very real emotions he feels with the scale of conflict around him. But one thing that can absolutely be said about him is that he is a fantastic warrior, and a confident one at that. So confident that he falls back on quips and sarcasm in the heat of the moment, knowing that it’s not in any way distracting him from his objective, nor is it going to result in him getting himself or someone else killed. So why these quips were watered down in favour of the more elevated style of speech is beyond me. When you put too many words in a quip, it loses its punch. This is actually pretty consistent with Anakin and Obi-Wan throughout this play, where they start to sound more like each other and less like their movie counterparts. They’re closer than brothers, I dare say a dyad in the Force, but they aren’t the same person. But you really could have fooled me with this one.

But because I can say nice things, I want to commend Doescher for not giving into his soliloquy instincts by giving Obi-Wan a whole lot to say during his “you were the chosen one!” moment (5.2.189). This is possibly the single most devastating loss Obi-Wan has ever felt (and he’s lost a lot over the year), and it’s tearing him apart because of just how much blame he places on himself for it. He doesn’t have the time, energy or inclination for a big speech. He just needs to howl out all the pain sitting in his heart. And mercifully, Doescher lets him do just that here.

Dramaturgical Comments – Nora

I think I’ve finally pinpointed the reason that Doescher’s approach to soliloquies irritates me so very much. It irritates me, dear readers, because it demonstrates his total lack of awareness about what a soliloquy does, dramaturgically. Doescher’s approach to soliloquy seems to be “as many as possible.” Now, this can have its benefits. It means, for example, that he can elevate characters who we wouldn’t traditionally think of as soliloquizers: droids and space slugs and rancors and so on. 

But playwrights don’t give soliloquies to key characters only to privilege them in the storytelling; giving a character a soliloquy also helps the audience to understand whose perspective they’re being invited into in the play. In other words, when a character speaks to the audience in soliloquy, we’re encouraged to empathize with their perspective, not just in the context of the soliloquy, but in what follows in the rest of the play. So when that solo time with the audience gets distributed out to any and everyone, suddenly the dramaturgy of the play looks really different. 

Again, I don’t know that this is necessarily a problem, especially if it’s something Doescher did deliberately to democratize the story. But it does make it difficult to discern whose story this is supposed to be. Is this the story of Palpatine’s ascent to power, or of Anakin’s fall to the dark side, or of Padmé’s tragic death? What we get in this play is something like all of the above (and more!), which makes it feel quite chaotic and disconnected. What I’m saying is: for someone who loves soliloquies so much, Doescher really doesn’t use them as well as he could. 

The Power of Silence

Arezou: Revenge of the Sith is a powerful entry in Star Wars canon, and I think the silence has a lot to do with that.

While Nora will brilliantly go into how a playwright might call for silence in the context of an Early Modern play, but my interest lies more in how the utter absence of silence from a storytelling point of view works to this adaptations detriment.

Though it’s not a strictly silent moment, the scene where Obi-Wan realizes that Anakin is responsible for the attack on the Temple and the deaths of the younglings, the power and emotion of the performance is not in what’s being said, but in how Ewan McGregor is reacting to it. His words are simple enough. “Who could have done this?”, “I can’t watch anymore.” He’s not saying anymore than is necessary. It hits hard because the man isn’t using florid, quippy language anymore. His grief is simply too strong and all-consuming. But by not varying the speech pattern for Obi-Wan here, perhaps with shorter lines that would allow for a pause, it’s simply too…noisy a scene, when it needs to be quiet and full of grief.

But Revenge of the Sith is primarily concerned with the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and so the really powerful silent moments, in my opinion, revolve around him.

One moment that comes to mind is the recounting of the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise. By choosing to couch it in a play within the play, Doescher has completely eliminated the very necessary pauses Palpatine employs to make sure that Anakin is not only following along, but is hanging on his every word, and making all the connections he needs to.

This is as good a time as any to say that Hayden Christiansen never deserved the flack he got for his performance as Anakin Skywalker. You try being a teenager asked to embody the most recognizable villain in the world under the weight of everyone’s expectations. He did a fine job and his performance in Revenge of the Sith is part of what makes that movie as good and chilling as it is (side note: cannot wait to see him and Ewan together in Obi-Wan Kenobi whenever it hits Disney+). A lot of the strength of the performance has to do with his facial expressions, and the way he acts in reaction to the events around him.

Beyond the opera house scene, the two that stick out to me most in this are the scene where Padmé tells him she’s pregnant, and the scene where both Anakin and Padmé are alone in the Jedi Temple and their apartment respectively, each looking out the window towards the other as the world around them falls apart.

When Padmé tells him she’s pregnant in the movie, she does so after a nervous preamble causes tensions to run a little high, with Anakin concerned and paranoid that something is wrong. When she finally does tell him, with a simple “I’m pregnant”, there is a good…ten seconds maybe, where Anakin doesn’t say anything at all. Maybe it’s shorter, but damn did it feel long. He processes the news he’s just received, with every conceivable emotion passing across his face. Even when he does start speaking again, it takes a moment for him to really come back to himself.

I get that this kind of lengthy pause and a lot of “face and eye” acting is not possible given the format, but in having them continue to converse without missing a beat, the opportunity for Anakin’s tumultuous emotions to take centre stage is completely passed by. Add to that the fact that Padmé is given a lengthy soliloquy where she tries to parse out his emotions and I’m really left scratching my head. Why was this moment not given to Anakin, for him to have that moment to soliloquize about his feelings? I could have forgiven bypassing his few beats of internal conflict if it had been repurposed in this way, but instead it’s completely washed away.

Then comes the scene I’ve seen referred to as Padmé’s Ruminations. It’s a short moment, barely 90 seconds long and is almost. completely devoid of dialogue. I say almost completely because there is a little VoiceOver flashback from Palpatine. But other than that, it’s simply Anakin and Padmé, apart from each other and alone with their thoughts, while a haunting score plays in the background. This moment is pivotal to the story. The war will officially end in a few hours when Palpatine calls for a ceasefire and has the Separatist leaders killed, but in this moment you truly feel that whatever the political outcome, the war is lost. The sun is (literally) setting on the galaxy they all knew, and is about to enter a new, unpleasant era.

Every single bit of this is contingent on the not only the absence of sound but in the techniques of the medium. Lighting, music, costume, editing, etc. None of these are available to Doescher on a barebones stage where the only thing he can indicate is dialogue, and where prolonged silence isn’t a natural feature. But by having their speaking style match the way they speak to each other in all other moments (3.4.40-50), he’s chosen stylistic consistency over what is best for the particular story being told, which really, is at the core of every issue we’ve had with these works so far.

Nora: I didn’t realize this until Arezou pointed it out to me, but she’s absolutely right that silence is super important in Revenge of the Sith. And just as I complained about the over-narration of the ending in Doescher’s last play, I also think that this play over-explains itself at every possible turn. I want to focus on the stage directions first, which do a lot of heavy lifting in this play, but which don’t make a ton of sense if we try to imagine an actual stage production. 

As a basic example of Doescher’s use of stage directions, and his lack of understanding as to how they actually work in early modern plays, can be seen in Act 1, Scene 1, at General Grievous’s first entrance: “Enter General Grievous and his Captain above, on balcony.” The direction “above” implies “on balcony.” You don’t need both of those things. If you’re trying to make it clear for readers who aren’t familiar with parsing stage directions, why not just say “on balcony,” rather than giving this redundancy? He’s over-explaining what is supposed to be happening on stage. It’s a small and pedantic point, sure, but it highlights my overall complaint that Doescher claims to be a “Shakespeare guy” but in fact doesn’t understand that much about Shakespeare’s plays.  

This type of over-explaining pops up in stage directions throughout Sith’s Revenge, particularly in battle scenes. Doescher is fond of noting that characters move “quickly” (see e.g. 3.4, when Mace Windu faces Palpatine, and 4.2, when Yoda survives the clones’ attack following Order 66). His approach starts to feel interpretive rather than descriptive, a feature of modern plays and (notably) screenplays, but not something that typically happens in early modern plays. The clearest example of this is in 4.3, when Anakin has killed the Younglings and Padmé enters “above” to have a separate conversation with C-3PO. The stage direction is heavy-handed in its demands for staging this transition: “Enter Padmé and C-3PO above, on balcony. Exeunt Vader, dead younglings, and Clone Troopers slowly, while C-3PO and Padmé speak.” Again, if you’re used to reading contemporary plays or screenplays, this probably doesn’t feel like a problem; but in the context of early modern plays, this is an extraordinarily invasive stage direction, providing a literal staging that affects the interpretation of the scene. Having the bodies of the younglings removed from the stage “slowly” while Padmé is visible to the audience positions her in a particular way against Anakin/Vader. In other words, it’s an interpretive choice of the kind that a modern director or playwright might make, but it’s not something you’d usually find an early modern playwright doing. That’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just something to notice, particularly as Doescher continues to insist that what he’s doing is “Shakespearean.” It doesn’t leave space for the performers’ and directors’ interventions in the way that an actual Shakespeare play would: instead, it fills an interpretive gap on their behalf. 

Bulking out stage directions is one way for the playwright’s voice to assert itself within the text: it closes down the “silences” that tend to be there in an early modern playtext and create space for interpretation by actors, directors, and other creative practitioners. Again, it’s not necessarily a negative point, but it’s just something to notice, and I think it speaks to a lack of understanding on Doescher’s part as to how early modern playtexts function and create meaning. 

Since we’re under the ‘Silence’ heading still, I’ll elaborate with this example: when you study early modern verse structures, you quickly learn that most playwrights aren’t writing in a steady and consistent iambic pentameter rhythm all the goddamn time. Why? Well first of all because it’s boring as fuck. But additionally, varying the verse structure throughout the play can communicate to the reader / actor in a variety of ways. Now, this isn’t to say that we can ever know or access exactly what the playwrights were thinking when they wrote their lines; however, as analysts of the verse, we can make use of what’s there to inform our interpretation of the text. One potential interpretation of a “short” blank verse line, for example—let’s say, one that’s seven or eight syllables long instead of ten—is that the space where the rest of the line “should be” is taken up by silence. This is something you’ll hear from actor training programs that look at Shakespeare: if you’ve got a short line, and the following line from your scene partner doesn’t “finish” it (i.e., it doesn’t supply the missing syllables through another short line), then consider maybe pausing in that space “between” the lines. 

This, in my professional opinion, is a really interesting way to create silence within the structure of a verse play with sparse stage directions. Unlike in a modern play, there’s not going to be an actual stage direction that says something like “pause” or “beat” to indicate that the actors should be silent. There are, however, gaps in the verse that can be used as beats or pauses in the scene. Being attuned to these gaps helps to shape and structure a scene in rehearsal. This isn’t to say that you must always pause when you’ve got a short verse line, but rather to say that it’s an option an actor can take advantage of. 

Doescher, unsurprisingly, gives no such moments in this play. And it’s a shame, frankly. For all the time he spends giving Yoda lines in haiku (which continues to be Orientalist, but whatever) and crafting emotional death speeches for random space creatures, he seems to have given no thought at all the rhythm of his scenes. This is true across the two trilogies we’ve read so far (remember, it takes us until this play to even get a feminine ending!), but it’s especially stark here, where the movie takes such advantage of silence as a method of communication. 

The Play Within A Play

Nora: This did not work for me. It just felt unnecessary and, frankly, clumsy and heavy-handed. 

I mean, we don’t expect Doescher to be great at nuance, six plays deep, but this play-within-a-play nod to Hamlet can’t really carry the narrative weight that he wants it to carry. Moving the story of Darth Plagueis to a third party—the Players—actually complicates the storytelling and makes it harder to follow Anakin’s turn to the dark side. Rather than Palpatine offering him hope for Padmé’s life, Doescher has created an extra step in the process, where Anakin has to make the link between Darth Plagueis and his own situation, and then also link that to Palpatine. That just about works here because Doescher’s already given away that Palpatine is Darth Sidious, which the movie holds back a bit (don’t get me started on this…). But it’s kind of cheating: while Doescher’s readers (and arguably, audiences of Revenge of the Sith) know that Palpatine is a Sith lord, Anakin has no reason to make that connection at this point in the story. 

Arezou: Alright, so we all know “have you ever heard the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise” is so meme’d it’s almost parody at this point. We see it floating around so much in isolation, it’s easy to forget how powerful and chilling this moment is meant to be. All told it’s not a particularly long conversation. Anakin arrives at the opera house, he and Palpatine exchange news regarding the efforts to end the war, then sensing Anakin’s concern, Palpatine smoothly segues into his tale.

So not only does it take much longer to get to that point by having the play-within-a-play setup, but like Nora said, by putting the tale in the hands of others, rather than having Palpatine deliver it directly it adds an extra step to Anakin’s thought process. If a play being put on in public is telling Anakin that the Force can grant someone the power to stop someone else from dying, then what’s to stop him from taking this to Obi-Wan? Or the council? Even if Palpatine made it all up, and told the players what to say, Anakin doesn’t know that.

The whole freaking point of Palpatine telling him this story, is it’s the first time Anakin has heard anything of the kind from anyone. It’s Palpatine telling him that not only does he know what’s troubling him, but he has a way to solve it. A way that Obi-Wan and the other Jedi would never divulge, because that’s not their way. It’s essential to Palpatine’s plan that he gets Anakin to trust him at so critical a stage. I know Rise of Skywalker Palpatine has no clue what he wants or how he should go about getting it, but that’s not Prequel-era Palpatine. He wouldn’t take a risk like this.

Not to mention, making the whole play about Darth Plagueis and Mrs. Plagueis turns the whole thing to borderline parody. Half the power and mystique of the story was in its ambiguity. Palpatine isn’t specifying and Anakin isn’t asking. He doesn’t care. He just wants the man who knows of this power to teach it to him so he can save someone he loves from dying. At this point in the story, Anakin hasn’t even told him it’s Padmé he’s worried about. It’s not until later, when he’s thrown himself into Palpatine’s power that he makes the confession.

Not to mention, Plagueis’ apprentice overthrowing his master – which foreshadows Anakin’s later actions – loses half his power since it’s no longer the future master telling it to his future apprentice.

The tragedy of Plagueis the Wise is the thesis statement of Anakin’s entire arc and it was thrown away for a cheap Hamlet reference.

Also don’t even get me started on how Doescher SOMEHOW managed to work back in his racist Tusken Oedipus thing. Like, dude.

Final Thoughts

Arezou: I can talk about how good of a story Revenge of the Sith is all I want, but it really took until I read this to realize that so much of what makes it work is more than just the plot. It’s the entire medium of film coming together to make one impressive, cohesive whole. Novels have some license to include things like silence, or internal conflict that might show on an actors face, but I couldn’t help but feel throughout that of all the Star Wars films, this was the most unsuited to an adaptation of this kind.

Nora: My overall impression of this one is that it’s sloppy and clumsy, frankly, even by the standards of this series. I don’t know if Doescher’s taken his eye off the ball a bit now that he’s six plays in? But I’m hoping that the sequel trilogy brings us some pleasant surprises! 

***

Next time we dive headfirst into the Sequel Trilogy. Where our opinions on the Prequel films were split, Nora and I find ourselves united in our feelings for each instalment of the Sequel Trilogy. We’ll see you at the end of August! 

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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