Biweekly Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Merry Rise of Skywalker

Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams

Overall Impressions

Nora: I’ll start with what I liked: the cover art on this one is hot. All the illustrations throughout the series have been great, by wow Nicholas Delort was working overtime on this one. His name should be splashed in large letters all over this thing, not buried at the bottom of the copyright page, is what I’m saying. 

It’s not just the cover: the illustrations in this one really outshine the contents of the play all around. The back-cover image of Rey and Kylo fighting on the Death Star ruins (aka the best scene in the movie)? Stunning. The drawing of Ben healing Rey? Gorgeous. Babu Frik with a lute? I’m sold. 

Arezou: I’m going to go ahead and agree with this right away. The cover is, indeed, hot. It’s the first time we see colour used in such a pronounced way on one of these, and shading Rey and Kylo in half red, half blue light is a fantastic choice.

It’s also nice to see that despite complaints I have about the execution in writing, my two favourite scenes – Han and Ben, and The Kiss – are so beautifully rendered in art form. Bravo Nicholas Delort, you understood the assignment.

Nora: It’s a bit unfair to say the illustrations are the only parts I liked. There are some nice moments that build on what’s in the movie in helpful ways. For example, I appreciate that Rey gets a speech in which to process the fact that she’s a Palpatine (ugh) in Act 3, Scene 3. There are also some crucial moments where Doescher gets out of his own way and lets the really strong moments from the movie shine, which you know I appreciate. For example, although the run-up to this exact moment is dodgy, Doescher allows the “Dad” / “I know” for Han and Ben to stand more-or-less as-is (He substitutes “Father” for “Dad,” which I’ll allow! The point of the exchange still comes across.) This was especially gratifying given how totally he messed up “I love you.” / “I know” in previous installments in this series. 

I also have a lot of the same complaints that I’ve had throughout the series, however: the long, sprawling scenes that jump between different ships and planets are very difficult to follow, and make absolutely no sense for a stage. They also diminish some of the movie’s greatest moments: when Lando and Chewie arrive to Exegol with backup, their ostensibly triumphant entry is totally lost in the noise of a crowded and confusing mise-en-scène. In the same scene, there’s a stage direction for Maz Kanata to enter with Leia’s body – think about the relative size of those two characters for a moment. Tiny Maz is dragging Leia’s adult human body onstage? I’m sorry, it doesn’t work for me. 

Arezou: I do think that the clunkiest, messiest bits of this are things that inevitably got lost in translation between mediums. Because the strongest parts of TROS, few though they might be, are all dialogue driven, it makes sense that those come through most neatly. Such as the Han and Ben scene which mostly survives the transition to rigorous iambic pentameter and poetic flourish. I do also like the direct parallel to Romeo and Juliet right before Ben dies. For all his faults, Doescher isn’t pretending this is some kind of beautiful completion of a narrative arc. It is tragedy pure and simple, and he’s showing it for what it is.

It was a little frustrating, speaking of the Han and Ben scene, to see Doescher give into some of his more “see I’ve read stuff too” instincts. That is one of the few scenes I adore from the movie start to finish, precisely because of how quiet and subtle it is. Ben (because it is Ben by this point, even if he won’t admit it to himself yet) is coming to terms with his own actions and facing his father’s ghost, reliving a twisted version of his final conversation with him, but this time with the love that Han always had for his son more visible at the surface. It’s coming through the fog to realize his father really did always love him, and he’s hearing the words for what they were. So why, oh why, in the middle of all this did Doescher feel the need to quote A Christmas Carol. And not just any bit of A Christmas Carol, but the bit where Scrooge thinks the ghost of Jacob Marley is the result of indigestion? Don’t talk to be about “more of gravy than the grave” in the middle of the most beautiful scene in the movie.

Artistic Liberty – Or Lack Thereof

Arezou: Back in the early days of this project, during the Original Trilogy days if I remember right, we made a lot of mention about Doescher adding things to the plays seemingly for his own amusement. Who can forget the time Luke Skywalker waxed poetic about a Tusken equivalent to Oedipus Rex in The Jedi Doth Return?

But as we got into the Sequel Trilogy, both Nora and I noticed that the plays became more shot-for-shot adaptations, so to speak. In some cases, that wasn’t the worst thing with regards to dialogue – especially with Jedi The Last – and became more of a staging issue. But with Merry Rise of Skywalker, suddenly it became a dialogue issue too.

Because I don’t know if you noticed, but there isn’t actually all that much talking in The Rise of Skywalker. Not in a way that matters anyway. Characters communicate the plot at each other, sometimes via ADR recorded 10 minutes before they went to a talk show interview to promote The Rise of Skywalker. But moments of reflection and introspection? Gone, with hollow info dumps left in their place. And unfortunately Doescher doesn’t deviate from this much.

There are two notable exceptions to this: Rey’s speech processing that she is a Palpatine (Act 3, Scene 3) and Ben Solo reclaiming his identity (Act 3, Scene 4). Both of these were much needed character beats where the story could slow down and breathe a little. It is also particularly appreciated that Doescher didn’t let the conversation with Han be the last time he speaks (save for that one “ow”, which does actually make the jump into Merry Rise).

It’s not productive to lament what could have been, but I couldn’t help but notice several opportunities for Doescher to flex that poetic license he used so liberally in the first few instalments, particularly when it came to Hux, Rose and Dark Rey. Hux does get one final, oddly placed villanelle. But the “why” of it all, so sorely lacking in the movie, is not made up for here. Hux is just the spy because he wants Kylo to lose. He doesn’t get a speech to brood on it or anything. I never thought I would say this, but bring back the speeches!

The same goes for Rose and Dark Rey. The former has a handful of lines, and the latter just the one. This is where we started to wonder if there was some kind of oversight on these that didn’t exist for the first six. Because why not give Rose a speech about either being sad at being left behind. Or alternatively relieved at the prospect? Why not let Dark Rey have a villanelle? Or say literally anything that warrants her existence. There was enough room for an entire scene of two troopers claiming that they’ve written down the entire Star Wars saga, there should have been room to expand on the context and characterisation that was so sorely lacking in the film.

Poetry and Form

Nora: I attended a seminar earlier this week, run by a PhD student in my department, about narrative in poetry. The questions on the table were the kind I love to have in a seminar, particularly an advanced seminar: stuff like, “what even is a poem?” and “how do we distinguish verse from prose?” They’re the types of academic questions that don’t actually have answers (at least, not the kind of answer that could fit into a multiple-choice question), but they’re still important to think about. These questions were still going through my mind as I finished reading The Merry Rise of Skywalker, so maybe that’s why I was more attuned to form in this play.  

Doescher is keen to tell his readers, in his Afterword, all the ways in which he’s playing with form in this play. Villanelles! Acrostics! Skip codes! Encoded melodies! Random references to other books he read once! 

The problem, to my mind, is that all of this flair with form doesn’t actually serve the story, or the characters. It serves mainly to show us, as readers, that Doescher is capable of playing with form. 

Perhaps, given his attachment to extremely strict iambic pentameter, this is a necessary flourish. However, I can’t help feeling that there were obvious opportunities for a playful approach to form that would actually serve the story that Doescher simply missed. 

The most glaring example, to my mind, is in the link he makes between Ben and Rey, and Romeo and Juliet. In some ways, this is to be expected: the one-person-seeming-to-be-dead-and-then-the-other-dies-and-the-first-one-wakes-up thing is there in the movie. Seize that low-hanging fruit, by all means! But if we’re going there, why not go all the way? 

In Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed couple’s meet-cute takes the form of an English sonnet. An English sonnet typically consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, with an ABAB rhyme scheme in each of the three quatrains (stanzas of four lines each), and a final rhyming couplet. In Shakespeare’s play, that sonnet looks like this: 

ROMEO: If I profane with my unworthiest hand​

This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:​

My lips, two blushing pilgrims ready stand​

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.​

JULIET: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hands too much,​

Which mannerly devotion shows in this,​

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch​

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss. ​

ROMEO: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too? ​

JULIET: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer. ​

ROMEO: O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do—​

They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.​

JULIET: Saints do not move, though grant for prayer’s sake.​

ROMEO: Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take. (1.5.92-105)

Romeo and Juliet, here, are literally finishing each other’s romantic verses. Romeo takes the first quatrain, and Juliet replies with the second. But then, they share the third quatrain and final couplet. Traditionally, the third quatrain is also where the turn happens in an English sonnet: where the thesis set up by the first two quatrains is changed or qualified in some way. Romeo and Juliet sharing the third quatrain is the turn, in one sense: they’ve moved from separated verse structures to something in which they’re each dependent on the other in order to finish the poem. It’s heckin’ adorable, to be honest, and communicates to an audience—even if we’re not necessarily completely aware of the sonnet structure as we hear the lines—that these two are intimately connected in some way. 

Can you see why I think it would’ve been really great for one of these shared sonnets to pop up in The Merry Rise of Skywalker?? Especially if we’re already going down the route of comparing Ben and Rey to Romeo and Juliet?? 

It would’ve been great to see this deployed at any point, but I especially wished for it in Doescher’s Act 3, Scene 4—the fight scene on the Death Star remains. There’s a section of the fight in which Rey and Kylo are narrating their actions in a series of asides—which, by definition, are to the audience and not heard by each other. This is also a dramaturgical strategy Doescher used in Jedi the Last, in the throne room fight scene, and it didn’t work there, either. This time around, however, I was left wishing that—even if they were going to narrate their actions in asides—these characters had been given some opportunity to demonstrate what the fight choreography in the movies shows so well: they are a dyad in the Force. They’re intimately connected to each other, two sides of the same coin, and their dialogue should reflect that! One way to do that, and make a clever Shakespeare reference to boot, would have been to write in a sonnet like Romeo and Juliet’s here. 

Final Thoughts

Nora: Even though I did not like even one of these plays, I have really loved getting to review them with you, Arezou! This has been a fun journey, and I’ve learned a lot about Star Wars along the way. 

Doescher, my dude: get out of your own way, and fall out of love with the gimmicks. 

Nicholas Delort, wherever you are: 10/10, no notes. 

Arezou: I agree that the plays were not great (though I can maybe make a case for The Clone Army Attacketh) but getting to work with Nora for nearly a year has been wonderful. We met in a university Shakespeare class and I honestly think I learned more about our friend The Bard this year than I did back then.

I still can’t quite believe that Nora and her academic sensibilities stuck with me on this for 10 months and nine plays. Here’s to our next joint project, where we might be happy for a change!

***

And with that, our Star Wars Shakespeare project is at an end. If you’ve followed along since the beginning, thank you. If you want to go catch up on the others, for our fabulous, pedantic, and 100% correct commentary, you can do so here:

Ep. IV, Ep. V, Ep. VI, Ep. I, Ep. II, Ep. III, Ep. VII, Ep. VIII

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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