Commentary by Arezou Amin and Dr. Nora Williams
Midway through our Shakespeare project. Midway through the Prequel Trilogy. We’ve come so far.
If you can believe it, we’re actually nice this time. Well…nicer. Are we just settling into the style? Is it a question of Ian Doescher feeling less attached to the Prequels and so taking more liberties we like? Read on to find out.
Nora: There’s some genuinely positive stuff here! Like of course a lot of it is still bad (and we’ll get to that), but there are truly some high points in this one.
Arezou: What a treat it was to find a passage and to mark the page while nodding approvingly – and even in excitement in one case.
Nora: The main thing, I think, is that we’re getting some of the interiority that we wanted for Leia in Doescher’s approach to Padmé, which is really nice to see. She gets a fair few soliloquies, including one after her first kiss with Anakin that gives a nicely nuanced meditation on her duties as a senator and the problems that a relationship with the young Jedi could cause (2.4.24-56). In its attention to the way “this Anakin doth fully dote on me,” it also hints at the darkness that runs through their relationship and comes to a head in the next installment in the series (2.4.26). It’s truly some of Doescher’s best work across all of the plays we’ve read so far. So credit where credit’s due—I actually like his take on Padmé, overall.
Arezou: It didn’t occur to me until after we talked, but this one is the “romance” chapter of its trilogy, much in the same way The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi are for their respective trilogies. Darker middle chapter perhaps, but also more romantic middle chapters all around. But I digress. I remember how swoony and sheltered-teenager-Juliet Leia became in The Empire Striketh Back, and I was worried about him doubling down on that here. After all, of all the “romantic middle chapters” this one is most explicitly painted like a romance. But no, Padmé is given space to reflect on her own aspirations and desires both romantic and professional. Balance.
Nora: Similarly, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, his treatment of the Shmi storyline works well. The application and adaptation of one of Ophelia’s songs as a funeral dirge is poignant, and Cliegg’s mourning speech is surprisingly touching: “Farewell my love, my hope, my joy, my all— / My gratitude complete take thou with thee” (4.2.47-48). Less convincing is the use of Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech as Anakin’s reaction to his mother’s death (4.1.34-40). While I can perhaps stretch to see this as a hint towards Anakin’s turn to the dark side, this speech in Macbeth is famous for being callous, and surprisingly so given Macbeth’s affection towards his wife in the first part of the play. Coming late in the play, it demonstrates just how far Macbeth has fallen to his “vaulting ambition.” Given that Anakin has abandoned a mission given to him by the Jedi Council, and put himself and Padmé at substantial risk in order to find and attempt to rescue his mother, for whom he cares very deeply, it’s a weird choice.
Arezou: Given the strange choice to insert an Oedipal aside about the Tuskens in The Jedi Doth Return, I kind of expected the same here. The same weird sort of othering. But we didn’t get any of that! Nor do we get any sense that Anakin is justified in doing what he does to the Tusken settlement. I’m not suggesting them kidnapping a woman is a good thing, but I think we all know this could have been much, much worse in any other retelling or medium. But that instinct was avoided here. Could Ian be learning from his mistakes? It’s possible, hope springs eternal.
Dramaturgical Comments – Nora
In Doescher’s favour, I will say that—as in the previous installment—the political machinations suit this medium. The back-and-forth of senatorial strategy and Palpatine’s plotting work well in blank verse, and remind me (again) of early modern history plays. In some ways, the space that this type of play creates for longer speeches helps explicate the ins-and-outs of Galactic politics in a way that the movies, with their shorter scenes and quippier dialogue, don’t always manage. On the flip side, the battle scenes still do not really work. He hasn’t got the balance of description and action down, and I’m still left wondering who these plays are for, as I can’t see the big droid-vs-clones battle in Act 5 working on a stage at all. To be fair to Doescher, that’s an extraordinarily difficult scene in general, and one that I think doesn’t even really work in the movie. But he had an opportunity here to clarify and strengthen it, and that’s…not what happens.
I also thought that the Chorus describing Anakin and Padmé’s wedding at the very end didn’t really work. The strength of that moment in the movie is in its gorgeous contrast to the fomenting war. The harsh, cold steel and glass of Coruscant and the austerity of the Jedi temple melt into the lush colours of rural Naboo, and the soft shapes of Padmé’s wedding dress. John Williams’ score crescendos and the audience is invited to see the tension between these two endings—the beginnings of the Clone Wars on one side, and the realization of Padmé and Anakin’s love on the other—that sets up the major conflicts of the next installment in the trilogy. Doescher’s choice to squash this into a final speech for the Chorus rather dampens the effect. It’s a classic case of telling rather than showing the audience, as the Chorus spells out the implications of the ending: “Their love doth bloom while war comes creeping in” (5.4.62). To me, it felt lacklustre against the movie’s epic closing scene.
I also want to echo my complaint about the previous play (well, all of them, really): Doescher wants to present himself as a “Shakespeare guy,” but his knowledge of Shakespeare is actually really limited. Here, he takes cursory readings of “the comedies”—a genre classification that meant something very different to Shakespeare than it means to us—and applies this broad-brush to create a hashtag-romantic scene. And beyond that, his use of the archaic second-person pronoun is sloppy: in the lines from 3.1 quoted above, Anakin should say “thy hidden secret,” not “thine hidden secret.” “Thine” would make sense here if the next word started with a vowel sound: thine eyes, thine ears, etc. But “thy” is used (in this context) before words beginning with consonants: thy secret, thy hand, etc. This isn’t the only example of Doescher writing a line that “sounds Shakespearean” but isn’t grammatically correct (see my complaints about the title of The Phantom of Menace, e.g.).
Canon Comments – Arezou
There are a couple of notes of canonical interest that I get into further down during our Anakin and Padmé deep dive, but there are two I want to mention here: one of great story importance, and one I just liked.
Last time, we really got into it over Jar Jar, and the questionable choice to make him seem foolish to others when he is secretly hyper-intelligent. Where it just read as baffling and kind of racist then, it’s here that that choice starts to have an impact on the overall story. Because Jar Jar is extremely important to the story, and not in the ridiculous conspiracy Darth Jar Jar way.
The purpose of Jar Jar in this film, to be, is to paint him as the well meaning Naboo representative who works with Senator Amidala, making up for what he lacks in intelligence with a whole lot of heart and kindness. Jar Jar isn’t politically savvy, and that’s the whole point. That’s why Palpatine attempts to assassinate Padmé. He knows that either the attempt with succeed and problem solved, or the attempt will fail and he can convince her to leave long enough for the Republic army she opposes to be authorized, and for the Chancellor to be given unchecked authority over the Senate. In making her leave, necessitating her sweet but unintelligent associate to quickly take her place, he ensures his rise to power faces no opposition.
So when the emergency powers are decided on, Bail Organa and Ask Aak agree to vote on them right away. They have people to protect and something to lose. Meanwhile Jar Jar gets an entire aside (4.3.82) where he says he knows he’s being played, and that he won’t play their game but then…talks himself into playing along anyway because he genuinely believes it’s the right thing to do. Which begs the question of why all this was necessary. Without the addition of “Smart Jar Jar”, he already thought he was doing the right thing. So this new awareness, and this refusal to play their game, does absolutely nothing for the character. There is no payoff. It’s actually worse this way, because if he’s smarter than everyone else, and he knows he’s being played, then why go along with it at all?
But just before you think I am fully bitter and have no heart, can we talk about Boba Fett for a second?
I am, as some of you know, a new Boba Fett stan. What can I say, I walked into The Mandalorian chapter 14 a cynic and walked out a changed woman. Boba doesn’t do much in Attack of the Clones, granted. He’s mostly there so we, the audience, get some background on the bounty hunter we know later, and to give some stakes to Jango Fett’s story arc. The part of Boba’s story that really sticks with us, is this one really great, absolutely heartbreaking shot towards the end of the film:
We’ve made fun of Doescher and his love of a good monologue before, but this was one time I flagged the addition as a net positive. In among all the creature chaos, he gives us a quiet moment as little Boba reflects what the loss of his father means for him and the man he’s going to become. 10/10 on this one, Ian. I might be salty, but I can give credit where it’s due.
I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In
Nora: While I do like the portrayal of Padmé overall, Act 3, Scene 1 is a hot mess. In his “Afterword,” Doescher tells readers that he “wanted the strength of Shakespeare’s romantic plotlines to surround and embrace Padmé and Anakin,” which is why this scene “includes lines spoken by characters from each of Shakespeare’s comedies—and, for good measure, Romeo and Juliet” (160). Wow. Okay. There’s a lot to unpack there.
Let’s focus on the most obvious problem in Doescher’s framing: many—nay, even most—of Shakespeare’s “romantic plotlines” are deeply, deeply misogynist, if not outright abusive. Doescher’s 3.1 opens with one of the most famous, using lines from The Taming of the Shrew:
ANAKIN Come, come, thou wasp: thine hidden secret shout.
PADMÉ If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
ANAKIN My remedy is then to pluck it out. (3.1.1-3)
These lines make use of Act 2, Scene 1 of Taming, in which Petruchio first attempts to “woo” the titular “shrew”—aka, independent woman—Katherina. The scene is usually played for laughs, with plenty of physical comedy invited by the characters’ verbal sparring. However, the scene has a more sinister tone than most productions acknowledge. Petruchio ends the scene by forcing Kate into a marriage that she rejects, literally telling her that he will marry her whether she consents or not, and “tame” her in the process:
[…] your father hath consented
That you shall be my wife, your dowry ’greed on;
And will you, nill you, I will marry you.
For I am he born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates.
Here comes your father. Never make denial;
I must and will have Katherine to my wife. (Taming 2.1.281-83, 288-92)
As the play continues, Petruchio demonstrates textbook abusive behaviours from gaslighting to restricting food and sleep, to controlling Kate’s ability to see her family. A delightful model for a loving relationship, no?
Similarly, Doescher makes use of one of Angelo’s lines from Measure for Measure in the same scene, when Padmé asks: “The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?” (3.1.142). Measure for Measure is the story of Angelo attempting to coerce Isabella, a young woman about to take her vows as a nun, into having sex with him in exchange for her brother’s life. The line that Doescher chooses for this scene is from one of Angelo’s soliloquies, in which he confesses to the audience that he “desire[s] her foully for those things / That make her good” (Measure 2.2.176-77). Again, not exactly a strong relationship to “surround and embrace Padmé and Anakin” (160).
I could have been on board with Doescher using dysfunctional and abusive relationships from Shakespeare’s plays as a hint towards the turn that Padmé and Anakin’s relationship takes in Revenge of the Sith. Anakin treats her really badly in that movie, even choking her and knocking her to the ground while she’s very pregnant—an act that arguably leads directly to her death. I went to read the “Afterword” genuinely hoping that he might express such an intention. Instead, his choice here comes across as a flex on how much Shakespeare’s he knows—ooh, he can quote from All’s Well That Ends Well! And Two Gentlemen of Verona! How clever he is! With no apologies to Doescher, I’m not interested in demonstrations of cleverness that read like simple misogyny.
Arezou: The thing I worried about going into this is that their relationship would be painted as a terrible idea from the get-go with the type of smugness that reads of moral lessons for silly romantic girls who are too stupid to know better. Because as terribly as Anakin and Padmé’s relationship ends, it’s not a terrible idea from the beginning. These two do genuinely care about each other and love one another. In another world, if they were any two other people, they might have even been happy. But it was not to be, this was always going to be tragedy.
All this to say that Doescher doesn’t take the moralizing approach, but like Nora pointed out, he doesn’t exactly hint at darkness to come either, choosing instead a purely romantic read. I agree with every point she’s made about the language used, but I want to take a moment to explore the story implications of some of the non-Shakespeare language.
The first moment of note I want to point out is Anakin and Padmé’s conversation on Varykino before their first kiss. You know the one. It’s the “I don’t like sand” moment. This is a scene that has been meme’d half to death for the awkwardness of the phrasing and the segue, and for Hayden Christiansen’s performance (the critique of which I take a lot of issue with but I’ll come back to that in a second). In the time since, as those of us who engage in deep-dives of the text have noted, it’s not that Anakin is randomly changing the subject, or finding the thinnest excuse to be allowed to touch Padme’s arm (but maybe it is a little bit that), it’s that she just spend who knows how long telling him about school trips to the beach, swimming in the lake and lazing in the sand. Anakin cannot relate at all, because to him sand is a nuisance. It was a thing that got stuck under his clothes and probably gave him blisters. It was grit that had to be scrubbed out of machine parts, and was probably lodged in his teeth until the day he left Tatooine. There’s nothing nice about it. Is this an awkward time to bring it up? Sure. But this is also a kid who hasn’t really had much opportunity to flirt before. Who was going to show him how it was done? Obi-Wan “I’m still hung up on my teenage romance” Kenobi? Anyway, Doescher takes this reading of the scene and makes it explicit, with Anakin telling Padmé: “For me the sand hath never been a balm […] It is an ever present irritant” (2.4.13-16). We’ve criticized Doescher in the past for making the subtle too explicit, but in this case I think it was much needed to prevent the moment being played for laughs.
The second moment is something so small, but I think it undoes a lot of the intention of the scene and the way it’s meant to be played out. On Geonosis, when they’re about to be rolled out into the arena, Anakin and Padmé finally confess their feelings to one another. After a short soliloquy on the subject, Padmé concludes with “I love thee, Anakin.” Ever beholden to his iambic pentameter, Doescher cannot dive directly into Anakin’s protests that they had promised not to fall in love. Instead, he needs to finish off that one blank verse quickly, and so he has Anakin exclaim “Elation vast!” (5.1.134). But here’s my issue.
There’s no point in drawing comparisons to the film all the time. They’re two different mediums. However, this moment before they enter the arena is such a wonderful one for Anakin, and it’s because he is finally growing out of his Padawan tendencies and into the knight he is about to become. He’s spent the whole movie being brash, and direct, and acting without thinking (something he definitely learned from Obi-Wan “lemme just dive out this window real quick” Kenobi). But here, when Padmé has fully declared her love to him, rather than seizing this as the go-ahead it is, he actually takes a step back and thinks. He reminds her of their promise not to fall in love. It’s only after, when she says that she wants him and damn the consequences they can figure it out later, does he actually do anything about it. But in adding “elation vast!” at the start of Anakin’s dialogue, it takes him on a bit of a yo-yo ride. It’s too soon for him to express that unbridled joy just yet.
Now this is where I come back to Hayden Christiansen. I maintain, as I have for years, that he is actually a good actor. He was young at the time, had relatively little experience, and was working with unnatural dialogue and the direction “faster and more intense”. Not exactly helpful. But while he may not express anything akin to “elation vast!” verbally, he is most certainly saying it with his eyes. Damn, does this man have expressive eyes. No matter what the dialogue might have you saying, if your eyes can convince me, then I’m sold on the performance, and through Hayden’s performance, Anakin’s heart were vastly elated, even if his mind told him to slow his roll. So I may not like the addition of the line, but I get why Doescher did it. This is one medium where you need to express the intended emotion on the page, and you don’t have scene directions to do that for you, the way a screenplay would.
Nora: I’m interested to see how the interiority that Doescher’s begun developing for Padmé plays out in The Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge. There’s potential to make her birth/pregnancy scene much stronger (i.e., focused on her) than it is in the movie. I’ll be annoyed if that scene is all about Obi-Wan, much as I love him. Your move, Ian!
Arezou: I wholeheartedly second this. Padmé’s arc was cut tragically off at the knees (much like Anakin was…too soon?), and it’s only in novelizations and deleted scenes that we see her role in the birth of the Rebellion. If we don’t get those scenes outright put back in, I hope we at least get some reference to them!
And now, please enjoy this meme, which was still somewhat topical at the time of this writing:
Next month, the Prequel Trilogy comes to an end with The Tragedy of The Sith’s Revenge. It seems like we started this project just yesterday, and now we have more behind us than we do ahead.
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