In the more than 400 years since he wrote his first play, Shakespeare has been re-worked, adapted, and performed in a wide variety of settings. His plays have become a source of inspiration and a marker of culture. They’ve even made it into the Star Wars universe.
I’ve known about William Shakespeare’s Star Wars for a while, but it wasn’t till last year that I finally picked up the
first fourth one, Verily, A New Hope. I expected it just to be a joke, but quickly realised it was a serious work. Yes, it made me laugh, but it also made me think - and I find that’s usually a good combination.
The Star Wars movies are well enough known that there probably aren’t any major spoilers here. Of course, there may be spoilers for how Ian Doescher, the author, approaches his task.
I’ll let QuirkBooks introduce it
The Shakespearean touch
I think the first thing I noticed was the Shakespearean language. Some of it is lofty, some is old fashioned, and some just feels comically out of place. It allowed me to hear of knaves and wenches, root for the “great rebellion” or the “brave resistance”, use words like alack, prithee, marry, and anon, and even smile every time R2-D2 was called a “naughty droid”.
The meter itself seems reasonable, though I’m certainly not expert. And if you know any famous Shakespearean quotes, you’ll almost certainly find them here in some form. But there’s so much more to it than that.
There’s even a variation on the world’s most famous stage direction:
[Exit, pursued by a wampa.
Shakespeare productions don’t tend to require as complex sets, because more is left to the audience to figure out. In this case, there’s the chorus to describe some of the action. Also, rather than cutting between multiple settings, as might be done in films, in Shakespeare it’s possible to have action on the balcony while other things are going on on the main stage.
Another thing that really makes it Shakespearean is the asides and the soliloquies. This allows the earlier produced films to match later revelations - for example, Darth Vader is Anakin, as in the prequels, and Obi-Wan is already talking about “a certain point of view” in asides when first meeting Luke.
That also allows for a depth that isn’t always present in the original. For example, Luke muses on adventure and his search for adventure and how it has killed his relatives, while Padme has a lengthy soliloquy on trying to make a better world for her unborn children amidst chaos.
There’s more opportunity to explore the character motivations for the likes of Lando, Jar Jar, and, yes, even Vader himself. And that too is very Shakespearean.
Playing to the Star Wars fandom
Yes, it’s Shakespeare, but the author is a Star Wars fan. Unashamedly so. And it shows in the way he treats some of the iconic moments.
I particularly like this one:
[They shoot, Greedo dies.
[To innkeeper:] Pray, goodly Sir, forgive me for the mess.
[Aside:] And whether I shot first, I’ll ne’er confess!
But he’s also happy to poke fun at Star Wars. For example, in The Jedi Doth Return Obi-Wan is glad he hasn’t talked about midichlorians to Luke, while The Force Doth Awaken has an amusing extended comparison of the similarities between the events thirty years before and now (I enjoyed The Force Awakens, and still do - but there’s no doubt it was a re-run of A New Hope).
I mentioned the role of the chorus. Here’s the (very Shakespearean) opening crawl:
It is a period of civil war.
The spaceships of the rebels, striking swift
From base unseen, have gain’d a vict’ry o’er
The cruel Galactic Empire, now adrift.
Amidst the battle, rebel spies prevail’d
And stole the plans to a space station vast,
Whose pow’rful beams will later be unveil’d
And crush a planet: ’tis the DEATH STAR blast.
Pursu’d by agents sinister and cold,
Now Princess Leia to her home doth flee,
Deliv’ring plans and a new hope they hold:
Of bringing freedom to the galaxy.
In time so long ago begins our play,
In star-crossed galaxy far, far away.
And I quite like this one, with its appeal to imagination over costume and sets and technical gimmickry:
CHORUS As our scene shifts to space, so deep and dark,
O’er your imagination we’ll hold sway.
For neither players nor the stage can mark
The great and mighty scene they must portray.
We ask you, let your keen mind’s eye be chief—
Think when we talk of starships, there they be.
If you can soon suspend thy disbelief,
The Death Star battle shall you plainly see!
So now: the preparation made with care,
Toward the Death Star rides the noble fleet.
By whirr of engines rebels take the air,
With courage strong their unknown Fate to meet.
Giving voices to the voiceless
To me, one of the best thing about this series is how it gives voices to those that don’t have voices in the movies. Take, for example, R2-D2 entering the escape pod despite the disapproval of C-3PO:
This golden droid has been a friend, ’tis true,
And yet I wish to still his prating tongue!
An imp, he calleth me? I’ll be reveng’d,
And merry pranks aplenty I shall play
Upon this pompous droid C-3PO!
Yet not in language shall my pranks be done:
Around both humans and droids I must
Be seen to make such errant beeps and squeaks
That they shall think me simple. Truly, though,
Although with sounds oblique I speak to them,
I clearly see how I shall play my part,
And how a vast rebellion shall succeed
by wit and wisdom of a simple droid.
But this isn’t just for the good guys. In later episodes, the wampa gets a chance to explain that it’s just hunting for food. The AT-ATs attacking the rebel base on Hoth get their chance to boast before being slain. The exegorth laments the loss of the Millennium Falcon and the injuries it suffered. And even the rancor slain by Luke is mourned by its keeper.
Droids have feelings too
Too often in Star Wars, the emotions and essential humanity of droids are dismissed (I’m still not happy with the death of IG-11). So I liked this reflection from C-3PO after the trash compactor scene:
C-3PO No heart within this golden breast doth beat,
For only wires and circuit boards are here.
Yet as I hear my Master’s dying screams
No heart is necessary for my grief.
A droid hath sadnesses, and hopes, and fears,
And each of these emotions have I felt
Since Master Luke appear’d and made me his.
No Master have I e’er respected so,
Thus at this moment grave I do declare:
There is no etiquette for shedding tears,
No protocol can e’er express my woe.
A lament for Alderaan
Sometimes the author adds things that have no equivalent in the original, and they often add both depth and beauty. A good example is Leia’s lament for Alderaan:
LEIA [sings:] When Alderaan hath blossom’d bright,
Then sang we songs of nonny,
But now her day is turn’d to night,
Sing hey and lack-a-day.
My friend and I stood by the river,
Then sang we songs of nonny,
But I could not her soul deliver,
Sing hey and lack-a-day.
My planet hath the bluest shore,
Then sang we songs of nonny,
That noble land is now no more,
Sing hey and lack-a-day.
A love story foreshadowed
As in the film, initially it is Luke, not Han, who is most interested in the fate of Leia:
LUKE Hast thou no heart? She sentenc’d is to die!
HAN My sentence is: ’tis better she than I.
But in short order the Chorus gets its chance to foreshadow:
CHORUS With hearty blast th’Imperi’l troops appear—
Their coming doth require that Han retreat.
In moment dangerous, amidst great fear,
Here Han and Leia for the first time meet.
Luke is certainly not impressed:
HAN [To Luke:] I say, what charming girl thou here hast found!
I either shall destroy her, or, perhaps,
I may in time begin to like the wench!
LUKE [aside:] Nay, executioner or lover, both
Are far too great a role for thee to play.
It’s also a good example of the role of asides. For example, in their initial interaction on Hoth in The Empire Striketh Back, Leia makes her feelings clear with a touch of Austen:
LEIA [Aside:] Be not so full of bile, my noble Han.
I prithee, choose the tender side of wit.
If thou couldst ever put thy pride away,
Belike my prejudice would fall aside.
Then could our two hearts sing a melody,
Instead of clashing in disharmony.
Some painful moments
Personally, I think most of the quotes that are used hit. At least well enough that they’re fun rather than painful. But, given the nature of the work, it’s probably to be expected that not everything comes off. So if that’s going to frustrate you, be warned.
Take for example this one:
The day when Jabba taketh my dear ship
Shall be the day you find me a grave man.
It’s not too bad, but the only reason it’s there is because it’s drawing on a line from a very different context (Romeo and Juliet, to be precise).
Others are worse:
TARKIN I am as constant as the Endor moon,
And shall rebellion crush, and do it soon.
[Exit Grand Moff Tarkin.
Julius Caesar’s reference to the constancy of the northern star makes sense. But the moon of Endor is nothing like that. It’s not even clear that Tarkin would know of the existence of the moon of Endor, let alone of the pivotal role it would play in a later episode.
Or then there’s this:
LUKE —But O, what now?
What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks?
HAN It marks the loss of yon deflector shield.
I bid thee, peace! Now sit and thou take heed,
For all’s prepar’d to jump unto lightspeed.
Escaping from imperial troops is a long way from the famous Balcony scene…
The throne room scene
I think the final throne room scene gives a good example of how the approaches differ. Here it is in the film, dignified by the wonderful music of John Williams:
And here’s the Shakespearean epilogue:
Enter CHORUS as epilogue.
CHORUS Now dawns a new day with the sun of Peace,
The day whereon the rebels welcome Fate.
For from their enemies they find release
And now with mirth they come to celebrate.
Young Luke, strong in the Force, doth walk beside
The noble Han, whose valor won the day.
The rebels form an aisle and rise with pride,
As Luke and Han march forth in grand display.
Now Leia smiles and gives them their reward,
As each bows low with hope and joy sincere.
C-3PO and R2, now restor’d,
Look on as brave Chewbacca sounds the cheer.
There let our heroes rest free from attack,
Till darkness rise and Empire striketh back.
Clearly they convey much the same content, but equally clearly they do it in a very different way.
Just for Covid
Given I read these while Covid was raging, it’s probably not surprising that quotes about masks jumped out. Take for example when Vader first requires his mask in The Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge:
VADER: This mask shall hide the man that I once was,
Behind the mask my secret thoughts shall lay,
Beneath the mask shall be my private lair,
The mask, impenetrable, makes me free.
Within the full security it gives
I shall fulfill my radiant destiny:
Bring balance to the Force as I do live
A life of vengeance, power, and reward.
Eight more episodes
There are so many more quotes I wanted to share, but I had to draw a line somewhere, so I (mostly) focused on Verily, a New Hope.
The author has actually done all nine of the Skywalker Saga. So, should you read them all? Probably not (I have, but it’s definitely a lot, and I did take breaks between trilogies).
My general recommendation: If you like either Star Wars or Shakespeare, I think the Shakespearean Original Trilogy is definitely worth it. If you find you like those, the Shakespearean versions of the prequel trilogy add both depth and interest to films that were at best a mixed bag. As for the sequel trilogy, it’s probably best left for completists like me.
Understandably, as the author progressed he ran through the “obvious” Shakespeare quotes, and so needed to dredge up more obscure ones. There are increasingly also references to other literature, films, and even musicals. For example, I noticed Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, James Bond, and even Hamilton. And there are probably others that I missed.
That’s not to say they don’t work. Han counselling Finn not to throw away his shot felt out of place, but I found Palpatine’s dying words in The Merry Rise of Skywalker fitting:
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
(for the record, that’s borrowed from Titus Andronicus).
I think these books made me laugh more than anything else I read in 2021, and so I’d certainly recommend them. The author had a lot of fun writing them, and I’m glad to have fun with said author.
One final recommendation: If you get a chance, try the audiobook versions. Shakespeare is meant to be declaimed, and the individual characters also try to sound like the original movie actors.