Well today is May 4rth, when a lot of people have chosen to celebrate one of the most iconic movies of the 20th century: Star Wars! And why not? The story is full of conflict, introspection, love, change, the conflict between fathers and sons, and occasionally guidance from ghosts. Wait, that sounds familiar- it’s a lot like Shakespeare! Yes, the movie has a lot of parallels with the Shakespearean canon, and I’d like to share some of those similarities here. Below is a post I did for the American Shakespeare Center about how the Star Wars prequels parallel Shakespeare’s history saga of Henry the Sixth:
As I was writing William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, I was surprised to realize I had made more references to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing than any other play. Much Ado is a comedy—probably my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies—so it was strange that lines from it kept popping up in the darkest of the original Star Wars® trilogy.
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is a series of parody plays written by Ian Doescher that takes the prose screenplays of the Star Wars story and transforms them into Elizabethan verse. Last time I mentioned how much I loved the cheeky references to Shakespeare and Star Wars, and how Doescher adapts the cinematic quality into Elizabethan drama very well. In my podcast, I also emphasized the way Doescher gives each character verbose Shakespearan language that works very well for radio and theater:
What I want to do with this post, (and the accompanying podcast), is to see whether this edition captures the fun, the clever wordplay, and the Shakespearean storytelling of “A New Hope,” with the second installment of the series, and if it helps to capture the shift in tone between the two movies, as Luke is tempted by the dark side and Han is betrayed and frozen by Lando.
Notes about the play
The first play in the series, “Verily, A New Hope,” took plot and structure inspiration from Henry V; it tells the story as an epic heroic story of Luke’s heroic deeds, much like how Henry V is about a king who grows from boy to man.
By the playwright’s own admission, the dialogue is stuffed with lots of re-purposed quotes from Much AdoAbout Nothing, Shakespeare’s comedy of a womanizing, self-centered soldier who becomes a devoted husband. This is appropriate since the Leia/ Han plot within the play and movie starts out with them bickering like Beatrice and Benedick. Doescher says this was an accident, but I think he might have subconsciously taken inspiration from their love affair to help structure the dialogue. In the accompanying podcast episode, I talk more about how the use of Much Ado quotes helped to flesh out the characters of Luke, Leia, and especially Han.
Movies and plays follow a similar structure where the action starts at a static place, tension rises, and finally, things get resolved at the end. A lot of the same elements are in both issues. The main difference is how they are arranged. Let’s see how Doescher translated the three-act structure of a screenplay, to the five-act structure of an Elizabethan tragedy.
As you can see, films have a 3 act structure
Elements to Watch for:
A Chorus is a short speech where a character who is not part of the action of the play introduces the plot. It functions the same way as the famous title crawl at the beginning of Star Wars.
I mentioned last time that “Verily: A New Hope” uses choruses liberally, which is appropriate because the tone of this story is so much darker, and since the action follows the journeys of Han and Luke so closely Ian doesn’t use choruses as much. I suspect this is partly because unlike The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope jumped around more between planets and locations and used wipes and other transitions heavily:
Below is a link to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Learning Zone, where you can learn about the language of the Henry V chorus.
The literary technique of stichomythia has characters who speak at more or less the same time, using slightly different forms of dialogue. Doescher uses this well as a staging device by having Vader and Luke speak similar lines as Luke plummets down the shaft after losing his lightsaber duel:
These similar lines highlight the connection these two have (no spoilers), and also emphasize that, though the actors might be physically close onstage, their characters are meant to be far apart; they wouldn’t be saying this to each other.
In Romeo and Juliet, there’s an excellent example of stichomythia in Act IV, Scene iv, right after Juliet’s parents and Nurse discovers her, apparently dead. There is a long series of laments by her parents and nurse where they are shocked and horrified at her sudden death:
Lady Capulet. Accursed, unhappy, wretched, hateful day! 2702 Most miserable hour that e’er time saw In lasting labour of his pilgrimage! But one, poor one, one poor and loving child, But one thing to rejoice and solace in, And cruel death hath catch’d it from my sight!
Nurse. O woe! O woful, woful, woful day! Most lamentable day, most woful day, That ever, ever, I did yet behold!2710 O day! O day! O day! O hateful day! Never was seen so black a day as this: O woful day, O woful day!
Paris. Beguiled, divorced, wronged, spited, slain! Most detestable death, by thee beguil’d,2715 By cruel cruel thee quite overthrown! O love! O life! not life, but love in death!
Capulet. Despised, distressed, hated, martyr’d, kill’d! Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now To murder, murder our solemnity?2720 O child! O child! my soul, and not my child! Dead art thou! Alack! my child is dead; And with my child my joys are buried.
Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene v lines 2702-2723.
When I played Friar Laurence and the cast and I rehearsed this scene, the actors playing the Nurse and Juliet’s parents were struck by how similar the lines are and worried that these long passages of laments would get tedious to an audience. I realized by looking at the similar lines, the similar words (especially at the ends of lines), and the fact that Friar Laurence interrupts them at the end, led me to believe that these lines are meant to be spoken AT THE SAME TIME. This creates an effect of organized chaos where the actors seem to be wailing and ranting, but are actually speaking a carefully composed quartet of grief. Thus Doescher cleverly mimics Shakespeare’s use of stichomythia to convey Vader and Luke’s physical distance, and complementary feelings at the same time.
3. Parody Lines
The biggest appeal of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars is the fact that it is a parody, and I’ve said for many years that parody and gentle riffing on Shakespeare is a great way to get students to overcome their fear of Shakespeare and engage with him. Students who know Star Wars but don’t know Shakespeare will recognize the familiar characters and plots of the movies and then see how Shakespeare’s language tells the story anew. Similarly, people who know Shakespeare will recognize the way Doescher re-tools famous Shakespeare quotes to give to characters in the Star Wars Universe, like here, where he spoofs the intentionally bad speech of Snug the Joiner and gives it to the Wampa from Empire Strikes Back:
Peter Keavy as Snug the Joyner in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” 2017.
In the Educator’s guide, which I’ve attached below, Doescher tells you exactly which lines he has parodied and the plots of the original plays so the students can learn about Shakespeare through these famous speeches. Orson Wells once said that “We sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations,” and this edition gives us thrilling space battle, wonderful characters, and witty dialogue to keep us entertained while we wait.
As Doescher worked his way through all nine installments of Star Wars, he continued to expand and experiment with his storytelling. There are a couple of moments in “Empire” that work only onstage such as the aforementioned moment of stichomythia after the lightsaber duel, and the scene in Act II, Scene ii where the Imperial Walkers known as AT-ATs actually speak to each other onstage. Like the French in Henry V, it’s interesting to see the battle from the enemy’s point of view, albeit a highly biased one. I won’t reprint it here for copyright reasons, but I will put this funny sketch in as a placeholder:
Although I loved “Verily, A New Hope,” I feel that Doescher didn’t go far enough to adapt the dialogue in interesting ways and play with the stagecraft of Star Wars to make it more distinct from the film and the first installment. My favorite moment of the play was the Wampa speech which was great because it not only parodies one of my favorite speeches in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it also made the Wampa attack tonally distinct from the film- the film is tense and grim, while the Wampa speech is funny and charming. I wish Doescher had embraced the parody and silly tone he shows in this speech and applied it more to the rest of the play; we already know Empire is the darkest installment of the series, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be played like that the whole time.
What I think works best in the film is the romantic comedy between Han and Leia; Doescher does a wonderful job pointing out the parallels between Han and Leia and Benedick and Beatrice which is not only fun, but helps Star Wars fans appreciate the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing even more. This is why I’m glad Doescher took painstaking notes on how he parodied Much Ado and other plays in the guide below:
This is an interactive game that teaches the craft of Shakespeare’s writing and stagecraft in the form of an Elizabethan escape room. You must find the lost play of William Shakespeare before a mystery thief destroys it! Solve the clues and learn about Shakespeare’s writing and theater to uncover a historical mystery!
In this fully online, fully interactive game, you play as a member of Shakespeare’s company. You’ve just discovered that someone has stolen Shakespeare’s new play “Love’s Labors Won,” and you need to find it before the show tonight! In the course of the game, you search the Globe Theater and Shakespeare’s study. Then a mysterious note reveals that someone has stolen the play! You must figure out who it is, and find the play before the thief burns it! Through the course of the game, you will learn about Shakespeare’s theater, the secrets of how he wrote some of his great plays and beautiful poetry, and the work of his contemporaries in a fun, interactive way.
The class is organized into four parts, based on four locations where you will search for the missing play:
Part I- Search the Theater
Part I- Search the theater (website/ Slides/ Jamboard) You learn the basic parts of an Elizabethan stage (Google slides) You label the parts of the theater (Google Forms) You do a virtual tour of the theater (via Globe Theater.com) Web quest- answer 3 questions about Shakespeare’s Globe: https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/ (handout) You search the tiring house (the backstage area of the Globe), and find the letter from the thief (Sites).
Part II- THe Crime
A video plays where the thief declares that he’s stolen Shakespeare’s play for money and revenge. After the video, you will learn about plays, printing, and theft in Shakespeare’s day through a series of Google Slides Activity- make a folio, quarto, and octavio with just a piece of paper (handout) Web Quest- answer 3 questions about how Shakespeare’s plays were printed and the first folio (Slides) Activity 2: make an actors’ scroll or roll the way that Elizabethans might use (video) Easter egg- find a pair of gloves in the print shop and answer questions.
You’ll gain new understanding of the types of plays Shakespeare wrote and their basic plot structure via Google Slides. You’ll then take a short quiz to confirm what you learned.
-Plot Structure You’ll learn about the basic structure of Elizabethan plays via Google Slides. A second set of slides will demonstrate the plot structure of Romeo &Juliet You’ll mix and match a series of plot elements to create your own Elizabethan play via Jamboard
A hero is given some unwelcome news
He feels betrayed by those close to him
He agonizes about the ethics of killing someone close to him.
He kills someone (or banishes an honest man) and immediately falls into a downward spiral.
The hero does (this will be a mandatory choice)
The heroine disguises herself as a boy
A hero or heroine swears (s)he will never fall in love and immediately falls in love
The heroine pretends not to be interested in the hero, (but secretly loves him).
A loyal best friend is captured, sent to prison, or bewitched
The hero and heroine hate each other due to a series of misunderstandings.
The hero and heroine get married (this will be a mandatory choice).
An ambitious young man arises to challenge the king for the throne.
The old king dies, (or is murdered)
A new king becomes king
Duels and or battles
Someone dies in battle
Someone is murdered, assassinated, or sentenced to death.
New King gets married
King and Queen reign peacefully (at least for now)
Romance ( if students pick this option, they can mix and match everything (except the main character dying)
Verse practice- You’ll learn about the verse Shakespeare wrote, through a series of slides and a jam board. Activity- You will be given a series of famous lines from plays and movies, (such as a quote from a Disney Movie, a Star Wars film, or a song). You will then determine if it is an iambic pentameter line (Google Slides). Easter egg- you find a second note from the thief (Google Sites).
Part IV- THe Tavern
You will look at a series of pictures and videos about Shakespeare’s contemporaries and try to figure out which of them stole the play. Through the handout, you will conclude who the thief is. You find a dagger in the tavern and take it. Outside the tavern, you will fight the thief in a short animation. GAME OVER.
THe FIrst Class starts April 28th, 2023. CLick here to register!
Just for fun, I found this superhero creator website, and decided to create a Shakespeare character from it:
I put the real Shakespeare’s coat of arms on his chest, and decided to use the same color scheme. Hence, the black cape, the black mask that looks like an eagle, (since in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, the god Jupiter appears on an eagle. I also gave him yellow tights as a nod to Malvolio from Twelfth Night. I also kept colors that hint at Batman, since of course, Batman is partly inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
If I were to make a full comic book of this character, I’d probably make Shakespeare’s quill magic and either cover people with ink, or temporarily control their actions. He can also throw a wooden Globe at criminals and cram them inside it (an homage to the Prologue of Henry V.
I’d make Shakespeare a detective who can solve crimes because of his great storytelling abilities.
What do you think? Should I make a full comic of Shakespeare Man? Who should his nemesis be? And would this be something that you would enjoy seeing on this blog on a regular basis?
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No, you aren’t hallucinating. This is a clip from the short-lived Warner Brothers kids cartoon show “Histeria,” an educational variety show, sort of like Horrible Histories or “Who Was.” This clip is a song about the life of Henry VIII.
The show was produced by Worner Brothers for the WB back in 1996. It starred many successful voice actors from other WB projects like Billy West (Renn and Stimpy), Tess McNeill (Tiny Toon Adventures), and Frank Welker (The current voice of Curious George). In addition, the show was created by Tom Ruegger, Executive Producer of Warner Animation, who also created Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Pinky and the Brain. Those of you who grew up in the 90s know that the WB occasionally sprinkled their shows with educational sketches especially with Animaniacs:
So the idea of using these creative people to create a show about history was not a bad one in and of itself. It could have been a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock. The problem is that the characters are TERRIBLE.While Tiny Toons had likeable characters who were the modern-day successors to classic Warner characters like Buster Bunny, Plucky Duck, and Hampton pig, Histeria has lame characters nobody knows or has any interest in like Froggo, World’s Oldest Woman, and Big Fat Baby. In addition, there is no through line to any of these sketches so it seems like a bunch of random skits. While the Animaniacs was about crazy weird characters trying to escape from the Warner Bros. lot, it seems unclear as to why these characters are talking to me about history.
In short, Histeria feels like a bunch of talented people were forced to make it, and they gave little thought to how to make it a popular series. Still, the animation is good, the voice acting is top-notch, and occasionally, the jokes land very well, and the songs are very catchy. Not surprisingly, my favorite song is this one, where the cast summarizes in song, all 37 plays of William Shakespeare:
I love the BBC Kids show “Horrible Histories,” based on the books by Terry Deary (who also appears in the show). The show is a Monty-Python like variety show that jumps from various periods in English history, (primarily), while highlighting the “gory, ghastly, mean and cruel,” elements of history that our teachers tend to gloss over.
One period of history in which the show excels at satirizing is the Tudor period; devoting several songs, sketches, and animations to the reigns of Mary I, Good Queen Bess, and of course, Henry VIII. Here are some of my favorite clips from the series, with Ben Willbond as Henry VIII:
One really fun thing I like to see each Thanksgiving is the live previews of some of Broadway’s hottest shows. You may remember that I first became acquainted with the musical “Something Rotten,” after seeing a live performance at the Macy’s Day Parade. I am just ecstatic to see and talk about this year’s hit Broadway Musical Six. It swept the Tonys, and has opened up touring productions across the country.
This vibrant, clever retelling of Tudor her-story was created by TOBY MARLOW & LUCY MOSS in association with the Chicago Shakespeare Festival.
The show is incredibly smart, and creative, and delves into the lives of some fascinating women, re-told as a singing contest with the characters singing their lives for you to judge what it was like being the queen of England, and living with the turbulent and fickle Henry VIII. What really appeals to me in this show is that like Hamilton, the musical takes these six semi-mythical women and tells their story in a way that is fresh and exciting.
Part I: Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII:” How NOT to tell a queen’s story
Around 1613, Shakespeare wrote his final play- his 10th history play which loosely told the life of English king Henry the Eighth.
I happen to know a lot about this play since I was in it back in 2008, as you can see in the slideshow above. As you might notice, this play doesn’t tell the story of all of Henry’s wives. We only see the last few years of Catherine of Aragon’s life, and the beginning of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Most of the drama actually centers around Henry and his scheming advisor, Cardinal Wolsey. Maybe I’m biased because I played this role, but frankly, Woolsey is treated in the play as a stereotypical Machiavellian villain, who conveniently leads the king astray so he can be the hero of the play. Woolsey does all of Henry’s dirty work; taking over his government, spearheading his divorce to Catherine, and trying to dissuade the king from listening to Anne Boleyn’s Protestant ideas, dismissing her as a “spleeny Lutheran.” Shakespeare leaves it ambiguous as to whether Henry actually told Woolsey to do any of these things so the audience will blame Woosey, instead of the king.
I’ll be blunt, aside from the courtroom scene at Blackfriars, where Katherine pleads for Henry not to dissolve their marriage, and the fun dances and costumes in the scene where Anne flirts with Henry, the play is really quite boring. though I blame Jacobean censors more than Shakespeare for this. Even after the entire Tudor dynasty was dead and buried, powerful people in the English government controlled what Shakespeare could say about them.
Part II: The women take wing
During Shakespeare’s life time, the wives of Henry VIII were bit players at best. With the exception of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (who in most narratives have often been cast as either virgins or whores), the lives of Jane Seymore, Anne of Cleaves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr were barely told until the 20th century, where new feminist scholarship sparked renewed interest in these women and how they lived.
TV series like The Tudors, movies like The Other Boleyn Girl, and of course books and documentaries by
Well, I can’t yet give an objective view of the plot and characters of “Six,” because I haven’t seen it…(yet). But until then, let’s just say that like “Hamilton,” it is great to see history be recontextualized and shared in such an accessible way. We all know that European history is dominated by the names of white guys- king whoever, duke what’s-his name. To see important women in history be given a voice by a multi-ethnic cast is a great way to make it acessible.
Educational links related to the six wives of Henry VIII: