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:
Today, April 23 is the established birthday of William Shakespeare! I have a few posts in mind, (which might be a little late), but hopefully, you still enjoy them. Check out my new play summary of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressidaon the Play Of The Month page for a start. More coming soon.
For Pride Month, I’d like to draw some focus to a celebrated LGBTQ film, based on a play that, while not Shakespearean, it was by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries and one who influenced Shakespeare a lot. This film, Edward II, directed by Derek Jarman, was based on the play of the same name by Christopher […]
Before you send your kid off to summer camp, why not spend a few short hours learning Shakespeare in a low-key, no-pressure scenario! I have classes on Shakespeare’s life, Romeo and Juliet, and my celebrated Stage Combat class! Sign up now for all the fun on Outschool.com!
a sufficiently entertaining, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation that follows the play’s general outline without ever rising to the passionate intensity of its star-cross’d crazy kids By Manohla Dargis, New York Times Review 2013 Romeo and Juliet is still taught more than any other text in American high schools, and since it’s a play not a book, teachers will inevitably […]
I’m working on Part II of my Shakespeare’s Star Wars podcast and I thought I’d share some of the clips I’ve been editing together. First is a short clip of Darth Vader saying lines to express his sorrow and anger when Luke plummets down the Cloud City shaft, rather than go with his own father. […]
For Shakespeare’s birthday, I thought I’d re-visit one of my most popular posts, especially since the Royal Shakespeare Company is celebrating by putting on an adaptation of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet:
Just like his famous father, we know very little about the life of Hamnet Shakespeare. Since infant mortality rates were high, we don’t know his exact birthday, only that he was baptized on February 2nd, 1582. Like most 11-year old boys, he probably had started going to school at the King Edward Grammer School, the same as his father. This means he spent long hours away from his parents learning to read and write in Latin and Greek. When he was home, he lived with his mother, his two sisters, and his grandparents in the house of Henley Street.
O’Farrel portrays the boy Hamnet as sensitive and somewhat lonely, which makes sense, since he probably didn’t see his father for long periods of the year; Will Shakespeare spent much of the year writing, going on tour, and performing at the Globe- he commuted from London to Stratford for most of the year. He probably only came around during Lent, Christmas, and times of plague when the theaters were closed.
Never mind what I know. You must go.” She pushes at his chest, putting air and space between them, feeling his arms slide off her, disentangling them. His face is crumpled, tense, uncertain. She smiles at him, drawing in breath. “I won’t say goodbye,” she says, keeping her voice steady. “Neither will I.” “I won’t watch you walk away.” “I’ll walk backwards,” he says, backing away, “so I can keep you in my sights.” “All the way to London?” “If I have to.” She laughs. “You’ll fall into a ditch. You’ll crash into a cart.” “So be it.
The novel portrays Anne Shakespeare realizing that her husband is stifled and unhappy living with his parents in Stratford, and so she suggests to his father that he go to London to ‘expand the family business,’ though in reality, she wants him to go to make his fortune and find more fulfilling work. Scholars have wondered for years how Shakespeare got his start in theater- as a man with children he was legally unable to become an apprentice, and as a glover’s son from Stratford, he didn’t know anyone in London. O’Farrell solves the mystery by making him start out as a costume maker and mender for a theater company, who later became a writer and actor.
This idea of Shakespeare starting out as the company’s glove mender actually has some historical merit- records from the time confirm that many playwrights and actors were also local artisans. Men like John Webster, Richard Tarlton, Edward Kyneston, and even Richard Burbage were skilled drapers, textile merchants, haberdashers (men’s tailors) and ( like the Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”) some of these men were weavers-turned actors (Source: Anna Gonzales) So it’s entirely possible that Shakespeare started in London by selling gloves to theaters, before selling his plays.
When Will moved to London, he lived in a number of locations throughout the city, probably because it wasn’t a safe place. Theaters were located in the same districts as bear baiting and brothels, so Will probably had to move to get away from bad neighborhoods, as this video from The History Squad illustrates:
A glover will only ever want the skin, the surface, the outer layer. Everything else is useless, an inconvenience, an unnecessary mess. She thinks of the private cruelty behind something as beautiful and perfect as a glove.
Almost immediately after Will leaves, Anne is full of remorse. She knows his work in London will consume him and his success will make the distance between him and her even greater.
She walks back, more slowly, the way she came. How odd it feels, to move along the same streets, the route in reverse, like inking over old words, her feet the quill, going back over work, rewriting, erasing. Partings are strange. It seems so simple: one minute ago, four, five, he was here, at her side; now, he is gone. She was with him; she is alone. She feels exposed, chill, peeled like an onion.
He wants to tear down the sky, he wants to rip every blossom from that tree, he wishes to take a burning branch and drive that pink-clad girl and her nag over a cliff, just to be rid of them, to clear them all out of his way. So many miles, so much road stands between him and his child, and so few hours left.
As I’ve said in previous posts, Shakespeare survived three epidemics of Plague; one in 1563, (before he was born), one in 1593, and one in 1603. In O’Farell’s novel, the germs that kill Hamnet came not from a massive outbreak, but a few germs that were transported in a box that his sister had the misfortune of opening. This frightful passage shows the grim tenacity and eve-present fear that, while England expanded and became more interconnected with the world, it also brought death and disease to and from the rest of Europe.
In the book, the plague germs that infect Judith and later Hamnet, lie inside a box with some glass beads that the Shakespeare’s ordered from Italy to decorate a pair of fancy gloves. As this video from National Geographic shows, trade routs then as now are prime spreaders of disease and even one ship that slips by can turn any box of goods into a Pandora’s Box, waiting for a poor unsuspecting girl like Judith to release it unto the world.
He can feel Death in the room, hovering in the shadows, over there beside the door, head averted, but watching all the same, always watching. It is waiting, biding its time. It will slide forward on skinless feet, with breath of damp ashes, to take her, to clasp her in its cold embrace, and he, Hamnet, will not be able to wrest her free.
In the novel, Hamnet somehow takes the plague away from his sister and dies in her place. Though it is hardly conclusive, I do find it interesting that Shakespeare stopped writing comedies about twins for another four years after Hamnet’s death, until he wrote Twelfth Night, which unlike earlier comedies like The Comedy of Errors, has a pair of twins mourning each other’s apparent death. They seem to share one soul, and one tries to resurrect the other, like Viola mourning her brother by, (in a sense), becoming her brother.
What should I do in Ilyria? My brother is in Elysium
Viola- “Twelfth Night”, Act I, Scene ii.
ELIZABETHAN FUNERAL CUSTOMS
In the book, Anne makes a winding sheet for her son. This was a cloth of linen or wool that was wrapped around dead bodies, since at the time, coffins were re-used. This must have been a somber and deeply upsetting activity for Anne.
As this quote from “The Evolution of the English Shroud” illustrates, the act of making a winding sheet was a sort of sad family responsibility, a way of ensuring that your loved ones die with dignity, and Anne clearly takes the task of making one very seriously.
The 16th-century shroud for the poor and lower middle classes was a large sheet that was gathered at the head and feet, and tied in knots at both ends, covering every part of the body. It resembled earlier Medieval practices and was a functional, yet modest way of preserving the deceased’s dignity. It was also economical, with very little cost involved, as the burial sheet was usually taken from the family home. At this point, linens dominated as the material of choice; after all, it was a biblical tradition as Jesus was wrapped in a linen cloth. Linen was also considered more fashionable than wool.
Coffin Works Archive
The Aftermath Of Hamnet’s Death (Spoilers)
She discovers that it is possible to cry all day and all night. That there are many different ways to cry: the sudden outpouring of tears, the deep, racking sobs, the soundless and endless leaking of water from the eyes. That sore skin around the eyes may be treated with oil infused with a tincture of eyebright and chamomile. That it is possible to comfort your daughters with assurances about places in Heaven and eternal joy and how they may all be reunited after death and how he will be waiting for them, while not believing any of it. That people don’t always know what to say to a woman whose child has died. That some will cross the street to avoid her merely because of this. That people not considered to be good friends will come, without warning, to the fore, will leave bread and cakes on your sill, will say a kind and apt word to you after church, will ruffle Judith’s hair and pinch her wan cheek.
The Women of Hamnet
The most unique thing about this novel is how it shows the interdependence of women in Elizabethan society. Since Shakespeare spends most of the novel away from Anne, her support system mostly comes from Will’s mother Mary, as well as Anne’s daughters, her sister, and all the other women of the town. Nowadays we do most of our socialization online and barely know our own neighbors, but in the 1590s, especially for women, community was a way of building strength where women got through things like childbirth, loss, the managing of households, and many other difficulties through their relationships with other women. This video below shows the kinds of home remedies that women would share and later write down during the Tudor period:
Other Mysteries Solved
Once Hamnet dies, Will buys her a new house, New Place so she isn’t forced to live with his parents and no longer has to live in the house where her son died. But Will’s success comes with a price- he still has to leave for London. he offers to move them there but Agnes won’t hear of it. This solves the riddle of why Shakespeare commuted between town and country for his entire career- she knows the plague that took her son literally came from London, and she won’t risk losing her daughteras well. She probably also sees London like another woman that took her husband away as well, and therefore refuses to look it in the face.
It is no matter,” she pants, as they struggle there, beside the guzzling swine. “I know. You are caught by that place, like a hooked fish.” “What place? You mean London?” “No, the place in your head. I saw it once, a long time ago, a whole country in there, a landscape. You have gone to that place and it is now more real to you than anywhere else. Nothing can keep you from it. Not even the death of your own child. I see this,” she says to him, as he binds her wrists together with one of his hands, reaching down for the bag at his feet with the other. “Don’t think I don’t.”
The Shakespeares’ Marriage after Hamnet
I mean’, he says, ‘that I don´t think you have any idea what it is like to be married to someone like you.’ ‘Like me?’ ‘Someone who knows everything about you, before you even know it yourself. Someone who can just loo at you and divine your deepest secrets, just with a glance. Someone who can tell what you are about to say- and what you might not- before you say it. It is’ he says, ‘both a joy and a curse.
The ugly truth that O’Farrell highlights in Hamnet is that it must have been very hard for the Shakespeares to endure Hamnet’s death, especially since Will was probably not there when it happened, and probably didn’t stay around long after burying his son. It must have been catastrophic on his marriage, sort of like this tragic moment in the musical Hamilton, where the couple mourns the loss of their son, who died in a duel trying to defend his father’s honor.
Agnes is a woman broken into pieces, crumbled and scattered around. She would not be surprised to look down, one of these days, and see a foot over in the corner, an arm left on the ground, a hand dropped to the floor. Her daughters are the same. Susanna’s face is set, her brows lowered in something like anger. Judith just cries, on and on, silently; the tears leak from her and will, it seems, never stop. — How were they to know that Hamnet was the pin holding them together? That without him they would all fragment and fall apart, like a cup shattered on the floor?
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
The Second Best Bed mystery
Though Anne is angry at Will for a while, she does eventually forgive him, as evidenced by another solved historical mystery. In Shakespeare’s will he gives his wife “My second-best bed, with the furniture,” which O’Farell explains, is their marriage bed. The best bed was the one they gave to guests and was therefore newer. In the book, Will offers to replace it after Hamnet dies, but Anne won’t hear of it; although she partially blames Will for Hamnet’s death, she still loves him and her love is stronger than her grief, as is her love for her surviving daughters.
What is the word, Judith asks her mother, for someone who was a twin but is no longer a twin? Her mother, dipping a folded, doubled wick into heated tallow, pauses, but doesn’t turn around. If you were a wife, Judith continues, and your husband dies, then you are a widow. And if its parents die, a child becomes an orphan. But what is the word for what I am? I don’t know, her mother says. Judith watches the liquid slide off the ends of the wicks, into the bowl below. Maybe there isn’t one, she suggests. Maybe not, says her mother
Raising the Dead
At the end of the book, Shakespeare plays the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, and writes Hamlet as a tribute to his late son. We don’t know for a fact that the real William Shakespeare did this but Stratford legend says that Shakespeare played the Ghost of Hamlet’s father onstage, and this has captivated the imagination of authors and scholars alike. In any case, as Stephen Greenblatt says in his book Will In The World, Shakespeare’s father’s health faded around the same time that he wrote Hamlet. it must have been hard for Shakespeare to write a name that was one letter away from his son’s over and over again. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, and the titular character has over 40% of the dialogue, so it must have been haunting at the very least for Shakespeare to have to write his son’s name nearly 4,000 times.
Whatever he determined at the time, Shakespeare must have still been brooding in late 1600 and early 1601, when he sat down to write a tragedy whose doomed hero bore the name of his dead son. His thoughts may have been intensified by news that his elderly father was seriously ill back in Stratford, for the thought of his father's death is deeply woven into the play. And the death of his son and the impending death of his father--a crisis of mourning and memory--could have caused a psychic disturbance that helps to explain the explosive power and inwardness of Hamlet.
Greenblatt, 2004, p. 8)
In the book, Anne secretly goes to London to see Hamlet onstage and is overcome with emotion. Not only does Will play a ghost as tribute to his dying father, not only does he put his son’s name onstage, he directs the actor playing Hamlet to affect his own son’s mannerisms and gestures, to use theater to bring his son back from the dead. Anne is both appalled and moved by this act- Hamnet is dead, but his story is now immortal.
O’ Farrell has done a fantastic job of taking what little we know about the Shakespeare’s lives, infusing them with some clever inferences from the plays of Will Shakespeare, and finally fleshing them out with her own Shakespearean knowledge of the human heart- how it feels to bury someone, how it feels to go through trauma and what it’s like to be part of a family and to truly love someone, even though they often fail to properly love you back. As the end of the book implies, maybe Will didn’t intend to immortalize his son and share his powers of theatrical resurrection with the world, maybe this was just his way of apologizing to the love of his life. To try to make amends for the time he lost and to express a wish that he could give her son back to her, which in a way, he does:
Hamlet, here, on this stage, is two people, the young man, alive, and the father, dead. He is both alive and dead. Her husband has brought him back to life, in the only way he can. As the ghost talks, she sees that her husband, in writing this, in taking the role of the ghost, has changed places with his son. He has taken his son’s death and made it his own; he has put himself in death’s clutches, resurrecting the boy in his place. “O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!” murmurs her husband’s ghoulish voice, recalling the agony of his death.
Bray, Peter. “Men, loss and spiritual emergency: Shakespeare, the death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet.” Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality, vol. 2, no. 2, June 2008, pp. 95+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A189052376/LitRC?u=pl9286&sid=bookmark-LitRC&xid=ea79f235. Accessed 20 Apr. 2023.
Document-specific information Creator: Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon Title: Parish Register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon Date: 1558-1776 Repository: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK Call number and opening: DR243/1: Baptismal register, fol. 22v View online bibliographic record
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In honor of “The Ides Of March” and Women’s History Month, I’ve planned a series of posts, podcasts, activities, and videos all related to “Julius Caesar” and Shakespeare’s female characters. Here’s a preview: