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.Ian Doescher, https://iandoescher.com/
What Is William Shakespeare’s Star Wars?
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 Ado About 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:
- The Language
- 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.
2. Repeated lines/ Half lines
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.
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:
The Education Guide
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