My Top 10 Favorite Shakespeare/ Star Wars Actors

This list is not about skill or the talent of the actor. This is to honor the contributions of Shakespearean actors who also appeared in one of my favorite film series of all time: Star Wars

#10: Daisy Ridley

I should say at the outset, that I am judging these actors for their cumulative contributions to Shakespeare, so unfortunately that means the older actors have an advantage. This is very apparent with Daisy Ridley here. She has a fantastic voice and her acting is top-notch, so I have absolutely no doubt that if she chooses, she could become the next Helena Bonham Carter in a few decades. But for now, her most notable Shakespearean contribution is this film, Ophelia, which is a retelling of Hamlet, from the perspective of his long-suffering girlfriend:

Trailer for Ophelia starring Daisy Ridley, 2019.

#9: Ewan McGreggor

The Scottish actor, (and in my opinion, best part of the prequels), is a multi-talented star of stage and screen. Ewan actually complained that the script for Episode I was: “Not exactly Shakespeare.” He first came to prominence on stage playing Mark Renton in the dark comedy Trainspotting (whom he also played for the film). Like Daisy Ridley, however, aside from playing Iago to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Othello, McGreggor hasn’t done much Shakespeare… at least for now.

#8: Andy Serkis

We normally associate the English actor Andy Serkis with physical acting and motion capture, after his roles as Snoke in Last Jedi, Caesar in Planet of the Apes, Kong in King Kong, and of course, Gollum in Lord of the Rings. However, before he became a one-man advocate for the art of motion capture, Mr. Serkis toured in a number of Shakespeare productions including The Winter’s Tale, King Lear (as the Fool), and like Ewan McGregor, Mr. Serkis has played the role of Iago (fitting for a man who played a treacherous hobbit, consumed by unnatural desire). The breadth of his film, theater, and digital work is why I placed him this high on the list.

#7: Peter Cushing

Most fans of Peter Cushing think of him as a horror icon, playing multiple roles for the famous Hammer Studios, with his classic portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes among others. However, Mr. Cushing has a place in Shakespearean history for his performance in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, playing OSRIC! I kind of lost my mind when I realized that Cushing isn’t playing the Ghost, or the smiling, damned Claudius, or even the fiery Laertes, but Osric, the foppish sycophant who sucks up so hard to Hamlet, that the prince convinces him that it’s hot, and cold at the same time! Goes to show you how much range Cushing had, (even before he rose from the dead in Rogue One). He truly was, “Charming, to the last.”

#6 Christopher LEe

Like his longtime friend, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee was also a horror star at the Hammer Studio, and his performances as Dracula are the stuff of legend. With his powerful deep voice, I was not surprised to learn Lee was a trained Shakespearean actor, and he was also in Olivier’s Hamlet, though as an uncredited spear-carrier. By the way, to those people who criticized his swordplay in Attack Of the Clones, I offer this contrary evidence:

#5 Max Von Sydow

The Sweedish-born actor is less known for Star Wars than for his classic roles in The Exorcist, Minority Report, Judge Dredd, and others, but he was in Force Awakens, so he still counts.

I wanted to talk about him here because Von Sydow has given many performances in Shakespeare and Shakespeare adjacent movies. First off, he played the Claudius figure in the atrocious Canadian Hamlet ‘comedy’ Strange Brew, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, but Von Sydow’s performance is one of the few watchable parts of the film.

More importantly, Von Sydow has specialized in playing wise, sage-like characters who stare into brave new worlds. First off, in Star Wars, he was the catalyst that helped start the rebellion against the First Order in The Force Awakens.

Von Sydow previously played a powerful sage as Shakespeare’s Prospero at the Old Vic in London in 1988, directed by Jonathan Miller:

‘Miller … used a mixed cast made up of white actors as the humans and black actors playing the spirits and creatures of the island. According to Michael Billington, “von Sydow’s Prospero became a white overlord manipulating a mutinous black Caliban and a collaborative Ariel keenly mimicking the gestures of the island’s invaders. The colonial metaphor was pushed through to its logical conclusion so that finally Ariel gathered up the pieces of Prospero’s abandoned staff and, watched by awe-struck tribesmen, fitted them back together to hold his wand of office aloft before an immobilized Caliban. The Tempest suddenly acquired a new political dimension unforeseen by Shakespeare’. Source: http://bufvc.ac.uk/shakespeare/index.php/title/av70946

In addition to playing Prospero onstage, Von Sydow has influenced many stage and screen productions of Hamlet due to his iconic portrayal of the knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal:

Clip of the famous chess match between Von Sydow’s character and Death.

The whole movie is sort of a Hamlet spin-off, in that the title character has seen the pain and suffering of the world and is pondering the meaning of life, while constantly aware that Death is watching him and waiting to take him. The gothic atmosphere has influenced hundreds of productions from Olivier to Zefirelli. The film has even inspired parodies like Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, and Last Action Hero, which of course is a deconstruction of the action movie genre that acknowledges that its roots lie in Hamlet:

Ian McKellen as Death in “Last Action Hero”

Arguably what Bergmen and Von Sydow did with “Seventh Seal” was outline the courses of action that Hamlet considers in “To Be Or Not To Be,” namely whether to sit inactive, or to actively choose murder. Action heroes are basically men who deal with the fear of death, by inflicting death on ‘bad guys,’ yet however they try, Death gets them all in the end. Even Luke Skywalker, who escapes death many times, and begs his father and his master Yoda not to die, cannot change the inevitability of death.

Even the most powerful Jedis cannot avoid death.

#4: Julian Glover

Julian Glover in Empire Strikes Back

One of the smaller bit part actors in Star Wars is actually a very distinguished Shakespearean actor. Julian Glover, who played General Maximillian Veers in The Empire Strikes Back, (and later played Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones), spent many years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and turned out some wonderful performances. If you watch this clip from the documentary In Search Of Shakespeare, you can see him perform as King Lear, and the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.

#3: Sir Alec Guinness

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/aug/07/guardianobituaries.filmnews

To be honest, I don’t care much for Alec Guinness’ acting. He has a great presence and a subtle but clear delivery, (what do you expect for someone whose name is an anagram for “Genuine Class)? That said, I feel he’s never having any fun in his roles. It might also surprise you to learn that he didn’t like playing his most famous role:

ir Alec Guinness regretted playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars trilogy. He called the dialogue “lamentable.” n fact, in his autobiography, he recounted a story in which a fan asked for an autograph and told Guinness that he had seen Star Wars more than 100 times. Guinness claims he gave the autograph on the condition that the fan never watch the movie again.

Buzzfeed- “6 Actors Who Regretted Taking A Role And 6 More Who Regretted NOT Taking One”
Photostage.co.uk - MERCHANT OF VENICE, THE - 1984 Chichester
Alec Guiness as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”

Even though I don’t enjoy Sir Alec Guinness in Star Wars or in Shakespeare, for the purposes of this list, he has done decades of work on stage and he has helped shaped modern Shakespearean acting, (for good or ill). But, don’t take my word for it, judge for yourself:

#2: Ian McDiarmid

Not only is this actor essential to the Star Wars universe, playing the diabolical Emperor Palpatine, Ian McDiarmid has made an indelible impression on the world of Shakespeare. He’s appeared onstage as Shylock, Timon Of Athens, and many others. He also served as Artistic Director for the Almeida Theater in England, helping to stage many other high profile productions of Shakespeare and other plays.

My favorite performance of his though, has got to be as the Porter in Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth. Since McDiarmid is actually Scottish, he was allowed to use his natural accent. He’s funny as the drunken comic relief, but there’s a wicked gleam in his eye. After seeing him as Palpitine, I wondered if he was actually Satan, coming up from Hell to greet King Duncan (since Macbeth is murdering him upstairs). Perhaps this is the real Devilish porter, ready to carry away the king’s soul. What do you think?

#1: James Earl Jones

Luke Skywalker Channels Hamlet in Funny, Rare 'Return of the Jedi' Photo
Exceprt from the documentary “How Shakespeare Changed My Life”

You probably saw this coming. Maybe this is some cultural bias since I’m American, but James Earl Jones is the pinnacle of American Shakespeareans, and we owe a lot to him and he himself owes a lot of his career to Shakespeare. Jones’ first ever film role in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, came about after he and George C. Scott were both acting in “The Merchant Of Venice.” Kubrick saw the show and hired them both (Source: The Wall Street Journal).

The Lion King: Original Story by iamSketchH on DeviantArt

Since then, in addition to playing the voice of one of the most iconic villains of all time, (and the lion equivalent of Hamlet’s father), Jones has become one of the most beloved and acclaimed actors of our day, and his Shakespeare work is truly incredible. If you watch the documentary above, Mr. Jones talks about how he created his performances as King Lear and Othello, which were truly magnificent. In my opinion, James Earl Jones gave the best performance as Lear in the 2nd half of the 20th century, and his Othello was one for the ages.

Not only has his work onstage advanced the craft of acting, Jones has freely shared his knowledge and experience at colleges and universities around the country, including my own. I heard him talk plainly but eloquently about Shakespeare’s characters, his approach to race, and his insight into the plays that could only come from many years inhabiting some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters. If you ever read this Mr. Jones, Thank you for being an inspiration on film, on stage, and in the classroom!

It’s not hard to see why so many actors have been drawn to Shakespeare and Star Wars. They are both drawn from epic myths that examine what it means to be human, to be part of a family, and to fight for what we believe in. Every actor on this list used their experience with Shakespeare to help bring these iconic Star Wars characters to life, and today I honor their contributions to The Great Globe, and A Galaxy Far Far Away.

Shakespearean tropes in Star Wars

May the Fourth Be WIth thee- here’s why Falstaff is like Boba Fett

In 1978, a “holiday special’ was released under the Star Wars umbrella. Today it is universally panned as the worst Star Wars product ever conceived. It is tonally completely different from Star Wars and it spends most of its time either in a bar on Tatooine or on Kashik with Chewbacca’s family; characters we don’t know, can’t understand, and have no influence on the larger Star Wars Universe!

The only bright spot in this tragic black hole of a time-wasting special, (at least according to most of the internet), was that this special brought back the character of Boba Fett, the cool, anti-heroic bounty hunter who is constantly deceiving our heroes. As you can see, they changed the format into a cartoon, so that’s a little bizarre, but it was nice to see an old friend in this otherwise who’s who of lame new characters.

THIS WAS NOT A NEW IDEA, EVEN FOR 1978,

In around 1598 (allegedly), Queen Elizabeth the first asked William Shakespeare to write a comedy about Sir John Falstaff, the fat cowardly comic center of the Henry IV plays. The Queen wanted to see a comedy about Falstaff in love, which Shakespeare allegedly completed in a few short weeks.

Ant the result, was the Star Wars Holiday Special of the Shakespearean Cannon.

Unlike Henry IV, which is a complex history play about rebels going up against an empire (Henry IV claimed part of France so that counts :), Merry Wives a silly comedy set in the country town of Windsor. Just like the Holiday Special, Shakespeare’s comedy has a totally different tone than the other plays that feature Falstaff.

I think Shakespeare wisely didn’t try to make Falstaff a romantic figure- that would be absolute character assassination. What he does instead is take Falstaff’s ability to sweet-talk women and his penchant for thievery, and make the play about his attempts to seduce two virtuous housewives and steal their money. Just like how Boba Fett was not changed into a good-guy to pander to audiences (yet), but instead, Lucas made him a cunning deceiver who tries to sell out our heroes to Darth Vader.

Though Falstaff himself works within the context of the play, most of the new comic characters are very dated and not very funny. Dr. Caius and the Welshman are written with outrageous accents making them as incomprehensible as alien bit players in Star Wars. Frankly, I’d rather kiss a Wookie than listen to these losers try to woo Mistress Page’s daughter. It’s like Shakespeare cut and pasted the worst scenes from Taming Of The Shrew and added a French accent.

Even more boring are the scenes at the Garter Inn- a place that must’ve had significance for knights in the 1590s, but nowadays is somewhat forgettable, (like the Cantina, deal with it NERDS!)

The one really good part of the play is this scene in Act II, Scene I where Mistress Page and Mistress Ford simultaneously receive letters of “love,” (which really means ‘I want sex and your money), from Falstaff. The ladies are incensed for a couple of really good reasons:

A. It’s Falstaff- a fat, old, penniless knight who is well known as a drunk.

B. They’re already married, and he has the pudding guts to assume they’d betray their husbands.

C. If they were to cheat on their husbands, THEY WOULDN’T DO IT WITH FALSTAFF

D. The love poem he writes them is terrible. If he wanted these virtuous wives to cheat on their husbands for someone as completely undeserving as him, he could’ve at least put some effort into it!

I would also argue that the worst thing about the Holiday Special became the best thing about Merry Wives: the songs!

The most egregious change to the tone of Star Wars that the Holiday Special made was putting in a bunch of terrible musical performances by people like Jefferson Starship (get it?) to make the special more of a variety show with the Star Wars characters slapped on top of it like a sticker on a lunch box. Now we know what it sounds like when Princess Leia sings a song that clearly required a second draft:

Luckily for Shakespeare, instead of Jefferson Starship, he got opera composer Otto Nikoli, who saved this mostly terrible play by turning it into a charming opera! Look at this duet from Act I!

A lot of the more absurd plot points of Merry Wives work extremely well as musical comedy shtick, and Falstaff himself works very well as a big basso profundo

So if you go to see Merry Wives, know that it’s not a very good play by Shakespearean standards. It’s silly, kind of pointless, and not a very good addition to the story of Falstaff, but much like the Star Wars Holiday Special, it’s sure to make you laugh:

Play Review: “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars”

Illustration from William Shakespeare's Star Wars
Illustration from “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars”

Play review: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Since Monday was May the Fourth, and since I got some encouraging comments about the previous post, I’m happy to review one of the most interesting Shakespeare spin-offs I’ve ever encountered: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher. For those of you who haven’t heard of this play, it’s basically the script of Star Wars put into Shakespearean verse. The writer clearly loves both Shakespeare and Star Wars, and puts lots of cheeky Shakespearean references in the text, such as Luke Skywalker parodying Hamlet as he steals a Stormtrooper’s uniform and Yorrick-like, holds up the helmet to his face:

“Alas poor Stormtrooper, I knew ye not,” (Doescher IV, vi, 1) The play lends itself perfectly for performance in an Elizabethan playhouse with its sparse stage directions and an Elizabethan chorus that comments on the action and tells the audience whenever action occurs offstage, such as when the Death Star gunners prepare their mighty laser to destroy the planet Alderon. I certainly got a kick out of reading this play since I too am a huge Shakespeare/ Star Wars fan. However, since this blog is meant to help us learn and appreciate Shakespeare, the question is, does this play have any value to Shakespearean students? At first I wasn’t sure, but now I say yes!

Before I read the play, I was a little apprehensive as I’ve seen Shakespearean gimmicks fall flat before; I once saw a dreadful production of Macbeth where the whole cast was made up to look like zombies for absolutely no purpose except to cash in on the zombie fad. So at first, I wondered, “Why bother translate Star Wars into Shakespearean language”? As I read on though, I realized what the author had done was give readers a rare glimpse into how Shakespeare himself wrote.

This helps prove one thing I’ve always felt about teaching Shakespeare- parody and gentle satire are a great way to deconstruct his plays into something a little easier to grasp. As I said before, Doescher’s play is full of tiny bite-size portions of real Shakespearean dialogue that allow you to digest some of The Bard’s most famous lines. Also, he’s following the same ‘recipe’ Shakespeare used in his plays and speeches, so I’m going to deconstruct some of the Shakespearean elements that Doescher employed to concoct this Shakespeare/Sci-fi classic hybrid. I’ll focus on the first play in the series: Verily A New Hope, but you can find these components in all of the plays in the Star Wars Saga.

  1. Iambic pentameter- the most obvious difference between the original Star wars is that Doescher took the dialogue and put it into the same poetic meter Shakespeare used. For those who don’t know, Iambic pentameter is a kind of unrhymed poetry with 10 syllables per line. Each line also has 5 stressed beats that strike like a heart beat- Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM Da DUM. To keep the emphasis on the right syllables, sometimes the writer has to shift the syntax or add and subtract words to get them to fit. This is why instead of the famous: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” the Prologue at the beginning says:

“ In time so long ago begins our play,

In star-crossed galaxy far, far away.”

Doescher’s time-consuming process of translating a prose movie script into blank verse poetry is exactly Shakespeare did when he wrote his plays, only instead of movie scripts, he took the chronicles of English history to become Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, and many others. With all the work involved in crafting poetry like this, it’s no wonder he didn’t have time to think up an original story!

  1. Telling the audience what you’re doing- As I said last week, one thing to keep in mind when you read Shakespeare is that his plays were performed outdoors with no microphones, in an audience of nearly 3,000 people! It must have been extremely hard to see or hear the action onstage. Shakespeare tried to solve this problem by having characters announce what they’re doing, which would be tedious, if he didn’t also know how to spice up the dialogue with lines that reveal the character’s emotional state, like when Lord Capulet says: “My fingers itch,” to warn his daughter he’s about to hit her. Doescher captures this extremely well in the speech where Vader lifts up the Rebel Leader and begins to choke him to death:

I turn to thee, thou rebel. Aye, I lift

Thy head above my own. Thou canst now choose

To keep thy secrets lock’d safe in that head

Or else to keep thy head, and thus thy life (Doescher I, ii 6-10).

This passage explains to the reader or playgoer that Vader has lifted the man over his head, (demonstrating his cruelty and his strength), and subtly plays on the fact that Vader is looking at his head, wants the knowledge in his head, and will crush his head if the Rebel doesn’t cooperate. Shakespeare’s Richard III makes a similar threat: “Villain, set down the corpse, or by St. Paul, I’ll make a corpse of him that disobeys!”

  1. The Aside One thing Shakespeare does that few modern writers ever do is have characters talk directly to the audience; thus establishing an intimate relationship between you and a person who is confiding their secrets in you. The most striking example of this in Shakespeare’s Star Wars is R2D2, who in the movie never spoke at all, but made cute little electronic beeps and whirrs. Having R2 speak gives the reader an unexpected closeness because R2 never speaks to anyone else.
  2. Personification Shakespeare is really good at finding a clever visual metaphor for an abstract idea, and will write speeches or dialogue where characters explore the nature of that idea, a meditation if you will. One of my favorite examples from Shakespeare’s Star Wars is the scene in which Luke and his uncle debate about whether Luke will stay on the farm. Luke compares himself to a bird that’s trying to fly away, while his uncle uses farm metaphors to try and keep him to stay:

OWEN: Wilt thou here in the desert yet desert? Tis only one more season.

LUKE: Now cracks a hopeful heart, when by the land,

A man’s ambitions firmly grounded are:

So shall a bird ne’er learn to fly or soar

When wings are clipp’d by crops and roots and soil.

It’s really very clever the way Doescher mimicks Shakespeare’s wordplay here. Luke is like a bird because he’s a pilot and longs to fly. Owen is a farmer on a desert and is worried about Luke deserting him. We get a clear picture of their relationship from this scene.

  1. Chorus Shakespeare sometimes uses a Chorus to tell us what is going on in plays where the location shifts from place to place- it’s a time honored device in epic storytelling. Nowadays we use a Chorus too, we just call it a Narrator. The difference is that a Chorus also can explain the tone and the mood of the action onstage, so that you can imagine it in your own mind. Take a look at this passage where the chorus describes the famous Star Wars Cantina:

Now mark thee well, good viewer, what you see,

The creatures gather round the central bar

While hammerheads and hornéd monsters talk.

A band composed of aliens bizarre:

This is the great cantina- thou may’st gawk! (III, I, 45-49).

You can see how, unlike a narrator who would just tell you there are a bunch of aliens here, the Chorus describes the sights and sounds of the bar so you can imagine it yourself. The Chorus in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth explicitly states that the audience needs to use their imagination to fill out the story of Henry’s conquest of France.

  1. The soliloquy A soliloquy is a speech spoken by a character alone on stage. It often has to do with a complex dilemma such as Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be.”
1307_SBR_STARWARS_ILLO.jpg.CROP.article568-large

In Shakespeare’s Star Wars, Luke and Vader have the most soliloquis and with good reason- they have the most complicated emotional journeys- Luke goes from a simple farmboy from Tatooine to a Jedi Knight, while Vader goes from a Jedi to a Sith to a father. Shakespeare’s greatest power is his ability to put complex emotional journeys like these into speeches that the characters share right with us. I loved both these speeches too much to choose, so I’m going to talk about of both. The first is a soliloquy Vader speaks after he kills the Rebel leader:

And so another dies by my own hand,

This hand, which now encas’d in blackness is

O that the fingers of this wretched hand

Had not the pain of suffring ever known. Droescher I.ii, 27-30

This speech reminds me very much of Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains. Richard, like Vader, has his life story told in 6 installments where he slowly becomes an evil mastermind. The images of this speech conjure up parts of Vader’s life story: how he lost his hand in Episode II and now has a robotic hand in a black glove. The speech also conjures the fact that his master the Emperor is able to shoot lightning from his hands, and of course, how Vader himself is able to kill by merely gesturing with his hand. Richard has a speech where he talks about all the people he’s killed to become king, and how he now has to kill even more to stay king:

I must be married to my brother’s daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass.
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin:
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye (Richard III, Act IV, Scene i)

Luke has another speech where he talks about his destiny staring at the twin suns of Tatooine, but I won’t spoil that one for you! Needless to say, it’s awesome. I bring it up because In the movie, it was John Williams’ job to literally underscore Luke’s emotions as the music swelled. Shakespeare’s gift on the other hand was to put powerful emotions and thoughts into carefully composed soliloquys that sound like music when spoken well.

So as you can see, the author’s loving parody of Shakespeare allows us a rare glimpse of how the Bard wrote; his cleverness at adapting stories, his use of verse, wordplay, metaphor, personification, choruses, and his unique ability to write characters that talk to us as if we were in on their deepest secrets.

By the way, if you’re still unconvinced on this play’s educational value, check out this link to their educational website: http://www.iandoescher.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShakespeareStarWars_EducatorsGuide.pdf

Verily, May the Fourth Be With Thee

Hi everyone!

Well today is May 4rth, where 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, 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:

http://asc-blogs.com/2011/05/04/in-the-force-of-his-will-shakespeare-and-star-wars/

If you enjoy this post, I’ll post later in the week a review of a new play” William Shakespeare’s Star Wars” where the playwright Ian Doescher translates the screenplay of Episode Four into Shakespearean vernacular!

Enjoy May the Fourth!