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.
There’s a movie called Reign of Fire which is set in a post-apocalyptic world with dragons. The movie isn’t very good, but it has one moment of true brilliance—a scene where adults are acting out a story for a group of children, of a battle between a white knight and black knight, and you realize what they’re doing is retelling Luke and Vader’s duel from Empire Strikes Back.
I loved this scene because, on some level, it made so much sense. If civilization were to end today, what stories would survive, and how would they be passed down? But it also spoke to the universality of stories, and how some will persist far longer than others, reshaped and retold, but still the same. At this point I could go on and talk about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces…\
But instead I’m going to talk about how Ian Doescher’s turned Star Wars into a Shakespearean play.
William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, a New Hope is a fusion of George Lucas’s movie with the literary style of William Shakespeare. And the most wonderful thing about it is… it’s not as strange as you might think. In fact, it’s kind of awesome.
First off, let’s get some pretentiousness out of the way: Doescher doesn’t claim to be a Shakespearean scholar, and this is not an attempt at high art. This is fun, but it’s brainy fun. This is next level fandom, written from an educated perspective. His use of iambic pentameter, as well as other literary traits such as enjambment and weak endings (and introducing a few of his own over the course of the series—Yoda speaks in haiku, for example) make this something to be enjoyed on more than just a level of, “Oh look, they’re speaking old timey. That’s funny.”
That said, there are few groan-worthy moments, such as obvious and painfully hammered in references to various Shakespeare plays. For example: “Is this an asteroid field I see before me?” or “What light through yonder flashing sensor breaks?”
But more often than not I found myself surprised by how well his conversion works, and how most homages to the Bard’s plays didn’t illicit a face palm. Even scene filler dialog is given more weight, and often come across more profoundly than how we saw those same moments portrayed on screen.
Uncle Owen reminds the audience how he raised Luke from birth (something we tend to forget!) and how he worries about his future as he becomes a man. A silent knowing look from Obi-Wan in the film will be given its own aside, explaining what it is he’s thinking at that moment, and offers foreshadowing of his own future. A pair of stormtroopers guarding the Millennium Falcon will discuss at length just how impossible it is for anyone to be hiding on board that ship, right before they go inside and get killed by the heroes hiding there.
Perhaps most notably, we have R2-D2 speak to us in asides. To everyone else he just beeps and boops, but then he sometimes lets the audience in on his true intentions.
Anyone who enjoys Shakespeare’s work will recognize these kinds of scenes from his works, where what would be a subtle or unspoken moment in a modern story is brought instead to the forefront and elaborated on. There’s not much room for subtle when you’re yelling so the people in the rafters can hear you.
I hope the Shakespeare’s Star Wars series is recognized by schools for the teaching tool that it is. Anyone who struggles with Shakespearean style but is familiar with the Star Wars films will find this extremely useful. It won’t help with the unusual words they might encounter, but it will help them understand the pacing of his plays and the nature of his storytelling, because you can compare and contrast it to something more modern and familiar.
Fun fact: Verily, a New Hope has 3,076 lines, which actually makes it of average length for a Shakespeare play. The shortest is A Comedy of Errors (1,786) and the longest is Hamlet (4,024).
This is another book I listened to the audiobook version of, and personally I think this one all but requires being heard (although the books have great line drawings accompanying them). I’ve always had trouble reading Shakespeare, but love seeing it performed. The audiobook is performed by a full cast (with sound effects and John Williams score) and as a result, it takes the play beyond a cute parody and makes it genuinely enjoyable in its own right. Hell, I’d love to see someone try to do it on stage!
Bonus Material – That Scene from Reign of Fire I mentioned:
Originally Published in KODT #246