Ian Doescher: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Ian Doescher: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Joseph Campbell studied William Shakespeare’s plays extensively in his research for his landmark work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. And George Lucas used Campbell’s research on archetypes and “The Hero’s Journey” when revising his script for Star Wars. In the afterword of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, Ian Doescher writes, “Campbell studied Shakespeare… and Lucas studied Campbell… So it’s not at all surprising that the Star Wars saga features archetypal characters and relationships similar to those found in Shakespearean drama.” This is Doescher’s attempt—inspired by a lifetime love of the film and a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival—to complete the loop, adapting A New Hope as a five-act, Elizabethan-era adventure in iambic pentameter.

The weight of this legacy puts a lot of pressure for Doescher’s adaptation to be elevated above being a simple novelty that people would buy in a Shakespearean theater gift shop. A Venn diagram of Star Wars fans and Shakespeare fans has a sizable overlap, and a great many fans will use this as a means to cheaply stage a re-enactment. In a stage play, Doescher doesn’t have Lucas’ advantage of visual communication—there is no famous opening shot of Leia’s ship being pursued by a Star Destroyer—to set the scene. Instead, he relies too heavily on a Chorus to explain all of the action impossible to replicate for the stage.

But that doesn’t mean this version is entirely hopeless. The first two acts of the play—covering C-3PO and R2-D2’s escape from Leia’s ship and the beginning of Luke’s journey to see Ben Kenobi—don’t depend on an overwhelming amount of physicality. Vader’s imposing introduction carries all the dramatic weight of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, while also allowing him an aside to reference an emotional depth foreshadowing details further along in the story.

R2-D2 gets to speak, and display the wisdom of his bleep-and-bloop act while maintaining iambic pentameter. But is it too pedantic to wish C-3PO and R2-D2 didn’t speak in such formal verse? They are the comic-relief characters, and should most likely talk (or beep) in prose. The meter feels natural in some places, elevating language to a formal level that matches the grandiose atmosphere of the story, but there are too often places where Doescher has to force the cadence, making all the characters sound like different versions of Yoda.

The best part of this adaptation is that having the Star Wars cast of characters speak in verse illuminates the parallels to Campbell’s archetypes and Shakespeare’s most iconic dramatis personae. Han and Leia have shades of Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, Luke equates to Ferdinand in The Tempest, Obi-Wan mirrors The Tempest’s Prospero or even Jaques from As You Like It, and Vader could be Macbeth or Iago. At its best, this is a richly dense text that connects two subjects with high cultural capital to bring fans of one universe closer to the other.

Doescher’s script also makes plain references between famous Star Wars lines and infamous Shakespeare quotes, giving Luke soliloquies that mirror Hamlet examining Yorick’s skull or Henry V speaking to his troops before battle. These are clever in-jokes, perhaps a bit too obvious, but they strike the right tone for the mash-up. This version of Star Wars is somewhere between serious adoration and loving parody, not as incisive as the Family Guy or Robot Chicken homages, but not gravely serious.

Writing a Shakespearean battle scene—Henry V, Macbeth—takes a lot of finesse. The Bard was famously skimpy on stage directions, which is one of the many reasons why his work is so open to continued reinterpretation. But it leaves Doescher with the tough task of adapting the rebel assault on the Death Star, a climactic space dogfight that is reduced to characters speaking in verse side-by-side onstage. (“Red Five doth here stand by.”) But the significant drawbacks of this experiment don’t overpower the delight of its powerful moments. And honestly, this is really just a proof-of-concept to get to The Empire Strikes Back, which would work much better in this medium, as it has fewer impossible-to-stage sequences.

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