William Shakespeare didn’t do cliffhangers. Even the histories that span multiple plays like the Henriad always wrapped up with a pivotal event—Hal defeating Hotspur in battle, Henry V ascending to the throne—before moving on to the next volume. With The Empire Striketh Back, Ian Doescher’s sequel to William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, the author enters relatively uncharted territory for the style of Elizabethan drama. The second film in the original Star Wars trilogy is the most revered. And while it’s a joy to see some of the most iconic moments in the series reimagined as a Shakespearean epic, there are only small alterations between this approach and Doescher’s first take on the series.
Like the first volume, Empire is somewhat hamstrung by Doescher’s adherence to Elizabethan stage direction style. Shakespeare only included scant instructions on staging—Doescher throws in a nice nod to “Exit, pursued by a bear” from The Winter’s Tale, among several other direct references to classic plays—but the Bard was only depicting hand-to-hand combat. With so many set changes packed into small windows of scene time—spaceship battlefields, crosscutting between planets—the pacing sags and the dialogue drones for longer than it should.
Han Solo suffers the most from the stylistic retooling. In the films, thanks to Harrison Ford’s performance, he overflows with roguish charm. But when given static soliloquies that expound on his newfound friendship with Luke and his developing romance with Leia, he’s not as compelling. The dialogue between Han and Leia, however, forms the most entertaining back and forth in the play, a deliberate mixture of Benedick and Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing and the barbs bandied about between Darcy and Lizzie Bennet in Pride And Prejudice.
Doescher does make a few important changes to his version of Empire that make this a superior Elizabethan translation: Instead of relying as heavily on a Greek chorus, he employs other characters to relate large-scale physical action—Luke telling of his crash landing on Dagobah—à la Gertrude recounting Ophelia’s demise in Hamlet. The new characters even shine as much as they did in the film. Lando Calrissian gets some backstory that creates a thematic underpinning for his treacherous actions in Cloud City. And infamously popular bounty hunter Boba Fett becomes the first character in the story to speak in prose, mimicking Shakespearean style that divided social classes by meter.
But the real test of whether Doescher’s experiment works is what he does with Yoda. As he states in the afterword, since the Jedi master already speaks with an antiquated speech pattern in the original films, there are a few options of how to address his lines in contrast to the Elizabethan rewrite. He considered giving Yoda modern speech, throwing back even further to Chaucer’s Middle English, or simply replicating the actual film dialogue. Instead, Doescher chose for Yoda to speak in haiku, an elegantly simple choice that pairs nicely with his sensei-like qualities, though it doesn’t add any insight other than to more plainly show the classical influences on the character.
And there’s the rub: The Empire Striketh Back, like William Shakespeare’s Star Wars before it, is a lovely, diverting novelty gift for fans of Elizabethan theater and the original George Lucas trilogy. It’s enormous fun to imagine some intrepid theater company figuring out a way to stage the battle scenes (Land speeder scale models encircling humans as AT-ATs? Using a catwalk for the final lightsaber duel?), though Disney would likely put the kibosh on that fantasy. But for Doescher’s project to truly achieve success, the switch to Elizabethan dialogue has to reveal something new and insightful about Lucas’ story and characters, instead of simply altering the words. The opening of Act V—two guards wonder why so many structures are designed with giant gaping exhaust chutes—and Luke’s soliloquy before his final revelatory showdown with Vader are two of the few moments that flirt with that transcendence. Though this project is clearly a labor of love for Doescher, it’s still just a big-ticket item in the gift shop at Shakespeare theaters across the country.