William Shakespeare's Star Wars
US: Jul 2013
Although Shakespeare had a stage and props and actors, his plays were worlds built of words. Ah, but what words! We have no original recordings of Shakespeare’s personal execution of his vision. George Lucas built his world through actions, often actions of things not actors—and even some of the “actors” spouted “dialogue” that was far from comprehensible to the audience.
What happens when those two worlds collide? In one instance, you get William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher. I had high hopes for an inspired romp across the cosmos, but the dialogue Lucas wrote for Star Wars was never intended to be elevated. Unlike Star Trek, which played homage to Shakespeare regularly, Star Wars borrowed neither language nor structure from the bard. Though Doescher argues that because Lucas studied Joseph Campbell and Campbell studied Shakespeare, there is a connection. That may be true at the level of archetypical characters, many of which Shakespeare borrowed from other sources originally, but it has nothing to do with language.
At a superficial level, Doescher’s Star Wars might be a fun read for some people who like Star Wars and appreciate Shakespeare. As a poet and Shakespeare fan (and Star Wars fan) I found it more frustrating than enjoyable. For those who find Shakespeare confusing or annoying, the translation of Lucas into Shakespeare will do little to help them gain interest in 16th century theater. (Though it must be noted, in their time, Shakespeare’s plays were much more culturally aligned, pop culture-wise, with Star Wars than with high literature, of which poetry was seen as the utmost expression).
So what does Doescher do with the Lucas script? First, he performs a pretty herculean task of taking every single line of the Star Wars script and rendering it in near iambic pentameter. Second, he translates the language into a form of 16th Century English. Third, he adds some stage direction. Fourth, he adds a chorus.
What does Doescher fail to do? He fails to introduce poetry into Star Wars. Well, that isn’t entirely true, he does manage to spill in some poetry from Shakespeare, but he does it more as a wink and a nod to well-known dialogue, without adding anything original. And even when he does write a poetic line, it can be a bit strained, as in the scene where Luke tells the robots they must wait ‘til morning to go out:
Tis far too dangerous. The night is dark,
But darker are the dreaded Sand People,
And darkest most of all their thievery.
Thus, as the darkness waits for light to dawn,
So must we wait for morning to arrive.
Darkness does not dawn. The sky dawns and darkness gives way to light, it flees from light, it does many things, but it really doesn’t wait. I have attended far too many poetry workshops to accept meaningless similes. And to make matters worse, he then equates himself and his robotic companions to the night, in that they must wait like it (night) for the morning.
I’m being nitpicky I admit, but in a world built on words, the words need to make sense (or the nonsense needs to be appropriate, but that’s an entirely separate topic). The straight laced dialogue of Star Wars serves its purpose well: driving the narrative. And in most cases, Shakespeare’s language proves most economical in its own context. Doescher adds material that doesn’t help the story evolve, especially when he must use words to describe visual actions like:
To do the Governor’s most evil-will,
The people on the Death Star quickly rise.
With mighty flash, the beam bursts bright and shrill
And Alderaan is shatter’d for their eyes.
Movies show much more than they say. Sure, intimate dialogue films like My Dinner with Andre evoke emotions with words much more than images, but for the first Hollywood blockbuster ever, images were key. Further, this isn’t even what happened in the scene. A lot of button pushing by helmeted Death Star controllers ensues with a not so “shrill” combination of lasers converging to blow Alderaan from its orbit (and also remember that there is no sound in space.)
That entire scene, played with Shakespearian relish by Peter Cushing, comes across much more menacing, and much more Shakespearian in its original than it does with Doescher achanization of the English. After pushing Leia to her limit she gives up (we know now an abandoned base on Dantooine), Cushing’s Tarken simply drawls: “There, you see Lord Vader, she can be reasonable”. (versus Doescher’s rendering of the line: Ha, ha! Thou seest, Vader, how a cat may have her claws remov’d.)
Lucas was not above poetry, but his poetry was visual. The large imperial cruiser slowly pursuing the small rebel transport at the beginning of Star Wars IV, A New Hope was an awe inspiring moment in film making. Doescher, thankfully, does not describe it in the opening of his Act one, but rather takes an immediate plunge into tongue-in-cheek Bardisms with C-3PO uttering the not so classic lines:
Now is the summer of our happiness
Made winter by this sudden, fierce attack!
As contrasted by Shakespeare’s original of Gloucester in Richard III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Beyond the words readers will discover playful images of Star Wars characters rendered in wood cuts and garbed in 16th century attire. The nicely rendered images add an air of antiquity, which follows through on the entire production of the book, with the exception of the typeface. It would have been nice to have the book printed in a readable Elizabethan-looking typeface.
As a poet and lover of Shakespeare, I find the work here very superficial. Putting in apostrophes to meet a meter, a few archaic words, a chorus (used too much for describing visuals) and a smattering of Yoda-like grammer (“Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not”) does not transform a Hollywood script into Shakespeare. Even in his most prosaic of plays, Shakespeare language excelled because he used prose in a special way, to hide emotion, to obfuscate and deceive, which becomes its own form of elevation. Doescher plays with words, too, but not convincingly.
I will leave with the opening of Scene 6 with Luke contemplating a dead stormtrooper, one of the better written moments in the book (I hoped the scene with Luke talking about the Force with Obi Wan on the Millennium Falcon would have been yielded with poetic ferocity, but I was disappointed). This scene never happens in the movie, and I doubt that the Luke of Star Wars IV would even think much about the dead stormtroppers when so often in the company of beguiling Leia Organa, but the passage hints at the internal monologues that could help explore characters, had the entire book been written with less kitsch, more contemplation, if not more poetry.
Enter LUKE SKYWALKER, holding stormtropper helmet.
Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew ye not,
Yet have I ta’en both uniform and life
From thee. What manner of a man wert thou?
A man of inf’nite jest or cruelty?
A man with helpmate and with children too?
A man who hath his Empire serv’d with pride?
A man, perhaps, who wish’d for perfect peace?
Whate’er thou wert, good man, thy pardon grant
Unto the one who took thy place: e’en me.
Note the disconnect between Doescher’s use of source words and source sentiment. When Hamlet is contemplating the skull, it is the skull of a loved one, a man he knew well and clearly adored — and here that sentiment is lost completely on the helmet of an enemy — the use of “Alas, poor stormtrooper” is just a verbal tactic to connect readers to a famous Shakespeare line.
The remainder of the speech proves very un-Shakespearean. Not only does it run counter to any sensibility Luke demonstrates during the movie, it is a better speech, even as it is, than the one he offers his short-time acquaintance Obi Wan Kenobi on his demise which Doescher renders as “Yet in my heart he holds a special place.” There is a missed opportunity here for Luke to explore the force, the voice he hears after Obi Wan’s death, his feelings for Leia and what he will do next. This is Luke’s “to be or not to be” moment but we don’t get that.
I’m sure I’m being too hard on a book intended to be a fun addition to the Star Wars universe, but writers should know when they summon Shakespeare certain expectations arise. The book, as produced, does not appear intended as farce, so I review it with the seriousness in which it was written.
Doescher would have done well to learn from Shakespeare’s apparent process. Shakespeare collaborated. He tested and revised. Doescher would have done well to have actors and poets help him shape his book so that it might transcend both its sources of inspiration. As it is, it adds little to either. It need to be read aloud in front of an audience. Although high school literature classes ask students to “read” Shakespeare, the player’s pages prove more problematic less performance.
As a first book, Doescher took on an ambitious task, and perhaps as he explores other projects, he will take time to circle back and apply what I call a “writing pass” that attempts, at least, to replace the ordinary with something more extraordinary. If nothing else, Doescher has given me new appreciation for Lucas’s original dialogue, a positive outcome from reading this book, albeit a backhanded one.