In the afterword to William Shakespeare's Star Wars, Ian Doescher argues that there is a Shakespearean quality about Star Wars even without the author's additions of iambic pentameter and five-act structure to the tale. Doescher identifies Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the link between Shakespeare and Lucas. The invocation of Campbell may seem platitudinous to uberfans, who have been hearing about the Joseph-George connection at least since Bill Moyer's 1987 PBS series The Power of Myth. But it remains an enlightening observation. Says Doescher,
...Campbell studied Shakespeare to produce The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Lucas studied Campbell to produce Star Wars. So it's not at all surprising that the Star Wars saga features archetypal characters and relationships similar to those found in Shakespearean drama. The complicated parent/child relationship of Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker (and the mentor/student relationship of Obi-Wan Kenobi/Luke Skywalker) recalls plays like Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, The Tempest, and Hamlet. Like Sith lords, many of Shakespeare's villains are easily identifiable and almost entirely evil, with notable badies including Iago (Othello), Edmund (King Lear), and Don John (Much Ado about Nothing). Still others, like Darth Vader, are more conflicted and complex in their malevolence: Hamlet's Claudius and the band of conspirators in Julius Caesar. Destiny and fate are key themes of Star Wars, as they are in Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Macbeth.
It is one thing to draw these connections in an academic way, but quite another to prove them. That is what Doescher does in his Shakespearean retelling of Star Wars. What is most striking about Doescher's book is how credible it is as a Shakespearean play. Much of this is down to Doescher's poetry, but mostly it is Doescher's insight that the grandeur, farce, pacing and excitement of a Shakespeare play are to be found in Lucas's original Star Wars film.
Doescher's best passages are not only good imitations of Shakespeare but enjoyable in their own right. Vader's short soliloquy upon sensing Kenobi's presence on the Death Star is a fine example:
[aside] Distract'd is my mind,
But through its cloudy haze the reason comes:
Unless I am in error, someone here
Has come. I have not felt this presence since
The days that are but dark in memory.
This presence I have known since I was young,
This presence that once call'd me closest friend,
This presence that hath all my hopes betrayed,
This presence that hath turn'd my day to night.
This awful presence present here must be,
So shall I to this presence violence
Another instance of Doescher's feel for both Shakespeare and Star Wars is the typically Shakespearean exchange between two minor figures, in this case stormtroopers dubbed Guards 1 and 2, outside the Millenium Falcon shortly after its capture by the Death Star. The first guard persuades the second that rumours of rebels, droids and missing Death Star plans are but "A fig!" and that they need not fear. Satisfied, Guard 2 joins Guard 1 in responding to Han's duplicitous request, "Pray, may we have thy good assistance here?" The stage direction then delivers the punch line: "[Guards 1 and 2 enter ship and are killed. Exeunt others." My only quibble with this amusing and authentic passage is that it would have been eminently appropriate for Shakespearean prose--which, inexplicably, Doescher leaves out of his adaptation entirely.
Han Solo's famous "boring conversation" with an imperial officer after forcibly entering the Princess's detention block is another highlight, though the credit is surely due as much to Harrison Ford and George Lucas as to Ian Doescher:
HAN [To comlink:] O be not anxious, comrades, fear ye not!
The situation here hath been controll'd.
All merry 'tis in the detention block!
OFFICER 1 [Through comlink:] But what hath happen'd?
HAN --'Tis no matter, Sir--
A slight malfunction of the weapons here.
But all is well, and we are well, and all
Within are well. The pris'ners, too, are well,
'Tis well, 'tis well. And thou? Art also well?
These and many other passages show Doescher's wit, skill and love for both Shakespeare and Star Wars. Inevitably, perhaps, Doescher's rendering of Star Wars into Elizabethan English is not without some flaws. Luke's encouragement to Artoo during the Death Star trench run, "Hang thou on, good droid!" is, well, not convincing. Similarly, Doescher's abbreviation Millenn'um Falcon--admittedly not a phrase easily reconciled with iambic pentameter--does not come (in Hamlet's words) trippingly on the tongue. But false notes such as these are rare, and they did not disturb my enjoyment of the play. On the whole, Doescher's retelling of Star Wars in Shakespearean form is admirably accomplished, surprisingly exciting and just plain fun.
Given the book's well-deserved commercial success to date, The Empire Striketh Back and The Jedi Doth Return are inevitable. Whether those two films will lend themselves as well to the Shakespeare treatment is, to my mind, less certain. The original Star Wars strikes me as the most Shakespearean of Lucas's films. Still, I have confidence in Doescher and look forward to his next outing.
Will Doescher then turn his attention to the hated prequels? He certainly could not make them any worse. The parallels between Episodes 1-3 and such disputed Shakespeare plays as The Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, Prince of Tyre are there. The experiences of watching a prequel and reading a disputed Shakespeare play are similar. In both the viewer/reader finds herself asking, "Did Lucas/Shakespeare really write this?" But as brave as Ian Doescher clearly is, I can't imagine him volunteering for the impossible task of turning The Phantom Menace into art.