Parents and teachers have tut-tutted in the past to find their children reading Othello as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book, or Antony and Cleopatra retold as a Marvel comic. Eyebrows were raised when classic-and-pulp “mash-ups” such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies first surfaced in Waterstones. Conservative-minded academics choked on their port to learn that Eng lit classics were pillaged to amuse cinemagoers (The Tempest for Forbidden Planet, Jane Austen’s Emma for Clueless). Trying to make literary classics appeal to callow youths by giving them a spray-job of popular culture is a tactic that’s seldom greeted with delight.
What, then, will the grown-ups make of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, which, in 174 pages, retells the intergalactic saga as a Shakespeare play and goes on sale tomorrow. Its author, Ian Doescher, and his publishers, Quirk Books of Philadelphia, are not trying to simplify Shakespeare here; they’re trying to complicate Star Wars by retelling the screenplay in iambic pentameter. This is an inspired idea. They’ve taken the cast of knights, captains, rebel leaders and treacherous Sith Lords, and mixed in plots of war and conquest and lots of hidden or disputed parentage, to reveal how oddly Shakespearian Star Wars is.
Doescher explains that George Lucas was inspired, in writing Star Wars, by a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a study of narrative archetypes by Joseph Campbell, which drew parallels between Greek mythology and Hollywood Westerns, by way of Shakespeare. Lucas wrote: “I began to realise that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs… so I modified my next draft according to what I’d been learning.” Doescher points out the closeness of Obi-Wan Kenobi to Prospero in The Tempest, of Chewbacca to Caliban, of Jabba the Hutt to Falstaff, of R2-D2 and C-3PO to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He teases out the complex weave of parent-child and mentor-student relationships in Henry IV, The Tempest and Hamlet, and the Vader-like evilness of Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear. He notes that, if Star Wars were an actual Shakespeare play, it would be classified as a fantasy – but with elements of history, comedy and tragedy. Don’t you hate it when you’ve spent years failing to notice something as obvious as that?
Scholars will have fun identifying the source material for many speeches, from the initial scene-setting, courtesy of Richard III (“Now is the summer of our happiness/ Made winter by this sudden fierce attack! Our ship is under siege, I know not how…”) to the final valedictions as the ghost of Obi-Wan channels Hamlet’s dad: “Remember me, O Luke, remember me/ And ever shall the Force remain with thee.” It’s hard to see GCSE scholars choking with laughter about the Bardic allusions, but they may enjoy seeing the locutions of Tatooine and the Death Star translated into 16th-century blank verse. What next? The Twilight saga redone as Chaucerian bawdy?