Book Review: ‘William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth’

Cover art by Nicolas Delort. (C) 2014 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

I would as eagerly kiss a Wookiee’s lips. – Leia Organa, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth, Act I, Scene 1

On March 18, 2014, Philadelphia-based Quirk Books (home of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) published William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back, Star Wars Part the Fifth. Written by Ian Doescher (William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope), the 176-page book reimagines Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back as a five-act Elizabethan era stage play written by the greatest dramatist in English literature, William Shakespeare.

Doescher – who became a Star Wars fan when he watched Star Wars: Return of the Jedi at age six and discovered the joys of Shakespeare in eighth grade – takes the 1980 film written by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett from a story by George Lucas and rewrites it in the style of the Bard of Avon, complete with a five-act structure, minimal stage directions, a chorus to move the story along or comment on the action, and, of course, dialogue presented in Shakespearean-style iambic pentameter, rhyming couplets for star-crossed lovers Han Solo and Princess Leia, prose for Boba Fett, and haikus for the impish-yet-wise Jedi Master Yoda.

Illustration by Nicolas Delort. (C) 2014 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Many a fortnight have passed since the destruction of the Death Star. Young Luke Skywalker and his friends have taken refuge on the ice planet of Hoth, where the evil Darth Vader has hatched a cold-blooded plan to capture them. Only with the help of a little green Jedi Master—and a swaggering rascal named Lando Calrissian—can our heroes escape the Empire’s wrath. And only then will Lord Vader learn how sharper than a tauntaun’s tooth it is to have a Jedi child.

Authentic meter, stage directions, reimagined movie scenes and dialogue, and hidden Easter eggs throughout will entertain and impress fans of Star Wars and Shakespeare alike. Every scene and character from the film appears in the play, along with twenty woodcut-style illustrations that depict an Elizabethan version of the Star Wars galaxy. What light through Yoda’s window breaks? Methinks you’ll find out in the pages of The Empire Striketh Back! – Publisher’s blurb, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth

Between the Covers

If flurries be the food of quests, snow on. – Luke Skywalker. Act I, Scene 1, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth

Doescher’s pastiche revisits the events of director Irvin Kershner’ s 1980 film and presents them as a five-act stage play written in the late 16th Century by none other that William Shakespeare himself. Starting with Luke Skywalker’s sighting of an Imperial probe droid’s arrival on the ice world of Hoth and culminating with a fateful lightsaber between Luke and the evil lord Darth Vader on Bespin’s Cloud City, the play follows the heroes of the Rebel Alliance, including the feisty Princess Leia Organa, the dashing smuggler-turned-Rebel Han Solo, his Wookiee copilot Chewbacca, and the robotic Laurel-and-Hardy team of C-3PO and R2-D2 as they flee from the forces of the Galactic Empire led by a wrathful and obsessive Lord Darth Vader.

Forced to split up after their secret base on Hoth is assaulted by the Empire, Luke and his friends set forth across the galaxy in opposite directions. Heeding instructions from the ghostly apparition of his late mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke (accompanied by his faithful astromech R2-D2) flies his X-wing fighter to the bog planet Dagobah, where he is to be trained by Yoda, a 900-year-old Jedi Master.

Meanwhile, aboard the Millennium Falcon, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are chased across the vast reaches of space by Vader’s Imperial fleet. In their desperate bid to find refuge, the Falcon’s imperiled crew must deal with a damaged hyperdrive, Imperial TIE fighters and Star Destroyers that dog their every move, and a huge exogorth (space slug).  

And when they eventually make their way to the mining colony of Cloud City, Han, Chewie, Leia, and Threepio discover that their trust in Han’s old friend Lando Calrissian may be misplaced. For the former smuggler, gambler, and smooth-talking Baron Administrator not only has a long history with Han and Chewbacca, but he also has a secret agenda, one that might put the fleeing Rebels in dire straits.

The Empire Striketh Back, which is presented as a play written in Shakespeare’s time, is crafted as a work for a theater with a wooden stage and the costumes, props, and dramatic tropes of Elizabethan England.

Accordingly, instead of the familiar 20th Century Fox Fanfare, the “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” card, and the title crawl underscored by John Williams’ Main Title from Star Wars, a chorus recites a prologue in the vein of Henry V:

PROLOGUE

Outer space.

Enter CHORUS.

CHORUS: O, ‘tis for the Rebellion a dark time.

For though they have the Death Star all destroy’d,

Imperi’l troops did from the ashes climb

And push the rebels closer to the void.

Across the galaxy pursu’d with speed,

The rebels flee th’ Imperi’l Starfleet vast.

A group with Luke Skywalker in the lead

Hath to the ice world known as Hoth flown fast.

Meanwhile, the cruel Darth Vader is obsess’d

With finding young Skywalker. Thus he hath

Through ev’ry point of space begun his quest

By sending robot probes to aid his wrath.

In time so long ago begins our play,

In war-torn galaxy far, far away.

[Exit.

And in the same fashion as Shakespeare told his stories through his characters’ dialogues and soliloquies – which often “break the fourth wall” in asides  aimed at the audience but not heard by the other characters in the play – rather than with detailed action, Doescher doesn’t write long scene descriptions with “action” elements.  Instead, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back depicts visual scenes from the source movie like so:

LUKE

What warren, friends, is this? I am within

Some icy shelter. Now I do recall –

The creature large hath ta’en me by surprise,

Then quickly did my body overpow’r

By knocking me aside with painful blow.

It kill’d my tauntaun with its vicious claws,

Unmoved by the creature’s awful scream.

It must have dragg’d us to this frozen lair.

E’en now I hear it gnaw my tauntaun’s flesh,

The stench of musty death is in my nose.

Now I’m awake, hung up by my own feet,

And sounds of tearing skin and crunching bone

Do echo through this monster’s cave.

The tauntaun, though, is only the first dish,

And I am bound to be the second course.

Indeed, I have a problem grave, and how

Shall I make a rescue for myself? But wait –

What’s there – a’lying on the snow?

It is my lightsaber, how fortunate!

‘Tis too far to grasp with my own reach:

Thus call I on the Force to save my life.

O concentrate, and call upon the things

Thou learn’st from Obi-Wan when still liv’d.

Forsooth, I feel the Force begin to flow –

Within, nearby, inside, surrounding me.

O Force most strong – the lightsaber’s at hand!

Now, am I free to flee the fierce beast’s clutch,

But, lo, the creature comes to me anon!

It will attack me in its fiery rage

Unless I am the first to strike. Lay on!

Enter WAMPA. Luke cuts off the wampa’s arm and exits quickly.

WAMPA

Alas, how I am by this man abus’d –

Could I, for seeking food, not be excus’d?

It seems that this wampa shall have strife.

Thus, gentles all: have pity on my life.

[Exit wampa.

Although Doescher uses the Chorus to move the story forward or to indicate a change of location within the play, he doesn’t do so as much in The Empire Striketh Back as he did in Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope. Readers and fans said he overused the Chorus in the first book of the series, so he reduced its role in this and other books of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series.

Official trailer for The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth.

In his Afterword, Doescher explains that he learned a lot from his first attempt to blend the works of George Lucas and William Shakespeare. In addition to reducing the use of the Chorus, the author also decided to have Yoda deliver his lines in haikus (although Doescher admits that he doesn’t always stick to the rules of haiku writing).

The reason? As Doescher explains:

Yoda is famous for his inverted phrase order, but many people who read William Shakespeare’s Star Wars commented that every character in it sounds a little like Yoda. So what to do? Originally, I had four different ideas:

  • Do a complete reversal and have Yoda talk like a  modern person: “Stop it. Don’t try, just either do it or don’t do it. Seriously.”
  • Have Yoda talk in something like Old English, approximating Chaucer: “Nee, do ye nae trie, aber due it oder due it not.” (My Chaucer admittedly isn’t great.)
  • Don’t do anything special, and have Yoda talk like the other characters.
  • Repeat Yoda’s lines verbatim from the movie, nodding to the fact that Yoda already sounds a little Shakespearean.

Doescher eventually settled on a fifth option – haiku – even though Shakespeare did not write in that Japanese-originated form of poetry. But both George Lucas and Irvin Kershner imbued Yoda with the characteristics of a sensei, and Kershner, a practicing Buddhist, saw the diminutive Jedi Master as a teacher with many eastern, Zen-oriented sensibilities. Thus to Doescher it made perfect sense to have Yoda deliver his lines in haiku.

The author also strove hard to expand Lando Calrissian’s role in The Empire Striketh Back; in the 1980 film Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Doescher argues, his character is not well-developed, even though Billy Dee Williams did his best to make him smooth, charming, yet duplicitous. “We never knew what he was thinking when he was forced to betray his friend, or what made him decide to help Leia and Chewbacca in the end,” Doescher writes. “Filling in some of Lando’s story with asides and soliloquies that show how conflicted he feels hopefully gives him some depth and makes him even more compelling than in the movie.”

William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth features 20 woodcut-style illustrations by Nicolas Delort, who also did the illustration of Yoda wearing a 16th Century style outfit complete with an elaborate (and elegant) ruff around the Jedi Master’s neck for the cover.

The central illustration of Yoda is flanked by smaller depictions of (clockwise from left top) the Millennium Falcon, an Imperial All-Terrain Armored Transport (AT-AT or walker), the bounty hunter Boba Fett, and the double-dealing Lando. Like all of the characters in this series, Fett and Calrissian wear Elizabethan-era variants of their outfits from Empire, looking like personages from the late 1500s rather than movie characters from a 1980 film.

In the same vein, Delort’s depictions of scenes from the film, including Luke’s escape from the wampa, the battle between the Rebels and Imperial AT-ATs and snowtroopers on Hoth, the Falcon’s escape from the exogorth, and the Luke-Vader duel in Cloud City are depicted in a way that suggests how the stage designers and theater employees might have staged a space opera with the techniques available in Shakespeare’s time.

Yoda tussles with R2-D2 over Luke’s lamp (here depicted as a candle) in Nicolas Delort’s funny take on a scene from The Empire Strikes Back. (C) 2014 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The Book

The hardcover edition of William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back is not a large tome; the book is only 176 pages long, including the Dramatis Personae page, the Afterword (in which Doescher discusses how Yoda came to speak in haikus, explains some of the techniques used to mash up The Empire Strikes Back with the plays of William Shakespeare, and what iambic pentameter is), and the Acknowledgments page.  It measures 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.3 inches and weighs less than 1 lb., so it doesn’t take up a lot of shelf space.

Underneath the dust jacket with its Elizabethan-era Yoda illustration, the slim volume looks like a weathered vintage  hardcover edition of a Shakespeare play, such as the ones you might see in a public library or a serious aficionado’s book collection. The cover looks “aged” and the typography on the front is designed to look like a book from the 1930s or ‘40s.  Zounds, the attention to detail paid to William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Quirk Books’ designer Doogie Horner is remarkable.

My Take

Enter Chorus

CHORUS:

O mighty duel, O action ne’er surpassed:

The lightsabers do clash and glow like fire

Darth Vader in the villain’s role is cast,

While Luke’s young temper turneth soon to ire.

They flash and fly like dancers in a set,

Yet never dance did know such deadly mood.

Luke tires, and soon his brow begins to sweat,

Whilst Vader doth attack with strength renewed. – Act V, Scene 3, The Empire Striketh Back

I bought William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth along with William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope and The Jedi Doth Return: Star Wars, Part the Sixth in Quirk Books’ William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy: The Royal Imperial Set in 2014. I don’t recall how I came across it on Amazon; at the time I was dealing with my mother’s final illness (she died in July 2015, a month before I received William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge: Star Wars, Part the Third) and running a household under difficult conditions. For all I know, I probably spied it in the Books department in Amazon while I was looking for something new to read as a freelance book reviewer for the now closed Examiner website.

Even though I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s works, I was intrigued by yet another interpretation of George Lucas’s Star Wars films. I’ve owned novelizations, comic book adaptations, and even the Radio Dramas, so I was curious to see how Lucas’s late 20th Century space fantasy would fare as a pastiche done in the style of William Shakespeare. Accordingly , I ordered the book set with the Star Wars trilogy books.

Here I am, six years later, re-reading not just the Original Trilogy’s Shakespeare adaptations, but the other five books that Ian Doescher has added in the years since The Royal Imperial Set was released late in 2014. For not only has the author covered the 1977-1983 trilogy that kicked off the Star Wars franchise; he has also adapted the Prequel and Sequel Trilogies. (The ninth and possibly last William Shakespeare Star Wars title, The Merry Rise of Skywalker, is due out in July.)

As a writer and long-time reader, I have come to realize that Shakespeare was a genius on many levels, and that his skills were legion. He not only was a great poet and dramatist, but he understood the human condition all too well. So many of his phrases (“the milk of human kindness,” “elbow room,” “faint-hearted,” and “star-crossed”) are part of our modern language, and many of the themes he explored in his histories, comedies, and tragedies have been used time again by many storytellers, including, of course, George Lucas and his creative heirs in the Lucasfilm Story Group.  That’s why his 37 or so plays still stand the test of time, and that’s why The Empire Striketh Back is more than a fun-but-smart parody of a space-fantasy film.

In many ways, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back is a good way to get “into” Shakespeare. Doescher is such a Bard fanboy that he can draw upon the works of a man who died in 1616 and skillfully blend famous lines from various plays with the 20th and 21st Century works of George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Hales, and, later, J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio, and Rian Johnson. The resulting alchemy: a series of plays that pulls off the illusion that hey, William Shakespeare wrote the Skywalker Saga!

As Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy author Timothy Zahn, a Hugo Award-winning novelist, wrote at the time:

“The Bard at his finest, with all the depth of character, insightful soliloquies, and clever wordplay that we’ve come to expect from the master.” – Back cover blurb, William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back

The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth is a joy to read. It’s best enjoyed if you read it aloud, preferably in the company of friends who also love the Star Wars series or the works of the real Shakespeare. There are clever puns, lots of cool references to the movies being spoofed, and many nods to the plays that Doescher is attempting to imitate. And, as the series progresses, the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars plays get better and better, and funnier, too.

As a Generation 1977 Star Wars fan, a longtime reader, a writer, and a lover of great stories, I enthusiastically recommend William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back: Star Wars Part the Fifth.

This is the book you’re looking for!

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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