Book Review: ‘William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First’

Cover art by Nicolas Delort. © Copyright 2015 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Prologue.

Outer space.

Enter CHORUS.

CHORUS  Alack! What dreadful turmoil hath beset

The strong Republic and its bonds of peace.

O’er distant trade routes all do sigh and fret

As fears of grim taxation do increase.

The greedy, vile Trade Federation hath

Created a blockade none may pass through.

With deadly battleships they block the path

Unto the little planet call’d Naboo.

Whilst politicians endlessly debate,

The Supreme Chancellor plies strategy.

He sends two Jedi to negotiate – 

They who keep peace within the galaxy.

In time so long ago begins our play,

In troubl’d galaxy far, far away. – Ian Doescher, William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First

On April 7, 2015, Quirk Books published William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First, the fourth installment of author Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series. It is a retelling of George Lucas’s 1999 space fantasy film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, written as an Elizabethan era stage play by none other than the Bard of Avon himself.

Doescher – with the blessing of Lucasfilm Ltd. and its book publishing arm Lucas Books – follows up his best-selling pastiche of the original Star Wars Trilogy – with a sendup of the Prequel Trilogy, starting with William Shakespeare’s The Phantom Menace: Star Wars Part the First.

O Threepio, Threepio, Wherefore Art Thou, Threepio?

Join us, good gentles, for a merry retelling of Star Wars Episode I as only Shakespeare could have written it. The entire saga begins here, with a thrilling tale featuring a disguised queen, a young hero, and two fearless knights facing a hidden, vengeful enemy.

‘Tis a Shakespearean drama, filled with sword fights, soliloquies, and a doomed romance, all in glorious iambic pentameter and coupled with twenty gorgeous Elizabethan illustrations. Hold on to your midichlorians: The play’s the thing, wherein you’ll catch the rise of Anakin! – Publisher’s dustjacket blurb, William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First

In this clever and amusing sendup of Lucas’s prequel to the 1977-1983 Star Wars film trilogy, the galaxy far, far away is in turmoil. The Galactic Republic is in its twilight years, rotting from inside as greedy corporations corrupt the once-trustworthy Congress in a bid to gain more political power and wealth. Led by the Trade Federation, these large for-profit entities are up in arms – literally – as a weakened Supreme Chancellor Finis Valorum presses for new taxes on interstellar trade routes.

Nicolas Delort remakes Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala in the style of Queen Bess.

In a bid to force the Republic to repeal the Chancellor’s tax proposal, Viceroy Nute Gunray and his Neimoidian underlings – goaded by the Sith Lord Darth Sidious – deploys a fleet of battleships to enforce a blockade of the planet Naboo. This small world in the Outer Rim is ruled by a democratically elected queen, Amidala, who is only 14 and has been on the throne for only a few months. Sidious has assured the Neimoidians that Naboo is an easy target – Amidala is young and naïve, and the Senate will not interfere with any move by the Trade Federation once the queen is forced to see reason and signs a treaty that accepts the Federation’s terms – including occupation by a droid army.

Into this web of political intrigue and danger walk two Jedi Knights: the veteran Qui-Gon Jinn and his 25-year-old apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sent on a secret mission at the bequest of Chancellor Valorum, the two Jedi are ordered to negotiate with the Trade Federation and peacefully resolve the blockade of Naboo.

But a peaceful negotiation to the Naboo Crisis is the last thing that Sidious desires:

Enter DARTH SIDIOUS in beam on balcony, speaking with NUTE GUNRAY and DAULTAY DOFINE.

SIDIOUS: What is ’t?

DAULTAY:  – The scheme that you have schem’d hath fail’d,

Lord Sidious. Our ruse – e’en this blockade –

Is finish’d, for would we dare fight against

The Jedi? Nay! It would be foolishness.

SIDIOUS: [to Nute Gunray] Hear me now, Viceroy; I’ll not

                                                            have this this filth,

This stunted slime of rank and worthless nerve,

This craven, simple-minded lump of flesh

Within my presence e’er again. Put not

Such weak examples of resolve and will

Before a mighty Sith.

                                                [Exit Daultay Dofine.

                        This recent twist

Of Fate’s blind spinning wheel hath luckless been.

We must, therefore, accelerate our plans:

Begin to send the troops unto Naboo.

NUTE: My lord, your words astound! For shall the law

Be with us in this action we shall take?

SIDIOUS: I tell thee, I am arbiter and law:

It shall be legal if I make it so.

NUTE: What shall be done with these two Jedi, then?

SIDIOUS: ‘Twas ill-conceived of the chancellor

To bring the Jedi into this affair.

Hear my command and follow :kill them both!

NUTE: Indeed, my lord: as you wish, it shall be.

                                    [Exit Darth Sidious from beam.

                                                Exit Nute Gunray.

The two-headed, four-armed sportcaster from The Phantom Menace as reimagined by Nicolas Delort. © Copyright 2015 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Lo! Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan use their Jedi training and Force-enhanced abilities to survive this dastardly plot and make their way down onto Naboo by hiding on separate Trade Federation transports. Their plan: to warn the Naboo of the impending invasion and somehow contact Chancellor Valorum and the Galactic Congress.

Along the way, however, they encounter Jar Jar Binks, a member of the amphibian species known as the Gungans. The Gungans are intelligent and boast technology on par with the human Naboo, but the two dominant species have mutual distrust and, in the past, have quarreled. In this version of The Phantom Menace, the often clumsy and irritating Jar Jar isn’t as clueless as George Lucas wrote him in the 1999 film; here he is a radical who is at odds with Gungan society over his political views. Knowing that humans look down on those who seem less intelligent or – at best – naïve and easily manipulated, Jar Jar deliberately plays the part of the Fool to use the Jedi for his own purposes.

Nicolas Delort depicts Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala in the styles of Trisha Beggar and Shakespeare’s “Good Queen Bess.” © Copyright 2015 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace sticks to the plot of Star Wars Episode I faithfully; it follows its two Jedi leads as their mission to warn the Naboo swiftly turns into an improvised and daring extraction of Queen Amidala and her handmaidens that climaxes with a hair-raising running of the Federation’s blockade aboard a Royal Naboo cruiser.  

During this harrowing escape – in which R2-D2 plays a key role – the Queen’s cruiser’s hyperdrive is damaged. The Jedi and Amidala’s small retinue – including security chief Captain Panaka and pilot Ric Olie – agree that they need to land somewhere to repair the ship, but when Obi-Wan suggests a small, out-of-the-way planet called Tatooine, Panaka objects:

PANAKA; What confidence have you in this remark?

QUI-GON: The planet is controlled by the Hutts.

PANAKA: The Hutts indeed. Such lowly gangsters of

Base reputation, fill’d with avarice:

Their minds on money, money on their minds.

Such lowly, wormlike villainy as theirs

No royalty should e’er bear witness to,

Or forced be to find the strength t’ endure.

O nay, ye Jedis, find another course:

Pray, let us not take her to Tatooine!

QUI-GON: E’en if they discover her, ‘twould be

No diff’rent than if our lame ship were bound

For any place the Federation holds.

Except, my friend: the Hutts expect her not,

Nor are they searching for the noble queen.

We do, then, have a strong advantage here –

Thus let us land, with hopefulness sincere.

                                    [Exeunt.

The Plot Thickens…and a Hero Rises

Qui-Gon’s choice to land on Tatooine – whether prompted by what he calls the “living Force” or mere circumstance – is perhaps the most fateful event in the Skywalker Saga. For it is on this world – described by Obi-Wan as “as small and poor, and far from ev’rything” – that Queen Amidala (disguised as a humble handmaiden named Padmé), her two Jedi protectors, and their reluctant Gungan companion Jar Jar meet a nine-year-old slave named Anakin Skywalker.

Our brave little band of refugees meets Anakin in his Toydarian master Watto’s junkshop, one of the many small independently owned businesses in the small town of Mos Espa.  Watto won ownership of Anakin and his mother Shmi from Gardulla the Hutt in a game of chance several years earlier. He’s not a harsh master, but he is not above risking Anakin’s life by making him a Podracer pilot in high-stakes races that entertain local moisture farmers and attract many gamblers. The Hutts, led by the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt, have their fingers in the smuggling and gambling rackets on Tatooine, while Watto is notorious for his gambling habit.

Qui-Gon soon realizes that while Watto does not accept Republic credits, his gambling habit is a vice that can be exploited. And keen observation of the boy named Anakin – or maybe a stirring in the Force – tells the experienced but upstart Jedi that there’s more to the nine-year-old slave than meets the eye.

Anakin, too, is drawn to the strangers for several reasons. In Qui-Gon, who is disguised as a Tatooine farmer but doesn’t convince anyone, the young Skywalker sees both a father figure more benevolent than his current master Watto, as well as a possible deliverer from his (and his mother’s) state of bondage. Spying Qui-Gon’s lightsaber, Anakin intuits that the “moisture farmer” is really a Jedi.

Of more import, however, is the beautiful Padmé, who catches young Skywalker’s precocious eye at first sight;

ANAKIN: [aside:] Though I am young and burden’ by the shine

Of too much sunlight here on Tatooine,

Still I can tell the presence of a light

Far brighter than e’er I dream’d possible.

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!

[to Padmé] Excuse me this intrusion, madam, but:

Are you by some celestial body sent?

Did you make home beyond the galaxy,

Whence you did come to bless my little life?

PADMÉ: What didst thou say?

ANAKIN:         – Are you celesti’lly born?

These pilots who do wander deep in space

Do tell of beings so pure and undefil’d:

Such beauty’s in their aspect and song

That all who hear their music ‘gin to weep

And long to be forever in the sway

Of their most splendid, perfect melody.

Methinks they live upon the moon Iego

And there they play their notes for all who pass.

PADMÉ: Thou art a droll, audacious little boy.

How comes this knowledge from such youthful lips?

ANAKIN: I do but listen: train my ear toward

The traders and the pilots who traverse

This lonely planet. Truly, I do call

Myself a pilot, too, and shall one day

Fly far beyond this planet’s stifling reach.

PADMÉ: Thou art a pilot?

ANAKIN:     – Troth, for all the days

I have upon this barren planet dwell’d.

PADMÉ: What is the number of those days thereon?

ANAKIN:  O, since I was a lad of but three years.

My mother and myself were peddl’d to

Gardulla of the Hutt, who did but lose

Her new investment gambling o’er the pods.

PADMÉ: Thou art a slave?

ANAKIN:  – O appellation dire!

Pray, when you think of me think not of slave,

Think not that I am baseborn, made to work,

Think not of one who lives by harsh commands,

Think not of one whose destiny’s controll’d,

Think rather of my worthy qualities,

Think of my name, good lady: Anakin.

PADMÉ: And so I shall, hereafter. Pardon me,

For I do not full understanding have

Of this strange place, which is still new to me.

And so begins a fateful relationship, perhaps the most fateful in the history of that galaxy far, far away. As unlikely as it seems at this point in the Star Wars story, Anakin (the young hero) and Padmé (the disguised queen) and the two (Jedi) knights will join in an adventure that will change their destinies – and that of the Galactic Republic – in ways that they did not foresee.

Author Ian Doescher once again transformed writer-director George Lucas’s three-act screenplay into a five-act stage play written in the style of Shakespeare. Many of the conventions Doescher introduced in his adaptation of the original Star Wars trilogy are present here: the use of a Chorus to introduce the play and – sometimes – indicate transitions or comment on the action, dialogue written mostly in iambic pentameter (with a few notable exceptions, including Jedi Master Yoda’s haikus, Chancellor Valorum’s tendency to have weak endings in his lines, and Mace Windu’s allusions to movies that feature actor Samuel L. Jackson in his dialogue), and sparse stage directions should be familiar to readers of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series.

There are also some new refinements, including the addition of a sinister counterpart to the Chorus. This dark and forbidding new voice is called Rumor, and she’s here to inject a sense of darkness and doom that matches the mood and arc of the Prequel Trilogy. Rumor – like the Chorus – appears only in a few scenes, but when she does, the reader knows that she is an ill omen. Or, as many characters have oft observed in the Star Wars films, you’ll have a bad feeling about things when Rumor speaks.

Doescher also admits that with each book in his series, he adds little but important touches that make his writing more “Shakespearean.” In the Afterword to The Phantom of Menace, for instance, the author has this to say about language and distinctions in social status between characters:

In Shakespeare’s time, generally speaking, (though with Shakespeare there are always exceptions) “thou” is used informally, as between friends, and “you” is used more formally. “Thou” is also used to express superiority over someone – if you are my subordinate, I will refer to you as “thou,” but you will refer to me as “you” as a sign of respect. In the original William Shakespeare Star Wars trilogy I was looser about “thou” versus “you” – beginning with William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace, the distinction is, hopefully, clearer.

Up Front: The Cover

Once again, illustrator Nicolas Delort returns to give Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala, Queen of Naboo, a decidedly Elizabethan makeover, making her look more like England’s “Good Queen Bess,” albeit when Elizabeth I was a young woman. Because Delort matches the styles worn by European nobles in Shakespeare’s time and Trisha Beggar’s designs for Portman’s character in The Phantom Menace, the central figure on the book cover is an interesting synergy between the “look” of the late 1500s and the late 1990s.

The central illustration of Padmé-as-Queen is flanked by smaller depictions of (clockwise from left top) the Royal Naboo Cruiser, a Trade Federation battleship, Anakin’s Podracer ,Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon, and Darth Maul. Like all of the characters in this series, the Jedi and Lord Maul wear Elizabethan-era variants of their outfits from The Phantom Menace, looking like personages from the late 1500s rather than 1999-era space fantasy movie characters.

The Book

Nicolas Delort’s take on the iconic “reveal” of Darth Maul’s two-bladed lightsaber in The Phantom Menace. © Copyright 2015 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The hardcover edition of William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First is not a large work; the book is only 176 pages long, including the Dramatis Personae page, the Afterword (in which Doescher discusses how he coped with the issue of Jar Jar Binks, explains some of the techniques used to seamlessly blend The Phantom Menace with the plays of William Shakespeare, and reminds readers what iambic pentameter is), and the Acknowledgments page.  It measures 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches and weighs less than 1 lb.

My Take

Enter Rumor.

RUMOR: E’en as the Jedi fret to find their part,

New enemies do move to work them woe.

The Sith hath come, with evil in his heart,

Equipp’d with might to rise against his foe.

Replete with thoughts dark and insidious,

The Sith, Darth Sidious, doth plan his move.

He – with Darth Maul, apprentice hideous –

Expects they shall their obstacles remove.

So come they now, these men of vice and fear,

Illicitly to make all bend the knee,

Till they’ve the power, which they hold so dear,

Help’d by this Rumor through the galaxy.

                                    [Exit

The eight books of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series in a publicity photo. © Copyright 2018 Quirk Books and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

I bought this book via pre-order on Amazon, so I have owned William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace (a play on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice) since April of 2015. I didn’t “deep read” it at the time; in that spring of 2015 I was dealing with many issues at the same time. My mother was gravely ill and suffering from dementia; my older half-sister was making life miserable in her efforts to exert her wishes against mine because she was angry that Mom had given me the reins of the house instead of her; our original home health aide had quit only a week before after my half-sister manipulated events to set up a confrontation in front of Mom; and I was both depressed and worn out after five years of dealing with one crisis after another.

Still, I managed to read just enough of Doescher’s fourth installment of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series to be able to write a review for the now-vanished website Examiner. At the time, I was the company’s Miami “Examiner” in three categories: Blu-ray & DVD, Star Wars, and Books, so when I wrote my critique of The Phantom of Menace, I probably submitted it to the latter category.

Now that we live in the time of the novel coronavirus and lead a somewhat less stressful life, I’ve found more “downtime” to read books. So I have been revisiting and really digging into books that I hadn’t had the time to read before.

For a few years I have avoided re-reading and reviewing The Phantom of Menace; on the “ex libris” page I still have one of those little labels that bears my old house’s address; that’s a reminder of where I was and what my life was like when I bought the book half-a-decade ago.

I also remember that this was the last William Shakespeare’s Star Wars volume I received while Mom was still with us – and that her cognitive issues were so bad that she did not understand what was so cool about a mashup of the works of William Shakespeare and those of George Lucas. Before her illness, my mother had been quite the avid reader and remembered watching a few Shakespeare plays in both English and Spanish. She was also a Star Wars fan – the last movie she saw in theaters before her declining health prevented her from going to the nearby theaters was Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and we watched the first six films of the Skywalker Saga on DVD or Blu-ray many times.

I still feel a twinge of sadness when I look at Nicolas Delort’s charming cover illustration because I remember my mother holding the book to her face, looking at the image of Padmé Amidala in Elizabethan regalia…and not really understanding what was so cool about it. She liked it, don’t get me wrong; but she no longer remembered who Shakespeare was, much less what defines a “pastiche” or a “parody.” And of course, I feel more than a twinge of sadness when I recall that this was the last “new book” I had the chance to show her; the next book in the series was published 12 days before Mom died. (She was in the hospital when William Shakespeare’s The Clone Army Attacketh arrived at our house on July 7, 2015, and she wasn’t able to look at too many books or TV shows during her last days.)

But even though it’s quite a challenge for me to read these books – I’m more a fan of Star Wars than I am of Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, plus I still have a lot of emotional impedimenta I do enjoy them immensely.   

William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First does something unexpected: It takes my least favorite Star Wars film and adds depth and emotional weight to its characters, especially the nine-year-old Anakin Skywalker and the goofy, clownish Jar Jar Binks.

Now, I don’t hate Anakin, Jar Jar or the actors who play them in The Phantom Menace. I probably would have been happier if “Ani” had been 13 or so in Episode I so that his fixation with Padmé wasn’t so…so…weird, but then again my opinion doesn’t change the reality that George Lucas wrote the story he wanted to tell.  As a writer, I respect that. My issues with a young Ani stem more from my impression that he really isn’t that fleshed out in the film version.

As for Jar Jar – I don’t hate him, either. But he’s definitely not my favorite comic relief character. R2-D2 and C-3PO fill the bill for Star Wars’ version of Abbott and Costello – from a certain point of view.

In William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace, Anakin has far better lines to deliver, not just because Doescher gives him lyrical dialogue, soliloquies, and asides, but he also seems more developed dramatically. His story arc doesn’t change; but the presentation – obviously – does.

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. 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 Phantom of Menace is more than a fun-but-smart parody of a space-fantasy film.

In many ways, William Shakespeare’s The Phantom Menace is an excellent way to get “into” Shakespeare. Doescher is such a Bard expert and a Star Wars fan that he can draw upon the works of a man who died in 1616 and skillfully combine 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 indeed, William Shakespeare wrote the Skywalker Saga!

As Boing Boing’s book critic wrote in 2014 about the original William Shakespeare’s Star Wars Trilogy:

“Not a campy or goofy parody, but a surprisingly well-done tribute, this is a special treat. The artwork is also fantastic.” – Back cover blurb, William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace

 This is a witty, well-written work. It is full of drama, comedy, action, and – if you are new to the Star Wars saga – even some suspense. Moreover, since it is a pastiche, it is a good way to introduce younger readers – say, of high school age – to the style of William Shakespeare before tackling a play like The Taming of the Shrew or Othello. And most of all, it’s full of puns, clever wordplay – Shakespeare loved playing with the English language and added much needed humor in his works – and pop culture references, some of which are not remotely related to either Shakespeare or Star Wars.

As someone who loves good writing and the Skywalker Saga, I heartily recommend William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First.

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.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘William Shakespeare’s The Phantom of Menace: Star Wars Part the First’

    1. In that case, I have two suggestions:

      1. Just get the Royal Imperial Boxed Set with the original trilogy. Don’t bother with the other six unless you read the first three. And you know, you might get your granddaughter into Shakespeare when she’s old enough before high school.

      2. Get the audio version. Those are really cool, because it’s a whole cast kinda deal. That way you can hear it performed by people who know how to interpret the Bard.

      Liked by 1 person

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