The Fourth Be With Thee, Anon! Using Star Wars to Understand Shakespeare

Photo by Nice M Nshuti on Unsplash

Malfunctioning small fool.

Verily, a New Hope

Act I, Scene 4, Line 47

Ian Doescher


What’s the initial reaction nearly everyone has to their first Shakespeare play? 
It’s always “I couldn’t understand a word.” Shakespeare’s language is his greatest gift but also the greatest barrier to understanding and enjoying his works. 

If, like me, you’ve spent most of your life reading him, then understanding the language is part of the appeal. But it’s not the case for everyone—even those who thrive in the literary field. 

Enter William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher

Far from being a gimmicky book for Star Wars and Shakespeare enthusiasts, this series has some educational merit for all ages. Some of the dramatic elements that were a given for Shakespeare’s audience are in a more understandable context for 21st century humans. 

Shakespearean verse structure makes more sense with familiar references.

Shakespeare’s lines are constructed as a very long, clause-ridden sentence, like most lines in an epic poem. For most people, this requires you to “unpack” what’s being said. It also means most of us don’t have the attention-span or energy required.

However, reading Shakespearean language in Doesher’s series teaches you how those lines are supposed to work. When you know already what’s supposed to be happening, then the meaning is much more evident. 
Also, the other half of understanding Shakespeare is understanding his references. A modern 21st century society doesn’t necessarily get the difference between “a hawk and a handsaw” or why you should be able to “tell a church by daylight.” 

But Star Wars is familiar territory for most of us. We know the stories and action sequences by heart and understand what a blaster and lightsaber are and sound like. We don’t understand the sounds of a medieval battlefield.  

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention!

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,

And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

Henry V

Act I, Scene 1, lines 1-4

William Shakespeare


The chorus is the third-person narrator when there’s more to the action than what a picture provides. 

A chorus is something we associate with Broadway or pop music. We don’t associate it with a dramatic element. Yet, from Oedipus Rex to Henry V, the dramatic chorus was a theatrical mainstay for events which were important to the play but couldn’t be portrayed on stage. 

The 20th century’s switch from the playhouse to the movie house turned this on its head. A picture says a thousand words, right? Well……

Considering the Star Wars saga makes use of a chorus of sorts itself; I think this is a maxim we should challenge. The introductory text to each movie? In Doescher’s series, that text is given to the chorus. So are the descriptions of the duels.  

Asides tell us things the other characters remain ignorant of or must find out for themselves. 

If you’ve never seen a Shakespeare play performed by a professional troupe, like in Shakespeare’s Globe, the aside only sort of makes sense. 

But give R2-D2 an aside, and the meaning is crystal clear. We, along with the other characters, hear the same thing: beeps and whirls. R2’s fellow characters can interpret what he says and relays the meaning to us. In the aside, R2 is given human language. Which means, for once, we can see what R2 says for himself. We don’t have the other characters interpreting him for us. 

This is the power of the aside: it’s a two-way interaction between character and audience when usually the audience is on the outside looking in. With R2, this means we get a glimpse of his meaning without the filter of his fellow characters. 

Soliloquies are inner dialogue are more obvious

This is another example of a picture not saying a thousand words. Darth Vader’s inner conflict is hinted at in a soliloquy in The Empire Striketh back when there was only a slight indication in the original movie. Even then, those indications were only in retrospect. Vader’s inner conflict isn’t truly clear on screen until The Return of the Jedi

When we encounter soliloquies in Shakespeare, their use is not at first clear. In fact, when we’re in our own frustrated teen years, they can seem more like a bore than anything else. Where’s the action? 

Movies allow us to stay with the action and all the internal thoughts and dialogue are up to the actors to portray as much as they can. Inner thoughts and feelings are hidden from the audience. Which means when we read a soliloquy, we don’t necessarily make the connection between a character’s inner thoughts and their dialogue. 

Seeing a soliloquy as it would have been in Star Wars clears up a lot of that confusion. 

 The Bard shall be with thee, verily. 

There is more to Shakespeare than the limits we put upon him or ourselves. Ian Doescher’s series shows us that in abundance.

We could argue further about the thematic similarities between Star Wars and Shakespeare. Any two classics of any kind are going to have significant comparison points, but these should encourage us to pursue those comparisons. Why not compare Star Wars and Shakespeare? Why not compare T. S. Eliot and Tolkien

If we make these connections, how much better could we learn and teach what, for some, is pure torture? 

So, pick up a copy, settle in, and enjoy International Star Wars Day! 

The Force will be with you! 

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