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July 4, 2014 / CB

Book Review: William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return, by Ian Doescher

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This project, mashing up Star Wars and Shakespeare, was ambitious in the extreme.  When I first heard about it, I raised a skeptical eyebrow.  It seemed a stretch, a literary trick which surely wouldn’t come off.  With the third book finished, I stand happily corrected.  Doescher has taken a beloved piece of 20th-century pop culture, mixed it with 400-year-old pop culture, and created something so wonderfully accessible that even my pre-school son begged me to read it to him.  This series is complex, literate, and great fun.  Can we get this guy a laurel wreath or something?

In his Afterword, Doescher mentions that Jedi is his favorite of the original trilogy, and it shows.  The writing and character adaptation here are far and away the best of the bunch.  The flow and rhythm of the language moves seamlessly from start to finish, reminiscent of the very best of Shakespeare’s work.  In VerilyA New Hope and The Empire Striketh Back, for as much as I loved them, there were times when things seemed just a bit off, like a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit.  In Jedi, however, the author strikes the right balance between his two sources and truly ends this work on a high note.

He makes Salacious Crumb Jabba’s court jester (which had to happen), but doesn’t overplay the game.  He makes the last word of every one of Ackbar’s speeches rhyme with “trap”.  He makes Han Solo sing and dance without it seeming ludicrous, and gives Stromtroopers a meaningful consideration of their betters.  He continues to use soliloquies and asides, as Shakespeare did, to add depth and conflict to his characters.  Significantly (and here is where I think Doescher’s great triumph lies), he doesn’t use these moments to make the speakers into something new.  Instead, the reader sees what they already knew about the Emperor or Vader or Luke expressed in new words, with perhaps a greater emotional vibrance.  When Palpatine says

“…and yet,

To me, what is this quintessence of dust?

A galaxy of vermin searching for

A crumb of what the best do eat, all rul’d

By those who have the appetite for pow’r–

For in a world of darkness only those

Who serve the dark deserve to live and thrive.” (IV.ii. 95-101)

there is nothing the least bit surprising about that sentiment.  If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the Emperor disdains everyone and everything beneath him, even Vader, and yet that contempt is here articulated in a wonderful new way.  Likewise, there is something utterly satisfying in hearing Han say, as they search for the lost Leia,

“Some horrid fate,

Some accident of fortune hath befall’n,

And ta’en my love too quickly from my grasp.

O let it ne’er be so, and let me not

With grief and anguish live out all my days.” (III.iii.4-8)

On screen, Han would never say something like this, and yet it totally suits his character here.  It could just as easily have been Othello of Lysander delivering these lines, and that is what makes this book great.  The author has succeeded in making his characters believable in both Renaissance England and a galaxy far, far away.

The entire series is more than a simple laugh or a fanboy trip.  These books have real merit in and of themselves and do, I think, add something unique to the body of Shakespearian scholarship.  Whatever Doescher’s intention in writing them, they are proof that the Bard’s appeal is not dead.  If his styling and language can be made to serve purposes likes these, then his plays have life in them yet.  Moreover, this project would not have succeeded if there wasn’t something in common between the two sets of stories.  In his Afterword, the author draws a comparison between the end of Jedi and the end of King Lear, and it’s a good one.  Perhaps, in these books, Doescher has created something of a bridge between two sets of fans, opening the way for a greater appreciation of both sides.  That is a legacy worth leaving.

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