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TFN Review: Shakespeare's Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope By Ian Doescher

Posted by Adam on September 24, 2013 at 12:00 PM CST

William Shakespeare and George Lucas. In less capable hands, a book called William Shakespeare’s Star Wars would probably be an insult to both, but Ian Doescher knows his Sith.

This, as you might have guessed, is a retelling of Episode IV in Shakespeare’s style, written entirely in his trademark iambic pentameter. If you’re wondering, iambs have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, while pentameter is a rhythm of five iambs (ten beats) per line. If you fell asleep just reading that, this probably isn’t the book for you. It’s written for a very niche audience, and as I opened it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it might as well have been written just for my circle of friends. If it’s not up your alley, it won’t win you over, but if it does sound as if it’s for you, Doescher won’t let you down. He peppers in plenty of winks and nudges to both the Bard and the Beard, and you’ll enjoy the hell out of it.

In part, that’s because he doesn’t take the premise too seriously, but it’s also because he’s done his research. I can easily see this taking on new life as a teaching tool. Since the lines of the film version are widely known, seeing their Shakespearean equivalent on the page is a good way to osmose the meanings of all those pesky “anons” and “forsooths”. Likewise, if students were to read Doescher’s poetry with the cast’s original intonations, they’d learn how to modernize their delivery when performing Shakespeare’s actual plays in the future.

There are some neat illustrations throughout, but it’s the vital and vibrant wordplay that takes—ahem—center stage in the book. Unlike Shakespeare’s plays, though, still enjoyable when read or watched in one sitting, I wouldn’t recommend tackling this version of Star Wars cover to cover. It’s best left as a coffee table book, trotted out at parties whenever someone wonders what their favorite scene sounds like in Elizabethan parlance, or better yet, performed at parties, when a bit too much wine’s been poured.

The Shakespeare in-jokes are a mixed bag. Some allusions are great (patrolling Stormtroopers turned into the silly Guards from Much Ado; the St. Crispian’s Day speech from Henry V, tweaked to include womp rats and T-16s) and some are forced, low-hanging fruit, (As You Like It’s “All the world’s a stage” line changed to “All the world’s a star”; Luke holding a Stormtrooper’s helmet instead of a skull and doing Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” speech). The Star Wars nods, by contrast, work every time, particularly when Doescher uses the book to poke gentle fun at some of the movie’s goofy moments. In Obi-Wan’s hut, when C-3PO interrupts just to power himself down, Obi-Wan asks what we’ve all wanted to at one time or another: “why speak’st he here when ‘tis my time/to speak?” And later, in Mos Eisley, Doescher keeps the Special Edition’s pointless, redundant Han Solo/Jabba scene and gives Han the line: “’Tis though I just have said thus—even I/From time to time have boarded been. Dost thou/Believe that e’er I had the choice? [aside:] Aye, true/It sometimes seemeth I repeat myself.”

Doescher’s not just after cheap laughs, though; the book underscores the mythology of Star Wars in a very immediate way, showing just how clearly Lucas took his cues from Joseph Campbell and how much Campbell references Shakespeare.

It’s thanks to Doescher, for instance, that for the first time I noticed how well Star Wars is structured. In film school, screenwriters are taught that movies should have three acts—beginning, long middle, end—and if you look at Episode IV with that in mind, it’s an absolute mess. It shouldn’t work. Many films don’t employ three acts (gangster movies have two: a rise and a fall) but until this book, I never noticed how beautifully Star Wars chugs along if you chop it into five acts. It doesn’t break “the rules,” it uses archaic ones.

With that in mind, Doescher takes full advantage of his format, using stage-directed asides to add internal monologue to the story. The biggest beneficiary of those changes? R2-D2, who steals the show for much of the book. Though Lucas often describes the droids as his “Greek chorus,” here, they’re versions of Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. R2’s beeps, whistles, and squeaks are all set to the same meter as everyone else’s lines, but periodically, he’s given an aside in English, a chance to berate 3PO with the Bard’s many epithets. He even gets a couple soliloquies, in which he waxes poetic about his epic mission, with lines like, “But hear the voice of R2-D2 all/My noble purpose I’ll accomplish yet/To take to Obi-Wan the princess’ news/[…]A foolish thing this flight may be/And yet more fine than foolish shall it be.”

In that way, Doescher layers the characters with pathos and motivation, and because he has the benefit of hindsight, he’s able to tie the story to the prequels. In this telling, Obi-Wan is at first reluctant to lie to Luke about his father, but decides that he’s better off explaining things “from a certain point of view.” We see his internal debate verbalized. And with reactions like Luke’s, to seeing Leia’s hologram—“not e’en were she my sister could I know/A duty of more weight than I feel now”—Doescher is able to inject humor while foreshadowing what lies ahead.

Next up: an Empire Strikes Back edition. It’s there that Lucas’s saga gets down and dirty, and where it most powerfully echoes Shakespearean tropes. I’m excited to read Yoda’s backwards-talk in rhyme, to see shades of Brutus in Lando Calrissian, of Beatrice and Benedick in Leia and Han’s romance, and for the almost inevitable stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a Wampa.”

For now, though, I’m satisfied with Verily, A New Hope. In a universe built on big revelations (“I am your father”) and big deaths—particularly in the Expanded Universe—it’s nice to see a book that gets by on little epiphanies and insights, simply by reframing an intimately familiar story.

Shakespeare’s Star Wars is laborious at times, but it is clearly a great love’s labour, and with that terrible pun, I leave you with:

Rating: 8 out of 10 (beats per line)

“I know I cannot win this battle here,
Nor would I wish to slay the kindly man
Who surely still within this black shell lives.
And so, unto this death I'll go, this sleep
[…]This undiscover'd galaxy wherein
I'll know at last tranquility of heart.
But ere I die, I'll one last lesson teach.
[…]Put up thy lightsaber now, Obi-Wan,
And show thyself a Jedi to this son.”

-Obi-Wan Kenobi, Act 4, Scene 7

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