William Shakespeare and George Lucas. In less capable hands, a book called William Shakespeareís 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 Shakespeareís style, written entirely in his trademark iambic pentameter. If youíre 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 isnít the book for you. Itís written for a very niche audience, and as I opened it, I couldnít shake the feeling that it might as well have been written just for my circle of friends. If itís not up your alley, it wonít win you over, but if it does sound as if itís for you, Doescher wonít let you down. He peppers in plenty of winks and nudges to both the Bard and the Beard, and youíll enjoy the hell out of it.
In part, thatís because he doesnít take the premise too seriously, but itís also because heís 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 ďanonsĒ and ďforsoothsĒ. Likewise, if students were to read Doescherís poetry with the castís original intonations, theyíd learn how to modernize their delivery when performing Shakespeareís actual plays in the future.
There are some neat illustrations throughout, but itís the vital and vibrant wordplay that takesóahemócenter stage in the book. Unlike Shakespeareís plays, though, still enjoyable when read or watched in one sitting, I wouldnít recommend tackling this version of Star Wars cover to cover. Itís 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 wineís 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. Crispianís Day speech from Henry V, tweaked to include womp rats and T-16s) and some are forced, low-hanging fruit, (As You Like Itís ďAll the worldís a stageĒ line changed to ďAll the worldís a starĒ; Luke holding a Stormtrooperís helmet instead of a skull and doing Hamletís ďAlas, poor YorickĒ speech). The Star Wars nods, by contrast, work every time, particularly when Doescher uses the book to poke gentle fun at some of the movieís goofy moments. In Obi-Wanís hut, when C-3PO interrupts just to power himself down, Obi-Wan asks what weíve all wanted to at one time or another: ďwhy speakíst he here when Ďtis my time/to speak?Ē And later, in Mos Eisley, Doescher keeps the Special Editionís pointless, redundant Han Solo/Jabba scene and gives Han the line: ďíTis though I just have said thusóeven I/From time to time have boarded been. Dost thou/Believe that eíer I had the choice? [aside:] Aye, true/It sometimes seemeth I repeat myself.Ē
Doescherís 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.
Itís 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 actsóbeginning, long middle, endóand if you look at Episode IV with that in mind, itís an absolute mess. It shouldnít work. Many films donít 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 doesnít break ďthe rules,Ē 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 ďGreek chorus,Ē here, theyíre versions of Hamletís Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. R2ís beeps, whistles, and squeaks are all set to the same meter as everyone elseís lines, but periodically, heís given an aside in English, a chance to berate 3PO with the Bardís many epithets. He even gets a couple soliloquies, in which he waxes poetic about his epic mission, with lines like, ďBut hear the voice of R2-D2 all/My noble purpose Iíll accomplish yet/To take to Obi-Wan the princessí news/[Ö]A foolish thing this flight may be/And yet more fine than foolish shall it be.Ē
In that way, Doescher layers the characters with pathos and motivation, and because he has the benefit of hindsight, heís 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 heís better off explaining things ďfrom a certain point of view.Ē We see his internal debate verbalized. And with reactions like Lukeís, to seeing Leiaís hologramóďnot eíen were she my sister could I know/A duty of more weight than I feel nowĒóDoescher is able to inject humor while foreshadowing what lies ahead.
Next up: an Empire Strikes Back edition. Itís there that Lucasís saga gets down and dirty, and where it most powerfully echoes Shakespearean tropes. Iím excited to read Yodaís backwards-talk in rhyme, to see shades of Brutus in Lando Calrissian, of Beatrice and Benedick in Leia and Hanís romance, and for the almost inevitable stage direction: ďExit, pursued by a Wampa.Ē
For now, though, Iím satisfied with Verily, A New Hope. In a universe built on big revelations (ďI am your fatherĒ) and big deathsóparticularly in the Expanded Universeóitís nice to see a book that gets by on little epiphanies and insights, simply by reframing an intimately familiar story.
Shakespeareís Star Wars is laborious at times, but it is clearly a great loveís labour, and with that terrible pun, I leave you with:
Rating: 8 out of 10 (beats per line)
ďI 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
[Ö]This undiscover'd galaxy wherein
I'll know at last tranquility of heart.
But ere I die, I'll one last lesson teach.
[Ö]Put up thy lightsaber now, Obi-Wan,
And show thyself a Jedi to this son.Ē
-Obi-Wan Kenobi, Act 4, Scene 7