This is the kind of thing for which I’ve been waiting a long time but just never realized the fact until I saw it on a bookstore shelf about a week ago.

See, I used to be a drastically different person back in high school. As a little kid, I was painfully shy, and I had about two friends at any given time. Around middle school, I came out of my shell a little too much and actually got myself involved with lots of acting sorts of things. I was never very good at it, but it was what my friends were doing, and I have to admit it was pretty fun. It was especially fun when I got my first big break playing Oberon in our production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream my sophomore year–a production commonly considered among the best if not the best show my high school ever put on. I didn’t know much about Shakespeare before then, but this left a good taste in my mouth and an appetite for a lot more. So, since then, I’ve also played Banquo in a little summer production of MacBeth with a bunch of homeschooled friends, and I took three classes on Shakespeare in college. Since all that nonsense, I’ve become a lot more chilled-out, reserved, and really unlikely to want to act in anything, but my love for Shakespeare stuck around. That and my previously unrelated love for Star Wars made me the prime target for this book.

Looking at the cover, you can immediately guess what this book is–the first Star Wars film written as if it was a Shakespearean play. It has Darth Vader decked in his black armor reimagined with a frilly Elizabethan collar and fancy embroidery, all framed by a pair of drawn stage curtains with the Death Star as an ornament above. From there, opening it up to any page is guaranteed entertainment. It’s also likely to impress when you realize that the whole thing is actually written in iambic pentameter. Writer Ian Doescher is not messing around with this.

For a little lesson, I’ll share what was branded on my soul during my high school sophomore year as my friend Caleb and I helped each other learn our lines for Theseus and Oberon respectively. Iambic pentameter is a type of poetic verse in which each line contains ten syllables. Those syllables are separated into five “iambs,” or “feet,” of two syllables each, and between those two syllables, the first is typically unstressed while the second is stressed. Most of what Shakespeare wrote is in this verse. For example, you can get a feel for it by sounding out famous lines with that pattern:

but SOFT, | what LIGHT | through YON|der WIN|dow BREAKS?

if MU|sic BE | the FOOD | of LOVE, | play ON.

Shakespeare was such an unbelievably masterful genius of this verse that he and it are synonymous. If you say “Shakespearean verse” you mean iambic pentameter, the same as how you can call something a “Shakespearean sonnet” just because it follows the iambic pentameter sonnet structure he mastered. That mastery is exactly this book’s problem, of course.

If you’re familiar with Shakespeare, which you probably are if you’re reading this book, you’re going to compare Doescher to the man himself. This is grossly unfair for Doescher, a screenwriter going for his first play, to be compared to the man who defined iambic pentameter plays, but it’s just what’s going to happen when you do this, so I apologize to Mr. Doescher for how I’m about to criticize him for not being as good as one of the greatest writers in the history of English.

Right after making that apology, I have to qualify that iambic pentameter, while definitely a challenging constraint to write with, isn’t too hard to work with once you get used to it. Using it at the brilliant level of Shakespeare is hard, but if you really dive into the mechanics and how they’re used to make coherent and aesthetically pleasing statements, doing so isn’t a huge deal. When our director had all of us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream write out all of our lines by hand and “scan” them (the process of marking off the two-syllable iambs and their stressed and unstressed syllables) and gave us lots of special iambic pentameter-related exercises, it seriously did become a part of our souls. After two months of this, we were able to do improvisational acting games entirely in pentameter, making up ten-syllable iambic lines off the tops of our heads for two or three minutes straight. Caleb and I, for years afterwards, were even able to have real-time conversations in pentameter just for fun. I suppose I’ve never tried to write an entire play in iambic pentameter, but this makes me personally a little disappointed in the crutches Doescher seems to rely on to keep his pentameter going.

Some rule bending is acceptable, and even used by Shakespeare himself, like contracting or expanding vowel sounds to make more or fewer syllables. In some lines it might work better to call something “damnéd,” like “dam-ned,” to get two syllables out of it, while other times it will work better to say “damn’d” as one syllable. I don’t have a problem with Doescher doing this, but what I do have a problem with is his constant breaking of pentameter lines between character lines.

An example of this in Shakespeare is Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene. At the end of Romeo’s opening monologue, it goes like this:

Romeo:… That I might touch that cheek.

Juliet:     –Ay me!

Romeo:         –She speaks!

It’s three lines between the two characters, but they’re meant to be one line of pentameter: “that I | might TOUCH | that CHEEK. | ay ME! | she SPEAKS!” This ends up kind of being Romeo and Juliet’s thing–finishing each other’s verse sentences. Now this can be a trick for artificially getting your pentameter in there when you can’t think of a way to naturally extend a character’s statement to fill the next ten syllables, but in Shakespeare’s case, it’s also used to illustrate a profound connection between two characters. Usually it’s between two lovers exchanging sweet vows and stuff, or it’s between two friends, or two antagonists bantering with each other. Whenever two characters are helping each other fill out their pentameter, it’s a signal that these two have a significant relationship. But for Doescher, it’s mostly a crutch, unless he means to subtly indicate the deep personal connection Darth Vader has with stormtrooper #2. Whenever I would come across these kinds of broken lines, I would usually stop and take a few moments to rewrite it in my head without the breaks, and I could usually come up with a plausible rewrite. Maybe I wouldn’t do as well if I was writing all 200 pages of it myself, but the greatest thing about writing in English is that, thanks to the unbelievable number of words we have and the constantly broken rules around them, you can say anything at least 10 different ways. You just have to do some verbal exploration.

There’s one place where he nailed the hell out of it though, and I’ll tease it here, both to spur some interest and prove my point. When Luke is trying to convince Han to rescue Princess Leia:

LUKE: I tell thee true: the lady wealthy is.

CHEWBACA: Egh, auugh!

HAN:      –Say wealthy?

LUKE:               –Wealthy, aye, with pow’r.

If thou wouldst rescue her, thy great rewards

Would be–

HAN:     –Pray, what?

LUKE:          –Well more, I’ll warrant, than

Thou mayst imagine!

HAN:    –Ha, thou josh with me.

For my imagination hath few bounds.

LUKE: Thou shalt have it!

HAN:     –So would I!

LUKE:         –Aye, thou wilt!

It’s a wonderful bit of banter that evolves the relationship between the two characters as they begin to understand each other, and the banter is fortified by how the two help each other to make full lines of poetic meter. It’s just a shame that this tactic is cheapened by its constant use elsewhere where it’s obviously just a crutch, like in the case of R2-D2’s meaningless beeps and whistles. I mean, it’s cute with R2, but I know what you’re doing, man.

I’m willing to overlook that shortfall given everything else that’s done so well. Doescher occasionally gets into some truly clever wordplay, and it’s always fun seeing how he morphs the most famous Star Wars lines into Shakespearean verse and language. His use of a chorus to describe the iconic Star Wars world and visuals, thus sticking to Shakespeare’s lack of any stage directions beyond enter, exeunt, fight, and die, turns out to provide the best written bits of the whole thing. This guy obviously has a passion for Star Wars and Shakespeare, and I trust that if he gets a chance to do the other two in the original trilogy it will be a noticeable step up from this first go at it. Especially The Empire Strikes Back. Pretty much that entire movie is made of quotes molded into the public consciousness, so that would be pretty fun.

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