Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 37
Shakespeare adaptations are a proud tradition. Prokofiev turned Romeo and Juliet into a ballet. Verdi turned Macbeth and Othello into operas, and The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night have been converted by Hollywood into teen comedies. But there’s a different type of Shakespeare adaptation that’s a lot harder to get right – that’s when someone takes an existing piece of popular entertainment and reimagines it as if it might have been written by Shakespeare.
Ian Doescher is the author of six books under the series title, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, based on the hit films featuring Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the rest. He is interviewed by Stephanie Kaye.
MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called, “I Feel Now The Future In The Instant.” Shakespeare adaptations are a proud tradition: Prokofiev turned Romeo and Juliet into a ballet, Verdi turned Macbeth and Othello into operas, and Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night have been converted by Hollywood into teen comedies. But, there’s a different type of Shakespearean adaptation that’s a lot harder to get right: that’s when someone takes an existing piece of popular entertainment, and reimagines it as if it had been written by Shakespeare. As Ian Doescher can tell us, that can be tough to do. He’s the author of six books under the series title, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, based on the hit films featuring Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the rest. As you’ll hear, making this work has taken far more work and craftsmanship than you might imagine. Ian is interviewed by Stephanie Kaye.
STEPHANIE KAYE: So, how’d you get the idea to mash Star Wars and Shakespeare? Did Stars Wars just kind of cry out iambic pentameter to you, or what was going on?
IAN DOESCHER: Three things happened right around the same time. I rewatched the Star Wars trilogy with some good friends of mine. Not too long after that, I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is one of the first mash-up books that really became popular. And then, right after that, went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my family, and I was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sort of with Star Wars and mash-ups bouncing around in my brain, and the idea just came to me: wouldn’t it be fun and weird to rewrite Star Wars as though it were a play written by Shakespeare?
KAYE: So you started writing, and at first you’re pretty careful stick close to the movie, and somehow you get in touch with George Lucas? And what happened here?
DOESCHER: Yea, so I approached Quirk Books first knowing they had published Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. They then sent the idea on to Lucasfilm along with the sample I had written, and Lucasfilm was really into it—it was Lucasfilm’s publication department, not George himself, at least as far as I know—and they were the ones who came back to me and said, “You know, you’ve really, you’ve played it safe here. We want to see you have more fun with it. We want to see you expand it, and sort of go whole hog in the direction of Shakespeare.” And so, that was when I went back and revised, and started having stormtroopers talk about having drinks with Darth Vader at Mos Eisley, and things like that. So, you know, it allowed me to sort of take the adaptation to a different level.
KAYE: Were you surprised that they approved the idea? You must have been imagining the other scenario where you’re expecting a cease and desist letter from George Lucas.
DOESCHER: I really didn’t know what to expect. I always say the tale of how I got the book published is a tale of dumb luck, and any hopeful, aspiring writers out there who might be listening, you know, should not take my experience for how it’s supposed to go. Because, you know, I did contact Quirk Books first, and I think the fact that they were taking it to Lucasfilm and it wasn’t just me, some random guy, you know, sending Lucasfilm this idea. The fact that it was an actual publisher who had the means and the will to publish this book, I think, probably helped my case. And I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if it was going to be something that they just sort of shrugged off and said no to, or something that they took seriously, but wanted the concept changed crazily, you know, and really, I mean, the amount of revision that I had to do to sort of get them to say, “Yes, okay. We’re happy with this, we’ll move forward with it,” was far less than I was expecting.
KAYE: They didn’t want you sticking straight to the Star Wars movies, they wanted you to change things up a little bit?
DOESCHER: Yeah, I mean, they said, “Go ahead and don’t just retell the same story that people know. Go ahead and liven up the characters a little bit,” since Shakespeare would give these soliloquies to his characters where they’re describing their motivations and their emotions, you know, they gave me the freedom to do that sort of thing, and the freedom to change aspects of the story, or add in the occasional scene, or things like that; where you’re not changing the overall fundamental story of what’s happening in the movie—and that’s all still there—but you’re adding in these sort of little bits and pieces that make the Shakespearean side of the mash-up come out more.
KAYE: And you managed to write these things in iambic pentameter, five books full. How did you get so prolific with this form?
DOESCHER: So, let’s go back to high school, when my senior year we were assigned to write 10 lines of iambic pentameter for an assignment that we had. And so, that was my sort of first experience doing it, and then, through the years, I would occasionally write a sonnet for various occasions; you know, this is the sort of nerd you’re dealing with. By the time I came around to write William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, I had written, I would say, a decent amount of iambic pentameter. Certainly more than probably most people write in their lives. When I sat down to write it, I did have that experience behind me, and I will say that it still took a lot of getting used to. To get used to the rhythm of writing that way and, you know, I would tap out syllables on my fingers to make sure I was doing it all correctly. As time goes on, that gets way easier. It turns out that writing in that style is really like exercising a muscle, so the more you do it, the stronger it gets. And so these days, you know, I can listen to a conversation, or be watching TV, and hear somebody say something and say, “Oh, that was iambic pentameter right there,” and then people look at me like I’m silly.
KAYE: Well, we’re talking about it. So why don’t you give us an example of what iambic pentameter Star Wars sounds like.
DOESCHER: All right, so this is the opening prologue of the first book, which is the same as the yellow crawl of words that goes up the screen at the beginning of the Star Wars movie. I transformed it into a Shakespearean sonnet:
KAYE: So Ian, for those of us who maybe don’t have the ear for the sonnet or the iambic pentameter, can you bring it out for us, how you measured those rhythms?
DOESCHER: Sure, sure. So iambic pentameter just means... The iamb is a soft syllable followed by an accented syllable, and so, five of those in a row: “It is a period of civil war. / The spaceships of the rebels, striking swift / From base unseen, have gain’d a vict’ry o’er / The cruel Galactic Empire, now adrift.”
KAYE: Wow, that’s impressive.
DOESCHER: I think over the years we’ve seen a lot of really bad Shakespearean parodies, you know. I think people sort of had this feeling that if they put “—eth” on the end of a word, they can make anything sound Shakespearean, right? “So I-eth hold-eth this-eth book-eth,” you know. So I really wanted to do more justice to Shakespeare. Now, it’s funny, earlier this week I spoke before a conference of Shakespeare scholars, and I was talking with some friends before I did that, and my one friend said, “Well, you’re kind of a Shakespeare scholar,” and I said, “No, no, I’m really not at all.” And my other friend said, “Yeah, you’re more of just a Shakespeare guy.” I thought that was a good description: I’m a Shakespeare guy.
KAYE: [LAUGH] Put that on your business card.
DOESCHER: [LAUGH] Yeah, exactly. I would not a minute claim, you know, to have gotten his style perfectly. Certainly, scholars would look at my work and say that there’s all kinds of words I was using, or the way I was using language, that Shakespeare never would have. But, that said, I was really trying to make it not just a parody, but really something that would sort of honor the style of Shakespeare. So I was careful about my Elizabethan grammar, and careful about some of my word choice, and certainly careful about my meter and when it came into play in my rhyme.
KAYE: So, your knowledge of Shakespeare before you started this: what kind of level of engagement were you at with Shakespeare?
DOESCHER: So when we started studying Shakespeare my freshman year of high school—started with Othello in English class—I loved it immediately. I sort of took to Shakespeare naturally, in a way that many kids I know don’t. And I really delved into Shakespeare’s language, and started memorizing passages and things like that, around the same, you know, time when Kenneth Branagh came out with Much Ado About Nothing, his movie, which I went and saw in the theater many, many times. It was a great time to be a young person getting excited about Shakespeare. Here in Portland, where I grew up, there was a company that did only Shakespeare, and so I would go and see a lot of their plays. I was soaking in as much Shakespeare as I could during the time. And so, I was just sort of that nerd with that sort of Shakespeare bent, and so my knowledge of Shakespeare comes out of that exposure. You know, really not much in college, but then after college, deciding to finish reading the Complete Works, and finding whatever movies I could, seeing Shakespeare on stage as much as possible. So, it’s really been a passion of mine since freshman year of high school.
KAYE: And you’re actually behind the scenes, too: you were working on a production of Julius Caesar, and you actually reached out to some British actors for their advice?
DOESCHER: Yeah, I was hoping to mount a production of Julius Caesar with some friends of mine. That was the play that we read sophomore year. So the summer after my sophomore year, not only did I spend time learning soliloquies just for the fun of it—again, big nerd—but I was also imagining this production that I was going to put on with some friends of mine. And so I wrote to several well-known British actors, asking them, how would they approach Shakespeare for the first time, if they could think back in their memory. And just recently, I looked back through all of these responses that I received. I received letters from Judi Dench, and John Gielgud, and people like that: I mean, really, super well-known British actors who took their time out of their busy schedules to write to some poor high school student in Portland, Oregon.
KAYE: [LAUGH] Good pen pals to have.
DOESCHER: [LAUGH] Yeah.
KAYE: And there are a number of significant soliloquies in the series that aren’t in the movies. What about the rancor keeper in Jabba’s palace?
DOESCHER: Well, in Return of the Jedi, there’s that lovely moment when—after the rancor has been killed—it’s just this brief moment where you see the rancor keeper come out and look sadly upon—
KAYE: [LAUGH] He’s sad, yeah!
DOESCHER: He’s so sad right? And he’s crying on his friend’s shoulder, and it’s just this really... It’s both touching and hilarious, right? And very brief. Shakespeare would never give us a silent moment like that, in the same way he would never, you know, just show Luke Skywalker staring out at the two suns of Tatooine, right? He would never just have somebody cry silently without some sort of explanation. So, yeah. So I had to write a soliloquy for the rancor keeper to sort of describe some of the backstory of why he loves this horrendous creature so much.
KAYE: Well, you made R2-D2 a speaking character: he’s got monologues. How did you come to give R2-D2, this sort of rolling, squeaking, beeping tin can, a voice?
DOESCHER: That happened when Lucasfilm first asked me to go back and revise the manuscript. I thought, you know, “What would be a sort of fun thing to do that people aren’t going to be expecting?” And R2-D2 in the movies, Lucasfilm did such a great job, just with his beeps and his squeaks, of making R2 so expressive. And so, when I had him speak in English all of a sudden, he’s saying things that I think we all sort of think that he would be saying anyway. He’s kind of noble, he knows that he has this mission, and he believes his place in it will be important. And so, you know, it’s nothing that we wouldn’t expect from R2, but just to have him sort of drop his beeping and squeaking and reveal to the audience that he can, in fact, speak, but he’s sort of bound by duty to pretend that he is more simple than that, I think was something that just sort of cracks people up.
KAYE: Was there anything that Lucasfilms kind of put the kibosh on? Said, “Hey, this character wouldn’t act this way, you can’t write him saying this or doing that.”
DOESCHER: Yeah. When I wrote the first book, I had Darth Vader give a soliloquy after he and Governor Tarkin have sort of decided to go and blow up Alderaan.
KAYE: That’s Princess Leia’s home for those who may not know.
DOESCHER: Right, sorry, yes, yeah. He has this soliloquy originally about how he doesn’t actually feel great about going and killing a whole planet of innocent people. And Lucasfilm’s comment was, “As of Episode IV—as of the first Star Wars movie—Darth Vader would never show remorse; he is totally bad at that point.” And it was this fascinating moment for me as a Star Wars fan to see where their line in the sand was, right? I can make R2-D2 speak in English, but Darth Vader, you know, can’t show remorse for killing innocent people. So I took that soliloquy and I turned it around 180-degrees, and had it be this soliloquy about how he feels great about going and killing innocent people, basically. So, you know, it was really fun, I mean, really interesting. Working with Lucasfilm has been a lot of fun, and so to see how well they know their characters, and how well they’ve developed the narrative behind these characters, has been fascinating.
KAYE: Now, when it came to writing Yoda, he has that backward way of speaking. Did you find that harder to put into Elizabethan English, and how did his voice change while you were writing?
DOESCHER: After the first book came out, everyone was sort of joking and saying, “Now everyone sounds like Yoda!” Because when you take words and you put them into iambic pentameter or Elizabethan English, word order starts to get played around with so that you can fit them into the meter. And so, I knew I had to do something special with Yoda because he has this very distinct way of speaking in the movies. And so I had a few different ideas. I thought, “Well, I could have him speak in something like modern English.” If everybody else is speaking Elizabethan, maybe he just speaks in modern English. So instead of, “Do or do not there is no try”, he just says, “Oh come on, just do it, you’re being ridiculous”, you know. Or, if everybody is speaking in Elizabethan English, maybe he needs to go farther back and speak in something like Chaucer’s English, and I tried that and that just did not go well. And one morning as I was sort of thinking about what to do with Yoda, I had this idea and as soon as I had the idea, I said, “Of course, that’s it!” And I was to write all of his lines in haiku, which is a very... I mean, it’s taking a huge step outside this Shakespearean parody, because Shakespeare, as far as we know, didn’t know about the haiku form of poetry.
KAYE: Right, Japanese haiku.
DOESCHER: You know, would have had no exposure to it. But it was sort of this thing that I knew would be funny, and sort of fits in with who Yoda is, and that he’s kind of like a sensei to Luke in some way. So it just seemed to work, and so that’s what I did with his language, was take all of his line and adapt them into haikus.
KAYE: Well, can you leave us with an example of a Yoda haiku?
DOESCHER: I can. Do you want it with or without Yoda impression?
KAYE: Oh, I would love Yoda impression, of course! This is radio!
DOESCHER: All right, great. So, here is Yoda speaking to Luke in several haiku:
KAYE: [LAUGH] Wow, he just works in haiku, doesn’t he?
DOESCHER: Yeah, it just seems to work for his lines, yeah.
KAYE: And you are a Star Wars fanatic, it sounds like?
DOESCHER: You know, when you’re a kid and you’re sitting around practicing everyone’s voices, you don’t really know what you’re doing that for, but now I finally know.
KAYE: Well, you’ve called the series William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, and then your name appears in very small print below that. What took more chutzpah: Star Wars, or saying that it’s William Shakespeare’s?
DOESCHER: Well probably, these days, probably putting the Star Wars name on it takes more chutzpah, if only because Star Wars fans are so fervent in their love of the movies. And so, when you put the Star Wars name on something, what you’re doing really is putting it out there for the world to judge, and they will judge it. And I’ve been very lucky, you know, to have the books embraced by Star Wars fans, and by in large their reception has been very warm to the books. I mean, I think, Shakespeare in some ways, putting that name on it certainly takes a certain amount of chutzpah in terms of the sort of intellectual claim you’re making. But in the terms of the people who might actually respond and throw tomatoes at you, I think putting the Star Wars name there is… [LAUGH]
KAYE: You’ve got some crazy fans out there who are kind of upset about certain things?
DOESCHER: Exactly, and again, most people have embraced the books, you know, very well. And those Star Wars fans who are objecting to it are objecting to, you know, the sort of minor points about various things that Star Wars fans are known for objecting to.
KAYE: So far you’ve got five books, and you’ve got one in the making. It’s coming out in September?
DOESCHER: That’s right, September 8 will be the last book. So I did the original trilogy first, and now we’re working on the prequel trilogy. So the final book to come out in September will be, William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Sith’s Revenge.
KAYE: Do you feel like the reader’s experience changes from book to book as they’re going through your parody? The device doesn’t change from book to book, or does it?
DOESCHER: One of the things that I’ve tried to make sure I do as the books progress is to add in sort of more and more surprises for the reader, because the last thing I want is for a reader to read the next book in the series and say, “Oh, yeah. Okay, I’ve seen them do this before, okay.” You know, instead, I want there to be fresh things that I’m trying out so that the reader will open it up saying, “I know that I’m going to be surprised in some way”.
KAYE: Can you tell us what some of the surprises are?
DOESCHER: Sure, sure. So a lot of it is different things I’ve done with different scenes or different characters. So Yoda speaking in haiku would be one. Boba Fett, when we meet him, speaks in prose instead of iambic pentameter. So it’s something that Shakespeare often did to set apart the lower class from the high class, right. So Boba Fett being my bad bounty hunter, he gets the lower class prose. Some of the creatures have monologues throughout. So people like the wampa ice monster who attacks Luke in Empire Strikes Back and just roars, in the book he actually comes out and gives a little speech about how he’s actually a very humble, timid wampa, you know, but he’s just doing this because he needs to eat, you know. So things like Admiral Ackbar, whose most famous line is, “It’s a trap,” all of his lines end in a word that rhymes with “-ap.” The Ewoks sort of speak in this pidgin English with this sort of rhyme kind of thing, so you can almost understand what they’re saying. All of Mace Windu’s lines, once we get into the prequels, all of his lines include the title of a Samuel L. Jackson movie. It’s just little things like that that I’ve tried to throw in to help keep the reader, you know, interested in what I’m doing.
KAYE: Did I detect a Pride and Prejudice thing between Han and Leia?
DOESCHER: Yes, absolutely. So there’s a handful of lines there, I mean, that’s another thing I’ve thrown in, is what I would call Easter eggs, right, where I’m throwing in references to things that people may or may not catch.
To really sort of... For those people who are really paying attention as they read to sort of give them little nods, and make them feel good for finding it. Right, so yes, there’s absolutely a Pride and Prejudice reference as Han and Leia are bantering back and forth in The Empire Striketh Back. She, I think, talks about if he could “get rid of his pride then I would let my prejudice go.” Yeah, so that was one of the many references that I threw in just for fun.
KAYE: Well, I hope you consider putting out a teacher’s guide reference, so we can make sure we’ve gotten got all the Easter eggs and the surprises.
DOESCHER: I do have an educator’s guide that talks about all the Shakespearean references that I’ve thrown in; I don’t actually yet have an Easter egg guide to the books.
KAYE: You’ve talked about some of the parallels between Shakespeare’s stories and Star Wars, but are your books about Shakespeare, or is it just Star Wars in iambic pentameter?
DOESCHER: I mean, it’s Star Wars in iambic pentameter, it’s Star Wars as I at least imagine that Shakespeare might have written Star Wars. So if you know Shakespeare well, then you’ll recognize the format. It’s in five acts, separated into scenes, it looks very much on the page, you know, like a Shakespeare play does, you know: different lines said by different people, stage directions, all of that sort of thing. So it’s not about Shakespeare in any way, it’s sort of in the style of Shakespeare.
KAYE: Was he kind of the George Lucas of his time, do you think?
DOESCHER: I mean, that’s an interesting question. I guess, you know, if not the George Lucas of his time, then maybe like the Nora Ephron of his time, right? Somebody, yeah... Or Lawrence Kasdan, one of these great film writers who writes such rich stuff for the masses, you know, for all of us to enjoy. Yeah, I definitely think that’s what Shakespeare was. I think these days we tend to hold Shakespeare on a pedestal, and he’s sort of become more elite, you know, in some ways. I think that’s unfortunate because, really, you know, he did write the popular entertainment of his time.
KAYE: Well, Ian, thanks so much, it’s been a real pleasure.
DOESCHER: Thank you so much.
WITMORE: Ian Doescher is the author of the William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series. At the time of this reporting, the sixth and final title was about to be published. He was interviewed by Stephanie Kaye. “I Feel Now The Future In The Instant” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Timmy Olmstead at WAMU-FM in Washington, D.C., and Lisa Dougherty and the staff at Digital One recording studios in Portland, Oregon. Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, Folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.