Ian Doescher: The Bard Behind William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

Books Features William Shakespeare
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“I always wanted Han Solo’s confidence and swagger,” Ian Doescher says. “My personality is way more C-3PO, but Han was always who I wanted to be.”

It makes sense that the creator of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars identifies with the brilliant yet cautious droid who happens to speak six million languages. A Yale graduate with a knack for writing in Elizabethan English, Doescher is the author of Verily, A New Hope and The Empire Striketh Back from Quirk Books. The final book in the trilogy, The Jedi Doth Return, hits shelves today, completing the canon of titles transforming the original Star Wars films into Shakespearean plays—and all in iambic pentameter, no less.

But let’s back up for a moment. How does a creative director for a marketing and research firm with a PhD in Ethics become a writer marrying the culture surrounding Star Wars with the most famous author in the English language?

“I grew up with the Star Wars movies since before I have many memories,” Doescher says in an interview with Paste. “We had them on VHS back in the day, so they were part of the fabric of growing up in my family.”

Doescher’s love for the franchise continued into adulthood, including the occasional urge to binge watch the original trilogy in one sitting. In fact, viewing the films in succession contributed to the idea of his book series.

“About two years ago, three things happened,” Doescher says. “I watched the Star Wars trilogy with some good friends of mine for the first time in a few years, I read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies—one of those first mashup books—and then I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my family.”

One of the plays Doescher attended at the festival was The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor that tackles the topic of gay marriage in Iowa. The modern take on the classic play in tandem with reading a novel setting Pride and Prejudice in the zombie-ravaged countryside of Regency England sparked Doescher’s idea.

Doescher reached out to Jason Rekulak, the man responsible for developing and editing the New York Times bestselling novel pairing Jane Austen with hoards of the undead. Rekulak responded with enthusiasm, telling Doescher he’d take a look if the author wrote something.

“I spent the next three weeks putting together the first act, and I stayed really close to the original movie in terms of translating the lines but not adding in a lot of extra stuff,” Doescher says. “I sent it to Jason [Rekulak], and he called me and said, ‘I really want to do this. The next step is to get Lucasfilm on board.’”

Lucasfilm was intrigued by Doescher’s concept, but they urged him to take a more active role in shaping the story before signing off. “They wrote back and said, ‘We like what he’s done so far, but we want to see if he can have more fun with it … take it outside the bounds of the movie,’” he says. “It’s so wonderful for me both as a writer and as a Star Wars fan to be able to have that freedom.”

After Doescher revamped the opening scenes (making R2-D2 cheekily speak in English when other characters aren’t listening, for example), Lucasfilm granted Doescher the licensing rights. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars was born.

Doescher began the painstaking task of adapting the script for Episode IV: A New Hope in earnest, watching a couple seconds of the movie at a time and then determining how the lines could translate into iambic pentameter.

Yep, iambic pentameter. Shakespeare famously wrote his plays using the format. For those of us who think iambic pentameter makes less sense than a Tuskan Raider with a lisp, here’s the gist: there are 10 syllables in every line. For example:

Thou overladen glob of grease, thou imp,
Thou rubbish bucket fit for scrap, thou blue
And silver pile of bantha dung! Now, come…

—C-3PO speaking to R2-D2, Verily, A New Hope Act I Scene 2

Ten syllables per line? No problem. But here’s the catch: each line must have five pairs of stressed and unstressed syllables:

Thou O-ver-LA-den GLOB of GREASE, thou IMP,
Thou RUB-bish BUCK-et FIT for SCRAP, thou BLUE
… and so on.

In other words, writing in iambic pentameter requires some serious effort. “It took a lot of practice sitting down to write this,” Doescher says, “I would often find myself banging my head against a line, trying to make it work. Now that I’ve had so much practice writing iambic pentameter, it’s way easier for me. These days I’ll be watching TV or listening to a conversation, and somebody will say something and I’ll say, ‘Hey! That was iambic pentameter!’ People look at me like a freak, because I am.”

1iambic_pentameter_comic.jpgIt’s easy to imagine Doescher as the poetic stick figure in the xkcd webcomic to the left. But Doescher, like the infamous Bard of Avon himself, knows the best rules are made to be broken. Case in point: Yoda.

Even if you’ve never watched the films, you’re probably aware of the green, pint-sized Jedi Master with a penchant for spouting iconic phrases like “Do or do not, there is no try.” The character’s tendency to invert traditional sentence structure already resembles the Elizabethan style of speech found in the works of Shakespeare.

“With Yoda, I knew I had to do something special,” Ian explains. “After the first book came out, people were joking that everybody sounds like Yoda. The nature of iambic pentameter means you’re already playing around with word order.”

Doescher brainstormed ideas for the Jedi Master, from taking a step back in time even further than Shakespeare and having him speak in Chaucer’s English to jumping forward and giving Yoda modern speech.

“Then I was on a morning run one day, and the idea of having Yoda speak in haiku came to me,” Doescher says. “ As soon as I had the idea, I realized ‘That’s it!’ It’s very un-Shakespearean, but it makes so much sense for the joke of [Yoda] being the sensei-like teacher.”

With Lucasfilm’s blessing, Yoda’s haikus began to pepper Doescher’s manuscript:

Nay Nay! Try thou not,
But do thou or do thou not,
For there is no “try.”

—Yoda to Luke, The Empire Striketh Back Act III Scene 7

Perhaps one of the most creative linguistic decisions on Doescher’s part was to include a gangster rap about Jabba the Hutt in The Jedi Doth Return. Jabba, the slug-like alien described by the late film critic Roger Ebert as “a cross between a toad and the Cheshire Cat,” is actually referred to as a “gangster” throughout the movies. Doescher latched onto the concept of “Jabba as gangster,” incorporating a rap song in place of the Huttese pop song famously sung by the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s Palace.

“I initially took the 1990s song ‘Damn Feels Good to be a Gangsta’ and translated that into Elizabethan speech,” Doescher says. “Lucasfilm thought that was one step too far and were worried about copyright issues, which is totally fair. Instead, I made it a more generic Elizabethan gangster rap, because why not?”

A gangster, aye, a gangster, O!
‘Tis well to be a gangster.
A blaster ever by thy side,
A stately barge in which to ride,
A fair, young damsel to thee tied,
‘Tis well to be a ganster…

—The Max Rebo Band, The Jedi Doth Return Act I Scene 2

Far subtler yet equally entertaining are Doescher’s “Easter eggs” hidden throughout the trilogy. In a recent article on Geeky Library, Doescher explained a handful of references concerning everything from Billy Dee Williams (aka Lando Calrissian) starring in 1980s Colt 45 commercials to the United States Postal Service creed. He took extra care to highlight Han Solo’s pride and Leia’s prejudice throughout The Empire Striketh Back, an homage to both Pride and Prejudice and the literary mashup that inspired his series (he admits it was “harder to work a zombie reference in”):

If thou couldst ever put thy pride away,
Belike my prejudice would fall aside.

—Leia, The Empire Striketh Back Act I Scene 2

Star Trek fans will even discover an allusion to their beloved franchise, as Doescher sought to “join two universes that often compete unnecessarily” in a small way:

To march to the detention block’s unwise!
To make our way to danger folly ‘tis!
To there present ourselves is passing mad!
To boldly go where none hath gone is wild!

—Han Solo, Verily, A New Hope Act IV Scene 2

The Princess Bride film, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and even the graduation tune “Pomp and Circumstance” round out the countless number Doescher’s of Easter eggs, leaving you to discover hidden gems every time you read one of his books.

Despite concluding his trilogy, Doescher still actively writes in verse. Upon hearing the news that Harrison Ford had been injured on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII, he wrote a sonnet for the incapacitated Han Solo:


So what does Doescher think about the upcoming latest installment in the Star Wars franchise? “I’d say I’m whatever the degree above cautiously optimistic is,” he says. “I think there’s a good chance it’s going to be a fun movie, but I can’t imagine the pressure they’re all under.

That “pressure” stems largely from the fear that Episode VII will fall short of popular expectations, like Episodes I through III in the early aughts. Despite attributing some of his own disappointment to casting (“I wasn’t a fan of either of the actors they chose for Anakin [Skywalker], which I realize is kind of mean to say I wasn’t a fan of the little boy who played him in The Phantom Menace), Doescher appreciates the added weight the prequels give to the stories of Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Would he ever write Shakespearean adaptations of the prequels?

“It’s been talked about,” Doescher says, “but I don’t think there’s enough of a market…. I’m being open to it, but I know Shakespearean adaptations of movies eventually become old.”

Regardless, Doescher ends The Jedi Doth Return with a hint of more adventures to come:

It may be Rebellion faces
Certain dangers that may sever
Our strong bonds that held us ever.
Mayhap something comprosmising,
Even like an Empire Rising.
Thus present I our conclusion:
Hint of Fate, or Fool’s illusion?

—R2-D2, The Jedi Doth Return Act V Scene 4