Nearer the Force to thee

“For in much wisdom is much grief,” wrote the author of Ecclesiastes, “and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” And if you don’t believe it, watch a costume drama with a historian sometime.

I cast some shade on my fellow nerds last week for our preoccupation with minutiae, but it’s also true that sometimes deep knowledge of a subject makes it hard to appreciate things that brush against it in a, shall we say, less immersive way. They could have at least made some effort to get the details right is the eternal lament of anyone who has just seen their field of interest given a half-cocked treatment in some bit of commercial media, and none of us who grumble about such things ever really understand that we are too narrow a band of the intended audience to make that effort worthwhile. So it goes.

One of my fields of interest is Shakespeare, and I’m just deeply immersed enough in that subject to be the guy who’s not much fun when I trip over a mistake that misrepresents some odd detail of Shakespeareana. But I have to admit that we Bardophiles have it pretty good; while we do occasionally have to roll our eyes at the moonbat chemtrail reptoid fever dreams of the Oxfordians, or grit our teeth just a little when someone misquotes “Alas, poor Yorick,” those are relatively minor annoyances in a world where there’s a movie of young Magneto in the Scottish Play. So I really do try my best to be a good sport and not grouse over things no one but me cares about because they weren’t memorizing soliloquys back in high school just because it seemed like it would be fun.

By most measures, William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher should have hit the mark for me. Doescher has an admirably good ear for Shakespearean cadence and word choice, he doesn’t make a hash of early modern English morphology, and his verse scans nicely. He’s made what could have been a one-off joke into a thing that works better than it probably has any right to over an extended series, and so he gets a lot of credit for doing something clever and doing it, in many respects, very well. And yet all the same, when my famous author friend Mike loaned me a copy, I found myself bouncing off what to almost anyone else would seem like a trivial detail – so trivial, in fact, that it can be distilled to a single word, and that word is you.

You appears, as far as I can tell, nowhere in William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, and it really should. It’s Doescher’s one notable overreach in rendering the Saga in Elizabethan English: every second-person address is a thou or a thee, presumably because that’s what we expect to render it appropriately “Shakespearean.” The trouble is that this isn’t how 16th- and 17th-century English worked. Shakespeare is full of yous, and if you haven’t made a study of his language, they might not be where you’d expect to find them.

Shakespeare’s era was the beginning of the end for English having what we might think of as a tu/vous division. Those words in French (and their cognates in other Latin-derived languages) more or less correspond to the way thou and you were used by the Elizabethans: thou and thee were fine when you were with friends, or when addressing an inferior, but in formal conversation, or to a person of higher status, you was mandatory. (And originally, you was a second-person plural, which is why it still uses plural morphology ven when used in the singular: you have and not *you has. Which, by the way, is also one reason why people who reject singular they as “illogical” or “ungrammatical” are full of it.) To modern ears, this seems exactly opposite to our expectations. We hear thou these days as an archaism, often in the context of quotes or ceremonial recitation, and those situations almost always read as formal even if the language they use was intimate when it was first written down. But remember that “Get thee to a nunnery” is a young man picking a fight with his girlfriend, and when talking to his mother – even when berating her with “This was your husband” – he switches to the formal address.

(Knowing this one piece of information is an important key to tracking all kinds of power dynamics in Shakespeare. Sticking with Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark and his scholarly pal Horatio have an obvious deep affection for each other, but their respective terms of address reflect their differences in status. And elsewhere in the canon, it’s startling to realize that Lear’s Fool is almost the only character who gets away with saying thou to the king, while Lear in turn as often as not addresses his Fool as you.)

So with this in mind, consider the following exchange:

Vader. I prithee, Tarkin, say: what dost thou mean?

Tarkin. Pray patience, Darth – thou shalt my meaning learn.
Now time is it the power of this Death
Star shown to all shall be. Now, Admiral,
Go forth and set thy course for Alderaan.

Motti. I understand thee, and with pride obey.

The Imperial Grand Moff and the Dark Lord of the Sith thouing each other in front of the Death Star’s senior officers? An admiral responding with a thee to the Grand Moff’s command? Oh, no nononono. If the conceit is that this is Shakespeare writing, to the eye of someone with the knowledge of the second-person protocols of Elizabethan speech, this shatters the illusion utterly. (And now you know too. Sorry.)

Anyway, that’s why I am not the audience for William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, as whimsically clever as I have to admit it is. I know it’s a completely silly thing to get hung up on. It’s not even half as stupid as lots of the things I am willing to give a pass to elsewhere, like how I know full well that the “humans only use 10% of their brains” thing is complete booshwah and yet I’ll cheerfully set that aside for the sake of spending 90 minutes watching Scarlett Johansen get uplifted. This one’s too close to home for me, and I can’t make myself ignore it, and that’s surely my loss.

I had to give the book back unfinished. Fortunately, Mike gets it, because he is also a nerd; one of his particular fields of nerdery is fencing (as he puts it, he really does know why Tybalt cancels out Capo Ferro), and seeing martial arts done badly is something that throws him out of immersion. I can only nod in shared self-inflicted misery. We all have our sorrows to bear.


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