Posted by: gdevi | February 25, 2012

Dr. Who: The Shakespeare Code

Today, the student group, The British Television Appreciation Club asked me to speak to their group about the Dr. Who episode The Shakespeare Code following its screening as part of a Dr. Who marathon held on campus. It was a wonderful event. Here is the text of my talk:


Thank you for inviting me to speak with you today about Dr. Who and The Shakespeare Code. When I saw The Shakespeare Code for the first time, the two questions that came to my mind were 1) why is the episode set in London 1599, or why does the Doctor and Martha time travel back to 1599, not 1598, or 1600, but 1599? and 2) why is the hinge Shakespearean play in the episode Love’s Labor’s Lost? I have my theories about both of these questions, and I will discuss them here with you. I look forward to hearing your own thoughts and comments about both of these questions.

So, where was Shakespeare’s play-writing career in 1599? Shakespeare. London. 1599 — what was going on at the time? Here is a bit of background on Shakespeare up to the year 1599. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, lived in London during his peak years as a dramatist-actor,  and retired back to Stratford where he died in 1616. Between the years 1589-1608, Shakespeare wrote 38 plays spanning across genres from comedy to historical plays to tragedies and tragi-comedies, 154 sonnets addressed variously to the “Dark Lady,” and “W.H,” and two long narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. In 1582 Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway who was senior to him in years, and became the father of three children by 1585: a daughter Susana, and twins, Judith and Hamnet. Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet died at eleven years of age of unknown causes in 1596. Biographers refer to the period 1585-1592 as Shakespeare’s “lost years.” We don’t know what he was doing in those years, until he surfaced in London’s theater scene in 1592 as a budding playwright of some gravity and reputation. In fact, these early documented references to Shakespeare in London are not flattering at all; unlike the “University Wits” such as Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nash, or Robert Greene, Shakespeare was a provincial writer with populist support, cheered on by the groundlings in the early days of the theater. Greene dubbed him “an upstart crow beautified by our feathers.” Regardless of such critical barbs, Shakespeare’s popularity soared in the early 1590s in London, and by 1594 his plays were performed exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theater company owned by writers and actors, including Shakespeare himself. After Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, the next monarch James I patented the company as King’s Men. Shakespeare’s plays continued to be produced and acted by the King’s Men.

In 1599, when this episode is set, Shakespeare would have been about thirty five years old, an established playwright with a devoted following. He has a number of successful plays under his belt by now. The early comedies, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew,  Love’s Labor’s Lost, the three parts of the historical play King Henry VI, Richard III, King John, the gory tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the tragedy of adolescent sexuality Romeo and Juliet, and then in 1595, a watershed year for Shakespeare, he has a new play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a brilliant and mature comedy. After A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  Shakespeare could not go back to his slap-stick, shtick, teenage angst and gore, and we find Shakespeare writing some of the most profound and beautiful comedies and tragedies in the language. What caused this change in the writer? There are many theories, and Dr. Who’s The Shakespeare Code seems to offer one as well.

Though by 1599, Shakespeare had written some of his mature works such as As You Like It, Much Ado about Nothing, and Julius Caesar, the episode seems to suggest that Shakespeare was depressed over his son Hamnet’s death, and stagnating as a writer. In fact, the episode says that it is the intense grief that Shakespeare experiences over his son’s death that allows the carrionites to escape the darkness to which the Eternals had consigned them, and enter the earth’s atmosphere again. Here we have an almost objective-correlative made between Shakespeare’s grief and depression with the darkness and death-wish harbored by the evil carrionites, who are modeled after the Three Witches in Macbeth (a play that Shakespeare has not written yet.) The carrionites want Shakespeare to help them free their fellow carrionites, and for them to take over earth, because he is the most capable dramatist of the time. In other words, should Shakespeare serve the dark forces? Thus at the end of the episode, Shakespeare tells the Doctor that he has decided to write a new play Hamlet since he has some control over his grief over his son’s death. “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” When the Doctor and Martha ask him if he means “Hamnet,” Shakespeare says, no, it is Hamlet. The comedy of the wordplay notwithstanding, this is a creative way to speculate on the origins of Shakespeare’s mature tragedies, starting with Hamlet in 1600, one year after the episode is set. Besides, he just saved the world from extinction.

The year 1599 is thus important, because after 1599, you cannot spoof Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s spoofable material is before 1599. Love’ Labor’s Lost is thus an appropriate text to hinge the episode. Love’s Labor’s Lost is an appropriate play for this episode in more ways than one. Of all of Shakespeare’s early comedies, this is one play that is filled with the most pedantic, bombastic, pretentious use of language, wordplay and verbal jousting, classical and literary allusions, paradoxes and humor. In fact, because of its high literary nature, it was actually intended to be performed at the Inns of the Court, for a learned audience, rather than for the groundlings with their farthings.  But Shakespeare spoofs high learning in Love’s Labor’s Lost, and the writers of this episode have correctly caught on to that spirit in their retreatment of the same material. We find, for instance, that Shakespeare’s audience in this episode is the same, uneducated crowd who thinks that the final scenes of the sequel Love’s Labor’s Won, are all special effects and claps their hand in appreciation. Shakespeare just saved the world from the carrionites, and they think it is all part of the play!

Love’s Labor’s Lost is also the one Shakespearean comedy that breaks the mold of the conventional comedy. In the conventional comedy, the young lovers face obstacles to their love, these obstacles are then vanquished, and the couple lives happily ever after. But in Love’s Labor’s Lost, as the title implies, the three young women decide that they do not want to marry the three young men; they tell them, goodbye, we will see you later. Thus the need for a sequel, Love’s Labor’s Won, which this Dr. Who episode claims actually existed (this is actually a popular theory) and was written by Shakespeare, but has since been lost to us forever because it was used to close the portal that brought the evil carrionites to the universe. The writers of the Dr. Who episode have taken the power of the “sequel” franchise one step further: it does not simply unite the lovers and end in marriage, but it saves the world from extinction! Shakespeare is not just a great playwright, but he is superman saving the world, a real ubermensch!

Thus it is not so much the Doctor who is the hero of the episode, but Shakespeare who saves the world through his sequel, and his nonsensical proclamations that charge the Globe theater into a vortex of energy opening the portal through which the carrionites both enter and then are booted out of this world, by the sheer verbal wit of Shakespeare’s final triumphant cry: Expelliarmus, a word incidentally coined by that new British cultural icon, J. K. Rowling of the Harry Potter franchise. The British have always had the charming ability to spoof themselves, and this episode is perhaps their most informed take yet on the cultural idolatry of Shakespeare, and everything Shakespearean. Shakespeare did not only write great plays, nation, but he also saved the world from extinction, blood and black magic by the carrionites. And now, make way for J. K. Rowling who has borrowed Shakespeare’s mantle and has become the latest icon in the national idolatry of public figures. From Shakespeare to J. K. Rowling–one does not actually need time-travel to see how cultural idolatry works, but it is nice to see the creators of the Dr. Who series exposing the contemporary self-congratulatory air of the Harry Potter franchise.  What could expose this national smugness more than reversing the direction of cultural allusions? Imagine the chutzpah of Shakespeare quoting and calling on J. K. Rowling!!!

Thus, overall, The Shakespeare Code is a witty, delightful romp through the spirit of Shakespeare’s works, his historical details, and the British people’s fascination with deifying their cultural icons. I loved several witty moments in this episode including the racist underpinnings of the word “dark” in the “dark lady” sonnets, the barely perceptible homoerotic subtext between Shakespeare and the Doctor — a nod to Shakespeare’s alleged bisexuality–and the truly inspired take on the tetradecagal — the 14 sides of the Globe theater — that is not only the structure of a sonnet — but also what makes the Globe theater into this highly charged portal for the carrionites to enter and exit the earth. It was also Shakespeare’s eventual share in the Globe Theater, which he co-owned with several others: 1/ 14th of the overall shares. Overall, this episode is an informed and rollicking caper through a minute section of pop culture Shakespeareana.


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