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February 11, 2010

The Shakespeare Code: The cult of Shakespeare's genius

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I've never been a Doctor Who fan (for my money, the rebooted version is just too arch and self-knowing - and, frankly, not very good). However, in the interests of performing cultural research into representations of Shakespeare, I finally got around to watching the episode "The Shakespeare Code" today.

The Shakespeare Code

It was, essentially, everything one would expect, right down to David Tennant's Doctor feeding Shakespeare most of his best-known lines ("All the world's a stage" "I'll use that!"). The essential plot was that the Doctor and his partner Martha arrive in London, 1599, and go to see a performance of Love's Labour's Lost. Under the influence of some witch-like aliens, Shakespeare then announces that Love's Labour's Won will be premiered the following night. He finishes the play while being controlled by the aliens, who also influenced the construction of the Globe to their specifications. These aliens, you see, operate through the power of words: the power of their words, penned by Shakespeare and delivered by the Chamberlain's Men in a 14-sided building that harnesses their power, will revive the rest of their people and allow them to take over the earth, eradicating humanity and turning it into a wasteland of bones and witchcraft.

I could be smug and point out all the flaws in chronology (such as that Francis Mere's references to Love's Labour's Won had been published the previous year), but that wouldn't be generous. Actually, I was impressed by the script's attention to scholarly consensus on chronology: situated in 1599, Shakespeare drew from the episode's events his inspiration for As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth and others, while recognising the Doctor's quote from the slightly earlier Henry V. There were a couple of nice nods for Shakespeare buffs too, especially the passing reference to a young scribe named Ralph (Crane) who was told to transcribe the pages of the new play. Considering that it was Saturday night family entertainment, they'd gone to a lot of effort.

No, what frustrated me was the insistence on Shakespeare's genius throughout. The production hinged around it: during the climax, Shakespeare's improvised words are needed in order to close the vortex (I can't believe I'm writing this), as only Shakespeare had the necessary power with words. Though, in an Oh-come-on moment, the magic word needed to close the void was "Expelliarmus".

Shakespeare and company

On what I assume must have been the real reconstructed Shakespeare's Globe stage, Shakespeare first appeared to us as a backstage writer, not an actor. The Doctor's companion Martha, yelled for "Author!", jokingly creating the cult of the Bard at this point as the audience took up her cry. As Shakespeare himself emerged and waved to the crowds, the episode threw away a great opportunity to undermine Bardolatrous attitudes: as the Doctor waited with bated breath to hear the great man's words, Shakespeare welcomed the crowd with "Shut your fat ugly faces!"

However, while the image of Shakespeare as gentleman and snob was pleasingly undercut (not a revolution, of course, after Shakespeare in Love popularised the image of Shakespeare as working dramatist), Shakespeare was instead cast as celebrity. As the Doctor and Martha went to his rooms to meet him, a weary writer told them he would be neither signing autographs nor posing for sketches. Relenting, he then dismissed his fellow actors imperiously before welcoming the visitors. Lapping up the Doctor's continual praise of his genius - the genius which, as previously said, went on to ultimately save the day - this was Shakespeare as contemporary celebrity, directing his company and arrogant in his talent.

Part of the fun of the episode was in the time travellers' unpricking of his balloon, particularly as Martha refused a kiss on account of his bad breath. I was reminded, though, of how much we project our modern day iconicisation of Shakespeare onto the historical figure. The arrogance and celebrity of Shakespeare is, of course, a posthumous construction, which can't effectively be undone or challenged except in isolation. Shakespeare, that is, is so pervasive that he can't be put down. By channelling the cultural dominance of Shakespeare, however, into a single individual figure - the historical Shakespeare - that dominance can be refigured as arrogance and presumption, which can then be easily put down.

What's the problem with this myth-making? Nothing really. It's all good fun, and obviously this episode didn't position itself as an academic contribution. What it did do, though, was reinforce the predominance of Shakespeare even in its gentle mockery of the same. Shakespeare was further universalised as a man out of time even in his own century: he could tell Martha and the Doctor were from the future, and finished the episode a little less arrogant, but more quietly accepting of the timeless significance and inutterable genius of his writing. Hell, the Doctor warned him not to rewrite Love's Labour's Won because it was so powerful it could destroy humanity. No-one comes close to Shakespeare, not even in Doctor Who.

Shakespeare and Martha

Last thing - the episode telegraphed from a million miles away, as he first gazed at her with open mouth, that Martha was to become the "Dark Lady" of the sonnets. A couple of nice touches here, particularly as she refused to let him kiss her (how's that for a classical Petrarchan mistress?!), but I still felt uncomfortable about so broad a brushstroke. As ever, though, if you're going to actually present Shakespeare, I suppose there's no option but to make the works autobiographical: it's far more interesting to watch.


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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