February 11, 2010

The Shakespeare Code: The cult of Shakespeare's genius

Writing about web page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0974729/

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.

- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    They did film at the Globe. At the time the Globe website had a page about the location filming, but it doesn’t seem to be there now. They also filmed in Warwick, as you’ll see from this extract from the accompanying Doctor Who Confidential:


    It contains some comments from Russell T Davies, Dean Lennox Kelly and the episode writer explaining the thinking behind their portrayal of Shakespeare, which you might find interesting, if not provocative!

    The wikipedia page on the episode http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shakespeare_Code#References_related_to_Shakespeare states that the episode writer Gareth Roberts is a friend of Dr Martin Wiggins, academic and Doctor Who fan, who presumably provided background information.

    Some time after the episode’s transmission I found myself at the Globe next to a mother and her young son who had insisted on coming to see a play at the Globe after seeing it featured in Doctor Who!

    12 Feb 2010, 09:51

  2. Duncan

    And on the subject of representations of Shakespeare, this April Patrick Stewart will be appearing at the Minerva theatre Chichester in Edward Bond’s Bingo in which Shakespeare is portrayed at the end of his life as a money-grabbing landlord:


    12 Feb 2010, 10:21

  3. JB

    I think you under-estimate the wit, Pete – e.g. the moment when WS proposes a threesome with DT as well as Martha, thus revealing his bisexuality, and the Doctor has a line to the effect that scores of academics here punch the air with delight that their theory is proved true. But maybe I’m biased: I had a very nice message from Mr Roberts saying how valuable he found Genius of Shakespeare in his research. The 1599 setting – with allusions to plays of that year – is of course a big nod to Shapiro’s book. They were apparently the first film crew allowed to film at the Globe for a TV show (famously, the Shakespeare in Love people weren’t, so they had to build their own Globe, which Judi Dench then bought and keeps in a shed somewhere). Because of shows being on in the afternoon they had to shoot entirely at night, which was a problem for authenticitiy to original Globe production but good for the dark witchy theme.
    On Dr Who generally, you under-estimate the real emotional power: give the superb 1913 double episode, “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood”, a try some time.

    23 Feb 2010, 15:36

  4. Yeah, couldn’t help but laugh at that! I think I’m quite clear, though, that I’m being knowingly ungenerous: of course they’re going to play with all the most biographically-based readings and pop theories, it’s a Saturday night family show (and in that sense, I’ve got a lot more sympathy for it than, say, that novel The Shakespeare Secret). I love all the Tennant in-jokes too about his own relationship with Shakespeare. But it is still rooted in the same principles of Shakespeare=great that really annoy me when they crop up in more serious discussion, such as someone saying to me “If you think Shakespeare had contributed to Locrine, wouldn’t it be better?”; while the popular cultural image of Shakespeare being in a completely different league to everyone else persists, it continues to provide inertia against an unbiased reappraisal of the apocryphal plays. That was what I loved about Shakespeare in Love; still Bard-centric, but with a far richer sense of his place in a wider discourse.

    I know the new Doctor Who has its fans, and I’m sure if I’d sat down and watched them all and got into it, I’d feel kinder towards the series as a whole! I’m old enough to remember cowering behind a cushion while watching the old Jon Pertwee ones though, and I find the new ones in comparison just too arch to engage me.

    23 Feb 2010, 16:27

  5. Duncan

    Just as a follow-up to the comment about Dame Judi’s shed, the Shakespeare in Love replica Rose has been donated by her to the British Shakespeare Company who are planning to give it a permanent home somewhere in the north of England.


    23 Feb 2010, 19:19

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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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