by Catriona Mills

Live-blogging Doctor Who, Season Three: "The Shakespeare Code"

Posted 31 August 2009 in by Catriona

Right. I am entirely prepared for the live-blogging of this episode, despite a day of marking. (And not my most successful day of marking, either.)

I’m also uncertain about the correlation between Shakespeare and Dan Brown implied by this episode title—though I’m reluctant to push that one any further, lest I be accused once again of being a Leavisite.

I have also (just to embed yet another sentence in this series) done some light research, the better to enrich my live-blogging of this episode.

Yes, I only looked up some key dates. And, yes, I work in an English department. And, yes, I should probably have know those dates already. My only defense is that I’m not a Shakespearean scholar.

(My friend Drew would be able to give you those dates off the top of his head.)

We’re here in London in 1599, with the girl from Hex carrying a candle and smiling at a young boy out of her window, as he serenades her with a fairly atonal Elizabethan ballad.

Still, it works for him: he’s invited in with the double entendre, “Would you enter, bold sir?”

“Oh, I would,” he says.

But she’s called Lilith, which is never a good thing. And she introduces him to Mother Doomfinger and Mother Bloodtide, who tear him apart.

Lilith speaks to camera about the coming of the end of the world at the time of woven words.

NICK: Who is she talking to?
ME: It’s a soliloquy, darling.
NICK: Straight to camera?

I don’t see why not.

Martha, in the TARDIS, wants to know how he travels through time, but the Doctor accuses her of wanting to take all the mystery out of things, and then reveals that he failed his driving test.

They’re in Elizabethan England.

MARTHA: Oh, my god. We did it! We travelled in time!
ME: Or you’re in Disneyland.

Martha is reluctant to wander around, in case she steps on a butterfly, or kills her grandfather. The Doctor asks whether she’s planning to kill her grandfather, and she says no.

Martha wonders whether she’s going to be carted off as a slave, but the Doctor says he’s not even human: he advises that she just walk around as though she owns the place. He says it works for him.

So they go to the Globe Theatre.

DOCTOR: You can go home, tell everyone you’ve seen Shakespeare.
MARTHA: Then, I could get sectioned!

At the end of the play, Martha starts shouting for the author, which the Doctor implies starts the tradition, but Shakespeare looks fairly happy to leap out on stage, so he seems quite used to it.

Lilith, the mysterious woman from the beginning, pulls a voodoo doll out of her purse as Shakespeare wanders across the stage.

The Doctor is partial to Shakespeare, it seems.

Now, this is Love’s Labour’s Lost (believed to have been written 1595-1596, first published 1598, so is this a later performance? Would it have been published before it was performed?) and Shakespeare promises the sequel tomorrow night.

Martha says she’s never heard of Love’s Labour’s Won, and the Doctor describes it as “the lost play.” Ooh, Cardenio must be feeling pretty out of things at this point.

Martha asks how it went missing in the first place, and that piques the Doctor’s interest: he says they can stay a little later.

So, they burst into Shakespeare’s room, while he’s sitting with his players and insisting he’ll have the last scene by tomorrow morning. (Lilith is wandering around disguised as a serving maid, by the way.)

SHAKESPEARE: No autographs; no, you can’t have yourself sketched with me; and, please, don’t ask where I get my ideas from.

Shakespeare manages to offend Martha—about ten times in a row.

The Registrar of Plays—I’m assuming he’s an historically accurate figure? I know the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century stage was heavily censored, but I’m not sure about dramatic practice in the sixteenth century.

Oh, it doesn’t matter: he’s bumped into Lilith, who is determined to have the play performed, and she and her “mothers” drown him through the powers of voodoo, and then stop his heart.

Well, that’s a bit mean! Why didn’t they just kill him? Why torture him first?

The Doctor tells people that he died of a sudden imbalance of the humours. When Martha challenges him, he says these people have one foot in the Dark ages: they’ll panic and think it was witchcraft.

MARTHA: Okay, so what was it, then?
DOCTOR: Witchcraft.

The Doctor and Martha take rooms at the inn, which allows Shakespeare to show how insightful a man he is, not least by noting that the Doctor is constantly performing.

DOCTOR: All the world’s a stage.
SHAKESPEARE: Hmm, I might use that.

(As You Like It would have been written about this time, in 1599 or thereabouts.)

There’s some bantering here about Venusian spearmint and the seventh Harry Potter book, but the Doctor spoils it all by saying Rose would know what was going on, and right now she would say exactly the right thing.

However you feel about Rose, that’s pretty tactless, when he’s currently sharing a bed with Martha.

Meanwhile, Lilith rises up to Shakespeare’s window and takes control of him with glowing green dust. Sorry, I can’t express it more scientifically than that. He’s now a puppet—literally: she has a marionette—writing what she and her “mothers” want him to write. And when she’s interrupted by the landlady, she turns back to her crone form, kills the landlady, and flies off—again, literally, on the landlady’s broom, right across the face of a full moon.

DOCTOR: Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
SHAKESPEARE: I might use that.

Martha says Shakespeare should know all about witches, since he wrote about them, but the Doctor shushes her. (Macbeth was written somewhere between 1603 and 1606.)

But Shakespeare says that their architect was obsessed with witches, and that makes the Doctor think about the shape of the Globe (fourteen sides) and the magic of the theatre.

But the architect is in Bedlam—and Martha doesn’t know what Bedlam is, which seems unlikely to me. (It’s now part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, so it’s not as though it burnt down.)

DOCTOR: Come on, we can flirt later.
SHAKESPEARE: Is that a promise, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Oh, fifty-seven academics just punched the air.

Back in the Globe, the actors work on the play, and conjure up what they think is a spirit, but which looks remarkably like the witches. They agree never to speak of such things again.

Martha is horrified by Bedlam, but Shakespeare says he went mad once, and the thought of places like this sent him sane again. The Doctor mentions the death of Shakespeare’s son, and he says it made him question the significance of life.

SHAKESPEARE: To be or not to be . . . Oh, that’s quite good.
DOCTOR: You should write that down.
SHAKESPEARE: Maybe not. Bit pretentious?

As the Doctor does his Gallifreyan mind-meld on the architect of the Globe, the witches realise that something is going on, and they see the significance of the Doctor for the first time.

The Doctor hypnotises the architect, telling him that he can recall the entire scenario of the building of The Globe as though it were a story, “a winter’s tale.”

Lilith sends Mother Doomfinger out to Bedlam to doom the Doctor, as Peter (the architect) describes the story in terms that are strongly reminiscent of Edgar as mad Tom in King Lear. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

But Mother Doomfinger turns up then, and kills the architect.

But the Doctor says that he has knowledge that no human has, and he names her: Carrionite. Apparently, they use words as a kind of science, rather than the mathematics that humans chose.

Mother Doomfinger is not dead: she’s simply been flipped back to the rest of her coven. Lilith promises to destroy the Doctor, but says her “mothers” have to get to the theatre for the performance.

The Doctor questions the performance, asking Shakespeare what the play is about.

SHAKESPEARE: The boys get the girl, they have a bit of a dance; it’s all as funny and thought-provoking as usual.

But he admits that he can’t remember writing the last few lines, and the Doctor realises that it’s a spell, with the theatre itself as an energy conductor.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare, trying to stop the performance, comes across as rather drunk, so when the witches make him collapse (with the voodoo doll from earlier), his actors assume he’s in a stupor, and drag him off the stage so that they can continue the play.

Meanwhile, as they search for the witches, Martha insists (just as Rose did in a similar episode) that the world can’t have ended in 1599, because she’s still here.

DOCTOR: It’s like Back to the Future.
MARTHA: The film?
DOCTOR: No the novelisation! Of course the film.

Oh, this episode is all about texts and variants.

Martha is knocked out through the power of her name, and the Doctor talks to the Carrionites. Lilith says that the Eternals found the right words to banish them into the darknes.

(NICK: The Eternals probably got bored with them very quickly.)

But they have a plan for taking over the world, as all villains do.

Lilith manages to take the Doctor out with a voodoo doll (or DNA-replication something or other: I forget the exact term), but, because he has two hearts, it’s not a success.

Still, it takes him a little while to get back on his feet, and Lilith gets to the theatre in time for the final words and the opening of the portal.

The next bit is mostly running and screaming—including the Doctor telling Shakespeare not to rub his sore head, or he’ll go bald.

But there’s no time for that, because the Carrionites are coming, streaming up out of the crystal that the three witches are holding.

And the Doctor tells Shakespeare to reverse it: he says that Shakespeare is the wordsmith, the one true genius, and he can use the power of The Globe to banish the Carrionites.

I make no comment whatsoever on the comparative quality of this speech, not even to mention the blending in of “Expelliarmis”—though I do think the combination of Shakespeare and J. K. Rowling is something that will either fascinate or make the blood boil.

And there goes the copy of the play, into the void.

Still, the play is a roaring success, since people are inclined to think it was all stagecraft, especially now the witches have been trapped in the crystal ball.

Back in the real world, Shakespeare is trying to cop a feel from Martha.

Then the Doctor wanders in wearing a ruff (he says it’s a neck brace) and carrying a skull, apparently from the props store.

Shakespeare has already worked out that the Doctor is an alien and Martha is from the future: he is a genius, after all!

He salutes Martha with a sonnet to his “Dark Lady,” and I know this annoyed some people. (Has he really known Martha long enough to write twenty-five sonnets to her over the next ten years? Really? Who can say?)

And then Queen Elizabeth turns up, declares the Doctor her sworn enemy, and tries to have him killed.

Martha and the Doctor dash back to the TARDIS—Martha asking how he knows Elizabeth I, and the Doctor saying he doesn’t know, but he looks forward to finding out—as arrows thud into the door.

And we’re off until next week!

(As a bonus, here are three candidates for the Dark Lady, which I prepared earlier: Emilia Lanier, Mary Fitton, and Elizabeth Wriothesley. Now don’t say you never learn anything on this blog!)

Share your thoughts [12]


Tim wrote at Aug 31, 10:57 pm



Catriona wrote at Aug 31, 11:38 pm

Oh, Tim!

You know, it’s terribly difficult to type and watch the screen at the same time! (That’s why, just quietly, I tend to talk more about the dialogue than the special effects.)

Now, if I were a TWoP-style recapper, this would be easy, because I would be able to pause things.

(Actually, I made the error at least twice, so I’m pleased that only one of them made it through my highly rigorous, post-blogging proof-reading process.)


Tim wrote at Sep 1, 12:41 am

I just thought it was funny coming right after you mentioned checking dates. :)


Catriona wrote at Sep 1, 12:51 am

Well, that’s the problem with an abstract term, isn’t it?

I successfully checked dates (as in looked things up on Wikipedia to make myself look cleverer) and then simultaneously unsuccessfully checked dates (as in proof-reading).

I think I’ll call that “multi-tasking,” to put a nice positive spin on it.


(Heather caught another error, too—one that suggested Shakespeare had taken 350 years to write Love’s Labour’s Won. It’s not that good a play. And I caught at least one more. Dates are my typing Waterloo—dates and any word with “graph” in it.)


Drew wrote at Sep 1, 09:19 pm

This episode was never as good for me as the Dickens one, I tired of hearing the constant declarations that Shakespeare was a genius, Dickens was as well but we didn’t have it thrust in our faces every 3 minutes during the episode. Still I loved the way it swiftly dealt with Martha, a negro woman, walking the streets of ELizabethan London.

To answer your questions, plays were published – if they were published – after performances in quarto form (roughly paper back size) though the question as to whether some editions are pirate copies is open to speculation. In any case, printing was always an afterthought, never a great money earner.

By and large plays had short life spans on the ELizabethen stage, shorter even than most movies do now in the cinema and the theatre was a vast consumer of new material, but old plays were sometimes brought back into performance as LLL appears to be here in this episode. I like the fact that he’s still writing the play that’s about to be performed, Elizabethan actors seemed to have a talent for learning new material that would make modern day directors green with envy.

The Registrar of Plays is historical, all plays had to be submitted for approval and censorship was generally heavy.

Great blog, as always Treen.


Catriona wrote at Sep 1, 10:29 pm

I’ve been thinking about this, a little, and I think the episode is trying to find a balance between the Doctor’s fandom (less explicit here than in the Dickens episode, I think) and the fact that Shakespeare is not just a genius, but the genius—at least as far as the Western canon is concerned.

Look to Wikipedia, for example. Their Shakespeare page describes him as being “widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s preeminent dramatist.” (Dickens, on the other hand, they describe as “the most popular English novelist of the Victorian era and one of the most popular of all time.”) You can’t get away from the “Shakespeare as the greatest writer in English of all time” popular conception, especially not when you’re working in another popular medium.

But, to balance that, we have the following:

* the Doctor saying that everything Shakespeare says or writes is brilliant, only to be cut down by Shakespeare’s vulgarity.

* Shakespeare scribbling his plays at the last minute and ignoring his actors’ concerns

* Shakespeare unashamedly pillaging material from all over the place.

* Shakespeare responding, when the Doctor asks for a plot synopsis, with a very broad and general description, as though to say, “You know what my plays are like.”

* the actors struggling over incomprehensible text and, essentially, saying to each other, “You know what he’s like sometimes: just say it and get on with it.”

* Shakespeare questioning the pretentiousness of his own work.

The more I think about it, the more I think they tried to do something a bit more complex with the character while still acknowledging his popular cultural standing.

Plays also had a fairly short life span on the Victorian stage. (Depending on the theatre and manager, of course—Charles Kean would run his plays for upwards of one-hundred performances, but a highly successful play in the East End would run for an average of twenty-five performances. And that was fairly late in the period.)

Back when I still thought the Ph.D. thesis would be biographical, I started compiling a calendar of Eliza Winstanley’s performances, and it wasn’t uncommon—especially in the 1830s and 1840s—for a play that performed poorly to be yanked after a single night, so that she might perform in three, four, or even five different plays a week, as well as in two or even three different plays in one night.

It’s incredible.

It doesn’t surprise me that one of the most popular compliments she received in newspaper reviews was that she had an excellent memory. I gather actors forgetting lines was par for the course.

But, if censorship was so heavy in this period, how are plays such as Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won lost? Why don’t we at least have the registrar’s copy?

I know that the Lord Chamberlain’s collection of plays in the British Library contains copies of all the plays submitted for the censor’s approval from the late eighteenth century to (I believe) the 1960s, though my interest runs out c. 1880.

Did the registry not work the same way in this period? Or was it lost in the Great Fire? Or some other disaster? (It wasn’t Cromwell, was it? Miserable bugger.)


Drew wrote at Sep 1, 11:46 pm

As far as I know, plays weren’t kept for the purposes of record keeping by the censors, the general consensus is that they were returned with notes scribbled all over them, and these would be holographic or scribal copies, not printed versions. There is an anachronistic misconception surrounding Elizabethan plays that dates back to the 18th century and the beginning of editing and collation: that these are works for all times. That’s really a modern view, for the Elizabethans they were largely ephemeral creations never meant to stand the test of time or last beyond their brief period on the stage. Jonson started the change in 1616 with his Folio and others followed suit over the next few decades but even then it was considered somewhat pretentious of him to publish something as base as drama in a folio-style edition. The King published in folio, poetry was published in folio, not drama.

The only records for LLW are a couple of entries naming some of Shakespeare’s plays. But the names of all plays entered in this books of the period are somewhat fluid as is the spelling. It’s possible that it’s mis-titled or that it had its name changed, but of course it’s equally possible that it existed and was lost. There are many plays that are known to exist from this period that are missing, and no reason why Shakespeare should be exempt from such an occurrence, in his own lifetime he was just another, albeit successful, playwright.

Credence is led to its existence by the ending of LLL which results in four unconsummated romances leaving events hanging “for a year and a day.” However, a number of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies can be shown to end with an “if,” that is, without direct proof of a happy conclusion.


Catriona wrote at Sep 1, 11:57 pm

The nineteenth-century plays sent to the Lord Chamberlain were also holographic copies, that’s why their preservation is such a wonderful thing. These were also ephemeral works, since all theatres undertaking “legitimate” drama (a much larger number by the mid-Victorian era, where the early part of the century had limited legitimate drama to four West-End theatres, if I recall correctly) had to submit their work for censorship.

So even if a play was only performed for a week in an East-End theatre, a copy is held in the Lord Chamberlain’s collection.

That’s how I got my hands on the dramatised versions of Eliza Winstanley’s serials—these were very definitely ephemeral pieces, but there they are (in pared-back versions with barely any stage directions, but there, nonetheless). Of course, in two wonderful cases, there are also heavily annotated prompt copies, but that’s thanks to a collector, not to the machinery of censorship.

So what a wonderful opportunity lost to the Elizabethan period! They should have been as fond of paperwork and beaurocracy as the Victorians were.

Of course, plays were printed in the Victorian era, as well—even these melodramatic East-End pieces (largely ignored or snubbed by the critics) were often published, because nineteenth-century England had such a flourishing print culture. Winstanley’s publisher, John Dicks, had a long-running series in which he published plays in cheap paperback editions, and that’s helped keep them visible over the years.


Drew wrote at Sep 2, 12:08 am

oh for a Tardis and a digital camera!


Catriona wrote at Sep 2, 12:20 am

Yes, I thought that’s what I’d do if I had access to a TARDIS (and then a flip forward to the Victorian era to buy then-cheap periodicals that are now extremely rare and expensive).

But Nick said I was shallow.


Drew wrote at Sep 2, 12:26 am

Coming from a man who would use a Tardis for the purposes of photographing fonts from throughout human history, I wouldn’t be too concerned about that appellation.


Catriona wrote at Sep 2, 01:03 am

Considering this is also a man who thinks instant messaging is a good way of communicating with his live-in girlfriend while we’re sitting in the same room, I couldn’t agree more.

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