“Shall I compare thee to a Type Fifty?/Thou art more lovely and more temporal.”
The Shakespeare Notebooks
The Shakespeare Notebooks is a collision between two utterly unique British institutions: the work of playwright William Shakespeare, and the precarious creation which is Doctor Who.
The book is a collection of Shakespearean scenes reimagined with a Whovian influence; it’s the kind of book you buy for someone as a joke – think Verily, A New Hope, or 100 Thoughts Cats Have About Humans. But, at the risk of sounding even geekier than I already am, it’s also sort of fascinating as a reflection on, or a reception of, the whole wider purpose of Doctor Who.
I bought The Shakespeare Notebooks at the Shakespeare Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, which would feel more significant if the Shakespeare Birthplace weren’t the Disneyfied and utterly characterless tourist attraction it is, but symbolically it has an air of transgression about it. There’s very little the British cultural scene takes as seriously as Shakespeare (witness, for example, the thousands of schoolchildren subjected to the dour Macbeth every year); but a relatively lowbrow pop culture icon has got hold of this sacred canon and – whisper it low – rewritten it.
I find it hard to imagine any other fandom doing that, and I wonder if The Shakespeare Notebooks isn’t registering something about the uniqueness of Doctor Who in British culture. (The triumph of Doctor Who is that it will always be quintessentially British, however international its audience becomes.) One of the things the book showcases is how well the Doctor works, actually, as a Shakespearean fool, a character working behind the scenes, from the underclasses, to upset and reconfigure the rules of the play’s world; a figure of anarchy. The Doctor works here as a subversive agent, reconfiguring how we read our cultural icons, undermining the authority of the printed text and creating a space in which we can read it differently. One of the items in The Shakespeare Notebooks is a retelling of Macbeth, in which the Second Doctor engineers the main events of the play, including the apparent murder of Banquo and the bit where the English army disguise themselves as Birnam Wood. The point of the rewriting is that the events of the play look, from a certain perspective, exactly the same as those of the original; but the Doctor’s interference offers space for an alternative reading. The substance of that alternative doesn’t really matter; the point is that it exists, that the text that we have is no longer definitive or monolithic. Incidentally, much of the Doctor’s long history has turned on such reinterpretation, especially in the rebooted series: his avoidance of his own apparently inevitable death in The Wedding of River Song and Beneath the Flood are examples which spring particularly to mind. In these stories, the Doctor is a subversive agent, undermining a narrative which seems set in stone. We can look, too, to more historical episodes, where the Doctor confronts cultural icons or moments and rereads them: The Fires of Pompeii, which saw the Doctor defying the march of history to affirm the possibility of humanity; The Victory of the Daleks, which places Daleks in the vicinity of Winston Churchill and reminds us that even great leaders can be bloody stupid. The show’s cultural role, then, is essentially a postmodern one: giving us the space and the wherewithal to challenge the monoliths of our past, present and future, to reread and reinterpret our own cultural and physical norms.
Which is why, of course, I’ll continue watching it despite everything that Steven Moffat has done. There’s simply no other show on television which offers the same kind of potential as Doctor Who does. The Shakespeare Notebooks, for all that it is occasionally ridiculous and often clumsy, is a reminder of what the show can do, and what it can be: silly, geeky and important.