So, I saw the movie Angels and Demons once –once was enough–and there’s a line in there that totally took me out of the movie more than I already was. Robert Langdon, he of the made-up scholarly profession, is reading clues for his current assistant, and she asks why they’re all written in English. Tom Hanks’s Langdon replies that English was the language of rebels like “Shakespeare and Chaucer”.
There is so much wrong to unpack there, starting with how Chaucer spoke Middle English to Shakespeare’s Modern, but they’re also probably the two biggest mysteries in English literature in that we know little about Shakespeare’s life and views and far, far less about Chaucer’s. It’s a laughably stupid thing to say if you know that sort of thing.
Why bring this up? Eh, look at the title of the episode.
Alright, here we are. The Doctor said he’d take Martha on exactly one trip through space and time as a thank you for her help in the previous episode, and they pop up in London in 1599. It’s late, but there’s a play going on. And since Martha is a smart person, she asks if they might stand out a bit since they don’t change their clothes and she’s, well, black. The Doctor then says no one cares about their clothes and there actually are some black people around, so she should be fine. Besides, the Globe Theater is right there with its 14 sides and everything. Why not see one of Shakespeare’s plays?
That’s basically what they do, and it’s a good thing too. The play they go to see is Love’s Labour’s Lost. Now, I am a Shakespeare guy, and I have read each and every one of his still-existing plays at least once. Love’s Labour’s Lost is a romantic comedy that ends on a cliffhanger as the men need to go on a quest but promise to come back to the women, and the women accept this. There’s evidence that Shakespeare did write a sequel called Love’s Labour’s Won, but for reasons unknown, there are no existing copies of that play today. That’s not the only such play we know Shakespeare wrote that we no longer have, and because he’s Shakespeare we have more of his work than a number of his contemporaries. Publishing plays just wasn’t a thing back then. Heck, most of Shakespeare’s were published by friends after he died. Playwrights just didn’t do that sort of thing, so it isn’t that much of a mystery why we don’t have some today.
But, this is Doctor Who, so we need some sci-fi explanation as Shakespeare promises Love’s Labour’s Won to be played the following evening even though he hasn’t finished it yet. That pleases one mysterious woman in the audience, and it intrigues the Doctor enough to look into it, allowing Martha to become Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” and the Doctor to explain that the problem is witchcraft, something that is not supernatural but still a thing.
See, there are these three witches, or Carrionites. These are aliens that should be extinct, but just as humans use math to split the atom, Carrionites use words to do seemingly impossible stuff involving voodoo dolls, mind control, cauldrons, and the like. One almost kills the Doctor with a voodoo doll and a lock of his hair, but they weren’t counting on the Doctor having two hearts and Martha knowing that. You can also banish them once by saying their name, but it won’t work a second time. Words have power and all.
So, naturally, they want to use one of the greatest wordsmiths the English language has ever produced to bring all their sisters back from limbo with a play written by them with unwitting help from Shakespeare inside their 14 sided theater. That would basically be the end of the human race, and the only way to stop it once it starts is to have Shakespeare improvise some lines on the spot, with a little of Harry Potter tossed in from Martha.
Given what’s gone on with J.K, Rowling in the last year, I do have to wonder how well that stuff has aged.
Regardless, it works and all the witches plus every copy of Love’s Labour’s Won are banished to Limbo or something. Plus, Shakespeare was smart enough to recognize that Martha is from the future and the Doctor is an alien all on his own. Lots of good humor here for Shakespeare fans.
Oh, and then Queen Elizabeth walks in. That seems unlikely. But she also recognizes the Doctor. That seems more likely. Then she orders him executed.
Good thing he and Martha get back to the TARDIS in time…