Of course, this has to be my favorite episode. Even if there are others that tug my heartstrings more, stories that go deeper and further, events that lift me higher, I have to pick this episode as my personal favorite, since it was obviously written for English majors and English teachers. Oh, it is delightful.
There are many aspects of this episode I could talk about, since it is packed with literary treats. I'm going to pick out just one: the idea of magical words.
It is the magic of words that saves the world. Of course, though, the words are not magical. There is a quasi-scientific explanation for everything in Doctor Who, no matter how far-fetched. You know that sounds can actually do things here, in the real world. The right pitch can break glass. I heard a radio program once about scientists trying to develop a way of targeting cancer cells with the right musical pitch. So in “The Shakespeare Code,” the Carrionites use words “to channel energy.” The Doctor compares it to quantum physics: “Given the right string numbers, the right equation, you can split the atom. Carrionites use words instead.” So the words are not magical: they are merely the exact sequence of musical pitches and rhythmical beats to set up the proper energy patterns and cause things to happen in the universe: a rift to open for the Carrionites to come through, then the rift to suck all the Carrionites back through and close for good.
Now, the idea of using the power of well-ordered words to channel energy is ancient, in both magic and mysticism. Much magic relies on incantations: particular words chanted in a particular order to yield particular results. But there is another side to the concept of magical words that is practiced in mysticism and even survives in a diluted form in the most respectable churches. Many churches have a liturgy that they follow. What is a liturgy but a series of organized words? These words are said week after week, year after year, millennium after millennium. They are intend to have actual spiritual effects: to prompt the practitioner into repentance, humility, exaltation, and a sense of union with God.
In Mysticism, the practice is even more literal. I want to talk particularly about one mystical tradition: the Qabalah.
You will see this name spelled many different ways: Cabbalah, Kabalah, etc. Some scholars auger that the spelling indicates a specific meaning. I haven't gotten that far yet. But the Qabalah is a system of Jewish mysticism that (among other things) teaches meditation on the Name of God: on the letters of the name of God. The enlightened Qabalistic mystic is supposed to be able to achieve a higher state of consciousness by writing these letters over and over, reciting them, visualizing them, and so forth.
What is this but another form of the magic of words?
The idea of powerful, secret words runs through some of the deep-rooted traditions of English literature. It is important in the legends about King Arthur, which have had a profound influence on the English consciousness.
One early important Arthurian poet was named Robert de Boron. He wrote in French in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. He writes about the Holy Grail. In his version, Sir Perceval becomes the Keeper of the Grail, and Perceval is also given charge of secret words that are powerful and operative. This idea was passed down in many versions of the legends.
These ideas suddenly became really important again in England in the early 20th century, when various scientific, political, and religious factors led to an “occult revival” in which many people joined secret societies. So the idea of magical, mystical, powerful words influenced several writers who were in these groups: A.E. Waite, W.B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Evelyn Underhill, and Charles Williams. They all practiced various kinds of incantations and meditations with or on words that they believed were spiritually powerful.
And then more recently and more popularly, this idea of magical, secret words appared in the Harry Potter series. The children are taught particular words to say for each spell. While Rowling never meditates on the metaphysics of this magic, words are obviously essential to the working of magic.
Then in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is a secret, esoteric teaching handed down by word-of-mouth. This occult message promises that when the Elder Wand, Resurrection Stone, and Invisibility Cloak are “united,” they will “make the possessor master of Death” (Rowling Deathly Hallows 410), “which has usually been understood to mean that they will be invulnerable, even immortal” (Rowling, Tales of Beedle the Bard 96). The Deathly Hallows are very like the Grail Hallows of Arthurian legend, as Denise Roper explains in her fun book The Lord of the Hallows.
But Harry eventually rejects this secret teaching, choosing to ignore it in his determination to act out ultimate love via self-sacrifice.
Isn't that just like the Doctor? While he uses the magical words—or persuades Shakespeare to use them—he always choose plain old-fashioned self-sacrifice over some kind of magical pyrotechnics. And even here, when magical words are used, they are from Harry Potter!
So magical words traveled through King Arthur stories through occult poets into Harry Potter and then into Doctor Who (whether by direct descent or sub-conscious imagination doesn't matter here), but the final messages about love and sacrifice are the same.