She sets her demanding life aside to be what the Doctor needs because she loves him. Meanwhile she tries to be the dutiful daughter to a family in crisis. She strives to save her sister, her brother, her parents…the world.
She does all this and more for love of the Doctor and gets nothing in return but grief and a fractured life.
She is Ophelia.
Ophelia strikes a powerful image in the feminist imagination. In Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, Ophelia tries to be an obedient daughter to her over-bearing father, a loyal sister to her protective brother, an affectionate sweetheart to her mad Prince and a dutiful courtier to her scheming King. Her world is dominated by the men she tries hard to please—to be what they need her to be with little thought for what she wants or who she is. The result of her adherence to everything patriarchy tells her to be is abandonment by her dear brother, betrayal of her regal lover who rejects her then murders her beloved father, and ultimately madness and suicide at the bottom of pretty river after singing some sweet folk songs.
It ain’t called a tragedy for naught, folks.
More than any of Shakespeare’s heroines, feminists are fascinated by Ophelia. They write scholarly articles examining her, paint and photograph her, dedicate songs and poetry to her. The source of this obsession is what Ophelia represents. She is a young woman without agency, surrounded by men and defined by her connections to them. She suffers horribly at the hands of these men in her life: abandoned, rejected, used, abused and humiliated. Ophelia is a feminist’s cautionary tale with a clear moral: if you let men dictate the circumstances of your life it will eventually drive you mad.
What does all this have to do with our Miss Jones? Perhaps it was learning that Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the actress who played Martha’s sister, portrayed Ophelia on Broadway opposite Jude Law a few years ago that started the connection in my head between Martha and Ophelia. Perhaps this harmonised with seeing David Tennant play the title role himself. Perhaps it is this week’s celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday and my decision to fill Dr Her’s Martha void that linked the two concepts. And of course The Shakespeare Code episode—one of my favourites. But these are superficial connections between the two women. The comparisons between Martha and Ophelia run deeper and strike at the heart of what has made this five-hundred-year old character an enduring feminist icon.
When we first meet Martha in Smith and Jones, she cheerfully plays mediator between her battling family members. It is a role she keeps up throughout her season as the Doctor’s companion. Just as Rose did, Martha often finds herself placed between her new loyalties to the Doctor and her life-long loyalties to her family. In The Lazarus Experiment, the Doctor finally meets the Joneses.
The Doctor: Lovely to meet you, Mrs. Jones. I’ve heard a lot about you.
Francine Jones: Have you. What have you heard, then?
The Doctor: Oh, y’know, that you’re Martha’s mother, and… Uhm… no, actually, that’s about it. We haven’t had much time to chat. You know, been… busy.
Francine Jones: Busy? Doing what, exactly?
The Doctor: Oh, y’know… stuff
The Doctor: [sees Martha's mother walking towards them; smiles] Ah, Mrs. Jones; we never finished our chat.
Francine Jones: [without preamble she slaps the Doctor round the face]
Francine Jones: Keep away from my daughter!
Martha Jones: Mum, what are you doing?
The Doctor: [rubbing his jaw] Always the mothers! Every time!
In the end, Mrs Jones gives her daughter a more direct warning about the Doctor.
Francine Jones: [on the phone] Martha, it’s your mother. Please, phone me back, I’m begging you! I know who this Doctor really is! I know he’s dangerous! You’re going to get yourself killed! Please trust me! This information comes from Harold Saxon himself. You’re not safe!
Ophelia faces similar difficulty juggling her family with her feelings for the man she loves. In her first scene of Hamlet, her brother Laertes is about to leave for France to become a soldier. He demands that she write him often to assure him all is well, then lectures about her relationship with the young Prince of Denmark:
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
Her father Polonius echoes these warnings, finally forcing Ophelia to swear she will not see Hamlet any longer. “These blazes, daughter,” says Polonius, “Giving more light than heat extinct in both, you must not take for fire.” What an eloquent way of expressing life with a Time Lord: all flash and fireworks but over far too soon. What a prophetic way of expressing Martha’s feelings as she takes the blaze of her admiration for fire, though the Doctor gives her more light than heat.
Despite the opposition of her family Martha, like Ophelia, does her best to do right by all the people in her life. Also like Ophelia, the effort of meeting these demands tears her apart. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Last of the Time Lords, but we see her strain earlier in the Human Nature/Family of Blood episodes.
The men in Ophelia’s life abandon her: Laertes leaves for France, Hamlet leaves for England and Polonius leaves for the after-life. Ophelia never realises her lover mistakenly murdered her father—in fact, no one shares any facts about her father’s death with her. In Shakespeare’s tragedy this leads to Ophelia’s break with sanity and eventual suicide.
Like Hamlet, the Doctor escapes from his life in order to hide from an enemy. In Hamlet’s case it is a scheming family member, in the Doctor’s it is the scheming Family of Blood. Fortunately our Miss Jones is made of stronger stuff than Ophelia. When she is abandoned in 1913 with a Doctor who is literally out of his mind she makes a new life for herself rather than fall to pieces or into a river. She does all that is asked of her: keeps the Tardis safely secreted, stays close to the humaned Gallifreyan and maintains a cover identity until the time is right to give John Smith his watch back. But it is not an easy mission for her. She endures humiliation from the pampered school boys, looks on helplessly as John Smith falls in love with a human that isn’t her and finally takes on the Family of Blood single-handedly.
Martha and Ophelia even share a grisly end: drowning. For Ophelia it is an intentional end to her pain—suicide by the riverside. In the episode The Sontaran Stratagem, Martha experiences her own drowned moment. For her it is not an end but a transformation—and not of her own making. The imagery of her clone rising from the thick liquid in the basement of Unit is a powerful water image, one which conjures up connections with Shakespeare’s tragic heroine.
He is everything, he is just everything to me and he doesn’t even look at me but I don’t care because I love him to bits.
O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
…The observed of all observers…
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!
These quotes illustrate another profound comparison between Ophelia and Martha: unrequited love. There are many interpretations of Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia, but his rejection of her affection in clear in the text:
If thou dost marry, I’ll give thee this plague for
thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as
snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a
nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs
marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough
what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go,
and quickly too. Farewell.
Though the Doctor never makes his rejection of Martha quite this brutally clear, he does spurn her advances. However, like Hamlet the Doctor does not fully spurn Martha. He does not send her away. He keeps her as his companion. Similarly, in the next scene Hamlet and Ophelia share together he lays his head in her lap before the entire court and propositions her. At her funeral Hamlet declares true love for Ophelia—so what are we to believe? What is Ophelia to believe? What should Martha believe?
Like Ophelia, Martha is a cautionary tale for companions. The Doctor does not love—not the way human women want him to. It is only as a human (or a Time Lord-Human Metacrisis) that the Doctor is capable of romance. Anyone who forgets this is ultimately doomed to heartbreak, pain and the end of life as they know it. And though Martha bears the most striking similarities to Ophelia, the Beauteous Majesty of Gallifrey leaves a trail of drowned Ophelias in his wake: Rose abandoned to an alternative universe (though her love story turns out rather well in the end); Donna stripped of her consciousness, of woman she became on the Tardis; Astrid Peth denied the life she might have had on the Tardis; Sarah Jane dumped unceremoniously in Bournemouth…sorry Aberdeen; and so many, many others fall by the wayside in the Time Lord Hamlet’s seemingly endless quest to escape the ghosts of his past.
The love in vain, they strive to be who he needs them to be, he abandons them, they go mad, they drown… Time and Space are littered with his Ophelias. If only Hamlet’s lady had access to a sonic screw driver…how different her life might have been.