Ruled Britannia Mass Market Paperback – 1 Sep 2003
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Shakespeare here is a hero at the height of his powers as an actor and playwright and is the pivot around whom all the action revolves. In counterpoint to him is Lt. Lope de Vega, an unpublished Spanish playwright, sent to infiltrate Shakespeare's theater and its productions and unmask any traitors to Spanish rule. When Lord Burghley secretly hires Shakespeare to write a play called Boudicca, planned as a call to the populace to throw off their Spanish yoke and avenge themselves, Shakespeare finds himself in mortal danger--he has also been hired by the Spanish to write a play in honor of Philip II, the dying Spanish king, a play to be produced as soon as Philip dies. Writing and rehearsing both plays simultaneously with a less than reliable troupe, Shakespeare must walk a fine line to avoid discovery as the mood in London becomes increasingly threatening.
Writing in the language and style of the period, author Turtledove casually (and very skillfully) incorporates innumerable Shakespearean quotations into his text, often with humorous intent. Puns, the off-color wordplay which so often provides comic relief in Shakespeare's plays, dialogue in which characters talk at cross-purposes, and a character who constantly misuses "big words," are a delight for any language-lover and admirer of the Bard. Quotations from Shakespeare's Boudicca, which feel like quotations from a new and undiscovered authentic work, are brilliantly crafted from works of the period by Shakespeare and several contemporaries, and the opening night of that play is a stunning literary coup by Turtledove. All the talk and intrigue do lead to a plot which is a bit thin and short on action--until the bang-up conclusion, filled with arquebuses, rapiers, poleaxes, pikes, and even chamberpots. Lovers of language will thrill at Turtledove's achievement here, even while wishing, perhaps, that the book were a hundred pages shorter.
Imagining a world where the Spanish Armada won, and England conquered and placed under the nominal rule of Queen Isabella, subsidiary to King Philip II of Spain, in many ways this is an intriguing look at the both the time and place – and its overlap with another SF writer’s look at this time, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, provides an interesting comparison. Instead of Stephenson’s incredibly broad look at the times, people, and politics, Turtledove chooses to limit the scope of this book to the theater and its environs, with Shakespeare becoming the focal point of an attempted rebellion, as William Cecil commissions him to write a play designed to inflame the audience. Almost simultaneously, he is commissioned to write a play praising the life and deeds of King Philip, due to be performed upon Philip’s death.
The tension in this book derives from these two opposing objectives, of how Shakespeare can write and get rehearsals performed of a subversive play while being closely watched by the Spanish for his progress on the King Philip play. Many of the characters presented are familiar ones: Kit Marlowe, Francis Bacon, Richard Burbage; and in general they are well fleshed out, and conform in the main to what is actually known about these people.
But more than plot or character, this book is driven by style and place. The dialogue is done in the Elizabethan English of the time, what Shakespeare basically wrote in. At times this is a little unnerving, as the syntax, word order, and vocabulary is such that you need to read a sentence two or three times to make sense of it. But it certainly provides a definitive ambience, which coupled with the descriptions of living, working, hygienic, and religious conditions, the typical fashions in dress and social customs, gives one a very good sense of the era. Turtledove has also inserted some wry jokes: changes in the names of Shakespeare’s plays (such a “Love’s Labour Won” instead of “Love’s Labour Lost”) and at various appropriate places in the dialogue he has stolen some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, given them perhaps a slightly shifted meaning. You don’t need to be a Shakespearian scholar to recognize these, as most of these lines are so famous they have almost become part of the English language, though trying to match the lines to what play they belong in (and if that play had been written by the time of this book) is a more difficult but fun exercise.
The major failing I found with this book was that the basic idea behind the plot, that those planning a major rebellion would try to use a play as one of its major lynch-pins, does not come across as very believable. The play could obviously only be performed once, and would an audience of a couple hundred or so really make that much difference to the outcome of an uprising? But as a fun, light read that provides an interesting perspective on the times and the writer, this work does quite well.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
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