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Shakespeare the Patriot   |   Nightmares and Hope
Shakespeare the Patriot
Harry Turtledove, Ruled Britannia (New American Library, 2002)
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the great, mythic occasions of English history, remembered as a triumph of plucky, outnumbered sea dogs over King Philip of Spain's vast, arrogant host. In sober fact, it was Philip who backed the long shot. A successful invasion required coordination between widely separated forces in Spain and the Netherlands, coupled with good weather and a swift collapse of English morale. None of those conditions occurred, and the expensive gamble failed.
But imagine that the dice had rolled all sixes for the Spaniards, the Duke of Alva had crossed the Channel and the tercios had shattered Queen Elizabeth’s army. Harry Turtledove’s novel picks up the story nine years after the conquest. The deposed Elizabeth lingers in the Tower of London, while Philip’s daughter Isabella rules with her consort Albert. (Their real world marriage didn’t take place until 1599 but might well have been accelerated had Isabella come into a throne.) The English Inquisition hunts for heresy and witchcraft. Spanish garrisons are a visible reminder of the King of Spain’s domination. And the Earl of Westmoreland’s Men, London’s most popular dramatic troupe, entertains the citizenry with the plays of their leading writer Will Shakespeare and his rival Kit Marlowe (spared by the altered political conditions from his “great reckoning in a little room”).
Ruled Britannia falls into the line of Dr. Turtledove’s historical and quasi-historical novels. A concentration on the details of ordinary life replaces massed armies, alien invaders and AK-47-toting Confederates. There is fighting - more a riot than a battle - at the end, but the military side of the book portrays a peacetime garrison. The Spanish soldiers, particularly the co-protagonist Lope de Vega (a famous dramatist in our world, a hopeful amateur in the novel’s), are more concerned with love affairs, lazy servants and theater gossip than stamping out resistance among what they perceive as a generally quiescent population.
The mainspring of the plot draws upon a real incident. In 1601 conspirators against Queen Elizabeth arranged for a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II, including the proscribed scene portraying the monarch’s deposition, in hopes of stirring the London citizenry to support their cause. The city did not rise in response, but the attempt shows that the idea of plays as potent propaganda was credible to Elizabethans. In Ruled Britannia, it is taken up by both the Spanish military commander and the underground English opposition to foreign rule. As a consequence, Will Shakespeare finds himself commissioned to write a celebratory drama of the life on the King of Spain - and a patriotic tragedy exhorting his countrymen to throw off the alien yoke. Each is intended to have its premiere as soon as news of King Philip’s imminently expected death reaches England. Naturally the actors, as staunch English patriots, intend to put on the subversive Boudicca rather than the laudatory King Philip, and much of the story revolves around their maneuvers to avoid discovery, which are rendered tricky by Lope de Vega’s habit of dropping in on rehearsals to talk shop and bask in the glow of association with the stage.
While the twists and turns of the plot are well enough made (though some pages could have profitably been cut from de Vega’s amorous intrigues) and lead up to a rousing climax, the novel’s greatest strength lies in its portrayal of the life of a 16th Century theatrical company. Fiction centering on Shakespeare is fairly common; Ruled Britannia is the first, among those that I have seen, to give a genuine feel for what it must have been like to be an actor or playwright in Queen Elizabeth’s day. The author assumes, probably rightly, that Spanish domination would not have affected the theater in any fundamental way. In fact, Queen Isabella’s Master of the Revels (and therefore chief dramatic censor) is Sir Edmund Tilney, the very man who held that post under the historical Elizabeth I. The one significant difference is that Shakespeare has prudently avoided the subject of English history. The gaps have been filled from Greek history, by such works as Alcibiades.
Will Shakespeare himself is portrayed much as current scholarship perceives him: as a hard-working professional rather than a flamboyant artiste. (Of flamboyance Kit Marlowe, energetically pursuing political and sexual intrigues, furnishes an ample supply.) This Shakespeare is not a complicated figure: a solid Englishman who unhesitatingly sees and does his duty to his country. Suspense could have been added by giving him stronger Catholic sympathies and an occasional twinge of uncertainty about the wisdom of rebellion against a firmly established regime. Certainly he pales next to de Vega, but the contrast probably reflects reality.
As it has grown in popularity, alternate history has tended to paint ever more bizarre speculative lilies, to the point where they sometimes fester. Ruled Britannia counters that trend with solid historical research, attention to detail and a plausible set of deviations from the historical timeline. William Shakespeare would have been proud to have a starring role in such a production.
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