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Volume 22, Number 2 (Spring-Summer 2004)

Ruled Brittania

by Harry Turtledove

(Roc/NAL/Penguin Group USA, 2002)
Reviewed by Jorge Codina

Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove is an Alternate History novel set in the year 1597, 10 years after the Spanish Armada has defeated and conquered England. Queen Elizabeth is a prisoner in the Tower of London. Phillip II's daughter Isabella is queen of England.

First of all, unless you have a bit more than passing knowledge of the era, I recommend reading the Historical Note on page 600 before reading the book. It will give you a bit of background without ruining the story. I believe the information will make reading the book more enjoyable. (I read biographies of Henry VIII and Elizabeth two years ago, which helped a lot.)

William Shakespeare and the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega are the central characters. Lope is an officer with the occupying forces who spends his time, partly out of duty, but mostly from pleasure, in the theater. Shakespeare is of course England's leading playwright.

King Phillip II of Spain is dying. A group of English rebels see this as an opportunity to throw off Spanish rule and recruit Shakespeare to write a play which will incite the English to revolt. The Spanish also contract him to write a play, one about the greatness of Phillip. de Vega is assigned to help him with this task. Shakespeare must convince his company to perform the treasonous play, avoid showing Lope, who is always around, the unofficial play, and decide if he will actually show it when the time comes.

The book is full of lines from Shakespeare, a few from Marlowe and I believe a few other Elizabethan poets. As my knowledge of literature is weak at best, I'm sure I missed a lot. It was fun spotting the little I did.

All in all a very enjoyable book, although not a good candidate for the Prometheus Award. Shakespeare does not have much of a choice when accepting the commissions from the English rebels or from the Spanish. If he refused the English, he would probably have been killed, and he knew this. Refusing the Spanish was just out of the question, they ruled England and anything that seemed like disloyalty could attract the attention of the Inquisition. There is no burning desire for freedom here. Shakespeare did what he had to do to get by. In this case he had to do something dangerous, but he had to do it to stay alive.

True, he does not care for the Spanish conquerors, but recognizes that England under Elizabeth was not a great place either. Especially for Catholics. Indeed, the revolt Shakespeare helps bring about results in the mass murder of Catholics. He helps replace a foreign tyrant with a local one. When he hears of an expedition planned against the Irish, which served the Spanish during the occupation, he was happy about the suffering that the English intended to inflict.

Worse, when Shakespeare receives a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, he wonders if he had put on the play about Phillip and the revolt had failed, would he be receiving a knighthood from Isabella? And would the very same crowd also be cheering him? Shakespeare's conclusion: Probably yes.

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