Friday, July 04, 2008

Harry Turtledove: Ruled Britannia

Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia is an alternate history in which Shakespeare lives in a Britain conquered and ruled by the Spanish. This is the Spanish Inquisition in full force; they are an occupying power, and the pressure of maintaining civil rule and imposing their religious views both push them to ever more forceful measures. Shakespeare is convinced to lend his talents to an underground group attempting to overthrow the Spaniards. Of course, Shakespeare's part is to write a new play that will convince the audience to rise up and overthrow the Spaniards. His task is complicated by the fact that that he has also reluctantly accepted a commission to write a play extolling the virtues of the Spain's King Philip, whose health is quickly failing.

Turtledove does a good job of giving the feel of the era: we see an auto de fé, see how suspicions can be raised about witches, worry about fire consuming the city, travel across the fetid Thames, and attend a bear baiting. The Spanish are constantly recruiting new informants and persecuting suspected Protestants, unbelievers, witches and homosexuals. So, while many have better things to do than spend their time at church, they all have to put on a show of propriety for fear of the inquisitors.

Lope de Vega is an ambitious, womanizing Spaniard, whose talents at writing plays in his native Spanish are sufficient to get him assigned the (joyful for him) task of monitoring Shakespeare's progress and trying to figure out if there is any substance to hints about his unreliability to the Spanish. (The Spanish can always find reasons to be suspicious, though few in this story seem to be based on Shakespeare's actual transgressions.) But the presence of an assumed snoop complicates the project, since both new plays have to be rehearsed. de Vega is kept busy both by having to learn a role in the paean to King Philip, and by his constant chasing after various women.

Turtledove seemed to enjoy writing new passages for Shakespeare, and rewrite familiar passages to reflect the changed circumstances of this world. I enjoyed the story. The conflict was plausible and the characters engaging. The political implications are light and obvious: occupiers are easy to dislike, and those that impose an alien religion and punish disbelief are the easiest to despise.

1 comment:

William H. Stoddard said...

I found Ruled Britannia satisfactorily entertaining, like a lot of Turtledove's better work, if not as thought-provoking as his best work. And I've read enough about the period to have enjoyed recognizing the quoted lines and minor walk-ons.

In a sense, this novel is a celebration of English exceptionalism, the thesis that there is something distinctively pro-liberty about the various English-speaking nations. But then, I don't find that altogether implausible.