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'Ruled Britannia' review

By Alexander Wallace

Shakespeare can be hard to parse nowadays; he is often taught in such a manner that is antithetical to the spirit of his oeuvre. His works are plays, designed to be watched and performed, not read in sleep-deprived monotones to feed to the almighty grade book. As such, we are all too often led to see him as one of a series of torpid tutors who seek to bore us and to destroy the love of the act of reading to appease the moloch of standardized testing (for me, it was Virginia’s Standards of Learning).

The Bard would have been appalled by what school systems on both sides of the Atlantic have done to him. His works were performed to raucous crowds who enjoyed the wordplay and the bawdy jokes and the political commentary clear to Elizabethan audiences.

Harry Turtledove, the immensely learned man that he is, knows better than a myriad education departments and their desire for administrative uniformity. William Shakespeare serves as the central character in his novel Ruled Britannia, a novel of which I have spoken some before on a different site.

This novel is set in a world where the Spanish Armada, one of Operation Sealion’s ignoble predecessors, succeeded, and the Cross of Braganza flies over the Tower of London. Philip II reigns over both Spain and England, and rules his new dominion with an iron fist. There is a small resistance movement that is trying to throw off the Spanish yoke, and it is into that environment that the greatest writer in the English language finds himself involved.

This book serves as a paean to the beauty of storytelling as an art form. Much is made of the power that theater can harness and bring to those who view it, who perform it, and who love it. There are many quotes from Shakespeare’s plays and from other Elizabethan authors that Turtledove cribbed from, and the results can be quite amusing. Within the text of the novel itself, there are many quotations from Shakespeare (in our world), and they are likewise fun to hunt for. The whole novel’s plot concerns the staging of plays, and which plays ought to be staged, and in doing so is a necessary interrogation into storytelling as a political act and of the importance of a free press.

Shakespeare is foiled by the equally illustrious Lope de Vega, one of the titans of Spanish literature of that period. He is a soldier in the Spanish Army that keeps England under its collective thumb, and on the side he is writing and womanizing as he was wont to do. He is lecherous when Shakespeare is gallant (in a commoner sort of way), coarse when Shakespeare is witty. Making Shakespeare an insurgent was already an inspired choice; making Vega his pursuer was an act of brilliance.

The fire-lit world of Elizabethan London is one that is brought to vivid life, with its taverns and alehouses and castles and palaces. You can believe that you are walking through the city that once housed the Globe Theatre, where great works of playwriting were seen by the people and not just the intelligentsia. But this London is subsumed in a captivating emotional timbre of oppression; in many ways you could almost pass this off as an anti-colonial novel.

And one little thing that pleased me: there are no gratuitous sex scenes that Turtledove has written in far too many of his novels. However, there is one off-screen sex scene that, in one of those rare instances, actually services the plot (truly astounding, I know).

Ruled Britannia is, in my opinion, among the upper half of Turtledove’s standalones; it rivals The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump or Alpha and Omega as being one of those truly thoughtful single novels that simply does not read a sequel (although I can’t say I wouldn’t read one should it come into existence). This is a cultural alternate history, one that does not devolve into generic twaddle, but goes to show why we need culture, storytelling, and literature, and all those wonderful things we call ‘art.’



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