Volume 21, Number 3, Fall, 2003

Ruled Brittania

By Harry Turtledove

New American Library, 2002
Reviewed by William H. Standard

This book's subtitle is To be free, or not to be free? and that's a good summary. In this alternate history, the Spanish Armada succeeded, and Elizabeth Tudor is once again a prisoner in the Tower of London.

For most people. England's most noteworthy inhabitant in this time was William Shakespeare, and Turtledove makes him his protagonist. Shakespeare's friend and rival Christopher Marlowe (not silenced by assassination, in this history) recruits him into a conspiracy against Spanish rule, in which his skill as a playwright is vital. In fact in a very Shakespearean plot twist, Shakespeare ends up writing two plays at the same time, one celebrating Spanish victory and the other glorifying British rebellion—watched by Lope de Vega, a Spanish officer with literary ambitions, who becomes both his friend and his enemy.

Turtledove did his usual thorough research in writing this hulk. Its characters include many real historical figures in skewed roles. It brings the theatrical company Shakespeare writes for vividly to life; it presents not only Marlowe but the men who murdered him; it shows what happened to Elizabeth's advisors. The dialogue includes many well-known quotations in new contexts.

Elizabethan England wasn't free as we underhand freedom; it had a state church, a cult of monarchy, and an economy dominated by royal grants of monopoly. But Turtledove shows how much less free it could have been—and why the English would have wanted Elizabeth back. English exceptionality, the belief that English culture was pro-freedom in a way not found in most other cultures, is controversial among historians; but Turtledove gives it memorable expression in an entertaining and well-told story.

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