Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Harry Turtledove has inside of his head a trove of historical knowledge few can even aspire to, giving him a better basis than most to ask questions about alternate courses of history. In his novel Ruled Britannia, he takes us to the year 1588 and explores a world where the Spanish Armada succeeds in its conquest of Britain through the lives of two significant men: William Shakespeare and Lope de Vega.
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Harry Turtledove Imagines the Conquest of Britain
Countless are the points in history where divergences could have potentially occurred, leading us onto completely different courses from the one we’re seeing today. In his novel Ruled Britannia, Harry Turtledove takes us back to the sixteenth century (more precisely, 1588) and asks a question: what would it have been like had the famous Spanish Armada managed to conquer Britain?
The history of our reality tells us the invasion failed, and marked the beginning of a two-century period during which the country faced no threats of invasion. However, as I believe most of us can gather, the picture would have been rather different had the conquest succeeded, and Turtledove explores this potential scenario through the lives of two prominent people: William Shakespeare, who needs no introduction, and Lope de Vega, a playwright and an officer in the Spanish occupation.
The true story begins to take place approximately a decade after the occupation, and begins by presenting us with Shakespeare, who remains a playwright and actor in London doing rather well for himself. However, his renown doesn’t come without drawbacks, and soon he finds himself drawn into the kind of game he’d prefer to stay away from.
On one hand, he is commissioned by the Spanish to write a play about the life of Philip II, whose departure is anticipated in the near future. Simultaneously, he is approached by another party with a somewhat different proposition: to write a play for the pro-Elizabeth resistance in hopes of inspiring a revolution.
On his end, Lope de Vega sees it all happen from the other side of the fence, the course of his life running parallel to Shakespeare‘s. He too seeks to find a place and purpose for himself in the new world of Spanish Britain, and might just give William the help he needs to write both plays and get away with it.
The Rebellious Shakespeare in Ruled Britannia
With this novel being split into two narratives, I think it only makes sense to begin by looking at the more prominent of the two, the one with William Shakespeare as the protagonist. Personally-speaking, the biggest concern I have going into alternate history novels is the fidelity with which authors depict historical characters, and I found it dissipated from the very beginning.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have come as a surprise if I was familiar with Harry Turtledove‘s other works or remembered his historical acumen, but I was overjoyed to see his portrayal of the man rooted in history rather than make-belief and imagination. Naturally, there’s no way to know exactly how he was, but I have no doubt the author is familiar with the man’s biography like the back of his own hand.
If you have a solid interest in history, especially in the times during which the book takes place, then I think you’ll have a lot of fun seeing all the real-life people the author managed to insert as characters. Those include Robert and William Cecil, as well as Christopher Marlowe, just to throw a few names out there.
Naturally, the author doesn’t simply include historical characters and elements because he feels like it. He adeptly weaves them into the story, and when possible he makes them into active participants. While the scope of my personal knowledge doesn’t allow me to accurately judge the accuracy of these depictions, considering the author’s style and track record, I would not be surprised in the least to learn he extensively researched them as well.
As exciting of a romp through history as it is, Ruled Britannia has a whole lot more to offer. Namely, there are numerous passages where the novel feels more like a thriller than anything else, with the battle between the British resistance and the Spanish occupation happening on a large number of levels and consistently manifests itself in surprising ways. Many lives are at stake (not to mention the fate of a nation), and Turtledove often ensures we don’t forget it.
Under the Spanish Occupation
The second narrative, the one following Lope de Vega, offers a bit of welcome contrast to all the turbulence and excitement we end up living through with William Shakespeare. Though the two men do meet on occasion, they largely spend their time away from each other and, to some extent, living their own lives and stories.
These segments of Ruled Britannia where de Vega becomes our main character are where Harry Turtledove takes the time to delve into the alternate history aspect of the story. He offers a detailed and obviously well thought-out examination of the new world he created through numerous evocative descriptions and memorable observations.
Naturally, imagining this kind of alternate timeline is far from easy, especially for an author who tries to develop it in accordance to what we’ve known and observed from history. I think it goes without saying most of us will find some points of contention in this regard, but for the most part I do concede Turtledove‘s logic in his depiction of this reality is solid (and likely better than mine).
There was literally one detail which forced me to suspend my disbelief, and it’s the idea of a play being powerful enough to spark a revolution capable of overthrowing a massive occupation force. It’s certainly a beautiful thought, but from a practical standpoint, the most desperate of ploys. Nevertheless, I was able to simply laugh at it, accept it as being part of the universe’s internal logic, and moved on.
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The only real complaint I can imagine people having about Lope de Vega‘s narrative is how it doesn’t always necessarily relate to the main plot, his meetings with Shakespeare excluded. Perhaps if you aren’t a fan of history you’ll find his sections to be slow and somewhat superfluous… on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine someone who isn’t a history buff reading this book. Ultimately, he offers a necessary change of perspective, one reminding us all sides have their own stories.
The Final Verdict
Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove is everything an alternate history novel can aspire to be, exploring an interesting world populated by captivating figures and delivering an exciting plot, at times comparable to modern thrillers.
If you consider yourself a history fan, are interested in Shakespeare in the concept of Britain having been conquered by the Spanish, then you’d be hard-pressed to find a novel more fitting than this one.
Harry Norman Turtledove
Harry Norman Turtledove is an American writer with a PhD in Byzantine history who has published works in numerous genres, including alternate history, historical fiction, fantasy, science-fiction, and mystery. His many contributions include Agent of Byzantium, Kaleidoscope, Ruled Britannia, and most recently, Or Even Eagle Flew.