Shakesbook: Henry VI, part 3

Here is another entry into the Shakesbook canon. This time, the play in question: Henry VI, part 3. (Presented, appropriately enough, in three parts, due to size restrictions on pictures – so be sure to click on each one!).

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 25 February 2011

The links this week have a somewhat historical bent — using Shakespeare to find connections between the past and the present.

  • The New York Times assembled a look at how politicians on both sides of the aisle around the time of the American Civil War used Shakespeare in their arguments: “In a different age, politicians quoting Shakespeare might not have gotten far with voters; in Bard-mad 19th-century America, it was a sure way to win over a skeptical audience.”
  • The Tempest and Thomas Jefferson: The University of Houston hosted a two-day seminar on bringing together ideas of political theory and Renaissance literature, including a lecture on Shakespeare’s influence on Thomas Jefferson. Cass says: Shakespeare, politics, and my beloved TJ? I’m not sure how you get much better than that.
  • We’re seeing more and more this year about the King James Bible, as 2011 marks its 400th anniversary. This article posits an interesting link between Shakespeare and the KJB, particularly in regards to teaching: “A gay, Jewish professor of mine once observed that he proferred teaching English literature in bible-belt colleges in his native US rather than in east-coast liberal arts institutions (or, indeed, English universities in south-west England) because the students ‘got so many of the references easier’.” Cass says: I was actually discussing this with a few friends just the other day, and it’s part of why I feel comparative religions should be mandatory in high schools. Students should be able to understand the references at the heart of so many different cultures — Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan — they’re all part of literature’s heritage. Regardless of what or whether you believe in any, all, or none of them, you should at least know the stories.
  • Tom Hodgkinson, owner and operate of the New Idler’s Academy, has opened a 18th-century style coffee house in London, where he hopes to host lectures, discussions, and lessons on such varied and oft-esoteric topics as philosophy, grammar, Latin, rhetoric, maths, carpentry, and gardening. He states, “The taste for public learning is definitely coming back… Over the last half-century, an odd division has grown up between two forms of education: one supposedly old-fashioned, didactic and bloodless; the other progressive, relative, and depressingly fact-free. There’s no reason why intellectual instruction shouldn’t be entertaining as well as rigorous.” Cass says: Sounds like the kind of place I’d love to spend my time. And if you need to fly someone in to talk about rhetoric, I’d cheerfully volunteer!
  • Another take on educational reform, via Jamie Oliver, the “Naked Chef.” He brings folks from the tops of their professions in to work with kids who have failed out of school. Sarah says: I particularly like what the kids have to say about the experience at the end of the article.
  • The Edmonton Journal declares “Pursuit of knowledge just as worthy as pursuit of career.” Cass says: I could just weep with happiness when I see that sentiment shared by others, because it’s 100% exactly what I believe. Education for its own sake has value.

Have a good end-of-February, everyone — can you believe it’s almost March? ASC Education unanimously agrees that this is clearly nonsense, as surely it was the New Year just yesterday.

Why Cass Loves Rhetoric

Yesterday I had to ask Twitter for help finding an example of syllepsis in Shakespeare, but asking that question necessitated first defining the term adequately, and finding the answer necessitated defining what syllepsis is not. Then I had to examine the suggestions that came in to determine which were and were not examples of syllepsis. It’s a tricky term, and getting a grasp on it requires tackling some of the issues that frequently come up when working with these devices — where do the boundaries lie, and how can I distinguish one rhetorical figure from another? When, with help from colleagues across the world, I was able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion — a neat, concise definition with a clear and relatively unambiguous example — I felt triumphant, jubilant. I had won.

I love rhetoric. That is absolutely no secret. I become giddily happy when some part of my day involves sitting down with a chunk of text and pulling it to pieces to find all the rhetorical goodies inside. Sarah once asked me why it is that rhetoric excites me so much. In many ways, it’s down to that feeling of winning when I figure something out — rhetoric is like a game to me. It’s an exciting challenge, a goal that I can meet. I imagine this is the way that math-oriented people feel about numbers or the way that computer programmers feel about coding. I look at a block of text and think: This is a problem, and I know I can solve it. For that reason, I find working with rhetoric immensely satisfying on a quite visceral level.

I also think rhetoric has a lot to teach us, not just about how Shakespeare uses language, but about how we all do. Anthimeria, once a marker of exceptionally high verbal and creative intelligence (as I’ve discussed before), is now something that almost every English-speaker does on a daily basis, largely due to the influence of communications technology — we Google something, rather than using Google to find it, we friend someone on Facebook rather than becoming someone’s friend on Facebook. So it’s not as though these concepts are archaic or of value only to poets and graduate students; it’s just that often we don’t know the terms for what we’re doing. Knowing about rhetoric, I believe, makes you a smarter, more aware, and more active listener.

I play the rhetorical game with myself when I listen to political speeches — I have these tools which make me aware of when someone is trying to manipulate my thoughts or emotions. That’s a valuable skill, and one I believe more of us should have a grasp of, particularly in a pluralistic society with so many different people expressing their opinions, and with the 24-hour news cycle allowing so many of those people to jostle for our attention on a regular basis. A decent grasp of rhetoric can help you separate the wheat from the chaff. Rhetoric helps you answer the questions: Who should I listen to? Who expresses himself well? Who’s hiding something from me? Our political structure demands informed decision-making from voters (or, at least, it ought to), and a grasp of rhetoric can make you more informed. If nothing else, listening more critically to how public speakers use language encourages the audience to question, to probe, and to think critically about the message, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Finally, knowing your way around rhetoric helps you become a more effective and more graceful writer and speaker. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew this, and so did anyone receiving a classical education from the medieval period on up through the 19th century, but it’s an art that has, if not quite died out, at least faded over the past century. It’s now a more specialized skill for certain kinds of writers than it is a part of the general knowledge base for anyone with an education. And that’s a shame. In our communications-driven world, writing is an essential skill for success, but we no longer provide students with this set of tools that they can use to become excellent writers. Rhetoric helps you craft your message in a way that is clear and effective, and that’s a talent worth cultivating, no matter what trade you’re in. If you want to sell yourself and your ideas, rhetorical devices will help you get there.

I’ve seen some opinions that rhetoric shouldn’t be used in high school classrooms — that it’s too advanced, too confusing, involves too many frightening Greek words. While I agree that throwing hendiadys, anthimeria, and anaphora at beginners right off the bat would be a mistake, I don’t think there’s any reason that high schoolers can’t learn rhetoric. I encountered many of these devices first in Latin class, as a tenth-grader. Was it a challenge to learn the figures and to determine how authors use them? Of course. But just because something is challenging doesn’t mean that teachers should shy away from it — entirely the opposite, in fact.

Towards that end, I’m building a two-tiered introduction to rhetoric for both teachers and students. The first level of initiation is R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric, born out of my desire to simplify and Christina’s innate talent for mnemonic devices. At the entry-level, rather than learning the specific Greek terms, my goal is to get students to recognize five basic kinds of rhetorical manipulation: Repetition, Omission, Addition, Direction, and Substitution. The divisions are my own; I didn’t follow Aristotle or Quintilian or Puttenham. I decided to start fresh with a system that would be accessible and easy-to-understand for modern students.

R.O.A.D.S. to Rhetoric will be included in next year’s Study Guides as part of the expanded “Basics” section. We’ll be encouraging teachers to look to rhetoric for character clues and to bring out greater comprehension of Shakespeare’s use of language. Recognizing the patterns and the choices made by an author, whether Shakespeare or anyone else, helps you to understand how that author crafts character, mood, motifs, and ideas. With Shakespeare, the exploration is particularly exciting, because he’s just plain so good at it. I think introducing rhetoric to the study of Shakespeare at the entry-level is a way to help students see why it is that we make such a fuss over him. Students won’t need to take a teacher’s word for it that he was brilliant if they can see for themselves how he used the building blocks of wordsmithing in inventive and ingenious ways. Rhetoric is, to take a scientific way of looking at it, empirical evidence that Shakespeare really is as good as we say he is.

The second tier of rhetorical study opens up examination of the specific terms. Nuance is important; looking at the sweeping generalities of type will certainly yield results, but for the student or actor who wants to get deeper into the mechanics of a character’s language, to find the hidden clues to personality or thought process, delving into a detailed rhetorical analysis has great profit. That’s where the specific terms come into play — and I do mean play. I think that treating rhetoric with a game mentality could be a great way to engage both halves of the brain, and thus to reach students who might otherwise struggle with the concept. I freely admit that this may not be for everyone, perhaps especially at the high school level (it wasn’t to the tastes of everyone in my class at the grad school level, after all), but for those students who are interested or for those teachers looking to challenge their classes, I want to give them the tools to explore.

To this end, I’m devising a Teacher’s Guide to Rhetoric. This guide lists fifty of the most common rhetorical devices, broken down first by R.O.A.D.S. and then by specifications within those categories. For example, a device of repetition might be listed as repetition of sounds, of words or phrases, or of grammatical structure. For each device, I provide a selection of examples of its use in Shakespeare’s plays, along with a commentary about what that may indicate for character choices and questions to ask when you encounter the device in use. Though I call it a Teacher’s Guide, due to the inclusion of classroom-oriented activities and writing exercises, I don’t see that there’s any reason a student or an actor couldn’t use the guide as well. The bulk of it is designed for accessibility, to explain the terms in a clear and concise way that opens doors for better understanding of Shakespeare’s characters and the dynamics of his plays.

I’m also creating a set of rhetorical flashcards — each one has the name of a device on one side, then the R.O.A.D.S. type, the definition of the term, and at least one example out of Shakespeare on the other. We’ll be giving these flashcards out to the teachers who attend our April Teacher Seminar, and hopefully we’ll also eventually have them for sale to any interested parties. These flashcards will be ideal for studying, to learn the terms, but will also be a valuable quick-reference source.

And, for anyone who was wondering, syllepsis is when a single word which governs or modifies two or more other words or phrases must be understood differently with respect to each. The example we settled on was Benedick, in Much Ado About Nothing, declaring, “Let’s have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives heels.” And isn’t that a lovely way to turn a phrase? As I post this entry, however, Dr. Ralph is debating the application with me (is a difference between figurative and literal interpretation enough to qualify?) — so, if any of our readers have an even better example, I’d love to hear it! Another great thing about rhetoric: it opens up so many discussions about using language.

A-ha: Finding the value in learning at two conferences

Conferences offer unique explorations in the teaching arena. They are often one-shot one-offs, with a completely new audience, as opposed to the classes teachers nurture through a semester or year-long class. They still offer opportunities to find “A-ha” moments, though. It is the a-ha, whether mine or a student’s or participant’s at a conference, that I look for every time I step in front of a group.

The methods to achieve that goal vary as much as the situation or the content. Sometimes, as in our workshop in January at the Texas Educational Theatre Association, we inundate students with chances for discovery by sharing snippets of every bit of mildly applicable information in one 75 minute period. A “taste” of the what and the why might include, for instance, in the case of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions, the effect the following may have on preparation and performance:

    • rhetoric
    • cue scripts
    • iambic pentameter
    • diagonal staging
    • second person pronouns
    • embedded stage directions
    • audience contact

The hope for students inundated with information is that they will take it upon themselves to learn more, but because we knew that the survey method might prove too shallow for some participants, on Saturday, we dove deep into the “hard Shakespeare” of Claudius’s prevarications, the verse of Enobarbus (the barge speech), and the stage directions buried in Macbeth. Our approach in both workshops was very practical, and we heard many an “a-ha,” comments of newfound understanding and appreciation. In these sessions, for the teachers and students in the room, we modelled the methods and tools at their disposal. We, in essence, gave them the tools to unlock Shakespeare’s plays. These folks were pre-disposed to appreciate Shakespeare’s plays, but were unsure about the options and clues available within the text. We pulled back some mental curtains and showed them new/old ways to approach the material — to think about the stage as it was and the actors as they were in Shakespeare’s time. This method of teaching reveals something already present in the text, and readily available to the interested, something simply obscured by the passage of time and changes in practice.

At ACMRS, presenters challenged themselves and session participants to look for tools outside of the texts and the act of playing to “interpret” meanings in literature. Presenters approached their topics from the perspectives of literary theory and philosophy, and the names Latour (actor-network theory, which sounds more theatrical than it is), Marx (yes, the economist), Derrida (deconstructionism), and Burke (rhetoric and aesthetics) made regular appearances in papers throughout each session. I have to admit to some moments of “A-ha” as I thought of how the theory of Latour fit so nicely with the body parts in Titus and the deed box in A New Way to Pay Old Debts. In the ASC session, those theorists were not, not one of them, mentioned. Not even once. Our papers focused, like our work, on practical aspects: performance, space, sources, dramaturgy. But, I realized, as we heard papers and delivered ours, that we, the presenters, were all focused on the same objective. We were all looking for ways to get closer to the work. Ways to see what is there.

On my way to present in Texas, I was finishing a book Mom lent me at Christmas time. Cass and I would label this book “brain candy,” you know the kind… something quick and appealing that doesn’t make you think too much, but still enriches you in some way. This particular brain candy, Afternoons with Emily, fictionalizes the life of poet Emily Dickinson. It does so through the eyes of Emily’s neighbor, who is devoted to the education of children. I felt a connection to the heroine because of her passion to find the best way to help children want to learn. (I also appreciated the occasional Dickinson poem, and their place in the narrative. The author’s “backstory” helped the poems to infiltrate my conscience in new and meaningful ways.) In one passage, my personal educational philosophy poured out of the mouths of the heroine and her mentor as they discussed the school they would build:

“learning should be a process of bringing out what is already there….”

“ ‘educo,’ to lead out…”

education should give students “a sense of being valued as you learn, rather than punished if you don’t…”


Teachers and students seeking Shakespeare together, whether at TETA or ACMRS benefit from taking to heart these simple precepts. Recognizing the best methods to “bring out” what is already available to the student and to help them recognize the value in discovery drives the best teachers, classes, and conferences. Sometimes they may discover it by considering the context of player and playing, sometimes by considering it through theory and philosophy. Whatever the case, making the a-ha moments meaningful will encourage students to continue to seek and to make Shakespeare their own.

Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 18 February 2010

An eclectic mix of links this week, covering a range of topics. We’ve also started posting some of the most relevant Shakespeare news to our Facebook page, so you can keep a watch for information there as well.

  • Shakespeare is Everywhere: The New York Times has published an article which mostly focuses on the abundance of Shakespeare currently showing in the Big Apple, but which also discusses Shakespeare’s lasting appeal and how to entice audiences that might be a touch jaded.
  • A piece from the Dakota Student on the importance of the arts: “Why is it so essential that we support the National Endowment for the Arts, arts education, and the arts in general? Beyond the economic benefits, there are many more. How about the fact that nearly any recent study on the subject links academic success with exposure to and participation in the arts? The values of creativity, leadership, and innovation that the arts foster are more good reasons. Also, the arts provide an opportunity for community citizens to interact and communicate via mediums that have no right or wrong answer and no winner or loser. The arts celebrate heritage and express culture, as well as promote diversity, tolerance, and ultimately, a value in individuality.” Sarah says: I couldn’t have said it better myself… though I keep trying!
  • Michael Kaiser, President of the JFK Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, asks: “What’s wrong with the arts?”
  • Teachers and students demonstrating how to learn Shakespeare by doing and by acting rather than by reading alone. Sarah says: Now that’s what I’m talking about!
  • Additionally, another school discusses the advantages of introducing primary school students to Shakespeare.
  • Stephen Greenblatt discusses the possibility of Shakespeare as a re-writer and the ephemeral nature of writing composition today.
  • The UK Guardian discusses the language lessons of the King James Bible (which turns 400 this year, and which Shakespeare may have had a hand in composing), including that familiarity with KJV Bible versions makes Shakespeare’s plays more accessible.
  • Pajiba.com reviews the best and worst modern Shakespeare adaptations. Check the list out and see if you agree with their assessment.
  • Three women have been honored for their letters to Juliet, singled out from the 40,000 missives that Juliet Capulet of Verona received this year. The Juliet Club strives to respond to every message in the language in which the original author sends it.

Next week, ASC education will be super-busy with the Poetry Out Loud competition, a day with the Federal Executive Institute, and the first of our Little Academes for the semester. Be sure to keep a watch on Twitter for updates on all of our events.

Shakespeare’s Plays as Primary Sources: The ASC at ACMRS

Last week, Sarah, former-intern Liz, and I went to Tempe, Arizona for the Arizona Center of Medieval and Renaissance Studies conference. Their theme this year was Performance and Theatricality, so we saw it as a great opportunity to introduce the idea of the ASC to a new region and a new group of scholars. ACMRS scholars are primarily historians, not theatre practitioners, so they’re not a group that we’ve had as much interaction with. Sarah will be writing more about our experiences as practical-minded scholars in a more theory-driven world, but I wanted to share a general summary of our presentations. We decided to focus our panel around the idea of using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources, capitalizing on the idea of his plays as both products of and reflections of late-sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England.

Liz, presenting at her first conference, opened our panel with an overview of Shakespeare’s Staging Conditions and how we learn about them through the plays. She discussed the indications in the texts that audience contact was not only in existence but actively planned for, incorporated into the structure of the plays. Sarah and I demonstrated by using one of our favorite “casting the audience” scenes: Portia and Nerissa describing in 1.2 of The Merchant of Venice. Liz also talked about Shakespeare writing for specific members of his company, about the early modern rehearsal process, and about the use of cue scripts. Sarah and I got up again to show how Shakespeare could lead an actor to an emotional response just by capitalizing on the effects of inserting false cues into a speech. In another example from The Merchant of Venice, Shylock speaks Salarino’s cue, “have my bond,” four times before it’s actually Salarino’s turn to speak. The effect is one of mounting frustration on Salarino’s part, entirely appropriate to the scene. Liz also discussed the primacy of language when studying Shakespeare, as his language demonstrates the efficacy of his stagecraft. She ended by talking about Shakespeare’s epilogues, which frequently ask pardon and approval from the audience.

Sarah, on her third conference since 2011 started, presented on using Shakespeare’s plays as primary sources for social history. She suggested that early modern theatre reflects early modern English societal customs in many ways, and that if the conventions on the stage were wildly different from those practiced in reality, the audiences would have known that and perhaps found the plays less compelling. Her paper narrowed the broad range of social history down to courtship, particularly the rituals of obtaining (or evading) parental permission for marriage. Sarah looked at, among other scenes, Petruchio’s wooing of Katharina and the dowry negotiations at play in The Taming of the Shrew.

My paper, and also my first presentation at a conference, was on the use of Shakespeare’s history plays to teach British history — not only as a structural outline for learning about the monarchs of the medieval and early modern periods, but also as a kind of historiography to learn how the English of Shakespeare’s day thought about their own cultural heritage. I built this paper off of a project from last year’s pedagogy course, where I designed a semester-long class around the subject. As I’ve worked further on the concept, I’ve aligned it strongly with the “Perspectives” section of our Study Guides, which encourages students to make connections between the world of the plays, Shakespeare’s world, and their own world. In my proposed course, I posit comparing modern American cultural myths to those that the English propagated about their own heritage. Finding the similarities and examining the differences could be a powerful way for students to relate emotionally to the past, and Shakespeare’s histories, filled with such captivating personalities, are an advantageous way to engage students with the concept.

I think the attendees received our panel quite positively. Several scholars stuck around after we finished, wanting to talk about the Playhouse, our programs, and the ongoing process of research and learning that occurs as we continue to work through early modern texts in our space. We also got to have, at the closing reception, a nice chat with the director of ACMRS, who wanted to know if we had any material for pre-schoolers. (Not just yet, but our new ASC Family Coordinator, Ben Ratkowski, may have something along those lines for us soon). I’m hoping we’ll see some of our new friends at the Blackfriars Conference in October.

James Shapiro on Shakespeare and the Development of Language

WNYC’s Radiolab interviews Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro (1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, Contested Will) in this episode on the development of language. Where did Shakespeare succeed in inventing the English language? And maybe more interestingly, where did he fail? How and why do words work in the human mind? My fellow philologists won’t want to miss this episode:

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Imprimis: Links and Tidbits, 4 February 2011

This week brought us scholarship through Twitter, a new podcast from the ASC, enlightening research on Shakespeare’s world, and the ongoing debate about the humanities in education.

  • I had a blast during #AskShakespeare Day. This idea, cooked up by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, brought scholars from all over the world together to answer questions about Shakespeare posed on Twitter. It was so wonderful to see how many people out there cared enough to ask questions about Shakespeare, and I got to trade ideas with some great scholars. We did see the authorship question pop up a few times, and plenty of people wanted to ask scholars and practitioners what our favorite plays and characters are, but we also encountered a range of other questions, some with concrete answers, but many that invited speculation: What race was Othello, really? Why do people talk about Hamlet having an Oedipus complex? Did Shakespeare pursue his own publication? What’s the most gruesome scene in an early modern play? (Votes went to the heart-on-a-knife in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and the head-bashing in Tamburlaine — both of which you’ll be able to see at the Blackfriars next year!). What’s the most underrated of Shakespeare’s plays? How would the plays have been different if women had been allowed on the stage? The whole experiment was so entertaining and a real intellectual rush. I think we should do it once a month. Of course, I’m happy to answer questions any day of the year — just ping @ASC_Cass.
  • The first Actor-Scholar Council podcast is up and waiting for you to listen to it. Greg Phelps, Tyler Moss, Sarah Fallon, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, and Jeremiah Davis joined a panel of scholars to discuss The Comedy of Errors. We’ll be recording the Council session on Look About You next week.
  • If you’re within easy traveling distance of Staunton, be sure to see Shannon Schultz’s directing project, an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet, on February 7th and 8th. The Staunton Newsleader interviewed Shannon about the project. (Please note that the Newsleader article has the performance time wrong: the show will start at 8pm both nights).
  • “Hellraising Antics of Shakespearean Actors Revealed”: The London Telegraph has posted an interesting article on what recent research has revealed about the theatrical world in which Shakespeare lived. Kidnappings, riots, thefts, vandalism, all brought to light courtesy of the new Early Modern London Theatres database.
  • If you still haven’t read James Shapiro’s Contested Will, here’s another review praising it as “an entertaining reappraisal of Shakespeare’s enduring fascination and a conspiracy story worthy of play by the great man himself.”
  • Dale Salwak of Citrus College, CA, shares his approach to getting his students to love Shakespeare. Cass says: I agree with a lot of what he has to say — that students say they hate Shakespeare because they really hate the way it’s been taught, that you don’t need to waste time teaching the plot, that it’s okay for art to make demands of the audience — but I still think he’s missing some key elements. His approach remains very page-based, with the augmentation of audio recordings. There’s so much to be gained by teaching the plays as plays and making the students take on the responsibilities and decision-making of actors.
  • And, because no edition of Imprimis would be complete without some links discussing the value of the humanities in education: How Liberals Killed the Liberal Arts, and The Humanities in America: An Endangered Species?

Imprimis will be on hiatus next Friday, as I will be at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference in Phoenix, along with Sarah and intern Liz, so you’ll get a double-issue on February 18th. Sarah and I will be Tweeting from the conference as well, and I’ll be posting about it when we get back.

Book Review: Ruled Britannia

On yesterday’s #AskShakespeare day on Twitter, someone asked for recommendations on Shakespeare-related books of fiction. As it happens, yesterday I was about 50 pages from the end of an excellent alternate-history thriller featuring Shakespeare as the main character. I finished last night, and so now I’d like to recommend it to you all.

The premise of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history tale, Ruled Britannia, is that the Spanish Armada did manage to take over England in 1588. Philip II installs his daughter Isabella and her consort Albert on the throne of England, imprisons Elizabeth in the Tower, and returns England to Catholicism. Ten years later, Philip is dying, Elizabeth is yet imprisoned, and while most of the populace complies with the will of their Spanish overlords, a current of discontent still runs beneath the surface.

The driving plot of the book centers on William Shakespeare, presented as a humble playwright and an actor of middling skill, whose talent for composition gains the attention of those in high places. First, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, commissions Shakespeare to write a play to inspire the English people to an uprising. Loyal to Elizabeth, Burghley has been planning a revolt to occur after Philip’s death, but he wants words to inspire the masses to back his maneuver. For the topic, he chooses a story out of Tacitus: Boudicca, the Iceni queen who revolted against the Romans in the first century. At nearly the same time, one of the Spanish dons requests that Shakespeare craft a play to be a fitting epitaph to King Philip. Shakespeare writes both, and the company rehearses both, not knowing which they’ll actually mount. During the process, Shakespeare finds himself wishing the task had been given to another man — especially as the bodies of those who might impede his progress start piling up around him.

Turtledove includes lots of nice historical touches, and the cast of characters is well-researched and comprehensive. The book does a wonderful job bringing the world of early modern theatre to life, even with the adjustments made for the alternate history. Burbage and Kemp are major characters, with references to Burbage’s family’s theatrical history and to Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder. Marlowe’s still alive and writing plays at the beginning of the book, and he seems torn between admiring Shakespeare’s talent and sourly resenting that it has eclipsed his own. His probable historical murderers, Ingram Frizer and Nicholas Skeres, play shadowed but critical roles, clearing the path for Shakespeare’s success and Cecil’s rebellion, as does Thomas Phelippes, historically one of Francis Walsingham’s intelligencers, here a cunning double-agent. Robert Devereaux, known to our history as the traitorous Earl of Essex, makes an appearance towards the end of the book. Shakespeare’s opposite number throughout the book is Lope de Vega, one of Spain’s most prolific authors, whose reputation there is second only to Cervantes. Turtledove takes him out of his native land and brings him ashore with the Armada. The English theatre fascinates de Vega, and he becomes friends, of a sort, with Shakespeare and Burbage. His presence threatens the production of Boudicca, however, as the company clearly cannot rehearse with him hanging around. His presence augments the tension behind Shakespeare’s dilemma and keeps the action clipping along at an exciting pace.

The book is a goldmine for the Shakespeare-lover. Turtledove sprinkles his characters’ dialogues with lines from Shakespeare’s plays, and recognizing them can be a bit of a game to go along with following the main plot. I almost wish I’d kept a tally of how many I found while I was reading. While extremely clever, however, they could be a bit overwhelming in places, and occasionally they did seem somewhat forced, as though Turtledove just really wanted to include that line no matter how. He managed not to stray into seeming kitschy or cutesy with the references, however (which is not something that can be said of all novels featuring Shakespeare as a character); on the whole they were quite sly without feeling obnoxious. I also took issue with a few of the choices Turtledove made — for instance, having the company play Macbeth in 1597. I’m not arguing the date itself — in an alternate universe, I’m willing to entertain all kinds of shifting around of chronology. But Macbeth would just plain never have been written without King James on the throne, so that element jarred me out of Turtledove’s mostly-seamless historical diversion. I’m also not positive that Turtledove fully understands what iambic pentameter is and how it works, that it’s more than just ten syllables to a line — some of the lines he invented for Boudicca and King Philip don’t scan properly at all, even though he discusses them as though they’re perfect iambic lines. Despite those nitpicks of mine, however, his alterations generally hold together as a reasonable presentation of the early modern theatre world under slightly different conditions than we know it.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Ruled Britannia. Turtledove does an excellent job of relating the ability of language to move hearts and inspire an audience. He also gets his reader emotionally invested in the characters and their dire straits; by the end of the book, I passionately wanted to see Shakespeare and the company present Boudicca, and I wanted the rebellion to succeed, but I also cared about what happened to de Vega and the other side characters. Turtledove presents the humanity on both sides of the conflict quite well. The climax of the book is thus both thrilling and emotionally moving. I can cheerfully recommend Ruled Britannia as a delightful read to Shakespearean enthusiasts and other Anglophiles looking for high-quality brain candy.