The story is seen from the point of view of two famous playwrights: English poet William Shakespeare, and Spanish poet Lope de Vega; supporting characters include contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage, and Will Kempe.
The plan is complicated by the Spaniards who, also recognizing Shakespeare's talents, commission him to write a play depicting the life of King Philip II of Spain and the Spanish conquest of England. Now Shakespeare must write two plays—one glorifying the valor of Britain, the other glorifying its conquest and return to the Catholic Church—at the same time. There is also a subplot of the exploits of the skirt-chasing Spanish playwright and soldier Lope de Vega, who is tasked by his superiors in the Spanish military hierarchy to keep an eye on Shakespeare (in fact, de Vega even has a part in Shakespeare's King Philip) and while he does so flits from woman to woman.
Despite danger at every turn from both the Spanish Inquisition and a home-grown English Inquisition, the secret play comes to fruition, and despite qualms from Shakespeare and his fellow players it is performed. As the conspirators had hoped, the audience is roused into an anti-Spanish fury and rampages through London, killing any Spaniard they see and freeing Elizabeth from the Tower of London. Despite this victory and England's reclaimed freedom, there is considerable loss of life on both sides.
Shakespeare is rewarded by the reinstated Queen Elizabeth with a knighthood and an annulment of his unhappy marriage to Anne Hathaway, which frees him to marry his long-time mistress. The queen also grants his daring request that his King Philip play, which he considers to contain some of his best work, be staged. At the end of the story Shakespeare uses his new status to facilitate the escape of Lope de Vega from England.
The book makes several references to various plays by Shakespeare, both real and fictional. Some existing plays, such as Hamlet and As You Like It, are given new names (The Prince of Denmark and If You Like It), and presumably different content. Another play mentioned, Love's Labour's Won, is the title of an actual lost play by Shakespeare, presumed to be a sequel to the existing Love's Labour's Lost. As the author mentions at the end of the book, he created the play "Boudicca" from elements of Shakespere's other works and from Bonduca, an actual play on the same subject by Shakespeare's contemporary, sometime collaborator and successor, the playwright John Fletcher.
The theme of the Spanish Armada winning and conquering England was used in several earlier works. The general tendency of these was to present the Armada's victory as a crucial turning point in global history, producing a world completely different from the one we know.
Thus, Keith Roberts' Pavane series depicts a Twentieth Century in which much of the world is ruled by a Catholic theocracy, the Inquisition is still gruesomely active and technological development is far slower than in our timeline. In John Brunner's "Times Without Number" England has been completely Hispanised, with the English Language barely surviving as "a debased peasant dialect".
Conversely, Turtledove's treatment of the same theme makes the Armada's victory into a far less crucial issue. The Elizabethan Age has been seriously disrupted, but not destroyed. The Queen returns triumphantly to her throne and takes up where she left off ten years previously.
The Scot Who Ruled Britannia's Waves; He Dried Fish as a Shetland 'Beach Boy' but Went on to Found the Most Famous Shipping Line in the World
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