|Genre||Alternate History, Novel|
|Publisher||New American Library|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover & Paperback)|
|Pages||464 pp (hardcover)|
|ISBN||ISBN 0-451-20717-3 (hardcover edition) & ISBN 0-451-45915-6 (paperback edition)|
The book is set in the year 1597, in an alternate universe where the Spanish Armada is successful in 1588. The Kingdom of England has been conquered and returned to the fold of the Roman Catholic Church under the rule of Queen Isabella, daughter of Philip II of Spain. Queen Elizabeth is deposed and is imprisoned within the Tower of London as her fellow Protestants are burned as heretics by the English Inquisition.
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.
Shakespeare is a modest upstart playwright just coming into his own when he is contacted by Nicholas Skeres on behalf of members of an underground resistance movement who are plotting to overthrow the Spanish dominion of England and restore Elizabeth I to the throne. To do this, they employ Shakespeare himself, tasking him to write a play depicting the saga of Boudicca, an ancient Iceni queen who rebelled against the Roman invasion of Britain in the 1st century A.D. The conspirators hope that the play will inspire its audience, Britons once again under the heel of a foreign enemy, to overthrow the Spanish.
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 England, 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 and while he does so flits from woman to woman. De Vega even acts in Shakespeare's King Philip.
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 longtime 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 release of Lope de Vega from English captivity.
The Play's the Thing
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.
Christopher Marlowe, who historically died in 1593, is still alive in the novel. As well as his known plays, the novel creates two imaginary Marlowe plays, Catiline and Cambyses, King of Persia, presumably written after 1593. The circumstances of Marlowe's historical death in Deptford are also alluded to.
As the author mentions at the end of the book, he created the play "Boudicca" from elements of Shakespeare'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. Passages from King Philip are combinations and adaptations of lines from actual Shakespeare plays. The dialogue also contains many phrases taken from Shakespeare's plays.