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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Two enchantments for Shakespeare buffs: Ruled Britannia and Love in Idleness (book reviews)

As my thoughts turned to the next Ashland delight, some OSF plays, I remembered a couple of Shakespeare-themed books well worth recommending. (These reviews are expanded a bit from what I wrote for SLJ when they first came out. I do appreciate the extra elbow room a blog affords, compared with the strict word counts for a magazine.)

Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove (2003)

In this highly entertaining piece of historical fiction, things have gone a little differently for England. That big storm never blew up, the Spanish Armada won the naval engagement and the war, and now the King of Spain rules Britain. The theater people of the Globe company valiantly go on with the show, but it isn’t easy. 

And then things get even worse, when Will Shakespeare, actor and author of several popular plays, becomes embroiled in treason against the crown (the ruling Spanish one). Given his station in life, he's vulnerable to coercion from loyalist English noblemen, who pressure him to write a play calculated to stir the people to rebellion against Spain. Meanwhile, a Don Juanish Spanish playwright named Lope de Vega, sent to England under orders to sniff out treason and heresy, is really more interested in theater, and is becoming a bit of a hanger-on, spending way too much time underfoot. He commands Will to write a play praising the Spanish monarch.

What ensues is a suspenseful and fascinating tale of intrigue, loyalty, betrayal, and cultural conflict. Caught between two masters, Shakespeare (being Shakespeare) can do nothing less than his best work for both--even though his lively imagination and inquiring intelligence constantly cause him personal and ethical challenges.

The details of daily life, and characters who reflect the cultural attitudes of a different time, drew me into this story. Turtledove is a master of creating an authentic-feeling sense of time and place. But even better, the plot, people, and narrative devices would be comfortable in any of the Bard's own plays: clowns and jesters, high and low comedy, a twin motif, and, perhaps most important, the dialogue--all have a convincing Shakespearean ring.

This complex tour de force brings Shakespeare’s work and times to life, and readers who are carried along will feel, as Will does at the end, well rewarded and well satisfied. But to find out how he pulls off this impossible feat, you have to read the book.


Love in Idleness by Amanda Craig (2003)

The title here is taken, of course, from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, when Oberon plays his naughty trick with the spell; telling Puck what to look for, he advises:

Yet Mark'd I where the bolt of Cupid fell,
It fell upon a little eastern flow'r,
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
act II, scene 1

In this beguiling modern version of the tale, a group of American and English friends gather at a house in Tuscany to indulge in the idleness of a two-week vacation--and, like Shakespeare's characters, they find more in the way of love than they bargained for. A sophisticated bunch, they are modern royalty of a sort--celebrities in their fields--but they can't seem to jell as a group, and matchmaking efforts fail, too. Married or single, they are all out of step.

The three children in the group--two boys and a girl--squabble like any youngsters; but when, in brief but lovely passages, the author reveals something of their consciousness, they become a link to an underlying magic in the place. Running wild in the countryside, they find fairies who give the girl recipes for potions. The children use the fairy potions to induce the adults to love the right people, but of course these plans go awry because, well, we've all seen the play, and know how these things work, of course!

And so on Midsummer Night, mysterious forces conspire to draw everyone into the woods and keep them all there for too long. Or were they merely lost? Was this really magic at work, or just the effervescence of discovering life's possibilities in a new setting?

This is a bright, amusing story, and for readers who have already succumbed to the charm of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, it will be a special treat. Craig evokes the fey qualities of the well-loved play with many references to characters and situations, and she captures to perfection the quality of a midsummer enchantment.

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NOTE: It turns out that this poetically-described flower, love-in-idleness, is the humble pansy! Here's a fascinating account including more lore from Shakespeare. At right is the illo from the site (killerplants.com - don't you love Internet names?), which explains the origins of plant names. The fancy modern cultivars of the pansy have been developed, of course, from various violets or violas including the wild Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor), which happens to be in my patio garden right now. Who knew?!

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For more fond reminiscences of Midsummer Night's Dream, see http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/04/of-osf-and-hamlets.html

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