Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Elizabethan Englishman John Blackthorne has just shipwrecked off the coast of Japan after following sailing directions stolen from a Portuguese ship. He had hoped to sail to the island nation to help break the Jesuit/Portuguese monopoly on trade with Japan. With his crew, first welcomed by peasant villagers, he is tossed in a pit and humiliated by Yabu Kasigi, a feudal lord.
Some of Blackthorne’s men suffer torture and horrifying deaths (such as being slowly burned alive in boiling water) before one of the aides of Lord Toranaga Yoshi, the president of the Council of Regents, intervenes for political purposes. Toranaga then suggests that Lord Yabu have Portuguese captain Vasco Rodrigues transport the English sailors through high seas and storm to Osaka as a gift for Toranaga.
On the journey, Blackthorne is allowed to briefly steer the ship. One day, Captain Rodrigues goes overboard, and Blackthorne convinces Yabu to endanger his own life to save Rodrigues, given Yabu’s feudal obligations. Likewise, Lord Toranaga endures confinement in the Osaka fortress because of his obligations as one of five regents to the prince. Blackthorne is thereby caught up in what he gradually discovers is a civilization full of greater intrigue than even the Elizabethan court. He soon becomes a tool of Toranaga, who uses him to break out of the trap of his archrival, Ishido, and to fulfill his own destiny as emperor, or shgun.
Toranaga, who uses his underlings as chess pieces in his political intrigues, is quick in cleverly manipulating his pawn, Blackthorne, to exploit his knowledge of Westerners to prepare a strategy for expelling them from Japan. The first step is to break the hold of the Jesuits, including Father Alvito, as the only court translators. However, Toranaga must do so...
(The entire section is 736 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Barreveld, Dirk J. The Dutch Discovery of Japan: The True Story Behind James Clavell’s Famous Novel “Shgun.” San Jose, Calif.: Writers Club Press, 2001. A detailed historical account of the events fictionalized by Clavell in Shgun. Tells the true story of the British captain William Adams—Clavell’s John Blackthorne—and his command of the Dutch ship that reached Japan with a decimated crew.
Macdonald, Gina. James Clavell: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. An overview of Clavell’s life and work that includes a close analytical study of Shgun and sections on plot development, structure, thematic issues, character development, genre conventions, and deconstruction as an alternative reading.
Smith, Henry. “Reading James Clavell’s Shgun.” History Today 31 (October, 1981): 39-42. An interesting study of the historicity of Shgun, demonstrating how Clavell rearranged and refashioned events and historical figures in forming his novel.