Once more I’m catching up on a very popular author that for unknown reasons I had not read until now. And as I seem to be reading a lot of historical fiction at the moment, it was about time too.
As a theatre lover, I really enjoyed this book.
Fools and Mortals: A Novel by Bernard Cornwell
New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother.
Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .
In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.
So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .
Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition.
‘Cornwell not only succeeds in creating an engaging story, but also in celebrating the difficulties and delights, at any time in history, of putting on a show.’ THE SUNDAY TIMES
‘Cornwell leads us effortlessly through palaces and playhouses with the skill of a master storyteller who loves this period of history.’ DAILY EXPRESS
‘With all the vivid history that is his trademark, Bernard Cornwell transports the readers to the playhouses, backstreets and palaces of Shakespeare’s London with added depth and compassion, and a likeable hero.’ Philippa Gregory
‘Story and characters crackle off the page as do the stink and violence of Elizabethan London. The author of the Sharpe and Last Kingdom bestsellers has pulled off a surprise for his readers ― and a terrific one at that.’ Elizabeth Buchan, DAILY MAIL
The Times Saturday Review Book of the Month
‘Cornwell is an enthusiastic amateur dramatist. His portrayal of the actors’ rivalries and superstitions is sharp and often funny. His combination of wit, adventure and deft characterisation is a triumphant departure from his usual territory.’ THE TIMES
Praise for Bernard Cornwell:
‘Like Game of Thrones, but real’ OBSERVER
‘Blood, divided loyalties and thundering battles’ THE TIMES
‘Strong narrative, vigourous action and striking characterisation, Cornwell remains king of the territory he has staked out as his own’ SUNDAY TIMES
‘A violent, absorbing historical saga, deeply researched and thoroughly imagined’ WASHINGTON POST
‘The best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read, past or present. Cornwell really makes history come alive’ George R.R. Martin
‘Cornwell draws a fascinating picture of England as it might have been before anything like England existed’ THE TIMES
‘He’s called a master storyteller. Really he’s cleverer than that’ TELEGRAPH
‘A reminder of just how good a writer he is’ SUNDAY TIMES
‘Nobody in the world does this better than Cornwell’ Lee Child
About the author:
Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944 – a ‘warbaby’ – whose father was a Canadian airman and mother in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted by a family in Essex who belonged to a religious sect called the Peculiar People (and they were), but escaped to London University and, after a stint as a teacher, he joined BBC Television where he worked for the next 10 years. He began as a researcher on the Nationwide programme and ended as Head of Current Affairs Television for the BBC in Northern Ireland. It was while working in Belfast that he met Judy, a visiting American, and fell in love. Judy was unable to move to Britain for family reasons so Bernard went to the States where he was refused a Green Card. He decided to earn a living by writing, a job that did not need a permit from the US government – and for some years he had been wanting to write the adventures of a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars – and so the Sharpe series was born. Bernard and Judy married in 1980, are still married, still live in the States and he is still writing Sharpe.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
I had not read any of Bernard Cornwell’s novels before (I believe I have another one on my list and I’ll definitely check it out after this one) so I won’t be able to provide any comparison with the rest of his work. When I read some of the reviews, I noticed that some readers felt this novel was less dynamic than the rest and lacked in action. I cannot comment, although it is true that the novel is set in Elizabethan London and its events take place over a few months, rather than it being a long and sprawling narrative, ambitious in scope and detail. If anything, it is a pretty modest undertaking, as it follows the rehearsal and staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The author’s note at the end clarifies much of the historical background, explaining what is based on fact and what on fancy, and also the liberties he has taken with the materials.
The story is told, in the first-person, by Richard Shakespeare, William’s younger (and prettier, as everybody reminds him) brother, who is also an actor (mostly playing women’s parts) and plays in his brother’s company, but he’s not a regular player in it. I am no expert on Shakespeare (although I know his plays, some better than others, and have read a bit about him) but checked and now know that although he had a brother called Richard, it seems he never left Strafford, whilst a younger brother called Edmund went to London to join his brother and was an actor. The Richard of the novel is no match for his brother and they do not like each other too well. Throughout the book, we learn about Richard, whose current adventures are peppered with memories of the past and his circumstances. His character lives hand-to-mouth, is always in debt, and illustrates how difficult life was at the time for youngsters without money and/or a family fortune. Although he does not dwell on the abuse he has suffered, modern readers will quickly realise that some things don’t change and children have always been preyed upon. He is a likeable enough character, and although he does some bad things (he was taught how to be a thief by a character who would have been perfectly at home in a Dickensian novel and is fairly skilled at it), there are things he will not do, and he is loyal to his brother, although sometimes William does not seem to deserve it. There are other interesting characters in the book (I particularly liked Sylvia, Richard’s love interest, and the priest who lives in the same house as Richard), but none are drawn in much psychological detail.
What the book does very well, in my opinion, is portray the London of the time, the political and religious intrigues (the Puritans trying to close the playhouses, the religious persecution and how an accusation could be used to implement vendettas and acquire power, the social mores of the times, the workings of taverns and inns, the river Thames as a thoroughfare, the law in and out of the walls of the city…), and particularly, the workings of a theatre company of the time. The different types of audiences and theatres, how they had to accommodate their performances to the setting and follow the indications of their patrons, the process of rehearsal, and details such as the building of a playhouse and its distribution, the staging of a play, the costumes they wore, their makeup, wigs… The book also uses fragments of Shakespeare’s plays and others of the period (and some invented too), and brings to life real actors of the era, creating a realistic feeling of what life on stage (and behind it) must have been like at the time. If you are wondering about William Shakespeare… Well, he is there, and we get to see him in action and also from his brother’s point of view. He appears as an author, an actor, a manager, and a man, but if any readers come to this book expecting new insights into Shakespeare, I’m afraid that is not what the novel is about.
There is a fair amount of telling (it is difficult to avoid in historical fiction), and plenty of historically appropriate words and expressions, although the language is easy to follow. There is also plenty of showing, and we get to share in the cold, the stink, the fear, and the pain the main character suffers. We also get to live the first performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is glorious. In the second half of the book, things come to a head, and there are a few fights (fist fights, sword fighting, and even a pistol is discharged), romance, intrigue (although we are pretty convinced of how everything will end), and nice touches that Shakespeare lovers will appreciate (yes, there’s even a bear).
A solid historical novel, well-written, that flows well, placing us right in the middle of the late Elizabethan era, and making us exceptional witnesses of the birth of modern theatre. A must-read for lovers of theatre, especially classical theatre, Shakespeare, and historical fiction of the Elizabethan period. I will be sure to read more of Cornwell’s books in the future.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and REVIEW!