I haven’t read any Bernard Cornwell before. I like social and political history while his novels appear to be more about battles and action. However, Fools and Mortals really appealed because of the setting in the Elizabethan theatre.
In Fools and Mortals, Richard Shakespeare has run away to London and is cramping his big brother’s style. William Shakespeare is a sharer (shareholder) in a theatre and an established writer and actor. Richard is an annoying teenager (and he’s better looking). Richard is working in the theatre but he is no longer pretty enough to be the female lead and is playing dowagers. Richard is also poor while his brother is doing rather well. He wants to become a man – on and off stage – and with an important play for the Lord Chancellor coming up, he hopes to have his chance.
This is a great fun book, packed with atmosphere and humour and flamboyant characters. It is rich in detail about the birth of the theatre as we know it today, the creative process, the skills of the actors, the very oddness of having a day job where all you do is pretend. There is the warmth, the rivalry and the players’ ambiguous social status – performing for royalty but still struggling to pay the rent.
The book maintains this light tone without ducking darker issues – the brutality of executions, the poor treatment of child apprentices, persecution by the Pursuivants (the anti-Catholic enforcers known as the ‘Percies’).
I particularly like the subtle portrayal of the relationship between the brothers. Richard inevitably sees himself as hard done by, but we see the ambiguities of Will’s behaviour. He is brusque, mocking and apparently dismissive but he is also giving Richard chances to shine and grow.
The only thing which marred the book for me was a lack of editing. There’s a lot of repetition and the resolution, featuring the performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is too long, overstuffed with exposition which has already been covered in the rehearsal scenes.
Worse, about a third of the way through the novel, Richard is thrown into turmoil when he receives a shocking offer and has to decide where his loyalties lie. This should be a crucial turning-point, but Richard has apparently forgotten that the offer was already outlined to him three chapters earlier. (At this point I would have thrown the book across the room if it weren’t on my Kindle.)
However, leaving aside these flaws it’s a playful, engaging read and has made me think again about reading Cornwell’s other books.
I received a copy of Fools and Mortals from the publisher via Netgalley.
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