Book review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

fools and mortals bernard cornwellI 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.
View Fools and Mortals on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Morality Play by Barry Unsworth


  1. I tend to avoid fiction about Shakespeare as it is one of my academic areas and I get so annoyed when writers almost inevitably get things wrong. From what you say about this I think I would have thrown that kindle. In fact Shakespeare did have a brother, Edmund, who followed him into the theatre although rather later than this if we are talking about the mid 1590s. But like most of Shakespeare’s siblings he predeceased him in December 1607, just four months after his own small son. I think we tend to forget just how high mortality rates were then; Shakespeare did well to live to see fifty-two.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a similar experience reading crime fiction when I used to work in probation. After a while I worried less if authors got the specifics of procedure wrong, more if a character behaved in a way I thought was unconvincing.

      Interesting background on Shakespeare. To be fair to Cornwell, I think he’s being quite playful in his portrayal of Richard, with a knowing wink to the reader!


  2. Some very valid points made. I have recently read this book and it is different to his usual ones. I loved the Sharpe series he did, but felt this one wasn’t up to that standard. But then Sean Bean did play Richard Sharpe in the tv series, so I always had an image of him in my head when I read the books. Not a bad image to have 😉


    1. Yes, from the reviews I’ve read it seems like serious Cornwell fans haven’t enjoyed this one as much. I will definitely take a look at his others – maybe The Last Kingdom series as I’ve been listening to the British History Podcast on that period.

      Liked by 1 person

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