Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell


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.

My Review

For some strange reason I was surprised to discover that Shakespeare had a sibling. In fact, he had three brothers and two sisters. Richard, the first-person protagonist in this novel, was the second youngest, born ten years after the great bard. Since almost nothing is known about William, there’s no surprise that his younger brother’s life is a blank slate. So Cornwell has concocted a story having him run away from home and finding semi-employment in his brother’s company—a most unwilling and unfriendly brother, at that. In fact, William Shakespeare is not a nice fellow, at least from Richard’s point of view. Feeling abused, our protagonist considers going over to the competition:

“Why are you here?”
And what was I to say to that? That I was poor, owed rent, and needed employment? Or that I wanted revenge on my brother-owning brother who had cozened me by offering me a man’s part only for me to discover that Francis Flute played a woman? My anger at that betrayal had brought me across the river, but this was not time to tell that truth. “I hear you want players, sir,” I said, with as much dignity as I could muster.

Unfortunately, the price for new employment would have been to steal Shakespeare’s brand new play, Romeo and Juliet, which Richard was unwilling to do. For the reader, this opens up a whole underworld of unscrupulous competition, brutal extortion, and lots of beating people up. All the while, Shakespeare’s company is rehearsing his other new play, Midsummer’s Night Dream to be performed for a wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s granddaughter. Richard is caught in the middle of all this rivalry, potentially to be victimized by the nasty poursuivants—or Percies, as they are called—who are constantly attempting to shut down the theatres once and for all, using any means at their disposal. This book gives us a thorough background of late Elizabethan London, filth, poverty, persecution, and all. As a reader who wanted to know more about William Shakespeare, I was pretty disappointed; he is a relatively minor character. However, if you are an aficionado of Shakespeare’s comedies, this book will give you a rare treat.

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