Fools and Mortals
© 2017 Bernard Cornwell
Brevity is the soul of wit, so here’s an attempt at a quick review. Bernard Cornwell usually writes war novels, and he’s magnificent at it. But he surely gets tired of it, and every so often he delivers a mystery or something that’s not dashing heroics. Fools and Mortals is such a book, a celebration of the birth of western theater and of Shakespeare in general. Our main character is Richard Shakespeare, the struggling younger brother of much-hailed William. In a age where only men acted on stage, Richard’s days as an actor are seemingly numbered: he’s too old to play most women, as his voice has already broken, but actors abound and male roles are competitive. What’s worse, Will seems to be deliberately mocking Richard’s desire to be taking seriously: his latest role is a man…pretending to be a woman, and doing it clumsily. But now isn’t the time for jumping ship: the company is the middle of rehearsals for a high-profile gig that the Queen might attend, and just showing up at practice gives him a chance to swoon over one of the serving girls. Besides, he’s too poor to take chances on pay: Richard already has to make ends meet by nicking small articles and selling them on the side. When the company’s plays are stolen, Richard’s moody resentment of his brother, not to mention his reputation for having sticky fingers, make him the obvious suspect. To clear his name, save the company’s hides, and perhaps nail a proper male role, Richard decides to find out who stole the plays and get them back.
…and he does, within a few pages. And then he exits , pursued by a bear. The drama promised on the front cover is only a small, brief episode within the larger story of Shakespeare trying to deliver “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream”, and finish his script for “Romeo and Juliet”. It’s not easy, because secret police keep breaking in to nose around, and why would priest-hunters be bothering an acting company? Most of the novel’s action takes place in and around rehearsals or performances. Cornwell notes in his afterword that the novel is largely a tribute to the men and women of his local acting company, who have given him so many happy evenings. Fools and Mortals is thus a celebration of the English stage — a novel that allows readers to experience the England which created and nurtured the likes of Shakespeare. Cornwell’s usual strengths are here, in humor and in a few action scenes (I wasn’t kidding about the bear), but the weight of the story is its theatrical setting. I enjoyed it well enough, but I’m a regular patron of my local Shakespeare Festival and am thus an ideal audience for this kind of thing. I particuarly liked the way Cornwell included historical flavor: the inclusion of jigs after performances, for instance, or the use of period slang. I’m not sure that those who come to Cornwell for his Sharpes and Uhtreds will necessarily like this one, however, given how different it is from his usual work.
Well, so much for brevity. But Polonius was a rubbish advice-giver, anyway.
Ruled Britannia, another Shakespeare novel. This one is alt-history instead of historical fiction, and has Shakespeare incite English rebellion against the conquering Spanish empire.
Gallows Thief, Bernard Cornwell. Another non-military work, this one a detective story set in 1817 England.