Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Pursued by a bear…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A new playhouse is opening in London and the owners are determined to make it a huge success. Actors are easy to get hold of but new plays are the magic that bring in the playgoers. Over at the Theatre, Richard Shakespeare is struggling to survive on the measly wages he receives. He’s getting too old to play women’s roles and his older brother Will won’t promise him roles playing men. He seems like the perfect target for the new playhouse – offer him regular well-paid work and perhaps he’d be willing to steal the two new scripts Will is working on – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet – and if he won’t, maybe another member of Shakespeare’s company will…

This is a fairly light-hearted novel set in the world of Shakespeare’s London. Cornwell has undoubtedly taken some fictional liberties with the characters of Will and Richard Shakespeare, so it may not be one for purists, but otherwise it feels well researched to me, though I’m certainly no expert. Richard is a likeable character and it’s his voice that tells us the tale. Will is not likeable and seems to really resent his younger brother, for reasons that I felt were never made totally clear, though I think we are probably supposed to assume that he feels Richard is trying to cash in on his success. Whatever the reason, the story is as much about these two men learning to respect each other as it is about the actual plot. And in the course of the book, Richard falls in love, so there’s a romantic sub-plot too.

The company are rehearsing Will’s new comedy which has been commissioned by their patron Lord Hunsdon to be performed as part of his daughter’s wedding celebrations. Cornwell gives an interesting and often amusing account of how a play would have been developed back in those days, with parts designed around the talents of the regular cast and due attention paid to flattering patrons while ensuring that no reason could be found to ban it. He shows how the powerful Puritan lobby were against theatre in principle, but that Queen Elizabeth’s love of it meant they were frustrated in their desire to have it prohibited. Shakespeare’s company were in the privileged position of having the Lord Chamberlain as patron, but they still had to be careful not to cross the line. Cornwell takes us not only behind the scenes in the playhouse but also into the houses of the rich who could afford private performances, and even into the presence of Elizabeth herself. I found the details of how the plays were staged fascinating, from the creation of costumes to the need for regular intervals to trim the wicks of the candles that were used to provide lighting.

The 1935 film of A Midsummer’s Night Dream – Anita Louise as Titania and I think that might be a young Donald Trump as Oberon…*

Cornwell also goes into detail on the story of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. This is quite fun at first. It’s a play I’ve never liked or revisited since being forced to study it while way too young to properly appreciate either the language or the comedy, so I was surprised when Cornwell sparked in me a desire to give it another try. However, unfortunately, after a while the detail becomes too much and somewhat repetitive, and it begins to feel more like a tutorial on the subject than a novel. It also slows the thing down too much – the fairly lengthy book is well over halfway before the main plot of the baddies’ attempt to steal Will’s plays really kicks off. Once it does though, it becomes a fine action romp. There is some violence but on the whole it remains light in tone – not nearly as graphic and gory as the only other Cornwell I’ve read, his Viking-world The Last Kingdom.

Bernard Cornwell

We also get to see the religious persecution of the time – at this period, of the Catholics by the Protestants – but again Cornwell keeps it light though hinting at the darker aspects of it off-stage, so to speak. And the ever present threat of plague is there too – a threat not just to life but to the actors’ livelihoods too, since any upsurge in the plague would lead to a closure of the theatres to prevent its further spread. Cornwell lets us glimpse the crueller aspects of Elizabethan entertainment too – bear-baiting, etc. All of this together adds up to what feels like a realistic picture of life in London at that period. Cornwell opts not to attempt some kind of faux Tudor language – Richard talks in standard English but has what felt to me like reasonably authentic 16th century attitudes for the most part.

After a fairly slow start, then, I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining venture into Shakespeare’s world. I don’t know whether this is a one-off or the start of a new series from the prolific Cornwell, but I’d certainly be happy to read another.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

*OK, OK, it’s actually James Cagney as Bottom…

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41 thoughts on “Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

  1. This is definitely one I am avoiding. It would have me spitting fire by the end of page one. By the way, The Bears would have you know that all modern editions have it wrong. What Shakespeare really wrote was exit pursued by ‘lots of’ Bears. They are as bad a Cornwelll!

    • Haha – yes, I suspect it would! Sometimes a little ignorance is indeed bliss, though… 😉 Personally I think being pursued by one bear is scary enough… if they start hunting in packs… *shudders*

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this one as much as you did, FictionFan. It sounds as though it gives a real sense of the atmosphere of the era, and of the acting world at that time. I think I’d find that fascinating. And I know what you mean about sparking an interest in reading one of Shakespeare’s plays. I always like it when a book sparks an interest in something else like that.

    • Yes, I think he does his research very thoroughly and is good at making his heroes approachable without giving them too horribly anachronistic attitudes. I seem to have been reading a few books that have been sending me back to Shakespeare recently, but this ine surprised me because I’ve always really disliked this particular play. Maybe he’ll have changed my mind…

  3. Cagney as Bottom – surreal or what?
    The book sounds like fun in parts, though I don’t know if I could cope with too much of the Dream.

    • Haha – I know! I really must try to get hold of a copy of it. I’d constantly be waiting for him to pull out his Gatling though…
      Yes, the Dream stuff got a bit much, but otherwise this was a good romp!

  4. LOL, I agree with LF! Far, far too handsome and appealing. This sounds like an interesting read if you skip some of the repetition….gotta mull it over and compare it to others I have on my Christmas list.

    • But you have to admit to a certain similarity in the teeth…

      The book is good fun and well researched – but he did go on a bit about the Dream. I suspect he liked the play more than me… 😉

  5. We seem to have had very similar feelings about this one! I enjoyed it too and was fascinated by the details of how the plays were staged, but I found the Midsummer Night’s Dream parts quite repetitive after a while. I’ll probably try The Last Kingdom but I’m not expecting it to be as much to my taste as this one was.

    • Yes, I felt that too when I read your review. He’d obviously done his research and it worked well for the setting, but he was clearly more interested in the play than I was! But I enjoyed it and hope he might do another in that period. I enjoyed The Last Kingdom too, but on the whole this period is more to my taste too.

  6. How nice to end the week on a positive note! Not sure this one would be my cup of tea, but I enjoyed reading your review to see why. As for the photo caption, surely you know DT wasn’t even born until 1946, ha ha! Happy weekend, FF — are you getting snow??

    • Ah, if only I could love them all! Haha – maybe it’s his dad then! 😉 Not here but parts of Scotland have had loads so I’m keeping my fingers crossed it doesn’t arrive here this weekend. It’s freezing, though… brrr!

  7. Haha love the photo and caption! As I think I’ve mentioned before I’ve always avoided Bernard Cornwall but each time you review one I think I should reconsider at some point – this does sound quite fun; the play is one that I also studied at school and wouldn’t mind a refresher on and I do like this era…

    • Haha – I couldn’t resist! 😉 This one is much more kinda mainstream historical fiction. His other stuff tends to be what I think of as sword and sandals epics – lots of battles and gore and stuff, which I don’t mind occasionally, but really this was more to my taste, and I suspect would be more to yours too.

  8. Very interesting read. This book was glaring right at me when I visited Foyles recently, and I found the synopsis fascinating. After reading your review, I am now most determined to read it, thanks.

  9. Wonderful review! I have never read anything by Mr. Cornwell but I’m sure willing to give it a go after reading what you had to say about it 🙂
    Good to hear it got better after the slow start and it was able to entertain you, in the end!

  10. Fools and Mortals has been redeemed after Bookish Selfie. Now it all makes sense, although I won’t be reading this. I escaped Shakespeare at school and would be more likely to enjoy a different theme by this author, since you recommend his style.
    “I am convinced,” she cried, “Convinced!”

    • She starts, amazed! “Hurrah!” she cries!

      Haha – that’s the problem with quotes. Sometimes you really need the context to make sense of them. I’m often surprised by how people react to the ones I choose – not at all the way I expected. This was fun, but there is an awful lot of Shakespeare in it. The other one I read was fun too but in a different way – lots of battles and gore and stuff…

    • I do think this would be a good starter. I liked the other one I read too, but not everybody’s a fan of that kind of battle and gore book. 😈 But he is a good storyteller…

  11. This sounds fun! My MA is in Shakespeare Studies and I’d love to read an adventure set in the theatre of the time.

    I’m not too precious about the historical accuracy as I reckon Shakespeare was never bogged down by accuracy or factual details (!) and would be on the side of whatever makes the best entertainment 😀

    • Ha! That is an excellent point and one I shall steal for future use! 😀 I wonder what you’d make of it. I only studied Shakespeare at school level and then grew to appreciate him far more by going to see lots of great performances of the plays over the years, so I’m not at all knowledgeable. But he did make the Dream sound good… must dig it out and watch it…

  12. Firstly, I love Tommy and Tuppence’s Christmas greeting, how lovely! And I didn’t know that Will Shakespeare had a brother-or is that fictionalized too? Sigh, being an english major I should really know the answer to this…

    • T&T graciously condescend to thank you! Ha – neither did I, but apparently he had at least two, although Cornwell hasn’t exactly stuck to historical accuracy with Richard, about whom almost nothing seems to be known…

        • I used to watch loads of TV – it’s really since I started blogging that I don’t seem to have the time any more. But I should really make an effort to get back into it – binge-watching is so relaxing! 😀

    • Ha! This one is much more light-hearted and quite a few Shakespeare fans have got a bit annoyed at some of the liberties he’s apparently taken with Shakespeare’s real life, but I thought it was great fun! 😀

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