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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The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

the year of lear“Let every man be master of his time.”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.

Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.

Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse Photo: Johan Persson
Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse
Photo: Johan Persson

As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.

The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.

This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.

Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth For me, the definitive production - and available on DVD!
Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth
For me, the definitive production – and available on DVD!

Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra Wow! I wish I'd seen that one!
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra
Wow! I wish I’d seen that one!

However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.

A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Crimson Rose (Kit Marlowe 5) by MJ Trow

crimson roseThe dramatic arts of Kit Marlowe…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s the opening night of Christopher Marlowe’s new play Tamburlaine Part 2 at the Rose Theatre and everyone is expecting it to be spectacular, especially the bit where they shoot the Governor. But as the guns go off, screams are heard from the audience and a woman falls dead, shot through the neck. When it turns out that not only was actor William Shakespeare’s gun loaded with a real musket ball but the victim was also Shakespeare’s landlady, it seems clear who is the culprit. Clear to everyone but Kit Marlowe, that is – his experience of working in Walsingham’s shady world of secrecy and spies has taught him to look beyond the obvious…

It took me a little bit of time to get into this historical mystery, mainly because the author has decided to take the approach of using modern language and even idiom on occasion. I’m not a great one for thee-ing and thou-ing in historical fiction, but phrases like ‘Cambridge was so six months ago’ and ‘that sounds like a plan’ jarred me at first. However, once I got into the style, I began to like this more and more. It’s clever and funny, and it seems to me that the historical aspects are pretty accurate.

“The dead man bobbed his way down stream, rolling with the dark waters past Paul’s Wharf. If he had still had his senses, he would have recoiled at the stink of Billingsgate where the corpses of dead fish floated, like his, on the ebb tide. He was making for the sea in that casual, unhurried way that dead men will.”

Poor Shakespeare is shown as a kind of hick just up from the country, while Marlowe is a 16th century James Bond – smooth and sophisticated. Ned Alleyn is the star actor, with the ego to suit, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with young Richard Burbage trying to get a role. Trow’s depiction of the luvvieness, ambition and petty jealousies of the actors joyously draws on today’s celebrity culture, and we also get to see the ‘angels’ rubbing their hands with glee as audience numbers rocket after the tragedy in the theatre.

MJ Trow
MJ Trow

There’s a solid plot, though, underneath all the fun, and the quality of the writing is very good. We also get to see some of the darker side of London life, with Walsingham and his man, Nicholas Faunt, trying to woo Marlowe back to work for the state. There’s corruption and criminality, violence (never graphic, though) and religious intolerance, but all handled with a deftly light touch. The climax is suitably dramatic and overall I found this as satisfying as it was enjoyable. It appears this is the fifth in the Marlowe series – oh, dear! Another four for the TBR pile…

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

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Macbeth: A Novel by AJ Hartley and David Hewson

macbeth a novelSwords and sorcery…

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

In their afterword, the authors say ‘..our book…must be a new artistic product in its own right..’ Sadly, I think they have failed in that objective. The book is based so closely on Shakespeare’s play, with only some changes in emphasis, that it isn’t possible to see it as a new artistic work. Throughout they take every opportunity to use the most-quoted words of the playwright – if this is a ‘new’ work then it is relies too heavily on borrowing from the old. If however, it is in fact a reworking of the play, which I believe it is, then it doesn’t begin to compare on an artistic level.

In fact, it reads more like a historical sword and sorcery potboiler than like the psychologically complex and illuminating original. I found myself unmoved by the fate of either Macbeth or Lady Macbeth – despite considerably detailed descriptions of the events before and after the murder of Duncan, for me the authors failed to convey the horror, guilt and ultimate madness that Shakespeare got across with far fewer words. The lengthy descriptions of the landscape, fortresses and battles served merely to slow the plot down and to turn this from a psychological study of two complex individuals into a rather slow-moving action thriller – one in which we unfortunately already knew the end.

dench as lady macbeth2

Where the authors mainly differed from Shakespeare was in the portrayal of the witches. Given a much more all-pervading role here, the emphasis became one of the supernatural controlling the puny affairs of men, whereas in the original, (in my humble opinion), Macbeth’s superstition is used primarily to further demonstrate the psychological weaknesses of the man.


I have struggled to decide what star rating to give the book. While my fairly damning review above shows that I don’t think it reaches the artistic height the authors were clearly aiming for, it is nevertheless well-written and for someone less interested in the original would work well as a historical action novel in the vein of Conn Iggulden or Robert Low. I am therefore rating it as 4-star on that basis, though it would merit only 3 if I were to judge it solely in comparison with its illustrious ancestor.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK. The pictures are, of course, from the Trevor Nunn production with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen.

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Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor (BBC Audio)

srw audio‘There is a history in all men’s lives…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.

The Stratford Chalice
The Stratford Chalice

MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. He introduces a range of short interviews with experts on particular subjects, and the episodes are also interspersed with acted excerpts from the plays. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. In another, he looks at The Tempest and a ‘magical’ mirror and then goes on to discuss the intermingling of magic with science, telling us of the ‘magus’ Dr Dee and why he was considered by many to have magical powers. A woodcut leads to the one Irish character in Shakespeare’s plays, a soldier in Henry V, and gives an opportunity for MacGregor to discuss the troubled relationship between England and Ireland during Elizabeth’s reign. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told.

Apprentice's Cap
Apprentice’s Cap

The disc set doesn’t include picture of the objects, but I didn’t find that a problem as MacGregor brings them to life so well. However, if you want to see them, the BBC website still has the pictures from the series, some of them zoomable. In fact, if you’re a podcast person, at the date of writing the series can still be downloaded and listened to for free from the same page.

srw bookAnd if you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series (which I was also lucky enough to be given by Amazon Vine UK). This is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself. Not just the objects are shown, but portraits, maps, drawings and photographs. Most are in colour and many are double-page spreads. A joy for any fan of Shakespeare or Tudor history and for the very first time on this blog I’m going to mention the dreaded words ‘perfect Christmas gift’ –sorry! (But it is!)

NB This audio disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK, as was the book.

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The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan

secret life of william shakespeare‘…And all the men and women merely players’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

If you’re going to write a book about one of the greatest writers of all time, then you need your own writing skill to be able to stand the inevitable comparisons. Jude Morgan’s does. This is a beautifully written novel, each word carefully crafted to draw the reader in to a world full of poetry and drama.

The King's Men (
The King’s Men

Morgan fills the gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare’s life by creating a character who is completely convincing and compelling – a man who questions his own existence except as he lives through his work. Morgan broadens out the tale to allow us to meet some of the other greats of Elizabethan drama, – Marlowe, Jonson etc – painting a picture of how the competition amongst these men drove each to strive for ever greater heights. We are shown how patronage and the Court influenced the dramatists and poets of the day, but we also see the other side of London – the constant fear of plague resulting in regular closure of the theatres, the uncertainty and often poverty of the players’ lives, the need to please both masters and audience. All this gives a real insight into the development of Shakespeare’s writing, but the author wears his research lightly and weaves his knowledge seamlessly into the story.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage (wikipedia)
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage

But much though I loved the story of Shakespeare and his London life, for me the standout feature of the book was the character of Anne – her love for Will, her fear of losing him, her strength to let him follow his driven path despite the cost to herself. Through her we see the contrasting life of small town Stratford, still very rural, where everyone knows their neighbours and family is everything. We see Anne grow and develop as she tries to reconcile her pride in Will’s accomplishments with her sense of abandonment. She has to provide the strength that can make their relationship survive his absence, that gives him the freedom to be something she never fully understands. Will says ‘You made Will Shakespeare, Anne. And without you there wouldn’t be a life, but the unformed shape of one, never to be.’ And such is Jude Morgan’s skill that this reader believed this completely.

Anne and Will (
Anne and Will

A wonderful book that will appeal not only to Shakespeare fans but also to anyone who appreciates a superbly crafted tale filled with poetry, humanity and tenderness. Highly recommended.

I was originally inspired to read this by this review from one of my favourite Amazon, and now bloggy, reviewers, Lady Fancifull.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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