Fools and Mortals is a significant departure from Bernard Cornwell’s usual theme of medieval warfare and political intrigue. So much so that I would never have guessed he was the one who wrote it. Maybe that’s why I was not riveted by it as much as I was by 1356 or his Saxon Stories.
This latest novel is a fictionalized story of Richard Shakespeare, a younger brother of William. In this story, Richard follows his brother, who has already established a reputation for his play-writing and play-staging, to London in the year 1595 to join his troupe of actors. Relations between the two brothers are strained, although it is never explained why. William is shown as an acerbic character who is stressed by the quality of some of his players’ acting and their off-stage antics, as well as fierce competition from rival playhouses and financial difficulties. Oh, and he possibly co-owns a brothel.
The main storyline revolves around preparations for staging William’s latest play, titled A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for a wealthy patron’s granddaughter’s wedding, in which he finally casts he brother – after years of pleading – in a male role, kind of. For Richard will play Francis Flute, who in the play is a man who plays a woman.
So far so good.
Then, the manuscript of the play goes missing, putting the whole enterprise in jeopardy, and Richard tasks himself with recovering it in order to gain his brother’s favor. Unfortunately, it is pretty clear who stole the play, and the recovery goes …. well, let’s just say that there is a play called A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it is attributed to William Shakespeare.
So is the book well-written? Yes. Cornwell’s prose is clear as always. Is the story dramatic? Not really. When it comes to historical mysteries, there better be a dead body, and here there isn’t even one. Instead, it meanders its way through a fairly boring plot that at times reads like a frat house romp.
Still, there are interesting things about the novel if you’re into detailed descriptions (at times excruciatingly so) of the process of staging early Tudor plays: the making of the props, sewing of costumes, stage design, rehearsals, etc. It is interesting to observe how the behind-the-scenes differed (or did not differ) from the way modern productions are put on.
Cornwell does a good job of evoking the atmosphere of early theaters, called playhouses. We learn that they had an central open-air courtyard, where the audience (the groundlings) surrounded the stage, so that at all times a good number of them were watching the play from behind. The audiences were more fickle and less well-behaved than their modern counterparts. They ate, chatted, and commented on the story as it unfolded onstage. They were also prone to pelting the actors with fruit or small pebbles if what they saw was not to their liking.
The final section of the book contains a lengthy and tedious description of the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is about as suspenseful as the play itself. Fast paced or particularly infused with drama Fools and Mortals is not, but it might be of interest to theater buffs out there.
If you like historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is out now in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.