A dramatic new departure for international bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, FOOLS AND MORTALS takes us into the heart of the Elizabethan era, long one of his favourite periods of British history.
Fools and Mortals follows the young Richard Shakespeare, an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for acclaim and glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.
Showcasing his renowned storyteller’s skill, Bernard Cornwell has created an Elizabethan world incredibly rich in its portrayal: you walk the London streets, stand in the palaces and are on stage in the playhouses, as he weaves a remarkable story in which performances, rivalries and ambition combine to form a tangled web of intrigue.
From Netgalley as an ebook, this is from the author of the Sharpe series of books, which I haven’t read (but have been known to watch the adaptations when they come on the TV, if that counts for anything).
So this is a departure from his normal work, in him writing about the playhouses starting up in the time of Queen Elizabeth 1 and William Shakespeare. It is told from the standpoint of Richard, William’s younger brother. Richard is already a member of the playhouse, and whilst playing the parts of women, he is getting a little too old to do so, and is desperate to get “men’s parts”. It is precarious work – they don’t get paid to rehearse, only to actually perform in a play, of which new ones are few and far between.
Those that can read and write can earn a little more money, by copying out actor’s lines or being the “bookman”, prompting the performers during rehearsals.
With new Playhouses and groups being set up almost weekly and demand for entertainment ongoing, competition for new material is constant, with some groups resorting to stealing other group’s works if they dont have a writer to create their own work.
We get to find out what living in this kind of London is like – trying to find somewhere to stay if you miss curfew; literally living hand to mouth because you haven’t been paid that week; your work and home being raided on a regular basis by the heavy handed state gangs looking for priests and seditious materials – it has long been believed that the Shakespeare family are heretical Catholics, and people are desperate to find some kind of proof. The story is framed by the completion and staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” for the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter. The competition for parts, the learning of lines, what happens when things get “confiscated” by competing playhouses. There is intrigue, fighting, plotting and ever changing politics that most groundlings are unaware of.
Meanwhile, told in flashback is how Richard came to be in London – Being rather older, William has already left the family home and gone to London by the time Richard is old enough to get an apprenticeship, something that does not work out well. Richard escapes and goes looking for his brother who places Richard with Sir Godfrey Cullen. It is here that Richard learns most of his life lessons, including how to act, put on a performance and sword fight and most importantly – how to steal. Whether the William of the book or the actual William knew that being in Sir Godfrey’s “care” means that he was one of many who got prostituted out as part of St Benet’s Choir, we don’t know. Richard’s skills in thieving, as well as the other stuff he’s learnt since coming to London, helps both himself and the group (as well as his relationship with William) when things go missing.
Because of Cornwell’s previous books, I suspect people would be a let down if there wasn’t a little sword play and fighting throughout the book, and there are several scenes included, which I hope makes some fans happy.
This is not my usual era of history – I tend to read Tudor or Regency – so this was an interesting change in tone. The difference between the rich and the poor; actors living hand to mouth, whilst performing to the groundlings and the Queen; the need to please the crowd whose tastes could be simple (bit of dancing, some fighting, some singing, some rude jokes); all combined with th pressure of finding or writing new work.
So this is not quite a Ripping Yarn, but a detailed story of a fraught time in English history, that is well worth reading and rather entertaining.