Fools and Mortals is a new novel from Bernard Cornwell, a bestselling British author of historical novels. Cornwell is known for his “Saxon Tales” series, a multi-book epic about the making of England as seen through the eyes of a Saxon warlord, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Fools and Mortals is a standalone novel that tells the story of the trials and tribulations leading up to the first production of William Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, as seen through the eyes of Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother.
Richard Shakespeare lives in London, the heart of Elizabethan England. He is an actor, a penniless actor, struggling to make ends meet with his beautiful face, silver tongue, and skill at being a petty theft, but the 21-year-old wants more. Richard's brother is William Shakespeare, the acclaimed playwright and “Sharer” (part owner) of The Lord Chamberlain's Men.
William is largely dismissive of his younger brother, giving him mostly insignificant parts or female roles (because at the time women could not appear in stage plays). As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime sibling gratitude is souring, and he is sorely tempted to toss family loyalty aside. Opportunity comes when a rival company makes a bold offer to Richard, but the offer comes with a shockingly high price. When a copy of William's newest play turns up missing, Richard is blamed, and he has also drawn the ire of religious zealots. Now, to avoid the gallows, Richard must play the role of a lifetime, a high-stakes game of duplicity, betrayal, and violence. Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .
THE LOWDOWN: Some may consider it lazy of me to say Bernard Cornwell's novel, Fools and Mortals, reminds me of the 1998 film, Shakespeare in Love, which won the Oscar for “Best Picture of the Year.” But I do have a valid reason.
If you, dear readers, have experienced the work of William Shakespeare at a college or university, you know that English departments treat Shakespeare with the reverence with which Sunday schools and catechism lessons treat Jesus Christ. Shakespeare in Love treated Will Shakespeare as if he were a man like other men – talented – but a man like other men. When Dame Judi Dench's “Queen Elizabeth” suggests that Gwyneth Paltrow's “Viola de Lesseps” (Shakespeare's object of desire) has been “plucked,” I thought, “Oh, no. Did Joseph Fiennes' “William Shakespeare” tap that ass?” Ye olde English class is unlikely to talk about Shakespeare knockin' boots. Although Fools and Mortals focuses on Richard Shakespeare, it is through Richard that we see Will as a man like other men – lustful, envious, scheming, and capable of violence.
Fools and Mortals, however, is Richard's story. It is part insider fiction; period and court drama, historical fiction, romance, suspense and conspiracy thriller. It is a lot of things, but this story crackles and that makes Fools and Mortals a page-turner with heat like a summer potboiler. The novel works because the author makes Richard seem like a natural storyteller, a character the readers want to follow.
As always, Bernard Cornwell offers deft characterization and wit, and his prose is vivid. I could practically smell the stink of Elizabethan London and feel that muggy and damp filth. You, dear reader, will beg for a hazmat suit and hand sanitizer because you will feel like you are right there in a stew of funk, Well, that funk is also a marvelous on-stage and off-stage blend of history, fiction, and speculation. Once again, Bernard Cornwell proves that he is the king of historical fiction.
I READS YOU RECOMMENDS: Fans of Bernard Cornwell, of historical fiction, and of William Shakespeare will want to read Fools and Mortals.