Bernard Cornwell’s novel Fools and Mortals is a triumph of historical writing, proving that you don’t need battles and epic events to produce a fine historical novel. Bernard Cornwell’s take on late Elizabethan London and the world of the Shakespearean playhouse is superbly realised. He portrays so vividly the violent and stinking society whose predilection for entertainment in the form of plays led to the greatest of our literature.
I’ve been a fan of Bernard Cornwell for many years, right from the first Sharpe novels. I think the stories of the Alfredian warrior Uhtred give us much of the best historical writing I’ve seen in recent years. So I was intrigued at this new departure into the world of Shakespeare and his plays.
There are no battles in this one, though there are one or two fights. But there is a great feeling of menace as the hero, William Shakespeare’s brother Richard, falls foul of various elements of the Elizabethan Establishment in his desire to abandon playing women’s parts and seeking out male leads.
Much of the novel is set against the first staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Bernard Cornwell does a masterly job of interpreting just how plays would have been staged in the 1590s. He has a great gift for transporting you right into period, you feel you are there. This is a writer at the height of his powers. Re-creating the past fictionally isn’t easy, as I know from my own experience. Bernard Cornwell makes it seems effortless, a sure sign that he’s taken a great many pains to get it just right.
His actors are wonderfully portrayed, as bitchy and self-seeking as any acting company down the years. I particularly loved his portrayal of the great extrovert clown and jig-master Will Kemp. I’ve always had an interest in Kemp myself and he comes alive again in the pages of Fools and Mortals. I also liked the tension between Richard Shakespeare and his famous brother. I suspect Will Shakespeare was rather like this portrayal, ambitious, impatient, not tolerating fools easily.
I’ve always been an ardent Shakesperean. I became aware of my father’s copy of the collected plays as soon as I could read – my father took Shakespeare with him when he took part in the Normandy Invasion in 1944. I read the plays first when I was quite a small child. I went to a sensible state school in the Midlands where we were taken to see the plays performed at Stratford and at the Birmingham Rep. Reading and watching Shakespeare has remained a delight to me ever since.
I remember being taken to Stratford in 1964 to see the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, when a representation of the poet’s London and his stage were recreated – this in the days before we had the Globe Theatre.
But even if you are not a fan of Shakespeare this is a novel to seek out. Mr Cornwell has created a world to lose yourself in.