Choosing Richard Shakespeare for a protagonist is clever as so little is known about him
An actor living in penury he faces the miserable prospect of a life spent playing women because his arrogant brother William, whose star as a playwright is most definitely ascending, refuses to cast him in a male role.
In a radical departure Bernard Cornwell’s newest novel sees the author don a pair of hose and knee-high boots to wade through the mud-filled stench of Elizabethan London and show us the trials and tribulations of William Shakespeare’s real-life younger brother as he attempts to earn a living as a “player”.
There follows a tale of treachery and intrigue in which two dominant themes, a hunt for papist plots and another for one-of-a-kind manuscripts, are expertly woven together.
The year is 1595, 200 years before the author’s most famous creation Richard Sharpe would rise through the ranks of Wellington’s army.
As our story begins William has only recently secured a position as shareholder and chief playwright in Richard Burbage’s company, known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men after their patron Lord Hunsdon, cousin to Queen Elizabeth and Lord Chamberlain.
William plans to make a success of himself as a playwright before retiring as a wealthy man in his beloved Stratford-upon-Avon where hard times have befallen his family.
Having just completed A Midsummer’s Night Dream for a noble wedding, the 31-year-old is working on a new project about two star-crossed lovers.
With more theatre-goers than ever hungry for new works, original plays were in short supply.
“Perform a play too often and the audience is likely to pelt us with empty ale bottles,” we are told.
Enter the first plot strand from stage right: the value of a fresh manuscript lay in keeping it safe.
Joseph Fiennes played the bard in the film Shakespeare In Love
Be careless and you could see a rival playhouse perform your latest masterpiece with impunity.
But the threat of thieves pales in comparison with the second plot strand: the threat of Puritans.
In post-Reformation England, Elizabeth employs retainers – or Pursuivants – to sniff out Catholic treachery.
Playhouses are already viewed with suspicion: “sinks of sin and cockpits of corruption which was wholly accurate, my brother used to say,” Richard says.
The Pursuivants raid Burbage’s playhouse claiming to be hunting for an incendiary document that argues for Queen Elizabeth to be replaced by the Catholic Queen of Spain.
Front cover of Bernard Cornwell’s Fools And Mortals
But are they telling the truth? Choosing Richard Shakespeare for a protagonist is clever as so little is known about him.
Although Cornwell hangs the meat of his novel on a skeleton of fact he fills in the historical blanks with a flourish.
Richard, we are told, was sold while still a young boy as an apprentice to an abusive carpenter from whom he finally makes a dramatic escape to London.
Unfortunately he is about as welcome to his cold, aloof older brother as a scorpion in a codpiece.
Richard, in return, revels in denigrating William’s appearance, describing a “round, blunt face with weak beard and secretive eyes” in complete contrast to his own fair looks.
Cornwell drives the plot along deftly.
And he clearly has a lot of fun with the dialogue which is crisp but replete with gems (“I don’t give the quills of a duck’s a***,” says Lord Hunsdon at one point) and there is hilarious bickering and squabbling among the players as they rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But the real star of this book is Elizabethan London.
Cornwell leads us effortlessly through its fleshpots and fish markets, palace and playhouses with the skill of a master storyteller who loves this period of history.
Fools And Mortals may not have the visceral cut-throat action of Sharpe or the Lost Kingdom but if a well-plotted, richly written romp through Shakespeare’s England appeals, start reading.