BY: Bernard Cornwell
PUBLISHED BY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-06-225087-2
Review copy purchased by reviewer
Review by Ida Vega-Landow

I was pleasantly surprised to find this book as one of my selections in the Doubleday Book Club. I was also surprised to find that I knew the author from one of his previous works. Bernard Cornwell is the creator of the Saxon Tales, which served as the basis for “The Last Kingdom”, a TV show I was fond of about the dawn of the British Empire, when the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes were still fighting over England.

The story is about William Shakespeare’s younger brother, Richard. He is an actor, or player as they called it back then, in his brother’s company at The Theatre, a forerunner of the Globe. (In real life, the Bard of Avon was the third of eight siblings, so it’s possible he might have had a brother who was as talented an actor as he was a writer.) You’d think that being related to the head of the company, who’s also its scriptwriter, young Richard would be one of the stars. But alas,‘tis not so.

It seems there is no love lost between William and Richard, the older brother being constantly under pressure to write a good play by his biggest fan, Queen Elizabeth I, while being hounded by the Puritans, Elizabethan England’s self-appointed guardians of the public’s morals, who fear the Catholic Church means to dethrone Elizabeth by murdering her and putting a good Catholic princess in her place, like her late sister Mary. You remember Liz’s big sister Mary Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary? She didn’t get that name because of her fondness for a certain drink. She got it because she was a devout Catholic who tried to save England’s souls from sin by imprisoning, torturing, and executing Protestants. Now that Liz is firmly on the throne, she intends to stay that way. So she turns a blind eye to the Protestant extremists who hate the Catholic Church and will do anything to keep it down, even to the extent of recreating some of the same cruelties the Catholics practiced on Protestants.

Due to the Puritans’ disapproval of anything morally questionable which might affect the public’s morals (Translation: Anything that is fun), all the theatres are located outside of London, a short walk from the town’s gates during the day, a long walk home at night, especially after curfew. Women weren’t allowed on the stage in those days, so women’s parts were usually played by boys or young men whose voices hadn’t broken yet. Young Master Shakespeare, only three years younger than his brother (about thirty-two but already with a receding hairline), has been playing women for so long he’s getting restless. All he wants to do is play a man, for once. William promises him a man’s role after the company receives a commission from Lord Robert Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain and Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, to put on a play for his daughter’s wedding. The play is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the part is that of Francis Flute the bellows mender, one of the peasants who put on a play for Duke Theseus’ wedding day, in which Francis must play the part of—you guessed it, Thisbe, a woman. So poor Richard is playing the part of a man who pretends to be a woman, a cruel bit of drollery on William’s part.

Richard decides to pay a visit to the new theater being built across the Thames by the Earl of Lechlade, to be called The Swan, to see if he can get a better acting job that pays more (big brother Will is so cheap, he only pays Richard a couple of guineas a week, barely enough to pay his landlady and still be able to eat, which is why little brother Richard is also a petty thief). While at The Swan, he meets the earl’s man of business, Christopher deValle, who offers him employment as an actor if he will steal his brother’s latest play, as well as the new one he’s working on, which is set in Verona and is about two young lovers from rival houses.

You would think that after being scorned and humiliated by his brother for so many years, starting when he came to London at the age of fourteen to escape his apprenticeship to a cruel master back home in Stratford, only to be sent to Sir Godfrey Cullen’s choir school to learn acting, and be abused physically and sexually for three years by this fat old hypocrite (a pedophile in priest’s clothing, the title “sir” being a mere courtesy given the ministers of the Church of England), Richard would jump at the chance to further his acting career at a more prestigious theater, as well as get even with his brother. But strangely enough, Richard still feels enough loyalty to his brother to say “No” to Lord deValle. But his brotherly loyalty is really put to the test when his old tormentor Sir Godfrey, now working for the Puritans to root out Catholicism wherever it rears its head in England, convinces another player in Shakespeare’s company to bring false testimony against Richard and William to make it look like they’re plotting sedition against good Queen Bess. The only way to avoid being charged with treason is for Richard to steal his brother’s plays for the earl’s new theater.

Happily, all’s well that ends well, with the help of Richard’s sweetheart, a pert lady’s maid named Silvia in the lord chamberlain’s house, and some quick thinking on the part of both Shakespeare brothers, after they stop quarreling long enough for Richard to confide in William. I can see this book being made into a movie; it has many comic elements, as well as a great deal of suspense caused by both religious and political conflict.

It may affect your romantic view of Elizabethan England once you read about how dirty and corrupt it was behind the scenes, not to mention your view of William Shakespeare as a creative genius who wrote immortal plays that are still acted to this day. Bernard Cornwell’s portrayal of Shakespeare the playwright is certainly far from the jovial Bard of Avon that I’m accustomed to seeing at the local Renaissance Faire. To be blunt, he makes Shakespeare look like a jerk, from the way he treats his brother to the way he abandons his wife Anne and their three children, dumping them on his parents in Stratford, while he goes to London and kisses up to any nobleman from Liz’s court who he thinks can help his company rise above every other group of players in town. No, William Shakespeare is not a noble man in this story, but he is an honorable man when he finally stops fighting with his brother and helps him escape the clutches of the corrupt Sir Godfrey. While helping himself escape a charge of sedition at the same time, of course. Cornwell has already established William Shakespeare as an opportunist from the beginning. So why shouldn’t he help his little brother if it helps himself too, while at the same time throwing the Puritans into an unfavorable light?

So if you’re in the mood for something Shakespearean that isn’t written in iambic pentameter, and you’re into historic fiction that doesn’t whitewash well-known historic figures, if you’re tired of romantic accounts of the past that leave out all the unpleasant facts, like chamberpots being emptied out of windows and live animals being tortured to death for sport (aka bear baiting), as well as all the religious rivalry between Catholics and Protestants that made them kill each other in the name of Jesus, then treat yourself to a copy of “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwell. It may make you curious enough to check out his Saxon Tales as well, or furious enough to read or watch all of Shakespeare’s plays on DVD to wash the bad taste out of your mouth. Either way, you get to enjoy the history of old England without actually having to live through it.