FICTION Raising the curtain
NICK RENNISON applauds a new novel that imagines the adventures of Shakespeare’s brother
Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell Harper Collins, 384 pages, £20
Richard Shakespeare is a young actor working in the theatre company for which his older brother William is the principal dramatist. The year is 1595 and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, under the protection of their patron, Lord Hunsdon, are growing ever more ambitious in their productions. They want to leave behind tired old melodramas and stage fresh works by William Shakespeare. The wedding of Lord Hunsdon’s granddaughter offers them the chance to perform the newly written A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But all is not well in the company. Richard and his brother have little liking for one another. The younger man is playing women on stage. He longs to take on more manly, heroic roles but all William offers him in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis the part of Francis Flute, one of the “rude mechanicals”.
As the Lord Chamberlain’s Men re- hearse, a new company is being formed and an impressive theatre is being constructed in Southwark to house it. These rivals are looking for actors and scripts and they are unscrupulous in pursuit of them. When William’s scripts for A Midsummer Night’s Dreamand Romeo and Juliet go missing, Richard is briefly suspected of their theft. Keen to clear his name, he offers to recover them. In his search for the stolen masterpieces, he faces danger from Puritans all too eager to condemn him as a papist, falls in love with one of Lady Hunsdon’s maids and effects a kind of reconciliation with his brilliant, difficult brother.
Bernard Cornwell is best known for the ‘Sharpe’ novels, set in the Napoleonic Wars, and for tales of war and politics in Anglo-Saxon England. The Elizabethan theatre may seem an unusual subject for him but Fools and Mortals is a delight. Witty and knowledgeable in its evocation of Shakespearean London, it also becomes a highly enjoyable tribute to the perils and pleasures, at any time in history, of putting on a play.
Playwrights, puritans and backstage politics: a new novel by Bernard Cornwell goes behind the scenes of Shakespeare’s stage company