FIC­TION Rais­ing the cur­tain

NICK REN­NI­SON ap­plauds a new novel that imag­ines the ad­ven­tures of Shake­speare’s brother

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Fiction - Nick Ren­ni­son is the au­thor of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.