When a writer chooses as their lead protagonist an actor and his main theme the theatre, possibilities abound. At first looking at Bernard Cornwell’s new novel “Fools and Mortals” you might dissapointedly think, oh, the creator of Sharpe has finally succumbed to the Tudor period eh? And oh look! He’s writing about Shakespeare, how original. Perhaps it was only a matter of time. But don’t be fooled, as we mortals often are, this is a story of layer and depth.
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins (19 Oct. 2017)
I myself am no avowed Cornwell fan, nor am I particularly taken by the Tudor period except the odd binge on the Armada, but to condemn this book as a crass cash in on the popularity of the ruff and petticoat, is to mistake the author’s ability as a storyteller and a creator of worlds. In a recent interview Cornwell identified the prime objective of a historical fiction writer as the creation of believable and exciting worlds, atmospheres, set, in themselves perhaps, against fragments of the actual world they are inspired by. I would say he has been successful in achieving this objective here.
The rich world of London’s 16th century theatre forms the fertile ground onto which Cornwell foists his elaborate cast of characters. His evident delight at being able to play with the wondrous language of Shakespeare from the perspective of an actor is obvious. As a reader I was instantly hooked by the first sentence, then intrigued as I tried to figure out why such a use of foreshadowing was required, and wether the story was being narrated by a ghost. This clever opening casts a spell, which the author instantly breaks in order to draw us into the seedy world of the early stage. From intrigue to revulsion in half a chapter. Deploying such a twist in the first breath, indeed before the story has begun, is an indicator that Cornwell has not just decided to write about ruffs and doublets because it’s popular, he has found a story.
Meet Richard Shakespeare, a smooth talking actor with nothing to his name but his girlish good looks and his craft. On account of his pretty face and talent he is stuck playing women in the plays of his famous brother, on account of his poverty he has to rely allot on his wits. Implicated in the theft of a valuable manuscript he is forced into a surreal world were the line between fiction and reality blur, art becomes life and the other way around but the prize this time is not the applause of an audience it is life itself.
Apart from the twists and turns the book is an affectionate ode to the theatre and the art of acting. This can be seen in the emotive final paragraph, though it is patently a gritty ode. A sensitivity can be glimpsed behind the cut, thrust, backstabbing and grime that I’ve not detected in Cornwell before. Note that the central protagonist here isn’t a king, a lonely man’s man, or a burly soldier, he’s a less than threatening actor who has made his name by playing a gallery of convincing female roles, so his usual brand of physically strong anti-hero seeking his destiny isn’t going to work in this story, and the character the author has created here is therefore a departure from the main body of his work.
In so creating this world and these people, Cornwell hopes to honour the dream makers who let us escape from our cares and imagine the possibility of a different world. In sum this is a well written, thoughtful and exciting book, and not what I was expecting. Truthfully the era isn’t really my thing, and I am admittedly rather Squamish about some of the grittier elements I encountered but there is no denying Cornwell’s talent in getting his audience to feel his words and dive into his world.