Fools and Mortals

Written by Bernard Cornwell
Review by Ann Northfield

This is a complete change of scene, time and character from Sharpe and Uhtred, previous well-beloved characters in Cornwell’s fiction. In Elizabethan London do we lay our scene, and the main protagonist is Richard, brother to the already successful playwright William Shakespeare. The theatre business is booming and this novel takes the reader behind the scenes to understand and really feel what it was like to be a player at that time, an actor in competition with rival theatres and always concerned about who will play which part and how many lines the character has. The plays are the precious things, painstakingly copied by hand with new ones in constant demand. It is 1595 and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men are rehearsing and preparing A Midsummer Night’s Dream to perform at a wedding.

It seems strange now to think of this famous play having a premiere with the actors unaware of how well-known this play will become or how it will be received. Dramatic irony is a technique used throughout and is often very funny, particularly with Richard’s desire not to play any more female roles. The atmosphere of the times and the world of the theatre are expertly conveyed, based as usual on thorough research. The master of historical fiction demonstrates exactly why he is so successful. Thoroughly enjoyable.