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'Fools and Mortals' finds Shakespeare's brother taking center stage

As in all the best historical fiction, readers will come away with a seminar's-worth of historical knowledge without feeling like they did any heavy lifting.

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Fools and Mortals
By Bernard Cornwell
HarperCollins Publishers
544 pp.

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Given his penchant for historical fiction and his freakish productivity – this is his 54th novel – it was only a matter of time until bestselling writer Bernard Cornwell got around to Shakespeare, and in his new book Fools and Mortals, he does just that … but it's not playwright William but his younger brother Richard who's the star of the story. 

"Fools and Mortals" stars Richard as a struggling actor, better-looking than his older brother but feeling thwarted in his profession. He's sick of playing the parts of girls and young women in the plays of his brother and others; now that he's older and his voice has changed, he's hoping to start playing men on stage for the Lord Chamberlain's Men. He's poor and impecunious, rash and not particularly scrupulous, and any professional advantage he might have enjoyed because of his brother's success is countered by Cornwell's stroke of genius here: in "Fools and Mortals," William Shakespeare is the Jerk of Avon.

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He thinks of Richard, with some justification, as a strutting, whining fool, but even allowing for sibling rivalry, William isn't exactly overflowing with the milk of human kindness himself; he's curt, impatient, enigmatic, and short-tempered, an egotistical prig shielding behind his prodigious writing talent – think Steve Jobs in a neck-ruff. There've been countless novels about Shakespeare, and in most of them, he's a honey-worded paragon. Even in the more human renditions (including, for instance, John Mortimer's excellent 1977 novel "Will Shakespeare"), he's at least paragon-ish. Not so in "Fools and Mortals": this is a Shakespeare who's often cruel but never kind.

At least he's not weak-natured, which can't be said of his brother. Richard is positively awash in human weaknesses, and when a nobleman named Christopher deValle offers him money to steal the manuscript of his brother's newest play, he's tempted: “I had a choice. I could accept deValle's gold and betray my brother. I could steal A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even, perhaps, the new play he was writing that was set in Verona. I would be rich!”

Cornwell confidently complicates that simple plot in a handful of ways. He introduces the scheming, conflicted nobility of Shakespeare's world in a small group of lords and ladies who feature in the book's main subplot, including the lord and lady who control the destiny of the acting company, Lady Anne Hunsdon and her husband (“We were Lord Hunsdon's pets, we played at his pleasure, and groveled when he deigned to notice us”). Elizabethan England was broiling with religious tensions that redound to the theatrical world. Backstage at the theater, William shows Richard a copy of an incendiary pamphlet called A Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland (“it suggests that we, the people of England, have the right to chose our own monarch”). Cornwell has had a vast amount of experience at working his exposition smoothly into his narrative, and all that experience pays off in "Fools and Mortals": as in all the best historical fiction, readers will come away with a seminar's-worth of historical knowledge without feeling like they did any heavy lifting.

By far the most successful example of this is, predictably, Cornwell's evocation of the Elizabethan theatrical world. That world is far better illuminated from the perspective of a semi-competent unknown striver like Richard than it might have been if seen from the viewpoint of his more successful brother or any of the other luminaries of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Through Richard's experiences, Cornwell shows readers the whole of that long-gone theatrical world – the jobbing of plays, the scrambling for venues and parts and funding, the fierce interplay of personalities, and the practicalities of stagecraft, from the refinement of special effects to the technicalities of the paying customers to the details of how an actor prepares: “I washed with a damp cloth, then cleaned my teeth, rubbing the cuttlefish bone paste so hard that my gums bled.”

Cornwell's Historical Note follows up on quite a bit of these subjects and takes swipes at others as well (the evergreen Shakespearean authorship question, for instance, is dismissed as “nonsense”) – and passes over some others in baffling silence. Surely the first question readers are going to have when picking up "Fools and Mortals" is, did William Shakespeare really have a brother named Richard, and was he really an actor in Shakespeare's company? The answers? There was indeed a Richard Shakespeare, but the best (admittedly sketchy) evidence is that he led a far duller life than the one Cornwell gives him. But then, so did his brother.