Bernard Cornwell’s got a new book out, and I’m not taking about the latest instalment in the Saxon saga (or, as it’s now being billed thanks to the TV series, the Last Kingdom saga). It’s a stand-alone adventure set in Elizabethan England, and the protagonist is a brother of one William Shakespeare.
He’s not a soldier or a government agent or anything like that. The world of historical fiction does have a Shakespeare brother who’s a government agent, though – John Shakespeare, an entirely fictional older brother of the Bard who’s working for Sir Francis Walsingham to make sure that Elizabeth I is safe from assorted Catholic plotters who’d rather have her Scottish cousin on the throne. He is the creation of Rory Clements, who has set out to do for Elizabeth I’s reign what C.J. Sansom’s excellent Shardlake novels have done for that of Henry VIII – provide a series of thrillers (Revenger, The Queen’s Man, etc) that explore the more dangerous side of Tudor England. They’re not bad but there are a lot of Tudor-era thrillers around these days, and if you try to compare any of them with the Shardlake books then there’s only going to be one winner.
Bernard Cornwell’s latest is not about threats against the crown. It’s set on the stage, or rather in and around the world of the theatre, and the Shakespeare brother who leads the action does at least have the merit of being a real person. Well, based on a real person at least. Richard Shakespeare is the narrator of Fools and Mortals which is set in London in 1595. Little is known of the real-life Richard Shakespeare, a younger brother of the Bard who is thought to have spent most of his life in Stratford-upon-Avon and who predeceased his famous brother by three years. This, in a way, makes him an ideal candidate for being a character in a Bernard Cornwell novel as the author has a more or less blank canvas to play with. At Cornwell’s hands, he’s a bit of a tearaway who, rather than be apprenticed to a brutal Stratford merchant, ran away to London to become a ‘player’ like his brother, who was less than pleased to see him show up in the big city. He’s shown some talent for acting but he is in a bit of a rut; although a boy no longer, he’s only considered for the female roles in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. What with having to resort to the occasional act of petty theft to supplement his meagre pay, he is growing ever more resentful of his big brother (who, as is the case of William Shakespeare as depicted in Upstart Crow, is on the cusp of fame here).
Despite being disapproved of by Puritans, going to the theatre is very popular in Elizabethan London (theatre-goers come from all walks of life and seem surprisingly willing to suspend their disbelief for the duration of a play, which can last for several hours although Cornwell reckons that they would have been edited for performances in order to get them down to the two-hour mark). As audiences get bored with repeat performances of plays they’ve seen before, the playing companies are always in need of new material. Play manuscripts are therefore jealously guarded by the company (not the playwright) that owns them; other than getting closed down by the Pursuivants (quasi-official ruffians on the look-out for the merest hint of sedition against the Queen, this being less than a decade after the defeat of the Spanish Armada), the worst thing that can happen to a theatre company is a manuscript going missing.
One such company is the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – named for their patron, Lord Hunsdon (who, being a son of Mary Boleyn, is a cousin of Elizabeth I as well as being the Lord Chamberlain). Will Shakespeare originally joined them as an actor but has since become a partner of the company; he may not be the most handsome chap (as his better-looking brother often tells the reader), but he’s definitely the brains of the operation. He’s recently written a new comedy which will be performed indoors at his lordship’s grand-daughter’s wedding which, it is thought, will be attended by none other than Good Queen Bess herself. Funnily, he uses this play – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – to mock his fellow-actors, having written parts for them that allude to some of their foibles; brother Richard finally gets a male part, but it’s that of Francis Flute – the ‘mechanical’ who is disappointed to learn that he’s been given a female part in the play-within-a-play.
His resentment towards brother Will is therefore higher than ever when the manuscript of his recently-completed tragedy about two star-crossed lovers in Italy gets stolen, thus driving the plot of Fools and Mortals. This happens at around the half-way point, the first half having set the scene with plenty of detail about Elizabethan society and the politics of the time, including how it relates to theatres (which have to be outside the City of London; as the Globe won’t be built until 1599, the theatre where the on-stage action takes place is the, ah, Theatre, located off Bishopsgate) as well as sufficient background concerning how Richard ended up in London and why he resents his brother. He’s even been tapped up by a rival acting company, offering him male roles provided he steals his brother’s manuscripts, but has turned them down. But the very fact that he was approached means that the finger of suspicion points towards Richard, who must prove his innocence by figuring out who’s actually nicked it and then getting it back. The former is fairly straightforward, the latter considerably less so.
This is a pretty interesting departure for Cornwell, probably the best living historical novelist at the moment but one more associated with military adventures (in various historical periods). Fools and Mortals is more of a slow-burner than your usual Bernard Cornwell novel, and when the action does come there’s not actually a lot of it; those expecting a Tudor-era version of Sharpe or Uhtred will be disappointed. I liked it, though. There was plenty of historical detail (Cornwell, as ever, is second to none in this regard) and Richard Shakespeare made for an interesting and multi-layered character. William Shakespeare himself remains somewhat elusive, even a bit dislikeable – there’s little on why he has acted the way he has done to cause his brother’s resentment, and his domestic life is merely hinted at (he seems to have a mistress or two in London, while Anne Hathaway is back in Warwickshire with the kids). Perhaps it’s better that way. At least Cornwell is depicting William Shakespeare as the writer of Shakespeare’s plays; on top of having produced an engaging historical novel, he is fully deserving of top marks for refusing to buy into that ‘Shakespeare was written by someone else’ conspiracy nonsense.