My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In a clever imagining of the first presentation of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bernard Cornwell's Fools and Mortals tells the story of The Lord Chamberlain's Men through the eyes of Richard Shakespeare, William's younger brother. Cornwell's story provides an excellent overview of the society of the day, including the Catholic/Protestant religious strife, Elizabethan manners, filthy environment, rampant disease, sexual perversions, and the ease with which one might find oneself being hanged.
Richard is a small player in the company run by William and has been relegated to playing women's roles. He's also a small-time thief. Playing only women's roles is starting to grate on Richard. He desires more substantial men's roles. However, William views his younger brother as an annoyance.
A new playhouse is being built south of the Thames and the financiers are managing to get their hands on everything that they need except plays to perform. They devise a plan to abscond with William's plays, A Midsummer's Night and William's new one about a pair of star-crossed lovers in Verona, Italy, and perform them before William has a chance to play them before a public audience. Their plans include Richard.
When Richard finds himself suspected by William and the rest of The Lord Chamberlain's Men of involvement in the plays' thefts, Richard sees that the only way he can get back into William's good graces is to recover them himself, and the dangers he faces in doing so are very real.
Fools and Mortals has romance, history, intrigue, and thrills. Cornwell's descriptions of English city life during Elizabethan times is well integrated into the narrative. His looks behind the curtain at theater practices is comprehensive, and the players characters are greatly revealed through how they deal with the management of the troupe, how they go about preparing for their parts, even to their individual superstition practices before going onstage.
If you like history, theater, or just a plain old thriller, Fools and Mortals should suffice nicely.
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