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Fools and Mortals: A Novel by Bernard Cornwell, Harper, US $27.99, Pp 384, January 2018, ISBN 978-0062250872

Fools and Mortals is set in the Elizabethan England and revolves around one of the London playhouses. This is the time when William Shakespeare dominated the London theatre. In this fictionalized story, Richard Shakespeare yearns for a career as an actor, possibly with his brother William. Richard has no money and makes ends meet through a combination of petty theft and silver tongue. As William’s stature as a playwright grows, Richard is ready to do anything to achieve his goal. It is but natural that he is the prime suspect when a manuscript goes missing. Richard is caught in a high-stakes game of betrayal that threatens his career. Richards has to use all his cunningness and acumen to escape death at the gallows.

Fools and Mortals brings the Elizabethan world of intrigue and cutthroat competition and personal ambition to life. In Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure from his military historical novels with an action-packed novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – in which he was taking part — as related by William Shakespeare’s fictionalized younger brother. Although Bernard Cornwell is known as a fine writer and novelist, he is an actor as well. Twelve years ago, he started taking part in theatre productions at the Monomoy Theatre in Chatham, Massachusetts. The first one was Shakespeare’s Henry V when he was asked to give the background to the play. The inspiration to write Fools and Mortals came during the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Bernard Cornwell describes the Elizabethan England and the playhouses vividly. In the Elizabethan England, boys matured later than they do now. Teenage boys played the part of young women as girls were not allowed to have a social life. In Fools and Mortals, Richard plays the older women. It was not until 1660, at the Restoration, that women were allowed on stage for the first time. The Puritans had banned all theatres in Britain in 1642 and they reopened only after the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. William Shakespeare did have a brother with the name of Richard but nothing is known about him. Bernard Cornwell has capitalized on this fact and wrote a wonderful novel. Bernard Cornwell brings Elizabethan England to life and makes the reader feel as if he has gone back in time and living in 16th and 17th centuries. Fools and Mortals is full of drama. It will absorb all your attention as soon as you start reading it if you enjoy historical novels. This is one of the finest literary historical novels in the recent years.

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944. His father was a Canadian airman and mother in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted by a family in Essex who belonged to a religious sect called the Peculiar People (and they were), but escaped to London University and, after a stint as a teacher, he joined BBC Television where he worked for the next 10 years. In a few years ago, he started writing the adventures of a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars, which is how the Sharpe series was born. Bernard married an American named Judy in 1980 and moved to America where they still live.

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