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A Master Of Historical Fiction Takes On Shakespeare


“Fools and Mortals” seems at first a departure from his normal fare of straight-up military historical fiction. We are in the world of Elizabethan drama, not on a battlefield ducking cannonballs. Plus, the book doubles as a behind-the-scenes reflection by a master craftsman looking back on a long and successful run as a novelist. But in the end, it’s a Bernard Cornwell novel, all right. There’s grit, contention — and blood will be spilt before the story’s done.

Cornwell grew up and had an early career in England, but fell for an American woman, moved to the States, and has long been a naturalized American citizen. He is best known for two series. One is his Sharpe’s Rifles books, set during the Napoleonic wars, particularly the Peninsular War in Spain, and starring the tough-as-nails Richard Sharpe (played by Sean Bean in the ITV television adaptation), risen from the ranks, but a truer gentleman than most of the English dandy officers, and a deadly shot with his Baker rifle.

The other is the Last Kingdom series, which has recently been made into the excellent BBC television show. These books follow warrior Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a man of aristocratic birth, but raised a slave-boy by Vikings, as he seeks to reclaim his heritage. He is stymied time and again, sometimes ruthlessly, by the fact that King Alfred, establishing England and fighting off Vikings, needs Uhtred’s talents for his own purposes. It’s great stuff.

My favorite Cornwell, however, is his stand-alone novel, “Agincourt.” The book features English longbowman Nicolas Hook, who is a bit touched in the head and certain he can hear saints talking to him. There’s also a brave and cunning female counterpart to Nicolas in the book, his love interest, Melisande de Lanferelle. It’s a gritty, intense, and delightful tale.

Cornwell is a consummate craftsman. He does the research. But setting remains a lifeless backdrop if a novelist can’t imagine his way into the character’s lives. Cornwell can. First and foremost, he avoids anachronism. His heroes, mostly male, are heroic in their time. His women characters are not modern feminists, but strong and smart within their milieu.

What elevates the books beyond craft is the way Cornwell finds bravery, love, lust, greed, and, above all, grit in every era. His books suggest that we may even be able to discover those raw qualities within our own plush-toy-soft Western existence.

Secrecy or Swordspoint

Cornwell has shown glimpses of historical dramaturgy in a couple of novels, but he pulls out all the stops in “Fools and Mortals.” We get a thorough behind-the-scenes look at the Elizabethan theater — the craft, who the actors were, and even the materials that went into make-up. “Fools and Mortals” may not feature the blood-soaked proto-England of Uhtred or the dangerous American Civil War battlegrounds of Nathaniel Starbuck, but there is plenty of grit, not a little blood, and some realistic heroism and good swordfighting. In other words, it’s a Cornwell historical.

Our hero and narrator is the morally-suspect Richard Shakespeare. As the novel begins, we find that Richard is not a fan of his older brother, William. Seems William treats Richard like hired help. While he’s gotten Richard a job at the theater, he’s left Richard scratching for pennies. Plus, William offers no hope that Richard will be able to climb the theatrical food chain and get better gigs. William can’t resist any opportunity to take a verbal jab at Richard every time he sees him. Then, he twists the knife of contumely even more, just when Richard thinks he’s escaped his brother’s tender ministrations.

Richard had arrived in London several years before, having escaped an odious carpenter’s apprenticeship arranged by his father. His brother, who has fled the confines of Stratford for his own reasons, is not amused to find a teenager at his doorstep wanting to be a player. William rather brutally hands him over to a trainer of chorister boys. There Richard receives training as an actor, a thief, a fighter, a dancer, and a prostitute for those with a taste in boys. In other words, the usual dramatic apprenticeship in 1590s London.

Eventually Richard begins to get parts in his brother’s company, Lord Chamberlain’s Men — but only female roles. Of course, women were not allowed on stage due to Puritan censorship, as Cornwell has it, so the parts were performed by young men. The bad guys in “Fools and Mortals” are the Pursuivants, the Percies, who are a mercenary force working for Puritans, with some level of official approval in the city. One of their missions is to run the sinful theaters out of town, by any means necessary. A way to do this is by stealing actual, physical copies of a company’s plays.

In the England of 1594, the only way to enforce a copyright was either through secrecy or swordspoint. Once a play’s script got out, anybody could put the play on, and frequently did. Richard really wants to graduate to a male part, and a good part, in his brother’s next play. His brother, disdainful of Richard’s thieving ways (while never giving him a dime of his own money), promises Richard a male role. Right. Richard finds out what it’s like to be trolled by William Shakespeare. No spoilers here, but it’s a really good one.

Then Richard’s brother’s new play, something called “Romeo and Juliet,” is stolen, and is very likely making its way into the hands of a rival playhouse, who will perform it first and often, stealing thousands of potential shillings in income from Lord Chamberlain’s players.

Richard, though still smarting at his brother’s mean-spirited joke, decides to get the play back. If he does, he may be able to earn a permanent spot in the company, and the hope of a future where has the wherewithal to marry. Because the handsome philanderer Richard has fallen in love for real — to lady’s maid Silvia Lester.

Was there actually a brother, Richard Shakespeare, ten-years-younger than William? Yes. Did he leave Stratford for London, get into scrapes, and have a contentious relation with his playwright brother? Doubtful. But, as Cornwell is well aware, nobody really knows.

The play’s the thing, or in this case, the story.

Like Clockwork

One criticism of Cornwell is that he lets too much of the bones of his research show. I would put that down to Cornwell knowing his audience and its expectations. The exposition serves more as a spot in the book to catch your breath during one of Cornwell’s customary breakneck plots, than as a distraction that takes you out of the story. You come away from a Cornwell novel feeling like you know a thing or two about the proper arrow to use to penetrate armor should you ever need to, or who to go to if you want to put on a bear-baiting.

Toward the end of “Fools and Mortals,” Cornwell has William Shakespeare compare a play to a mechanical clock. “‘We spend the first part of a play pulling the weight upward,’ my brother had said. ‘We set the scene, we make confusion, we tangle our characters’ lives, we suggest treason or establish enmity, and then we let the weight go, and the whole thing untangles. And that, my friend, is the play. The smooth motion of the clock hand, the untangling.’”

This is an excellent metaphor for the way Bernard Cornwell constructs his novels, as well. The weights are drawn. The characters seem to be entangled in a mess they will never escape except through death or ruin. Then the story inexorably works itself out. Cornwell make no apologies for his Newtonian conception of plot. The writer’s work is primarily to be a craftsman. The art of the novel arises from this craft, as form and function meld in a beautiful way.

He doesn’t always get it right. A couple of his Grail Quest series novels begin well, but then obliterate a listless, weak main character in overwhelming historical detail. That isn’t a problem in “Fools and Mortals.”

In this one, Cornwell has built his clock well and wound it tightly. In the novel, Cornwell comes close to achieving the perfect melding of form and function he always strives for in his books. It’s light, but not slight, fare. Like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” we get the sense that things will turn out all right in the end for Richard, as he enters manhood in those perilous, innovative times. It’s a great adventure tale filled with intrigue, twists, and turns, a sly commentary on storytelling artistry, and a testament to one of the consummate craftsmen of fiction of our age.