Fools and Mortals is a stand-alone built around William’s brother, Richard, whom Cornwell portrays in this book as a struggling “hired man” for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the company Will was a member of). Now Richard Shakespeare really did exist and really was Will’s brother, although I don’t find evidence that he made any serious attempt at success on the stage. Now, his (and Will’s) other brother, Edmund, who, according to church records, is buried in what is now Southwark Cathedral not far from the site of the original (and the reconstructed) Globe, WAS an actor in London, although we don’t have evidence which suggests he was all that important to the London theatre scene. Both Will and Richard are buried at Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon. We have virtually no information about the historical Richard other than his birth and death.
On the other hand, we have records of Edmund’s burial (which cost 20 shillings, not a small sum) which indicate that he was buried in the morning with "with a forenoone knell of the great bell". As has been pointed out by others, this was a fair amount of money at the time, so it seems fairly likely that Will must have paid for it and the morning burial would have allowed his fellow actors to have performed later that day at the Globe. (The Chamberlain’s Men would not start using the Blackfriars Theatre until a couple of years later, so they would, probably, have been at the Theatre in Shoreditch even though Edmund died in December.
So, right off the bat it would appear that Cornwell may not have all of his facts really straight. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this story revolves around “Richard’s” desire to escape playing women’s roles and to establish himself as a regular performer (hired man) with the company. As Cornwell tells it, it is an interesting story making use of the time (the winter of 1595) when both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet are believed to have been written and The Swan (theatre) was being built across the Thames in Southwark. While it is probably wise to suggest that one can’t be sure that Cornwell has documented all of his facts, this IS a work of fiction, not a scholarly study, and the story he tells is reasonably interesting and provides a great deal of conjectural detail (all of which seems fairly reasonable to me) regarding what life might well have been like for a struggling, young actor in London at this time.
Needless to say, “Richard” does not come off as a Romantic hero, but he is presented as a young man struggling for success. Elder brother Will comes off as something of a jerk, but even I have to confess that it’s possible that this isn’t too far from the truth. Again, not all artists (actors or playwrights) are noble creatures selflessly devoted to the betterment of all mankind. I’d prefer not to think of Will as quite such a self-centered bozo, but it is possible that he was. And the characters (some with authentic names, some almost certainly invented) are presented as believable and enjoyable in terms of the story.
Perhaps what I like the best about the book is that it captures a good deal of what I suspect is a fairly authentic “feel” of London at the time. It’s dirty, it’s unsafe, the not-so-secret Protestant religious police are always hovering in the background trying to rid the country of secret Roman Catholics and such “devil’s spawn” as actors and theatres. Their authority was fairly limited by noble sponsorship of the theatre companies and the fact that the theatres, themselves, were located outside of the City of London proper (and it didn’t hurt that Elizabeth enjoyed having players perform for her and her Court).
All things considered, I found this a pretty interesting read. While I could quibble over bits and pieces not conforming to what I believe to be the facts, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in Shakespeare’s times. It’s not a history book, although it sheds some light on what those times might have been like, and it’s an interesting enough story to be a pretty enjoyable read. I’d encourage you to give it a try.