Book Review: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Title: Fools and Mortals
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher: Harper Collins
Publication date: October 19, 2017
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

Rating: 5 out of 5.

New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell makes a dramatic departure with this enthralling, action-packed standalone novel that tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream—as related by William Shakespeare’s estranged younger brother

Lord, what fools these mortals be . . .

In the heart of Elizabethan England, Richard Shakespeare dreams of a glittering career in one of the London playhouses, a world dominated by his older brother, William. But he is a penniless actor, making ends meet through a combination of a beautiful face, petty theft and a silver tongue. As William’s star rises, Richard’s onetime gratitude is souring and he is sorely tempted to abandon family loyalty.

So when a priceless manuscript goes missing, suspicion falls upon Richard, forcing him onto a perilous path through a bawdy and frequently brutal London. Entangled in a high-stakes game of duplicity and betrayal which threatens not only his career and potential fortune, but also the lives of his fellow players, Richard has to call on all he has now learned from the brightest stages and the darkest alleyways of the city. To avoid the gallows, he must play the part of a lifetime . . . .

Showcasing the superb storytelling skill that has won Bernard Cornwell international renown, Fools and Mortals is a richly portrayed tour de force that brings to life a vivid world of intricate stagecraft, fierce competition, and consuming ambition. 

Don’t you just love when a book takes you by surprise and ends up becoming a favorite?

Fools and Mortals is my book group’s pick for September, and I just wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about reading it. My impression was that it would be a dry read that I’d have to work to get into, and I just wasn’t in the mood. But, being a responsible book club member (ha!), I decided to give it a go.

As you can tell from the 5-star rating, I loved it. Once I started, I just couldn’t put it down. So let me tell you more about it.

Fools and Mortals is a story about William Shakespeare’s acting troupe at the Theatre in London, told through the perspective of his younger brother Richard. Richard ran away from home in Stratford as a young teen to escape a cruel apprenticeship, but his brother isn’t exactly warm and welcoming.

A very lovely-looking young man, by age 21 Richard has spent years as a player at the Theatre, although not a full member (Sharer) with a stake in the earnings. When he performs, he earns money. When there’s no part for him, or when there are no performances due to bad weather, he gets nothing. Richard lives in a dingy boarding house, constantly threatened with being thrown out if he can’t pay his back rent, and resorts to petty thievery to keep from starving.

On stage, he specializes in women’s parts, but he wants to be taken seriously. He yearns to be allowed to grow up, cut his hair, grow a beard, and take on the significant male roles that will allow him greater status as an actor. But Will doesn’t seem to have any interest in his brother’s goals, and when he finally promises him a man’s role, there’s still a trick involved that means Richard will end up playing a woman once again.

Meanwhile, there’s intrigue and action afoot. Will has earned a commission to write a play to be performed at the wedding of the Lord Chamberlain’s daughter — the play that will become A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Will is also working on an Italian play, which will be Romeo and Juliet.

But rival companies are also building huge theaters, and original scripts are invaluable in the theater world. If another company can get their hands on one of Will’s plays, they’ll be able to perform it and Will will have no way to get it back or claim it.

So when the new scripts go missing, there’s plenty of suspicion, and Richard is one of those accused of stealing the scripts in order to make some needed money. It’s up to Richard to get them back, but doing so is likely the most dangerous thing he’s ever done.

I won’t go further into the plot itself, but trust me — it’s fascinating! I loved the characters and the behind the scenes look at how a play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream came into being. Through Fools and Mortals, we get to see the complicated business of patronage and protection, the terrifying power of the Persuivants (known as Percies) — the vehemently Puritanical force who have the power to arrest and convict anyone suspected of heresy — as they threaten the players, and the deadly serious competition and scheming related to gaining and keeping players and scripts.

William Shakespeare himself comes off as cold and heartless when it comes to his brother, but of course, we do get to see his brilliance as well. I was enthralled by the descriptions of how the players learn their parts, figure out the staging, interact with their audiences, and more.

Fools and Mortals reminded me of the (sadly) short-lived TV series Will that was on TNT a few years ago. Will was a little over-the-top at times, but the parts that focused on the players and the productions were terrific, and having seen the show, I was better able to visualize some of what was going on in Fools and Mortals.

This book was such a treat! So thank you, once again, to my book group, for getting me to read a book that I probably would have completely missed otherwise.

If you enjoy Shakespeare, historical fiction, the Elizabethan era, theatrical history, or really, just plain good writing, check out Fools and Mortals!

Thursday Quotables: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars


Welcome to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!



William Shakespeare’s Star Wars by Ian Doescher
(published 2013)

For good, goofy fun, I don’t think I could do any better this week than William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. I’ve been picking it up and reading bits and pieces in between other books – so far, I’ve read acts I and II, and it’s pretty amazing. A love for Shakespeare and a love for Star Wars are both essential, needless to say. Random lines, for your enjoyment:


I prithee, lockest thou the door anon!


-Now are we follow’d hard upon
By an Imperi’l cruiser. Verily,
These passengers of great import must be
For they by the th’Empire hotly are pursu’d.
Chewbacca, prithee, swift make our defense
And angle the deflector shield whilst I
Make plan the calculations for light speed.


– Distract’d is my mind,
But through its cloudy haze the reason comes:
Unless I am in error, someone here
Has come. I have not felt this presence since
The days that are but dark in memory.
This presence I have known since I was young,
This presence that once call’d me closest friend,
This presence that hath all my hopes betray’d
This presence that hath turn’d my day to night.
This awful presence present here must be,
So shall I to this presence violence


O help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, help.
Thou art mine only hope.

And the classic uncle/nephew dialogue:


Take thou these droids unto our vast garage.
My wish it is they clean’d be ere we dine.


But unto Tosche Station would I go,
And there obtain some pow’r converters. Fie!

I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did! The Shakespeare/Star Wars books would make great stocking stuffers for any of the geeky, hard-to-please folks on your gift list this year.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (, if you’d be so kind!
  • Add your Thursday Quotables post link in the comments section below… and I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week too.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!


Wishlist Wednesday

Welcome to Wishlist Wednesday!

The concept is to post about one book from our wish lists that we can’t wait to read. Want to play? Here’s how:

  • Follow Pen to Paper as host of the meme.
  • Do a post about one book from your wishlist and why you want to read it.
  • Add your blog to the linky at the bottom of the post at Pen to Paper.
  • Put a link back to Pen to Paper somewhere in your post.
  • Visit the other blogs and enjoy!

My Wishlist Wednesday book is:

  Kissing Shakespeare

Kissing Shakespeare by Pamela Mingle

From Goodreads:

A romantic time travel story that’s ideal for fans of novels by Meg Cabot and Donna Jo Napoli–and, of course, Shakespeare.

Miranda has Shakespeare in her blood: she hopes one day to become a Shakespearean actor like her famous parents. At least, she does until her disastrous performance in her school’s staging of The Taming of the Shrew. Humiliated, Miranda skips the opening-night party. All she wants to do is hide.

Fellow cast member, Stephen Langford, has other plans for Miranda. When he steps out of the backstage shadows and asks if she’d like to meet Shakespeare, Miranda thinks he’s a total nutcase. But before she can object, Stephen whisks her back to 16th century England—the world Stephen’s really from. He wants Miranda to use her acting talents and modern-day charms on the young Will Shakespeare. Without her help, Stephen claims, the world will lost its greatest playwright.

Miranda isn’t convinced she’s the girl for the job. Why would Shakespeare care about her? And just who is this infuriating time traveler, Stephen Langford? Reluctantly, she agrees to help, knowing that it’s her only chance of getting back to the present and her “real” life. What Miranda doesn’t bargain for is finding true love . . . with no acting required.

Why do I want to read this?

I feel like all of my book choices lately have either been creepy, scary, or heavy — so it’s time for something light, fun, and romantic! I’ve had my eye on this YA novel since it came out last year, and you know what? I think a time-traveling romance involving William Shakespeare sounds like the perfect summer read.

So what are you doing on Thursdays and Fridays? Come join me for my regular weekly features, Thursday Quotables and Flashback Friday! You can find out more here — come share the book love!

Much Ado: A fangirl goes to the movies

Today, I had the absolute pleasure of seeing the newest movie version of Much Ado About Nothing, which was screened as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

What can I say? It was fantastic.

I’m an unabashed fangirl when it comes to Joss Whedon and his world, and the fact that so many actors from the Whedon-verse — Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Fran Kranz, Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and more — had key roles in Much Ado made it all the sweeter to see.

On top of which, I’m a book geek with a fondness for Shakespeare, and although I’m much more familiar with the tragedies, I’m always up for a good Shakespearean comedy. Much Ado About Nothing happens to be one that I’ve never read and had never seen before, and I did have a bit of trepidation ahead of time as to whether I’d actually “get” it. Not to worry, though. From the opening scenes, it was easy to pick up the rhythms of the language, and it all flowed beautifully.

Filmed in black and white in a modern setting, the art direction and style of the movie is contemporary and quick. The staging allows the actors to shine, particularly in their use of body language and interactions, and their comedic timing is impeccable. Nathan Fillion in particular was hilarious, Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof were sharp and witty as Beatrice and Benedick, and Fran Kranz as the love-smitten Claudio was both puppy-dog sweet and quietly dangerous. Really, I could go on and on about the cast, but suffice it to say that there was not a one that I could find fault with. Their line deliveries were as smooth as they’d be if they were, well, in some other Joss production. For the man who perfected the art of quippiness, directing Shakespeare must have been a natural fit.

Both Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof were present for the screening, both to introduce the film and to participate in a Q&A session afterward. They were funny and charming, and got Joss on speakerphone before the movie to say hi to the audience. Adorable.

So here’s the trailer:

The movie opens June 7th in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Don’t miss it!