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Shakespeare & Beyond

Excerpt: Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Fools and MortalsFools and Mortals, a new novel from New York Times bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, tells the story of the first production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Elizabethan England, from the perspective of William Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard. Richard is also a London actor, but he lives in his brother’s shadow.

(You may recognize the book title’s allusion to a famous quote from that play: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”)

In the scene excerpted below, Richard is copying out lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, reading some aloud to his neighbor Father Laurence, and talking about his relationship with William.

“I enjoyed copying. Not everyone likes the task, but I never resented it. I usually copied a part I would play, and writing the lines helped me to memorize them, but I was happy to copy other actors’ parts too.

Every actor received his part, and no other, which meant that for this wedding play there would be fifteen or so copied parts, which, if they were joined together, would make the whole play. Isaiah Humble, the bookkeeper, would have a complete copy, and usually another would be sent to the Master of the Revels, so he could ensure that no treason would be spoken onstage, though as our play would be a private performance in a noble house that permission was probably unnecessary. Besides, Sir Edmund Tilney, the Master of the Revels, was appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, who had already approved the play.

I worked in Father Laurence’s room. He lived just beneath my attic in the Widow Morrison’s house. His room had a large table beneath a north-facing window. The room was also much warmer than mine. He had a hearth in which a sea-coal fire was burning, and beside which he sat wrapped in a woolen blanket, so that, with just his bald head showing, he looked like some aged tortoise. “Say it aloud, Richard,” he encouraged me.

“I’m only just starting, Father.”

“Aloud!” he said again.

I had written down the words immediately before Titania’s entrance, the last two lines that Puck said, followed by a line from a fairy whose name was not given. Then came a stage direction which brought Oberon and Titania onstage. “ ‘Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania,’” I said aloud.

“Who says that?”

“Oberon, King of the Fairies.”

“Titania! A lovely name,” Father Laurence said, “your brother took it from Ovid, didn’t he?”