Bernard Cornwell: Fools and Mortals

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 90

Bernard Cornwell, a bestselling writer of historical fiction such as the Sharpe series, has turned to the world of the Elizabethan theater. His newest novel, Fools and Mortals, imagines the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. It's a tale of love, intrigue, opulence, and violence, all narrated by William Shakespeare’s brother Richard.
Bernard Cornwell was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev. 
Fools and Mortals was published in the US by Harper in 2018. Read an excerpt on the Folger's Shakespeare & Beyond blog.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published February 6, 2018. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, Masters, Here Are Your Parts was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Andrew Feliciano at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California and Bruce Roberts at ARP Studio in Charleston, South Carolina.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: We’ve done nearly a hundred podcasts since this series began, and nearly all of them dealt with the world and the work of William Shakespeare. Every once in a while though, you have to change things up. And with that in mind, we present to you a story of the one, the only… Richard Shakespeare.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. I’m going to go out on a limb here and bet that you probably didn’t even know that there was a Richard Shakespeare. If that’s true, it’s probably because we know far less about him than we do about his much-more-famous brother. William Shakespeare had three brothers, and not much is known about one of them, which makes Richard Shakespeare—a man near to greatness without ever being great himself—a perfect subject for historical fiction.

Bernard Cornwell is a writer of historical fiction. He’s best known for the Sharpe series—more than 20 books and stories about a character named Richard Sharpe, a rifleman turned officer during the Napoleonic Wars that was made into a TV series in Britain in the 1990s. Another Cornwell series, about the 9th-century kingdom of Wessex, became the TV show The Last Kingdom. Now, Bernard Cornwell has turned to the world of the Elizabethan theater and his newest novel, Fools and Mortals, is a tale of love, intrigue, opulence, and violence, all narrated by John and Mary Shakespeare’s seventh child, Richard.

We call this episode Masters, Here Are Your Parts. Bernard Cornwell is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: I would think that it would be daunting to sit down and say, “Right, I’m a historical novelist and now I'm going to write a novel featuring William Shakespeare,” and then you literally put words into the mouth of the greatest wordsmith who ever lived.

BERNARD CORNWELL: It's terrifying!

BOGAEV: Exactly! It made me think well, what is your pro and con list as you think about writing historical fiction about Shakespeare?

CORNWELL: Well, what I really wanted to write about was putting on a play, and then if you’re going to do it about A Midsummer Night's Dream, you’re rather stuck with this guy, you got to.

BOGAEV: But how did you think about taking him on? What kind of man did you imagine him to be, or did you want to portray in this story as a man and an artist?

CORNWELL: I think essentially a theater professional, and what’s so fascinating is the theater is really a brand new occupation. The very first play house wasn’t built until Shakespeare was 10 years old, and once you build a permanent theater, you change everything. If you're touring around the country, for Monday you’re in Warwick and Tuesday in Kenilworth, and Wednesday, you’re in Stratford, you can do the same play in each place. But then you build a permanent Playhouse. Now the audience is the same, night after night after night, week after week, month after month. You need new material all the time. Once the theater is permanent, playwrights come into their own. So, above everything, Shakespeare is a theater professional: he’s an actor, he’s an impresario, he’s a writer. So I didn’t want him to be a sort of ethereal poet, the Swan of Avon, sitting there waiting for inspiration. I don’t think he did wait for inspiration, there was too much pressure on him to produce work.

BOGAEV: Apparently you also didn’t want him to be the protagonist, because the story’s told from the point of view of his brother, which seems a very ingenious workaround of this problem.

CORNWELL: Well, the nice thing about his brother Richard, is that he actually existed. And the even nicer thing about him is that we know nothing about him. We have his birth date, we have his death date, and I think there’s one court record where he was fined for not attending church, and that’s it. That is the sum total that we know about Richard Shakespeare. But of course you want the fiction to be based on a certain amount of reality.

BOGAEV: I want to dig into that a little bit more, but first I have to ask you, you have such a long and really distinguished career writing mostly about wars. What gave you the idea of writing a historical novel about Shakespeare?

CORNWELL: I fell among actors 12 years ago. I’d never acted in my life, and I now live in the summer on Cape Cod. And there’s a little theater there called the Monomoy Theatre, and it’s a marvelous theatre. It exists to give drama students from all across North America a chance to play in a summer rep theater. Now, they do an incredible job, because they’re drama students, some of them are postgrads, some are undergrads, they have huge skills, but they don’t play the sort of what we call the grown-up parts. I mean, it just doesn’t look right having a 25 year old playing Prospero. So normally, Equity actors are brought in, but local people like me are allowed to be spear-carriers, and somehow I’ve sort of graduated from carrying a spear to in fact playing Prospero.

I’d never done this before, and I had, I don’t know, I suppose a reasonably well-educated person’s knowledge of Shakespeare, which doesn’t really add up to very much. But being in his plays is the way of learning about his genius, about learning how wonderful the plays are. And over the years, I don’t know, I played Henry IV, Toby Belch, and came to love him, came to be fascinated by him. so I went and started to read as much as I could about him and then, considering what my day job is, I thought, let’s do a book about it, let’s do a book about putting on a play in 1595, how different was it to putting on a play in 2017?

BOGAEV: Well, and the book really gives us an idea of that. I mean, you’re a real fly on the wall of this experience that you’ve had in the theater. And I don't want to give away too much, but the principal action involves the first-ever performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. So first, why that play?

CORNWELL: Well, because it’s a fun play. I mean, an extraordinary thing is, in 1595, Shakespeare wrote two plays. If he died at the end of 1594, yeah, the scholars would know that there was a playwright once called William Shakespeare, and he’d written Richard III, Comedy of Errors, but really he’d written nothing of any great moment, and then suddenly in 1595 he writes two of his great plays: the first a great comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and then, or at the same time, or just before, his first great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. I think that, one, they’re still the most popular of all Shakespeare’s plays, on both sides of the Atlantic those are the two that had performed most often. I thought well, I didn’t want to write about putting on a tragedy because the book would end up being frightfully gloomy. I've always loved Midsummer Night's Dream, I’ve acted in it twice, and people are familiar with it, I think, or a lot of people are. So I was just very fond of it, and I think it’s simple as that.

BOGAEV: Well let’s give people a taste of your treatment of it. Would you read something for us? And I’m thinking of a scene in which the troupe, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, are rehearsing Midsummer in Blackfriars for a wedding, and Richard Shakespeare is not in this scene, he’s watching the others perform.

CORNWELL: That’s right. He’d just come back in fact, he’d come to the hall. They’re not in the theater, they’re in the Great Hall of a house, because the play is being commissioned privately by the Lord Chamberlain for a performance at his granddaughter’s wedding, and he’s just come in from the rain.

[CORNWELL reads from Fools and Mortals:]

I went close to the generous fire, still trying to dry out my rain- soaked clothes. Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, Alexander Cooke, and Kit Saunders were being rehearsed by Alan Rust, while the other players looked on. Alexander and Kit were playing the girls, and they were at the front of the imaginary stage, while the two men watched from the back. Kit was small for his age while Alexander was tall, and my brother had written words to fit their stature. “‘You puppet you!’” Alexander screeched. When we had read the scene the first time people had laughed at the fight between the two girls, but the weather seemed to have dampened all our spirits, and no one seemed to have any enthusiasm.

“Move further to the left,” Rust told Kit. A gust of wind splattered the high window with rain and flickered the flames in the hearth.

“‘How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!’” Kit shouted at Alexander. “‘How low am I? I am not yet so low but that my nails can reach unto thine eyes!’” He ran across the stage, hands crooked, to claw at Alexander’s eyes.

“Scream at her as you run,” Alan told Kit, “I don’t want silence! And don’t let her reach you,” Alan added to Alexander. “Let her get close, then run for your life. Take shelter behind the two men.”

“Do I follow her?” Kit asked.

“No, just stop where she was standing. Turn and face her, but you’re not going to attack her while she’s with the men. Now let’s do it again.”

Richard Burbage, either tired or bored, fetched a chair from the big table and took it to the pretend stage. He sat. The real stage was being built at the other end of the hall, filling the big space with the sounds of saws and hammers. Alan Rust was looking over Isaiah Humble’s shoulder to read the lines, when Isaiah suddenly sneezed. “Oh, for God’s sake, Isaiah!” Rust recoiled from the sneeze.

“Sorry,” Isaiah said, then sneezed again.

Rust snatched up the pages and moved away from Isaiah. “Kit?” he called, “go from ‘You juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love.’”

“Sorry,” Isaiah said. He looked ill, but who would not feel ill in this miserable, cold, wet weather?

My brother came to the fireplace. “We’re rehearsing Titania and Oberon tomorrow,” he told me, “and the mechanicals on Friday. Do you know your lines?”

“All of them.”

“So you don’t have to stay now,” he said pointedly. “Come back on Friday.”

“I’ll wait for the rain to stop.”

“It’s not going to stop. It will never stop. The sky is as black as Satan’s arse.” He turned to watch Kit scream and run across the stage.

“Faster!” Alan Rust shouted. “Run like you mean to kill her. Do it again.”

BOGAEV: This seems like so much fun to write. I mean director yelling at actors, and actors being difficult. Is this pulled straight out of your Midsummer experience?

CORNWELL: On the whole, no. I think perhaps we’re gentler in the 21st century. I mean, I have seen directors lose it, but the cast would still come together, read through it, find out where to be on the stage, they’d bond and then have all the fun of actually performing.

BOGAEV: In large strokes, it hasn't changed much, but the details though—and given that it's not good to know too much when you're writing historical fiction, as you just said, what kind of research did you do to write convincingly about Elizabethan Theater and these domestic and court scenes in the book?

CORNWELL: It's very nice of you to use the word “convincingly.” Well, I did what you always do: you read everything. And I literally do mean everything. I suppose the reading to go into this was about five years of reading. And in the end you’re sort of deviling down into some really obscure books. In the end, like all historical novels, you chuck away about 98 percent of the research, because it simply becomes irrelevant. But I was surprised by a lot of what I discovered about the Tudor theater and I’m excited by it. It really is a most extraordinary period, because you do have here the beginning of a profession, a beginning of an industry, and yet that didn’t exist—

BOGAEV: And you sprinkle those details in. For instance, in passing, you mentioned the box office. So called because the boxes that took the playgoers’ pennies were emptied on the table inside and it was kept locked, and there we have the box office.

CORNWELL: And then you have the boxes. In fact, they got more sophisticated a bit later. They started making enormous pottery, basically balls, and you couldn't open them. They just had a slit for the coin in the top, and you’d take this back to the box office and break them. And when they recently excavated I think it was the Rose Theatre, they found a great heap of these little pottery scraps that had once been the balls which were taken back and broken.

BOGAEV: And this really, I mean there are Easter eggs like this sprinkled throughout, and people who know their history through and through, who are listening will have to forgive me that I didn't know things like Elizabethan dental hygiene life-hacks. You know, a character says Richard should keep his teeth white by grinding up cuttlefish bones and mixing them with salt and vinegar.

CORNWELL: You could do an experiment now Barbara, who knows? But Richard, of course, is playing girls, and just like an actor today, he wants to look his best. So it's very important to him to look after his teeth.

BOGAEV: And there are also wonderful scenes of theatercraft as well in the 16th century that are rooted in fact. For instance, how they dealt with blood in the theater. The pig’s bladder.

CORNWELL: The sheep’s blood in a pig’s bladder, I think it was, wasn’t it?

BOGAEV: Yes, and they’d hide it under a cloak, right?

CORNWELL: Yes. Well, you’d hide it anywhere you could, and then pierce it and the blood will all gush out.

BOGAEV: And you describe the wonderful lengths that they went to to disguise these men as women. At one point there’s a scene in which the troupe’s seamstress, or costumer, or also makeup artist, drops juice of belladonna into Richard’s eyes.

CORNWELL: Which they did, which made your pupils bigger.

BOGAEV: Fascinating! And also pig’s fat and soot around the eyes for coal, right?

CORNWELL: I know, yes! And lipstick, and I mean this is part of the reason, of course, why the Puritans so absolutely hated the theater. It was bad enough that women were being shown on stage, but it was even worse that they were being played by boys.

BOGAEV: There’s another interesting area of research I imagine you got into that you have introduced in the book, which is that you describe how audience reaction depended upon the setting, that the reaction in the theater would be different from the audience reaction in a nobleman’s house, which is where these plays, as you said, often were staged, if they were commissioned, or at court before the queen.

CORNWELL: I think you’d have to work hard at probably the nobleman’s house. I mean, they were more likely to be drunk and more likely to be bored. But we do know, for instance, that audiences could be incredibly rowdy. I mean, I can’t remember, from somebody’s diary in the 1570s or 1580s, I’m pretty sure it was the Lord Chamberlain’s Men go to put on a play at Gray’s Inn, in front of the students, and they start the play, and the students riot. They say, “We don’t want that play, we want another play!” And I think they wanted Comedy of Errors. So the actors in the Inn threw up their hands and said, “Well, give us a minute, and we’ll turn it around.” And so they did. They put on a different play for them. We know that audiences threw things, but we also know that audiences were extraordinarily appreciative.

BOGAEV: But not necessarily at court or in a private setting.

CORNWELL: At court, if the Queen was there, they were certainly not going to—I mean the curious thing is although we think of the Globe as the sort of birth of English theater, in the end it was the hall theater, what’s called the hall theater, that took over. And in 1603, Shakespeare’s company actually bought a hall in Blackfriars to put on plays indoors. And once you’re indoors, again, everything changes. You got to light it, which means candles, and once you have candles, candles are not going burn for two hours of a play. They need to be trimmed. So you get acts, and you get an interval. And the audience is different, they’re not standing in front. There are not 2,000 people there. Hall theaters usually sat between four and 600, so they had to pay more.

BOGAEV: Well, getting back to your book, the plot of your book, Fools and Mortals, it turns on another theater trying to get their hands on Shakespeare’s scripts.

CORNWELL: Yes, villains at last!

BOGAEV: Fill us in, though, on the background of just how precious or valuable scripts were in 16th-century London, and this burgeoning theater industry.

CORNWELL: Well, they’re incredibly valuable, because there’s no copyright. I mean, we have the Theatre, which is Shakespeare’s playhouse, and then across the river, very close to where the Globe will be built, there is the Hope, which is also… it was the Lord Admiral’s Men. Now if, for instance, somebody from the Lord Admiral’s Men had got hold of Romeo and Juliet, the play, before the Theatre did it, there's nothing to stop them putting that play on, and there’s nothing Shakespeare can do about it. He’s got no recourse in law.

So the script is very valuable. You’re probably going to play Romeo and Juliet, probably going to do a season of maybe ten or eleven performances, not many more. But that’s 2,000 people, all of them paying a penny each, some of them paying a lot more. So there’s a lot of money involved. Once the play had been done, once you’ve exhausted your audience, you know, there’s no chance of filling the theater anymore, then you can publish the play, and anybody can do it. But yes, before the play was performed, at the beginning of its career, a play is a very valuable product.

BOGAEV: So clearly, you knew a lot, but also, of course, you have to take license to make things up, when you sit down to write.


BOGAEV: And that’s so tricky. I wonder how you navigate when to be faithful to history and when to depart from it. Because there’s always going to be nitpicky types who say, It didn’t happen that way, they didn’t steal Romeo and Juliet.

CORNWELL: No, that is made up. The villains in this case, they’re not the Hope Theatre, it’s the Rose, which was under construction, and I invent people, except for the owner of the Rose, who is not invented. But it had happened, I mean, scripts were stolen. None of Shakespeare's, as far as we know.

But it's fiction. I'm mean, if you don't like reading things that are made up, then don’t write historical fiction. I can recommend some really incredibly dull books on the Tudor theater and you can tuck into them instead.

BOGAEV: So you don’t think about that kind of reader when you write?

CORNWELL: No, because if that kind of reader doesn’t like historical novels, they’ve got no business reading my books. I would much rather take someone who's just going to be excited by the discovery of the Tudor theater, and I hope that they might then go on to learn more about it. There are some actually very good books about the Tudor theater. I hope even more that I’ll actually persuade some people to go and find a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream and go and watch it, because it’s such a hell of a lot of fun.

BOGAEV: Have you had readers though who have taken issue with things in this book?

CORNWELL: Oh gosh, yes. As I say, there’s always a helpful reader to point out your mistakes. I’ve written some books about 7th-century Britain and got this very strict letter there were no snowdrops in Britain, and well, I hadn’t a clue, I put snowdrops in, you know. You live with them. I mean Shakespeare made mistakes. He had, was it billiards in Ancient Rome, I think is one of them? You know, the coast of Bohemia. You can tell that some of his plays were written in a hurry. I mean he gives Prospero in The Tempest a nephew on the island. It’s only one line, and if you think about it, the nephew is going to complicate the plot terribly, so he just forgets him. He never appears again, but he actually never got crossed out in the manuscript. When you write at the speed he wrote, when you don’t have the editing facilities and printing facilities we have, you’re bound to get mistakes. Equally well, you know, I can’t think of any historical novelist who doesn’t make mistakes.

BOGAEV: And specifically about this book, have you gotten any comments?

CORNWELL: Yeah, I did. I had… most people, when they write, are actually very charming about it. [A reader] said, You have far too many chairs. If you look at Tudor wills, they didn’t have chairs, they had stools. I mean, he was very nice about it.

BOGAEV: That’s not true though. I mean there are chairs in Shakespeare. In fact, we knew you would have this criticism, and our Folger editors had plenty of references at their fingertips to chairs, including from Henry VI,  Part 2, in which, “thy chair days, thus to die in ruffian battle?” That is the end of that passage.

CORNWELL: That’s right. I actually wrote back and said “blame it on my age, my chair days.” But no, I mean it’s fine, I’m really not going to object to that. You do get some silly people who want to crow over it, but really that is so rare, it’s so rare, and I have to say Barbara, that 99 percent of the messages I get on the website and through email are appreciative.

BOGAEV: Well, teasing out this, what was real, what’s not, what’s made up, you also present Will Kempe, and you make him out to be, very entertainingly, someone like John Belushi. Just a full-on, wild party animal, and also a kind of unpleasant bully offstage, and sometimes maybe onstage. What informed that?

CORNWELL: I think he may well have been. Certainly there’s some small evidence that there was some ill blood between them. I mean, probably Will Kempe was far, far more popular than Shakespeare himself, and if Will Kempe was going to be in a play, people would come. Now that’s incredibly valuable property, because Will Kempe is funny. He’s a great acrobat, he’s very much a physical actor. You can tell from the roles that Shakespeare writes for him. But Shakespeare also, in Hamlet, when the prince gives the players his instructions, I mean he’s specific about, you know, You will speak the words written down for you, and no more. Because the clowns in Shakespeare’s plays were famous for suddenly going off-script, and Will Kempe loved to have badinage with the audience, and this would obviously, in some cases, spoil the play, because the play would be going along just as it was supposed to, and suddenly Will Kempe goes off in a tangent, starts having a furious rant with somebody in the audience at this person’s expense. When Will Kempe leaves, another clown took over, called Robert Armin, and he was much more of an intellectual clown. It’s wordplay, which is frankly why the clowns in Shakespeare’s later plays are not nearly as funny as the clowns in the early ones, if we’re going to be honest.

BOGAEV: Well, one example where you do take a lot of poetic license involves the origins of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” as it’s played in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. So why don’t we get back to the book. If you could read that passage, in which Richard remembers the first play his brother William ever wrote.

CORNWELL: Oh, the very first play. Yes, it’s… this is totally made up, obviously. Completely made up, and there’s that period in Shakespeare’s life, which is the mystery period. We really don’t know what he was doing, which is more or less between the time of his marriage, which was when he was 18, and five or six years later, and there are all sorts of theories. I mean, some people have him in Lancashire being a tutor in a house, and other people say, I know he went abroad and served as a soldier. What I find interesting is that [John] Aubrey, the 17th-century gossip, talked to William Beeston, who was the son of Christopher Beeston, who was in Shakespeare's company, and he said, Well, no, Shakespeare actually was a schoolteacher in those years.

BOGAEV: Although there’s no consensus on this, as you say.

CORNWELL: There’s absolutely no consensus, no. And, you know, I mean, should we go and look at this early play, which didn’t exist? [LAUGH]

BOGAEV: Let’s.

[CORNWELL reads from Fools and Mortals:]

I remembered my brother’s very first play. I had been ten years old at the time, and he had been twenty, just two years married, and teaching in a village school near Stratford. Sir Robert Throckmorton, a great landowner at nearby Coughton, wanted what he called an “interlude” for his granddaughter’s wedding, and my brother obliged by writing it. The interlude, really a short play, was called Dido and Acerbas and was performed by my brother, who played the villain Pygmalion, by one of his pupils who played Dido herself, by a wool merchant from Alcester who was the doomed Acerbas, and by a half- dozen other local men, all craftsmen. They rehearsed for at least three weeks, and, because Sir Robert was generously open- handed, folk from the surrounding villages were invited to watch the performance.

The story, as everyone who has been to school knows, is a tragedy that ends with Dido committing suicide by hurling herself onto a blazing fire. What persuaded my brother that it was a good idea to celebrate a wedding with a play about death is a mystery, but the tragedy, instead of provoking tears, was first greeted by nervous laughter, which grew and grew until folk could not contain their mirth and the whole audience, gentry and commoners alike, had tears running down their cheeks. Sir Robert, far from being angry at the disaster, declared it the best entertainment he had ever seen, but my brother was mortified. I asked him once whether he had kept a copy of the play, and he had scowled at the question, then  uttered darkly that it had shared Dido’s fate. “I burned it.”

The interlude had ended with the heroine’s fiery death. My brother had first thought of using iron braziers filled with burning logs to create the crucial scene, but Sir Robert had feared for the safety of his great house, and so, instead, six of my brother’s pupils, none older than ten, were dressed in red cloaks, red hoods, and red gloves. “We are flames!” one of them announced as they filed onto the makeshift stage where they crouched at the platform’s edge and then slowly rose, swaying from side to side and waving their hands above their heads as they chanted over and over, “We are flames! We are fire! Fiery flames and flaming fire!” Meanwhile the heroine, clothed in a white gown far too big for the player’s small body, writhed in her death agony and tried to make her lines of defiance heard above the chanting flames. Like the rest of the company, the boys had been brave, forging ahead with their lines despite the laughter filling the hall, and all of them, boys and men alike, were richly rewarded by Sir Robert with coins. My mother laughed with everyone else, though Anne, my brother’s wife, was furious, asserting that her husband had shamed the family.

CORNWELL: There we go.

BOGAEV: So, that’s just this lovely bit of fiction that you conjured up.

CORNWELL: It’s purely fiction, yes. But I’m supposed to give the reader an idea, if you like, of the roots of—well, not quite the roots of drama, that would be the mystery plays—but the sort of drama that was going on in the country. There’s an awful lot of amateur drama, and it would be along those lines. It would be a classical story, and it would be acted by amateurs. So that was one thing I wanted to do. The other thing I also wanted to do was to actually give them a tiny, tiny taste of plays not written by Shakespeare which we never, ever perform today, which, if you like, was the staple diet of the theater. We know, for instance, that the Globe, like the Hope, like the Rose, like the Theatre itself, they all did about 30 plays a year. Which, if you consider they were closed for Lent, is a lot.

BOGAEV: I think I put this whole scene in the category of one of the great joys of reading this novel, which is that it punctures the sacred Shakespeare myth over and over again in a really delightful way. I mean, here we see one of Shakespeare’s dogs. It just utterly falls flat.

CORNWELL: Well, he, yes, did, you know, my invented play is a dog, but by 1595 he’s writing anything but dogs, and I hope that although his brother, Richard, who again is really invented out of whole cloth, is loggerheads with William for much of the book. I hope my admiration comes through. He’s by no means perfect, I mean, within a year of the event of the novel, he’s going to have a restraining order clamped on him by the magistrates.

BOGAEV: And the troubled relationship between these brothers is really the heart of the book. His brother Richard's opinion of Shakespeare it does balance out the positive and the sacred cow image of Shakespeare in a way. I mean, his brother is cold and self-serving and untrustworthy and brutally ambitious. Are you working out some brother conflict in this novel?

CORNWELL: Oh lord, no, no, I promise I’m not [LAUGHS]. No, well, we know that he was ambitious. If we didn’t have any of Shakespeare’s plays and we didn’t have any of his poetry, and somebody had said, “Oh, you know, there’s this character we discovered in the public record office, in the, you know, in the documents,” we’d think of him as a grasping businessman, and again, it’s as I mentioned a moment ago, he’s going to have this restraining order put on him, it’s called a writ of attachment, because a man complained that Shakespeare threatened his life. He said “I felt in danger of my life!” So he’s, you know… yes, he’s a genius, but he’s not a saint, and he’s not some sort of delicate flower sitting in an attic, writing delicate poetry. He’s churning out this stuff because he needs to.

BOGAEV: And if you’re a genius and if you’re making money, odds are some of your family or friends are going to want to take advantage of that.

CORNWELL: Probably, although Richard doesn’t so much wants to take advantage of it, he just wants his brother’s help, and William isn’t… you know, I think William thinks Richard’s a bit of a nuisance, to be honest.

BOGAEV: And actors are always a thorn in the side of the sharers. Present company excepted [LAUGHTER].

CORNWELL: Actors are incredibly monomaniacal. I mean, all they want to talk about is their profession. I mean, this may well be true of other professions too, like, I mean, I know lawyers and journalist and… but I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time with actors in the last dozen years, and truthfully, I mean all they really want to talk about is acting and theater and who’s doing what and who’s seeing who and…

BOGAEV: Some things never change, huh?

CORNWELL: I don’t think it does, I don’t think they change at all.

BOGAEV: Well, are we going to see more Shakespeare books from you? Or is it back to wars and warriors?

CORNWELL: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. Not Shakespeare. But I am fascinated by what happens at the Restoration. That is a fascinating period, because now for the first time women are on stage, so I am thinking about, and doing some research into Restoration Theater.

BOGAEV: Well that sounds really rife with conflict, and I can’t wait to see what comes from that.

CORNWELL: And fascinating heroines, like Nell Gwynn, I mean, wonderful, wonderful.

BOGAEV: Exactly, it passes the Bechdel test, perhaps? [LAUGHTER] Thank you so much! It’s been such fun talking with you, I really appreciate it, and enjoyed the book.

CORNWELL: Barbara, thank you so much.


WITMORE: Bernard Cornwell is the author of numerous books, the most famous of which are the Sharpe series. His latest book, Fools and Mortals, was published in the US by Harper, in 2018. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

“Masters, Here Are Your Parts” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We had help from Andrew Feliciano at VoiceTrax West in Studio City, California and Bruce Roberts at ARP Studio in Charleston, South Carolina.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.