Fools 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?”
“From the Metamorphoses, of course. And Oberon, Oberon?” he frowned, thinking. “Ah! I remember, I had a copy of that book once.”
“A copy of what, Father?”
“It’s an old French tale,” he chuckled, “Huon of Bordeaux had to fulfill some dreadful errands, rather like the labors of Hercules, and he was helped by the King of the Fairies, who was called Oberon. Read on, Richard, read on!”
“ ‘What, jealous Oberon?’” I read, “ ‘Fairy skip hence, I have forsworn his bed and company.’”
I worked in Father Laurence’s room because the window gave good light and because the Percies, whatever else they stole, had left the old man his ink and a sheaf of quills. Besides, I liked Father Laurence. He was ancient, gentle, wise, and had long ceased to struggle against the enmity of Protestants. “I just want to die in peace,” he would say, “and I’d prefer not to be dragged to the scaffold on a wicker hurdle to have my belly ripped open by some Smithfield butcher.” He was crippled, and could scarcely walk without the help of a companion. The Widow Morrison, I think, let him live rent-free, and I suspected she made confession to him too, but it was best not to ask about things like that, yet most days I would hear footsteps on the lower stairs and the creak of his door and the mutter of voices, and suspect that some person had come to confess their sins and receive absolution. The parish constables must have known too, they were not fools, but he was a harmless old man, and well loved. The new minister of the parish was a fierce young zealot from Oxford who cursed all things of Rome, but when a parishioner lay dying it was often Father Laurence who was summoned, and he would limp down the street in his ancient, threadbare cassock, and local people greeted him with a smile, all but the Puritans, who were more likely to spit as he passed. When I had money I would take him food, coal, or firewood, and I always helped tidy his room after the Percies had ransacked it. “Read more to me,” he said now. “Read more to me!”
“ ‘These are the forgeries of jealousy,’” I read aloud,
“And never since the middle summer’s spring
Met we on hill, in dale, forest, or mead,
By pavéd fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beachéd margent by the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind.”
Father Laurence sighed, a small noise. I looked across the room to see his head had fallen against the high back of his chair, his eyes were closed, and his mouth open. He did not move, made no more sound, and I half started to my feet, thinking he had died. Then he spoke. “ ‘To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind!’” he said very softly. “ ‘To dance our ringlets!’ Oh, how perfect.”
“I remember, when I was a very young priest, seeing a girl dance. She had ringlets too, and her name was Jess.” He sounded sad. “She danced beside a stream did my Jess, and I watched as she danced her ringlets to the whistling wind.” He opened his eyes and smiled at me. “Your brother is so clever!”
“Is he?” I asked dourly.
“You must be more generous, Richard. He speaks with the tongue of an angel.”
“He doesn’t like me.”
“Which is sad,” Father Laurence said. “Perhaps it’s because you’re young and he’s not?”
“He’s not old!”
“Thirty-one, you told me? He’s in his middle age, Richard. And he dislikes you because you have what God never granted him. Good looks. His face is blunt, his chin weak, and his beard sparse. You, on the other hand . . .” He left whatever he was about to say unfinished.
“They call me pretty,” I said resentfully.
“But pretty in a boy grows to handsome in a man, and you’re a man now.”
“Not according to my brother.”
“And he dislikes you too,” Father Laurence went on, “because you remind him of Stratford.”
“He likes Stratford,” I protested. “He keeps telling me he’ll buy property there.”
“You tell me he was born in Stratford, that he grew up and married there, but I wonder if he was ever happy there. I think he became a different man in London, and he doesn’t want to be reminded of the old, unhappy William.”
“Then why would he buy property there?”
“Because when he returns, Richard, he would be the biggest man in town. He wants revenge on his childhood. He wants the respect of the town. Saint Paul tells us that when we were children we spoke as children, we understood and thought as children, but when we become men we put away childish things, but I’m not so sure we ever do put them away. I think the childish things linger on, and your brother craves what he wanted as a child, the respect of his hometown.”
FOOLS AND MORTALS. Copyright © by Bernard Cornwell
Reprinted here with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers