by Christopher Moore
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Following a long stream of novels with eccentric characters placed in strange situation resulting in laugh-out-loud reading, Christopher Moore has published something quite different in his examination of William Shakespeare's King Lear from the point of view of Lear's fool. Although most of Fool follows the plot of King Lear laid out by Shakespeare, Moore is not afraid to provide additional backstory for all of the characters, add new characters, and change the fates of the characters Shakespeare provided.
As the title indicates, the protagonist of Moore's novel is not Lear, but rather Pocket, his fool. Moore reveals that Pocket began life as an orphan given to a nunnery for his raising until he was turned out an joined a band of strolling entertainers before finally settling in Lear's court. In the course of his duties in Lear's court, Pocket has successfully made enemies out of nearly all of Lear's court, with the notable exceptions of Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, and the exiled Earl of Kent.
Despite his lowly position, Pocket sees himself as a major player in the world he inhabits. In addition to having affairs (either real or imagined, the reader does not know at first) with Lear's daughters, he is also intent on plotting to save his king and the kingdom from the treachery of Lear's older daughters, Goneril, Regan, and Gloster's bastard son, Edmurd. For while in King Lear, Edmund is responsible for much plotting, whether against his brother, Edgar, or Lear, this role has been usurped by Pocket, who proves to be as much Kent's master as Lear is.
Late in the novel, there is a backstage aside between the Fool and Edmund which helps sum up the novel In this discussion, the Fool notes whether Fool is a comedy or a tragedy. In Shakespearean parlance, a comedy simply has a happy ending, frequently with marriage occurring. In a tragedy, the protagonist is flawed but admirable. Applying this definition of comedy rather than the modern one makes Fool a much more intriguing novel. Furthermore, Moore introduces many of the comedic techniques used by Shakespeare, from the cuckoldry caused by disguise to bed-hopping and mistaken identities. Moore also pulls from other Shakespearean tragedies, whether a ghost, as is found in Hamlet, or the three witches, as found in MacBeth.
The humor in Fool is more sedate than in Moore’s previous novels, and if the reader is expecting to read the same sort of book as The Stupidest Angel or Lamb, a certain amount of disappointment is sure to follow. Rather than the absurdity of those and other novels, Moore tries to stay close to the story of Lear in his reimagining, which is not to say that there are not humorous lines and activities, merely that it is a more muted humor that frequently takes a back seat to the story. Furthermore, the humor is more bawdy in nature, in keeping with the humor of many of Shakespeare's plays.
Moore also includes language from Shakespeare's plays, sometimes direct quotes from the plays, and not just King Lear, but from the broad repertoire of Shakespeare's canon. When Moore does not rely on Shakespeare's dialogue for his characters, he frequently emulates the cadences and language used by the Bard. While this may create difficult reading for some characters, it also adds to the humor when a distinct modernism is thrown into the archaic language otherwise used.
While Fool is atypical of Moore's writing, it may bring him new readers as it is not as overtly a comedy, and can therefore be seen as a more serious, mainstream novel than You Suck or A Dirty Job and, although different from his earlier works, there is nothing in the book which Moore's fans should find off-putting. Fool is an excellent reimagining of King Lear and much more fully fleshes out the character of Pocket, Lear's fool, whose role has grown from the commentator of the play to the protagonist of the novel.
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