THE SERPENT OF VENICE
by Christopher Moore
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Having tackled Shakespeare in Fool, Christopher Moore continues his beat down of the Bard in The Serpent of Venice, in which Pocket, the titular character from the previous book finds himself in a Venice populated with characters from Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice. Moore skillfully weaves the plots of those two plays together, setting their action several centuries earlier than Shakespeare did in a manner which appears organic.
The novel opens with Pocket finding himself captured by the three villains of the novel, Venetian Senator Brabantio, Iago (both from Othello), and the Merchant Antonio (from The Merchant of Venice). Following his escape, Pocket plots his revenge against the three men, finding himself caught in the midst of the plots of both of Shakespeare’s plays with Brabantio having two daughters, one Desdemona, as appears in Othello, but also Portia, from The Merchant of Venice. Moore slowly allows the plots of both plays to move towards their inexorable conclusions with Pocket witnessing the action and trying to change it, leading to a relatively subtle examination of predestination.
With action moving from Venice to Corsica to Venice’s economic rival, Genoa, Moore gives himself a large set against which two act out Shakespeare’s two plays. Moore adds additional elements to the novel from the introduction of an historical figure to the appearance of a supernatural being, thought by Puck to be a mermaid, but the real identity of which is hinted at by the novel’s title.
Throughout the novel, not only does Pocket comment, and try to influence, Shakespeare’s plots, but so does Chorus, an omniscient exterior voice that comments on the plot in a manner which tends not to add anything except humor and which is reminiscent of the narrator in the television series The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, who would occasionally reveal important details to the characters. When Chorus isn’t just annoying Pocket and some of the others, Chorus does cause Iago, for instance, to rethink his actions. There is plenty of humor in The Serpent of Venice and Moore could have left Chorus out entirely, but Chorus's inclusion adds an additional element of humor.
Many of the character’s speeches, especially when it comes to lengthy monologues, have a Shakespearean rhythm, often because Moore is borrowing phrases, although not whole passages, from Shakespeare, and weaves them, along with his own dialogue, to the needs of his characters and his plot. The result supports the general Shakespearean tone the novel has, adding texture to Moore's use of the two plays.
While Shakespeare had to remain completely within the constructs of his two plays, Moore allows himself the luxury of having an outsider, Pocket (and, to a lesser extent Chorus) who can comment on the action and activities of the Shakespearean characters, bringing along not only a twenty-first sensibility, but also five centuries of commentary to the plays. So when Portia takes up her unlikely role of judge in The Merchant of Venice, Pocket is there to point out the discontinuity Shakespeare offered his audience.
Those readers familiar with Shakespeare will get the most out of The Serpent of Venice, but it can readily be enjoyed by those with only a passing knowledge of the bard, moreso than Pocket's first outing in Fool. The two plays' plots weaves together quite nicely, making Iago even more villainous that Shakespeare has depicted him. Shylock comes across as more sympathetic, although what Moore does to his daughter is distinctly not canonical, but certainly fun.
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