by Christopher Moore
Christopher Moore Has His Bawdy Way with Shakespeare's King Lear
A review by Michael Dirda
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard had the clever idea of retelling Hamlet from the point of view of two of its minor characters. Even before that, James Thurber addressed the problem of The Macbeth Murder Mystery, treating Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy as if it were an Agatha Christie whodunit. It turns out that Macbeth and his good lady were falsely blamed for the death of King Duncan, the real murderer being absolutely the least likely character. Similarly, the 1950s film Forbidden Planet gave a science-fiction twist to The Tempest, even as the musical West Side Story copied and updated the plot of Romeo and Juliet.
As the king of dramatists, Shakespeare has long invited every form of pastiche, parody and general lese-majeste. But to turn the darkly depressing King Lear into a comedy requires more than ordinary chutzpah. Yet who better to give it a try than Christopher Moore, author of the famously outrageous and funny Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal? As Moore's prefatorial "Warning" to Fool explicitly states, the result is "a bawdy tale." Very bawdy. We're talking country matters here, the beast with two backs, coxcombs and poxes, scullions and cullions, all the most intimate body fluids and exudations.
In truth, Fool is exuberantly, tirelessly, brazenly profane, vulgar, crude, sexist, blasphemous and obscene. Compared to Moore's novel, even Mel Brooks's hilariously tasteless film "Blazing Saddles" appears a model of stately 18th-century decorousness. To quote carelessly from Fool would strain the forbearance of this family newspaper. Suffice it to say that variants of the f-word and its English cousins -- the marginally more acceptable, because less familiar "shag" and "bonk" -- appear on every page, not only as intensifiers and expletives but also as apt descriptions for what is happening right before our eyes on the tapestried divan with Princess Goneril or behind the arras with her sister Regan. Virtually every woman in this novel -- from the cook and the laundress to a holy anchoress and three witches -- demonstrates what Moore calls, in one of his rare euphemisms, "a generous spirit in the dark." Our narrator and hero is Pocket, King Lear's jester or fool. Originally a foundling reared by nuns and once a traveling mummer (actor/acrobat/clown), he is a young man of multiple talents: Pocket can forge letters, throw knives with deadly accuracy, caper with equal ease among the high and the low and, most of important all, make the melancholy Cordelia laugh. He even boasts an apprentice named Drool, a man-mountain of limited intelligence but spaniel-like loyalty and a not-too-distant cousin of Mongo from Blazing Saddles.
As the novel opens, old Lear has been persuaded to divvy up his kingdom among his three daughters and in return expects arias of impassioned devotion and gratitude, which the hypocritical (but very sexy) Goneril and Regan enthusiastically deliver. Cordelia refuses to exaggerate her affection for her father and is duly sent packing, married off without a dowry to the king of France. Ye Olde Britain is then divided between the two lying-through-their-teeth sisters, the medieval equivalents of Vampirella and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS.
Before long, Lear's darling daughters are cuckolding their ducal husbands while conspiring against each other and with the sleekly wicked Edmund, the bastard son of the Duke of Gloucester. Once fully heart-broken and divested of his retainers, the now howling-mad Lear is driven from his castle into the raging storm, with only Pocket left to set matters right. Can he do it? So many things are rotten in the state of Britain, and a fair number of them involve cold-blooded murder, madness, sexual frenzy and rape and, of course, torture (up to and including the plucking out of eyes), not that one should discount the occasional ghostly visitation, a bit of sorcery and witchcraft, and all-out war.
Needless to say, Pocket turns out to be much more than just your ordinary fool in motley. All comedies approach the tragic, avoiding it at the last minute through some fateful revelation or convenient deus ex machina. In Fool Moore takes a tragedy -- after all, Lear ends with almost everybody dead -- and plays it for laughs, largely through the exuberance of the novel's shaggy, slangy diction. Pocket spiels like a music-hall comedian, with a relentless spate of winking and blatant sexual banter and a constant patter of quips, japes and backtalk. Take this confrontation with the satinly evil Edmund:
"I said, 'Thou scaly scalawag of a corpse-gorged carrion worm, cease your feast on the bodies of your betters and receive the Black Fool before vengeful spirits come to wrench the twisted soul from your body and drag it into the darkest depths of hell for your treachery.'
" 'Oh, well spoken, fool,' said Edmund.
" 'You think so?'
" 'Oh yes, I'm cut to the quick. I may never recover.'
" 'Completely impromptu,' said I. 'With time and polish -- well, I could go out and return with a keener edge on it.'
" 'Perish the thought,' said the bastard."
I suspect that such deadly politeness owes more than a little to the similarly elegant sarcasm found in films like The Princess Bride and comparable fractured fairytales.
While much of the humor of Fool is Rabelaisian and full of priapic gusto, Moore will stoop to any form of joking. Virtually every geographical location is a bad pun of the groan-inducing variety, my favorite being the city of Lint-upon-Tweed. The three witches are named Parsley, Sage and Rosemary, and when the old knight Kent naturally asks, "What, no Thyme?" witch Rosemary answers with a badabing: "Oh, we've the time if you've the inclination, handsome." An ambitious troupe of traveling mummers hopes to stage the classic but ever-fresh Green Eggs and Hamlet. The king of France is named Jeff.
There are, naturally, more than a few pokes at modern-day politics and religion. On the very first page we are told that a thousand years ago "George II, idiot king of Merica, destroyed the world." We also learn that "after the Thirteenth Holy Crusade," it was decided that to avoid future strife "the birthplace of Jesus would be moved to a different city every four years."
Less welcome, indeed an artistic misjudgment, is the steady dog-trot of word-notes and definitions at the bottom of the page. These interrupt the narrative flow for no discernibly good reason. They're not funny, so they can't be sending up the kind of annotation found in scholarly editions of Shakespeare, but neither are they particularly useful. Does it really matter to tell the reader, without even a glint of humor, that a chamberlain is "usually a servant in charge of running a castle or household" and that an iamb is "a metrical foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable"?
While usually a merry prankster, at times Pocket grows as melancholy as Jaques in "As You Like It" and then speaks with a somber, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, Shakespearean majesty: "Oh, we are but soft and squishy bags of mortality rolling in a bin of sharp circumstance, leaking life until we collapse, flaccid, into our own despair." Sometimes our hero even grows sentimental: "Ah, Goneril, Goneril, Goneril -- like a distant love chant is her name. Not that it doesn't summon memories of burning urination and putrid discharge, but what romance worth the memory is devoid of the bittersweet?" But before long, Pocket shucks off such unprofessional wistfulness and is back to his usual self, as in this typical riposte: " 'Shall I disrobe for my punishment?' I offered. 'Flagellation? Fellation? Whatever. I am your willing penitent, lady.' "
While Fool is certainly amusing -- especially when read while snowbound in Ohio during late January -- its blithe crudity can grow a little tiresome at times, no matter how much one generally admires Moore's copious and almost Bard-like razzmatazz. I also wondered if anybody, except Drool, could fail to guess the identities of the various mysterious or ghostly personages, let alone have any trouble in foreseeing Pocket's eventual destiny. No matter. If you like Benny Hill's leering music-hall routines or Terry Pratchett's satirical Discworld novels, or George MacDonald Fraser's rumbustious Flashman adventures, not to overlook the less well known comic fiction of, say, Tom Holt and Tom Sharpe, you're almost certain to enjoy Christopher Moore's latest romp. Besides, its hero prances around with bells on. No fooling.
Michael Dirda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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