Book Review - A Fool’s pleasure

Karl Marx famously said that history repeats itself, once as tragedy, twice as farce. King Lear may not have been an actual English regent, but he looms larger than most historical royals as the title role in one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. And if the Bard gave King Lear his tragedy, cult author Christopher Moore somersaults in for the farce with Fool.

The comedic novelist offers a bawdy, balls-out take on King Lear with a loose version of the plot from the point of view of Lear’s fool. The tragedy’s jester provides the perfect point of entry for a post-modern goof on King Lear, since the role’s rather ambiguous in the play, with an indeterminate age and a tendency to pop in and out of the action. Moore officially gives him a name, Pocket, and a sense of humor that elicits belly laughs from the kind of modern audiences unlikely to giggle at codpiece jokes.

Moore retains the play’s basic outline, including Lear’s vain, disastrous decision to divide his kingdom among his daughters and cast out good-hearted Cordelia while trusting her flattering elders, Goneril and Regan. In the play, Lear’s pride, cruelty and poor judgment bring doom upon his family and England, but Fool reveals that Pocket was the well-intentioned puppet master behind the vicious actions of Goneril, Regan and Edmund, the black-clad bastard.

Fool incorporates some of Shakespeare’s speeches but strays enormously from the text by including a rhyming ghost and the soothsaying witches from Macbeth. Moore acknowledges that Fool pays tribute to Shakespeare, but as he explains in “You Cheeky Git – An Author’s Note,” he particularly wanted to take a romp through a particular brand of English comedy. Fool could be the book that fans of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Rowan Atkinson’s “The Black Adder” TV series have been waiting for. You can almost feel the American author’s delight at using words such as “shag” and “roger” as verbs. Like Douglas Adams, the Brit wit who created The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Moore infuses his writing with a sense of ease even when describing threats of violence and complex palace skullduggery.

Fool doesn’t bother with the philosophical ambitions of other revisionist Shakespeare works such as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In a way, however, it serves as a specific kind of literary criticism. Pocket’s increasing hostility toward King Lear (who deserves less mercy here than in Shakespeare’s play) gives the Fool a chance to speak truth to power and tradition. It’s as if Moore not only gave Shakespeare’s Fool the license to confront Lear with his royal misdeeds, but also to rewrite the story to his liking. Moore’s grand joke ends up being on Shakespeare, but I suspect that the Bard would give Pocket a chuckle.

Fool by Christopher Moore. William Morrow. $24.95. 336 pp.