When I heard on Twitter that somebody’d rewritten King Lear from the Fool’s point of view, I was interested. I don’t know anything about the author, Christopher Moore – but I know King Lear. Actually I read someone else’s review where he said the opposite, he knew Moore’s work but nothing of King Lear itself.
You might be asking yourself the same thing I did – how do you have the Fool narrate, when we Shakespeare geeks know what happens to him at the end of the story?
Thanks to my friends at Harper Collins I was able to find out. My review copy arrived wrapped in a plain brown wrapper with a warning label letting me know just what I was in for:
This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . .
The story does jump right in exactly as I was expecting, a comic novelization of the general plot, picked up right at Act I, Scene I with Gloucester talking about his bastard son. Only now we get running commentary from the foul-mouthed Fool, who is given the name Pocket for the sake of the story. I have to say, I found it hysterical. As I said, I’m not familiar with Moore’s work – but if he writes like this all the time, I’m going to go and get more of it.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the story to lose a few points with me. New characters are introduced, who are not in the story at all. Sure there’s a ghost and the witches of Birnam Wood, but I appreciate that those were more like cameo appearances for the benefit of the Shakespeare geeks. Instead I’m talking about the “other” fool, the apprentice to Pocket, named Drool. Drool also happens to have several traits that are crucial to advancing the plot – he’s monstrously strong, incredibly dimwitted, and has an unnatural gift of speaking in other people’s voices. He’s also the source of much of the more bawdy humor, as he’s pretty much willing to shag anything that will stand still, including an oak tree with a knothole.
Anyway, back to the story. The plot progresses while staying surprisingly true to the Shakespeare’s version (and, I learned, often dipping into Shakespeare’s own source material). We learn many things about the backstory that we’ve always wondered, like the deal with Cordelia’s mother, and more history on Lear’s temper. We also get lots and lots (and lots) of detail that perhaps we didn’t need, like the fact that Pocket was sleeping with both Regan and Goneril. Although the trial that Lear puts him through upon finding this out had one line so funny it had me laughing so hard for so long my wife asked what was wrong with me. I wish I could tell it, but I’ll just say it involves Lear’s dinner and leave it at that, see if you spot it when you get to that part.
I can’t spoil the story for you, but I will say this because I think it could be a deal breaker for some folks : Moore changes the story. He stayed true for so long it actually came as a surprise to me, but near the end things start happening differently, and I realize that rather being “backstage” like something out of a Stoppard play, I was in an alternate universe version of Lear where things did not play out as I knew they did. It’s an interesting moment in a story like this, because either you’re going to be curious to see how things resolve since now anything goes, or you’re going to lose interest because it’s not Shakespeare anymore. I think I was in the latter group.
I highly recommend this book to anybody who, like me, has a sense of humor regarding their Shakespeare. Yes, he adds characters and changes the story. Yes, it’s twelve kinds of filthy and offensive. It’s also very, very funny. And, better, it still remains a tribute to its source material. There’s even an author’s note at the end where, amidst all the apologizing, Moore essentially says what we here at Shakespeare Geek know already – whatever you think you’re about to say, just accept that Shakespeare said it first, and he said it better. A book like this only serves to echo that sentiment. But that doesn’t stop Moore from adding creative suggestions for managing the Shakespeare empire : “Amid all the attractions at Stratford-upon-Avon, I think they should add one where participants are allowed to push King Lears off a high precipice. Rage, wind, blow! Crack your cheeks! AHHHHHhhhhhhhh*splat*.”