by Christopher Moore
Little, Brown HK$94
It may seem foolhardy, madcap even, to revisit the Bard's sacred work but that's what surrealist US author Christopher Moore has done with Fool, his bawdy retelling of Shakespeare's mad sovereign, King Lear, through the eyes of his jester (the Fool).
Fool is a brave and interesting idea, as much a tribute to British humour as it is to Shakespeare himself. Anyone who has read Moore's previous works, such as Practical Demonkeeping and Bloodsucking Fiends, knows that he juggles satire with slapstick comedy, often combining the two to hilarious - and outrageous - effect.
Fool is set in 1288. The king's jester, Pocket, and his dimwit apprentice, Drool, set out to clean up the mess Lear has made of his kingdom, his family and his fortune in giving away his lands to his two greedy daughters, Goneril and Reagan, while disowning the third (and only loyal) daughter, Cordelia - who is also the only one to tell him the truth.
In this high-octane version, Moore takes a tragedy and milks it for all the laughs he can get. Pocket mercilessly deflowers all and sundry, revealing the true villains as he takes aim with a satirist's cruel wit at those (mostly scheming, loathsome individuals) around him.
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 melancholic Cordelia laugh. It's also a tale of his self-discovery: about identity and family, and his own destiny in the future kingdom. If this remained a play, it would leave the cast (and audience) exhausted with constant scene and costume changes.
There's more murder, mayhem and mistaken identities than Shakespeare could ever have handled, but Moore deftly handles everything with a very knowing 21st-century eye.
The whole book is written as a grand joke, really: a joke on the king, on his scheming daughters and their husbands, as well as the toadies and lackeys that hang onto their coat tails, hoping for rewards. Fool's verbal skirmishes offer Pocket some masterful opportunities for ribaldry and fun at these characters' expense.
Moore himself admits that he borrows from at least a dozen of the Bard's plays for this serving of tragedy, comedy and medieval porn.
It's a manic, masterly mix. Beware, though: there's more bodily fluids, beasts with two backs and rapscallions than you can shake a nonny stick at.