Christopher Moore’s Fool is not as good as William Shakespeare’s King Lear.
It’s bold statements of that sort that will put this blog on the map! Stick with me folks. I’m actually going somewhere with this.
Fool is a humorous retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the perspective of The Fool, a minor character from the play whose role it is to speak truth to power. I actually re-read King Lear in anticipation of reading Fool which, in retrospect, was a mistake as it prevented me from enjoying Fool on its own merits.
It’s not so much that Christopher Moore suffers in comparison to Shakespeare because, let’s be honest, short of Cormac McCarthy and a small handful of modern writers, who doesn’t? Moore wasn’t trying to compete with Shakespeare. He just wanted to write a book paying homage to British humor and to have an excuse to user fun words like wanker, tosser and git.
Neither is it the case that I think Shakespeare is a sacred cow whose works are not to be sullied with boner jokes. I’m sure Will was a fan of boner jokes himself and he never met a story that he didn’t crib. On some levels, Fool is also an homage to Tom Stoppard whose play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead is a brilliant retelling of Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters.
So I don’t take issue with the fact that Christopher Moore took liberties with the story of King Lear. The problem I had was that I disagree with the changes Moore makes on a dramatic level. Shakespeare’s King Lear is not exactly a sympathetic character, but neither is he a detestable one. It is not a stretch to extrapolate that a man who disowns his daughter for eschewing disingenuous flattery and banishes his best friend for speaking truth to power might be a bit of a prick. By casting Lear as a villain with few redeeming qualities, however, Moore lessens the virtue of those who remain loyal to Lear. Cordelia, Kent, Gloucester and even Albany to an extent, are noble not because they are blindly loyal to the throne, but rather because they remain supportive of Lear, the man, whose lapses in judgement cost him dearly.
On the other side of the coin, injecting the Fool into the machinations swirling around Lear and Gloucester, lessens the villainy of those plotting against these good men to further their own ends. The central tension of King Lear is the duplicity of Regan, Goneril and Edmund contrasted with the fealty of Cordelia and Edgar. Recasting the villains as pawns and victims of enchantment let’s them off the hook and deprives the story of its bite.
All of that having been said, I again acknowledge that the problem is not so much Christopher Moore’s, but rather mine for reading Fool right on the heels of King Lear, blinding me to the merits of the former story. Christopher Moore was not trying to compete with Shakespeare — He wanted to tell his own story using the same characters. It happens to be a damn funny and engaging story in its own right and I regret that my appreciation of that story was colored by my inability to divorce the two stories from one another.