King Lear – the comedy version!

Fool by Christopher Moore

It’s a brave man that takes on Shakespeare.  It’s an even braver one that takes a tragedy and makes a bawdy comedy of it!  Moore has taken a deep breath and re-told King Lear from the Fool’s perspective.  Now I’ve seen three different productions of Lear – it’s unrelentingly tragic, nary a chuckle to be had in the whole thing – will it work as a comedy? 

I know Moore from his rather Tarantinoesque vampire novels, Bloodsucking Fiendsand You Suckwhich were very funny, and full of sick, warped and ultraviolent humour, so I sort of knew what to expect here.  But just in case you’re in any doubt, Moore prefaces the novel with the following …

‘This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity,…If that’s the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!

Moore leaves the main plot of Lear in tact: the King is still a bitter and twisted old man, his elder daughters are still really nasty pieces of work, Gloucester still has his eyes gouged out, and there is treachery and betrayal around almost every corner. Putting the Fool, here nicknamed Pocket, at the centre of things livens everything up tremendously. Pocket becomes the go-between twixt all the factions, and does a considerable amount of stirring himself, particularly as many of the characters, Cornwall (Regan’s hubby) and Edmund (Gloucester’s bastard son) would dearly love to kill him. But he’s under the protection of the increasingly mad king, and charged in particular with ‘entertaining’ his daughters, so this allows Pocket to actively bait his enemies and being nimble of foot and quick-witted he always manages to get away. He gives the Fool a back-story too – Pocket is brought up as the only boy in a Nunnery, where he’d been abandoned as a baby. He’s given the job of talking to the ‘Anchoress’, a holy woman, walled up in a cell – eventually he finds another use for the arrow slit that is her only window on the world and has to go!

Moore does take huge liberties. There are references to and quotes from much of Shakepeare’s oeuvre (see below), and by locating Albany’s castle (Goneril’s Hubby) in Scotland, he’s able to have Pocket and Kent visit Macbeth’s witches in what I’d call a ‘cooking sketch’ (après Keith Floyd). He’s also free with anachronisms (as long as they make a joke); here Pocket meets a troupe of travelling lesbians, thespians …

‘We’ve been rehearsing a classic from antiquity, Green Eggs and Hamlet, the story of a young prince of Denmark who goes mad, drowns his girlfriend, and in his remorse, forces spoiled breakfasts on all whom he meets. It was pieced together from fragments of an ancient Merican manuscript.’
‘No,’ said I. ‘I think it will be too esoteric for the king. He is old and nods off during long performances.’
‘Shame,’ said big hat. ‘A moving piece. Let me do a selection for you. “Green eggs, or not green eggs? That is the question. Whether ’til nobler in the mind to eat them in a box, with a fox-” ‘
‘Stop!’ said I. ‘Go now, and quickly. War has come to the land and rumor has it that as soon as they’ve finished with the lawyers, they’re going to kill all the actors.’

You get the picture! Does it work? Well mostly … It obviously helps if you’ve seen or read the play, and have some familiarity with Shakespeare’s other best bits. The caution at the start is a great summary, for sensitive souls and those who dislike coarse language will not get on with the book; the broad-minded who like a laugh will certainly have some shagtastic fun reading this. The only problem is, that like the play, it does go on a bit and I was beginning to tire of this medieval romp, but all in all I really enjoyed it. The author’s afterword is also worth reading. Moore explains how it all came about in characteristically humorous fashion. The end result is that I’d happily read more Moore – one of his previous books for instance (very topical) is Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ`s Childhood Pal!

(7.5/10, book chosen from Amazon Vine)

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9 thoughts on “King Lear – the comedy version!

  1. i saw this in the bookstore yesterday and paused over it. thanks for the great review! i think i’ll wait to pick this one up until i’ve had a chance to read hamlet again, since i don’t remember much from my original high school read through of it.

  2. I saw an RSC production of Lear, at the Barbican in 1991, that actually did get some laughs. These came not only from the Fool but also from a soliloquy by the scheming Edmund, the words of which, to my shame, I cannot recall.

    • You have a good memory David. Was that the Robert Stephens one? I saw that, don’t remember the laughs – but there are usually a few in amongst the darkness!

      • Via the magic of the web, as opposed to my memory, I’ve been able to look up that the version I saw had John Wood as Lear. It was Ralph Fiennes as Edmund. The producer was Nicholas Hytner, now at the National, of course.

  3. I’ve heard of this book before, but (I feel very stupid admitting this) I had no idea it was an adaptation of Lear. Which, er, I also haven’t read. But this sounds funny!

    • I do think you’d get more fun out of it if you’d read/seen the play, but it is funny in its own right too.

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