I don’t normally like comedies. In almost any genre. Modern comedic movies usually inflict me with bowel irritation for an hour and a half. Television’s situational comedies can sometimes induce vomity convulsions of the throat; if a laughtrack is part of the event, a hospital visit may become necessary. Most old school comedy-plays (from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Shaw) leave me stoned face; I especially loath comedy based on mistaken identity—and I will run screaming, preferably naked, away from any play wherein men dress-up as women and women as men (“Oh, please madam, remove that codpiece– I may bust a gut.”). Funny songs I sometimes enjoy—the first time I hear them; after that… meh. Weird Al, Flight Of The Conchords, LMFAO… all good for a chuckle… once every five years, thank you.
And then there are books… From Tina Fey to David Sedaris, they just don’t do it for me. I’m not sure why. I have really enjoyed some funny books: the Far Side and Calvin And Hobbes comic strip collections to name a couple. I also enjoyed Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. You’d think, being I prefer funny business that is also thought-provoking or that makes me see life from a new or bizarre angle, I would like Tom Robbins; but I really only find him so-so.
But I recently discovered a novel that made me smile the whole way through and never made me want to put it down. And when I did have to put it down, I would actually look forward to picking it up again. The book became like dessert for me—I’d read all my “real” stuff first, and then when I was done with my work for the day or needed a break—I’d pick up the book as a reward.
The book is Fool by Christopher Moore. It is the story of King Lear told from the perspective of the King’s fool, Pocket. It definitely reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that it has that behind the scenes feel, is witty, and often makes me laugh. However, it is much more ribald than R and G. A joke about sex—a very explicit joke about sex—is never far away in Fool.
In Moore’s version of the Lear story, it is the Fool who is pulling most of the strings and driving events in the story. Actually, the plot eventually becomes too tedious and intricate, but it doesn’t really matter because the plot, except for the joy of watching it intersect with Shakespeare’s play, isn’t really all that important.
The Fool, Pocket, is our narrator. He describes his role as the King’s fool as being “an amusing ornament. A tiny reminder of conscience and humanity, tempered with enough humor so it can be dismissed.” He realizes he is also there to be the butt of jokes, since “the dull always seek to be clever at the fool’s expense.”
The tone of the novel, besides being bawdy, is irreverent at every turn, with footnotes such as this one for “sirrah”: “sirrah – form of address; ‘dude’ ”
There are also plenty of jokes that go deeper than the punchline, like:
“Life is loneliness, broken only by the gods taunting us with friendship and the odd bonk.”
“Oh, we are but soft squishy bags of mortality rolling in a bin of sharp circumstance, leaking life until we collapse, flaccid, into our own despair.”
(Yep… to me, THAT’s funny!) Then there’s this little exchange:
Kent: “You’ve a deeply wicked side, Pocket.” Pocket: “Truth has a deeply wicked side, Kent.”
At one point, Pocket teaches us some history: Once upon a time, there were dueling Popes, the Retail Pope, and the Discount Pope. In their contest for adherents, they kept one-upping each other when it came to who would forgive sins the easiest. Eventually, anything could be forgiven for a small price. But then, says Pocket, Hell became meaningless. “Without Hell, there was no fear, and without fear, there was no further need for the Church to supply redemption” […] “Why not get pissed and dance naked around a pole if the worst of it was a rash on the naughty bits and the dropping of the odd bastard now and then?”
Another thing that Moore does is to inject a bit of morality play into the Lear tragedy. He takes pains to make certain that everyone who comes to a bad end more or less deserves it. Of course, his job is probably made easier being that most of us deserve far worse than we receive.
Gloucester’s son, Edward (who is falsely accused of treason and has to go into hiding), believes he deserves his fate since his whole life he “took all without thought for those who had nothing.” Lear, who suffers center-stage in the story, admits that “I have been selfish.” […] “My kingdom is the fruit of treachery, and treachery I have reaped.” Gloucester (who is brutally blinded during the story) says near death that, “I grow cold, cold—but at least I take my wrong-doings to my grave,” and our Fool says of Gloucester that he was really blinded long before his eyes were plucked out, “blinded by loyalty. Blinded by title. Blinded by shoddy patriotism and false righteousness.”
Lastly, Moore is writing a comedy here, not a tragedy, so be prepared for a happy ending (well, I guess depending upon whose point of view your looking through).
Moore claims that he is not the first to change King Lear so that it has a happy ending. According to him (and I tend to trust him, though he could be pulling my leg, as with his footnotes), England’s first poet laureate, Nathan Tate, rewrote Lear with a happy ending (Cordelia marries Edgar, Lear and Cordelia make-up). Moore also claims that it was this happy ending version that was performed for decades before the poet Alexander Pope pieced together several extant copies of King Lear and reintroduced the tragic ending.
Makes me wonder if Hamlet ever had a happy ending… meaning, well, maybe at least one main character lived at the end.