Some of the best roles in Shakespeare's play aren't the title role. Ask any actor who he'd rather play in Julius Caesar, and old Julius will be well down the list, as he doesn't even make it halfway through the play. Even in those plays like Othello, where the lead has a lot to do, it's Iago, the villain of the piece, that is by far the juicier role.
While the part of The Fool in King Lear is not as substantial as that of Iago, he's still one of those secondary characters that many actors would give their eye teeth to play. When Kenneth Branagh was still staging live theatre productions, Emma Thompson, his wife at the time, played the role of the Fool in his staging of King Lear and practically stole the show.
So the idea of retelling the story of Lear from the point of view of the Fool as Christopher Moore has done in Fool, published by Harper Collins Canada, is an interesting idea, especially if one were wanting to turn the story into a bawdy farce that's as much a tribute to British humour as is it is to Shakespeare. Anyone who has read any of Moore's previous works knows that he is as capable of writing intelligent, subtle satire as he is pie in the face slapstick, and often combines the two with great success to write stories that are both thought-provoking and hilarious.
While Fool tends to lean more towards the outrageous than the subtle, imagine King Lear being staged as an episode of Fawlty Towers, it's kept from descending into mindless farce by Moore occasionally injecting doses of reality.
For those not familiar with the basic plot of Lear, an elderly king of England decides the time has come to split his kingdom between his three daughters, and bases his decision on who gets what on how much each love him. Being a vain old man he allows his two eldest daughters, Regan and Goneril, to flatter him with false words of love. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to play that game he disinherits her and splits his kingdom between his two eldest daughters with the proviso that he live half the year with one, and half the year with the other, while Cordelia is married off to a Prince of France and banished from England.
As it turns out, of course, Regan and Goneril show their true colours fairly soon and refuse to take care of Lear and end up plotting against each other for sole control of the kingdom.
In Shakespeare's version of events a third character, Edward, the illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, is the one who contrives to set the two daughters against each other by feigning love for both of them. In the version of events as narrated by Pocket, Fool (or Court Jester as we'd call him) to the court of King Lear, he's the puppet master behind the scenes doing his best to manipulate events.
Unfortunately too many of his puppets have minds of their own and his plans quickly go awry. Initially he had hoped to ensure that Cordelia, his favourite among the three sisters, would remain at home in England and not be married off to a foreign prince, and when that fails he's left scrambling to find ways to make things right.
While Moore adheres pretty much to the storyline of Lear as Shakespeare wrote it, it doesn't stop him from adding in a few extras from other plays as well. There's a vengeful ghost, shades of Hamlet (because there's always a "bloody ghost"), as well as a couple of guest appearances from the three witches of Macbeth, Parsley, Sage, and Rosemary, ("What no Thyme" said Kent. "We've the got the time if you've got the inclination") to help propel the plot along.
Of course the major difference between the original and Moore's version is the tone; instead of Lear the tragic hero undone by his flaw of vanity as the main theme we are treated to a ribald adventure along the lines of The Decameron.
In most instances, when a modern writer attempts to satirize Shakespeare they fall flat, because no matter what they do their efforts pale in comparison to the original. What separates Moore's effort from any of the others that I've read is the fact he is able to reproduce the tone and spirit of the original in his use of language. Even though he is writing in mainly modern vernacular when his characters resort to bawdy language he draws upon the vast and colourful vocabulary of Elizabethan England giving them a verisimilitude lacking in most modern attempts at creating characters from this time period.
However it's more than just his characterization that makes the story work, it's the fact that underneath all the humour and silliness one can't help but see Moore's admiration for the original work. Whether it's his adherence to the original story line, or the fact he retains some of the more powerful lines from the script – Lear calling on the storm to blast him after he's been betrayed by Regan and Goneril and wandering upon the heath on the verge of madness, for instance – it all adds to the overall sensation that although Moore is having fun with the the text, he's not making fun of it.
In his afterword to the novel, where he explains how and why he came to write Fool, Moore tells us not to bother going back to the original script to compare the two as he's drawn upon a number of Shakespeare's plays as a sources for dialogue. However, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, what Moore managed to do is actually increase my appreciation for the original: his reimagining was so well done that it reminded me what a wonderful play he had based his story upon.
It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but a codicil to that should be added that includes a work like Fool. What Moore has done with Fool is taken one of the great works of literature, King Lear, turned it on its head, and in the process reminded us of Shakespeare's genius. Genuinely funny, and wonderfully irreverent, Fool will appeal to any reader, whether they are familiar with the original work or not.