All Shakespeare’s tragedies end with death, but there’s something especially cruel about the way King Lear winds up. It’s arguably the bleakest of the lot even before the final scenes, but that’s when Will really turns the screws, giving the audience the hope of salvation, then cruelly dashing those hopes on some bad timing. For a brief period in the 17th century, the play was even given a happy ending, in which the good guys got married and the bad guys stayed dead. In his new Fool, Christopher Moore (Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal) offers a similar re-imagining, changing the focus from king to jester. Robbing Lear of its darkness ranks low on the Good Idea List, but Moore respects the original; at least he doesn’t expect his version to supplant the Bard’s.
Pocket is a clever fool; his master, Lear, gives him free rein to vent his wit, and he takes full advantage of the leniency, insulting lords and ladies with equal fervor. He also favors a good shag where he can get it, and he spends the little free time he has between sex and sarcasm mooning over the king’s youngest daughter, Cordelia. When Lear banishes Cordelia in favor of her flattering sisters, Pocket launches a campaign of manipulation and lies to protect the king and restore some semblance of order to England. But then a ghost shows up with a trio of witches, who bring just enough backstory into the picture to throw everything out of joint.
Fool has more than its share of bawdy jokes, terrible puns, and sexual slapstick. Moore also does his best to give his punchlines an emotional core; nearly everyone’s problems fall at the feet of the mad king, and the way Pocket’s frustration gradually turns to rage is decently handled. There’s enough change here that Moore might’ve been better off foregoing his source material—having Pocket be behind every major betrayal of the play gets old fast, as does his sexual trickery with Cordelia’s sisters Regan and Goneril, and the inevitable comparisons to the original play don’t reflect well on the new version. Fool has enough laughs to recommend it, and the story moves at a good clip; just don’t listen too closely to all that sound and fury, lest it fall apart entirely.