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Get fooled again The Serpent of Venice'

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Christopher Moore offers up comedic Shakespearean mash-up

Christopher Moore is one of the most gifted comic novelists going today; he might well be the best voice in popular fiction when it comes to striking a humorous balance between the highbrow and the lowbrow.

His 2009 novel 'Fool' was a perfect example of that balancing act; a comedic retelling of William Shakespeare's 'King Lear' from the lewd, crude and abundantly intelligent perspective of Pocket, Lear's fool. Pocket is one of the richest and most entertaining characters you're ever likely to meet.

And he's back.

Moore's latest is 'The Serpent of Venice' (William Morrow, $26.99). This one drops the irascible Pocket into the midst of a mash-up of two of Shakespeare's most well-known plays 'The Merchant of Venice' and 'Othello' with a liberal sprinkling of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado' thrown in for good measure.

Intrigued yet? Because you really should be.

Pocket finds himself in Venice, still serving as the emissary of the British monarchy despite being lost in purposelessness after the demise of his beloved Cordelia. But what initially promises to be a fairly simple trip quickly goes awry; Pocket has been ambushed by three prominent Venetians the merchant Antonio, the senator Montressor Brabantio and the soldier Iago. The plan is to get rid of Pocket for good and eliminate the nigh-constant (and ever-annoying) impedances the fool places in the way of their quest for power and wealth.

They soon find that Pocket is not so easily dealt with. He is nobody's fool but his own.

As the plot thickens, Pocket's path crosses with a number of classic characters. He's taken into the home of the Jew Shylock and his daughter Jessica. He schemes to manipulate the wedding test set forth for the young and beautiful Portia. He helps facilitate a union between senator's daughter Desdemona and the mighty Moor soldier Othello.

chris moore

Pocket's thick-headed giant apprentice Drool, his naughty monkey Jeff and his foulmouthed puppet Jones also feature prominently as among the few allies that Pocket can trust as he tries to prevent the greedy and power-mad from seizing control of Venice and plunging the city into war. You'll also a mysterious sea monster the Serpent of the title.

Oh, and Marco Polo shows up at one point, because of course he does.

Moore is at his best when he can unleash the full force of his unique combination of freewheeling intelligence, satiric bite and inherent cleverness. That's what we get in 'Serpent'; Moore has stitched together a fascinating and compelling and of course very funny narrative from disparate stories. There's real brilliance in mashing up these two Venetian plays. Of course, the timeline of these tales not to mention the Poe is much different than that of 'King Lear.' Moore displays a deft touch in building a clear continuity.

Moore's recreation of these classic characters offers no shortage of laughs. Of particular note is his ability to subvert Shakespearean conventions a fourth-wall-breaking chorus, references to ubiquitous English accents and combine them with a modern sensibility to create a rich and multi-layered hilarity. His admirable understanding of Shakespeare's works allows him to reinvent tragic figures as comedic foils. The vain Antonio, the unstable Iago, the bratty Portia, the kvetchy Shylock no target is safe from Moore's nimble mind and nimbler wit.

'The Serpent of Venice' is a foul-mouthed and funny romp that also manages to shine a new light on the works of history's greatest playwright. Moore transforms two of the theater's most beloved and powerful tragedies into full-on farce and does so with an economy and seeming ease that will delight longtime fans of the Bard and Shakespearean newcomers alike.

Smart and satiric with an uncanny gift for the absurd, Christopher Moore offers a combination of cleverness and crudity unmatched in literature today.

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 15:46


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