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Shakespeare & Beyond

A witty Fool and foolish wit: Christopher Moore’s Pocket Chronicles

What do you call a story that takes place alongside or within a more famous narrative? Prequels and sequels add background and continuing adventures to characters we’ve come to care about, but there’s no agreed-upon term that defines something like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which looks at the events of Hamlet as they happen from the fresh perspective of two minor characters.

Whatever you call them — side-stories, off-shoots, sidequels, marginals — author Christopher Moore has crafted three fascinating and funny examples. His best-selling comic novels Fool, The Serpent of Venice, and Shakespeare For Squirrels follow Pocket — the royal fool from King Lear — as he interacts with many of Shakespeare’s most complicated characters during the events of their respective plays. In Fool (2009), the first of Moore’s trilogy, Pocket narrates what really happened between Lear, his three daughters, the treacherous Edmund, the loyal Kent, and other characters — revealing how Shakespeare’s tragedy was more bawdy and wickedly comic than you remember. Yet amidst the impertinence and R-rated shenanigans lies a depth of characterization not always readily available in Shakespeare’s text, alongside surprisingly plausible backstories that help make sense of the familiar but complicated family dynamics in a way they often don’t onstage.

Like the finest fools, Pocket — so named because as an orphan raised by nuns in Dog Snogging Abbey he was so tiny he could fit in the Abbess’s apron pocket — tells truth to power, including the reader. Part of the fun of the novels is how Pocket calls out elements of Shakespeare’s plotting that we accept without thinking too closely about. For instance, Kent’s ability to disguise himself so completely that his old friend Lear doesn’t recognize him is far more credibly presented in Fool. And in the opening scene in which Lear famously divides his kingdom in three, Pocket points out that by the time Cordelia is called upon to declare her love for her father, the best thirds of Britain have already been given to her older sisters. There’s literally “nothing” for her to gain by excessive and insincere protestations of love. Viewing Shakespeare’s tragedy through a skeptical comic lens allows us to see events more clearly and, I would argue, be moved by them more profoundly.

Pocket’s version of events also makes the quite reasonable point that Lear might not deserve the tragic nobility that Shakespeare affords him. In fact, several characters meet different fates in Moore’s novels than they do in Shakespeare’s plays, and since Moore wrote two sequels, it’s probably not too much of a spoiler to note that, though “the poor fool” does get “hanged” in a way you don’t expect, he doesn’t disappear or die in this telling of Lear.

In The Serpent of Venice (2014), Pocket travels to Venice as Britain’s royal ambassador and gets involved in the events of both Othello and The Merchant of Venice (with a splash of, for good measure, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado). Because Fool was set “in a more or less mythical 13th-century Britain” — where, “if not otherwise explained, conditions may be considered damp” — Moore backed up Othello’s and Merchant’s original settings 300 years, to a time when Venice profited greatly by being the transport hub for soldiers and supplies during the Crusades. This new historical setting serves as an even better backdrop than Shakespeare’s originals for stories of Venetian military and mercantile chicanery, and the titular serpent becomes the perfect personification — or, as a literal “green-eyed monster,” the monstrification — of Shakespeare’s themes of revenge and jealousy.

Moore imagines a shared universe between Shakespeare’s plays, something the playwright might even have pictured himself, given that Othello and Merchant each boast characters named Gratiano and the Duke of Venice. Noting how both plays explore the ways in which Venetians treat outsiders, Moore rather ingeniously exploits the similarities between the characters, finding strange new bedfellows and allies. In this version of the story, Portia and Desdemona become sisters, and Pocket himself assumes the role of Shylock’s servant Lancelot Gobbo, giving him the opportunity to team up with Emilia, Nerissa, and Jessica to emerge victorious over the narrative’s evil forces. Moore confesses that he’s “always drawn to Shakespeare’s subservient characters,” who are frequently “more clever and more noble than those they serve, and often, the only speakers of truth in the play” — qualities for which Pocket is the poster jester.

Pocket also gets surprising assistance from the title creature, and for those of us who believe Portia is too much of a racist brat to deserve our sympathy and Iago doesn’t get anywhere near the punishment he deserves, The Serpent of Venice is a marvelous corrective to Shakespeare.

Moore loves his supernatural characters — as Pocket has many opportunities to observe, “there’s always a bloody ghost” — and he goes even further than Shakespeare with them in Shakespeare for Squirrels (2020). In this third novel in the trilogy, Pocket travels to Athens and gets mixed up with the events and characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they are fully more fantastical than even Shakespeare imagined. Moore’s Athens is as historically and geographically accurate as Shakespeare’s (which is to say not at all), and it’s filled with not only fairies and a man turned into an ass, but goblins, Amazon warriors, animal transformations, a breathtaking conception of the Fairy King’s Night Palace that could never be realized on any stage, and a better explanation for why Oberon and Titania are fighting over the Indian boy than any I’ve ever seen. Plus: If you’ve ever yearned for Cobweb fan fiction, Shakespeare for Squirrels delivers.

Pocket finds himself investigating the murder of Robin Goodfellow because, as Moore explains in his Afterword, his Fool, both in name and character, is “born of Puck and Nick Bottom.” Like Puck, Pocket “is a rascal, a servant with more presence than his masters, a catalyst for the action, and, like Nick Bottom, he is rather used and abused by powerful females, and not always against his will.” Because a story with both Puck and Pocket in it became (in Moore’s words) “one rascal too many,” one of them had to go, and thankfully, as anyone who’s seen Shakespeare’s play knows, there’s no shortage of suspects who want the annoying and mischievous sprite Puck dead.

To be clear, Moore picks up the ball of Shakespeare’s more risqué material and runs — nay, gallops with it. Pocket is a ribald and sympathetic protagonist, unafraid to borrow lines and have his narrative way with characters from other Shakespeare plays, notably Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night. (And let’s not forget the fourth-wall-breaking Chorus from Henry V and Rumour, Painted Full of Tongues from Henry IV, Part 2.)

Crucially, Moore is also able to make his novels interesting on their own terms so you’re not waiting impatiently for him to get back to the Shakespeare. And when he does return, you go with him with a renewed interest in and fuller understanding of Shakespeare’s characters. Whatever you call stories like these, the chronicles of Pocket of Dog Snogging are irresistible and remain essential reading — and re-reading.