The fun of Serpents and Shylocks and Moors and Poe

Daniel J. Rowe

Christopher Moore’s menage of Othello, Merchant of Venice and the Cask of Amontillado  is so much dang fun that it would smite my place as a bard brawler not to recommend picking the book up and diving in. Just beware of sea monsters.

Christopher Moore gets from the Bard to Poe to a sea serpent in style in the Serpent of Venice
Christopher Moore gets from the Bard to Poe to a sea serpent in style in the Serpent of Venice

The story begins with three men waiting in Venice for a fool to arrive. The plot is laid for them to off the fool, so they can proceed to reap the bounteous fortunes that await them. They even took care of the monkey. One poisoning later, and the Fool is chained to a wall and being sealed in brick-by-brick by the father of the his sister-in-law. Ba-da-bing and we just got from William Shakespeare to Edgar Allen Poe and we’re only in the second chapter.

And the sea snake hasn’t even showed up!

Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice is a great read that thumps from cover-to-cover with the funny, clever, sometimes really gross rhythm welcome on any Bard Brawler’s shelf.

The book follows the Fool (King Lear’s fool), as he wanders through a Venice haunted by a sea creature that does dirty things to the Fool and deadly things to those you want deadly things done to. The serpent is one of the few characters Shakespeare did not have in either of the plays the plot follows, but I’m sure the bard would have welcomed her presence. At least I hope he would.

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story kicks the story off, and the rest of the novel follows the plots of Othello and Merchant of Venice more or less with a cameo from Marco Polo.

Okay, now you’re showing off Moore.

The book is the ultimate response to the comment, “I want to read Shakespeare, but I don’t understand what’s going on.” The book is simple to follow, and incredibly fun. Iago, Othello, Antonio, Jessica, Shylock and Lorenzo are all there, and Moore is damn clever in twisting the plots together so it reads like one clear novel about a poor Fool trying to avenge the murder of his wife Cordelia? Yep, Lear’s youngest married the Fool in the end. Why not? The speeches are there, as is a general commentary on the plot lines complete with modern swears, sexiness and a bit with a monkey.

Moore also does what all who watch Shakespeare plays secretly want to do: scream at the characters and question their motivations. Why can’t enough be enough Macbeth? Why do you have to think so much Hamlet? Or as the Fool says to Othello in Moore’s book:

Fine. So you would accuse your lady of being untrue – your lady, who did throw all of Venice away for you, stood up to the most powerful men in the republic, for you, Moor,; she you would accuse, without any evidence but the comment of another, yet Iago, who you know to be a villain, a cutthroat, and a traitor – for him you need proof beyond my word? Respect my judgement in this, Othello, if in nothing else, or thou art a fool.

Yeah Othello. Think before you act.

The book also cleverly works in the soliloquies and famous lines from each play ad-libbing here and there, and adding reaction from other characters so that even those who don’t know a lick of Shakespeare will give that, ‘huh. I’ve heard that somewhere,’ or better yet, an ‘oh. I get it now.’

The Serpent of Venice was a joy to read. It adds the flare and seduction of the Bard with the page-turning joy of a clever modern fantasy tale. And how can you not be happy to read what happens to Lorenzo. I’m always sad when I hear sweet music indeed, Jessica. Boom.

The joy of reading Shakespeare is not always an easy sell, and so it’s a pleasure when someone like Moore comes along and makes it come off so easily.

I feel like Moore would be a great bard brawler, and thus could do nothing but commend him for his efforts with the Serpent of Venice. Those students struggling through either Merchant of Venice or Othello would do well to pick up a copy of Moore’s book, and you’ll be well on your way. Of course, you could always just listen to the Bard Brawl podcast, and that would do just as well. Either way.


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