The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore – Moore’s latest novel is a follow-up to his earlier Fool, a take on Shakespeare’s King Lear. This one combines elements of two plays, The Merchant of Venice and Othello, both of which I read in preparation for the Moore story. There’s a bit in the afterword about whether Merchant should be considered an antisemitic play. I’d heard a lot about Shylock being a greedy Jewish stereotype, and it was not at all exaggerated. That was pretty much what was expected in popular entertainment in Shakespeare’s time, however. Othello was largely based on an earlier story that was intended to warn against miscegenation, but I think Shakespeare actually curtailed the racism somewhat. In the play, Othello’s problem wasn’t that he was African, but that he trusted a scheming villain.
Moore not only adds an element of fantasy and a lot of raunchy humor to the Venetian plays, but also flips how some of the characters are portrayed. Instead of the hero, Antonio from Merchant is in cahoots with Iago to start a new Crusade. Shylock is still stubborn, but presented more sympathetically. After all, the other Christian characters treat hm shabbily for no real reason other than his heritage, so as extreme as his plans for revenge might be, we can see why he might be driven to it. Moore didn’t originate the portrayal of Shylock as sympathetic, but he continued quite well in that vein. Pocket, the fool from the earlier novel, reappears as the main viewpoint character. Originally caught in a trap based on the one in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, he escapes with the aid of a sea serpent, and has to do his best to expose the plot. As Fool was set in a fictional thirteenth-century England, Serpent is set not long after that, even though the plays were likely intended to be contemporary. This allows Moore to bring in Marco Polo as a character. Pocket has a good bit toward the end about Christian hypocrisy: “You lead in with his ‘suffer the little children to come unto me,’ when it’s convenient, but the whole time you got your vengeful Old Testament God right behind, like a wicked dagger hidden in the small of your back, ready to smite the first flailing fuck that works against your interests.” He later continues with, “So Shylock may be a vengeful, greedy bastard….But not because he’s a Jew, any more than the lot of you are shiftless, greedy tossers because you are Christians. You all share the same god: gold. Your faith follows fortune, and would deny him fortune for his.” Also worthy of note is the use of the chorus as an interactive narrator.