Friday, March 5, 2010

Deep in the Bard-o

I finally read King Lear this week. I'm not sure it did any good.

One of my favorite genres of literature (and yes, I am the kind of person who can use that phrase without any appreciable irony - I'm loads of fun at parties) does not have a name, as far as I know. It's the one where stories are retold from the perspective of minor characters - the sorts of characters who flit about the margins of the main story without doing a whole lot to the overall plot, and you kind of wonder what they were thinking and how they got themselves mixed up in all this. Hamlet is a much different story when you hear it from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and The Wizard of Oz takes on a whole new overtone when it's the Wicked Witch of the West doing the explaining.

So I was pleased when I found out that one of my favorite authors had come out with his own take on King Lear.

And then I thought, hmmmm. Maybe I ought to read the original, just to see what the jokes are about.

You see, despite being, by any objective standard, thoroughly overeducated, I had never actually read what many scholars regard as the finest play ever written in the English language - a play whose towering majesty dwarfs all other plays as a real Philadelphia cheesesteak dwarfs all other sandwiches. All other drama looks up to the cheesy, beefy goodness of King Lear and despairs.

Excuse me while I get a snack.

This omission from my literary experiences is somewhat surprising, given that I actually took an ENTIRE COURSE on Shakespeare, once upon a time (a phrase that does not appear anywhere in the Bard - you could look it up). We had a great deal of fun with MacBeth, and we slogged through all fifteen hundred densely packed hours of Hamlet, but never made it to Lear.

And now I had a new book, and in the spirit of my head-long collision with Pride and Prejudice last year, I figured I should read the original before I read the satire.

It went about as well as it did the last time.

Because Shakespeare? That wasn't English he was writing. Oh, I'm sure historians of language will insist that it was - I even said that a couple of paragraphs back, as I recall. But I was clearly insane when I said that, and so are they. This is some sort of related tongue, like Dutch, where it looks like English if you're not paying attention but when you do clue yourself in a bit you realize that either a) this is some form of absurdist off-color humor full of phrases that sound like they might make sense but are probably just euphemisms, or b) it's Dutch. Only it's Shakespeare. Who wasn't Dutch, as far as I know, but might as well have been.

The fact that I had a head cold the entire time I was reading this play and could barely make sense of traffic signs, let alone a serious work of theater, might have had something to do with this too. You can't tell with these things.

So I made it through, and now I am reading the new one - Fool, by Christopher Moore, which is of course told from the perspective of the castle guard.

Just kidding! It's the scullery maid.

It's a good book so far, as I expected it to be - Moore writes some of the funniest dialogue out there these days - but it will likely not be read 400 years from now.

Then again, neither is King Lear, apparently.

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