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Review: Shakespeare's 450th birthday marked with books of satire and science

Huzzah and happy birthday, William Shakespeare!

This Wednesday marks the 450th birthday of the greatest playwright in the English language, a man whose work is so brilliant and enduring that, almost half a millennium after his birth, his plays are still performed every day around the world, his poetry is taught and treasured, his name is synonymous with genius.

And the questions about him continue. Even that birthday is debatable — there are no records of Shakespeare's birth, only of his baptism on April 26, 1564, in Stratford-upon-Avon, in central England. If the April 23 birth date is correct, it provides a writerly symmetry to his life — he died on April 23, 1616.

In between, records are vanishingly sparse. We know he attended school in Stratford, but probably only until his early teens. We know that at age 18 he married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway, and their first child, Susanna, was born six months later, followed by twins Hamnet and Judith two years after that. Hamnet died at age 11, Susanna had no children and Judith's died young, so Shakespeare has no descendants.

We know he was an actor, playwright and part owner of several theaters, most notably the Globe in London. But whole chunks of his life are mysterious, which means scholars and historians still contend about his religious beliefs, his politics, his sexuality, his education, his appearance and even whether he really wrote the plays attributed to him.

But those are details that do nothing to lessen his dramatic impact on our language and culture, and so we celebrate him. Gala events and productions of his plays are numerous this year, in Stratford and London, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and countless other locations.

And, of course, there are books. Not only did Shakespeare himself write prolifically — some three dozen plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems — he is also much written about. Thousands of books have addressed the works and the man, and this year, of course, there's a bumper crop. Here are two of those new books, one a hilarious takeoff on his plays, one an illuminating look at his world.

Brash Christopher Moore, author of 13 outrageously comic fantasy novels, does not quake at taking on the famous and great. He has written larky tales about Toulouse-Lautrec (Sacré Bleu) and even Jesus (Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal).

So it comes as no surprise that Moore would find golden material in Shakespeare. His new novel, The Serpent of Venice, is actually his second sendup of the Bard. The first, Fool (2009), was a highly unorthodox retelling of King Lear from the point of view of Lear's jester, one Pocket of Dog Snogging. Shakespeare's fools, of course, are usually the most honest and wise characters in his plays, and thus it is with the irrepressible and lusty Pocket, "the pert and nimble spirit of mirth, at your service."

The Serpent of Venice mashes up Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice, both set in that watery Italian city. Moore throws historical accuracy out the window (something Shakespeare had a penchant for as well) to make this book a sequel to Fool — it takes place near the end of the 13th century, like Lear, instead of a couple of centuries later.

Not that stuffy historical re-creation matters a whit to Moore. As he notes in the book's first pages, "Strangely, although most of the characters are Venetian, everybody speaks English, and with an English accent." Not only that, they speak, except for occasional passages lifted right from the plays, in 21st century English, with plenty of slang and gales of profanity and obscenity. To get a sense of the tone, imagine the merry pranksters of Monty Python in their heyday taking off on Shakespeare while simultaneously trying to break the record for F-bombs currently held by The Wolf of Wall Street.

Pocket is in Venice as the emissary of his queen and consort, Lear's daughter Cordelia, now England's ruler. She sends him there to dissuade the city's politicians and merchants from stirring up a new Crusade to line their own pockets. (Hard to imagine such a thing these days, eh?)

Why send a fool, he asks, and she responds: "No letter, dispatch, or herald can be even remotely as annoying as you. Only you can shame them for just how badly they bollixed up the last bloody Crusade. Only you, my darling fool, can convey just how ridiculous — and bloody inconvenient — I find their call to battle."

The doge, ruler of Venice, favors Pocket, who also becomes fast friends with the great general Othello. But the fool soon falls victim to a plot hatched by the powerful senator Brabantio, the scheming merchant Antonio and the disgruntled soldier Iago — a triangulation that also meshes the plots of Merchant and Othello. After Brabantio walls Pocket up alive in the deepest tide-washed cellar below his palace (a little cribbing from Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado), the fool has a most unusual encounter with what, in the dark, he takes for an amorous mermaid.

One result is that he washes up on the shore of La Giudecca, an island off Venice where the city's Jews are required to live. His rescuer is a wisecracking Jewish beauty named Jessica, daughter of a certain money-lender named Shylock. And if you think you know where all this is going, just be warned this isn't the SparkNotes version. As Pocket says less than halfway through, "Another calamity threatened, another rescue to be attended to — what a bawdy bitch is fate when the best bit of a bloke's day is a brace of bloody mermaid murders."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at or (727) 893-8435.

In The Science of Shakespeare, Dan Falk takes a lively but serious look at the Bard's relationship to his age, particularly what we now call the Scientific Revolution. He's interested in what role then-new scientific thought, about astronomy, medicine and more, plays in Shakespeare's works.

The playwright, Falk notes, was born the same year as the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, whose great scientific and technological advances led to his trial and condemnation for heresy. Half a century before that, Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus' discoveries literally changed the world view, replacing the ancient Ptolemaic theory of the universe in which stars, sun and planets revolved around an unmoving Earth to the heliocentric model we know today: a solar system with the sun at its center, Earth as one of its orbiting planets and infinite reaches of stars and galaxies stretching in every direction beyond.

So what does all that have to do with Shakespeare? Aye, there's the rub. Falk, a science journalist and frequent contributor on Canadian public radio, fills the book with a wealth of interesting information about Elizabethan England, Renaissance Europe and the Scientific Revolution. But when it comes down to connecting any of the people and ideas he writes about to Shakespeare himself, it's always a matter of speculation. As with so many other areas of Shakespeare's life, no documentation exists.

Falk does his best to back up the speculation, though. Sometimes it's simply an intriguing detail. Groundbreaking Danish astronomer and nobleman Tycho Brahe lived on an island within sight of Elsinore Castle, the setting for Hamlet, and a 1590 portrait of Brahe surrounded by the names of his ancestors includes the names Rosenkrans and Guildensteren — very like the names of Hamlet's hapless schoolmates. But do we know whether Shakespeare saw that portrait, owned Brahe's books, met the man? No.

Other connections seem firmer. Falk convincingly details the many known connections between the playwright and the family of Thomas Digges, a notable British astronomer and mathematician who helped spread the Copernican theory in England. That also suggests possible connections between Shakespeare and John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I's science adviser, believed to be one of the models for Prospero in The Tempest. But as for documentary evidence that Shakespeare based Prospero on Dee, or shaped his plays under the influence of Digges' ideas — the proof is as elusive as starlight.

Falk is always aware that he's speculating, and he sharpens that by showing us some scholars who might have gone to far. He devotes a chapter to the ideas of Peter Usher, a contemporary astronomer and astrophysicist who firmly believes that Hamlet is not really a tragedy about an indecisive prince but, start to finish, an allegory about 16th century astronomy, with the villain Claudius as Ptolemy and Hamlet a symbol of the heliocentric universe (and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, representing Brahe).

Falk is far more restrained. And even if he cannot finally chart exactly how scientific discoveries might have influenced Shakespeare, he does give us a vivid picture of the enormous changes going on during the time the plays were written — not only scientific change but religious, economic, political, cultural and more.

Falk quotes scholar Norman Jones on an interesting point, and adds his own intriguing twist:

" 'Confusion,' Jones notes, 'made Shakespeare's age one of the most culturally productive in English history.' It is sobering to imagine that Shakespeare, had he lived in a less turbulent time, would perhaps have been content to take up his father's glove business."