Parodying Shakespeare is a cottage industry among novelists. Few, however, have the talent to weave sound philosophy within the narrative. Pratchett introduces some thoughtful notions along with his compelling characters. From the introduction of Esme Weatherwax in Equal Rites, he fills out the coven residing in the kingdom of Lancre with her cohorts. Each brings a highly unique style to the craft. Esme, acknowledged but undeclared head witch, is traditional, effective and highly sensitive to what's "good for people". Magrat Garlick, well-read, modern and innocent [if you can reconcile those viewpoints] personifies perfectly the modern "Wiccan" mystic. Nanny Ogg almost oozes practicality - having gone through three husbands and is served, if resentfully, by her phalanx of daughters and daughters-in-law. The story itself, however, concerns another matter - one far more pertinent to today's world.
What is, or should be the role of monarchy in modern society? Pratchett uses the Hamlet example to examine this question in a new and penetrating manner. Kings can rise and fall through many means. Duke Felmet, desirous of disciplined rule, fells the incumbent. According to Pratchett, assassination is a "natural cause" of death for monarchs [as is execution, but that's elsewhere in the series]. The coven, aware that the former King Verence of Lancre has been murdered by a potential usurper, becomes protector of the heir. It "protects" him by shipping him off with a troupe of mummers. Thus Shakespeare as example is supplanted by parody of the playwright and his work. The coven, however, senses what Shakespeare never expressed - monarchy's role in regard to the land and the people.
In Shakespeare's day, Elizabeth, the ruling monarch, expressed her love for "her people" and "the country". She was nearly unique in that view. Pratchett, always sensitive to nuances, employs this concern in this tale. On a world ruled by magic, the land itself discerns the injustice of the murder, reacting with anger and pain. Esme, who "borrows" minds, perceives the grief and gathers the coven to go beyond merely hiding the heir. Larger questions are at stake.
Pratchett's ability to weave philosophical questions into what is advertised as "humorous fantasy" is what keeps him at the forefront of the genre. His witty approach gives the widest possible audience the chance to examine the issues he raises. If you miss them or overlook them, he still offers a fine story told in his engaging style. If you are new to Pratchett, you can start the Discworld series comfortably here. If you are an established fan, you will discover this to be one of his better efforts. It is something to read more than once without eroding the pleasure of the first encounter. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]