Traitorous Fredo, left, shares a moment with his brother Michael in “The Godfather II” ... or is it “King Lear” crossed with “Richard III”?

Between the Lines: Was ever viewer in this humour wooed?

On TV it's 1958 in Havana, Cuba, and Lee Strassberg as Hyman Roth is coming on to Al Pacino's Michael Corleone like a fox to a coop full of juicy spring fryers.

Now, even if you haven't seen "The Godfather: Part II" about a zillion times, Michael a short time earlier told Frank "Five Angels" Pentangeli that he knows it was Roth who tried to have him whacked. Michael's wife, Kay, had noticed the bedroom drapes were open and foiled the hit.

So here's Roth, who wants Michael dead, telling him to enjoy his cake, and there is this growing feeling of something Shakespearean. It comes as a flash. The cagey Roth is playing Richard III, of course, who boasts: "Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile ... And frame my face to all occasions."

Once you begin seeing "The Godfather: Part II" as Shakespearean, everything in it begins to take on a Bardish cast (histories and tragedies; there's not much comedy here). I am spending the day on a couch at home with a sore throat. Maybe I'm seeing Bard writ large because I've been reading Bill Farina's "De Vere as Shakespeare," a play-by-play look at how details of the seventeenth Earl of Oxford's life are reflected in the plays attributed to Shakespeare.

To subject yourself to the tube all day is to discover the verity of the old lament about 500 channels and nothing to watch. Then I stumble across probably the best sequel ever. It's on AMC, which means you get about an hour's worth of commercials along with the picture, much of it from pitchmen as slimy as an Iago.

But that's OK, because when the smooth-talking dude with the gray hair and the glued-on smile is delivering the spiel (the sponsor is in business to lose money; you are just that special to him), you can reflect on the parallels.

In 1901 Sicily, when Don Ciccio has little Vito's father and brother murdered and calmly explains why he must also kill Vito to the boy's mother, he sounds like Aaron in "Titus Andronicus" matter-of-factly embracing the catastrophe his villainy brings to others as he would embrace "pearl and gold."

Fredo Corleone, in betraying his brother, is playing Edmund in "King Lear." He also parallels Edmund in a strategic way. Like "Lear," which has little in the way of plot, the movie, which has limited narrative and moves more by a moral logic, is given structure by Fredo's betrayal and Michael's need to respond to it.

When Roth tells the assembled mafiosi in Havana his plans for dividing his empire among his criminal heirs, he's acting as a Lear of organized crime — but a Cordelia there ain't.

Pat Geary, the self-righteous U.S. Senator who despises Italians and kills a hooker, may make you think of Malvolio, whose hypocritical rectitude hides a coldly covetous heart.

When Vito returns to Corleone to slip a sharp blade into the elderly Don Cicci's body and reef on it, Robert De Niro could turn to the camera and say with Hamlet, "Revenge should have no bounds."

Near the end, when Michael coolly embraces Fredo but signals a capo that with their mother dead Fredo's cloak of protection is now removed, he, too, is mirroring Richard III, showing that the wheel is come full circle. Michael's dead eyes may even make you think of Macbeth.

The assassination montage near the end of the picture replays in my dreams. Hyman Roth, Frankie Pentangeli and Fredo are raving madly in a storm. The horse's head from the first Godfather picture drifts by on the wind. It's sprouted donkey ears. Bodies are dangling from puppet strings held by an Elizabethan gentleman, his identity shrouded in mystery.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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