[25 August 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Have you ever wondered what William Shakespeare would have been like if he had been a graduate student at Santa Cruz in 1986? Well, Jess Winfield imagines that he likely would have been a sex-obsessed, class-ditching, pot-smoking, cow-tipping, mushroom-munching slacker having psychedelic Ophelia dreams and something of an Oedipal complex.
My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare follows the parallel adventures of two William Shakespeares. Willie Shakespeare Greenberg, named for the Bard, has a lot to live up to. He busies himself with sex and drugs, and as a consequence, he’s let his Shakespearean thesis slide for as long as he possibly can. With hasty desperation, and on shaky inspiration from a trip-induced epiphany, he decides to base his work on the assumption that the first Shakespeare was a persecuted Catholic in Elizabeth’s Protestant England.
He posits that the proof is in the poetry, and that the great poet peppered his plays with reference to his true faith, though Willie has difficulty finding any plausible examples. He simultaneously has difficulties with his father, who is cutting off his allowance and tuition, and his sexy, young stepmother, with whom he had an illicit sexual encounter. He had no difficulty, however, finding the biggest psilocybin specimen he’s ever seen, but when his dealer is busted, Willie must take the mammoth magic mushroom and sell it himself at a Renaissance Fair.
Meanwhile, in Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1582, 18-year-old William Shakespeare is a schoolmaster who busies himself with sex and drugs. Surrounded by oppressive Protestant laws, Shakespeare has begun to rebel against the situation through writing. It’s here that Winfield shines, giving glimpses of the possible origins of well-known speeches, plays, and sonnets as well as incorporating an obvious understanding of the extent of the bawdy humor and sexual wordplay that runs rampant in Shakespeare’s works, but which is often overlooked by scholars and even sometimes, sadly, by performers.
In Winfield’s flashbacks, Shakespeare, his peers and his family, are in grave danger from the Queen’s lawmen and lackeys because practicing Catholicism during this time was punishable by death. When a priest, the brother of his mentor, is executed, Shakespeare agrees to deliver a sacred relic from Rome to his mentor’s kin, despite—or perhaps, because of—the serious risks.
In 1986, Willie’s risks aren’t quite so dire. While he does have to flee DEA operatives at a rally, avoid his embarrassment over his involvement with his father’s wife and of course, juggle several woman as if they were apples like the motley fool he is (and of course, has to dress as for the Ren Fair), his concerns are petty in comparison.
Winfield cleverly has the timelines overlapping by this time in the tale, thanks to more mushrooms from Willie and an apothecary visit for young Shakespeare, but the modern plot pales as it plays out. Willie has a longtime girlfriend in Berkeley, a sexy T.A. in Santa Cruz, an encounter with his step-mom, a flirtation with a winsome wench at the fair, and a threesome thrown in for kicks. The subtitle is “Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare”, but with Willie, Winfield may have focused a little too heavily on the sex. It becomes a bit tiresome as the story wears on, for both character and reader.
Still, even that doesn’t detract from the intrigue of the concept and the brilliance of Winfield’s use of words—his and the Bard’s. Puns and prose that would make Shakespeare proud are abundant in this debut novel, as are examples of Jess Winfield’s deep love, knowledge, and respect for his subject. My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex Drugs and Shakespeare is a visionary venture, looking before and after.