The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0495 Friday, 22 August 2008
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Friday, August 22, 2008
Subject: My Name Is Will
'My Name Is Will' by Jess Winfield
The author weaves two hilarious, fascinating story lines -- of the young Bard
during the persecution of Catholics in England and of a burned-out grad student
and Shakespeare scholar of sorts.
By Donna Seaman
July 20, 2008
If all the books ever written about William Shakespeare were strung together,
they would ring the Earth. Yet for all these many inspired analyses, ardent
appreciations, outrageous theories, convoluted interpretations and soporific
rehashings, Shakespeare himself remains enigmatic, and his works still yield
buried treasures and unforeseen illuminations. So the books keep coming.
Jess Winfield adds a particularly bright link to the chain. As a literature
student at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, Winfield forsook scholarly detachment
and took to the stage, eventually co-founding the Reduced Shakespeare Company
and co-creating the hit show "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
(abridged)," a two-hour distillation of all 37 plays that has itself toured the
globe several times over. Winfield then followed in his father's footsteps,
writing and producing cartoons for the Walt Disney Co. He now turns to fiction
to pay tribute to Shakespeare, his muse and mentor, in a cunningly witty,
frolicsome, time-warping bildungsroman.
"What's in a name?" This famous question drives Winfield's cleverly structured
double-helical tale. On one strand, we meet a vividly imagined young William
Shakespeare reluctantly and irreverently teaching Latin to restless schoolboys
in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1582. On the other is William Shakespeare Greenberg,
called Willie, a lackadaisical American graduate student at Santa Cruz in 1986.
William hopes to write for the stage, but he is too busy ravishing the local
beauties, drinking pitchers of ale and risking his future by penning protest
ballads. Willie's maxim is "Sex, drugs, and Shakespeare. . . . A sure path to
Nirvana," although perhaps not the straightest road to a master's degree. This
randy ne'er-do-well despairs of ever being even remotely worthy of his namesake.
Although Willie can quote the Bard at length and with pizazz, he has only the
haziest notion about how to proceed with his thesis. But instead of hitting the
books, Willie smokes a lot of hash, cheats on his girlfriend and ingests the
psychedelic mushrooms he and his buddies gather in a seemingly enchanted cow
Winfield slings bucketfuls of double-entendres and wily puns, and he slips in
hilarious variations on Shakespeare's best-known lines, such as when William's
younger siblings Gilbert and Joan are sent to bed early. "Joan trudged upstairs
reluctantly after him muttering, 'Unto our resting place we go. To be stifled in
the chamber, whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in, to sleep, to dream,
perchance to die. . . .' "
But serious business underlies the literary larkiness. Winfield is seeking clues
to the great writer's profound empathy and unerring instinct for what is
timeless and universal in human experience. He is also intent on educating
readers about Shakespeare's violent world. At the start of each historical
chapter, Winfield provides a brief commentary. The first begins, "I will argue
that 1582 was the year Shakespeare became Shakespeare. His coming of age didn't
take place in a vacuum, nor in some idealized, pastoral-watercolor vision of
Merry Olde England." While Willie fumbles his thesis-in-limbo, which is based on
his hazy impression that Shakespeare was Catholic, William learns that his
mother is one of those brave souls risking their lives to practice the "Old
Faith." Through William's daring involvement with the religious dissidents,
Winfield suggests that the nascent Bard was deeply affected by the barbarity of
this English inquisition and by the valor of the "hidden flock."
Chapter by chapter, Winfield fashions tantalizing, ironic parallels between the
two Wills. William suffers the terrors of the whip and rack. Willie is briefly
jailed by the campus police after getting into a scuffle at an anti-Drug
Enforcement Administration rally. Each renegade is in possession of holy
contraband. William has been entrusted with sacred objects bequeathed by a
martyred priest; Willie is conveying an enormous psilocybin mushroom.
It's not unexpected when Willie has a hallucinogen-induced spiritual awakening,
but nothing prepares us for William's cosmic adventure, jump-started in the
rudest possible manner by a comely witch. Not only is Winfield offering an
audacious explanation for the Bard's wide-open doors of perception, he is also
rather blithely linking Queen Elizabeth I's religious persecution with the
Reagan-era war on drugs. Whereas William is heroic, however, Willie plays the
fool in scenes of trippy slapstick. It's Shakespeare meets Cheech. Or Chong.
Winfield knows how to snare and enrapture an audience. Indeed, he's almost too
charming, and too eager to tell us what to think. But many readers will savor
Winfield's teacherly moments and appreciate Shakespeare as a man responding with
uncommon brilliance to tyranny and resistance, horror and beauty, fear and hope.
Winfield's high-spirited tribute is a celebration of the power of language and
story, through which we learn who we are and who we might be as we strut and
fret our hour upon the stage, bit players reaching for the heavens in a drama
beyond our grasp.
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
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