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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: August ::
My Name Is Will
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0495  Friday, 22 August 2008

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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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 
pasture.

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.

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