Sex, Drugs And Sonnets: In 'Will,' All's Well Even the bard wasn't as bawdy or silly as drug-addled scholar "Willie" Shakespeare Greenberg, the fumbling protagonist of Jess Winfield's lovingly naughty academic picaresque, My Name Is Will.


Book Reviews

Sex, Drugs And Sonnets: In 'Will,' All's Well

'My Name Is Will'
My Name Is Will:A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare
By Jess Winfield
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $23.99
Frank Bruynbroek
Jess Winfield
Frank Bruynbroek

Let's say you've spent a good portion of your adult life distilling Shakespeare's works into brief, bawdy theater skits that riff on the bard, with a few current events thrown in for good measure for measure. What do you do for an encore? If you're Jess Winfield, founding member of the celebrated Reduced Shakespeare Company, you follow it up with a hyperkinetic novel that bookends the bard's life with the story of a reluctant Shakespearean grad student whose half-hearted stabs at coherent scholarship are neither scholarly nor coherent.

William "Willie" Shakespeare Greenberg, a master's candidate at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s, is fond of pot, 'shrooms, women and Shakespeare's sonnets. Casting about for a thesis topic, he decides that an aside in Sonnet 23 indicates that Shakespeare — under the violently enforced Protestant rule of Elizabeth I — was a closet Catholic. In what follows, Willie, navigating a thicket of drugs and women, sets out on an adventure that forces him to come to grips with the flaws in his theory.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, the real William Shakespeare is coming to grips with the revelation that he, in fact, belongs to a family of closet Catholics. There are ('shrooms and all!) uncanny parallels.

We find several echoes here of the brilliant David Lodge, who also makes hay with academics' fumbling attempts at literary and sexual congress. But this particular brand of silly, filthy fun is Winfield's own.

Winfield is less consumed with Shakespeare's elevated prose than in chuckling over the numerous puns the young bard makes on will, an archaic term for the male member (the mild vulgarism still in circulation is, of course, our protagonist's nickname). And is there another author today who would begin a tale of Shakespeare and self-discovery with two naughty references to the human anatomy and one use of a controlled substance?

As earthy, snarky Winfield knows, while most authors reach for the brave o'erhanging firmament, sometimes it's better to just hit Bottom.

Excerpt: 'My Name Is Will'

My Name Is Will
By Jess Winfield
Hardcover, 304 pages
List Price: $23.99

Chapter One

Willie sat in the back row of a blocky white minibus, his hand cupped around the enormous psychedelic mushroom hidden under a denim jacket laid too casually across his lap. The Psilocybe cubensis was fresh, not dried; sweating slightly, it was smooth and moist to the touch. It possessed, he thought, a comforting fullness, an ancient, earthy quality. He felt a little high just touching it. Though he didn't know it, the mushroom's cap was exactly the size and shape of Queen Elizabeth I's left tit.

Willie also didn't know that the guy sitting up front, near the driver, was a narc.

And he also didn't know quite how he—a graduate student in literature, and according to his mother, the next William Shakespeare—had ended up as a drug runner.

But he did know that the woman sitting next to him was giving him a boner.

Just two days earlier, he'd been in the office of Clarence Welsh, professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Welsh's office, in a third-floor crow's nest perched atop the jumbled modernist slabs of Kresge College, had a window with a bucolic view of the surrounding redwood forest and a glimpse of Monterey Bay in the distance; a view now entirely obscured, alas, by a stack of bound periodicals labeled Journal of Shakespearean Studies on their spines, with dates ranging from "1961–65" all the way to "1983–"

Willie heard the title of his proposed master's thesis read back to him aloud: "Shakespeare and the Crucifix: Catholic Persecution in Sixteenth-Century England and Its Effect on Elizabethan Theater."

Clarence Welsh was a smallish, rotund man. His greasy, dandruff-flecked hair looked as though it had been cut by a drunken gardener with a rusty hedge trimmer. His face was red with English jollity and suppressed perversion.

Willie liked Clarence Welsh.

But the voice speaking in Professor Welsh's office was not that of Clarence Welsh. At this precise moment, Welsh was spilling his fifth glass of wine at a luncheon in San Francisco celebrating the publication of his latest book, Getting Bottom: Bestiality in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

No, the voice speaking in Welsh's office belonged to his top-gun doctoral candidate, Dashka Demitra. She was covering for Welsh during his book tour, and her duties included vetting the topic for Willie's long-overdue master's thesis. She handed back the one-page proposal without finishing it.

"What have you been smoking?"

Willie opened his mouth, then thought better and closed it again. The answer was "Lebanese hashish." He'd smoked a little—just one hit, to clear his head—before the meeting.

Dashka leaned back in Clarence Welsh's chair—it went squeeeeeeeeeee—and crossed her legs, exposing a flash of inner thigh in the process. She rocked back and forth a little in the chair—squee squee squee squee—"Look...sorry, what's your last name?" she asked as she picked up a dog-eared list off the desk and flipped through it.


She scanned quickly until she found his name on the list, then stopped and looked up at him. She said it deliberately, wrapping her lips around the words:

"William... Shakespeare...Greenberg?" Dashka blinked. "That's quite a name. Your—"

"I know," Willie interrupted. "I'm Shakespeare, my thesis had better be good."

"Actually, I was going to ask what your parents were thinking."

"They're Jewish. Mom was an Anglophile." Willie shifted in his chair. "My friends call me Willie."

"Willie," Dashka repeated, with an almost imperceptible raise of her eyebrow, letting the name hang in the air for a moment.

Squee. Squee.

Then, referring to the paper: "I'm sure it's an interesting area—your thesis, that is—"

"I think it's valid," Willie interrupted. "Shakespeare was a Catholic, and there's a level where his writing is all about—"

Dashka interrupted him back. "Every bio I've ever read suggests he was Church of England. All his scriptural quotations are from a Protestant Bible."

"Right, right..." said Willie, trying to collect fuzzy thoughts. It hadn't even occurred to him that there were "Catholic" and "Protestant" Bibles. He could feel the go-ahead slipping away, and his degree and career along with it. He had put off getting the approval until the last possible week. If this pitch didn't fly...

"Right, but I think that was just a cover," he continued, his voice heavy in the cramped, musty room. "His mother's family at least—the

Ardens—they were Catholic, right? But he couldn't just go around spewing quotes from the...the Catholic Bible, right? Because they were executing Catholics. Historically..."

"No-no-no-no," Dashka said, and waved her hands to interrupt him, partly to Willie's relief, as he had no idea what was going to come out of his mouth after "Historically," but much to his dread, that she would kill the proposal.

"Listen," began Dashka. She leaned forward again in the chair—

squeeeee—and as she did so she dropped the list in her hand. When she bent to pick it up the top of her blouse fell away from her collarbone. It was unbuttoned to her sternum. Caught with his eyes deep in the cookie jar, Willie's gaze leaped up so quickly that he barely had time to register a black lace bra, a breast—evenly tanned to a golden brown, small yet not so small that it wasn't straining against the bra—and a cappuccino aureole peeking out from the lace like the muted disk of the sun on a foggy day.

She was still speaking, but Willie had forgotten to listen. He was thinking that UCSC women, while generally smart, funny, and talented, also tended toward the overweight, the frumpy, the geeky, the gawky, the Coke bottle–lensed, the makeup-challenged, the awkward, the mousy, the unshaven. But Dashka...he was hooked from the day she walked into one of Welsh's classes, silently left a stack of papers on his lectern, and swept out. Every eye in the room—straight, gay, and lesbian alike—followed her out the door. Even Welsh stole a glance.

Now, Willie took in the shining, raven-black hair, dyed with streaks of purple and green: a rocker's hair, somewhere on the Jett end of a Siouxsie Sioux/Kate Bush/Joan Jett axis. In fact, thought Willie, she looked just like the brunette from the Bangles. Blue eyes; not a pale blue but the unfathomable, dark, indigo blue of an alpine lake at twilight. Sparkle-green eye shadow. Bright red lipstick. And—right here at UC Santa Cruz, last bastion of Birkenstocks—green Doc Martens, hand painted with a black Maori tribal design. Add the palpable intellect of a fast-track doctoral student from a tony East Coast liberal arts college, and Jesus. In the time between two squees of the chair, he'd thought of five different possible positions.

"Maybe they don't tell you this in the master's program," she said, "but since Wimsatt and Beardly and the ascendance of New Criticism, authorial intent and historical context carry very little weight in literary analysis." She took the cap off of her red pen, and shook her head. "I think maybe you should—"

In the instant before she could finish her sentence, her pen poised over the desk, Willie saw the life he hadn't yet lived flash before his eyes. The master's degree; the creative writing program; the grants and fellowships; the burgeoning life as scholar, playwright, poet, actor, modern day Renaissance man, truly the second coming of Shakespeare...gone in a puff of New Critical smoke.

"I've already done most of the research," he blurted.

A lie. He'd done no significant master's research for a year. He spent an hour or two a day buried in his Riverside Shakespeare, reading the plays, but mostly he smoked hash in his room and listened to music, living off his father's increasingly reluctant benefaction. The only thing he'd truly mastered was the Rubik's Cube. He did think about Shakespeare a lot while endlessly spinning rows of green squares and blue squares, yellow squares and white squares, trying to get them to line up—trying to get a grip on it, to figure it out: what was it that made Shakespeare great? What made him Shakespeare? That would be the key that would unlock the doors of Shakespeare's past, and his own future.

Dashka rocked back and forth slowly on the chair. Squee...

Squee... considering.

"It'll be a whole new approach to literary evaluation. New," Willie said, piling layer of bs on layer of bs. Then the quote sprang unbidden to Willie's mind and from his lips: "The trust I have is in my innocence, and therefore am I bold and resolute."

Trying to hold Dashka's fathomless blue gaze in the pause that followed, he felt neither innocent nor bold nor resolute.

She finally asked, "Henry VI, Part Three? "

"Part Two, " Willie replied.

Quoting Shakespeare seemed to have done the trick. As Dashka turned back to the desk he could have sworn she stole a quick glance down his body. He suddenly felt underdressed—green drawstring pants and inky denim jacket over a shredded Ramones tank top.

She shrugged. "Okay. It's your thesis. Who knows, maybe it'll be a masterpiece. I'll discuss it with the professor. He'll still have to give the final approval, so I suggest you talk to him the instant he gets back. If you want my advice, keep it focused on the text. Don't get caught up in the history. Text, text, text, right?"

Dashka set down her red pen, picked up one that matched her green Docs, and made a check mark on the list.

"I will," said Willie, relief flooding through his body like a drug rush. "Thanks." He gathered up his notebook, slipped the proposal inside, and shuffled it into his green nylon backpack. "I'll see you in section next week."

Willie wanted to get out before she changed her mind. As he stood, he zipped open the front pouch of his pack to slip his pen inside. But the main part of the backpack was still unzipped. The whole pack fell open, spilling out his notebook and the November issue of a hard-core porn rag. The magazine fluttered to the floor, open to a layout of two female Santa's elves in fur-trimmed, red-sequined spandex miniskirts, topless and flashing beaver, about to go down on a fully erect black shopping mall Santa. As Willie lurched forward to snatch up the magazine, something silvery flashed out of the backpack's open front pouch. He instinctively lunged to grab it out of midair.

Willie had quick hands. Four times out of five if he dropped a small item he could catch it before it hit the floor. But he had recently caught a dropped toothbrush, a pizza-parlor pepper shaker, a lighter, and a diaphragm case. This was the fifth time, and he only succeeded in knocking the item out of the air. He had a sinking, exhilarating feeling as it clattered across Clarence Welsh's desk and spun to a stop directly under Dashka Demitra's pen.

The item was William Shakespeare Greenberg's hash pipe.

Dashka looked at the pipe; then at the magazine; then at Willie.

"Sorry..." Willie said, reaching for the magazine.

But Dashka quickly leaned over and scooped it up first. She glanced at the cover. "They start in with the holiday porn earlier and earlier every year, don't they?" she said. She flipped to the Santa's elves spread. "Damn, I wonder how Santa gets that down the chimney." Then she closed the magazine and held it out for Willie with an inscrutable look.

As he put the magazine back in his pack, he weighed two options: he could walk out, utterly humiliated; or he could take one desperate stab at redemption.

Willie nodded toward the pipe still sitting on the desk. "So can I have my pipe back? Or did you want to sample that as well?"

Willie saw a spark in the depths of Dashka's eyes. She rocked back in her chair with a mischievous smile.


MY NAME IS WILL, Copyright © 2008 Jess Winfield

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Jess Winfield

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