Under my byline

Will and Willie

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 29 August 2009

A tale of two Shakespeares, told by a modern comic dramatist

Jess Winfield, My Name is WillMy Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare
Jess Winfield
Hachette
pp x + 306

There’s not much wit about, these days. Slapstick, yes, farce, for sure, comedy, alas often inadvertent, tragicomedy, all the time, and humour — yes, sometimes. But wit?

Wit takes work — even more work than comedy, and god knows that’s hard enough to manufacture. To be witty, one must first be knowledgeable, and then savvy, and then very clever. Shakespeare is a witty poet, and a well-read one; his plays and poetry are full of sharp and often sassy wordplay that rises above mere entertainment. “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit,” Feste the fool says in Twelfth Night — a line which shows that the wit dances on the risky and political knife edge between sense and nonsense, conformity and heresy. The subversive assault on the taken-for-granted is what gives wit its electricity.

This we all know, but rarely do we dare practise it. For one, few of us have read enough to have built up a library of words and encounters in our heads upon which to draw. Then, few of us are fast enough at the mental sorting and weighing process. In wit, timing is nearly as important as content; both require vast computational power and fine discrimination.

Jess Winfield meets these requirements, and then some. He’s one of the founders of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, a theatre group whose humble origins were as a funny sideshow at Renaissance Faires in California. The RSC (a dig at the Royal Shakespeare Company) went on to perform their original comic show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) to wide acclaim, first at the Edinburgh arts festival in 1987 and thereafter all over the world and ever since.

So Winfield knows his Shakespeare intimately, as only a seat-of-the-pants performer can. He has the gift of the gab, which allows him to make of the Bard’s lines a constantly evolving comic performance. Irreverence born from long familiarity is the foundation of Winfield’s work, and of this book, his first novel.

The idea is a simple one, but devilishly difficult to execute. Two narratives proceed in parallel (and there are many, many wonderfully chosen parallels). One is the story of a few days in the life of William Shakespeare Greenberg, Willie to his friends, a 25-year-old graduate student of English on one of the smaller University of California campuses. Two years into his master’s degree, he has just hit upon a topic for his thesis — to prove that the original Shakespeare was a closet Catholic, in paranoid Protestant 16th-century England. He has spent his time not studying so much as soaking up Shakespeare and doing a variety of soft drugs, from pot to hashish to the local hallucinogenic mushrooms. Undoubtedly some scenes in this narrative are adapted from Winfield’s own life.

The other narrative covers a few weeks in the life of the original Shakespeare — not the mature playwright but the 18-year-old, Will to his friends. He is busy sowing his wild oats (there is an account, long to be cherished by this reader, of a 16th-century drug “trip”) and on the threshold of his shotgun wedding to Anne Hathaway — but the big story is the local playing-out of the persecution of Catholics by Elizabeth’s Protestant agents. Young Will is a Catholic, and gets involved in the intrigue. While, in the 20th century, Willie dodges federal drug agents.

Chapter by chapter the protagonists’ stories alternate. Never a quiet moment — both stories are terrific, earthy, hilarious yet serious, and the book is full of great puns, zinging repartee and Shakespearean lines used at just the right, but often unexpected, moment. In the throes of a joint orgasm with the attractive teaching assistant who has just accepted his thesis proposal, Willie has to stop himself crying out: “O true apothecary!

As for the sex of the subtitle, there is plenty of that, too — for Will and Willie both — and it is all excellent.

The whole book is excellent: read it.

(Clicking on the Shakespeare quotes will take you to the text of the relevant scenes of the plays, hosted at MIT’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare page.)

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