What's in a name

What's in a name

Lead Review

What's in a name

 A novel where the author has knowingly tweaked facts.Heavens to Murgatroyd! What could William Shakespeare, bard of Avon, possibly have in common with the cartoon characters Lilo and Stitch, Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear? If you read My Name Is Will, a lusty, pun-drunk first novel by the professional wiseacre and award-winning cartoon producer Jess Winfield (who had a hand in the above-mentioned entertainments), you will indubitably find out. But be “vewwy, vewwy careful,” as one of Winfield’s characters (a Shakespeare expert!) warns a wayward student, mimicking the immortal Elmer Fudd.

Many of the gags are what Hanna-Barbera’s hammy mountain lion Snagglepuss would call ‘abdomenable’; and if you’ve never heard the expression “What’s in a name,” you’ll get to read it here for the first time — actually, the first, second and third times. Still, if you’re up for the lark and could use a comedies-and-tragedies refresher, you might want to invest in a slide whistle and a cowbell before you start reading, to give the goings-on the Looney Tunes accompaniment they deserve.

In My Name Is Will, William Shakespeare, imagined in his green youth (England, 1580s), alternates chapters with an American alter ego, a hash-smoking University of California, Santa Cruz, grad student named Willie Shakespeare Greenberg (California, 1980s). While young Will frolics in the hedgerows of Stratford-upon-Avon with his Rosaline, incurring the wrath and the rack of anti-Catholic Elizabethan heavies, young Willie divides his time between chasing Ophelias, dodging Reaganite narcs and fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube, musing all the while (purportedly) on the questions: “What was it that made Shakespeare great?” and “What made him Shakespeare?” If the haze in Willie Greenberg’s mind were ever to burn off, answers to these eternal questions might emerge — answers that would “unlock the doors of Shakespeare’s past, and his own future.”

Given, however, the abundant local supply of magic mushrooms, hash, pot and other mind-fogging distractions (including a brainy raven-haired doctoral candidate named Dashka, who looks like “the brunette from the Bangles” and wears green Doc Martens and saucy lingerie), Willie is content to defer the big questions. Instead, he occupies himself by deploying Shakespeare quotes like Spanish fly, seeing what bodices they might unlock, in the method patented by Cole Porter: “Just declaim a few lines from Othella / And they’ll think you’re a hell of a fella.” That is to say: “Brush up your Shakespeare, and they’ll/ all kowtow.” Willie’s Dashka kowtows (so to speak) in a cow pasture, the back of a bus and a threesome. And that’s saying nothing of Willie’s girlfriend, Robin, and other susceptible damsels. Meanwhile, back in Stratford, the other William has his own troubles with “the local maidenry” — a shotgun wedding to the woman who one day will inherit his second-best bed, plus a Rosaline on the rampage.

The two Wills meet, briefly, on the brink of their individual breakthroughs, during the trippy collision of two “sacraments” — a communion wafer for Shakespeare and a magic mushroom as big as a peach for Greenberg. (Winfield, predictably, makes a saltier comparison.) On the grounds of a Marin County Renaissance Faire, England and California commingle as Shakespeare’s wedding to Anne Hathaway and Greenberg’s maiden performance in a “Short Sharp Shakespeare” production merge amid tables loaded with venison and meat pies, potato chips and warm Dr Pepper. Are such dramatic liberties legal? If not, what’s the penalty? As Snagglepuss once said, “I think I’ll book you on the charge of grand lozenges, with intent to commit mayhap.” It seems incredible that such juvenile-delinquent jokesters could ever settle down to quartos and day jobs. What a piece of work! But there’s no need to strain the quality of mercy: as one of Willie’s acquaintances proclaims, “iamb what iamb!” There’s a word for this sort of relentless horseplay, and Winfield has coined it: ‘irritainment’.

To say that Jess Winfield knows his Shakespeare is laughable understatement. Upside down — boy, he knows him, inside out, and round and round. Winfield spent most of the 1980s performing theatrical parodies of the Bard’s greatest hits at Renaissance Faires across California. The Reduced Shakespeare Company, which he formed with some fellow players, turned Shakespearian shtick into an Elizabethan juggernaut. The show played 14 years in London’s West End and has spawned a series of similar dramatics, as well as a line of related books.

There’s at least one quasi-serious subtext here. Young Willie must persuade his master’s degree adviser (a tippler and deft joint-roller with a healthy appreciation of psilocybin fungus) to accept the subject of his thesis, which he has conjured on a whim, while peeking into Dashka’s cleavage. The rub? That Shakespeare may have been a closeted Catholic, and his teenage run-ins with anti-Catholic henchmen of the Virgin Queen may have shaped his dramatic sensibilities. It’s a provocative notion, albeit one that has captured the public imagination long before now and has been voluminously bloviated upon.

“I am no scholar,” Winfield concedes in his afterword. “I knowingly tweaked the facts.” He adds, in the interest of full disclosure, that “although Warwickshire legend does tell that young Shakespeare was whipped for poaching deer in Thomas Lucy’s park, there is no suggestion that he was ever racked there.” In My Name Is Will, Winfield may be accused of treating his favourite literary lion unceremoniously. But, after all, no gentleman is a hero to his varlet.

My name is Will
a novel of sex, drugs and shakespeare
Jess Winfield
Hachette India, 2009, pp 302,
$ 14.99

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