Sunday, August 9, 2009

My Name Is Will - A Review

Alternating between 1980s California and Elizabethan England, My Name is Will introduces us to a young man named William Shakespeare from each era.

Willie Shakespeare Greenberg is a graduate student in UC Santa Cruz whose thesis is on his famous namesake. Instead of concentrating on doing research and writing his paper, however, he occupies his time doing drugs and making it with women. Cut off by his father for his lack of scholastic impetus and, consequently, finding himself broke, he risks being busted by the DEA by agreeing to deliver a large psychedelic mushroom to a buyer at the local Renaissance Fair at the height of Reagan's War on Drugs.

Back in 1582, Will Shakespeare is an eighteen-year-old schoolmaster who is also busy with women and drink. He has just begun to flirt with the idea of writing for a living, and in Winfield's novel are tantalizing glimpses of the genesis of some of his famous speeches, plays, and sonnets. At the same time, the persecution of Catholics is on the rise. Family, friends, fellow students and Shakespeare himself are at risk as the local sheriffs hunt for practicing Catholics. In spite of the danger (or perhaps because of it), Shakespeare agrees to deliver a sacred Catholic relic to the family of an executed priest.

It took me awhile to get used to jumping back and forth in time as each chapter alternated between the two Williams, but the transitions worked well and I forgot about the time jumps as the stories of the two Williams began to mesh. I think this may be one of the key narrative challenges of the piece ~ making these parallel stories complement each other ~ but I found that it is handled adroitly. In the end, which I absolutely loved, both the historical and contemporary Shakespeares eventually find themselves and their purpose in life and begin to move toward it.

Oh, and the Epilogue? When you read it, if you can figure out which of the two Will's it is about, please get back to me with the answer. I can't for the life of me decide.

My Name Is Will is subtitled "A Novel of Sex, Drugs and Shakepeare" for a good reason, and those who are easily offended should probably steer clear. It is not very scholarly ~ indeed, it is light and highly irreverent ~ but, unless you are a pedant, I think you'll find it an enjoyable read.

Jess Winfield, the author, was a founding member of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, "an American acting troupe that wrote and performed unsubtle, fast-paced, seemingly improvisational condensations of huge topics." (Wikipedia.) The first performance was a 25-minute, 4-actor version of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Winfield was with the troupe from 1981 through 1992, writing and performing various of the Bard's plays, and it's clear that he knows whereof he writes. Winfield is also the author of What Would Shakespeare Do (Ulysses Press, 2000), a self-help book that employs Shakespearean drama as a basis for advice.


Pam said...

I kind of thought it was about the 2 of them. I felt like it was moving back and forth between the 2 of them rapidly as if to blur the differences between the 2 and was not about one of them in particular. Their lives kind of merged towards the end of the book and they were living parallel lives - similar things were happening to them in completely different times.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I'm still waiting for this book so I can't answer any questions, but I can't wait to read it!

Madeleine said...

I am in the middle of this book and like it a lot. I was lucky to win it :D

Mary K. from L.A. said...

Hi, Pam ~ Hmm, I didn't get that, except that I kept going back and forth between them as I was reading it, so you could very well be right. I'll have to read the epilogue again with your take on it in mind.

rhapsody & Madeleine ~ Let me know what you think when you've finished reading it.

Steven Till said...

Sounds interesting, Mary. I don't know a lot of detailed history about Shakespeare -- aside from what you learn in school -- but did you feel the book was historically accurate? Was it trying to be? Just curious if I could learn a lot about Shakespeare's life from reading this novel.

Mary K. from L.A. said...

Hi, Steven ~ Thanks for your comment! I love your website and am thrilled that you stopped by to check out mine.

I guess the trouble is that there is just not a lot of factual evidence about Shakespeare, so it's almost impossible to be sure. The parts set in the 16th Century featuring the young Will Shakespeare, are, I think, extrapolated from the little that is known, as well as from his plays and poetry. I did think the setting was historically accurate, though I'm not as grounded in Elizabethan life as, say, in medieval.

I'd be interested to hear from any Shakespeare scholars as to their opinions.