A straightforward biography of the most famous playwright in the English language was never going to come from Jess Winfield, one of the co-founders of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. My Name Is Will: A Novel Of Sex, Drugs, And Shakespeare reclaims the bawdy Bard and the scholars who love him by pairing a slightly implausible story of the young playwright with a contemporary college-campus escapade, for an explicit tale that will never be assigned in high-school English classes.
William Shakespeare, 18, tutors local boys in Latin, enduring their japes and the way his schoolmaster prods him to keep them in line instead of humoring their questions about dead-language double entendres. Then a mysterious messenger pulls him into a secret network of English Catholics, in hiding since the Queen denounced them. William isn't religious, but the fraternity offers a sense of purpose he can't find in his everyday life. However, his dalliances with the local girls he meets through his play-acting friends become an unwelcome distraction, trapping him in jail and worse. Meanwhile, in 1986, UC-Santa Cruz grad student Willie Shakespeare Greenberg dawdles over his books between tokes of hash, then agrees to help a neighbor carry marijuana and one magnificent mushroom to a pal at the local Renaissance Faire. When the narcs grab his source, Willie decides to deliver the drugs anyway, hoping to get enough money to pay for another semester of procrastination on his master's thesis (on Shakespeare's religion) and possibly impress his beautiful TA.
Unlike with many novels which split the plot between narrators, neither protagonist of My Name Is Will seems strong enough to carry a book of his own. William is a wuss who initially seems intentionally deaf to the life of the town around him and the intricacies of his father's downfall, and Willie's pursuit of women and drugs would quickly become repetitive if it weren't interrupted by the exploits of his 16th-century counterpart. The connections between them sometimes seem forced—when one William sleeps with a dream woman in a field, for example, the other must do so as well—but Shakespeare buffs will revel in the many, many references Winfield inserts into these escapades. From the ripped-from-soliloquy quips that William's friends use as evidence of his extemporaneous genius to Willie's charming ability to repeat the right quote at the wrong time, even while tripping, My Name Is Will overcomes its self-conscious premise by giving its source just enough stage time as its Williams careen toward their goals.