If all the books ever written about William Shakespeare were strung together, they would ring the Earth. Yet for all these many inspired analyses, ardent appreciations, outrageous theories, convoluted interpretations and soporific rehashings, Shakespeare himself remains enigmatic, and his works still yield buried treasures and unforeseen illuminations. So the books keep coming.
Jess Winfield adds a particularly bright link to the chain. As a literature student at UC Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley, Winfield forsook scholarly detachment and took to the stage, eventually co-founding the Reduced Shakespeare Company and co-creating the hit show "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)," a two-hour distillation of all 37 plays that has itself toured the globe several times over. Winfield then followed in his father's footsteps, writing and producing cartoons for the Walt Disney Co. He now turns to fiction to pay tribute to Shakespeare, his muse and mentor, in a cunningly witty, frolicsome, time-warping bildungsroman.
"What's in a name?" This famous question drives Winfield's cleverly structured double-helical tale. On one strand, we meet a vividly imagined young William Shakespeare reluctantly and irreverently teaching Latin to restless schoolboys in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1582. On the other is William Shakespeare Greenberg, called Willie, a lackadaisical American graduate student at Santa Cruz in 1986. William hopes to write for the stage, but he is too busy ravishing the local beauties, drinking pitchers of ale and risking his future by penning protest ballads. Willie's maxim is "Sex, drugs, and Shakespeare. . . . A sure path to Nirvana," although perhaps not the straightest road to a master's degree. This randy ne'er-do-well despairs of ever being even remotely worthy of his namesake. Although Willie can quote the Bard at length and with pizazz, he has only the haziest notion about how to proceed with his thesis. But instead of hitting the books, Willie smokes a lot of hash, cheats on his girlfriend and ingests the psychedelic mushrooms he and his buddies gather in a seemingly enchanted cow pasture.
Winfield slings bucketfuls of double-entendres and wily puns, and he slips in hilarious variations on Shakespeare's best-known lines, such as when William's younger siblings Gilbert and Joan are sent to bed early. "Joan trudged upstairs reluctantly after him muttering, 'Unto our resting place we go. To be stifled in the chamber, whose foul mouth no healthsome air breathes in, to sleep, to dream, perchance to die. . . .' "
But serious business underlies the literary larkiness. Winfield is seeking clues to the great writer's profound empathy and unerring instinct for what is timeless and universal in human experience. He is also intent on educating readers about Shakespeare's violent world. At the start of each historical chapter, Winfield provides a brief commentary. The first begins, "I will argue that 1582 was the year Shakespeare became Shakespeare. His coming of age didn't take place in a vacuum, nor in some idealized, pastoral-watercolor vision of Merry Olde England." While Willie fumbles his thesis-in-limbo, which is based on his hazy impression that Shakespeare was Catholic, William learns that his mother is one of those brave souls risking their lives to practice the "Old Faith." Through William's daring involvement with the religious dissidents, Winfield suggests that the nascent Bard was deeply affected by the barbarity of this English inquisition and by the valor of the "hidden flock."
Chapter by chapter, Winfield fashions tantalizing, ironic parallels between the two Wills. William suffers the terrors of the whip and rack. Willie is briefly jailed by the campus police after getting into a scuffle at an anti-Drug Enforcement Administration rally. Each renegade is in possession of holy contraband. William has been entrusted with sacred objects bequeathed by a martyred priest; Willie is conveying an enormous psilocybin mushroom.
It's not unexpected when Willie has a hallucinogen-induced spiritual awakening, but nothing prepares us for William's cosmic adventure, jump-started in the rudest possible manner by a comely witch. Not only is Winfield offering an audacious explanation for the Bard's wide-open doors of perception, he is also rather blithely linking Queen Elizabeth I's religious persecution with the Reagan-era war on drugs. Whereas William is heroic, however, Willie plays the fool in scenes of trippy slapstick. It's Shakespeare meets Cheech. Or Chong.
Winfield knows how to snare and enrapture an audience. Indeed, he's almost too charming, and too eager to tell us what to think. But many readers will savor Winfield's teacherly moments and appreciate Shakespeare as a man responding with uncommon brilliance to tyranny and resistance, horror and beauty, fear and hope. Winfield's high-spirited tribute is a celebration of the power of language and story, through which we learn who we are and who we might be as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage, bit players reaching for the heavens in a drama beyond our grasp. *