With dialogue that sparkles with Shakespearean authenticity, author Jess Winfield has written a smart, erudite, witty tale about sex, drugs and how the travails of the world’s most famous author can provide a sure path to Nirvana. Moving between the 1580s and the 1980’,s the author draws some interesting parallels between both worlds as two William Shakespeares - one real and one fictional - are separated by time and place, but not necessarily by life’s circumstances.
Eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare lives in the once openly Catholic town of Stratford-upon-Avon. His father, John Shakespeare, is a suspected Catholic with marriage ties to the powerful Arden family. Once a middle-class success story, John and Mary Shakespeare have descended into the realms of shadow and disgrace, forced to fawn and cower while they watch priests butchered and disemboweled in the public square.
Young William is certainly not immune from the anti-papist sentiment spreading throughout Elizabethan England, with the authoritarian Protestant reformers only to happy to see many of the Catholics “hang from the ropes.” While teaching students grammar at the Kings New School, William is shocked to discover that his
Catholic schoolmaster Thomas Cottom has been arrested and taken to the tower of London for imprisonment and torture.
Almost five hundred years later, UCSC graduate literature student Willie “Shakespeare” Greenberg is seeing his life flash before his eyes in a puff of marijuana smoke along with his long-overdue master's thesis, his grants and his fellowship, and his life as a playwright, poet, actor, and “modern day renaissance man.” All of
it threatens to go up in a puff of new and critical smoke when Willie’s father, who has been paying for his tuition, suddenly cuts him off after he realizes that his son has been sponging off him and buying drugs.
Desperate not to be “caged in a prison of higher learning with three squares a day and a shared cell,” Willie volunteers to become a drug runner for his best friend, Todd, offering to transport a giant psychedelic mushroom to the Berkeley Renaissance Faire for a few hundred bucks. Encountering various slip-ups along the way, Willie is surprised when beautiful Dashka Demitra, who is vetting his master's topic, comes onto him and is only too willing
to partake of his hash pipe.
Also starting a sexy affair is the real William Shakespeare who, back in 1582, is unable to resist the lure of buxom young women, finding himself caught between the affections of the bonny maid Rosaline, her own lap’s garden “hedged and trimmed like unto the fancy of a fairy’s lawn,” and his future wife, Anne Hathaway, whom he unwittingly gets in the “family way.”
It’s a sign of what is to come as William ends up in a torture session at the hands of the anti-papist Sir Thomas Lucy, accused of trespass for poaching of deer and for participating in “public lasciviousness” with Rosaline on the grounds of Sir Thomas’s vast country estate. Only at
Lucy's vicious hands does William learn some hard lessons about the supremacy of the new faith, which he and his family are forced to embrace in such a public fashion.
With his intricate themes of creative expression heavily embedded into his story, Winfield cleverly tweaks history, conjecturing whether his literary hero was in fact a Catholic as the twin worlds of Willie and William seem to collide. Both time periods are significant: the 1580’s for its religious divisions, and
Reagan's 1980s for his divisive war on drugs and the “just say no” campaign, with its mandatory prison sentences for first-time drug users.
Ultimately, the spirited Willie and William face life’s challenges with an intrinsic mix of mistrustful hysteria and intellectual prowess. While one is urged to protect one and all
- “the priest, the box, family and faith” - the other is blindsided by the psychotic effects of a giant fungus. Winfield’s insightful knowledge of Shakespeare and his use of language adds much to the attraction of this book; more importantly, he never loses sight of Shakespeare’s propensity for showing up all of the absurdities of life.