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My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare

Chapter 1

Where is any author in the world
Teaches such beauty as a woman's eye?
Learning is but an adjunct to ourself
And where we are our learning likewise is:
Then when ourselves we see in ladies' eyes,
Do we not likewise see our learning there?
O, we have made a vow to study, lords,
And in that vow we have forsworn our books.

       --- Berowne, Love's Labour's Lost, IV.iii.308

Willie sat in the back row of a blocky white minibus, his hand cupped around the enormous psychedelic mushroom hidden under a denim jacket laid too casually across his lap. The Psilocybe cubensis was fresh, not dried; sweating slightly, it was smooth and moist to the touch. It possessed, he thought, a comforting fullness, an ancient, earthy quality. He felt a little high just touching it. Though he didn't know it, the mushroom's cap was exactly the size and shape of Queen Elizabeth I's left tit.

Willie also didn't know that the guy sitting up front, near the driver, was a narc.

And he also didn't know quite how he --- a graduate student in literature, and according to his mother, the next William Shakespeare --- had ended up as a drug runner.

But he did know that the woman sitting next to him was giving him a boner.

Just two days earlier, he'd been in the office of Clarence Welsh, professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Welsh's office, in a third- floor crow's nest perched atop the jumbled modernist slabs of Kresge College, had a window with a bucolic view of the surrounding redwood forest and a glimpse of Monterey Bay in the distance; a view now entirely obscured, alas, by a stack of bound periodicals labeled Journal of Shakespearean Studies on their spines, with dates ranging from "1961–65" all the way to "1983–"

Willie heard the title of his proposed master's thesis read back to him aloud: "Shakespeare and the Crucifix: Catholic Persecution in Sixteenth- Century England and Its Effect on Elizabethan Theater."

Clarence Welsh was a smallish, rotund man. His greasy, dandruffflecked hair looked as though it had been cut by a drunken gardener with a rusty hedge trimmer. His face was red with English jollity and suppressed perversion.

Willie liked Clarence Welsh.

But the voice speaking in Professor Welsh's office was not that of Clarence Welsh. At this precise moment, Welsh was spilling his fifth glass of wine at a luncheon in San Francisco celebrating the publication of his latest book, Getting Bottom: Bestiality in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

No, the voice speaking in Welsh's office belonged to his top-gun doctoral candidate, Dashka Demitra. She was covering for Welsh during his book tour, and her duties included vetting the topic for Willie's longoverdue master's thesis. She handed back the one-page proposal without finishing it.

"What have you been smoking?"

Willie opened his mouth, then thought better and closed it again. The answer was "Lebanese hashish." He'd smoked a little --- just one hit, to clear his head --- before the meeting.

Dashka leaned back in Clarence Welsh's chair --- it went squeeeeeeeeeee --- and crossed her legs, exposing a flash of inner thigh in the process. She rocked back and forth a little in the chair --- squee squee squee squee --- "Look . . . sorry, what's your last name?" she asked as she picked up a dog-eared list off the desk and flipped through it.


She scanned quickly until she found his name on the list, then stopped and looked up at him. She said it deliberately, wrapping her lips around the words:

"William . . . Shakespeare . . . Greenberg?" Dashka blinked. "That's quite a name. Your --- "

"I know," Willie interrupted. "I'm Shakespeare, my thesis had better be good."

"Actually, I was going to ask what your parents were thinking."

"They're Jewish. Mom was an Anglophile." Willie shifted in his chair. "My friends call me Willie."

"Willie," Dashka repeated, with an almost imperceptible raise of her eyebrow, letting the name hang in the air for a moment.

Squee. Squee.

Then, referring to the paper: "I'm sure it's an interesting area --- your thesis, that is --- "

"I think it's valid," Willie interrupted. "Shakespeare was a Catholic, and there's a level where his writing is all about --- "

Dashka interrupted him back. "Every bio I've ever read suggests he was Church of England. All his scriptural quotations are from a Protestant Bible."

"Right, right . . ." said Willie, trying to collect fuzzy thoughts. It hadn't even occurred to him that there were "Catholic" and "Protestant" Bibles. He could feel the go-ahead slipping away, and his degree and career along with it. He had put off getting the approval until the last possible week. If this pitch didn't fly . . ."

Right, but I think that was just a cover," he continued, his voice heavy in the cramped, musty room. "His mother's family at least --- the Ardens --- they were Catholic, right? But he couldn't just go around spewing quotes from the . . . the Catholic Bible, right? Because they were executing Catholics. Historically . . ."

"No-no-no-no," Dashka said, and waved her hands to interrupt him, partly to Willie's relief, as he had no idea what was going to come out of his mouth after "Historically," but much to his dread, that she would kill the proposal.

"Listen," began Dashka. She leaned forward again in the chair --- squeeeee --- and as she did so she dropped the list in her hand. When she bent to pick it up the top of her blouse fell away from her collarbone. It was unbuttoned to her sternum. Caught with his eyes deep in the cookie jar, Willie's gaze leaped up so quickly that he barely had time to register a black lace bra, a breast --- evenly tanned to a golden brown, small yet not so small that it wasn't straining against the bra --- and a cappuccino aureole peeking out from the lace like the muted disk of the sun on a foggy day.

She was still speaking, but Willie had forgotten to listen. He was thinking that UCSC women, while generally smart, funny, and talented, also tended toward the overweight, the frumpy, the geeky, the gawky, the Coke bottle–lensed, the makeup-challenged, the awkward, the mousy, the unshaven. But Dashka . . . he was hooked from the day she walked into one of Welsh's classes, silently left a stack of papers on his lectern, and swept out. Every eye in the room --- straight, gay, and lesbian alike --- followed her out the door. Even Welsh stole a glance.

Now, Willie took in the shining, raven-black hair, dyed with streaks of purple and green: a rocker's hair, somewhere on the Jett end of a Siouxsie Sioux / Kate Bush / Joan Jett axis. In fact, thought Willie, she looked just like the brunette from the Bangles. Blue eyes; not a pale blue but the unfathomable, dark, indigo blue of an alpine lake at twilight. Sparkle-green eye shadow. Bright red lipstick. And --- right here at UC Santa Cruz, last bastion of Birkenstocks --- green Doc Martens, hand painted with a black Maori tribal design. Add the palpable intellect of a fast-track doctoral student from a tony East Coast liberal arts college, and Jesus. In the time between two squees of the chair, he'd thought of five different possible positions.

"Maybe they don't tell you this in the master's program," she said, "but since Wimsatt and Beardly and the ascendance of New Criticism, authorial intent and historical context carry very little weight in literary analysis." She took the cap off of her red pen, and shook her head. "I think maybe you should --- "

In the instant before she could finish her sentence, her pen poised over the desk, Willie saw the life he hadn't yet lived flash before his eyes. The master's degree; the creative writing program; the grants and fellowships; the burgeoning life as scholar, playwright, poet, actor, modern day Renaissance man, truly the second coming of Shakespeare . . . gone in a puff of New Critical smoke.

"I've already done most of the research," he blurted.

A lie. He'd done no significant master's research for a year. He spent an hour or two a day buried in his Riverside Shakespeare, reading the plays, but mostly he smoked hash in his room and listened to music, living off his father's increasingly reluctant benefaction. The only thing he'd truly mastered was the Rubik's Cube. He did think about Shakespeare a lot while endlessly spinning rows of green squares and blue squares, yellow squares and white squares, trying to get them to line up --- trying to get a grip on it, to figure it out: what was it that made Shakespeare great? What made him Shakespeare? That would be the key that would unlock the doors of Shakespeare's past, and his own future.

Dashka rocked back and forth slowly on the chair. Squee . . . Squee . . . considering.

"It'll be a whole new approach to literary evaluation. New Historic . . . al . . . ism," Willie said, piling layer of bs on layer of bs. Then the quote sprang unbidden to Willie's mind and from his lips: "The trust I have is in my innocence, and therefore am I bold and resolute."

Trying to hold Dashka's fathomless blue gaze in the pause that followed, he felt neither innocent nor bold nor resolute.

She finally asked, "Henry VI, Part Three?"

"Part Two," Willie replied.

Quoting Shakespeare seemed to have done the trick. As Dashka turned back to the desk he could have sworn she stole a quick glance down his body. He suddenly felt underdressed --- green drawstring pants and inky denim jacket over a shredded Ramones tank top.

She shrugged. "Okay. It's your thesis. Who knows, maybe it'll be a masterpiece. I'll discuss it with the professor. He'll still have to give the final approval, so I suggest you talk to him the instant he gets back. If you want my advice, keep it focused on the text. Don't get caught up in the history. Text, text, text, right?"

Dashka set down her red pen, picked up one that matched her green Docs, and made a check mark on the list.

"I will," said Willie, relief flooding through his body like a drug rush. "Thanks." He gathered up his notebook, slipped the proposal inside, and shuffled it into his green nylon backpack. "I'll see you in section next week."

Willie wanted to get out before she changed her mind. As he stood, he zipped open the front pouch of his pack to slip his pen inside. But the main part of the backpack was still unzipped. The whole pack fell open, spilling out his notebook and the November issue of a hard-core porn rag. The magazine fluttered to the floor, open to a layout of two female Santa's elves in fur-trimmed, red-sequined spandex miniskirts, topless and flashing beaver, about to go down on a fully erect black shopping mall Santa. As Willie lurched forward to snatch up the magazine, something silvery flashed out of the backpack's open front pouch. He instinctively lunged to grab it out of midair.

Willie had quick hands. Four times out of five if he dropped a small item he could catch it before it hit the floor. But he had recently caught a dropped toothbrush, a pizza-parlor pepper shaker, a lighter, and a diaphragm case. This was the fifth time, and he only succeeded in knocking the item out of the air. He had a sinking, exhilarating feeling as it clattered across Clarence Welsh's desk and spun to a stop directly under Dashka Demitra's pen.

The item was William Shakespeare Greenberg's hash pipe.

Dashka looked at the pipe; then at the magazine; then at Willie.

"Sorry . . ." Willie said, reaching for the magazine.

But Dashka quickly leaned over and scooped it up first. She glanced at the cover. "They start in with the holiday porn earlier and earlier every year, don't they?" she said. She flipped to the Santa's elves spread. "Damn, I wonder how Santa gets that down the chimney." Then she closed the magazine and held it out for Willie with an inscrutable look.

As he put the magazine back in his pack, he weighed two options: he could walk out, utterly humiliated; or he could take one desperate stab at redemption.

Willie nodded toward the pipe still sitting on the desk. "So can I have my pipe back? Or did you want to sample that as well?"

Willie saw a spark in the depths of Dashka's eyes. She rocked back in her chair with a mischievous smile.


Chapter 2

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. The Stratford-upon-Avon of the Bard’s youth was one of social turmoil and religious oppression. King Henry VIII had split with the Roman Catholic Church so that he might divorce his first wife and leave a male heir. He failed, and his daughter “Bloody” Mary I forced England back to Catholicism by burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake. On Mary’s death, Henry’s second daughter took the throne as Elizabeth I, returned the country to Protestantism, and established a network of spies and informants to enforce the state religion.

Eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare had a love/hate relationship with Latin.

He loved the language. Even the repetitive declension of demonstratives --- hic haec hoc, huius huius huius --- brought vague memories to his mind of the sweet smell of incense, wise men bearing strange Eastern unguents, and the taste of wine. But he hated teaching the lessons. As a student, he had always struggled with the tongue, and now keeping one step ahead of the older boys was a tail-chasing proposition. He still felt, in only his second term, more like one of the pupils than an assistant schoolmaster, or “usher,” which was what he was.

William’s students sat along the walls of the King’s New School of Stratford-upon-Avon. It was the third day of the Michaelmas term --- a nominal distinction, as the pale, bug-eyed little moppets attended school nearly year-round, six days a week from six a.m. to six p.m., less a half day on Thursday. On their “day off” they were expected to go to church and Sunday school.

The class was diving into Lyly’s A Short Introduction to Grammar, the sine qua non of Elizabethan secular education. The three oldest boys held the school’s three precious copies and read together aloud in the singsongy voice that afflicts all readers-together-aloud:

“An Introduction to the Numbers of Nouns. In nouns be two numbers; the singular, and the plural. The singular number speaketh of but one: as, lapis, a stone. The plural number speaketh of more than one: as, lapides, stones.”

“Close the books,” William Shakespeare commanded. A thwap as the students obliged. “Now how many numbers be there in nouns?”

There was an absolutely still silence. No one raised a hand. A few stole glances at their hornbooks. No help there; just a cheat sheet for the English alphabet, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Roman numerals.

“Taught your masters naught in petty school? To read and retain? How many numbers be there in nouns!?”

“Two,” said three or four voices --- the older boys.

“Better. Ay. And what is lapis?”

“Stones,” offered an especially pale boy.

“Nay,” said William, “’tis but the singular, stone.”

A wicked laugh from young Richard Wheeler, class ass. “Forgive him, for he is breechless, and knows not the stones of which you speak.”

The reference, to the fact that the pale lad was still wearing a dress, as was the custom for very young boys, and therefore by extension had no “stones” --- testicles --- was technically an “oath” under the new rules of the King’s School and subject to punishment. But William Shakespeare didn’t countenance giving young boys the whip when he had a sharper tool at his disposal.

“Richard,” William said, “I should strip thee and whip thee for thy stones, wert thou not already naked.”

The other boys laughed with nervous confusion; young Richard was obviously fully clothed.

After a tense pause, William raised an eyebrow high on his high brow.

“I see on you no breeches, yet despite thy dick of a name, I suspect a breach --- a vertical one --- in thy lap. Gloves, I note you have none, but that of Venus. No ruff, but that which circles thy perfect maidenhead. Ay, I should whip thee, but the gentle whipping of maids is, sadly, frowned upon amongst the better classes. So will I let thy case rest.”

William looked stern as he sat back down on his desk, but he smiled to himself. Only half the boys, he knew, got only half the puns, but they all got the gist: their teacher had just told the class wit that he was a pussy in five different ways.

William moved on. “Continue reading aloud, after ‘Cases of Nouns.’”

“Nouns be declined,” went the singsong, “with six cases, singularly and plurally. The nominative, the genitive, the dative, the accusative, the vocative, and the ablative.”

“Richard, what be the cases of nouns?”

“Nouns be declined with six cases, the nominative, the dative, the accusative, and the ablative,” Richard responded.

“Two hast thou forgotten.”

“Nay, I forget not, but speak not for fear of whipping, magister.”

“Why should I whip thee for naming the cases?” asked William, puzzled.

“Two be oaths, magister.”


“Ay. The genital and the vocative.” He pronounced the v in “vocative” like an f.

All the boys got that one. The laughter cascaded through the open timbers of the roof like angels in flight.

William looked angry for a moment, then broke his mask and laughed along. “Veritas! The master teaches and the pupil learns, all too well.”


The booming voice from the doorway stopped the laughter midpeal. All heads in the room turned as one to see a black-robed figure in the doorway, holding a Bible under his arm, his face reddening.

“Did I hear thee professing profanity and vulgarity to my charges?”

William leapt up from the desk with the instinctive fear of a schoolboy for his master. He gave a deep reverence. “Merely teaching Lyly as writ, magister.”

“I do not recall Lyly teaching declensions thus. I would speak with thee. Outside, sirrah. Nunc.”

Snickers from the class; a barely audible fart.

William followed the schoolmaster of the King’s New School out of the class and into the street.

He’d been dreading this.

When William was himself a breechless little moppet, Stratford was an openly Catholic town, and so were the New School’s headmasters. But in the year when William was eleven, public officials were forced to take the Oath of Supremacy, acknowledging the Protestant Church of England as their religion and Elizabeth as its head. Rather than take the oath, William’s schoolmaster, Simon Hunt, left to study for the priesthood at Rheims, a Catholic seminary on the Continent. More than one of his Stratford students went with him.

But Stratford was still a Catholic town, so it hired yet another Catholic schoolmaster, John Cottom. He was William’s teacher for three years, and allowed William to stay in school even when the Shakespeare family could no longer pay his tuition. And when William, despite all aptitude, couldn’t afford to go to Oxford or Cambridge, John Cottom had given William a position as his assistant, teaching Latin to the younger students.

But during the past summer, word arrived in Stratford that John’s brother, Thomas Cottom --- yet another who had gone to Rheims to study for the priesthood, and had returned to preach in secret amongst faithful English Catholics --- had been arrested and taken to the Tower of London for imprisonment and torture. Then, in the short break before the current term, William heard that John Cottom had vanished from Stratford in the middle of the night. Rumors flew through Stratford like spooked ravens. Some said Cottom had gone to London to plead for his brother’s life; some that he had gone to Rheims; some that he had fled to his family’s lands in Lancashire; some that he himself had been taken to the Tower; some that he was already dead.

Three days before classes resumed, William received a brief letter from the new schoolmaster, Alexander Aspinall: William was to return for the new term as expected. It was the second day of class, and Aspinall had yet to make an appearance...until now.

The smell of roasting meat, fresh-cut hay, and human waste walloped William in the face as he emerged into the late morning air. It was coolish for autumn in Stratford --- which is to say, bitterly cold. The puddles in the muddy street were turning toward slush. Fog hung nearly as low as the top of the Guild Hall Chapel next door, where the school had begun its day in the dark, with morning services. A fishmonger walked past missing all but one visible tooth, proffering “eelsh, bash, and shalmon.” William couldn’t help but note that the fishmonger --- twenty-one or twenty-two, Irish, he guessed, with large pale green eyes and black hair --- aside from being near toothless, was exceedingly attractive. In fact, he ruminated, there must be certain advantages ---

“So: you are Will,” rasped an impatient, rheumy voice.

William turned to face Alexander Aspinall.

“No Will I, magister. I am small of purse and stature, and therefore make amends with a rich and lofty name. So: my name is William.”

Aspinall closed his black cassock over a staid white shirt, sheltering from an icy blade of cold wind from the north. He looked William over.

“William, then,” he said at last. “John Cottom spoke well of you.”

“I knew not that you were acquainted,” William replied.

“He left a letter to his replacement. Most eloquent.”

“He was an excellent schoolmaster,” William said warily, but with some relief. If John had found the time to leave such a letter, he at least hadn’t been suddenly snatched away to the Tower.

“But he was a papist, they say,” Aspinall ventured.

“I know not.”

“Do you not?” asked Aspinall with a flash in his eyes. “His brother was, ’tis certain, along with many students and masters of the King’s School past.” Aspinall opened the cover of his Bible and referred to papers tucked inside. “Simon Hunt, Thomas Jenkins, Robert Debdale...”

William was beginning to calm down. He answered coolly, “A man may be many things that his brother --- or his schoolmaster --- is not.”

“Yet Thomas’s faith was wicked. And his brother John, ’twould seem by his sudden absence, shares in his guilt.”

“Of the righteousness of Thomas Cottom’s faith, or John’s, or indeed the faith of any man, only God might know of a certainty.”

Aspinall frowned. His gaze bored into William like a thumbscrew. Then he drew in a breath, still regarding William curiously. “Indeed. Well spoken, William. The soul of a man finds purchase with God only by private piety, not by the baubles of priests, nor by the gold of St. Peter’s coffers, nor by the display of the bloody Roman crucifix. So the new faith teaches our princes; so our sovereign Queen teaches us; and so shall we teach our pupils. I neither know nor care what philosophy my predecessors loosed in this our school that brought the Crown’s displeasure upon Stratford, but no lasciviousness nor other popery will abide here while I am master. Neither would I have even the suspicion of recusancy fall upon my new usher, lest it fall thence on me.”

William fought back his rising spleen and said, “Ay, magister.”

“Therefore, thou shalt cease thy instruction in stones and cases, the genital, the fuckative, and all other such privy parts of speech in my school; or thou shalt find thyself pondering, at thy soon-arrived last, how best to distribute the four parts of thy personal estate unto the dismembers of thy family. Comprehendisne?

“Ay, magister.”

Alexander Aspinall harrumphed, then opened the door leading back into the schoolhouse. William entered and Aspinall followed. Clothing rustled as pupils turned to watch William return from his censure. As he strode to the master’s desk, he felt the eyes of both students and master heating his back from the inside like peat fire. From the desk, he picked up the open copy of Lyly’s grammar. With a glance at Aspinall, who stood watching from the doorway, William closed the book and set it gingerly on the desk.

Satis Linguae Latinae hodie. Enough of that. Let us move on to matters of less controversy.” He quickly took up another, much larger book from the desk, and opened it to the marked page.

“Where stood we in the Gospels yesterday? Ah, Matthew, chapter one, verse eighteen.” He cleared his throat and read in Latin: “Christi autem generatio sic erat cum esset desponsata mater eius Maria Ioseph antequam convenirent inventa est in utero habens de Spiritu Sancto.” (Which two decades later would be translated for the King James version thus: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: when as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”)

He dropped the book onto the desk; it landed with a thump like Anne Boleyn’s head into the basket.

Disputate,” William barked. “Discuss.”

Several hands shot up. William acknowledged one.

“How came Mary with the child of the Holy Ghost?” asked an older boy who understood the Latin well.

“And what means convenirent, ‘they came together’?” asked a younger boy who did not.

William cast a studiously blank look toward the door, but it was already closing with a slam; Alexander Aspinall was gone.

Excerpted from MY NAME IS WILL: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare © Copyright 2011 by Jess Winfield. Reprinted with permission by Twelve. All rights reserved.

My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare
by by Jess Winfield

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve
  • ISBN-10: 0446508837
  • ISBN-13: 9780446508834