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Sex, Drugs And Sonnets: In 'Will,' All's Well

Let's say you've spent a good portion of your adult life distilling Shakespeare's works into brief, bawdy theater skits that riff on the bard, with a few current events thrown in for good measure for measure. What do you do for an encore? If you're Jess Winfield, founding member of the celebrated Reduced Shakespeare Company, you follow it up with a hyperkinetic novel that bookends the bard's life with the story of a reluctant Shakespearean grad student whose half-hearted stabs at coherent scholarship are neither scholarly nor coherent.

William "Willie" Shakespeare Greenberg, a master's candidate at UC Santa Cruz in the 1980s, is fond of pot, 'shrooms, women and Shakespeare's sonnets. Casting about for a thesis topic, he decides that an aside in Sonnet 23 indicates that Shakespeare — under the violently enforced Protestant rule of Elizabeth I — was a closet Catholic. In what follows, Willie, navigating a thicket of drugs and women, sets out on an adventure that forces him to come to grips with the flaws in his theory.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, the real William Shakespeare is coming to grips with the revelation that he, in fact, belongs to a family of closet Catholics. There are ('shrooms and all!) uncanny parallels.

We find several echoes here of the brilliant David Lodge, who also makes hay with academics' fumbling attempts at literary and sexual congress. But this particular brand of silly, filthy fun is Winfield's own.

Winfield is less consumed with Shakespeare's elevated prose than in chuckling over the numerous puns the young bard makes on will, an archaic term for the male member (the mild vulgarism still in circulation is, of course, our protagonist's nickname). And is there another author today who would begin a tale of Shakespeare and self-discovery with two naughty references to the human anatomy and one use of a controlled substance?

As earthy, snarky Winfield knows, while most authors reach for the brave o'erhanging firmament, sometimes it's better to just hit Bottom.

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Lizzie Skurnick's reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and "many other appallingly underpaying publications," she says. Her books blog, Old Hag, is a Forbes Best of the Web pick and has been anthologized in Vintage's Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. She writes a column on vintage young-adult fiction for Jezebel.com, a job she has been preparing for her entire life. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.