Shakespeare, sex, and drugs

I read this because it was the book picked by Mondy for March’s Writer and the Critic podcast, on which I was the guest (which is full of spoilers for the book). It’s kinda my sort of book… and kinda really not.

I am a Shakespeare Fan. I love me some Bard. Not the comedies, though; I love the tragedies and the histories. Oh, and Much Ado, but that’s a whole ‘nother story (one involving Kenneth and Emma and Ben Elton and Michael Keaton and Keanu…). So, a book that alternates chapters about Will Shakespeare Greenberg, aspiring Masters student at UCal, with the late-teen years of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, is in theory a very appealing one to me. And Winfield clearly knows (or got to know) his Shakespeare: there are allusions, and direct quotes, in I think every single chapter – and they all seemed effortless, too. I enjoyed the development of sixteenth-century Stratford. I’m not entirely convinced by man-whore Shakespeare, but I see the point from a narrative point of view, and it’s not a completely ridiculous suggestion. Overall it was a reasonably interesting portrayal of his early adulthood.

On the other hand, there was Will Greenberg. A book published in 2008 choosing the mid-1980s as its setting is kinda weird, although I understand why: Winfield was drawing (perhaps tenuous) connections between the persecution of Catholics by Elizabeth with the crackdown on drugs by the Reagan administration. The portrayal of a Masters student of literature was hugely stereotypical, sadly – although again I see the point from a narrative point of view, especially in terms of the drug use. It doesn’t help the view of Arts students in general though, and the idea that marvellous ideas come in a flash of lightning or drug overdose is just annoying and unhelpful. It may be that I am a prude, but I got bored by the descriptions of drug use and the explicit sexual content; it got in the way of telling the story.

So… not really my thing, actually. Certainly well written, in the early modern bits in particular; as a former history/lit student myself I found the brief discussion of literary theory, especially the bagging of New Historicism, pretty funny (I am a big fan of Stephen Greenblatt, one of the original proponents). But the characters weren’t that engaging and the story wasn’t that compelling.

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