Thursday, July 17, 2008

"My Name Is Will"

Jess Winfield is a founding member of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He co-created the full-length show The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1987 and became an international sensation. After leaving the RSC, Winfield spent ten years writing and producing award-winning cartoons for the Walt Disney Company.

He applied the Page 69 Test to My Name Is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare, his first novel, and reported the following:
I had heard of the "page 69 test" before starting to write My Name Is Will. I distinctly remember hitting that page in my first draft and, because I was calling it "a novel of Sex, Drugs, and Shakespeare," wanting it to evoke the titillative sexual numerology of the 69 test. So in the original manuscript, this was the climax of the scene where randy, 18-year-old William Shakespeare ascends a stage for the very first time during rehearsals with a homespun theatrical troupe and improvises an adaptation of Ovid's tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. (If Hermaphroditism isn't appropriate for a page 69, what is?). The young Bard calls upon a bystander -- Rosaline, the comely young cousin of one of his fellow actors -- to extemporize with him. She proves a knowledgeable and formidable scene partner, portraying Salmacis to William's Hermaphroditus:

Rosaline turned to William. "O most stately boy — or are you a god? If a god then surely, the god of love — if mortal, how blessed are your father and mother? How happy your brother? But," and she stalked toward William, predatory, like a fox toward the hare, "so much more blessed and happy was whoever had the good fortune to be your sister."

Here the audience exchanged uncomfortable glances.

"And even more..." teased Rosaline, and she reached out and slowly circled a fingertip lightly around William's left nipple.

"And even more blessed, she who nursed you..."

She let her finger trail down William's trunk toward his belt.

"...she who gave you suck. But how much more blessed she who becomes thy wife? Thy bedfellow? Say that will be I."

The last five words hung in the air for a perfect moment before William turned to the audience.

"She knows her Ovid well!"

Alas, many drafts and many vagaries of editing and printing later, you will no longer find that scene on p. 69. I had hoped the published version might feature a scene from the parallel narrative in the 1980s, about young, would-be Shakespeare scholar Willie Shakespeare Greenberg. But it depicts another crucial scene in the 1580s timeline, where an 11-year old William Shakespeare watches his illustrious relative, Edward Arden, square off with the Earl of Leicester at a pageant honoring Queen Elizabeth. Arden is the only noble present who refuses to honor his host, Leicester, by wearing his insignia:

It was rumored that Leicester was bedding Essex's wife while he was making war in Ireland. Amid the collective held breath, Arden [said to Leicester], "To wear the livery of one who would take advantage of the distant commission of a Queen's officer to gain private access to the officer's Lady would be to honor a whoremaster."

Leicester drew his sword and leapt forward enraged. "God's teeth, will you speak thus to me, even here?!"

Arden also drew, and it might have turned into an ugly pageant indeed.

It was Viscountess Montague who stepped in between them. "Good my lords, I pray you put your weapons by. Let not the majesty and pageantry of the day be marred by such intemperance. It is not meet, to try so private a grievance in so public a court. Forbear, forbear."

Leicester looked around at the festivities still going on outside their little circle, and, trembling in anger, sheathed his sword. "For that I would not stain the honor of the Queen, and as my Lady Magdalen is ever a voice of conscience, I shall stand down. But this slight, sir, is not slight, and will not unpunish'd go. Mark you."

It is this slight from Arden that brings the wrath of Elizabeth's Catholic priest-hunters on William's family, and sends him careening, first into poverty and oppression, and then to fame, fortune, and manhood. I'm happy to say that between these two page 69s (if you'll pardon the cheat) my novel and its themes -- love, tolerance, freedom of expression, the dangers of state religion, and the oneness of humanity across space, time, and gender -- are well-represented indeed.
Read excerpts from My Name Is Will, and learn more about the book and author at Jess Winfield's website and blog.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue