BRYN MAWR REVIEW OF COMPARATIVE LITERATURE

Volume 10, Number 1 (Fall 2012)
 
Madhavi Menon, Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011. 
x + 494 pp. ISBN 9780822348450.

Reviewed by Graham Hammill
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Shakesqueer is precisely what its subtitle announces it to be: “a queer companion to the complete works of Shakespeare.” It offers varied and often unexpected queer analyses of all of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. The volume begins with a twenty-five page introduction by Madhavi Menon explaining the stakes of the project; Menon’s introduction is followed by forty-eight short essays by a range of early modernists and queer theorists. Each essay addresses one of Shakespeare’s works, developing some aspect of queer desire very broadly conceived. The Sonnets get three essays. Also included are essays on works no longer extant--Cardenio and Love’s Labour's Found--as well as works that have an uncertain relation to the canon of generally accepted works--Sir Thomas More. The essays are experimental in nature and play with expanding definitions of queer in quite inventive ways. On the whole, the volume is provocative, engaging, and just plain fun. How could it be otherwise? It is sheer intellectual pleasure to read some of the best scholars working in early modern studies and in queer theory engaging with some of the most well-read literature on sexuality and desire in the English canon.

The overall project of Shakesqueer is to ask how innovative readings of Shakespeare might illuminate and be illuminated by current topics of discussion in queer theory, including masochism and sexuality, shame, animal studies, affective reading, disability studies, the links between marriage and non-normative desires, and the claims of queer sexualities on futurity. In many ways, this is a familiar kind of project. Writers from G. W. F. Hegel to Stanley Cavell and Martha Nussbaum have taken Shakespeare to be fertile ground for theoretical and philosophical inquiry. But Shakesqueer is more than an example of Shakespeare and philosophy. The volume attempts to move Shakespeare studies beyond the kind of historicism that has dominated a great deal of work on sexuality in early modern studies since the 1980s.         

Ground-breaking scholars like Alan Bray (Homosexuality in Renaissance England, The Friend) and Valerie Traub (The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England), among others, have uncovered and analyzed representations of same-sex desire in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England. This scholarship has given us a more complex and varied picture of sexuality than we would have had otherwise, and it has certainly taught us to read for sexuality in places we might not have thought to look. Nevertheless, Shakesqueer asks us to reconsider some of the historical and methodological assumptions upon which this scholarship rests. Sexuality is not something that can be easily divided into periods like Renaissance or Early Modern but, as Menon suggests in her Introduction, has affective and temporal dimensions that subvert the historicist project by foregrounding experimental readings that often chafe against historicist sensibilities. What does it mean to read representations of masculinity in Henry VIII alongside websites devoted to bears (hairy, big-bellied gay men), as Steven Bruhm does in this volume’s opening essay? Or to read A Lover’s Complaint as an allegory of being seduced by queer theory, as Ashley Shelden does in her essay on Shakespeare’s poem? The point of such inquiry is not to collapse historical difference but to say more broadly that queer readings of the past emerge in contact with queer desires in the present and that queer studies would do well to generate more, not fewer, points of contact.           

While I am generally sympathetic to these claims about queer historiography, I also believe they indicate the distance travelled by early modern queer studies since its inception in the early 1990’s, with the publication of Jonathan Goldberg’s Sodometries (1992) and Queering the Renaissance (1994), which Goldberg edited. Then, early modern queer studies had a precise agenda: to call out the homophobic ignorance of the US judiciary in its unjust legal decisions concerning the lives of gay and lesbian citizens. Early modern English law played a role in anti-gay rulings by the US Supreme Court. As Janet Halley demonstrates in the opening essay of Queering the Renaissance, the Supreme Court’s decision in Bowers v. Hardwick to outlaw “homosexual sodomy” depended upon a strong misappropriation of early modern English sodomy laws promulgated by Henry VIII at the very beginning of the English Reformation. The majority decision was based on the conflation of sodomy, an incoherent theological and legal category, with homosexuality, a modern invention that was in many ways anathema to the various acts that sodomy attempted to denote. Countering this decision meant developing richer and more accurate accounts of sodomy and of same-sex relations in the early modern period, and it also meant developing sharper analytic tools and techniques for contextualizing and interpreting sexual desires and practices which are notoriously difficult to pin down in their particularities. Subsequent essays in Queering the Renaissance engaged that broader project by queering the culture of humanist education, textual production, and religious devotion that ostensibly supported the efforts of Justice White and others to deny legal protection to all kinds of queers.

Shakesqueer claims early modern England as a significant period for queer theory as well. However, between Queering the Renaissance and Shakesqueer, a reversal of sorts seems to have occurred in which means are now taken for ends. In works like Sodometries and Queering the Renaissance, queer studies was a means of reconceptualizing legal and political justice. The purpose of queer scholarship was to lay the academic groundwork that would enable a more sophisticated understanding of sexuality and power in the legal and political worlds of policy and judicial decision making. In Shakesqueer, queering becomes its own end. The volume’s explicit aim is to show how queer theory needs Shakespeare to avoid falling into naive presentism. That is, Shakespeare is necessary as a corrective to perceived problems in current queer theory. Menon puts it like this:

Shakespeare is already embedded within a queer theory that nonetheless exorcises Shakespeare by distancing itself from him institutionally . . . . Shakespeare is a specter haunting queer theory--our ideas of normativity and desire owe a debt to Shakespearean ideas and language that we have been strangely unwilling to pay. Instead, we banish him to the realm of the pre-queer, where he is sometimes considered worthy as an object of queer theoretical attention but is rarely recognized as having provided, to a significant extent, the very vocabulary for that theory. (12)

Noting that readings of Shakespeare were central to René Girard’s and Eve Sedgwick’s early theorizations of masculinity, Menon argues that subsequent queer studies treats Shakespeare as the opposite of queer, which in turn has made queer studies unreceptive to the versions of queer that Shakespeare’s works can offer.    

Some readers might see these claims about the significance of Shakespeare for queer theory as navel gazing, an indication that early modern queer studies has become increasingly depoliticized. I believe it would be more accurate to say that the politics of early modern queer studies has shifted dramatically in concert with the increased normalization of gays and lesbians in the public sphere. In the United States, homosexuality, while morally controversial among the obvious circles, has been mostly decriminalized. Indeed, as I am writing this review, President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage. At the same time, queer theory has become a fairly conventional discipline in the humanities. There are now academic jobs in queer theory and it is taught very regularly at universities across the US. This is not at all a bad thing and in many ways is simply one powerful sign of success. I do not at all mean to suggest that the fight is over and done, nor do I mean to counsel complacency. But it does seem that the scene for gays and lesbians has changed enough that queer studies is free to take on a different sense of politics, one which is largely academic and is about what is and is not included within its own ambit. This is the sense of politics that Shakesqueer engages in its claims about history.

Does early modern have a role to play in queer studies? And if so, how and why? The answers to these questions that Menon develops are driven less by political and legal concerns that stand outside or alongside the academy than by the ongoing need for queer theory to develop new concepts and ways of thinking about its own objects of study. As Menon explains, queer studies is too often attached to history and culture after 1800 because it is overly constrained by the modern concepts of sexuality, especially the formalization of sexuality in homosexual and heterosexual that Michel Foucault describes in his ground-breaking History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. In Menon’s account, queering the early modern offers a version of queer that lets us think beyond the contemporary moment to expand the understanding queer theory has of key critical concepts.

I don’t disagree, but I am left wondering, why Shakespeare?

Even if readers do not accept Menon’s argument that Shakespeare is a kind of repressed origin of queer theory, a figure who is only rarely acknowledged for providing us with our vocabulary for thinking about desire and sexuality, I suspect that most readers will agree with Menon’s claim that Shakespeare can be a valuable resource for queer theory. Shakespeare thinks hard about the intersections of language and desire; the limits of ethical and corporate identity, and the relation of both to psychic disintegration; and the multiple dimensions of time--biological, natural, political, sexual, and redemptive--that we inhabit. For instance, Lee Edelman turns to Hamlet to explore the condition of modern subjectivity, given the force of paternal demand (the ghost’s injunction that Hamlet remember him) and the need to revenge non-normative marriage (Claudius and Gertrude). In Edelman’s reading, Hamlet crystallizes the conundrum of the modern child, interpellated as “a hetero-normative subjectivity so deeply in debt to the dead that it needs to invent the future to pay off what is mortgaged to the past” (104). What, Edelman asks, are the possibilities for survival in this world? And how might queer involve resisting the survival of a heteronormative past into the present and futures it seems to constrain? While Hamlet offers little by way of an answer or consolation, the play gives Edelman the terms for articulating the problem at a high level of sophistication and philosophical nuance. Carla Freccero’s essay on Romeo and Juliet develops a complimentary reading. She fully acknowledges the enabling influence of Edelman’s work on her own thinking about the play. (Edelman’s theoretical work exerts a strong influence on many of the essays in this volume.) Proposing that modern interpretations of Romeo and Juliet as the glorification of heterosexual love are simply historically inaccurate, Freccero goes on to argue that the value of the play for queer theory is that it refuses the combination of futurity and maturity associated at the end of the play with the kind of heteronormativity that Edelman describes in his essay on Hamlet. If anything, Freccero argues, Romeo and Juliet glorifies a youth culture, expressed in lyric, that resists “a politics of reproductive futurity” (305). The play celebrates the death drive, the rejection of futures laid out by family, church, and state in the name of the more radical possibilities now at hand.

But Shakespeare is also a somewhat troublesome choice for queer theory to pursue. Throughout his works, Shakespeare is clearly concerned with norms in their complex relations with anti-normative behaviors. These are concerns central to queer theory as well, which makes his works quite plausibly useful in pursuing them. However, Shakespeareans often struggle with the way that Shakespeare seems driven throughout his works to reincorporate anti-normative behavior within increasingly broader visions of communal norms. Sometimes these norms are entirely friendly to queer analysis. In a provocative reading of friendship and marriage in The Merchant of Venice, Arthur Little shows how Shakespeare opposes heterosexual and queer marriage along with their attendant temporalities. While Portia’s suitors embody a vision of marriage that fantasizes productive and economic growth in a ritualistic rejection of death, Antonio in his friendship with Bassanio stands for a vision of same-sex marriage that indicts this investment in economic and sexual futures. As Little makes clear, the central issue “is not same-sex unions in and of themselves but how such unions find themselves increasingly subject to heteroculturalist reading” (216). At other times, Shakespeare’s investment in norms is more complex. In his reading of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Jonathan Goldberg shows how for Shakespeare normative marriage is rooted in an antipathy between the sexes. On the one hand, this antipathy deconstructs any strong opposition between heterosexual and gay desires, as Shakespeare repeatedly shows how marital norms are often underwritten by same-sex desire; on the other hand, queer desires are often subsumed within the marital norms in support of antipathy between the sexes. All of this, Goldberg argues, shows “how little comfort Shakespeare offers to the heterosexual norms that he has been taken to support, but also how hard won any queer reading of his plays must be” (231-2). Oftentimes, we are left with readings of discrete moments that stand against the overall trajectory of the work. Richard Rambuss calls Midsummer Night’s Dream “Shakespeare’s ass play,” arguing that in the play anal erotics is “principally female in issue, if not aim.” He then qualifies that thesis by admitting that “little scope is offered to that desire.” My point is not at all to critique these very fine essays but to point out just how difficult it can be to develop queer readings of Shakespeare’s plays. There are other, equally fine essays in the volume that make the same point.

Menon supplements arguments about the intellectual value of Shakespeare with the stronger and more idiosyncratic claim that in refusing to engage a queer Shakespeare, queer theory has inadvertently reinforced bad bardology. This is an interesting claim for several reasons, not the least because it skews--or better, queers--more traditional mappings of left and right. Menon begins with the assertion that “the conservative impulse to venerate Shakespeare stems from the same source as the desire to ignore his queerness. Both involve circumscribing him as untouchable” (2). The essays in Shakesqueer in no way respond by contesting Shakespeare’s canonical status. Rather, the volume attempts to fashion a good bardology, based on the impulse to engage if not exactly venerate a queer Shakespeare. The view of Shakespeare may have changed, but his canonical status and literary value remain intact. In early modern studies, good bardology is still a conservative impulse, even as it stems from a queer affiliation or companionship. One of the most productive ways that some of the essays explore this problem is through questions of performance. Who makes up the audience that gets the biggest thrill out of Shakespeare’s cross-dressing romances, Sharon Holland asks in her essay on Twelfth Night? And what does it mean that “queers who often love opera” (390) are as invested in these plays as those who believe in “the rightness of heterosexual romance” (392)? The potential of performance is beautifully described by Michael Moon in his essay on Titus Andronicus which ranges across a host of productions both performed and unperformed that include Julie Taymor’s 1999 film version of Titus, the production that Charles Ludlam was planning before he died of AIDS in 1987, a 2001 episode of South Park in which a young boy is tricked into eating his own parents (a reversal of one of Titus Andronicus’s central scenes), several musical versions of the play, and a nineteenth-century production by the African American actor Ira Aldridge, who ennobles the character of Aaron. It is not Shakespeare, Moon suggests, but the power of performance, and campy performance in particular that make the plays valuable for the discovery, invention, and expression of queer desires.

Menon is likely being playful when she proposes that we should consider Shakespeare to be a queer theorist avant la lettre. But the proposition has a serious side. It suggests an uncomfortably limited vision of early modern studies and of what early modern queer studies might offer queer studies more generally. At a particularly illuminating moment, Jeffrey Masten pauses in his witty essay on Sir Thomas More to reflect critically on the volume’s general project. Masten asks, “if Shakesqueer, why not Jonsqueer, Websqueer, Beaumont-and-Fletchqueer?” (310). I would add, why not Marlowe-queer? Wroth-queer? Katherine Philips-queer? Or, since the justification of Shakespeare is relatively unlinked from historical determinations and almost any pre-modern author who writes about sexuality would challenge the ostensible presentism of queer theory, why not Chaucerqueer, or Ovid-queer, or fill-in-your-favorite-author-queer? There are certainly queerer writers from the past who develop more surprising views of sexuality, including a host of women writers whose works are still unexplored. “Why all this bother with queering at the level of the ‘author’ in the first place?”, Masten continues. “Doesn’t this mode of organization simply reproduce the notions of the bounded individual and unitary subjectivity that have been central to queer critique since its advent?” Shakespeare may well portray the subversion of various subjects by and through the experience of desire. Why rescue him from a similar subversion on the level of authorship? For all the experimentation with history that Menon proposes, isn’t this insistence on authorship a methodologically conservative move?

There are, of course, answers to these questions, but they are implicit rather than developed. Perhaps literary value is the key issue, and the impulse to have a shared text is the inevitable condition for the kind of community that Shakesqueer envisions. Aranye Fradenburg offers the strongest and best definition of queer in the volume and, in fact, one of the best definitions of queer that I know. “Once retrieved by the sexual minorities it was meant to insult,” she writes, “[queer] has become a generous term. It is a counter-humiliant insofar as it no longer isolates, but now links, many sexual practices some prefer to keep asunder” (319, Fradenburg’s emphasis). Perhaps sexual practices are not enough to produce queer community and need to be supplemented by some sense of shared culture that is irreducible to one or another of the many sexual practices that queer collects and brings together. A shared cultural text is certainly the condition for the volume itself. As a collection, Shakesqueer distances itself from the sense of exclusiveness and exclusion that can come from intensive historical specialization. Two thirds of the essays in this volume are by queer theorists who are not Shakespeareans, and the rest are by early modernists whom Menon has directed to forego the protocols of specialization in pursuit of experimental queer readings. But this big tent approach to Shakespeare somewhat unreflectively reinforces a number of more traditional positions about the literary canon. I think it is fair to say that this sense of reading has something religious and congregational about it. Shakesqueer advances Shakespeare as a common text--like the Bible, which would have been a common text in seventeenth-century Protestant England--open and accessible to all who are motivated by the spirit of queer interpretation.

The essays in this volume are short. None is longer than eleven pages and most are well under that. The brevity and experimental nature of the essays make them feel a lot like blog entries. This is not a volume meant to be mastered. The range, scope, and variety of topics resist summary. They “bring queerness into varied engagements with [Shakespeare’s] texts without chronological or conceptual privilege,” as Menon explains it. This is, rather, a volume whose readerly pleasures lie in exploration and surprise. Reading Shakesqueer is a little like surfing the internet. The topics that especially stood out for me include natural history (Laurie Shannon on Lear), the blurring of the animal and the human (Richard Rambus on Midsummer Night’s Dream), queer digital poetics and voice (Drew Daniel on Henry V), queer marriage (Julie Crawford on All’s Well, Arthur Little on Merchant of Venice, Ann Pellegrini on Much Ado, Patrick O’Malley on Pericles, and Peter Coviello on The Rape of Lucrece), disability (Robert McRuer on Richard III), queer philology (Jeffrey Masten on Sir Thomas More and Bruce Smith on Taming of the Shrew), queer sentimentality (Kathryn Schwartz on King John), queer skepticism (James Kuzner on Timon of Athens) queer childhood (Lee Edelman on Hamlet, Michael Moon on Titus Andronicus, Kathryn Schwartz on King John, Aranye Fradenburg on the Sonnets, Carla Freccero on Romeo and Juliet, Kathryn Bond Stockton on The Winter’s Tale). Various readers will doubtless discover their own networks and associations. Indeed, other readers will have their own categories of organization that overlap or contradict these.

Taken together, these essays offer fresh avenues of research on desire and sexuality for Shakespeare criticism to wrestle with and address. The volume’s rejection of historicism in favor of queer experimental reading has a productively jarring effect in a field like Shakespeare studies, which is one of the places where new historicism was invented. Shakesqueer deserves to be read by queer theorists of all stripes. The essays are short, contained, and reader-friendly enough to be useful in the classroom. I could easily see assigning a number of them in an undergraduate class on Shakespeare. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of the volume’s broader project. Queering Shakespeare is entirely salutary for Shakespeare studies, but it is an overstatement to say that queering Shakespeare is necessary for queer theory. Early modern studies is more capacious and has more relevant material to offer.

Works Cited

Bray, Alan. The Friend. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

________. Homosexuality in Renaissance England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010.

Queering the Renaissance. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993.

Traub, Valerie. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.


URL: Shakesqueer.html; Last updated: Fall 2012; mail to: Complitreview@brynmawr.edu
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