Sheer Quakes

by Madhavi Menon

Surprisingly, queer theorists have rarely encountered Shakespeare. Not because they are badly-read or have blinkers on, but because of a deep belief that Shakespeare existed “before” the days of queer theory, and so it would be anachronistic to put the one in conversation with the other. For many queer theorists the historical divide is simply too great to be breached; since neither the terms “queer” nor “theory” existed when Shakespeare was writing, how can we export the amalgam of those terms to his works?

This belief became something of a dilemma for me when putting together a syllabus for a class on Shakespeare and queer theory; how to justify the subject in a manner that would seem academically sound? I then realised that what was passing for academic sense was merely a belief in chronological divides, rigidly demarcated from one another. Why should historical chronology be the arbiter of the study of desire? After all, desire does not know that it has to end at the end of an era and allow a new one to begin. Determined to explore both what is enabled and what is occluded by a study of queer theory and Shakespeare, I coined the term “Shakesqueer” to describe the class. This neologism was meant to clarify the content and the stakes of the class for my students, but it was also meant to mystify the content and stakes of the class for my students. After all, what does “Shakesqueer” mean? It asks more questions than it provides answers. “Shakesqueer” looks like “Shakespeare” but it isn’t. It also sounds like “Shakespeare” but it isn’t. I wanted Shakesqueer to rhyme with Shakespeare but not to be reducible to it; I wanted the class to announce up-front that while it might look and sound familiar, it would not be.

But why the investment in what Bertolt Brecht termed the Verfremdungseffekt (often translated as “defamiliarisation”)? Why is it important to present both Shakespeare and queer theory, not as the familiar subjects we might know, but rather as entities whose work can challenge our most deeply-cherished notions?

Perhaps it would be best to begin with queer theory. Described variously by theorists, queer theory in the Anglo-American academy owes its provenance to the field of lesbian and gay studies. As the latter’s name suggests, lesbian and gay studies sought to analyse literary, social, political, and material phenomena that could be linked to gay and lesbian identities. While retaining its investment in libidinal desire, queer theory differs from its predecessor in being unable to aver the truth of any identity. Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue that “it is not useful to consider queer theory a thing” (PMLA 110.3, 343); another, more capaciously political argument states that “queer designates a range of acts, identities, propensities, affectivities, and sentiments which fissure heteronormativity” (Michael O’Rourke, Queer Masculinities, xxvi); for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick “queer” refers to “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Tendencies, 25); and as Lee Edelman states: “Queerness can never define an identity; it can only ever disturb one” (No Future, 17).

As this brief set of arguments suggests, queer theory does not think of its subject as an identity, let alone an affirmation of identity politics. Even less does it prescribe chronological propriety for its subject. Rather, queer theory queries structures that attempt to pass themselves off as monolithic and unchanging. Challenging all such narratives – especially those having to do with identity – queer theory attempts to push against the walls of the normative, no matter in what guise that appears. This means that, at its best, queer theory is in the service of a radical politics rather than the status quo. Thus many queer theorists have argued against the current push in the U.S. to legalise gay marriage, citing it as a trend towards what Lisa Duggan has termed “homonormativity”. While the movement for gay marriage is certainly in keeping with the identitarian project of gay and lesbian identities, it is out of step with a queer theory that insists on its resistance to the status quo.

Thus, perhaps the most radical – some would say counter-intuitive – aspect of queer theory is that queerness is no longer synonymous with homosexuality. For long thought of as virtually interchangeable terms, “queer” and “gay” continue to share certain interests while parting ways on several fronts. Queer theory cares less for the circumscribing of sexual identity than for following the paths along which it proliferates. Indeed, the two major progenitors of what we now understand as queer theory are Sigmund Freud – who insisted that even matters seemingly far removed from the realm of libidinal sex affect its production – and Michel Foucault – who showed that what we call “sexuality” is a cumulative effect of matters of state, politics, and discipline that come together in oppressive ways. For queer theorists who have followed in Freud and Foucault’s wake – Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Leo Bersani, Lee Edelman – this idea of a complex network rather than a singular and singularisable identity, has remained paramount. Whether in analyses of literature, art, society, or politics, the non-reduction of queerness to gay identity has been the hallmark of major strands of queer theory.

This non-reducibility, however, does not mean that desire is alien to queer theory. Indeed if there is one thing that queer theory might be said to study it is desire and its many complications. But the study of desire always presumes it to be a question rather than an answer, something complex rather than simple. Far from being the guarantor of identity, desire points us in directions that cannot be anchored. And it is to be found in phenomena that are not only genitally-inflected. Indeed, Edelman has suggested the social desire for reproduction masks its narcissism as selflessness, while I have argued that the desire for historical purity enacts a violent universalism; in both situations, desire is at play even and especially when it is disavowed. Queer theory, then, is the study of no one thing or entity, but rather of the multiplicity of desires. Queer theory cannot and does not provide a road map for desire; instead, it follows the intractability of desire, even to its unravelling. Such an understanding of queerness lends itself to accusations of a lack of specificity, of too much openness, and no politics. But, as I explain in my introduction to Shakesqueer, the demand for specificity is itself conservative since it asks for an in-group that can always be identified against other groups. Michael Warner has shown brilliantly how the demand for gay marriage, for instance, far from being political, actually diminishes the sphere of politics by not demanding the uncoupling of rights from the institution of marriage for everyone. Instead, the pursuit of an expansion of rights for one identifiable group only serves to limit what we think of as queer politics.

Given such a capacious and radical understanding of queerness, it is particularly odd when some queer theorists give up on the constraint of identity politics only to embrace the taboo of chronological divides. Even the most radical queer theorist balks at the thought of extending queer theory back to eras before the 19th century. But if we stop thinking of queer theory as a codified body of work that has a specific start date (and therefore by extension, a specific end date?), then we can begin to grasp the idea of queerness as a mode of apprehending the world that has nothing to do with chronological or identitarian specificity. Queerness names a horizon of possibility rather than specifies who or what is queer. Speaking from a literary perspective, this means that there is not a canon of queer literature, but rather, all texts can provide fodder for queer theory even as all texts can be subjects of queer theoretical interest.

But if all texts can provide fodder for queer theory, then why pick Shakespeare? Has he not been venerated enough? What does he have to offer queer theory, and what business does queer theory have with him?

The answer to these questions is two-fold. First, as arguably the most important writer in the Western canon, as the author elevated above all others in imperial missions around the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, Shakespeare wields an influence not exerted by many other authors. Whether we like it or not, our ideas about what it means to be human; what it means to love, hate, have desire, and feel pain, all bear a mark of allegiance to Shakespeare and as such cannot be ignored. Second, the fact that Shakespeare is given to us as the centre of the Western canon, as the smooth surface that has already said everything that needs to be said – in short, as a monolithic giant – excites the anarchic strain of queer theory. Recognising that such a narrative is always in the service of a conservative politics, queer theory’s engagement with Shakespeare is crucial to showing that Shakespeare is also always Shakesqueer.

It was with an eye to exploring these fissures and desires that Shakesqueer was conceived. Both Shakespeare and queer theory have an imaginative, excessive, delightful, diverse body of work. Neither respects temporal and spatial veracity – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, though set in ancient Rome, has a clock in it, while queer theory moves with pleasure between ancient Greece and modern Turkey. Neither adheres to gender boundaries – many of Shakespeare’s best plays, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, As You Like It, have boy actors dressed as girl characters who then dress as boy characters, while queer theory’s richest work lies in uncoupling gender from sexuality. Neither valorises sexual identity – one can never tell in texts like Venus and Adonis and Othello which sexual proclivities belong to whom; for queer theory sexual identity is often a ruse that conceals more than it reveals. And both critique structures of power – Measure for Measure and The Tempest display in appalling detail the tyranny of patriarchs, while queer theory deconstructs the notions of freedom and choice that undergird the fabric of our society.

A queer interpretation of a queer play

Even as both Shakespeare and queer theory put pressure on structures that we take for granted, they do not offer up simple answers to the knotty issues of gender, sexuality, chronology, and power. Instead they are copious and capacious enough to put forward multiple points of view that attest only to the lack of stability in the works themselves. Every text read anew yields things not seen before; reading queerly means allowing oneself to be surprised by a text rather than predicting its fabric in advance. Shakespeare and queer theory are never more constant than when undermining constancy.

The essays in Shakesqueer exemplify this surprising inconstancy by ranging across subjects. Adopting the principle that queerness is a way of looking and reading rather than an inherent identity already embedded in a text, this volume enacts a two-way traffic with Shakespeare – his texts are subject to queer scrutiny even as they provide the material out of which queer theory builds its ideas. Needless to say, the essays in the book are not circumscribed by identitarian differences of chronology and sexuality. So, for instance, the essay on Antony and Cleopatra speaks of fag-hags in the upper east-side of Manhattan; the essay on The Winter’s Tale brings together the etymology of the character name Perdita (which means she who has been lost) with the hit TV show, Lost; the essay on King John is written as an allegory of queer theory itself; the essay on Julius Caesar brings the politics of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to bear on the play: apparently John Wilkes Booth played Marc Antony in a performance of the play five months before the assassination; while the essay on Much Ado about Nothing considers Shakespeare’s impact on the sexual politics of Stephen Sondheim musicals.

Endlessly irreverent and fascinating, these essays enact what it means to live queer lives. They capture what it means to read queer texts and be continually surprised by them. And they write what it means to have a queer politics. In the words of the musical Kiss Me Kate (another Shakespeare-inspired title), you need to:

Brush up your Shakespeare,
Start quoting him now.
Brush up your Shakespeare
And the women you will wow.
If your blonde won’t respond when you flatter ’er
Tell her what Tony told Cleopaterer,
If she fights when her clothes you are mussing,
What are clothes? “Much Ado About Nussing.”

The queerness of these lines lies not in the sexual identities of the characters singing the song or even in the original plays referenced in the song. Rather, this song is queer because it delights in playing with language, in undoing monoliths of meanings, and being roguish about desire. Whether or not Shakespeare knew the words “queer” and “theory,” queer theory would be much the poorer without him. As would his work without queer theory. And so, flying in the face of all preordained constraints, this volume of essays brings Shakespeare and queer theory together across time and space. In the grip of their desiring tremors, we subject ourselves to intellectual shakes of the queerest kind.

About the Author:

Madhavi Menon is Associate Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, DC, and a specialist in queer theory and Shakespeare. She is the editor of Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare