Shakesqueer

Madhavi Menon, ed (2011) Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare Durham and London: Duke University Press

See what they did with the title there? Clever, eh? I expect that they added the subtitle just in case the main title was too obscure for anyone to work out by themselves, or perhaps in anticipation of letters of complaint from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, mistaking it as a Typo.

You see, I’ve recently joined my first post-graduate reading group, actually set up by somebody in the Centre for Modern Studies, but focussing on how Queer theory is applied to Shakespeare, or perhaps even how Shakespeare contributed to Queer theory.  I’ve primarily joined in order to force myself to read, but also to try to re-establish some sort of link with the academic side of the university, which has slipped somewhat since the birth of our son, although funnily enough I still manage to meet up for cups of tea with my fellow PhD candidates.  However, as a part-time student, I’m only just finishing my first year, whereas the others I started out with have now all upgraded and are heading towards pre-completion madness.  As for the Early Modern reading groups, they tend to be on libraries (as opposed to in them) so this group is perhaps closest to my field. 

If I’m honest, I feel a little out of my depth.  I’ve side-stepped literary and cultural theory as much as possible and whenever we do collide it always ends in tears.  A couple of fellow Shakesqueer attenders tried to explain Lacan’s concepts of desire to me, only to have me tremble and shake and refuse to accept that a child sexually desiring a parent should ever be a valid metaphor (p 65).

The essays are often funny and clever, however, and I will add the occassional post about them here.

Today, I just want to mention a couple of points made by Menon in her introduction, ‘Queer Shakes’.

1) Her desire is to resist the urge to simply ‘apply’ Queer theory to specific texts, producing Queer readings, and instead encourages her readers to think about where Queer theory comes from. Can a pre-nineteenth century writer, and a globally canonised one at that, be considerred as queer, she asks?  Most Queer theorists, she claims, would say no, particularly as they are instititionally resistant to even looking into a writer who represents the literary establishment so completely.  She suggests, however,  that Queer theory needs to be shaken up (get the pun?) and face the fact that without Shakespeare and his ilk the ideas behind Queer theory may never have developed in the first place (she deliberately mentions the Queer canonisation of Whitman, Woolf and Jarman, Shakespeareans all). At least, I think that is what she is arguing – it gets a little opaque here.  After all, ‘to extend queerness to [Shakespeare] is to play fast and loose with academic credibility’ (p 5).

I got a bit lost in this argument as I hadn’t realised that conservative, monolithic readings of Shakespeare were still current in academic circles.  I must have had a very liberal English teacher in 1983 because I left school thinking that Shakespeare’s plays were largely anti-establishment, sexually ambiguous and ambivalent, and I couldn’t help wondering how they had managed to take centre stage in our curriculum.  Perhaps that was because, by 1983 Julius Caesar and Henry V had been replaced by The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest

2) Her introduction extends Queer beyond the sense of homosexual/homosocial to the question of language and metre.  In a very interesting section on the ‘trochee’ – a stressed/unstressed pairing of syllables rather than the usual English iamb – she explores how Shakespeare ‘appears to reserve his trochees for weird characters and fairies ‘ (p 14). She has earlier argued that a trochee ‘trails off’, ‘goes nowhere’, inverts the ‘teleological imperative of progress that has shaped so much heterosexuality’ (p 14)*. Certainly, Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters and Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are deeply disruptive.

* Does this argument work for the opening of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14: ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you/As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend…’?

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