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(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
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A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Madhavi Menon, ed., Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011), $27.95, 494 pages, ISBN 978-0-8223-4845-0 — Sarah Hatchuel, Université du Havre.

Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare is an impressive work including 48 short essays written by queer theorists, Shakespearean and/or literary scholars. Each essay focuses on a Shakespearean text (some are even devoted to the lost plays) and appears (queerly) displayed according to the alphabetical order of the play or poem—instead of the usual organization according to genre or date of composition. The queerness of the book is such that one essay even questions the emphasis on the canonical author (why not Websqueer or Jonsqueer?) and the reproduction of “the most traditional complete-works volume” [310].

This volume aims boldly at queering Shakespeare and Shaking queer theory. It challenges the ideas that queerness has a historical start date and is synonymous with homosexuality. In a brilliant introduction cogently entitled “Queer Shakes,” Menon explains how “to queer texts that have no gays in them […] expands the reach of queerness […] to a host of other possible and disturbing configurations” [4] and to “more wide-ranging issues of non-normativity” [15], especially since queer theory already “militate[s] against the obvious, the settled, and the understood” [9]. Menon seeks to do with “gender” and “desire” what has already been achieved with “class” and “race”—transport them into chronological realms in which they did not originally exist (and, therefore, happily dispense with a model of temporal and causal linearity). The introduction exhorts us to envisage Shakespeare as a queer theorist recalling (or uncannily anticipating?) our contemporary idea of queerness, and to read Shakespeare as already queer rather than retrospectively queered (thus denying any exploitation of Shakespeare to legitimate queer theory). Shakespeare’s queerness is convincingly identified by Menon in the language and metrical feet, the twisting of time, the weirdness of Macbeth’s Weird Sisters, the very anti-category of “problem play,” and in the fact that the selves of Shakespearean protagonists seem always “out of reach of themselves” (as in Richard II).

Manon amusingly and cleverly warns the reader that the volume is “neither exclusively Shakespearean nor recognizably queer: It will make neither camp happy, but in the process, it may make the camp happy” [25]. From the position of a Shakespearean scholar very much interested in queerness, I want to qualify this assertion: some articles can make both camps and the camp happy; some others seem not to bring anything new to Shakespeare studies or to queer studies and could almost be deemed off the subject(s). Other reservations lie in the lack of academic precision in a few articles that do not reference their citations systematically and in the brevity of some essays that have only the space to raise questions rather than address them thoroughly.

Intriguing, the volume certainly is when it contemplates Henry VIII’s meeting with Francis I as the melding of two hirsute “bears” in a play where baby Elizabeth emerges as a queer “heir who should have been a boy and a virgin who should have been a mother” [36]; or when we are invited to view Othello’s (circumcised?) penis as a site unseen of ambiguity, especially since his final speech recalls how he “smote” a “circumcised dog,” thus constructing himself as a Christian.

Challenging, when All’s Well That Ends Well prompts a reflection on marriage in the early modern period as not the end of homosocial structures and homoerotic desires but, instead, as “an enabling condition for their continuation” [39] or when Henry VI, Part 2 is read not only to demonstrate the undermining of identities (through the instability of names and titles and the emphasis on identity as a function of performance) but also to question the dominant views of Shakespeare’s “achievement” since those views are “really only based on the plays (perhaps as little as a quarter of the plays he wrote) that are currently in favor” [139].

Relevant, when the eunuch in Antony and Cleopatra is seen as a paradoxical (desexualized but obscene) figure standing for the gap in man, with the Egyptian queen as the eternal lady-in-waiting spending more time with “queer” than “straight” men; when sodomy is connected to cross-species sexuality in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and to usury in The Merchant of Venice; or when the Latin lesson as seduction scene in The Taming of the Shrew is examined in terms of gender, declensions, conjugations and couplings, since Latin is “in fine about what goes with what, by what, on what, in what” [344].

Personal and moving, when authors recall how Shakespeare’s plays spoke to their queer adolescent selves with an identification to characters who, even only temporarily, “inhabit a homosexual position of desire” (a formula by Valerie Traub that usefully distinguishes Shakespeare from today’s identity politics); or when the poem A Lover’s Complaint is read as the exact story of how the essay’s author was seduced by queer theory—a shape-shifting theory that holds the promise of knowledge, but can only ever break this promise and, in so doing, break our hearts since it is characterized by “the masochistic compulsion to learn, teach, or think what cannot be learned, taught, or thought” [181], ensnaring us “by casting doubt on everything including and especially itself” [182].

Politically valuable, when Celia’s sudden conversion to heterosexual marriage in As You Like It is discussed in terms of “contingency,” a notion between agency and determinism that takes into account the exigencies of narrative and may offer an alternative view on gayness, far from some activists’ essentialist insistence on nature (“gays are born gay”) and the religious right’s belief that sexual orientation is volitional and, therefore, changeable “back to straight”; or when Love’s Labour’s Lost is seen abounding with equivalents of “lipstick lesbians”—masked ladies whose appearances fail to signify in a stable manner and who remain single in a play that thwarts the comic ending as much as heterosexual identity.

Daring, when Lady Macbeth is understood as queer not only because of her refusal of maternity but also because she embodies a “potentially dangerous maternal ambivalence” [207]; or when war in Henry IV, Part 2 is viewed as Shakespeare’s way to fill the early modern lack of the concept of masochism and reveal the “vulnerable, fleshly body beneath the socio-symbolic armor of personhood” [115]. [The volume’s concept of one article per play actually proved its limits here as I would have liked to see this interesting position confronted to all the history plays.]

Shakespearean criticism is defiantly analyzed in a queer perspective: twentieth-century critics of The Merry Wives of Windsor seem to have overlooked the homoeroticism in the play as if it were not there or not meaningful; and editors of Pericles have so far attempted to “reconstruct” and separate the passages credited to Shakespeare instead of acknowledging “the troubling image of two sets of men’s hands meeting across the text’s multifarious gaps” [266]—queer gaps that are here wonderfully analyzed. Shakespearean performances are also given the queer eye—Loncraine’s film of Richard III (1995) prompts a reflection in which Richard exposes, even for a brief moment, the dead end of both heterosexuality and able-bodiedness, and in which Lady Anne falls for Richard only to keep him “straight” in all senses of the word. In an essay that offers a queer reading of some moments in Troilus and Cressida, revealing fault lines that a director may choose to emphasize, Alan Sinfield forcefully reminds us that every reading is political and that making one’s (queer/LGBT) reading position explicit “licenses playful interpretation while maintaining a criterion of relevance” [383].

Convinced as I am that the current waves of TV series are cultural gems, I have reveled in the attention provided to these programs: Love’s Labour’s Lost is here linked to The L Word; Love’s Labour’s Won is studied through an episode of Doctor Who explaining the play’s nonexistence; and The Winter’s Tale is thought to have been

written with TV in mind. Shakespeare knew that his drama in the future would be written from its middle, focusing on the story’s outcasts, and that its name could only be Lost. (There would be seacoasts, survivors, bears…. It would play primetime on ABC….) [421].

This sentence actually appears in an illuminating essay that envisions Perdita as a version of the queer childhood that her father Leontes lost with his friend Polixenes.

Though I enjoyed most of Shakesqueer, I found its subtitle, “A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare,” misleading and limitative, since many articles can’t be considered as “guides” to the plays and could actually form a very good “Shakespearean Companion to Queerness.”

© 2012 Sarah Hatchuel & GRAAT












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