Queer Shakespeare: Desire and Sexuality

Edited by Goran Stanivukovic
424 pp. The Arden Shakespeare (Bloomsbury)

Reviewed by Sky Gilbert*

In his excellent study, Homoerotic Space, Stephen-Guy Bray suggests that consumers of texts—even of the famous classical texts central to Renaissance notions of culture, history and identity—interpret texts as they move through them, according to their own “interest and desires.” If a famous classical text is a public space open to all in the Renaissance who could read Latin, a reading that highlighted its hοmo-eroticism, a reading that might inform a new poem, would turn that place into a space (7).

Instead of requiring a text to have queer content in order to give oneself permission to read it that way, Bray suggests that any text can be “queer,” if we, as queers, can read ourselves into it. In Homoerotic Space, Bray analyzes the ways that pastoral poetry particularly lends itself to queer interpretation, by providing us with settings, hints, conditions and semantic prompts steering us in that direction. 

Queer Shakespeare: Desire and Sexuality, edited by Goran Stanivukovic for the Arden Shakespeare series, may have been inspired by Bray’s work, as the introduction praises the “queer resourcefulness of Shakespeare’s text” (2). As well, this collection features Bray’s fine essay “Locating Queerness in Cymbeline.”

The final paragraph of Bray’s essay neatly sums up the point: “I would characterize the narrative as hetero-normativity and the method of conveying it as queer” (136). Bray is not the first to suggest that marriage—though nearly always the ending of Shakespeare’s comedies—is far from the ideological conclusion. But Bray goes one step further, suggesting that Cymbeline “queers what our sense of dramatic representation means” (131). And, here, he applies an essential Shakespearean trope in a new queer way. Shakespeare’s rhetoric returns ceaselessly to the paradox of outside vs. inside, what appears vs. what is (“Seems’ madam. Nay, it is” [I.2.79]).

This unrelenting unreliability of appearances is our essential dilemma as queers, as, for instance, gay men have male bodies but don’t act the way males “should.” Thus, Bray utilizes a definition of queerness that is both somatic and somewhat universal for queer people.

Kirk Quinsland’s essay in this recent volume, “Sport of Asses: A Midsummer Nights Dream,” is also grounded in both Shakespearean scholarship and a definition of queer that involves sex and sexuality. He takes an early modern historical fact, the oft-noted homophobia of anti-theatricalists (that is, Gosson and Prynne), to frame A Midsummer Nights Dream as a defence of queer unbridled sensuality. He says the mechanicals’ amateur production, featuring a gaggle of working class, semi-adult bachelors in a filthy travesty is a “meta-theatrically anti-homophobic strategy for exposing anti-theatrical homophobia” (70). But, even more importantly, Quinsland warns that defining queer as “beyond sexuality” risks a monumental irrelevance: “if queer simply refers to confusion and cannot be defined, why use the term at all? One might merely adopt ‘non-normative’ or ‘confusing’ as theoretical terms” (71).

This irrelevance is clearly applicable to recent queer scholarship. Mel Y. Chen, a theorist at the forefront of trans theory, co-authored an essay entitled “Has the Queer Ever Been Human?” with Dana Luciano in 2015, in which they expand the definition of queer to include inanimate objects. I think Shakespeare would have had an affinity for Chen’s attitude to the universe (if not her claim for its queerness).

Often categorized as a humanist, Shakespeare is nonetheless prone to denigrating mankind by emphasizing its material origins (“this quintessence of dust” [2.2.332]). And Chen’s notion that God exists in everything—sentient or not—is pagan and pan-theistic, and I have long contended that Shakespeare’s work is populated more with superstition, magic, fairy sprites, ghosts and witches than with good old-fashioned, Christian redemption. But, as a definition of queer, Chen’s theory is so expansive as to be meaningless: “Queer ecology and many other queer engagements with the non-human also emerge in the contemporary context as a response to precarity, as the effects of the climate crisis extend that condition to encompass all humanity and numerous other species as well. All Life, we might say, is precarious life” (193).

Many of the essays in this volume fall victim to such dangerously expansive notions of queer. Vin Nardizzi’s “Afterword” equates Puck’s “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth” (II.1.178) with globalization. His argument would be stronger if he referenced the dominant tropes in Shakespeare’s work instead: for, in both The Merchant of Venice and The Sonnets,Shakespeare persistently makes commerce appear superficial by juxtaposing it against images of profoundly paradoxical neo-platonic love and beauty. Whether this makes Shakespeare queer—in the expansive sense of  environmentalism—is another thing altogether.

Like Nardizzi, John S. Garrison in “Glass: The Sonnets’ Desiring Object” obliquely references Chen, quoting Tristan Garcia: “humans turn to the world of objects to reinforce ontological claims of superiority.” In his valorization of glass as queer object, Garrison mentions glass’s “refusal to be singularly categorized” (52). He seems to conclude that glass is queer because it offers us so many possible ways to see ourselves. Also like Nardizzi, Garrison ignores previous scholarship on predominant tropes in Shakespeare—for instance, C.H. Hobday’s article “Why the Sweets Melted” (Oxford Journals, 1965). Hobday’s detailed and exhaustive analysis asserts convincingly that Shakespeare’s mirrors are often associated with flattery—and of course as a corollary—with representation, and “seeming vs. being.”

Melissa E. Sanchez’ essay “Antisocial Procreation in Measure for Measure” directly quotes Chen: “many of queer theory’s foundational texts . . . work to unsettle the default forms of the humanness they unfold” (276). Like Kathryn Schwarz’s “Held in Common: Romeo and Juliet and the Promiscuous Seductions of Plague,” Sanchez defines queer sexual activity as not reproductive and/or related to death. This expansive definition of queer proves very little. Most profound writers, I would suggest, are interested in death and non-reproductive sex (where would theatre be without these two?)—yet not all great writers are queer. (Schwarz, by the way, gets my award for the most incomprehensible sentence in this often obfuscatory collection: “Can an infinitely multiple interpenetration transect boundaries with enough force to challenge instrumental dispositions?” [260])

Christine Varnado also directly references Chen in “Queer Nature, or the Weather in Macbeth,” again expanding the usage of the word queer “beyond its usual referents of persons, genital sex acts and social identities” (178). Varnado’s theory splits hairs. She contends that Macbeth’s suggestion that “‘Nature’s germen . . . tumble altogether’ . . . can easily be read as an image of destruction or anti-generativity . . . in which the natural order of germination is thwarted or undone. However , in the new reading of the play which I am advancing, ‘Nature’s germen’ . . . [is] the seminal image . . . where such irreducible eruptions are also part of an ‘absolutely rule-bound economy’ of queer generation” (194).

Here, Varnado interprets the weather in Macbeth—not in the usual way, as a natural rebellion in response to Macbeth’s evil—but, instead, as an aspect of our queer world. I’m not sure how important this differentiation is. After all, since Varnado ignores “persons, genital sex acts and social identities,” she also ignores the witches’ beards, Macbeth’s reluctance to act violently until goaded by his wife and Lady Macbeth’s urge to trade her breastmilk for “gall,” thus ignoring early modern insecurities around masculinity—another significant Shakespearean trope.

Early modern men had insecurities that were similar—but not identical—to ours. The fear of being gay was replaced by a fear of being undone by heterosexual passion. Alan Sinfield speaks of “a fall into impotence of powerlessness, a loss of manly strength, and even of identity” (159). And Greenblatt speaks of “A pleasure that serves its own end, that claims to be self-justifying rather than instrumental, purposeful and generative, is immoderate and must be destroyed” (177).

Like Varnado, both Stanivukovic in his own essay,“‘Two lips, indifferent red’: queer styles in Twelfth Night,” and Simone Chess in “Male Femininity and Male to Female Cross-dressing in Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems” rip Shakespeare’s work out of the context of early modern sexuality. Stanivukovic claims Twelfth Night is about “the arbitrariness of any attempt to attach desire to a gendered body, by promoting it as a force that brings different kind of staged bodies together and outside the heterosexual matrix” (169).

I would suggest Orsino’s attraction to Cesario does not exist “outside the heterosexual matrix” but rather very much in response to the fear of Orisino’s effeminacy, triggered by his uncontrolled passion for Olivia. Simone Chess quotes trans-writer Julia Serano who says “I recoil from the idea of femme gender expression as ‘ironic and campy,’ as a form of drag . . . because it plays into the popular assumption that femininity is artificial” (230).

Unfortunately for Serano, Shakespeare necessarily criticizes feminine “artificiality”—consistent with his obsession with the dangerous superficiality of beauty. Chess asks “Where are the feminized men and MTF crossdressers in Shakespeare?” (228), ignoring the fact that most of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are effectively crossdressers anyway: Hamlet cannot take revenge like a man, Lear is destroyed by his three daughters and Othello (like Macbeth and Antony) is manipulated and destroyed by his love for a “mere” woman.

The danger of beauty—a recurring theme in Shakespeare’s work—is fundamentally related to another one of Shakespeare’s obsessions: neo-platonism—and the notion that beauty sometimes deceives us. John Vyvyan says: “the soul is born to do a definite work—to reshape the world into the likeness of heaven; that it already possesses the heavenly pattern in its own self-nature . . . concealed by the physical form; and that it will only be re-discovered by the insight of true love” (45).

David L. Orvis’s essay “Which Is the Worthiest Love in Two Gentleman of Verona?” says “rather than elevate the discourse from erotic love to godly love, from eros to agape, Proteus’ revelations reinforce the impossibility of telling one from the other” (47). This analysis certainly exemplifies the neo-platonist view— but how is this particularly queer?

Ian Frederick Moulton’s “As you Like It or What You Will: Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Beccadeli’s Hermaphroditus” centres on a futile comparison between Beccadilli’s dirty epigrams and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. The epigrams are clearly pornographic—unlike Shakespeare’s Sonnets—which, though sometimes sexual, are, in contrast, not pornographic at all, but obsessed with neo-platonic questions about the true nature of love.

Eliza Greenstadt’s “Strange Insertions in The Merchant of Venice” alludes extensively to the biblical allegory of the ewes and the wands, where Shylock speaks obscurely of Jacob’s story in which “The skillful shepherd peeled me certain wands./ And in the doing of the deed of kind/ He stuck them up before the fulsome ewes,/ Who then conceiving did in weaning time/ Fall parti-colored lambs” (1.3. 81-85). This inscrutable reference makes sense in terms of neo-platonism, which Greenstadt neglects to mention. For, waving the speckled wands in front of the mono-coloured ewes results in the ewes giving birth to speckled lambs, and the outside is thus identical to the inside; a neo-platonist romantic ideal.

Many of these essays contain such extensive research that one hesitates to argue, while, at the same time, one feels obligated to ask—why bother? Valerie Billings in “The Queer Language of Size in Loves Labours Lost” manages to convince us that the play is filled with images of diminution related to sexuality, but fails to reference one of the dominant themes of the play; that masculinity is diminished when men are subsumed by their overpowering desire for women.

And Holly Dugan in “Desiring H: Much Ado About Nothing and the Sound of Women’s Desire” provides an exhaustive list of the many possible meanings of the aspirate consonant “H,” by concluding ”its pronouncement might contain a queer exhalation that’s hard to explain but equally hard to dismiss” (152). Yes, Shakespeare’s language is polysemous, overwhelmingly so. And your point is . . . ?

I really did not want to dislike this collection. Believe me, I welcome interpretations that might expand our knowledge and discussion of the queering of Shakespeare’s work. Instead, this collection offers the demoralizing spectacle of misguided queer critics mangling Shakespeare’s poetry in order to fit it into the often brutal, sadistically obscure and even nonsensical vice that is contemporary queer theory.

As Harold Bloom once stentoriously stated, “Shakespeare does not fit very well into Foucault’s archives” (7). Ill-thought out, lazily researched and depressingly dogmatic collections like this might force even the most sympathetically queer reader to agree.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999.

Bray, Stephen-Guy. Homoerotic Space. U of Toronto P, 2002.

Greenblatt, Richard. Renaissance Self-Fashioning. U of Chicago P, 2005.

Luciano, Dana, and Mel Y. Chen. “Has the Queer Ever Been Human?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol.21, no. 2-3, 2015, pp. 183-207.

Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. RSC Shakespeare, 2008.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. Hamlet. Folger, 2012

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Signet Classic, 1998.

Sinfield, Alan. Shakespeare, Authority, Sexuality. Routledge, 2006.

Vyvyan, John. Shakespeare and Platonic Beauty. Chatto and Windus, 1961. 


*Sky Gilbert was co-founder and, for 18 years, artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—North America’s largest gay and lesbian theatre. A prolific playwright, he has also published eight novels and three collections of poetry. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto with a dissertation on “Noel Coward and The Queer Feminine.” A fellow at the University of Toronto’s Sexual Diversity Studies Program, he is a professor at the University of Guelph where he teaches both practical and academic theatre courses, including Sexuality and the Stage, Gender and Shakespeare, Theatrical Cross Dressing and Male Femininity in Playwriting.

Copyright © 2019 Sky Gilbert
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

Creative Commons Attribution International License

This work is licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution International License CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email