Thursday, October 14, 2010

Was Shakespeare queer? (I don't think so.)

At left is the poster art for "Shakespearean Character on Trial," a symposium this weekend at Wellesley College. A lot of intellectual heavy hitters are featured - Harvard's Marjorie Garber, the Public Theatre's Oskar Eustis, Bard College's JoAnne Akalaitis - and the program even features a performance of Tina Packer's solo show, "Women of Will." There's also a day-long symposium on "Theater Criticism and Practice." You'd think I should be there with bells on.

But I'm not going. For one thing, I'm busy actually seeing theatre, music and dance this weekend.

And for another, I think a lot of these people are a pain in the ass. And not in a good way. Marjorie Garber seems to have lost her mind of late, I hate JoAnne Akalaitis, and I'm even beginning to wonder about Oskar Eustis.

Plus, I have this problem with the academy and their pierced, gay Shakespeare, as you may have guessed from reading The Hub Review.

A problem which could be (partially) summed up as:

I'm queer. And Shakespeare wasn't.

Now I'm not saying he never, ever, nibbled the Earl of Southampton. Maybe he did. And maybe Richard Burbage gave him tongue, and trippingly. Who knows? Frankly, a lot of straight guys experiment a bit, as I know from unfortunately checkered personal experience (I was head over heels for my straight best friend back in the day). Tragically, this doesn't make them gay, though, any more than the girls I diddled back in college made me straight. Besides, any straight guy who gets involved in theatre inevitably winds up mixing with (and playing along with) a gay milieu, and usually ends up thinking it's pretty much normal, or at least just another inexplicable aspect of sexual experience - which it is.

Thus, though Shakespeare wrote some intriguingly randy (if recondite) sonnets to an effeminate dude, and plays with, yes, "gender and performance" quite a bit in his scripts (he had to, women weren't allowed onstage), I always draw the line at daydreaming that he was actually light in the loafers. Partly because he got his wife pregnant before wedlock, partly because they had a few kids, partly because of the Dark Lady, partly because he settled back down at home after his theatrical career, but mostly because - well, because he just doesn't seem gay to me. Now Christopher Marlowe - he was queer as Michel Foucault. But Shakespeare? No. Open-minded? Yes. Open-legged? No. I know he wrote Troilus and Cressida, but he also wrote The Taming of the Shrew. He penned Rosalind, but he also essayed Benedick. (And don't even get me started on how almost all rebellion and subversion in Shakespeare is patted or put down by the final curtain.)

This, of course, makes me controversial. Although thirty years ago, the idea that Shakespeare was gay was controversial. Now, however, it's a neat way for the college crowd to give the humanities a little pop electricity. So it goes. And certainly Shakespeare does offer deep insight into almost every form of sexual identity and experience - and perhaps that poster art isn't even indicative of this forum's true reach. Perhaps some deeper exploration of phenomenology is in the offing. So if hanging at a forum at Wellesley College in your leather jacket and tongue stud makes you feel like a rebel, then by all means go.

But always remember that whatever the professors may tell you, Shakespeare's "construction" of sexual identity cannot be like ours. Indeed, Elizabethan homosexuality must have co-existed, and probably drew sustenance from, an entrenched sexism that would horrify Marjorie Garber and Tina Packer. It's a general cultural rule, I think, that the dis-enfranchisement of women corresponds with the acceptance of homosexual expression among "hetero" men - that's what we're most likely looking at in Shakespeare: the "down-low" sexual model we now see most clearly in the African-American and Latino communities. But would that sell tickets at Wellesley College? Not bloody likely.


  1. Keep in mind that these are academics and since they like their identity politics, they can often be confused as to the difference between a straight who "experiments" a queer who "diddles" and a genuine bisexual-- they are in college, after all.

  2. Yeah, but when it comes to Southampton, I basically think Shakespeare was indulging in a fourth option, known colloquially as "gay-for-pay." Sure, the Earl was obviously a queen, judging from his get-up in that famous portrait. AND, she was also the boss. The sonnets could more easily be construed as a template of sexualized labor relations than some sort of long-form bisexual ballad.

  3. "Gay-for-pay!" You make it sound so dirty! Perhaps it best be thought of as "gay-for-patronage?"

    Point taken regarding the sonnets have Shakes telling his young lord that maybe it might be better to give his "beauty" and his "treasures" to a woman: not arguing that women are the theologically superior libidinal cathexis but that a beautiful man such as the addressee would profit by leaving heirs.

    Will's criticism of his young lord is not that he sleeps with men, but that he does not also take a wife!

  4. Well, maybe I said "gay-for-pay," but you said "cathexis!" Shame on you! ;-)

  5. It's not like I ever kept my youthful fascination for Freud a secret!

  6. Oh - Freud, right! I thought "cathexis" was a lady-part.

  7. I wonder a bit of some of this academic overreach is simply Character Overreaction. I read Anthony Burgess' interesting and well-illustrated 'Shakespeare' and one of those English "Shakespeare: The MAN" things, which would already tip off smarter folks than I.

    When both authors got to the tasty bits about his bisexuality, they went into a form of hysterical denial that was totally out of key with the rest of their narrative. Perhaps some of this contesting is merely the enjoyment of watching a bunch of academic he-men clutching their pearls in horror.

  8. Hey Bob - True enough, what we see in the Shakespeare wars these days could be a pitched battle between the steers and the queers in the academy. I think the bottom line, though, is that while the steers clutch their pearls in hysteria, the queers are happy to trample questions of historicity in their urge to remake the Bard in their own image. And they seem to forget the fact that Shakespeare was a young genius on the make, climbing through a hierarchy thick with what we'd think of today as religious, Republican gays like Condoleezza Rice. Indeed, when I mentioned my "gay-for-pay" theory of Shakespeare to a local gay English professor, he nearly fainted in apoplexy. THAT kind of thing - even if it was just a literary thing - was utterly beneath the Bard! To which I can only reply - who sez?

  9. (This whole conversation has demonstrated that my queer-lingo is out of date, and this is terribly embarrassing as someone who was oft-referred to as a "dyke-tyke" in his school days.)

    I really don't understand why it would be more controversial amongst academics to suggest that Shakes was a straight guy who might have engaged in some unspecified gay behavior with a patron than it is to suggest that Shakes was bisexual. I grasp why it would be more controversial amongst activists who want to harp on identity politics ("he was one of us!") But shouldn't those who trade favors have a hero too?

    That said, the academics really should know better.

  10. How so that the Earl of Southampton was obviously a 'queen'? He too settled down to wife and heirs. Bisexual seems to be the label we're looking for on both counts.

  11. Oh, William, just look at his portrait and TRY to tell me he wasn't a big fat queen! I mean seriously.

  12. Maybe because a considerable number of the Sonnets, while acknowledging the love between the addresser and the addressee (presumed to be the Earl of Southampton), seem to have the theme of listing off the reasons why the addressee should marry a woman and start making babies, often using economic arguments. This implies that the addressee doesn't show much interest in sharing his "treasure" with women, but seems to share his treasure with men. i.e. the addressee is a homosexual avant le lettre.

    Oh, and he's fabulous, too.

    By the way, Tom, I propose a campaign to popularize the phrase, "queer as Michel Foucault."