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—KG MacGregor

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Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare
edited Madhavi Menon
Duke University PressShakespeare

Shakespeare and the word gay are nearly one and the same in my mind.

Didn’t the word gay originate with the Elizabethan theater?  Or perhaps it was that men dressing as women on the stage embodied the word gay.  Along with the sexist constraints of a society where women were forbidden from public life, was the embodiment of freedom as we imagine it once was: men on the Elizabethan stage dressed in women’s clothes certainly must have been carefree and happy.

Sure, the official word on Will Shakespeare is that he was straight – married to an older woman with whom he fathered children.  But he also lived away from his family – in London for long stretches of time.  And there is evidence that he wrote love poems to a young man.  In sixteenth century England, there were not yet the categories of gay and straight – much less LGBT – did not yet exist.  Given the magnitude of the great bard’s talent, such speculation may, in fact, be Much Ado About Nothing.
Nonetheless I was extremely excited when I heard about Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, edited Madhavi Menon and published by Duke University Press. The book isn’t a testament so much as to the queerness of the man as it is to the queerness of the writing.

Chapter by chapter, different writers lead us through various Shakespearean works, linking them with queer theory and, in some instances, queer life. In writing about “Antony and Cleopatra,” Ellis Hanson weaves a tapestry based on Shakespeare’s “bawdy banter,” sharing his insights along the way:

“Cleopatra and her eunuchs make me think of a particular kind of woman and her gay entourage, one quite numerous here in New York – or, at any rate, at certain Zip codes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  They are regal ladies of a certain age, their apartments palatial, their brown hairs mixed with gray when not died gold, their pleasures frequently in excess of their pedigree, and their wealthy lovers or wealthy husbands, like Anthony, conspicuously absent—with the other woman, or at the office, or in the grave.  Age cannot wither them, nor custom stale their infinite variety.  Every modern Cleopatra has at least one Mardian in her life. The modern world has denied these women proper eunuchs but supplied them, instead with gay men of a sensitive and artistic disposition.  We find this queer couple delightfully evoked in queer modernist fiction if not in queer theory, in the writings of Marcel Proust, Ronald, Firbank, Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton, Truman Capote and other urbane literary luminaries. 

Addressing Shakespeare’s play, “The Comedy of Errors,” Lynne Huffer writes that “queerness and comedy seem to m made for each other. To err—to deviate, to go astray – is not unlike queering: cross, traverse, oblique. To queer is to error is to be mad, to wander off the path of the straight and narrow. ….. Indeed, all of the play’s characters – from the ‘horn-mad’ Antipholus, ‘mad as a buck’ to the ‘mountain of mad flesh’ that is Dromio’s kitchen maid --- seem to enact not only mental but also queer bodily forms of error. Living in a world that ‘sorcerers inhabit’ they ‘wander in illusions’ ‘possessed’ ‘lunatic’ consumed by ‘mad jealousy’ and universally ‘past thought of human reason.’”
In exploring “A Lover’s Complaint,” Ashley T. Shelden writes that it “bristles with queerness, but after my first reading of the poem, if you had asked me to identify the locus of this queerness, I could not have.  I had then was a feeling…”

She quotes the final stanza:

O that infected moisture of his eye,
O that false fire which in his cheek so glowed,
O that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O that that sad breath his spongy lungs bestowed,
O that borrowed motion seeming owed
Would yet again betray the fore-betrayed,
And new pervert a reconciled maid.

It could be said that William Shakespeare wrote about the body in ways that are reminiscent of Sappho and Walt Whitman – he sung of himself and all that was around him: that great human drama. All the world was a stage. And the queer world and writings of William Shakespeare set that stage for all that was to come. And the queerness of William Shakespeare’s writing – revealed so adroitly in Shakesqueer -- is what resonates through the ages.


This review will be aired on This Way Out, a world-wide LGBT radio syndicate based in Los Angeles.




























































































































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