Sept. 30, 2008

Literary scholars, queer theorists shake up the Bard at ShakesQueer symposium

Queer theorists and Shakespeareans are two camps of scholars who rarely cross paths. A ShakesQueer symposium, held Sept. 25-27 at Cornell, marked a new age in both fields, as more than 20 scholars convened to discuss the implications of their work together and present bold interpretations of Shakespeare where few before have dared to tread.

Keynote speeches and seminars featured several contributors to "Shakesqueer," an upcoming collection of essays by queer theorists on all of Shakespeare's poems and plays. The editor of that volume, renowned queer theorist Madhavi Menon, delivered the Sept. 26 keynote speech in Goldwin Smith Hall, "Queer Shakes," based on her introduction to the book.

Menon -- an associate professor of English at American University and the author of "Wanton Words" and "Unhistorical Shakespeare" -- detailed how the very nature of Queer Theory prohibited the acceptance of any originally queer views on Shakespeare's body of work until the present.

Queer Theory is based on a historical period post-1800, she said, due to the institutionalizing of homosexuality at that time and the inherent queerness implied by a new idea of gay identity. How can you impose modern discourses of sexuality on an early modern period?

She posed the hesitancy to deal with Shakespeare in terms of Queer Theory as a two-headed problem, both with the nature of Queer Theory and with the Bard himself.

"A challenge to chronology is also a challenge to identity," Menon said. "By formatting a historical start date, you graft queerness onto time. But can there be 'queer' before the 'homosexual'?"

In regard to a canonized Shakespeare, he strikes an imposing figure who has been an untouchable object in the past; she said: "If we mount him, it can only be behind glass."

One can spot the difficulty in taking any radical new strides against a man "who is not of an age, but for all time," Menon said. In her estimation, most queer theorists seemed to be struck with what she calls "Shakes-fear" -- putting him on a pedestal and only accepting a monolithic Shakespeare and nothing else.

Menon also touched on what the word "queer" even means. Is it an affliction? A verb? A state of being separate from the body?

"If queerness can be defined, then it is not queer. It represents what cannot be contained," she said. In the end, Menon called for both a queering of the Renaissance and a shaking up of Queer Theory.

The symposium was presented by Cornell's Department of English and co-sponsored by the Society for the Humanities; the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program; the Rose Goldsen Fund; the Renaissance Colloquium; the Department of Comparative Literature; the Becker Fund; the Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Studies Program; and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Jennifer Wholey '09 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.