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22 january 2016

Shakesqueer is billed as "a queer companion to the complete works of Shakespeare," and when they say "complete" they aren't kidding. There are three essays on the sonnets, one apiece on each of the non-dramatic poems, one for each of the canonical plays, one apiece for such plays as The Two Noble Kinsmen and Sir Thomas More, and even an essay on Cardenio, where Philip Lorenz begins by admitting that Cardenio doesn't even exist.

Each essay is by a different critic. They take lots of different approaches; their basic remit appears to have been "identify what's queer about this text." Fortunately Shakespeare, such a hidebound conservative when it came to politics and social class, was notably open about the fluidity of desire – even for a playwright who worked in theaters where all the women's roles were played by boys (who frequently "cross"-dressed as boys, whereupon both men (played by men) and women (played by boys) could fall in love with them. But of course "queer" is not limited to gender performance or same-sex attractions. It expands into all kinds of transgressive and edgy and non-conformist directions. Queer is not necessarily gay or bi or trans, or even particularly sexual. As Heather Love notes, queerness can extend to "a form of temporal dislocation or asynchrony" (201). Laurie Shannon notes a slippage between British senses of "queer" as "decidedly odd" and American "anti-identitarian (yet more human-centered) peregrinations in contexts of sexuality" (176) Wherever it resides, queerness is always anti-normative and disruptive of settled questions. Shannon reads King Lear as a play about the whole world gone (British) queer. So might all plays be. What is drama except action that starts from a queer position, or portrays the world queered in the course of moving from stasis to action to stasis?

The essays range from sharp focus on a single queer element out to considerable conceptual leaps. At the focused end, Steven Bruhm reads Henry VIII – not just the play, but the iconography of the historical king – in terms of how he might be the object of desire for "bears": chubby hairy guys. Julian Yates contributes a fine focused essay on the Sonnets, contemporary in theoretical terms but classic in its dissection of a critical tradition resistant to thinking too much about Shakespeare's textual sexuality.

Robert McRuer's "Fuck the Disabled," a little further afield, is provocative and impossible to unread. Is Anne, in Richard III, "in this humor won" in part because she responds to an implicit appeal from Gloucester: sleep with disabled me, or I'll go gay on you? McRuer's essay is of the irritating academic sort that calls previous readings "indispensable" as a way of saying "but not as clever as I am" – but I have to admit, he's clever.

Shakespeare's plays can get so queer that queer is straight. There's so much gay attraction in Troilus and Cressida, for instance, that Alan Sinfield positively has to lead the reader's attention back to the hetero side of characters like Achilles and Patroclus. Their attachments to women, in the play, are not just window dressing; they're an important part of a fluid mix of sex, violence, and male-bonding that characterizes Shakespeare's Trojan War. In the more hetero plays, dynamics other than sex feature analogies to queerness: Daniel Boyarin argues that the closet is a central dynamic in Othello, but as regards Muslims, not gay men.

One flaw in a number of the essays is that they start from the assumption that we already know what's obviously queer about a given play, and that it would be somewhat unhip to specify it. That makes the volume less a "companion" for the general reader and more an esoteric collection for the initiate. Some essays, like Carla Freccero's on Romeo and Juliet, spend nearly all their time citing other theoretical positions and getting only obliquely to the play in question. Bethany Schneider takes up most of an essay on Julius Caesar talking instead about Abraham Lincoln – another example of the "we already know" phenomenon, given that Julius Caesar is fraught with homosocial bonding and manly love. But maybe there are readers, even graduate-student readers, who don't "already know?"

A fair number of the pieces in Shakesqueer are simply digressive. Michael Moon starts off by imagining a production of Titus Andronicus that never took place, and ends up summarizing an episode of South Park.

One of the few directly expository essays in Shakesqueer – one of the few that truly acts like a typical "companion" essay to identify important relevant themes for the reader – is Amanda Berry's "desire vomit emptiness," on Cymbeline. Berry sums up ambivalent reactions to Cymbeline in the critical tradition, notes the queer elision of marital contact between its hero and heroine (Posthumus and Imogen), and the male-bonding and misogyny that surround that curiously unconsummated hetero relationship. But even Berry doesn't address the queerness of the second half of the play, where Imogen, dressed as a boy, attracts the love of several men, notably her two long-lost brothers. Imogen becomes far more successful as a garçon fatal than as a hetero temptress. That's not really a weakness in Berry's fine essay, because there's a lot to say about any given play and only a few pages to say it in.

But it does underscore Shakesqueer's status as a big bag of tours de force rather than a conventional companion. Still, the conventions of scholarly publishing these days produce wildly eclectic collections in the guise of companions. I've contributed essays to nominal "companions" that must seem just as digressive. The great virtue of Shakesqueer is that its better essays really do get you thinking in ways you hadn't before, no matter where you start from.

Menon, Madhavi, ed. Shakesqueer: A queer companion to the complete works of Shakespeare. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. PR 2976 .S346