'queering' The Bard: The World Of Shakesqueer (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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'Queering' the Bard: The World of Shakesqueer

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:21:53
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." As we continue our outside the box exploration we turn to an academic here in Washington, who's practicing some rather outside the box ways of thinking in literature.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:22:07
So let's say you're browsing at the bookstore or at the library and you pick of essays on William Shakespeare. His plays, his sonnets, his other poems and as you glance through the table of contents the following chapter titles catch your eye.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:22:21
Henry the IV Part One: When Harry Met Harry. Henry the VI Part Two: The Gayest Play Ever. King Leer: Leer’s Queer Cosmos. Not quite what you'd expect from anthology on the Bard, right? well, that's precisely what Madhavi Menon is banking on.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:22:40
Menon is an associate professor of literature at American University. She specializes in queer theory and is the editor of "Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to The Complete Works of Shakespeare." The idea originated in a course she teaches about Shakespeare and desire, which is also called Shakesqueer and I visited her office recently where she got the ball rolling by talking about what she calls 'Shakesfear.'

MS. MADHAVI MENON

13:23:05
There's something about Shakespeare that inspires such awe on the one hand that people do not want to engage the texts. 'I'm never going to get this because it's too difficult.' And so one of the objectives, perhaps, of Shakesqueer is to shock people out of their de-reverence by saying, you know, here's a word that sounds like Shakespeare but isn't.

MS. MADHAVI MENON

13:23:26
It rhymes with Shakespeare, but in a way that might make you uncomfortable because it's an association with deviant sexualities. And so one of the ideas of this book is to give you something that seems familiar, but then to jolt you out of that familiarity by saying it's not what you thought it was.

MS. MADHAVI MENON

13:23:42
And so queer theory really names that field of thought and endeavor that pushes against or tests the limits of and tries to move beyond certain boundaries that engulf our everyday life.

SHEIR

13:23:54
So the word queer in this sense refers to more than just things we often associate it with, sexual orientation, homosexuality?

MENON

13:24:02
Well, it certainly owes its lineage to theories of sexuality, but as a lot of its early thinkers, if you think of, you know, Michele Frocore or Freud or Gerard Butler, pushes outward to think about the state, power, governance, things that impact our everyday life rather than just being put in a category that we can call sexuality.

SHEIR

13:24:24
One of my favorite quotes, just from the introduction of your book -- let me just read this here. "By reading the textural Shakespearian body as queer, we interrupt and disrupt queer theory as we know it today, expanding the parameters within which it has confined itself."

SHEIR

13:24:38
And here's the part I -- I really like this. "For this to happen, it is not enough simply for Shakespeare to be queered, queer theory too needs to be shaken." Can you talk more about, about that idea there?

MENON

13:24:49
Absolutely. You know, often when we thing about queer theory in relation to any academic subject, we tend to think about texts that have been written beyond the 19th century because technically the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality were not coined until the 19th century.

MENON

13:25:07
And so you pick a text and say okay, how can I perform a queer reading of "Pride and Prejudice" or "Men On The Floss." So the object itself is seen inert. Queer theory is the active dynamic forces that does all the work and you come up with a queer reading of this inert object.

MENON

13:25:24
And so the two boundaries I was pushing up against is, A, Shakespeare is pre-19th century and, B, it's not just that queer theory can speak to Shakespeare or do things with Shakespeare, but in fact Shakespeare gives us ideas about what it means for instance to love, to sort of have desire, to be human.

MENON

13:25:43
That very much involves and shapes queer theory, as we know it today and so rather than it being a one-way street or one-way traffic my insistence in this book is that Shakespeare and queer theory have to speak to each other.

SHEIR

13:25:56
In terms of the essay, you yourself contribute, you wrote about love's labors lost and you've titled that piece "The L Words." The chapter deals a lot with lipstick lesbians. People who have read or studied this particular Shakespearean play might not entirely follow what the connection is here. Can you explain that a bit?

MENON

13:26:14
Well, it's obviously a riff on the L word. one of the first shows on mainstream television about lesbian life in America. "Loves, Labors, Lost," of course, it's a literate of titles L,L,L. and it's a play about four women and four men, none of whom know each other, but of course at the end of the play, the assumption is -- or the heterosexist assumption is that they will end up together.

MENON

13:26:37
And this is a comedy, it's a romantic comedy and so the assumption even more is that they will end up together. And what's fascinating about this play is that they don't. Everything in the text pushes us towards that kind of ending, yet the end of the play militates against that desire in us.

MENON

13:26:53
And so I want to sort of widen that crack at the end where the men and women don't end up together to think about why these desires might be at play in this text that do not conduce to a heterosexual ending.

MENON

13:27:07
They're not lesbian desires necessarily, but there's something about the desire that does not seem familiar or align itself with our expectations of the text, which of course is what homosexuality is, right? It refuses to align itself with what we assume everyone should grow up to be.

MENON

13:27:24
And so it's that refusal of alignment that interests me in this play and that's why the link between the L word, the four women in the play and the ending in which there's no heterosexual consummation. Queer theory for me is all about playfulness and by playfulness, I don't mean non-seriousness.

MENON

13:27:41
I mean, precisely not taking as fixed any boundary that we see ourselves falling within. I sort of think of boundaries as those little forms with those boxes you have to check, what gender you are, what sex you are, what race you are. And I sort of had -- for years, refused to fill out any of those forms precisely because I feel that certainly even at a lived level we are so playful with who we are and what we are that there is a certain kind of institutional imperative to stop that playfulness, right, by checking one box or the other.

MENON

13:28:14
Whereas in our lived life, we can be multiple boxes and so I want to resuscitate in a theoretical register that playfulness. Not to take seriously that institutional imperative of being just one thing over another.

SHEIR

13:28:28
Well, Professor, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

MENON

13:28:31
Thank you, Rebecca. It was wonderful.

SHEIR

13:28:33
Madhavi Menon is the editor of "Shakesqueer: A Companion to The Complete Works of Shakespeare." She's an associate professor of literature at American University, which, by the way, holds WAMU's license. For more on the book, now available from Duke University Press, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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