Queer Shakes
madhavi menon
When I first decided to title the introduction to this volume ‘‘Queer Shakes,’’
a friend pointed out that ‘‘Queer Shakes sounds a bit like a libertine’s pathol-
ogy.’’ He o√ered, by way of example, the following sentence: ‘‘After decades
of too many cocks and too many cocktails, Wilde was aΔicted with the
Queer Shakes.’’ I found this sense of aΔiction fortuitous: it positions Shakes-
queer as a germ infecting the ways in which we do queer business. While
Shakespeare scholarship has for years been flirting with queer theory, the
relationship between the two is less reciprocal than we might expect, and
queer theory rarely resorts to Shakespeare as a ground for its formulation.
The reason for this one-sided relationship is twofold. First, in its institutional-
ized avatar, queer theory takes as its ambit a historical period after 1800; since
Shakespeare died in 1616, his texts are not generally understood to be proper
subjects of queer theory as we know it today. And second, the reason this
historical date of, or around, 1800 is important is that it is believed to mark the
institutionalization of homosexuality and heterosexuality. Despite its suspi-
cion of institutional constraints, then, queer theory has set up two strong
institutional boundaries of its own, accepting as its proper domain a historical
period in which queerness comes to be understood as homosexuality. The
convergence of these two boundaries—the one temporal and the other iden-
titarian—ensures that a queered Shakespeare is never a queer Shakespeare.
Instead, it allows us to fix the place of Shakespeare and queer theory both in
themselves and in relation to each other and gives us able-bodied monoliths
instead of libertines with the queer shakes.
Oddly, this fixed Shakespeare conjured by an institutional queer theory
resembles nothing so much as the canonical figure we have inherited as the
privileged signifier of the literary and the human. Deemed by the cult of
canonicity to be ‘‘not of an age but for all time,’’ Shakespeare has enjoyed the
kind of status that no other author has inside or outside the academy; this is
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