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Queering the Bard

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Madhavi Menon
Madhavi Menon is the editor of Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. The book contains 48 essays on Shakespeare's poetry and plays, including an essay on Cymbeline by AU literature professor Amanda Berry. (Photo: Jeff Watts)

What is queer theory? And how does it apply to the study of Shakespeare? Madhavi Menon, a literature professor in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences, and editor of Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Duke University Press, 2011), talks about queering Shakespeare and why the Bard continues to fascinate her.

American Today: What is queer theory? How would you define it?

Menon: I don’t think I can provide a definition because queer theory is precisely the theory that puts pressure on what we understand as definitional. So as the theory that questions what seems to be a monolithic understanding set in stone, of identity, gender, sexuality, power, difference, sameness—the impetus for queer theory is really to put pressure on what we think of as our definitions. Therefore by definition, queer theory cannot define itself because it would then be partaking of exactly the same problematic that it’s trying to question  . . .

What it does, though, is always observe, report, analyze whatever situation t it comes up against. So queer theory acknowledges it is not monolithic, not something that can be straightforwardly defined in advance. If we already knew what queer theory was what’s the point of doing it, or what’s the point of analyzing it? So I think queer theory very self-consciously, or some strands of it certainly, very self- consciously tries to keep its borders as open as possible precisely because it is in the business of questioning border formations.

AT: But there were some borders originally, weren’t there, historically?

Menon: Well, certainly and even currently there are many strands of queer theory. Queer theory in the academy arose as an alternative to what used to be called gay and lesbian studies. And gay and lesbian studies as the term itself implies is extremely identity oriented; it’s the study of homosexuality. Queer theory rose in distinction to that not because it wanted to eschew its emphasis on sexuality but precisely because it wanted to think about sexuality [in less absolute terms]  . . .

Starting with the work of Freud, there’s a very strong psychoanalytic strain in queer theory, because Freud of course looked for sexuality where no one wanted to look for it. For instance, in children, which is why he still can raise so much alarm in people who don’t want to think of children as having sexual desires. And then you have another strain of queer theory that derives its provenance from Michel Foucault, who wrote a history of sexuality, and his ideas were very much about politics and the state and power and how that governs and produces sexuality.

AT: How is queer theory useful in understanding Shakespeare? And how did you come up with the term Shakesqueer?

Menon: Ever since I started teaching, I’ve been teaching Shakespeare and queer theory. But the class would always be called Shakespeare. And students would come into the class and would be a bit puzzled to see that the emphasis of the class was entirely queer theory. I had to come up with a way of advertising that fact up front so people who took the class would know exactly what they were in for. I came up with the term Shakesqueer so people would have a sense of what to expect . . .

Shakespeare has a lot to offer queer theory and vice versa precisely because in the Western world and increasingly in large parts of the Eastern world, Shakespeare stands as the literary giant. To quote the title of a book by Harold Bloom, he has become rightly or wrongly what we call the “inventor of the human. “ Harold Bloom’s book is very problematic so I don’t want to be seen as supporting that, but I do want to think about a general understanding of Shakespeare as having said everything about what it means to be human. Whether or not one agrees with that I think it is important to take in that Shakespearean ideas of identity, humanity, love, desire, sexuality continue to inform how we talk about all those subjects. Given that, it seems completely shortsighted to ignore what’s in his text when we think about queer theory because I think a lot of queer theory derives from Shakespeare.

AT: Could you tell me about your personal relationship with Shakespeare? I take it you’ve had a longtime engagement with the author.

Menon: As always, there’s more than one story for anything. And certainly there is a personal story and a historical story. The historical story of course goes back to the British colonization of India, where Shakespeare was one of the tools by which colonization was affected. If you think about it, this tiny little island conquering huge parts of the world, they certainly did not do it because they were more numerous or they had more people with which to conquer the world. They were able to do it so effectively precisely because they assumed the mantle of cultural superiority. So if you’re able to convince a culture that they are inferior, half your battle has been won. Shakespeare very much formed part of that literary tradition by which the British claimed superiority over large parts of the rest of the world. So Shakespeare is very much a colonial import that symbolizes a certain kind of English superiority . . .

Personally, I’ve always been interested in Shakespeare; we always had complete works of Shakespeare. My parents grew up, for parts of their lives, in colonial India before independence. So Shakespeare was very much part of their syllabi, continues to be even now in Indians’ curricula. And my mother is a professor of English. So we always had a lot of literature around. I have no idea how I latched onto Shakespeare, but for as long as I can remember that’s been the text that’s fascinated me . . .

But what draws me to Shakespeare is that he is not in fact monolithic. There is no way you can look at this corpus of text and say this is what Shakespeare says about X. There is not a single statement you can make like that. That is what has always drawn me to him, that the counterculture is written into the culture and it’s inextricable one from the other. And I’m very happy with that kind of inextricability.