restricted access Unspeakable ShaXXXspeares: Queer Theory and American Kiddie Culture (review)
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Theatre Journal 53.1 (2001) 176-177

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Book Review

Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares:
Queer Theory And American Kiddie Culture

Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares: Queer Theory And American Kiddie Culture. By Richard Burt. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998; pp. xvii + 318. $29.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

The expansion of the Shakespeare film industry over the past fifteen years has coincided with and fueled the burgeoning production of academic books and articles on cinematic and televisual adaptations of Shakespearean drama. As Richard Burt establishes in Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares, however, film adaptations of Shakespeare's texts represent only a fraction of the total universe of mediatizations of Shakespeare. Enlarging the Shakespeare database to include "post-hermeneutic" and "unspeakable" Shakespeares is one of Burt's avowed goals. With the term "post-hermeneutic Shakespeare," Burt fills a gap in the critical lexicon, supplying a catch-all category to encompass citations, references (no matter how slight), and "replays" in virtually any media--not only television and film but also Internet narratives and comic books--"that are often so far from their 'originals' they no longer count as interpretations of the plays at all" (xiv). Under this rubric, an episode of the television situation comedies The Brady Bunch and the 1988 movie The Naked Gun qualify for entry into the Shakespeare database. From Gilligan's Island and Mrs. Doubtfire to the hardcore porn video Taming of the Screw, nothing, it seems, is too popular, too ephemeral, too dumb, or too pornographic to be analyzed with a density of critical acumen traditionally reserved for "serious" film.

For those readers who harbor significant reservations about the rise of cultural studies, Unspeakable Shaxxxspeares might appear, at first glance, to represent their worst nightmare, a harbinger of the day when Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero displaces Hamlet in the classroom. I hasten to allay those fears: Burt is by no means an uncritical adherent of the trend within American cultural studies that he labels, pace Frederic Jameson, as "fandom." As Burt emphasizes: "In conflating the critic and fan, cultural critics fantasize that the academic can cross over and adopt the extra-academic, popular position, indeed, can occupy all the positions, even though they may be contradictory" (15). What typically legitimates the cultural critic's cross-over into the position of fan is the assumption that "cultural trash is by definition . . . politically subversive," an assumption that Burt exposes as untenable.

The book is driven by a variety of objectives. In addition to promoting an expansion of the Shakespeare archive, Burt investigates Shakespeare's role as a "signifier of gayness" in American culture and probes the "ambivalent postcolonial identification with British colonial culture" (130) mediated through Shakespeare in American action films. It is his scrutiny of the "academic fantasies underlying recent attempts to reconstruct an anti-authoritarian model of the intellectual in terms of fandom and popular culture" (14), however, that emerges as the most urgent and genuinely radical line of inquiry. What makes this inquiry all the more compelling is Burt's strategy of exposing the limitations of American cultural studies by performing the role of cultural critic. In chapter after chapter, Burt offers a series of incisive readings of television episodes [End Page 176] and popular films, only to conclude that the results of this analysis do not add up to the sum of its parts. "Cultural trash" cannot bear the weight of the cultural critic.

The incongruity between the weight of critical attention lavished on a popular genre and the meagerness of the output is especially glaring in the chapter on Shakespeare pornography. No doubt many academics will be surprised to learn that the pornography industry has habitually turned to Shakespeare as source for scenarios, characters, and plots, which is to say, pornography relies on Shakespeare to spice up the sex. Burt devotes close to fifty pages to a detailed analysis of the various ways in which pornographic videos rework elements of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet. Yet when Burt sets up the "money shot . . . of this chapter" (120), instead of fulfilling the academic fantasy of discovering a cool new...