- Shakespeare and Queer Theory by Melissa E. Sanchez
This book is beautifully written and a pleasure to read. Although, like other books in the Arden Shakespeare and Theory series, it is addressed to students and nonspecialists, it also offers a tremendous service to specialized scholars by presenting a synthesized and compelling picture of the field of early modern queer theory, honoring its diversity and heterogeneity while also showing its coherence.
Sanchez begins with “some of the questions that I am often asked by students and by non-specialists” (4). The questions she cites—including “Why is this theory called ‘queer’” (5) and “why should we study imaginative literature? Wouldn’t we learn more by studying the history of real people and events?” (12)—are genuinely difficult questions, and the answers she sketches are gems of compressed sophistication. Taking on the complex relationship between queer theory and gay and lesbian studies, for example, she writes that “queer theory analyses the multitude of incoherencies and contradictions that destabilize the distinction between the normal and the perverse” (6). This definition poses the question, running in the background of the entire book, of how an academic field that is defined by a will to transgress and open new paths can nevertheless constitute itself as a coherent and sustained research and teaching project.
Sanchez begins the book with a chapter called “Queer Theory (without Shakespeare).” In it she offers a virtuoso discussion of the roots of queer theory in structuralism and post-structuralism, including Lacanian psychoanalysis and Foucault’s History of Sexuality. She also outlines the important role played by political movements including feminism, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and HIV/AIDS activism, before narrating the emergence of the disciplinary field of queer studies by means of seminal figures like Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.
Having described the emergence of queer theory outside Shakespeare studies, Sanchez next tracks how queer theory has informed and also been changed by its application to early modern studies. [End Page 112] Beginning with such pathbreakers as Alan Bray and Jonathan Goldberg, Sanchez examines frameworks that have been used in early modern studies to theorize same-sex desire, including “sodomy” and “friendship.” She rehearses debates over when and where same-sex desire shows up and when and where it disappears into the relational web of the early modern social world, and she tracks how this dynamic plays out asymmetrically between men and women. Sanchez concretizes her discussion by sketching a brief but very suggestive reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Reviewing scholarship that applies the framework of “friendship” to female/female relationships in ways that both occlude and make visible a specifically “lesbian” desire, she outlines a view of the play in which “female friendship and community are not only highly visible, but also directly resist the naturalization of a heterosexual order based on male superiority” (67). This compressed but exemplary analysis weaves together scholarship by Laurie Shannon, Jeffrey Masten, Kathryn Schwarz, and Valerie Traub to show how these scholars’ key insights may be woven together to create a compelling and fresh understanding of this play.
Sanchez discusses a number of other conceptual frameworks that, like “friendship” and “sodomy,” have allowed scholars to recover early modern sexual desire. She notes that humanist circuits such as education, patronage, and collaboration could function as spaces for same-sex desire, and she discusses the queer affordances of Christianity, including the ways monasticism and the valorization of virginity could be used to refuse patriarchy and heteronormativity. Indeed, pointing to recent work by Will Stockton, Sanchez notes the inherent polymorphous perversity of representing believers (of any gender) as the brides of Christ. Throughout this chapter Sanchez argues that the application of queer theory to early modern culture has highlighted forms of desire that refuse what Leo Bersani has called sex’s “redemptive reinvention” as romantic, intimate, self-affirming, and socially beneficial.
Sanchez notes that early modern queer studies has also moved to include critique of material scholarly practices including philology and textual editing, in which creating stable...