In April of last year, a conservative academic organization in Washington, D.C., filed a report called "The Vanishing Shakespeare," on the woeful disappearance of Shakespeare requirements in American universities, including all the Ivy League schools except Harvard. Upon looking into the question at Cornell, Professor Molly Hite, then chair of the English Department, found no evidence that Cornell ever had such a requirement or ever seemed in need of one.
More students study Shakespeare now at Cornell than at any point in its history, and there have been over a dozen courses devoted to him each year for the past several years. The Shakespeare industry is so lively with new editions, new productions, new films, new criticism and biographies, that Shakespeare has become, if anything, overexposed.
After so many centuries in the limelight, what could Shakespeare possibly have left to reveal? What might the English department call its latest symposium celebrating his failure to vanish? Shakespeare Unmasked, Shakespeare Disrobed, Shakespeare en déshabillé? Or Shakespeare Outed? His homoeroticism finally ousted from the closet of secrecy? But surely that is no secret. We all know that. The eponymous Merchant of Venice, in his devotion to Bassanio, can hardly fail to set off our gaydar. In more than one comedy, a woman dresses as a man, only to find herself wooed by another woman. The sonnets are especially ripe in this regard, and in my own personal favorite, one man addresses another as "the master-mistress of my passion."
A very good course in gay literature could begin and end with Shakespeare. In the words of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the eminent Queer theorist scheduled to visit Cornell this week to speak at the "ShakesQueer" symposium at Goldwin Smith Hall, Sept. 26 and 27), "not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust, but ... their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust; and, beyond that, legion -- dozens, or hundreds of the most centrally canonical figures in what the monoculturalists are pleased to consider 'our' culture."
But what is it exactly that makes Shakespeare so exceptionally and abundantly queer for us -- and how would we know it when we see it, given the elusiveness, the playfulness, the slipperiness of our desires and the words through which we seek to capture them or set them free? And do we find it everywhere in his work, or just in a few choice poems and plays?
"ShakesQueer" arrives at Cornell this weekend to convince us that the Bard is queerer than we thought, "queer" meaning not only gay or lesbian, but the erotic in all its rhetorical strangeness and surprise. The English department is staging the "ShakesQueer" symposium around an ambitious new anthology soon to be published by Professor Madhavi Menon, formerly of Ithaca College and now at American University in Washington, D.C. She has gathered together over 40 practitioners of Queer Theory, a radical deconstructive critical method that is changing the way sexuality is studied in the humanities, and she has assigned them each the happy task of writing about a play or a poem by Shakespeare. In the course of the book, her international cast of contributors (including three Cornell professors and about a half dozen Cornell Ph.D.s) examines all the plays, the sonnets, and three narrative poems -- every corner of the Shakespeare canon.
About half of these writers are gathering in Goldwin Smith Hall to give their lectures in one of the largest conferences the English department has ever hosted. As Menon has pointed out, this will be a rare opportunity for Queer Theory and Shakespeare studies to explore each other in depth. We will see a new side of Hamlet, of Antony and Cleopatra, of those Wives of Windsor who are more than usually Merry, but there will also be talks on plays many students never knew existed. When is the last time you saw a production of King John or Sir Thomas More (a partial attribution) or any of the three parts of Henry VI, and when did they last raise a blip on your gaydar? Shakespeare is not vanishing at Cornell, not by any stretch of the imagination. He is, however, coming out in new and fabulous ways.
Ellis Hanson is a professor and chair of Cornell's Department of English.
For more information on the symposium, see http://www.arts.cornell.edu/english/_lib/pdf/ShakesQueer_Poster.pdf.