Sarah Werner’s Interview with Mickey B Director Tom Magill

In the Fall 2011 special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly on Shakespeare and performance, Ramona Wray wrote about an adaptation of Macbeth written and performed by prisoners in Belfast’s Maghaberry Prison. Directed by Tom Magill and produced by the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC), Mickey B is an unusual film in that its main focus is on the performance of the adaptation, not the process leading up to it. Mickey B tells the story of a privately run prison controlled by gangs of prisoners. Duncan is the drug baron of one prison wing, and Mickey B murders him at the instigation of Ladyboy and the prophecies of a trio of bookies. Duffer’s wife and children are killed at home on Mickey B’s orders from inside the prison; after an attack on himself and his son, Banknote flees to the safety of another wing, where he joins with Malcolm and the prison staff to kill Mickey B. The film consists of the entirety of this adaptation; supplementary materials on the DVD include documentaries about the prisoners and the film’s making. (The trailer for Mickey B can be seen below; more clips from the ESC’s work can be found on their vimeo page and on their website.

In this brief conversation, I asked Tom Magill about the localization of Mickey B and its reception beyond Northern Ireland.

—Sarah Werner

The three bookies/witches

Sarah Werner: Mickey B is an adaptation that puts Macbeth in decidedly local terms, starting with its setting in a Northern Ireland prison and its echoes of the Troubles.

Tom Magill: The language is colloquial and rooted in the culture of Belfast prison slang. The language is sharp and sparse; some people have said “rich and poetic.” Working with Michael Bogdanov taught me that Shakespeare requires updating and translating to be meaningful and relevant to an audience today. I wanted to see if Shakespeare was relevant to a contemporary prison culture. My conclusion after making Mickey B is a resounding yes, Shakespeare is relevant to a prison culture today. For me, the Prison has replaced the Tavern—when I think of Falstaff today, I think of him in prison. That’s why I think there is so much relevancy and scope in Prison Shakespeare—Macbeth is a murderer, Scotland is a fortress, it fits in a prison culture.

The characters in the film have come through the conflict and now they are in a post-ceasefire society. New allegiances are being formed, new enemies are on the horizon. The recent influx of East European labour has spawned a new battle with “The Cossacks” in a drugs turf war. Former Republican and Loyalist adversaries are re-forming into one crew to resist the new “foreign” enemy.

Duncan (played by Sam McClean)

Sarah Werner: But the film has been shown in international festivals, most recently at the University of Guelph conference “Outerspeares: Transcultural / Transmedia Adaptations of Shakespeare,” where you were also a keynote speaker. How has reception of the film been different outside of Northern Ireland?

Tom Magill: In Canada the film had a great reception, stirred a lot of interest re future publications, collaborations, and return visits to Guelph. The Canadians got Mickey B. Outside Northern Ireland the film screens differently. People abroad often remark upon the distinctive accents of the prisoners and how different they are to the representations that appear in films about  Northern Ireland’s conflict. Audiences abroad don’t have the “cultural capital” to read the films as a local audience would. This means they often miss the parallels in the film—e.g. the assassination of MacDuff’s family draws heavily upon the assassination of the wife of Irish National Liberation Army leader Dominic McGlinchey, Mary McGlinchey, bathing her two children at home. (See this website for further details.)

I think that getting the prison context to fit the story of Macbeth and then being true to the local prison culture has given us a global audience. I have found that people globally are interested in the conflict in Ireland, particularly if they have an experience of conflict within their own society. The film had a very warm reception in both Korea and Israel, where it played with Korean and Hebrew subtitles. The film has also been translated into German and French, and is currently undergoing a Portuguese translation. I think there is something of real interest in the film to colonial cultures or cultures that have been colonised.

The gates to Maghaberry Prison, the location of the fictional Burnam Prison

At a recent screening in Northern Ireland, a person remarked about how “strange and uncomfortable it was hearing those voices [of prisoners] speaking [Shakespeare’s] words.” So I think Mickey B challenges people here in Ireland, too. Especially in relation to this “underclass” of prisoners doing Shakespeare—the establishment and cultural icon of the English-speaking world. In this context, Mickey B speaks as a counterhegemonic discourse privileging and accrediting the subaltern voice.

And the film has paid the price for that radical positioning. Although Mickey B was completed in 2007, the Northern Ireland Office, through the Northern Ireland Prison Service, restricted the film being shown or distributed within the UK and Republic of Ireland without their prior consent for three years after its completion. Their legitimate fear was the reaction of local victims and victim’s groups. ESC suggested a screening specifically for these groups to address the concerns. But the suggestion was never taken up.

Ladyboy/Lady Macbeth (played by Jason Thompson)

ESC had to agree to these terms or else the Northern Ireland Prison Service would not sign off on the Location Agreement, that is, their agreement to let us film in their location, a maximum security prison. We knew how ridiculous it would be if we refused to sign the three-year restriction and went to court to ask a judge if he agreed with us, that they had in fact, given us permission to film in their maximum security prison with their most recalcitrant prisoners. But we signed in good faith because we wanted to have good relations with the prison staff and go on to make another film in the prison.

What we have learned since, is that the three-year restriction means the film is not eligible for entry at many film festivals where the criteria for selection states that the film entry must have been completed within the last twelve months. For ESC, Mickey B was an accredited arts educational project, enabling violent prisoners to understand their previous motivations through an updated version of the Macbeth story; where ruthless ambition ends in destruction. However, for some staff in the Northern Ireland prison service, we were simply “turning murderers into movie stars.”

[vimeo w=400&h=225]

Mickey B Trailer from Educational Shakespeare Co on Vimeo.

Still shots from Mickey B graciously provided by Tom Magill.

Tom Magill cofounded and directs the Educational Shakespeare Company (ESC). He currently writes and directs ESC’s films and runs workshops and courses, encouraging people to explore their own stories through the medium of film. He is a specialist in Forum theatre, created by Nobel Prize nominee Augusto Boal, and is Boal’s representative in Northern Ireland. Magill’s ambition is to continue using his own life experience to inspire others to transform their lives by unlocking their creativity.

Lee Edelman’s “Against Survival: Queerness in a Time That’s Out of Joint”

Lee Edelman’s essay, “Against Survival: Queerness in a Time That’s Out of Joint” appears inSurviving Hamlet,” the latest issue of Shakespeare Quarterly. We are delighted to reprint it here in its entirety for our Forum readers, with thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press.

You can learn more about “Surviving Hamlet,” guest-edited by Jonathan Gil Harris, on Shakespeare Quarterly’s Project MUSE web page.

Copyright © 2011 Folger Shakespeare Library

Hamlet survives as a foundational text of modern Western culture in part because it anticipates modernity’s ideology of cultural survival. Both the Freudian discussion of the play’s Oedipality and the Derridean attention to its interest in inheritance and “patrimonial filiation” respond to Hamlet’s prolepsis of the subject of reproductive futurism.1  If Freud’s association of Hamlet with Oedipus makes the latter, as Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard observe, “only retroactively ‘prior,’” if the Freudian reading might be said, that is, to “Oedipalize” Oedipus through Hamlet, it can do so only because Hamlet, no less than the Oedipus complex itself, belongs to the universe in which the Child has become the guarantor of futurity: a fantasy figure produced as the promise of secular temporal closure intended to restore an imaginary past in a future endlessly deferred.2  Insofar as that deferral in the form of the Child defines our contemporary ideology of social and cultural survival, conferring on the Child the privilege of figuring the subject par excellence, survival remains inseparable from a negativity that haunts the social order in the form of a repetition compulsion—which is also to say, of a death drive—recurrently projected onto those who occupy the position of the queer: those abjected as non-reproductive, anti-social, opposed to viability, and so as threats to the Child who assures and embodies collective survival. In Hamlet that question of survival, given its canonical modern form in the prince’s “To be, or not to be” (3.1.58ff.), carries an explicit negativity that Hamlet and the play both seek to expel.3 And this imbrication of survival, repetition, and negativity’s disavowal makes the play a crucial document for thinking futurity’s relation to the queer and so for thinking the relation between negativity and the concept of queerness itself.

For negativity, like the queer, is intolerable, even to those who call themselves queer. To be queer, in fact, is not to be, except insofar as queerness serves as the name for the thing that is not, for the limit point of ontology, for the constitutive exclusion that registers the no, the not, the negation in being. Radically opposed to normativity and so to the order of identity, queerness confounds the notion of being as being at one with oneself. It attests to the impossibility of a concept’s or an entity’s survival in anything other than a state of exception to its nominal consistency. Opposing all normative logics, including those that would reify queerness as a positive and determinate identity, queerness is nonetheless central to every presentation of normativity. Metabolized and abjected as the remainder of any identity procedure, its unincorporability alone permits the consolidation of form. Thus queerness, as I have argued elsewhere, occupies the place of the zero, the nothing, that invariably structures the logic of being but remains at once intolerable to and inconceivable within it. It follows that those who call themselves queer and think queerness is a matter of being must reject the negativity of queerness—and negativity tout court—as virulently as any other subject invested in survival. For queerness induces a peculiar and disturbing relation to survival, and to political fantasy as well, by underscoring a tension always at work within those terms.

In associating queerness with the non-cognizable status of the zero, with the element inassimilable to the presentation of any order as such, I have argued that the zero obtrudes, nonetheless, in moments of traumatic jouissance that the One of the Symbolic attempts to survive by mobilizing a self-negating impulse, what Jacques Derrida refers to as an “autoimmunitary process,” inseparable from the death drive that queerness is conjured to conjure away from the norm.4   I want to approach this nexus of questions about survival, queerness, and the zero by thinking about what survives the queer encounter with jouissance and how institutions of knowledge, including the literary studies for which Hamlet continues to function as a metonym, reinforce the sublimation enshrining the Symbolic’s law of the One by repudiating the trauma of queerness as radical encounter with the Real. That repudiation, that decisive negation, informs the constitutive political act: the creation of dissensus by way of performatively articulating collectivity. The queerness of the traumatic encounter, therefore, establishes as the ungrounding ground intrinsic to the formulation of any politics, as the primal negativity that shapes it, the zero that procures and undoes at once everyone and every “One.”

Though no “One” as such can ever survive this seizure by the Real, this fracture that induces abjection in a ceaseless attempt to make oneself One, something does survive, nonetheless, that attests to the absence of the One, something by means of which absence speaks, negating the loss or the void it affirms by bequeathing, instead, a residue, a self-contradictory sign of loss to keep loss from taking place. From such a perspective, absence occasions a type of visitation, an encounter with whatever makes present a lack and thereby registers loss. But the loss experienced is also denied by this encounter with what remains. Consoling as fortification against the traumatizing Real—the Real whose zero annihilates knowledge and the subject that knowledge calls forth—this something that indicates “absence” provides a lifeline confirming survival, an umbilical cord that attaches us to a past that never passes, or not, as Hamlet famously swears, “whiles memory holds a seat / In this distracted globe” (Q2; 1.5.96–97). Such a memory, such a survival, results from the mark of an absence absenting the very absence that it marks, obeying in this the Symbolic law that turns zero into one. “Nothing,” like zero, appears therefore in the order of what we can know only as something construed as not-being because of, but also except for, the lack that effectively embodies it, a paradox that implicates zero, and the void it refers to, in the One, in the primal signifier engendered to track another signifier’s absence. Lacan, for this reason, describes the signifier as a “symbol only of absence” and declares that something can be missing, by which he means “missing from its place,” only in the Symbolic where everything “must be or not be in a particular place,” everything, that is, but the signifier, which as a presence that designates absence, “will be and not be where it is,” joining loss and survival in one.5

Hamlet, of course, in his best-known speech, whose first six words survive among literature’s most recognized quotations, confronts just this question of what “must be or not be in a particular place.” And he does so by attending to what troubles a universe organized by the logic of “or”: the excess inherent in the signifier that disorients the order it ordains. Less a philosopher himself than the manifestation of the “supra-cognitive” surplus an anti-philosophy would propound, Hamlet, a personification of too-muchness beyond philosophy’s reason, fingers the stops of rhetoric’s flute without stopping for, or even in, death, as if driven by some implacable machine that governs what he calls, in his letter to Ophelia, “this / machine [that] is to him” (2.2.123–24).6  His last words, pronounced as if posthumously (after he acknowledges, “I am dead” [5.2.280]), remain fixed precisely on the paradox of what remains in the wake of his words. “The rest is silence” (l. 300), he declares at the end, imprinting himself on that silence, effectively making it his silence, which now serves as his remains. The rest of the world, what rests in the world, is now what rests of him. Horatio, himself enjoined to survive to tell his prince’s story, immediately tries to limit the sense of “rest” to final repose, the better to forestall the prospect of Hamlet’s spectral circulation. “Good night, sweet Prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (ll. 302–3), he intones. But this lyric vision of death as rest ignores life’s restless remnant (by which, of course, the play has been literally haunted from the beginning), denies the “something after death” (3.1.80), the queer excess beyond death’s “bourn” (l. 81) and so beyond the “or” that draws the border determining life or death: “To be, or not to be” (l. 58).

The specters that cross that border (and thereby make it spectral, too) frequented the work of Jacques Derrida throughout his career. Not two full months before his death, in an interview printed first in Le Monde and then published the following year as a book called Apprendre à vivre enfin, Derrida reflects on the place of survival and spectrality in his thought:

I have always been interested in this thematic of survival, whose meaning is not something that adds itself to living and to dying. It is originary: life is survival. To survive in the current sense means to continue to live, but also to live after death. With regard to translation, Benjamin underlines the distinction between überleben, on the one hand, to survive death as a book can survive the death of its author or a child the death of its parents, and, on the other hand, fortleben, living on, to continue to live. All the concepts that have helped me to work, notably those of the trace and the spectral, were bound up with “to survive” (survivre) as a structural and rigorously originary dimension. It doesn’t derive from either to live or to die.7

Neither supplementary to living and dying, nor derived from one or from the other, survival precedes and determines both, according to Derrida, unsettling from the outset every attempt to distinguish between the two. As primal trace, as originary writing, before and without which there is nothing to write nor anyone to write it, survival survives by precipitating the differential order it refuses. It occasions and requires a conceptual geography of places in which everything “must be or not be,” such that even non-being would inhabit a place, would assume the signifiable form that turns it into a one. In short, survival determines the Symbolic as the order of survival, giving rise, at the moment when immortality and “‘a sense of posterity’” conjoin, to borrow a concept from Claude Lefort, to what I’ve called reproductive futurism.8

Consider, in this light, Derrida’s account of Benjamin’s two senses of survival. If überleben pertains to the traces that are left in the wake of someone’s death and fortleben to whatever successfully eludes the grip of death in the first place, then Derrida’s chosen examples of the former, by no means idiosyncratic, may point to an opening that troubles the border those examples are meant to define. The book that survives an author’s death, whether it names that author or not, allows its readers, by virtue of such features as rhetoric, narrative, genre, and style, to generate, from those features alone, an account of the author who produced it. Hamlet tells more about the author called “Shakespeare” than Shakespeare does about Hamlet. But Hamnet, Shakespeare’s biological child, had he lived instead of the fictional character who survives, some have said, in his place, would have little to tell about the author of the plays who, as “Shakespeare,” leaves Shakespeare behind. For the child that its parents leave behind is not, like a book, the product of a system we can figure through an author’s name, but rather a living organism, endowed with such agency as that entails, shaped by and carrying the genetic materials in which its parents live on.9  At the crossing of überleben and fortleben, then, those genetic materials, which precipitate the child, constitute the site where residual trace and the thing itself coincide, where the very inscription of what’s dead throbs with life and life takes its cue from a code, calling into question the Benjaminian distinction between living after and living on.10

Because such genetic “living on” can offer, by itself, no assurance of survival in and as cultural memory, the child as biological survivor (fortleben) requires an educational supplement to make its survival equivalent to a book (überleben), a supplement that renders the biological organism a mere substrate for the imperative pronounced by the ghost: “Remember me” (1.5.91). Internalizing that injunction, Hamlet identifies his brain as a book that contains and preserves his father’s words, thus realizing a mode of survival that makes of the prince the specter’s specter much as Hamlet will make of the world, when he finally leaves it, his specter in turn:

                                                     Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter.

                                                                     (ll. 97–104)

Taking writing as the figure of knowledge, and so, by extension, of education, Hamlet associates its material inscription with the “trivial . . . records” he disdains, with the lifeless copies of “pressures past” that his hand can “wipe away.”11 By contrast, he vows that in the “table of his memory,” which constitutes “the book and volume of [his] brain,” he will carry now only his father’s “commandment,” free of the material excrescence of writing and therefore “unmixed with baser matter” such as writing might convey. If Hamlet’s mind contains what Jonathan Goldberg’s crucial account of this speech describes as a “scene of writing,” Hamlet seems at the same time to know, as Goldberg concisely puts it, that in order for “memory to be supplemented, it must also be supplanted.”12  The “trivial” or merely mechanical supplement to memory’s vital self-presence infects and destroys that spontaneous agency, leaving it as empty as writing itself and as easily “wipe[d] away.”

But Hamlet insists that in the book of his brain his father’s words “all alone shall live,” enjoying the vital presence denied to mere records or representations. The paternal commandment must escape, in his mind, the triviality pertaining to the copy so as to endure instead as a pressure not past, a pressure comparable to that of a drive that doesn’t remind but insists. Hamlet becomes, in consequence, a sort of appendage to this living book, the substrate supporting a survival that lives, in more than one sense, in his place. Goldberg evokes this perfectly when he notes that “Hamlet voices his father’s text.”13For child and book exchange properties as soon as the son becomes the repository that houses the father’s word: the former acquires the status of memorial while the latter attains to the presence of life. And survival depends on preserving, as an archive anticipating a future whose very anticipation effectively prevents it, an order kept in motion by its persistent repetition and, in consequence, by the death drive. “Order is a kind of compulsion to repeat,” Freud remarks in Civilization and Its Discontents, a normalizing practice of “regularization” that determines, once it has been laid down, “when, where and how a thing shall be done, so that in every similar circumstance one is spared hesitation and indecision.”14 One is spared, that is, all encounter with life unsheltered by the regular, machine-like response that obviates “hesitation and indecision.” If these words seem resonant in relation to Hamlet, where hesitation and indecision attend a demand for the restoration of order pronounced by a ghost whose appearance per se performs its violation, then that resonance may express the impossible tension that inheres in the fantasy of the living book, of the spontaneously present archive, the fantasy that underwrites the order of survival through reproductive futurism. For that tension inheres in every attempt to affirm the order of survival as something inherently resistant to, or in conflict with, the death drive.

In his constant return to the topic of survival, which occupies such a central place in his thinking of life and death (“I never stop analysing the phenomenon of ‘survival’ . . .  it’s really the only thing that interests me”),15   Derrida focuses, time and again, on the function of the specter, in Hamlet and elsewhere, as it bears on just these questions of futurity, the death drive, and cultural transmission. Although his single most significant engagement with Hamlet introduces his Specters of Marx, Archive Fever (Mal d’archive) reveals more emphatically the ideological stake in the specter as figure of survival, not only for Derrida’s critical thought but also for the culture we inherit from Hamlet, where the Child embodies survival as fortleben and überleben at once. Having associated the archive with “consignation,” meaning both “the act of assigning residence or entrusting so as to put into reserve” and that of “gathering together signs” into “a single corpus . . . in which all the elements articulate the unity of an ideal configuration,” Archive Fever acknowledges, at the very heart of any such archive, the “anarchivic” and “archiviolithic” death drive that seeks to destroy it.16 The threat Derrida sees in that drive, the threat that with a single stroke (the stroke of the signifier as such) produces the archive and undoes it, lies in the forgetfulness or erasure it induces, leaving behind no trace, no survival, of itself or of what it destroys:

The death drive . . . not only incites forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory, as mnēmē or anamnesis, but also commands the radical effacement, in truth the eradication, of that which can never be reduced to mnēmē or anamnēsis, that is, the archive, consignation, the documentary or monumental apparatus as hypomnēma, mnemotechnical supplement or representative, auxiliary or memorandum. Because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to take on a signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal experience. On the contrary: the archive takes place at the place of the breakdown of the said memory.17

The archive responds from the outset to the prospect of this “breakdown,” this annihilation of living memory, by gathering together and holding in reserve the signs, themselves already specters, of what no longer possesses life, but always at the risk of its own eradication by the death drive to which it attests—a drive called forth, as Lacan observes, by the signifying system from which alone spring loss and its corollary, survival.

Hamlet, however, in the passage above, speaking on behalf of a futurism that Shakespeare’s play, initiates (much as, for Freud, it generates the Oedipality of Oedipus), denies the universal incompatibility of the archive with “anamnesis as spontaneous, alive and internal.” Although he acknowledges that the hypomne-mic supplement, the externalized remainder essential to the archive as site of consignation, can indeed be forgotten, “wipe[d] away,” he nonetheless proclaims his brain the “book” in which his father’s commandment, fully present, will manage to live on and live after. The Hamlet who declares, at Ophelia’s grave, “This is I, / Hamlet the Dane” (5.1.241–42), assumes the status of an archive that keeps his father’s word “alive” by becoming the agent of his father’s will, the instrument of a vital force to which he must cede his own. He establishes thereby the contours of a reproductive futurism bringing archive and anamnesis together in an ideology whose complicity with aesthetic education and therefore with the violence of aesthetic education not only shapes the text of Hamlet but also contributes to its privileged position as the paradigmatic literary work of modern Western culture. Equally invested in the violence that constitutes cultural transmission (“a violence that cannot and must not be reduced, because otherwise there would be no more culture”),18 Derrida posits the archive as memorializing the “spontaneous” memory it annihilates, but he shares with Hamlet a messianic belief that the archive can nonetheless quiver with life through its opening onto the future.

Like Hamlet, then, Archive Fever disputes the binary alternative of life or death, “to be, or not to be,” and does so while referring to conversations with the dead and a father’s attempt, through a return from the past, to produce in his son an archive enshrining the paternal injunction to remember. Given the conflation of parent and child promoted by reproductive futurism, Freud appropriately takes on both of these roles as Derrida reads Josef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. As a son, Freud receives, for his thirty-fifth birthday, his childhood bible rebound with “new skin” and bearing an inscription that declares it “a memorial and . . . a reminder of love from your father.”19 As a father himself, he’s called back from the grave, like a specter Yerushalmi conjures, to permit the latter, writes Derrida, to hear “the last word, the last will, the ultimate signature . . . of a dying father—and to be even more sure, of an already dead” one.20 In addition, as Derrida observes, Yerushalmi concludes the last section of his book with a query for this spectral Freud about a statement sent to Hebrew University by the psychoanalyst’s daughter, Anna, to mark the establishment of an endowed chair there in honor of her father. “Was she speaking in your name?” Yerushalmi asks about her comments for that occasion, or as Derrida rephrases the question, had Freud’s child, precisely as his child, “always spoken in the name of her father”?21

Bound to the parent who gets under its “skin” and lives on in the “book” of its brain, reproductive futurism’s figural Child may signify survival, but the child caught up in that figure’s grasp can never survive as itself, fated as it is to disappear in the act of acculturation that compels it, like Hamlet according to Goldberg, to voice another’s text.22 Immersed in the medium of the Other’s speech, conscripted to serve as the archive in which the Other as One returns to itself through the violence of a consignation that gathers the traces of the archontic power that “posits and conserves the law,” the Child instantiates the reach of that law whose commandment to memory, in Derrida’s words, “turns incontestably toward the future to come” in an act of affirmation that remains the “self-affirmation of the Unique,” of the law as singular, as One.23

Although the archive’s order of memory always pledges itself to the future, as Derrida consistently maintains, there operates within that archive (and within that future as well) something at odds with real openness to the unknown of the “à-venir.” Derrida evokes the archontic commandment to remember in the following terms:

It orders to promise, but it orders repetition, and first of all self-repetition, self-confirmation in a yes, yes. If repetition is thus inscribed at the heart of the future to come, one must also import there, in the same stroke, the death drive, the violence of forgetting, superrepression (suppression and repression), the anarchive, in short, the possibility of putting to death the very thing, whatever its name, which carries the law in its tradition: the archon of the archive, the table, what carries the table and who carries the table, the subjectile, the substrate, and the subject of the law.24

The “yes” that Derrida refers to here acknowledges survival as the privilege of the One by affirming submission to the archive’s conflation of the future with repetition. Like Hamlet’s thrice repeated response to his father’s “Remember me—“Ay,” “Yea,” and “Yes, yes, by heaven” (1.5.96, 98, 104)—the “yes, yes” cited by Derrida strategically performs, in the name of remembrance, a forgetting of the Lacanian Thing and with it a negation, in affirmation’s guise, of the objectless act of remembrance that’s silently entrusted to the death drive alone.25

This last phrase must seem incongruous. What could the death drive serve to remember when it incites, in the words of Derrida, “forgetfulness, amnesia, the annihilation of memory”?26 Lacan provides an answer when he revises Freud’s framing of the death drive. Where Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, associates the death drive with the wish to return to a preorganic condition unvexed by susceptibility to stimulation, Lacan distinguishes, in Seminar VII, “between the Nirvana or annihilation principle, on the one hand, and the death drive, on the other—the former concerns a relationship to a fundamental law which might be identified with that which energetics theorizes as the tendency to return to a state, if not of absolute rest, then at least of universal equilibrium.” The death drive, by contrast, as Lacan explains, “can only be defined as a function of the signifying chain. . . .  It requires something from beyond whence it may itself be grasped in a fundamental act of memorization, as a result of which everything may be recaptured.”27 The Symbolic may constitute the order of history that “presents itself as something memorable and memorized,” but the death drive corresponds to “that structural element which implies that, as soon as we have to deal with anything in the world appearing in the form of the signifying chain, there is somewhere—though certainly outside of the natural world—which is the beyond of that chain, the ex nihilo on which it is founded and is articulated as such.”28 The death drive, that is, remembers what all the “memorable” aspects of history and the reality shaped by the signifier obliterate: the Thing always absent from the Symbolic, the inarticulable loss that accompanies and makes possible subjectification—a loss of what never existed to be lost before subjectification.

As the memory of nothing, of the zero or void that evokes the “ex nihilo on which [the Symbolic] is founded and is articulated,” the death drive looks like forgetfulness only insofar as it insists on “what by its very nature remains concealed from the subject: that self-sacrifice, that pound of flesh which is mortgaged [engagé] in his relationship to the signifier.”29 The object of desire, designated by Lacan as objet petit a, merely fills out the place, and so covers the absence, of what “remains concealed”: the Thing as Being, as jouissance, as what “cannot be subjectified as such.”30 To capture this “hidden element” inaccessible to subjectification, Lacan proposes a “mathematical metaphor” describing “human life . . . as a calculus in which zero [is] irrational.”31 This strange numerical figure, at odds with zero’s algebraic status as rational and even as even, indicates Lacan’s alignment of the subject in its zero degree, in the “hidden element of living reference” never accessible through subjectification, with the permanent non-closure of irrational numbers whose decimal transcriptions neither terminate nor resolve into regularly repeating sequences.

The zero’s metaphoric irrationality stands in for the insistence of something within signification incapable of totalized identity. It suffers no distortion then, as I have suggested elsewhere, if we see that irrationality, in its ultimate unthinkability, as the definition of a “queerness” whose structuring presence in every order qua normative regime remains perpetually beyond our thought, even in the moment of naming it as perpetually beyond our thought. “Irrational,” as Lacan makes clear, denotes, like the square root of minus one that he invokes in “The Subversion of the Subject,” “what doesn’t correspond to anything that is subject to our intuition, anything real—in the mathematical sense of the term—and yet, it must be conserved, along with its full function.” Evoking what, in Lacan’s characterization, “is missing in the desired image” by which subjects apprehend themselves in the order of the Other, this irrational zero, like the imaginary number defined as the square root of minus one, “comes to symbolize the place of jouissance,” the place of what we sacrifice, before we exist to possess it, on entering the order of signification.32 As whatever a given order excludes from the logic of intuition, queerness, similarly, refers to a jouissance incapable of positivization. Corrosive of every identity, and so possessing none of its own, it serves instead to figure, and so to make present and absent at once, the inassimilable element that disintegrates integrals from within even as its unthinkability makes possible the law’s self-assertion as One.

In this context consider one more passage from Lacan’s psychoanalytic mathematics. Discussing the signifier of the Other’s lack, the signifier of the structural incompleteness that prevents the Other from achieving the totality or the stability of a rational number, Lacan, in “The Subversion of the Subject,” denies the possibility of “conferring on [this] signifier . . . the meaning of mana or of any such term.” He explains: “Claude Levi-Strauss, commenting on Mauss’ work, no doubt wished to see in mana the effect of a zero symbol. But . . . what we are dealing with in our case is . . . the signifier of the lack of this zero symbol.”33 At stake is the absence of a symbol as such, or rather, the insistence of what the Symbolic order necessarily absents: the queerness that refuses the minimal coherence that characterizes an entity and so escapes positivization in any system of exchange. But the order that forecloses that queerness cannot succeed thereby in escaping it any more than producing a zero symbol can avoid an encounter with the void. The constitution of the Symbolic archive enabled by the signifying system opens a space construed as beyond it, the space Lacan refers to as the “ex nihilo on which it is founded.” It thus gives rise, along with the archive, to Derrida’s mal d’archive, the malady or evil of the death drive that follows from the signifier’s archivizing function. In doing so it establishes the inconsistency internal to life and to death that prevents them from forming, as Hamlet would have it, a couple divided by “or,” the inconsistency Slavoj Žižek notes while glossing the Lacanian death drive:

Death is the symbolic order itself, the structure which, as a parasite, colonizes the living entity. What defines death drive in Lacan is this double gap: not the simple opposition of life and death, but the split of life itself into “normal” life and horrifying “undead” life, and the split of the dead into “ordinary” dead and the “undead” machine. The basic opposition between Life and Death is thus supplemented by the parasitical symbolic machine (language as a dead entity which “behaves as if it possesses life of its own”) and its counterpoint, the “living dead” (the monstrous life-substance which persists in the Real outside the Symbolic). This split which runs within the domains of Life and Death constitutes the space of the death drive.34

In this sense the death drive betrays, within the Symbolic, the excess that erupts from the constitution of the Symbolic: an excess that resides in the nothing that emerges precisely as that order’s beyond, eluding all capture within it by anything conceived as a zero symbol and attesting, instead, to the absence of a symbol that could positivize that nothing, that could make it obey the Symbolic law that turns everything into a one.

If we return, then, to Derrida’s account of how archival consignation establishes “the One” in a way that “can only repeat and recall [an] instituting violence,” we can better understand how the archive’s anticipatory promise of “the future to come” commits it, nonetheless, as Derrida notes, to an act of “self-repetition, self-confirmation in a yes, yes.” Such a “yes” affirms, in the name of the future, an identity, precisely that of the One, that obliges the future to conform to the past, to affirm itself as survival within an economy of reserve. The archive, after all, like the specter, and so like the ghost of the dead King Hamlet, evinces that reserve whose survival produces the future as its own. However much it presents itself as life in its infinite openness to something unknown that remains to yet to come, this future, like the “yes” by which archivization proposes to affirm it, performs a compulsory return to the One of the law and of the father. Derrida’s dedication of Mal d’archive not only to Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, whose work he directly addresses, but also, as he writes, “to my sons—and even to the memory of my father, who was also called, as is life itself, Hayim,” makes perfect sense in this regard.35 Life, as prolepsis and memory, returns to the father twice over here. But in doing so, it suffers what we might well call a “dead-ication,” the condition of being mortified into the figure of vitality that offers as the image of the future to come a memory that returns from the past, like the apparition in Hamlet that is from the outset a “reapparition,” as Derrida says in Specters of Marx.36 As he puts it later in that same text, “Here again what seems to be out front, the future, comes back in advance: from the past, from the back.”37 Futurism in this sense might be understood as a sort of proleptic behindsight: the father’s penetration from behind, from the back, of what he thereby conceives as the future in an act of self-affirmation by which the Child, like Hamlet, gets screwed.

What should we make in this context, then, of Derrida’s own explicit affirmation of the future in Mal d’archive? “The affirmation of the future to come,” he writes, “this is not a positive thesis. It is nothing other than the affirmation itself, the ‘yes,’ insofar as it is the condition of all promises or of all hope, of all awaiting, of all performativity, of all opening toward the future, whatever it may be, for science or for religion. I am prepared to subscribe without reserve to this reaffirmation made by Yerushalmi. With a speck of anxiety, in the back of my mind, a single speck of anxiety about a solitary point. . . . This unique point can be reduced, indeed, to the Unique, to the unity of the One and of the Unique.”38 Although rejecting Yerushalmi’s claim for the absolute and exemplary uniqueness of what Derrida describes as the “link between Jewishness, if not Judaism, and hope in the future,” Derrida nonetheless declares himself “prepared to subscribe without reserve” to the “yes, yes” of the “reaffirmation” that expresses his “hope in the future.”39

Such a hope, of course, remains fixed to the framework—historical, cultural, political—from which it springs, imprisoning the future it imagines in the imaginary form that always mirrors back its own subjective formation. Even where that hope, conforming to the terms of Derrida’s messianicity without messianism, identifies justice as the making of space for the event of the radically unknown, it presupposes our capacity to know in advance that justice will make itself known—that the signifying system might somehow, that is, incorporate its own beyond—and that we, or some future human subject, might be and exceed ourselves at once, by knowing what is excluded from the Symbolic by virtue of our subjection to the signifier, by knowing the zero as zero and therefore knowing what withholds itself from the possibility of being known.

This fantasmatic future, even when adduced without explicit belief in its possible realization, even when understood as performatively instantiating the openness for which it calls, imposes on messianicity a form that is always already our own, reflecting in this the rigor mortis of our attachment to the Symbolic order and to the name of the father that Derrida, like Hamlet, construes as “life.” In Apprendre à vivre enfin, Derrida proclaims his affiliation bluntly: “I don’t want to give free rein to an interpretation according to which survival is on the side of death, of the past, rather than of life and the future. Everything I say . . . about survival as a complication of the life/death opposition proceeds, where I am concerned, from an unconditional affirmation of life. . . The view I hold isn’t mortifying, but, to the contrary, it’s the affirmation of a living being who prefers living and, therefore, surviving to death.”40 The affirmation of such a survival, which extends the living being’s identity, at its preference, into the future, enacts a resistance to the radical event as which the future is also invoked. How could an event take place for us if the event itself, as the radically unknown, would revoke the ways of knowing by which we understand ourselves and thereby understand our world? How can we survive the event that ruptures the order of survival itself?

The Derrida who makes this “unconditional” affirmation of life and elsewhere subscribes “without reserve” to Yerushalmi’s “reaffirmation” of the future is the Derrida who understands full well that “to ask me to renounce what has formed me, what I have loved so much, what has been my law, is to ask me to die,” and who adds, “In that fidelity there is a sort of instinct of conservation.”41 That instinct evinces the mortification that Derrida denies: the mortification by which the Symbolic order “colonizes the living entity,” as Slavoj Žižek writes, precisely to make it into an entity possessed of a unity whose preservation it identifies with “the good.” When push comes to shove, however, that good, even for one as committed as Derrida to a “complication of the life / death opposition,” compels the choice of life over death, of a conservative rhetoric of futurism over real openness to an event, of a liberal version of messianicity ensnared in messianism’s coils. We see that in Derrida’s meditation on the terrorism linked with the name of bin Laden:

What appears to me unacceptable . . . is not only the cruelty, the disregard for human life, the disrespect for law, for women, the use of what is worst in technocapitalist modernity for the purpose of religious fanaticism. No, it is, above all, the fact that such actions and such discourse open onto no future and, in my view, have no future. If we are to put any faith in the perfectibility of public space and of the world juridico-political scene, of the ‘world’ itself, then there is, it seems to me, nothing good to be hoped for from that quarter.42

W. J. T. Mitchell rightly notes that “Derrida’s assertion that bin Ladenism has no future is . . . not just empirically wrong, but the projection of a nihilism, a hollowness onto the figure of the enemy,” and he adds, still more importantly, that it undermines Derrida’s own investment in the work of deconstruction as “mythic violence . . . that may lead to a new order of reading or of legality and political order to come.”43 The “good” for which Derrida speaks, that is, requires our “faith in the perfectibility of public space and of the world juridico-political scene.” He acknowledges here no future but an evolutionary one, which is also to say an evolution precisely toward the condition of the One, toward an “absolute law” associated with “universal sovereignty” that utopically moves toward the perfection of justice, political order, and the “world” we know.44 Lacan, like Badiou, like the queer, like the figure of “bin Ladenism” adduced by Derrida (and unlike bin Laden himself ), denies this evolutionary model in favor of the death drive’s creation ex nihilo, refusing the instinct of conservation that by anticipating the future prevents it, allowing it recognition only in a form already known.

Perhaps in resistance to this conservative instinct to which he finds himself bound, Derrida recurs throughout Mal d’archive to a striking qualification of the future: “What is at issue here,” he writes, for example, “is nothing less than the future, if there is such a thing.”45 How do we reconcile this uncertainty with Derrida’s subsequent account of himself as “prepared to subscribe without reserve” to “the affirmation of the future to come“? The answer may lie in the contradictory nature of affirmation “without reserve.” “Yes, yes,” the quintessential affirmation, always expresses, by virtue of its status for Derrida as “self-repetition, self-confirmation,” the archivizing gesture par excellence, the sign of the consignation by which the One is procured and perpetuated. But the archivizing imperative, like the act of affirmation that reasserts the archive as law, rests upon and necessitates an economy of reserve, an economy of return by means of which the future promises “the good.” As early as 1968, with the publication of the essay “Différance,” however, Derrida elaborated the complication such an economy must confront.

How are we to think simultaneously, on the one hand, différance as the economic detour which, in the element of the same, always aims at coming back to the pleasure or the presence that have [sic] been deferred by (conscious or unconscious) calculation, and, on the other hand, différance as the relation to an impossible presence, as expenditure without reserve, as the irreparable loss of presence, the irreversible usage of energy, that is, as the death instinct, and as the entirely other relationship that apparently interrupts every economy? It is evident—and this is the evident itself—that the economical and the non-economical, the same and the entirely other, etc., cannot be thought together.46

To affirm the future without reserve, it follows, must deny it, must interrupt the economy of the good with the aneconomy that knows nothing about it and of which the subject of the good necessarily knows nothing at all in turn. But what if the very impossibility of thinking the economical and the noneconomical together were simply the ruse that enabled economy, affirmation, reserve, the archive, futurity, and therefore, the law, to survive, which is also to say, that enabled the survival of survival as economy, by positing themselves in opposition to the aneconomy they enact? In that case the structuring unthinkability to which Derrida’s argument points would coincide with a similar unthinkability that he noted in 1966: “It could perhaps be said that the whole of philosophical conceptualization, which is systematic with the nature/culture opposition, is designed to leave in the domain of the unthinkable the very thing that makes this conceptualization possible: the origin of the prohibition of incest.”47 Futurism, the prohibition of incest, the reification of differences that establish the totalizing order of “or”: we’re clearly heading toward Hamlet here. Or have we been there all along, from the moment the question of survival first engaged the signifier’s spectrality and so set off the conservative instinct to preserve the promise of signification and with it the protomessianic faith in the world’s perfectibility, the faith in our capacity to know “the good” as the attribute of the human?

For Hamlet remains a question posed to the concept of the human whose normative shape it nevertheless imposes on us all. Let us call it, then, a “questionable shape” (1.4.24), this human that emerges from the putative inwardness of Hamlet’s habitual questions, his restless returns to the site of non-knowledge where obsession, perhaps even madness, becomes the template for human consciousness and the human becomes the ghost of a query—“To be, or not to be”—between whose terms it finds itself poised and by which, from the outset, it’s poisoned. The venom in its ears is “or,” which bestows on Hamlet’s most famous oration a ration of Horatian rationality that aims, by means of scholastic dispute, to establish a ground to stand on through the logical parsing and limitation of terms that distinguishes one from another. But in Hamlet’s world, in Elsinore, there’s something else in “or”: a fetishization of difference to which the prince of puns is heir, a primal irrationality lodged at the origin of “or,” something fully as unheimlich as Hamlet, who proves to be blind to it in himself but spots it at once in the gravedigger’s reasoning, that mode of perverse literality so clearly the double Hamlet’s own. “How absolute the knave is! We must speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us” (5.1.126–27), Hamlet exclaims.

The “or” of categorical thinking thus would forestall equivocation by installing, instead, the logic that distinguishes Hyperion from a satyr, preserving the order of nature from threats of monstrosity and confusion, from “uncle-father and aunt-mother” (2.2.358), from incestuous ecstasy and corruption, from the lust that occasions everything “carnal, bloody, and unnatural” (5.2.325). To affirm this order of “or” that keeps what is from being undone, the dead King’s spirit walks by night, enlisting his son as a soldier pledged to defend the sexual norm: “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damnèd incest” (1.5.82–83) is the injunction he imparts. And Hamlet understands full well, like any moral zealot, that he’s charged not just to treat the symptom but to wipe out the very disease. “The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (ll. 189–190). And “set it right” means “set it straight,” since “out of joint,” as the Oxford English Dictionary notes with specific reference to this line, bespeaks a state “disordered, perverted, out of order, disorganized,”48 like the “unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (1.2.135–36) in an earlier soliloquy, or like Hamlet himself when Ophelia, making use of a horticultural metaphor after Hamlet has called her a whore, paints him as the “form and feature of blown youth, / Blasted with ecstasy” (3.1.158–59). Derived from the Greek for “put out of place,” this “ecstasy,” marking the distance from reason at the root of all passionate attachment, recognizes the irrational cathexis that motivates Hamlet’s absolute distinctions, the undoing of which leaves time out of joint—perverse, disordered, out of place—which is also to say, ecstatic from Hamlet’s own ecstatic viewpoint.

Made by paternal command a sort of disease to assail the diseased—”like the hectic in my blood he rages” (4.3.67), Claudius muses to himself—Hamlet may be the “mould of form” (3.1.152) for the modern human being, but only insofar as it, like him, is a monster of normativity, incapable, for all the self-consciousness we as his scions gladly grant him, of seeing how much he gets off on the luxury of his antiluxurious discourse. Repelled not just by “country matters” (3.2.105) but also by matter as such, he looks to master matter by riding a raging torrent of words through which his passion (out-of-joint, displaced, made spiritual or intellectual) comes in hot and steady bursts to castigate passion’s slaves. Laced with a rancid misogyny, Hamlet’s outbursts vilify sex with the prurience of delirious disgust. He links the unkemptness of “grow[ing] to seed” which properly names the cessation of flowering on the development of the seed itself, to the condition of being possessed, taken over, by things that are “rank and gross” (1.2.136); that representation seems anodyne when compared with his acid precision in evoking what he calls “compulsive ardour”: “to live / In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed, / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty” (3.4.76, 81–84).

Disdaining the putrid carrion that is all he recognizes in flesh, Hamlet dismisses life and sex as equally excremental. “[W]e fat ourselves for maggots” (4.3.23), he notes, and traces the course of Alexander’s dust to find “it stopping a bung-hole” (5.1.188–89). He may pray for sublimation—“O that this too too solid flesh might melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” (1.2.129–30)—and imagine himself as standing apart from any earthy appetite—“I eat the air” (3.2.85), he jests—but his mind is drawn to dirt and stench with what we must call a vengeance. His revulsion in the face of embodiment, redoubled at the very thought of sex, leads him beyond the paternal charge to root out “damnèd incest,” even to the point of decrying conception and demanding “no more marriages” (3.1.146–47). Fanning the flames of Hamlet’s loathing for all “That flesh is heir to” (l. 65), the Ghost, to which Hamlet is heir as well, leaves Hamlet, as son, asunder: torn between the enforcement of sexual norms to repair what is out of joint and the extravagance of his passion for enforcing those norms, which exceeds all normative bounds. By being too much his father’s child, he would have no children be fathered; defending too well the institution of marriage, he would have no marriage at all.

Stricken by this excess of filial passion for the reassertion of norms, Hamlet is truly “too much i’th’ sun” (1.2.67) too much, that is, his father’s son, for his brief against breeding not to breed, as he claims the sun does, maggots—the maggots, I mean, that taint his mind as it feasts on decay and corruption, leaving Hamlet as much out of joint as the time, as perverse as his father’s restless ghost, that thing that violates nature’s bounds to condemn violations of boundaries, refuting in advance the order of “or” he returns from the grave to defend by mocking the very distinction pronounced in “To be, or not to be.” The inwardness, construed as psychic depth, for which Hamlet provides the model, responds, therefore, to the impossible task he confronts as his father’s child: to live from the outset an after-life as ambassador of the dead without, in the process, becoming a mere ambassador of death.

But Hamlet learns that success in one means failure in the other. In accepting the duty to set time right, he keeps it out of joint, becoming thereby the prototype of the modern subject as Child, the subject who attempts, through an infinite future, to make present a ghostly past, producing in the process the emergent order of heterotemporal repetition. If this Child, however, proves time out of joint, then how can Hamlet set time to rights without putting an end to the Child? “Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (3.1.122–23) Hamlet asks a startled Ophelia, who understands that breeding as such is what he seeks to prevent. And he does so because he knows full well, as subject in the form of the Child, that breeders of life prevent life too, and literally, by coming before. “Remember me” is the fatal text the past inscribes on the Child, making it into a memorial object, a tombstone endowed with breath, the primordial prosopopeia through which the dead continue to speak, and preventing it ever from living a life not out of joint with time. The prince’s remarks about child actors could apply to all subjects constrained, like Hamlet, to inhabit, though it puts us out of joint, the structural place of the Child: “their writers do them wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession” (2.2.335–36). Born to shoulder the burden of debt owed by and to the dead, and so to assume the cause of the father as surely as his name, Hamlet, like the modern Child whose reign he effectively anticipates, knows neither success nor succession, certainly none that he, forever the son, could properly claim as his “own.” Consider the words he hurls at Polonius as a key to his relation to his father: “yourself, sir, should be old as I am—if, like a crab, you could go backward” (ll. 201–2). Isn’t Hamlet, that eternal Child, precisely his father going backward, the ghost of a ghost compelled to go, aghast, against time’s tide? His inwardness marks the struggle between two forms of human subject: that of the now-dead model of heroic, because unfathered, subjectivity and that of the Child commanded, by the father, to preserve that older model, but helpless, by its very fidelity to the command, ever to succeed in doing so. No wonder the question of Hamlet’s age exerts such fascination; something prevents him from ever escaping the role of his father’s son.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare names that something and bequeaths it to us all. Beckoned to follow his father’s ghost, but held back by Marcellus and Horatio, Hamlet cries out: “By heav’n, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me” (1.4.62). Playing on the double sense of “let”—to permit or allow, on the one hand, and to hinder or prevent, on the other—these words free Hamlet to follow his father, to pursue the spirit he might properly call the “ghost of him that lets me”: the ghost of him who gave life and preempts it; the ghost who confirms, in more ways than one, that time is out of joint; the ghost whose example dooms Hamlet at once to be and not to be—that is, to be and not to be “Hamlet,” the name by which he’s prevented from being what it gives him leave to be. But that, of course, is what Hamlet means, even literally: “[I] am let.” It’s also what normativity means in the world we inherit from Hamlet: to be let, constrained, or prevented by the power that grants us permission to be, even while it perversely incites our passion to constrain what appears as perverse. “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damnèd incest,” the ghost enjoins his son. And by way of “let not” Hamlet is let and left in the knot of his name, which he, though left without children, must leave to the world he leaves behind, affirming a heterotemporal subjectivity indebted so deeply to the dead that it needs to invent the future to pay off what’s mortgaged to the past.

When Horatio proposes to die like a Roman by his dying friend’s side, Hamlet, assuming his father’s place—“I am dead,” he twice exclaims (5.2.275, 280)—immediately intervenes to prevent him, instead imposing the obligation to memory—the obligation that Hamlet has answered with his life and by which he still hopes to survive:

O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.

                                                                               (ll. 286–91)

Hamlet, the name of an unhealed wound for the sake of which blood must be let, can’t let the lack of a namesake leave his wounded name stained with blood. Charged with its restoration, Horatio, like that wounded name, must “live behind,” a phrase that perfectly captures the temporal order we inherit from Hamlet. He must live, that is, in perpetual arrears, in the indistinction of future and past, in the endless out-of-jointedness that distinguishes the time of the Child and that fuels the machinery of the death drive at work in the secularized messianicity of reproductive futurism.

Perhaps that explains an oddity of Derrida’s Mal d’archive. Here is the passage where Derrida inscribes the title phrase in his text: “The death drive is not a principle. It even threatens every principality, every archontic primacy, every archival desire. It is what we will call, later on, le mal d’archive, archive fever.”49 A few pages later, however, when that “later on” arrives and the phrase returns in the midst of a discussion of “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” something noteworthy takes place: “The model of this singular ‘mystic pad,’” writes Derrida, “also incorporates what may seem, in the form of the destruction drive, to contradict even the conservation drive, what we could call here the archive drive. It is what we called earlier, and in view of this internal contradiction, le mal d’archive.”50 Time’s out-of-jointedness asserts itself here at the very moment when Derrida tries to nominate the death drive: what he first proposes to name “later” he later purports to have designated “earlier.” The death drive’s evocation as “le mal d’archive” belongs, indifferently, to future or past, but it never occupies the present. In the order of reproductive futurism, the event to come will have taken place even before its arrival and the death drive will always be sublimated into a principle of conservation. That, as Oscar Wilde wrote, is what fiction means, and what education as (and in) fiction means too: the compulsory and routinized sublimation that turns us, whether we will it or not, into apostles of a secular messianicity.

However we read it, Hamlet must sublimate the impossible Thing, the unthinkability at its core, so long as we bestow on its specter, and so on its always ungraspable queerness, the marketable value of a domesticated and domesticating good, of a faith in the power of literature to make us better, more fully human. Could any pedagogy renounce the sublimation inherent in acts of reading, taking seriously the status of teaching as an impossible profession and seeing ourselves in relation to our students as agents of a radical queerness whose assault on meaning, understanding, and value would take from them more than it ever could give? “What is someone who has been psychoanalyzed?” asks psychoanalyst Jean Allouch, in the course of his own compelling reading of Derrida’s Mal d’archive. And he answers without hesitation, “He is . . . someone who no longer has a future.”51 We might say that he is someone who faces the empty page of “freedom” in a world with no promise of meaning in advance, a world with no master whose teaching protects against the death drive such teaching enacts. What Hamlet does not and cannot teach, and what we can never know, is how to escape the will-to-be-taught, the desire for a lesson—a profit, a one—to take the place of the zero; how to allow for not saying “yes” to the imperative of life; how to let the future be by being what lets the future.52

Lee Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature and Chair of the English Department at Tufts University. Along with numerous essays in the fields of queer theory, cinema studies, and British and American literature, he is the author of Transmemberment of Song: Hart Crane’s Anatomies of Rhetoric and Desire; Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory; and No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. He is completing a book on sexuality, aesthetic philosophy, and humanistic values to be titled Bad Education.


1.  Jacques Derrida, Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s “Specters of Marx,” ed. Michael Sprinker (New York: Verso, 2008), 231.

2.  Julia Reinhard Lupton and Kenneth Reinhard, After Oedipus: Shakespeare in Psychoanalysis (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1993), 15.

3.  Citations from Hamlet, unless otherwise noted, are from Stephen Greenblatt, gen. ed., The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 2008), cited in the text by act, scene, and line.

4.  “As we know, an autoimmunitary process is that strange behavior where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, ‘itself ‘ works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity.” See Jacques Derrida in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, ed. Giovanna Borradori (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003), 94.

5.  Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter,’” trans. Jeffrey Mehlman, in The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, ed. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988), 28–54, esp. 39, 40.

6.  “Supra-cognitive” is the term Alain Badiou applies to antiphilosophy in his account of Gilles Deleuze; quoted in Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject to Truth (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003), 20. Describing Badiou’s concept of antiphilosophy through the example of Jacques Lacan, Hallward writes, “Unlike Badiou, Lacan holds that ‘the dimension of truth is mysterious, inexplicable’ (S3, 214/214), that desire is constitutively elusive (S20, 71), that the real is essentially ambivalence and loss, that analysis is steeped in the tragic and horrific dimensions of experience. Lacanian insight, in other words, is not so much a function of clarity and hope as it is an endurance of radical abjection” (21).

7.  Jacques Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin: Entretien avec Jean Birnbaum (Paris: Galilée, 2005), 26: “Je me suis toujours intéressé à cette thématique de la survie, dont le sens ne s’ajoute pas au vivre et au mourir. Elle est originaire: la vie est survie. Survivre au sens courant veut dire continuerà vivre, mais aussi vivre après la mort. À propos de la traduction, Benjamin souligne la distinction entre überleben, d’une part, survivre à la mort, comme un livre peut survivre à la mort de l’auteur, ou un enfant à la mort des parents, et, d’autre part, fortleben, living on, continuer à vivre. Tous les concepts qui m’ont aidé à travailler, notamment celui de la trace ou du spectral, étaient liés au ‘survivre’ comme dimension structurale et rigoureusement originaire. Elle ne derive ni du vivre ni du mourir” (translation mine).

8.  See Claude Lefort, “The Death of Immortality?” in Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988), 267; quoted in Joan Copjec, Imagine There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002), 20.

9.  Elsewhere, Derrida notes that “one can sign neither a child nor a work.” See “I Have a Taste for the Secret,” in Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, trans. Giacomo Donis, ed. Giacomo Donis and David Webb (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2001), 1–92, esp. 29.

10.  For a compelling reading of literary and genetic codes, see Henry S. Turner, Shakespeare’s Double Helix (New York: Continuum, 2007).

11.  Hamlet’s evocation of memory here as, simultaneously, the inscription of a pressure and the surface material that can be wiped away might be usefully considered in relation to Derrida’s reading of Freud’s “A Note upon the ‘Mystic Writing-Pad.’” See “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978), 196–231.

12.  Jonathan Goldberg, Shakespeare’s Hand (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2003), 44, 45.

13. Goldberg, 45.

14.  Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., 21 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953–74), 21:99–107, esp. 93.

15. Derrida, “I Have a Taste for the Secret,” 88.

16.  Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1996), 3.

17.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 11.

18. Derrida, “I Have a Taste for the Secret,” 91.

19.  Quoted in Derrida, Archive Fever, 23.

20.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 51.

21.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 44.

22.  As in No Future, I distinguish here between the Child as an ideological fantasy and the child that exists as an historical and biological entity. Though that division is never stable, since the latter is constantly subject to cultural articulation as the former, it provides an important basis for trying to recognize the distinction between an ideological construct and the substrate (unknowable outside of ideology) on which that construct is etched. See No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke UP, 2004).

23.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 7, 79, 78.

24.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 79.

25.  Hamlet’s “Yes, yes” might be read as an index of his willingness to fill the lack in the Other with himself, to accede to the futurist imperative of a repetition that effectively keeps the a-venir from ever coming. He plugs the hole in the Other that also opens a hole in the Real, as Lacan describes it in his own seminar on Hamlet. See Jacques Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,” ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. James Hulbert, in Literature and Psychoanalysis—The Question of Reading: Otherwise, Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 11–52, esp. 37–40.

26.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 11.

27. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959–1960: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1997), 211.

28.  Lacan, Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 212.

29.  Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,” 28.

30.  Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,” 28, 29.

31.  Lacan, “Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet,” 28, 29.

32.  Jacques Lacan, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious,” in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), 671–702, esp. 697.

33. Lacan, “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire,” 695.

34.  Slavoj Žižek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence,” in The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology, ed. Slavoj Žižek, Eric L. Santner, and Kenneth Reinhard (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005), 134–90, esp. 172.

35.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 21.

36.  Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (1994; repr., New York: Routledge, 2006), 2.

37.  Derrida, Specters of Marx, 10.

38.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 68.

39.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 74.

40.  Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin, 54-55 (translation mine): “Je ne voudrais pas laisser cours à l’interprétation selon laquelle la survivance est plutôt du côté de la mort, du passé, que de la vie et de l’avenir. Non, tout le temps, la déconstruction est du côté du oui, de l’affirmation de la vie. Tout ce que je dis. . . de la survie comme complication de l’opposition vie/mort, procède chez moi d’une affirmation inconditionelle de la vie. . . . [C]’est l’affirmation d’un vivant qui préfère le vivre et donc le survivre à la mort.”

41.  Derrida, Apprendre à vivre enfin, 30 (translation mine).

42.  Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 113.

43.  W. J. T. Mitchell, “Picturing Terror: Derrida’s Autoimmunity,” Critical Inquiry 22 (2007): 277–90, esp. 288.

44.  Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, 115.

45.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 14.

46.  Derrida, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982), 1–27, esp. 19.

47. Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 283–84.

48. OED Online (Oxford: Oxford UP, March 2011), 544?rskey=vRFes6&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed 10 May 2011), s.v. “joint, n.1,” 2b.

49.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 12.

50.  Derrida, Archive Fever, 19 (translation mine, modified).

51.  Jean Allouch, “Nécrologie d’une ‘science juive’: Pour saluer Mal d’archive de Jacques Derrida,” L’Unebévue 6 (1995): 131–47, esp. 144 (translation mine).

52. If Hamlet’s name suggests “(I) am let,” then it is all the more telling that near the end of the play he responds to this constraint that determines his identity by proposing its inversion: “Let be” (in Q2 only; see Greenblatt, gen.ed., 1779n7 [5.2.161]). Dismissing investments in futurity and efforts to shape or control events, he performs what Alain Badiou would call a “subtraction” from the temporal politics informing his situation. This subtraction reiterates the negativity of the death drive played out in reproductive futurism even as it withdraws from the political order in which futurism defines what is.

Copyright © 2011 Folger Shakespeare Library

Robert Bearman’s review of Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last

Dr. Bearman’s review of Shakespeare Found! has just appeared inSurviving Hamlet,” the latest issue of Shakespeare Quarterly. We’ve reprinted Dr. Bearman’s review here in its entirety for SQ Forum readers.

You can learn more about “Surviving Hamlet,” guest-edited by Jonathan Gil Harris, on Shakespeare Quarterly’s Project MUSE web page.

Copyright, The Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last: Portraits, Poet, Patron, Poems. Edited by Stanley Wells. Revised edition. Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK: Cobbe Foundation / Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2011. Illus. Pp. xiv + 118. $55.00 cloth.

I reviewed a first edition of this book, published in 2009;1 readers are referred to that review for a general description of its contents. The book’s main point of interest to biographers was the bold claim that a portrait now in the collection of the Cobbe family is of William Shakespeare; and moreover, that it once belonged to the third earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s “patron,” said to be the subject of a portrait in the same family collection. This revised edition was produced to accompany a recent exhibition of the “Cobbe” portrait at the Morgan Library, New York, and incorporates recent research that it is hoped will strengthen the case for the authenticity of the Shakespeare image.

Certainly one development is of considerable interest. At the time of original publication it was argued that the Cobbe portrait was the “master” from which, at an early date, several copies (or copies of copies) were made. At that point, one of these copies was only known in the form of a black-and-white photograph but in recent months the original has not only resurfaced but has been acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Scientific examination, we are told, has shown it to be an early copy, perhaps even contemporary with what is taken to be the original.

This, however, does not do much to buttress the claim that it is a portrait of Shakespeare. An effort to strengthen the attribution has been made by additional documentary research into the original portrait’s alleged transmission from the third earl of Southampton, who died in 1624, to Charles Cobbe, in whose possession it (and the Southampton portrait), is recorded in the 1740s (although not, it must be added, under that name, it having been assumed by Charles Cobbe, presumably on information supplied to him, that it was Sir Walter Raleigh). No material, or circumstantial, evidence was produced in the first edition to substantiate this descent, only a genealogy to demonstrate that the earl’s great-granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Noel (a third daughter of a granddaughter) married Richard Norton of Southwick, third cousin of Charles Cobbe, whose grandfather had married Honor Norton, of a senior branch of the family settled at Rotherfield. This I thought insufficient to justify such a bold claim, especially as no evidence was provided that any other artifact followed such a route. Chapter 4 has therefore been revised to address this issue.

It is argued, first, that Richard Norton can be shown to have been in possession of heirlooms belonging to the Wriothesley (that is, Southampton) family as the result of his marriage to Elizabeth Noel, the great-granddaughter of the third earl. These heirlooms, however, turn out to be nothing more than what sounds like a miniature “in an ivory case” of her grandmother, the countess of Southampton, and a lock of her mother’s hair, items known to have been in Elizabeth’s possession and which are said to have passed on her death to her husband, Richard Norton, even though they had been living apart for some years.2 From this the authors argue that the case for Elizabeth having brought Wriothesley portraits to Southwick has been strengthened: indeed, in their minds, it “confirms the route.” Others, however, may not be so easily persuaded that the resurfacing of two minor items clearly of immediate personal importance to this one family member would automatically imply that a significant transfer of earlier family portraits had taken place.

Another piece of new evidence is cited to support the claim that the portrait (indeed, portraits), having reached the Southwick Nortons, then migrated to the distant Rotherfield ones, into whose family the Cobbes had married. But again, this proves to be highly circumstantial; namely that one picture, of a mother with her child, once thought to be Honor Norton of the Rotherfield branch (died 1703) has now been re-identified, on the grounds of costume, as Honor Norton of Southwick (died 1648), thus demonstrating that one picture at least passed from one branch of the family to the other. This, of course, is not impossible but we are not told when the “Rotherfield” attribution had first been made and on what evidence, only that it had been “historically identified.” But if, as one suspects, there was no intrinsic evidence to identify it in the first place as Honor Norton, either of Rotherfield or Southwick, then the argument that any portraits of anybody, let alone of Shakespeare and the earl of Southampton, crossed the divide between the two families surely remains largely a matter of speculation based only on tenuous family links.

The authors have also had to address what has come to be known as “the Overbury issue”: the suggestion first made by David Piper that one of the copies of the Cobbe portrait (formerly owned by Lord Ellenborough and since acquired by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) might in fact be of Thomas Overbury. This proposal was based partly on a likeness that he (and others) have detected between that copy and an authentic portrait of Overbury now at the Bodleian Library Oxford, but also on a mention of a portrait of Overbury listed in the 1790s as hanging at Southam Delabere, the house later acquired by Lord Ellenborough. As this Overbury portrait had never resurfaced under that name, Piper suggested that, when the Ellenborough collection of paintings came to be sold in the twentieth century, the Overbury portrait could perhaps be identified with the “portrait (said to be Shakespeare)” which turned up at the 1947 sale of part of that collection. This argument was dismissed in the first edition of Shakespeare Found on the grounds that in the 1790s Southam was in the hands of a different family and that, of the nineteen paintings then listed as hanging there (of which the Overbury portrait was one), only one later resurfaced at the 1947 sale. However, as I then pointed out, even a limited examination of the 1947 catalogue revealed that it included at least five of these paintings. Moreover, the authors’ recent discovery of a detailed inventory of the Ellenborough paintings at Southam has now led them to conclude that eleven of the paintings from the 1790s were still in the house in 1926. To this can presumably be added another (of Jane Shore) sold off in 1908.3

The balance of probability would therefore now seem to be clearly in favor of all nineteen paintings having passed to Lord Ellenborough when he acquired Southam, and that the one of Overbury would therefore have been amongst them. No such portrait is listed in the 1926 inventory but this need not mean that it was not there, only that by that date it may have been wrongly attributed. Thus, the cautious description of the portrait in 1947 (‘said to be Shakespeare’) could still be significant. If the inventory had listed both a portrait of Overbury and a portrait of Shakespeare, then Piper’s original suggestion would, of course, have become invalid. But it lists only Shakespeare, leading the authors to propose that the Overbury portrait, and other family items linked to it, must have been withdrawn from the house earlier-though they do not mention that the 1926 inventory does include a panel exhibiting the arms of the Overbury and related families which remained at Southam until the 1947 sale.4 Thus, far from discrediting the Overbury connection, this new evidence now makes it more likely. The fact that the authors have demonstrated that the Shakespeare attribution was being made some twenty years before the 1947 sale (and this can be pushed back to an inventory of 1878 which is not, in fact, lost as the authors state5) surely means very little as long as an alternative portrait of Overbury remains elusive.

On the same theme, the authors present as new evidence a detailed comparison between the Cobbe portrait (and its copies) and the authentic portrait of Overbury at the Bodleian Library. This does reveal a very close match between the Cobbe portrait and its acknowledged copies, leading the author of this new study, Rupert Featherstone, to propose that they were produced by an accurate transfer technique, if not contemporaneously, then in quick succession. Comparison with the authentic Overbury portrait at the Bodleian Library, however, reveals several important differences, leading to the conclusion that they were not derived from a cartoon or pattern common to both. Featherstone does not rule out the possibility, however, that the sitters in both portraits, assuming them to be independent works, are the same person, only that it is unlikely. Nevertheless, given the stronger case that has now emerged that the “lost” Overbury portrait might indeed have passed to Lord Ellenborough, some may conclude that this issue is still in the balance.

Robert Bearman

Robert Bearman, until 2007, was Head of Archives and Local Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare biography to Shakespeare Quarterly, Shakespeare Survey, and Midland History.


1. Robert Bearman, review of Stanley Wells, ed., Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last: Portraits, Poet, Patron, Poems, in Shakespeare Quarterly 60 (2009): 483-87.

2. Elizabeth Norton’s will (The National Archives, London, PROB 11/547, ff. 139-42) made no such provision, her leasehold house in London, and all its contents at the time of her death, being left to her sister Lady Jane Digby, but permitting Elizabeth’s husband to “hold and enjoy the same” for the duration of the 24-year lease, “if he shall so long live.” As no references are provided in Shakespeare Found, it is not possible to verify its claim that instead these specified items passed to Richard Norton unconditionally.

3. Gloucester Archives (GA), D1637/E25.

4. GA, D1637/E19; D 2299/4800, 9111.

5. It is part of GA, D2299/9111.

Queer Theory and Hamlet

Shakespeare Quarterly's summer issue, “Surviving Hamlet,” has just appeared. It leads off with an essay by queer theorist Lee Edelman, “Against Survival: Queerness in a Time That’s Out of Joint.” Dr. Edelman is Fletcher Professor of English Literature and Chair of the English Department at Tufts University. Along with numerous essays in the fields of queer theory, cinema studies, and British and American literature, he is the author of Transmemberment of Song: Hart Crane’s Anatomies of Rhetoric and Desire, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory, and No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. He is completing a book on sexuality, aesthetic philosophy, and humanistic values to be titled Bad Education.

We’re delighted to have Lee discuss the issues he raises in this essay and his work here in an interview with Madhavi Menon, editor of Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (2011). Associate Professor of Literature at American University, Dr. Menon is also the author of Wanton Words: Rhetoric and Sexuality in English Renaissance Drama (2004) and Unhistorical Shakespeare: Queer Theory in Shakespearean Literature and Film (2008).

Why Hamlet? Given Hamlet’s special relation to the category of “the human,” à la Harold Bloom, does even a reading that insists on an in-human Hamlet run the risk of reinscribing the originary status of the play for a Western conception of humanity? 

Why not, as you so aptly put it, “risk . . . reinscribing the originary status of the play for a Western conception of humanity”? Could we hope to eradicate, once and for all, that inscription’s every trace? Surely, whether we like it or not, we are ourselves that trace. And if one of the strands of my essay insists on the necessity, against and despite ourselves, of becoming something that we do not anticipate or recognize as ourselves, then Hamlet, doing what it always does best, anticipates us even here. The thematics of delay and postponement so frequently commented on in relation to Hamlet are just the other side of the coin that the play has put in circulation (an “other side” continuous with what it only seems to reverse): that of a reproductive futurism in which we are always already anticipated. When Lacan maintains, with regard to Hamlet, that what’s important is that he doesn’t exist, this non-existence is not only the condition of his theatrical representation, but also the consequence of his being produced as a prototype of the subject as Child consigned to the function of repetition. Hamlet, to return to Lacan’s formulation but with a rather different emphasis, remains in this sense an “hommelette”—a little man destined to the tragic impossibility of taking the place he is at once commanded and forbidden to assume. To return to your canny phrasing, then, Hamlet invents the human only insofar as it reads the “originary” moment as itself a “reinscription.” But what’s reinscribed in the name of the human is nothing more than the repetition that constitutes the death drive. Hamlet, like its various interpretations that identify the prince with the human per se, performs the sublimation of that death drive into the promise that signification will finally redeem instead of undo us.

What does Shakespeare have to offer queer theory?

What Shakespeare has to offer queer theory is a difficult question to answer—and difficult largely because the question’s form risks totalizing the terms it puts into play so as to stage an encounter between them. But Shakespeare and queer theory are not, as you yourself have shown so brilliantly in your introduction to Shakesqueer, distinct from one another à priori. In fact, they are implicated in each other from the outset and in a multitude of ways. Shakespeare’s queerness, for example, forms the basis for a certain version of literary theory to the extent that our theory of the subject contains, in both senses of the term, an encounter with the incoherence or queerness informing his texts. The plays are as much an assault on meaning as an affirmation of it and the way they dismantle language, pushing it well beyond the familiar, produces a literary criticism aimed, to some extent, at denying that fact, at recuperating the plenum of meaning that “Shakespeare” must contain. What is Hamlet, though, but the inevitable conflict between the two senses of containment? Isn’t it the tragedy of discovering that the effort to eradicate what’s in excess of order redoubles the very excess one is seeking to rein in? To answer your question properly would require us first to assert definitively that (as well as what) “Shakespeare” means (which is, of course, the goal and effect of institutionalizing “Shakespeare”) and to assume that such specification would not be invalidated from the outset by “Shakespeare” as an ideological shorthand for our very relation to “meaning.” Since “queer theory” inhabits the space of a challenge to every such relation—a space it shares with Shakespeare’s texts—it is less a matter of trying to determine what Shakespeare offers queer theory than of seeing how his cultural positioning as the cynosure of meaning (and hence of all that follows from it: the law, the norm, and the State) denies “his” implication in the queering of meaning as such.

All major psychoanalytic readings of Hamlet—by Sigmund Freud, Ernest Jones, Jacques Lacan—address the question of sexuality in the play, whether the repressed desire of Hamlet for his mother, Hamlet’s role in the Oedipal triangle of the play, or his yearning to have and be the Phallus. But your psychoanalytic account of the play does not speak of sexuality—why is that?

I suppose that the first thing I ought to say is that the psychoanalytic accounts to which you refer presuppose, enshrine, and elaborate on the heteronormative reification of the difference between the sexes. Even Lacan, whose insistence on the impossibility of the sexual relation hinges on the fact that sexual difference as such remains unknowable, tends to slip back into a quasi-biological positivization of that difference. As a result, the readings of Hamlet that you mention all function, in their various ways, as allegorizations of sexual difference in relation to the Phallus—allegorizations that posit the Oedipal relation as operating in its “default” mode of heterosexualized desire. Not that Freud and Lacan don’t allow for alternatives to normativity, but their readings of Hamlet—a play that flamboyantly interrogates sexual norms—ultimately reinscribe it in normativity, effectively reinforcing their investments in the heterosexual privilege of the Phallus even when they open onto the lack, the castration, that the Phallus evokes as signifier of the signifying system. But then castration, in that sense, is the fantasy-logic of heteronormativity itself and it authorizes the drama of the Phallus in order to supersede (either logically or developmentally) the alternative erotics of the oral and anal. It’s not my goal to take the Phallus from Hamlet and so to reproduce the logic of castration that generates reproductive futurism as one of its historically contingent supplements in the Phallic economy of supplementation. Rather, I wanted to explore how this specific interpellation of the Child (and the future) in the position of supplementarity coincides with the enjoined enforcement of a sexual norm so excessive, so virulent, that it offers, in relation to the paradigm of the modern Western subject, an unmistakable insight into the perversity of those sexual norms that simultaneously father and destroy us, those norms, as I suggest in reading Hamlet’s name, by which we all are “let.”

What, then, is queer theory’s relation to sexuality?

What an impossibly large question: queer theory’s relation to sexuality! To respond to it adequately, one would first have to specify what exactly we mean by “sexuality” in order to clarify that queer theory has an historic, but by no means essential, relation to the fields once defined as lesbian and gay studies. That relation is vexed insofar as queer theory, though first enabled by the politicization of sexual orientation, operates as a resistance to the identitarianism produced by such a politics. It’s fitting, then, that the rainbow flag is the emblem of gay pride, since it literalizes the fantasy of harmonious unity among people of different stripes. But in doing so it presupposes (as the rainbow, of course, does not) that each stripe has its integrity, its particularity, its determinate border. So, too, lesbian and gay liberation participates in the endless proliferation of identities, all of which have their value in contesting the fixity of the social order, but all of which do so while harboring investments in a categorical fixity of their own. Queer theory, though also susceptible to such positivistic appropriations, undertakes to uncouple itself from identitarian moorings by focusing, instead, on resistances to social normativity and on the political, philosophical, aesthetic, and affective consequences those resistances entail. But the construction of a stigmatized category of those identifiable as “queer”—even when not conflated with the politics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex identities (all of which, as social movements, seek institutional normalization and protection by the state)—does not escape inflection by a relation to sexuality. For stigma—and stigma, not self-affirmation, properly registers queerness—reflects the operation of a libidinal economy in which enjoyment and disgust are endlessly braided in the making of a norm. Queer theory, then, retains its indicative association with sexuality precisely in its attention to the libidinal politics that normativity compels—a libidinal politics whose consequences extend beyond sexual identity, but which remains bound up with the subject’s relation to narcissism, abjection, and enjoyment. Marking the inseparability of the libidinal from the politics of sociality (and so from every form of collectivity or community), queerness insists on the real of a jouissance that can’t be assimilated to the order of meaning whose guardian is the Law.

Are some texts more conducive to a queer analysis than others?

Since the previous answer was rather long, let me compensate by keeping this short. No text in itself is more conducive to queer analysis than any other. What counts is not the text but the reader’s ability to encounter within that text the ways it refuses interpretative limits based on cultural norms. No text as text embodies pure doxa. Queer readings afford us access to what’s paradoxical within the doxic itself. But the best queer readings don’t try to show that they’re smarter than the text, more knowing, or more politically astute; instead, they strive to encounter in the text a queerness of its own. There, in the space of resistance to the various ways we think we know, we encounter what’s always without a name, what eludes all our efforts to give it one, and what thereby holds open the place of the queer and, paradoxically, of what’s common to all of us. That this universal element affords no ground for communal organization reminds us that queerness cannot be severed from its structuring negativity and that every effort to give it a literal referent, a determinate content, reflects our investment as social subjects in eliminating what’s queer. The texts most useful for queer readings, then, are those that a given reader finds sufficiently compelling to live with in ways that bring out the incoherence of what normative readings reduce to sense. The queer readings that resonate most powerfully arise from deep textual attachments—the sort of attachments that allow us to recognize contradictions, overdeterminations, and irrational flashpoints in the people that we love and to find them, in their inconsistency, frustrating, baffling and compelling at once.

Shakespeare Portraits and Controversies

The recent Morgan Library exhibition, “The Changing Face of William Shakespeare,” displayed the portrait known as the Cobbe portrait, which some scholars have argued is the only surviving portrait of Shakespeare dating from his lifetime (more about the Cobbe portrait can be found here). The Folger Shakespeare Library owns about forty likenesses of Shakespeare, among them the Janssen portrait.

Robert Bearman’s review of the revised edition of Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last, edited by Stanley Wells, will appear in the summer 2011 issue of Shakespeare Quarterly. We invited Dr. Bearman and Dr. Wells to discuss some of the issues and controversies about the Cobbe portrait, and Shakespeare portraiture in general, for the SQ Forum. Comments and responses by our readers are welcome.

The “Cobbe” Portrait of William Shakespeare

Robert Bearman

The most dramatic claim of recent years that new material relating to William Shakespeare has come to light must surely be the identification of him as the subject of a portrait currently exhibited at the Morgan Library, New York—and, what’s more, executed, it is claimed, in 1610 when he was forty-six. It is now for convenience referred to as “the Cobbe portrait,” having languished unnoticed since the mid-eighteenth century “in a dark corner” of the Cobbe family home in Ireland. Many doubts have been expressed as to the confident manner in which this attribution was so abruptly made in 2006 when the portrait was “unveiled” in England, including my own as outlined in my review of the book Shakespeare Found! A Life Portrait at Last, published in Shakespeare Quarterly in 2009. In response to these criticisms, a new edition of the book was published in 2011 to accompany the Morgan Library exhibition; however, in my view, this will serve only to increase skepticism, as I explain in a second review to appear shortly in SQ.

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Shakespeare and Performance Open Review Deadline Extended

Shakespeare Quarterly’s open review for our special issue on performance is up and running strong–so strong that we’ve extended the commenting period to enable the conversations to continue. You now have until April 7th to evaluate and comment on the six submissions that have been put online:

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“Still and all, it was an interesting year.”

—An Interview with Roslyn L. Knutson

Today, we’re delighted to speak with Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor of English Emerita at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. She is the author of Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare’s Time (2001) and The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594–1613 (1991) and has published widely on theater history. Her essay “What’s So Special about 1594?” appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly’s special issue “1594.”

Are Shakespeare specialists and theater historians laying too much stress on the year 1594—or not enough?

Theater historians, just like other historians, want to construct a narrative from the bits of evidence they have available. And they’ve gotten into the field to begin with because they think some people, or events, matter more than others. When the desire for narrative is added to a set of priorities, the inevitable result is to promote some pieces of evidence above others. One of my friends, complimenting my “1594” essay, emailed me with the tactful observation that “still and all, it [1594] was an interesting year.” Of course it was. But it is hard to find a year when nothing happened of significance to the business of playing. The elevation of 1594 has as much to do with scholars’ fascination with Shakespeare and a cultural belief that politicians saw the playing companies as useful pawns in some power game as it does with any specific event that occurred.

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“1594” Roundtable Transcript

On January 26, 2011, authors from Shakespeare Quarterlys special issue “1594″—Andrew Gurr, Holger Schott Syme, Leslie Thomson, and Bart van Es—participated in a roundtable on the issues raised by their essays and the importance of this year to Shakespeare studies and theater history. The transcript of their discussion appears below, and we welcome your comments and reactions.

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1594—A Roundtable

Please join us today from 2 to 4 PM Eastern Time for a roundtable with “1594” authors Andrew Gurr, Holger Schott Syme, Leslie Thomson, and Bart van Es. They will be discussing their articles in the latest issue of Shakespeare Quarterly, our special issue on the year 1594 and its place in English theater history and Shakespeare studies.

We welcome your comments and questions! If you can’t join us this afternoon, send us your comments and we’ll present them to our panelists during the roundtable.