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.

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