Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Response to Will Stockton's Response and the Fierce Urgency of Now

Please forgive the delay in my post…I was advocating a slowing down of scholarly time to a point where the deadline for this discussion was less important than the actual ideas I had percolating in my mind. But even with this delay (and awful joke to delay further), I still find that I am trying to buy time, to slow down the process of this response in order to fully unpack Will Stockton’s amazing talk “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Queerness, Presentism, and Romeo and Juliet.” I have pages upon pages of notes, several ideas for what I wanted to write, and yet now that I am here, I find I have too much to say, too much to discuss.

Perhaps this is what Stockton referred to in the opening moments of his talk, in which he complimented Jeffrey Cohen's introduction of him, particularly after having to introduce a well-known early modernist for a talk at his university and realizing that--for all he could say about her--he had somehow forgotten to write an introduction. Or, perhaps it is more like Stockton’s response to elaborate on his own thesis about not only needing to define queerness not only as in opposition to, but needing to have queerness in some way, shape, or form tethered to gayness. When asked how explicitly "how we do this?", he refreshingly claimed he was not sure...yet. 

This was an answer that I felt personally empowered by, rather than a response by which I was confused or concerned. And this, I think, was what I appreciated most about Stockton’s talk: that I was left with more questions than answers, about Romeo and Juliet, about the reading we have done for this class (including Stockton’s), about my work and my involvement in queer theory. A play that seems theorized to death (no pun intended), discussed until students and professors alike are bored to tears, Stockton brought so many innovative points and questions of his own: if we read Romeo and Juliet as “queer” figures ruled by desire (and nothing else), why do they feel the compulsion to fulfill the societal expectation of marriage? How do we read the Friar and Nurse as queer figures, in terms of their skepticism or sexuality? What does the potential “loss of a day” in the play do to a queering of time?

Likewise, during this discussion of Romeo and Juliet, I could not help thinking about our class’s discussion of The Pardoner’s Tale and Stockton’s chapter on it. Can we tether a kind of queerness back to the Pardoner, to Henry Bailey, to the knight himself? How can the community of the pilgrimage be read in these terms, with a destination in mind that never comes to fruition, a contest that never reaches completion? Is it productive to see the Pardoner and Mercutio in conversation with one another, both skeptically queer about the institutions they potentially take part in?

And lastly, and perhaps—selfishly—the questions I am most grateful for, the ones about my own scholarship. What does it mean for me to use queer theory/ies in my own work on race in medieval literature? Do I need to tether queerness to gayness? How can I responsibly and ethically tether these two terms together, not only in my work in medieval literature, but in my readings of contemporary culture? What responsibility as a scholar do I have to do this work? And, quite simply, in what ways as a straight cis-gendered woman am I a queer theorist, and does that identity really matter?

These are, of course, questions for which I do not yet have answers. But even with this swimming head and even with the greenness of my career as a scholar, I recognize how rare it is to get an opportunity to leave a talk with so many questions, ideas, ephemera. And for that, I feel thankful, excited to work towards learning these answers and furthering the ideas that Will Stockton has so graciously set out for us. So here it is, (the beginnings of) my response to Stockton’s response, questions to answer questions, to enter into an important discussion—both on queer theory and interactions with the past—of which I hope to become a part. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

verona cowboy

The day after listening to Will Stockton's provocative talk I watched Midnight Cowboy (1969) for my queer theory class. The film follows Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a young man from Texas who moves to New York City and hopes to become a stud. Dressed in a brand-new cowboy costume, Joe assumes he will have his pick of female clients, but soon finds that he is far more interesting to gay men. As he grows increasingly more destitute, Joe forms a close bond with Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a conman with a bum leg and poor health. The film ends with Joe cradling Rico, who has died next to him on a bus to Florida.

I watched this film with Stockton's presentation very much on my mind. In his talk, "The Fierce Urgency of Now," Stockton responded to and resisted definitions of queerness that operate primarily in the negative. Paying particular attention to the play's much-dicussed haste, Stockton drew our attention to the characters--the nurse, the friar, and Mercutio--who resist this haste and who caution against Romeo and Juliet's rush to legitimate their (heterosexual) relationship through marriage. Reading these figures alongside SCTV's "Sassy Gay Friend," Stockton proposes caution and patience as queer values, necessary correctives to a gay politics that is too invested in rushing into gay marriage.

Although his speech is slow, Joe, too, sometimes acts with haste. This is especially evident in his only financially successful encounter with a women. At first Joe struggles to achieve an erection, and it is only after his client teasingly accuses him of being gay that he jumps into bed with her, a hasty legitimation of his heterosexuality. And yet, in spite of this and other moments of haste, the thing that most struck me about Joe was his frequent displays of attentiveness. Joe notices other bodies, from Rico/Ratso to horses, homeless people and dogs. In this kind attention, Joe inhabits a slowness, a willingness to linger, that marks him as visibly and performatively different than the New Yorkers that surround him. Joe's tenderness is a kind of queerness.

Although Stockton's talk was very specifically a response to an essay in Shakesqueer written by Carla Frecerro, "Romeo and Juliet Love Death," I thought it also resonated with another essay in that same volume. In a reading of Henry VI, Part 3, called, simply, "Stay," Cary Howie argues that

standing still might be one strategy of resistance among the many that have been ascribed to, and embraced by, people and objects variously described as queer . . . To stay with a text like Henry VI, Part 3 [and here, I would add texts like Romeo and Juliet and Midnight Cowboy as well] is . . . to stay with one another, to acknowledge patiently what happens in the middle of things, where we are reading and living, singularly and in common, but also writing and fighting and waiting and dying; where one of the hardest things to do, but also one of the most necessary, is to resist the impulse to say what we will or will not become. (150)

In drawing my attention to the queer valences of patience and caution, Stockton's presentation alerted me to how the choices of certain characters--Joe Buck or Mercutio, Ratso or the Friar--to "stay" engender unexpected, queer, and ultimately hopeful forms of gentleness.

Possible Repercussions of Terminology

This is partially a response to some of the issues brought up by my fellow classmates, and partially my thoughts on what Stockton had to say during his guest lecture. It is difficult not to agree with his contribution to the opposition towards a fantasized heterosexual romance that Romeo & Juliet is taken granted to be. In pedagogical terms, high school education in both its fundamental teaching methods of literature, as well as obligations to state politics (in public schools) can be held responsible for why the tragedy is taken for granted in the way it is. This neglect, intentional or otherwise, of possible readings is nothing but a limitation of the possibilities that surrounds the production of knowledge, a rebuke of which Stockton's presentist approach assumes. The issue that most of my classmates raised in their blog posts seems to be around his specific application and defense of the term "queer," which poses the question: Where do we draw the line, or should there be a line at all?

 The reason why I signed up to follow a pursuit of literature is that uncomfortable lack of a specific answer that can be obtained through formulaic means, that there can be an exponential amount of possible meanings for a body of work. But what Stockton seems to improve and broaden with his presentist approach to the play, he seems to contradict or counteract with his defense of the "conventionally known application" of "queer." If we were to take "queer" as a term only associated with sexuality, then we accept a certain set of barriers around the amount of theoretical applications of the term, and that prison we fall into illuminates the problems that surrounds terminology. The work of many theorists have contributed to the idea of "queer" as a utopian term which is uniting instead of separating, a term that should be a show of how similar everyone can be (as Jake mentioned the all too familiar scene of a mother telling a child that they are special). Then I end up asking myself, if "queer" was to be strictly attached to the conventional understanding of homosexual, what will the plethora of other conditions that are victims to societal neglect be defined by? Must they also wait for a specific and conventionally understood term before they can achieve recognition? 

Trans / Figuring / Mercutio

"Is this the Real Life? Is this just Fantasy?" 
Freddie Mercury, Queen


Turning Queer

Shall we "Resurrect Mercutio", as Will Stockton playfully insisted in his brilliant talk "the Fierce Urgency of Now" at the George Washington University guest-speaker series hosted by the Medieval Early Modern Studies Institute? What do we turn towards, turn away from, and (I hope) bring along with us as we enliven the body of Mercutio as gay?

In Stockton's invocation of Ressurection, the Catholic theology of a life-in-death, I would make sure to qualify that the doctrine insists upon three relevant points: (1) that there is no life without the body, (2) that it involves a death that is the definite slaying of a self (not simply the extraction of a spirit from a body), and (3) that there must be firm skepticism in the form or matter of the body's resurrection / reconstitution. In other words, if we are to "Resurrect Mercutio" then it is through a "Transfiguration." 

What we turn away from in this language is the desire and queerness as "just Fantasy." The mental, libidinal, spiritual, linguistic drives which posit a mind/body dualism is strictly opposed by such Catholic doctrine of the "Real Life" of a bodily Resurrection / Transfiguration. Indeed, with a present, secular queer audience (as Stockton directs us to), we cannot help but hear within "transfiguration" a "trans" figuration that retains that same sense of  the undone and remade body.

Stockton noted Mercutio's "trans" affinity when he referred to Romeo's fellow as "mercurial," a substance which because of my work on "queer objects" resonated with me both in the sense of inconstant bodies and particularly transgender lives. These indeed are turnings (the material turns & the trans turn), but although they move away from current gay experience, they nonetheless function in terms of a "queerness" that has existed and continues to exist independently from this context. Lynne Huffer in Mad for Foucault, makes a particularly articulate case for this trans-historical deployment of queerness:

"From the Middle High German quer, queer means oblique... from the Latin obliquus, slanting... Queer also means adverse --- from the Latin versus, a turning, the root that gives us perverse, perverted, pervert. The danger of the queer is that it can easily be re-turned against us: we can be recaptured and pinned down again in our perversions and our genders" (H 2).

There is also a presentist reason for queer/turn towards the trans. The Queer Alliance has already begun turning against itself. Stockton offers Mercutio us the "gay" partner which must be denied (and killed off) for a heterosexual marriage to proceed. However as Gay Rights approaches a time in which all states recognize gay marriage, than could this scene also play out the denial (or killing off) of the "trans" character as an ally which is no longer needed. Romeo sides with Marriage and the State, which as the Gay Rights movement continues to become instantiated into the State, appears to set them off against the still marginalized and elided trans community, a party of Mercutio's who must now step off stage. That is the body I offer here to transfigure and help to put into conversation with Stockton's reading.


Mercury's Fierce Alchemy

As Mercury-Argosslayer, Mercutio embodies the God that is the crosser & marker of boundaries (Hermes, whose name means "a stone boundary marker"), a lover of Eros/Venus who mothered their feminized son, Hermaphroditus, and whose duplicitous/transitive quality quivers on the edge of sexual & gender distinctions. He embodies the planet that rides closest to the sun, who, again a partner of Venus, plays the role of dawn & dust stars, heralding the transition of time & fortunes (fools).

As Mercury-Quicksilver, we meet Mercutio in an object which we can more easily relate to, a thing which philosophers and poets (Shakespeare included) meditated on in order to understand the "trans" quality of the cosmos. It was regarded as the last vestige of pure chaos in the world after its formation, and thus possessed special powers of transformation, which is why alchemists traditionally prized it as the key to creating the Philosopher's Stone. It is "quick" silver, because it is alive and pregnant (feminized) with potentials.

Our accounts of mercury, here concur which the late medieval, early modern understandings of Mercury. Michael Sendivogius, in his Dialogue Between Mercury, the Alchymist, & Nature (14th century), testifies that, "[Mercury] is all things, who was but one; He is nothing, and his number is entire...He is a spirit, and yet hath a body; He is a man, yet as the part of a woman." Likewise, Bernard, Earl of Trevisan (late 14th century), writes that mercury embodies "living water" and "burning fire," resulting in a perfect mixing of the "Masculine, hot dry, and secretly informing" and "the Female... volatile, crude, cold and moyst" (B 139).

Shakespeare begins to think through a few of these alchemical questions in the words and sciences of Brother Laurence, the Apothecary  and Romeo; all of whom note that such duplicitous substances as mercury function here as a poison, there as a cure. Indeed, Romeo and Juliet is play invested in the paradox of substances, and to reduce these volatile ontological mixtures to mere linguistic or libidinal play is to skirt over the very embodied consequences and transformations undergone in their course. Mercutio dreams with his brain, not merely his mind, which leads us to ask: is it dysphoric?

As Mercutio, we meet Mercury has a tranny dream-weaver & sword-waver. Using the term "trans" I do intend to stress that what Stockton does not consider enough in his look at the (homo)sexual aspects of Mercutio, is gender. To speak only of Mercutio as a "sassy gay friend" is to proceed with a sense of knowingness about his gender. Indeed, if Mercutio is mercurial, we must regard him as "trans" or hermaphroditic. 


Drag / Queen / Mab

Baz Luhrman in his production of Romeo + Juliet, chose to make Mercutio's gender and material fluidity explicit in his gender effeminate clothing which reveals his masculine body but covered over in soft white cotton, and in the key party scene presents him as an audacious drag-queen. This may, like Stockton's reading, have implications on Mercutio's sexuality, and certainly there are homoerotic tensions in the film with Romeo, but this too become reductive if we do not attend to the simultaneous or competing status of Mercutio's gender.

Indeed Mercutio's obsession with phalluses, particularly Romeo('s), Tybalt('s) --- yes, the parentheses are meant to suggest that the characters themselves are kind of dicks as well --- and his own sword/dagger may as well be evidence of a trans-gender/sexual longing either for or against his own genitalia (could we imagine him either as FtM or MtF?). In other words, when Tybalt asks if Mercutio "consorts with Romeo" and Mercutio immediately whips out "his sword," could this not simply be an assert to demonstrate or defend his sexuality, but also/alternatively an attempt to demonstrate or defend his gender?

Could the sword be an evidence of penis or else a stand in for the penis he does not otherwise possess? Could he "consort with Romeo" not as a man, but as a kind of trans-man that cannot persue an operation some centuries beyond him? (It is notable, however, that early modern physicians did believe that an inversion of genitalia was possible by other, primarily humoral, means). Could he be a hermaphrodite?

In Mercutio's famous Queen Mab speech, given in Luhrman's portrayal, in the form of a Drag Queen, he is as much the the servant as an embodiment of the fairy-dream-weaver. S/He (Mercutio as the Drag Queen Mab) is "the fairie's midwife" impregnating courtiers, lawyers, and ladies with dreams of "straight curtsies " "straight dream on fees," and "straight on kisses dream"  (I.iv.72-74). There is a straightness insistant here, but out of a kind of haste, trying, as much as possible, to take the quickest road between two points. Then suddenly she turns:

"She drives over a soldier's neck / And then dreams he of cutting foreign throats, / Of breaches, ambuscadoes, Spanish blades, / Of healths five fathom deep; and then anon / Drums in his ear, at which he starts and wakes, / And being thus frighted, swears a prayer or two / And sleeps again" (I.iv.82-88). The soldier, like Mercutio himself, goes mad with the heat of passion, becoming a violent lover of pants and blades; in a later scene we will hear him complain on Romeo's breeches and blade. Yet this is not the last image we get of Mercutio/Mab, he leaves us again with the idea of the midwife: 

"This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs,/ That presses them and learns them first to bear, / Making them women of good carriage" (I.iv.92-94) Mercury/Mercutio/Mab is a cross(dresser), a gate(keeper), and may very well serve not only as Romeo's consort, but also a bearer of his "dreams." These dreams may be homoerotic, of a feminine masculinity, or may be a child. If we take Mercutio as a mix of genders, a kind of hermaphrodite, a trans-body, he may very well be a she, capable of midwifing more than dreams. 

Indeed Mercutio is made of "Quick" (i.e. both "fast" and "pregnant") Silver -- and so we find that he is (1) overwhelmingly embodied, (2) slain many times in becoming new again, and (3) truly unknown to us. This very much speaks to the "trans" figuration of Mercutio, in his historical moment, in the text, and in the present, which remain perpetually changing and uncertain in its position to us. While I promised to make this figure legible, I embrace that a key part of what is being made clear is a definite sense of unknowingness about the past, present, and future of Mercutio's many bodies and lives.

From the Outside Looking In

Will Stockton's discussion, a response to Freccero's essay on Romeo and Juliet, and location of the queer in a play touted to be one of the 'straightest' plays, had many shining moments but what stood out the most to me was his discussion of anti-sociality and social resistance through alternate modes of community. The more abstract parts of queer theory is often difficult for me to wrap my mind around, but its practical application, and the way it unfolds in literature is, for me, usually got at through race theory and the way it intersects and functions along side queer theory. Race and queer liberation struggles, the way both theories are grounded in Other'd bodies unfold in similar ways (though certainly not the same -- and both face very different challenges).

Stockton's points on alternate mode's of community (monastic life, Romeo and Juliet's secret marriage, etc) and his discussion of the queer body as the necessary center for queer theory made me think of current discourse about communities made up of bodies of color, and the external and internal reactions to those communities, especially when a sizable portion of that community is veiled (or 'threatened' with being veiled). His resistance to (and I think Robert made a comment to this effect as well) the idea that the discourse of communities marked for death and suffering, and rushing toward that sort of misery as the only interpretation of anti-sociality really struck a chord with me.

That sort of resistance is important, I think, in the transformation of spaces that have the potential to be rife with misery into places of 'happiness' (and I would resist defining happiness as something that conforms to an easily recognizable form of the term to the 'outside') for its inhabitants. Like the Friar who's desire seems vegetale, whose satisfaction is not recognizable to us, finding alternate spaces and vehicles to express different satisfactions and happiness is necessary. And I'd argue that it's possibility is grounded in the body, and the space made up of individuals.

Like Kelsey, I worry about divorcing the term queer from the actual queer body, and believe that the discussions necessary to engage with the creation of anti social spaces, and their maintenance are easily muddled or lost altogether when the term becomes an all encompassing one.

On Swords, Stockton, and the Queerness of Romeo and Juliet

This past Friday, Will Stockton, a noted professor of English and author, gave an excellent lecture on "presentism" and the idea of reclaiming a sort of inherent homosexuality (or at least homo eroticism) in interpreting Romeo and Juliet. Professor Stockton used SCTV's "Sassy Gay Friend" as a way to look at the character of Mercutio who, being the voice of queerness, challenges the heteronormal urgency of the death drive in the play.  Mercutio thus represents an obstacle to the inevitable fate of Romeo and Juliet, and as such, must die before the relationship between the young lovers can reach its inexorable conclusion.

As evidence of Mercutio's homo eroticism, Professor Stockton draws on Mercutio's apparent obsession with penises ( particularly Romeo's) and by extension, the phallic symbolism of swords and sword fighting in the play. I remember at one point making an informal comment to Professor Stockton about the seeming universality of swords as phallic symbols in studies of Shakespeare, something I find a bit simplistic and trite; he agreed with me to a point, yet contended that "in Romeo and Juliet, they are."

I would argue they can be.

At this point, I would like to point out that I am not an English major, and about as far from an expert on interpreting Shakespeare's work as one can possibly get; however, I have been an instructor in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) for 20 years, as well as a professional sword master for film and theater. Having had extensive exposure to the theory and practice of swords and their use, I would contend that while there is definitely room for a homo erotic interpretation of the sword fighting in R & J, it is in an inherent ambiguity on the part of Shakespeare in dealing with love and intimacy in general that makes the symbolism difficult to pin down. Herein lieth the queerness.

The play is fraught with oxymoronic language in regards to love and intimacy, a very nice discussion of which can be found here. I would assert that sex and swordplay in the play form two sides of the same type of paradox. In our modern world of guns and "stand-off" violence, we have lost a sense of the type of extreme intimacy involved in injuring or killing another person with a blade; the only other human interaction that physically and emotionally joins two people to the same extent within the context of a shared moment is intercourse. That said, it is telling, I think, that the difference lies directly in the idea that, unlike sexual arousal, killing is an act of intimacy that can be initiated regardless of the sexual proclivities of the people involved. This is the same notion behind the argument of why rape is not a "sex crime."

Therefore, I believe that while it is a valid point of study to discuss the possibility of homo eroticism and its implications in the use of "sword = phallus" in the play, we should be wary of simplifying things to the extent that we only focus on one side of the paradox. Shakespeare himself must have been aware of the homo eroticism, and quite probably wrote it into the theme of the play, but I wonder about whether he did it purposefully; there is something to the argument that Shakespeare may have taken certain steps to consciously avoid too strong an impression of homosexuality. The creation of "distance" between Romeo and Juliet is recurrent and very physical throughout the piece, which may be in part a reaction to the reality of Juliet's part being played by a young man. Even in Shakespeare's time, it is entirely possible that physical expressions of intimacy between two males on stage might have been disconcerting to a large portion of the audience. The most emotionally intimate scene between the characters occurs during the famous "balcony scene," where they also have the maximum physical separation. The most intimate physical interaction happens at the very end, with Juliet kissing Romeo's corpse, where they have the maximum emotional distance; Juliet kills herself immediately afterwards.

Thus, we can look at Mercutio as Professor Stockton's "Sassy Gay Friend" and the voice of "reason" in attempting to slow down the death drive, and that Mercutio's obsession with the phallic is a matter of reducing the "high minded" ideas of hetero-normal love to a base physicality. If this is the case, then Mercutio's personal sexual persuasion is not the central factor; the fact that he dies in an essentially impromptu sword fight initiated in a fit of emotional passion is. The pragmatist who scoffs at emotional intimacy in favor of the physical is killed in the most intimate way possible - physically "up close and personal" in a highly emotionally charged situation.

Mercutio may have been an obstacle to the death drive; but at the same time, he is an embodiment of the paradox of intimacy, and to focus on the homo eroticism does not do justice to the paradox. That said, I believe Professor Stockton is exactly right in the other direction - that to ignore the homo eroticism or to relegate the idea of homosexuality to an invalid anachronism does the play no justice either. The continued relevance of Shakespeare relies on our ability to understand the attempts to portray and reconcile the oxymora built into his creations, and the queerness of the relationships between opposing sides of the paradoxes. Whether it be love and marriage, life and death, or sex and swordplay, an understanding of not just sexuality but a greater idea of intimacy in general is the "glue" that both binds these themes together as well as confounds attempts to definitively dissect the disparate pieces into symbols.

The Riddle of Queerness Through Shakespeare

Before Will Stockton's presentation on Friday, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Romeo and Juliet has been interpreted many times as a queer play, as Stockton acknowledged, and I was curious as to how his reading would differ from the previous work on the subject. I was very pleased to see that his presentation was fresh and very engaging. The reading of not only Romeo and Mercutio as queer, but also Juliet, through her urgency, was extremely thought-provoking for me.

With the very quick speed of the play's plot having long been noted among scholars of Shakespeare, the interpretation of that timeline as queer was fascinating. The prevalence of sexual innuendo in the play has frequently led to interpretations of Mercutio as sexually interested in Romeo, but I had never been exposed to such a thorough examination of multiple characters in the text as queer. Perhaps it was also Stockton's use of the Sassy Gay Friend videos that drew me into his argument. The reading of the sassy guide as a combination of the friar and of Mercutio was fascinating, and on many levels, well-founded.

However, despite this incredible wealth of analysis and new ideas, it was something Stockton said at the end of his presentation which has remained on my mind since Friday. His reluctance to divorce homoeroticism from the term queer is extremely important, and I feel that more scholars of queer theory need to acknowledge the relationship between the terms.

As I've been exposed to more queer theory over the past few years, the increasing isolation of the term queer from its origins of homoeroticism and homosexuality have worried me. Even Mel Chen's writing, while extremely innovative, led me to resist agreement with some of her claims due to her extremely broad and abstract definition of queerness. For me, Stockton's discussion during the Q&A about the future development of the term queer was very refreshing to hear. At what point does queerness lose its influence due to its prevalence? If everything is queer, is anything really queer? Admittedly, this question is not a new one, but the consistent tendency to define queer in a broad manner suggests that this question has not yet been acknowledged as important by the majority of queer theorists.

If queer can be interpreted as simply anything that is non-heteronormative, then it seems that almost anything can be queer, as rarely do things truly adhere to such an abstract concept as heteronormativity. It is for this reason that the important connotations of queer with its history of homoeroticism are necessary to limit the loss of meaning for such a crucial term, but it seems this history is rapidly being forgotten in the world of academia. Does this mean that queerness will lose its influence for those who rely on the term? In academia, at least, that time seems to be worryingly near. Yet with scholars like Stockton reminding us that the terms should not be separated, perhaps the future of queer studies won't be so quick to forget its origins.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

There is No Future in Romeo and Juliet's Dreaming

Will Stockton’s lecture last Friday, finely focused on the fierce urgency of “now”, shed a critical and queer light on Romeo and Juliet that my all-girls', conservative Catholic high school would never have imparted me with. I was particularly stricken when Stockton mentioned how the relationship of Juliet's urgency and a certain queerness drives the motives of the two. Ultimately, because the star-crossed lovers are doomed, they have “no future.” 

Once Stockton uttered those two particular words, I couldn’t help but immediately connect Romeo and Juliet’s demise to the blink-and-you-may-have-missed-it rise and subsequent fall of England’s monumentally influential Sex Pistols. Arguably one of the U.K.’s most infamous musical exports, the Sex Pistols’ rallying cry of “no future” embodied an entire generation of discontent, fueling anarchy against Thatcher’s England, and protesting the doom of a life constrained to industrialization -- stirred in with a healthy dose of angst and amplifiers, of course.

Contrary to popular belief, the Sex Pistols didn’t invent punk as a genre. White noise-addled freaks and Warholian performance troupe The Velvet Underground are traditionally deemed the godfathers of punk, and Iggy Pop’s band The Stooges are the forefathers (Iggy having popularized on-stage antics like stagediving, after all). But on an aesthetic level, the Pistols were the portrait of punk. As soon as the Sex Pistols left England, a sort of cultural anarchy in the U.S. happened, so to speak. Soon, kids from Atlanta to San Francisco began to bear characteristic spiked haircuts, adding safety pins to their tattered-to-perfection shirts. Bassist Sid Vicious was reported to be so terrible at performing his instrument, that his bandmates unplugged his amplifier during shows, keeping Vicious onstage merely for appearances’ sake. 

I’m speculating here, but I would venture to say that were he alive today, Shakespeare would have adored the Sex Pistols, who have a striking amount in common with the hopeless youngsters Romeo and Juliet. Perched at the helm of mainstream success and widespread cultural acclaim, the Sex Pistols released their only record, the no-bullshit Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, revered (or loathed, depending on your fancy) but a key component in early punk rock's sonic texts. Then, as quickly as they had risen, the Pistols plummeted. 

There are inevitable parallels between the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious -- half-perceived as a martyr, half-blamed for the mysterious death of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea Hotel -- and Romeo and Juliet. Fresh from their hushed, adrenaline-fueled marriage, Romeo drinks a vial of poison and dies, thinking Juliet is dead. Upon seeing her lover lifeless, Juliet takes her own life with a dagger. Sid, perhaps stricken with grief, very possibly injecting his veins with a toxic amount of heroin -- passed just a few days later after Nancy’s death. To this day, the question remains: was Nancy’s death an impassioned crime fueled by love and hatred, a tragic, drug-fueled accident, or a suicide?

In his superb oral history of punk rock, Please Kill Me, famed rock journalist Legs McNeil interviewed members that were crucial to the formation of punk rock’s second wave, including Leee Childers, photographer and former manager of David Bowie. In the book, Childers comments on the mystique of Sid Vicious, implying that he may not have been as loyal to Nancy or as “straight” as he’d seemed. Vicious would purportedly sleep over and curl up in Childers’ arms most nights in England. Childers quotes, “I wish I had sex with him because I was attracted to him. Sid didn’t know what his sexuality was -- we talked about that a lot. I thought that he would have sex with me, but the next morning he’d freak out: “What have I done, am I a queer?” (264)"

The urgency of Romeo and Juliet as a queer tragedy comes full circle with the Sex Pistols’ sexual ambiguity. A queerness, like the questionable homoerotic relationship between Romeo and Mercutio, is pivotal in the Sex Pistols’ tale referenced in Childers’ account and Vicious’ penchant for shopping at sex stores, purchasing lubricant to style his hair into the characteristic mohawk and donning leather jackets garnished with S&M chains. The name itself, Sex Pistol, brims with queer connotations. As former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren put it, the band’s name conjured imaginings of “a pistol, a young thing, a pin-up, a better-looking assassin.”

Much like Romeo and Juliet’s all-too-sudden but riveting tale, the Sex Pistols continue to be referenced in the canon of rock history for not only having one of the most short-lived and influential careers, but also possessing one of the most fascinating unanswered stories. The absence of a future for Romeo and Juliet echoes the sentiment of hopelessness penned by Johnny Rotten in the band's snarky hit "God Save the Queen", which features the spitting chorus, "there is no future / in England's dreaming."

Yet I often wonder how things could have been different for the Pistols. If their time hadn't have been as short, would they be remembered as vividly as they are today? Would Romeo and Juliet's star-crossed tale have been entirely valid if they had defied death, grown old together and fulfilled the ultimate fairy tale stereotype? Did the Sex Pistols have a future past 1979, or were they doomed to die with Sid Vicious and the '70s? Simultaneously, I ponder the same about Romeo and Juliet: could they have had a future after all, with better judgment and perhaps a bit more planning?