Monday, March 4, 2013

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.

1 comment:

  1. Great post! As much as my own argument, like Stockton's, utilizes the phallic aspect of the sword to make a point about gender & sexuality, I think you hit the mark when you stress that the sword is also a sword.

    Even if the actor DID make the choice to take out or grab a penis instead of a sword, calling it his "sword" as a kind of word-play, then we must still deal with its "swordness" even as we are struck by its gender/sexuality.

    I also think we can do a lot by describing this paradox as calling "intimacy" into question and serving as a form of "intimacy" between these concepts/embodiments. I wonder, as the play and your post seems to, what we do when such intimacy is antagonistic?