Monday, March 4, 2013

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.

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