Performance

The Queer Matter of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Robert Wilson, Rufus Waingwright and the Berliner Ensemble, "Shakespeare's Sonnets" (2014)  (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of BAM)
Robert Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, and the Berliner Ensemble, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (2014) (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM)

A not-so-minor detail was left out of a recent New York Times review of Robert Wilson’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM): The sonnets were the gayest thing the Bard ever wrote.

At BAM, the men of the Berliner Ensemble donned dresses and the women sported suits to amplify the sonnets’ play with gender and gay desire. They recited certain poems over and over again on the stage while interacting with one another like marionettes in a delightfully deranged puppet show.

The visuals were stark and stunning. Black costumes contrasted sharply with white faces and the pale light in the background. More color came in the form of the outlandish set pieces, like white gas pumps or a bright red car wreck. Each sonnet got its own surreal environment in which the cast could recite it several times before moving on to the next sonnet and set. Rufus Wainwright’s music and sound effects heightened the dreamy zaniness.

Shakespeare never meant for these love poems to be published. His friends circulated their ribald humor about a man craving a fair youth as well as pining after an enigmatic “dark lady” against his wishes. To some, the sonnets are the smoking gun for speculation that Shakespeare desired men outside his marriage. Others hypothesize that he wrote this compendium for a gay patron. Others think they are just expressions of “bromance” and platonic love between one man who happens to find his “friend” ravishingly handsome.

Robert Wilson, Rufus Waingwright and the Berliner Ensemble, "Shakespeare's Sonnets" (2014)  (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of BAM)
Robert Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, and the Berliner Ensemble, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (2014) (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM)

Regardless, the sonnets are witty as hell. Even Oscar Wilde became enamored with them and wrote his own famed speculations about their homoerotic meanings. Many gay intellectuals have likewise cherished them. For Charles Isherwood to write a review in the Times that ignores the major place these sonnets occupy in gay literary history is a grave error of omission, particularly when Robert Wilson cast queerly appareled and coupled characters to make these words incarnate.

For example, in Sonnet 20, a male poet finds a young man beautiful. He champions his feminine qualities, referring to him as a “master mistress,” and talks about how the youth steals men’s eyes because he is so attractive. That closing line about allowing women to treasure the youth while the male poets cherishes his love requires historical context. Many men would marry wives and then pursue amorous and erotic relationships with men on the side. The poem’s ambiguity about the love between men mirrors how gay love was once more camouflaged, albeit with a knowing wink.

But what’s the point of characters in black drag outfits and white clown makeup yelping Renaissance English love sonnets in German with queer subtexts and music by Rufus Wainwright? And what does it ultimately mean in 2014?

There is no evidence that Shakespeare ever meant for these words to be spoken by an actor on stage in a theatrical setting. They are poems. But Robert Wilson and the Berliner Ensemble get permission to use these love poems as a springboard for a piece of interdisciplinary performance art. An overly literal viewer might fret that there is no place in the text where a corpulent cross between Cupid and the Joker flings an arrow at a cantankerous drag queen dressed like Queen Elizabeth I at the end of her reign. But gay desire has never been and never will be about a literal relationship with language. Would a straight interpretation of the text do justice to its queer undercurrents?

Robert Wilson, Rufus Waingwright and the Berliner Ensemble, "Shakespeare's Sonnets" (2014)  (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy of BAM)
Robert Wilson, Rufus Wainwright, and the Berliner Ensemble, “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” (2014) (photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy BAM)

This performance didn’t grant the New York audience a straight-forward relationship with language on further levels. The actors spoke German. The projected English sub-titles asked viewers to glance away for an awkward moment and then go back to the action on stage. A shadow didn’t appear every time that word was said, so there wasn’t a crystal clear correspondence between word and image. It was more like a dream responding to the text’s underlying themes with rich imagery that viewers were invited to unpack. Just as Magritte achieves what photo-realism can’t, only surreal staging choices can achieve what conventional theater can’t.

One recurring image was Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled when scholars believe the Bard wrote most of the sonnets. She was known as the Virgin Queen because she never married. It was not in her political interest to forge an alliance with another nation or favor a faction of the British aristocracy through marriage. Naturally, there has been speculation about her sexuality for centuries, particularly surrounding her openly flirtatious relationship with her favorite courtier Robert Dudley. It is left to the imagination whether they consummated their affections in unorthodox ways that wouldn’t impregnate the monarch. It is safe to say that Elizabeth broke with the sexual norms of her time, which enabled her to reign for 45 years into the advanced age the show depicts. For power to come from deviating from sexual norms is an exciting message for queer people.

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,” Queen Elizabeth I remarked in a famous speech to her army in July 1588. She knew how to twist language to express her unorthodox identity. Four hundred years ago, Elizabeth I and Shakespeare both played with words to color life outside gender and sexual norms. The History Channel hasn’t noticed, and a stuffy generic vision of this time invented by Victorian prudishness still reigns in the popular imagination. Only a non-linear, zany, and dreamy staging like Wilson’s could do justice to the ribald wit and fluid identities of the Elizabethan court and its artistic circles which first gave these sonnets meaning.

Shakespeare’s Sonnets ran at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (30 Lafayette Avenue, Downtown Brooklyn) October 7–12.

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