Welcome to a chapter I’ve been waiting and wanting to write for a while, because it’s one of the fun chapters of this book-in-progress! If you’re just joining in, you’ve found the chapter-by-chapter release of my LGBTQIA+ centric philosophy chat book, in which your inputs will shape my edits til the finished book says what my beloved brave and beautiful rainbow flag community want people to know, rather than just me being a look-how-clever-I-am philosopher. I’ve learned a big lesson in writing as I’ve tried to rush my way to this chapter, as things I’ve tried to squeeze in quickly have shouted at me from the page, that they deserve real space to speak. So feel free to click a link I’ll put in later, where you can see the focus I’ve given about philosophies ancient and modern from outside my own sphere of knowledge, learning as I teach; or read on for the first in a set of upcoming chapters where I’ll have fun indulging my biggest fandoms and dig into some of the deeper philosophies behind them. Welcome, queerly beloveds, to Venus Valley: Queer Philosophers’ Forum!
I came out of the closet (both to myself and to my wife) when I was appearing, at the same time (sometimes the life of an actress gets busy!), in productions of Rent - the rock musical about a dying drag queen’s friends & lovers living in the HIV/AIDS epidemic - and Twelfth Night - Shakespeare’s comedy whose main dish is an orphan girl living as a boy, with a side plate of gay sailors, and a repressed puritan being tricked into revealing his cross-dressing tendencies for dessert. My chosen reading-for-relaxation material at the time - just to show you how much of a Shakespeare fangirl I am - was Dr. George Weinberg & Dianne Rowe’s Will Power! Using Shakespeare’s Insights To Transform Your Life.
As if the material I was absorbing wasn’t already queer enough, Dr. Weinberg also happens to be the one credited with coining the term HOMOPHOBIA, back in the late 1960s. The fight was on, in the first wave of activism from the Gay Liberation Front, to stop identifying sexualities and gender identities as mental illnesses. You can’t get very far into trying to engage with homophobes and transphobes in “legitimate debate”, without them railing against being called any kind of “phobic”. That means Fear, they’ll say; I’m not afraid of you! Not only does -phobic also mean repulsion; but, what makes a phobia a phobia, if you’re talking to an actual professional therapist like our friend Dr. Weinberg, is the irrationality of the fear. Since homosexuality is an innate, inherent, intrinsic, integral and internal part of the person, said Dr. Weinberg, while the hatred of it is a learned pattern of behaviour, deliberately practised; so it was irrational to say the sexuality was “unnatural” but the hate was “natural”.
He sounds like someone whose perspective on something like Shakespeare I’d like to hear! So let’s get into it.
When we wealthy white westerners either introduced ourselves, or imposed ourselves (depending on how “woke” a history book you’re reading) onto African and Asian soil - where the philosophies ancient and modern have come from in the last few chapters we’ve been looking at - two of the big tools we brought with us to teach them our language, lineage, laws and lifestyle, were the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. If only the people who think we gave those nations “traditional Christian family values and morality” realised just how much queer content there was in those pages, would they still be so proud of Shakespeare’s chapter in the great history of civilisation, I wonder?
King James, despite his obsession with obedience to others parts of the Bible that supported his religious rights and political positions - like obeying government and condemning witches - was famously flagrantly bisexual, publicly displaying affection during the day for men who were seen doing the walk of shame from his bedchamber at night. He’s also mostly famous for three other things: surviving the November 5th gunpowder plot, commissioning a new revised edition of the Bible, and being the patron of Shakespeare’s company of players. There’s a fun theory, by the way, that Shakespeare was secretly involved in making the King James Bible: in Psalm 46, count 46 words forwards from the beginning and 46 words backwards from the end, and you hit the words Shakes and Spears. Apparently that’s all the info some conspiracy theorists need to read a cryptic code into a sacred text, and the King James Bible is one of their favourites, along with the works of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself was actually pretty busy at the time, writing over 100 romantic sonnets to a young man in London, while his wife raised their children in Stratford-upon-Avon.
There are some pretty problematic characters of various genders in the rest of his writing, but the plays and poems can still be transformative to people’s lives - like me! Dr. Weinberg, like I said, has both good and bad examples to make with them. Let’s have a look.
There are six stages of self-help to Weinberg & Rowe’s Will Power: One, ‘Defining Yourself - Recognising Your Uniqueness as a Person’; two, ‘Understanding Others - Developing the Force of Empathy’; three, ‘Self-Reliance - Living Up to Your Own Standards’; four, ‘Preserving Your “Self” in Relationships - Be Active, Not Reactive’; five, ‘Keeping the Demons Out of Your Life - Avoiding Obsessions and Compulsions’; and six, ‘Nurturing Your Soul - Spirituality As The Ultimate Sense of Being’.
Chapter 2, Caesar’s Mistakes: Never Lose Touch With Your Emotions, makes its point with Julius Caesar, whose real-life sexploits got him a reputation as “every woman’s man, and every man’s woman”.
Chapter 3, Antonio’s Virtue: Never Remind People of What You’ve Done for Them, points at Antonio, one of the gay sailors I talked about from Twelfth Night. And if you doubt there would be such an openly queer character way back then, let me lay it out clearly: the “what you’ve done for them” is Antonio saving Sebastian from a shipwreck, then spending 3 months alone with him at sea, at the end of it saying he cared for him so much he would give his life for him, and missing him after only being parted with him for a few hours, worried that someone else would be seduced by his beauty, after making a date with him at a nearby inn, on the way to which he risks arrest and exile, to defend him in a duel. They were shipmates! (Oh, and this is the side plot of the main story: his twin sister Viola, living as a boy “Cesario”, is in love with his/her boss, who’s in love with his neighbour Olivia, who’s in love with “Cesario”).
Chapter 4, Falstaff’s Genius: Making Others Look Good, gives us Falstaff who (in case you’re not familiar with his solo spin-off play from the Henry history series, Merry Wives of Windsor) escapes from his desired mistress’s husband by dressing as her aunt; and scares off two horny husbands-to-be from his other desired mistress’s daughter, by tricking them into eloping with boys dressed as fairies.
Chapter 6, Valentine's Valentine: Moving Ahead by Flattery, takes us to The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which the two "gentlemen" are chased across the country by their beloved Julia disguised as the page boy Sebastian.
Chapter 19, Portia's Power: Mercy Transcends All, shows us Portia who carries The Merchant of Venice to its climax by dressing as a man to stand as a lawyer and sway the trial of Shylock the loan shark.
And finally, in chapter 20, Malvolio's Melancholy: Reaching the Highest Stage, we meet the other side plot of Twelfth Night, petty puritan Malvolio's pursuit of Olivia for himself, foiled by her drunk uncle Toby tricking him into revealing his taste for cross-dressing.
Now all of this could just have been nothing more than a shallow way to get laughs at queer stereotypes, and a cheap way get around the costume problems of having his girl characters played by boys. But firstly, ask any number of queer performing artists if it was the freedom of the theatre that helped them come out of their own closets, like it did for me, and I bet you'll find I'm in pretty distinguished company! And secondly, it seems a bit beyond coincidence that the composer of so much romantic poetry to a boy, would do it so many times more in his plays than any of his peers, who had just the same need for cheap costumes and cheap laughs as he did. We haven't even mentioned the references to bearded women, or the cries to "un-sex me", in Macbeth; to the Greek God Zeus' beloved boy slave Ganymede in As You Like It; to one of history's most famous genderbending icons, Joan of Arc, in Henry VI; or to the "it's complicated" between four youths who all have intimate knowledge of each other's bodies and bedrooms in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Another quick side note, to a conspiracy theory I think is kind of fun. No, not the one about William Shakespeare being a fake identity for the true writer of his plays, that's nonsense. Or, as the Bard himself put it: Pishery-mashery, trumpery, fiddle-faddle, balderdash, claptrap, gibberish, poppycock, malarkey, flummery, bunkum. Because - and here's a useful tool for measuring the credibility of any perspective or position in philosophy - it's based on an assertion, or an assumption, that's taken as true even though it hasn't been proven: that the Shakespeare who takes the credit for the plays couldn't possibly be capable of writing them. Show me absolute proof, or even any actual evidence, of that, as a rock solid base for your claim, then we'll talk. And I'd advise you, my dear queer reader, to evaluate other viewpoints the same way! No, this one's much more fun, even if I don't have enough reason to completely claim it as a fact. The husband of Shakespeare's cousin; two playwrights with whom Shakespeare collaborated in writing; the publisher of Shakespeare's poems, whose family were also neighbours to his family; the English translator of one of Shakespeare's Greek source texts; and two of the architects of Shakespeare's Globe; were all called in by royal spy-catchers as accused members of a heretic philosophy meeting, The School of Night - a phrase from Shakespeare's own comedy exploring celibacy, Love's Labour's Lost. Are you going to try and tell me Shakespeare wasn't at all involved, or at least in the loop?
More on that, in part 2!
I'll finish off this chapter the same way all my English teachers finished off every Shakespeare lesson - with some recommended reading and viewing!
If you can find the film of it online, Abigail Thorn - the transgender actress, online philosophy teaching content creator, and advocate for healthcare reform, whose words and work got me writing this stuff in the first place - recently wrote and starred in a West End play, The Prince: in which characters in a Shakespeare play become self-aware that they are characters in a Shakespeare play, and the men whose parts are being played by women have a lot of questions!
And some conservative Christians are in a bit of a spin over the publishing of The Queen James Bible: a version with an introduction that acknowledges James' queerness, and his partisan motives for wanting the words revised; and does a better job translating the verses that Bible-believing bigots love to use to hit queer people over the head with - revisions that show more clearly how those verses were meant to be more about preventing sexual abuse, than prohibiting sexual attraction. Just in case you feel like doing something to wind up conservative Christians.
This chapter is dedicated to the much-loved memory of Alexis Athena De Winter, a larger than life trans woman who I had a fantastic time sharing the stage with, in a traditional Macbeth and a madly improvised Comedy of Errors. I'll never forget the giggles or the tears, you complete one-of-a-kind.
To see Alexis’ madcap turn in our improv Comedy of Errors, click HERE;
To subscribe for part 2, click HERE;
To join the group on the book of faces where you can debate, discuss, question, contribute, click HERE;
And to contribute something big or small that will support this blog becoming a full and finished book, click HERE.
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