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Sexual Shakespeare: Forgery, Authorship. Portraiture.

Sexual Shakespeare: Forgery, Authorship, Portraiture. By MICHAEL KEEVAK. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. 2001. 175 pp. $39.95 (pbk $19.95). ISBN 0-814-32953-5 (pbk 0-814-32975-6).

Michael Keevak sorts through often obscure and sometimes hilarious Shakespeareana to show how attempts to create an authentic Bard either oversex him, making him a bold and lusty lover (whether hetero-, bi-, or homo-sexual), or unsex him, rendering him an ageless, bodiless sprite. The result: 'Shakespeare in a tank top or an angel's robes' (p. 85). To make this worthwhile point Keevak winnowed through biographies, lies, and rumours, and hacked his way through wastes of controversy. His choice of topics is intriguing and appealing, with chapters dealing with the way the queer' sonnets figured in the battle between Edmond Malone and George Chalmers over the amazingly inept forgeries of William Henry Ireland; the 'pre-queer' Bard as William Davenant's lost-and-found father; authorial sexuality as a shuttlecock in anti-Stratfordian campaigns (the strongest chapter by far); the gendering of Shakespeare through his portraits, especially in daft and earnest efforts to encode his baldness; and a recent example of de-queered Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Love. Unfortunately, Keevak is given to predictable conclusions, such as 'all portraits of the artist are equally grounded in the realms of fantasized forgery, whether the result is an edition, a painting, or an absent Life, and any of these will at some point have to confront the fact that, in the end, we really don't seem to know anything at all' (p. 21). While Keevak's work is often suggestive, its utility is compromised by his factually dense yet over-chatty style--at one point he thanks friends for helping him web-surf p. 71)--and his obsessive posing of questions.

Early modern definitions of, and attititudes towards, 'sodomy' play a major part in Kleevak's arguments about the suppression or exaggeration of Shakespeare's sexuality. While legally the term could apply to a far greater range of sexual acts (both same-sex and heterosexual) than today, Keevak applies the word with too broad a brush in assessing Shakespeare's sexual fame in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Few if any early moderns would judge heterosexual adultery, or a man's desire for a dark-haired woman, or the fathering of a bastard, as de facto 'sodomy', as Keevak maintains (pp. 17, 59). While he refers to 'contemporary queer studies debates' (p. 36) in support, his note simply lists works by Bray, Goldberg, Orgel, DiGangi, Smith, and others, without distinguishing among them, or describing any 'debates' over this key concept (p. 136 n. 51). Keevak includes a valuable section on female readership of Venus and Adonis, but for the most part allusions to the role of female hetero- and homoerotic desire in the process of sexualizing Shakespeare remain underdeveloped.

The importance of Keevak's findings to Shakespeare studies in general is limited by his almost total neglect of the plays in favour of the poetry, and by his inability to make a statement without eroding it with a question, or rather heaps of questions. This technique may intend to destabilize the notion of the authorial subject or to raise doubts about the legitimacy of others' confident assertions about Shakespeare's sexuality, but it annoyed me when Keevak emptied out an interesting line of reasoning with an unanswerable and usually digressive query. In a long passage setting out the controversies over the sonnets, he fires off literally dozens upon dozens of questions without a break (pp. 26-27). I actually found myself reading the footnotes in order to calm my mind, temporarily deranged by these ratatat queries, which threatened to go on for ever. Imagine my surprise when Keevak mocks the anti-Stratfordians for over-using questions in their book titles, such as Who was Shakespeare? In a sublimely unaware parenthesis Keevak jokes that 'the use of self-inflicted question marks in anti-Stratfordian titles deserved a chapter in its own right' (p. 81). May we thank the bald, elusive, tanktopped, angelic Bard that this chapter was never written?

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Author:Brown, Pamela Allen
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Ungentle Shakespeare: Scenes from His Life.
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