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Rereading Romeo and Juliet in search of Shakespeare's queer theory Hohol, Philip Edward


Queer theory has long been fascinated with Shakespeare’s works, finding in them a fruitful environment to investigate and question concepts of gender, sexuality, and identity. The Elizabethan period’s difference from our own, in terms of our heteronormativity versus an Elizabethan non-gender coded mode of desire, makes Shakespeare all the more suggestive in how his works force us to question the centring of and debates over our concepts of desire and sexuality. Despite these invitations to queer theoretical study, his works remain a highly unstable field, because Shakespeare’s Elizabethan rhetorical theory relies on concepts of antithesis, chiasma, and radically ironic dramatic strategies which constantly destabilize any theoretical hold scholars might gain on Shakespeare’s achievements. To shed light on this very instability, I deploy the theory of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Lee Edelman, foundational scholars of queer theory, through the lenses of both Lacanian psychology (Edelman’s lens of choice) and Shakespeare’s own dramatic rhetoric, including a medieval motif signifying Romeo as a pilgrim knight, to reread Romeo and Juliet in search of Shakespeare’s own achievements in representing the terms with which I began. In this way, I uncover homosocial structures of desire and psychological-linguistic significations of desire. Furthermore, I argue that Shakespeare figures desire through metaphor, the implication of which is that for metaphor to work, for meaning in the world to work, signification of any linguistic meaning must remain untethered from any attempt at fixing concrete understanding of words and meanings. The implications of my analysis are as follows: Juliet becomes, to use Edelman’s terminology, a sinthomosexual, that is, a signifier of queer instability that threatens the anthro-normative society of Shakespeare’s Verona; moreover, metaphor becomes, arguably, a signifier of Lacanian desire, if not dramatic poetic desire, for that for which it stands. On a structural level, then, comedy stands for tragedy. On a narrative level, Romeo stands for desire as dramatized by Shakespeare and at the centre of a flow of desire represented by Mercutio and Tybalt, who both, in some way, want to change metonymically, into Romeo. The instability that generates these results, is, I argue, Shakespeare’s queer theory.

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