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Afterword| Remixing as Performance

Ayanna Thompson


Remixing Shakespeare’s sonnets is nothing new. Shakespeare’s plaintive concerns about his mortality have provided a type of clarion call that resounds over the centuries to writers who seek to fulfill his desire for increase and immortality. Stephen Greenblatt, for instance, famously voiced his “desire to speak with the dead” (1) at the beginning of Shakespearean Negotiations, and he ultimately acknowledged that his communion with Shakespeare had to be communal: “If I wanted to hear one [voice], I had to hear the many voices of the dead” (20). Although couched in a metaphor, Greenblatt’s claims became oddly literalized by many — as if he could actually hear the stories of the formerly living (the scholar as Ouija board phenomenon).

The poems in this special edition, however, offer something entirely different. They are a performance piece that works to create a queer community with Shakespeare at its center, but their Shakespeare remains fully dead and voiceless. Nonetheless, the poems’ performances of queer desire imagine and create a Shakespeare as he might have been had he lived today. Remixing, then, releases the past (even the desire to experience the past, or “to speak with the dead”) in order to experience the present more fully, vibrantly, and complexly.

I call this set of meditations a performance piece because the collection is so self-conscious of the fact that the act of writing and reading a sonnet sequence is a restored behavior. As Richard Schechner explains, “Performance in the restored behavior sense means never for the first time, always for the second to nth time: twice behaved-behavior” (36). Shakespeare’s sonnets, of course, were riffing on a set of tropes and behaviors that were well known by his early modern readers — his alterations to the tropes are both startling and enjoyable precisely because the tropes are known. The meanings of any performance, of course, “need to be decoded by those in the know” (35), and this collection, like Shakespeare’s sonnets, epitomizes actions, interactions, and relations that are restored, remixed, and re-presented.

The remixing in this collection engenders a distinct queer aesthetics that work against the notion that increase and immortality must be achieved through procreation and progeny. Like Stephen Guy-Bray’s brilliant book, Against Reproduction, these meditations challenge the common trope of author as parent and text as child. The eyes that emanate from “self-love” (Shakespeare's Sonnet 3), for instance, are not ones that are haunted by fears of loss or the lack of offspring. On the contrary, they smolder with a desire that seems to transcend both the need for time and the need for partners.

Likewise, José Muñoz’s queer aesthetics, as espoused in Cruising Utopia, seem to be at play in the asynchronic love triangles that are enabled in poems like “The Paul Simon Annotations, or, You Can Call Me Sonnet 110.” Paul Simon, William Shakespeare, and Ari Friedlander commune together without the pressures and limitations of time, place, space, or social hierarchies. Queer utopias, after all, work against the strict linearity of progression from the genius/author/original to the fan/rewriter/sequel. In fact, it is made very clear in “When My Mother Calls Me Thin (146)” that even death provides a moment for a ménage-a-trios. For when Caroline Tanski writes, “The body has never been simple, and someone / in the end must feed all the worms,” the reader can imagine Polonius, Hamlet, and Tanski enjoying a terrific, if surprising, sixth act to Hamlet.

Remixing, by its very name, assumes that a queer blending already always exists (the mix). One is simply mixing anew what was already mixed up before; there is never an a priori moment in mixing. Moreover, the performative elements of remixing are explicitly queered when William Shakespeare’s puns on will expand and explode. “He” (Will) can fuck, fill, press, piss, lick, and come (just some of the verbs in “My Name is Will [136]”) because “you” (the reader), “I” (the author), and “He” are satisfied (and satisfiable) participants:

our wills fulfilled
in this sequence

of threesomes — me the third,
the number reckoned none.

The performative elements of remixing are clearest when the reader understands her/his role in the process. We are never passive bystanders, even when we gaze back at the fenced-in, self-loving boy in “self-love,” because we are constantly implicated in the mixing process, which in essence is Richard Schechner’s definition of performance as “twice behaved behavior.” So, gentle reader, go back to the beginning, pick up the blender, and enjoy cruising the remixed utopia of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1988.

Guy-Bray, Stephen. Against Reproduction: Where Renaissance Texts Come From. Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 2009.

Muñoz, José. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. Third Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2013.

Ayanna Thompson is a Professor of English at The George Washington University and Trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America. Her books include Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race, and Contemporary America (Oxford University Press, 2011); Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (Routledge, 2008); and Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance (Routledge, 2006). She is currently working on a co-authored book about teaching Shakespeare tentatively called Shakespeare on Purpose; a single-authored book on Shakespeare and revenge; and the introduction to the new Arden Othello.

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