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Goodwin Award-Winner Sam Crocker on The Queer Shakespeare Film

The annual Andrew Goodwin Popular Culture Award and Lecture Series is held in honor of former USF Media Studies Professor Andrew Goodwin, one of the founding members of the Media Studies Department. He was an influential scholar of popular music, a blogger (“the professor of pop”) and author of the 1992 book Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture. As a graduate of the famous Birmingham University Center for Cultural Studies, Goodwin was an advocate for and a lover of popular culture and especially, popular music. Each year an award in Goodwin’s honor is given to a junior or senior undergraduate recognizing excellent analysis of popular culture.

Media Studies/Film Studies junior, Sam Crocker, received the 2022 award for the following essay, "The Queer Shakespeare Film."

What does it mean to queer Shakespeare? There is a long academic history of doing so; we have scholarly traditions of reading specific characters as queer (take Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet), or of discussing ideas of “patrilineal legitimacy” as they appear in Shakespeare’s plays (Stockton 228). Countless articles have been written which apply queer theory to Shakespearian literature, compiled neatly in collections such as 2011’s Shakesqueer. Most of his works have been scrutinized for any queer readings which may present themselves. Queer audiences were always going to find their way to a cultural institution as omnipresent as Shakespeare, so it’s only natural that these queer responses exist.

However, this practice of queering Shakespeare suggests there is something which is not queer about Shakespeare to begin with. Queer interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays often rely on subtext, on inferring meanings which are not explicitly stated in the original text. When Mercutio declares “I conjure only but to raise up him” (Shakespeare 2.1.28) while speaking about Romeo, a queer reading might imply some sexual subtext between the two, even though it is not written explicitly (Bourg 27). Queering Shakespeare, then, is about reinterpreting texts which are decidedly unqueer, in order to rewrite a new narrative that fits within queer frameworks.

In this sense, Shakespeare as an institution represents and upholds heteronormative social structures. The same can be said about cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. Films such as West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet all interpret their source material as deeply heterosexual, while films like Shakespeare in Love extend that heterosexual framework to Shakespeare himself, as well as the historical context in which his plays were written. However, film as a medium offers the unique potential to stray from the source material, to add explicitly queer context where before there was none. We’ve seen directors opt out of the traditionally heteronormative retelling of Shakespeare’s plays, and instead build queerness into their visual worlds, their characters, and their dialogue. Filmmakers like Derek Jarman, Gus Van Sant, Baz Luhrmann, and Alan Brown all have entries in the queer Shakespeare canon.

image from Derek Jarman's The Tempest
Still from Derek Jarman's The Tempest

The queer Shakespeare film is an invasion of heteronormative space. Queering something as overwhelmingly heterosexual as Shakespeare makes visible the kinds of stories that have traditionally been obscured. To queer the Shakespeare film is to unobscure real-world queer histories. It not only tells us about spaces from which queer people have historically been excluded, but imagines new spaces where those people can exist freely. In that way, the queer Shakespeare film is a rewriting of history. This is exemplified in the decisions made by Jarman in The Tempest, Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho, and Luhrmann in Romeo + Juliet.

Before understanding queer adaptations of Shakespeare, it helps to understand how his work has persisted as a bastion of heterosexuality. It does not always come down to the content of the original text, but also the ways in which we engage with that text. Take, for example, Romeo and Juliet—it is a fairly standard love story between a girl and a boy, but discourse surrounding the play goes to great lengths to preserve its heteronormative qualities, especially in classrooms where the play is taught. There is the potential for Romeo and Juliet to “reinforce heterosexist and misogynistic messages” in students who, generally, have yet to be exposed to queer theory or queer identities (Ressler 52).

This could be the result of a number of phenomena. Students—especially high school students, where Romeo and Juliet is frequently introduced—are often not given the full text of Shakespeare containing sexual innuendos, heterosexual or homosexual (53). Additionally, Shakespeare adaptations accessible to high school students are limited. Teachers are more likely to screen West Side Story than queer adaptations (53). West Side Story functions as a heterosexual retelling of Shakespeare’s original source material, upholstered by machismo gender representations stereotypically associated with gangs, especially in classic Hollywood films and musicals. Ressler, a high school English teacher, argues that “the way [Romeo and Juliet] is taught idealizes heterosexuality, and those young people who are either not attracted to the opposite sex or whose interests are not yet visibly heterosexual may easily become targets of teasing and gay-baiting” (53). Thus, heterosexual histories of both Shakespearian literature as well as Shakespeare film adaptations may contribute directly to a real-world culture of problematic heteronormativity.

When queer films enter the Shakespeare canon, then, there is potential for backlash. This was the case for Derek Jarman’s 1979 adaptation of The Tempest, which was met with “scant critical and box-office success worldwide” (Renes 231). Though Jarman’s film has since become a queer cult classic of sorts, at the time of its release critics frowned upon its camp presentation of Shakespeare. The Tempest follows exiled magician Prospero and his cohort—his daughter Miranda and servants Caliban and Ariel—as he exacts revenge upon his usurper brother. Jarman’s film relies on “references to gay and punk subculture” in order to form its world and its characters (231). The film’s queer tendencies can be seen in Ariel’s on-screen representation—his stud earrings and generally queer appearance—as well as in his homoerotic relationship with Prospero, presented as obvious subtext underlying their scenes together. Another queer moment is the flashback to Caliban and Ariel as slaves to Sycorax, a scene so grotesque and absurd in its portrayal of bodies that it naturally fits in with some of the darker camp aesthetics of the film.

Derek Jarman, The Tempest
Derek Jarman, The Tempest

In general, Caliban can be read as one of the more queer aspects of The Tempest, both the play and the adaptation. In Shakespeare’s play, Caliban is largely rejected by the other characters; he is characterized as silly, or monstrous, depending on the character he interacts with, in a way that might connote queerness and attitudes towards queerness. In his film, Jarman gives Caliban much more presence within the overarching narrative, and he takes up more space on screen. There’s a notion that the film works outwards from Caliban, as if he is the centerpiece from which queerness emanates. Jarman’s The Tempest is a film largely concerned with spaces, and Caliban transcends those spaces to influence other characters and spread queer aesthetics throughout the film (Hopkins 156).

Consider that Caliban begins the film in the castle, before venturing outside and embarking on a rather queer journey with Trinculo and Stephano. These spaces themselves are made to starkly contrast, with the outside world being aggressively saturated in blue. The bodily performances of those three characters is camp in a Three Stooges-esque way, and they literally end up playing dress-up before all characters coalesce at the castle for a ragingly queer blues performance of “Stormy Weather.” This idea of queerness transcending space and spreading across a world, represented visually in The Tempest, can be applied to the greater cultural ambitions of Jarman’s film, or of any queer Shakespeare adaptation. It suggests that Jarman has a vision of queerness in the real world, which transcends the boundaries typically placed around queer people. Not only is there space for them in various subcultures, but there is the potential for queerness to engage with traditionally heteronormative spaces, media industries, and cultural institutions.

Still from Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho
Still from Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho received considerable critical acclaim for a queer Shakespearian film upon release. This is perhaps because it is further removed from the source material than other adaptations—it is really an adaptation of an adaptation, namely of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, which interprets Henry IV—but also because queerness in Van Sant’s world is more slippery than in other films. Instead of camp performances or exaggerated flamboyancy, “Idaho feels more about queerness in the broader, academic sense of the term—the people and objects considered abject by mainstream society” (Worthington). In My Own Private Idaho, queerness takes on an added dimension of social class. The film follows Mike, a hustler and prostitute, and his vagrant friends as they embark on a worldwide journey to find Mike’s mother. The film tracks the developing relationship between Mike and Scott Favor, who will give up the street life when he turns 21 and inherits a fortune.

Keanu Reeves as Scott and River Pheonix as Mike in My Own Private Idaho
Keanu Reeves (Scott) and River Pheonix (Mike) in My Own Private Idaho

Concerns of class are exemplified in a scene towards the end of the film, when Bob, the middle-aged mentor of a gang of street hustlers, and Mike barge into a fancy restaurant where Scott is eating dinner. Bob and Mike’s inappropriate dress and disheveled appearance are hyper-scrutinized by the camera, made to stand out against the high luxury and decadence of the restaurant, the space they are invading. Bob makes a plea to Scott, invoking their rowdy history together, but is rejected and kicked out of the restaurant. This scene mirrors the closing moments of Henry IV, Part 2, where Falstaff is turned away by Hal, who has risen to the status of King and declares, “I have turn’d away my former self / So will I those that kept me company” (Shakespeare 5.4.59). In the film, this moment plays out as a rejection of queerness; we see a queer social class relegated to certain places and excluded from others, as if there are spaces where queerness is allowed to exist and spaces where it is not.

This relates back to larger themes in My Own Private Idaho; notions of finding home, or establishing autonomy. Van Sant asserts the elusiveness of home—a place which Mike searches for, in Seattle, in Portland, in Italy, but arguably never finds, as he ends the film lost on the same road from the very first scene of the film. This suggests something about the spaces in which Van Sant sees queerness as finding a home, or being allowed to exist freely. That, “For the queer youth of America, that place is frustratingly hard to find, especially for its most vulnerable populations” (Worthington).

River Pheonix in My Own Private Idaho
River Pheonix in My Own Private Idaho

Van Sant’s assessment of queerness is bleak, and implies that historically, there have not been many spaces where queerness can exist and flourish, but he also works to establish the grounds for alternative forms of queer community and queer spaces. Take the funeral scene, where Bob’s funeral is juxtaposed with the funeral of Scott’s father. While Scott’s father’s funeral is quiet and grave, Bob’s funeral is joyous, vivacious, and full of life. It forces attention upon itself, and is the closest the film gets to camp representation. It is an alternative queer space; one where queerness is celebrated and preserved, one which suggests that Van Sant imagines a brighter queer future.

In no work of Shakespeare (and subsequent adaptations) is heteronormativity more pervasive than in Romeo and Juliet. To queer Romeo and Juliet is to interfere with a longstanding heterosexual tradition. And yet, there have been directors who have attempted. Alan Brown’s Private Romeo, for example, sets the play at an all-male military academy. However, the most famous queering of the play is Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet.

Harold Perrineau as Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet
Harold Perrineau as Mercutio in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet

Romeo + Juliet queers Shakespeare’s original text in more than one way. Similar to Jarman’s The Tempest, Luhrmann’s film is visually camp; its colors are grossly saturated, its world full of comically exaggerated violence, its interpretation of the source material so perverse it was derided by older critics like Roger Ebert who wrote the film off as a “punk” mess. Mercutio in the film is explicitly queer, played by a flamboyant and fabulous Harold Perrineau donning drag. That said, like in My Own Private Idaho, queerness in this film takes on the added layers of class and race. Camp aesthetics appear in many of the supporting gang member characters, whereas the titular characters are decidedly less queer in presentation. Mercutio, the most visibly queer, is the only Black character in the main cast. In these ways, Luhrmann queers the play not only visually, but also in a broader sense.

Harold Perrineau in Romeo + Juliet
Harold Perrineau in Romeo + Juliet

An interesting queer dynamic plays out in the costume party sequence near the beginning of the film. Readings of this scene include interpretations which say that each character comes dressed to the party in costumes that reveal their true nature (Juliet’s angel, Tybalt’s devil, etc.). For Mercutio to come dressed in full drag, then, is to inject queerness into this space (Bourg 32). If Mercutio is dressed in a way which expresses his true nature, then the space of the costume party suddenly becomes one where queerness can exist openly and naturally. This is Luhrmann’s queer vision; he imagines a queerness which co-mingles with the heteronormative world, entering its spaces unapologetically.

Romeo and Juliet is a play involving relationships which are limited by spaces; there are problems concerning who is allowed to fraternize with who, depending on how they identify or the group they belong to. Queering the play often involves examining these themes within specific histories of queer exclusion or queerness as taboo. Alan Brown’s film Private Romeo reformats Romeo and Juliet within the tensions of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”-era American military. Queer people were historically excluded from the military, so Brown’s queering of a deeply heterosexual play in this context acts as a political statement about the existence of queerness in those spaces going forward. In that way, both Brown and Luhrmann imagine a more inclusive future, one where queerness is not segregated into communities separately from the rest of the world.

Still from Alan Brown's Private Romeo
Still from Alan Brown's Private Romeo

So, what is the state of the queer Shakespeare film in the future? Ideally, the queer Shakespeare film will not remain isolated in the realms of transgressive and auteur cinema, a reputation largely influenced by films like Jarman’s The Tempest as well as My Own Private Idaho. We see some trending away from this in Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the closest thing to a box office success within the greater scope of queer Shakespeare adaptations. However, queerness is often not the focal point of these films; queerness is an aesthetic, a means of subversion, but it almost never dominates the content of the film itself.

Some films are breaking with this tradition. Brown’s Private Romeo centers its queer characters, and constructs its story around explicitly queer narratives. That said, it’s a relatively unknown queer Shakespeare adaptation, having not even gained much traction in auteur film circles. It will not be until more films take this approach of centering queerness that we’ll see more popular examples of queer adaptations. As we get more queer leads, queer writers, and queer directors, it will be more likely that some explicit representation of queerness will infiltrate the popular Shakespeare canon. It could also be that the queer Shakespeare film will never find a place in the major motion picture industry. At the end of the day, that industry is known for upholding heteronormative ideals both on-screen and behind the scenes. The queer Shakespeare film may be destined to be transgressive; after all, to queer Shakespeare is a transgressive act in and of itself. Essay by Sam Crocker.

Works Cited

Bourg, Aurélie. “Queering Canonical Shakespeare: Contemporary Adaptations of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.” Université de Nantes. July 2018. Accessed 13 Dec. 2021.

Ebert, Roger. Review of Romeo + Juliet. 1 Nov. 1996.

Hopkins, Lisa. “Screen Adaptations: The Tempest—A Close Study of the Relationship Between Text and Film.” Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 2008.

Renes, Cornelias Martin. “Tempted by The Tempest: Derek Jarman’s Gay Play with Shakespearean Romance.” Universitat de Barcelona. 2008, pp. 225-233.

Ressler, Paula. “Challenging Normative Sexual and Gender Identity Beliefs through ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” The English Journal. vol. 95, no. 1, Sep. 2005, pp. 52-57.

Stockton, Will. “Review: Shakespeare and Queer Theory.” Shakespeare Quarterly. vol. 6, no. 2, 2012, pp. 224-235.

Worthington, Clint. “‘My Own Private Idaho’ searches for queer freedom.” The Spool. 16 June 2020.


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