Book Review: Sky Gilbert's Shakespeare

Sky Gilbert and his book, Shakespeare Beyond Science

Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was The World, by Sky Gilbert

Review by Garry Williams • 2021-04-15

If the idea of Shakespeare as a decadent bisexual writing under a fake name appeals to you, Sky Gilbert’s new book is for you. 

As academic discourse goes, it’s quite accessible. However, you must be willing to get intimate with a dusty cast of characters including rhetoricians, philosophers, writers from ancient Greece to the present. A passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays and poems will not hurt either. 

Thankfully, many of the folx we meet are queer. Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Oscar Wilde rub elbows with Hermogenes, Lyle, and Nashe – and, of course, our protagonist Edward de Vere. 

Gilbert gives us a juicy sketch of the 17th Earl of Oxford. Effluviently praised by contemporaries as playwright and poet, de Vere was “infamous for his ostentatious Italianate dress”; “accused… of sodomizing” a castrato; and most intriguingly, lauded thus in 1578 by Elizabethan writer, rhetorician and wordsmith Gabriel Harvey: “Thine eyes… will shake spears.” 

Gilbert argues that ol’ “Will-Shake-Spears” performs a kind of semantic drag, revealing his identity precisely by making it harder to pin him down, deliberately fostering double meanings and confusion. “The play” is, in fact, as Hamlet has it, “the thing.” 

Gilbert traces rhetorical topoi, synaesthetic imagery, paradox, and metaphor through the plays, as well as coded references to colleagues/rivals, and the metatheatrical craft of poetry itself. This (Catholic?) taste for ostentatious, sensuous linguistic feasts was in direct and quasi heretic opposition to the stylistic diet of the unequivocal, milquetoast Puritans. 

Gilbert asserts Shakespeare’s writing strategically [d]emasculated patriarchal norms, calling it “frighteningly modern”. He locates the writer’s penchant for metaphor and imagination on a gendered continuum, subject to misogyny and homophobia, leading to deliberate misreadings, erasure, and censoring of same sex desire, ambiguous denouments, and queerness overall. 

The author behind some of the most maddening plays in the English language preferred glitter to guts, rainbows to ratios, contradiction to clarity, and in his passion for slippery semantics and wily wordplay “set the precedent for post-structuralism.” 

One must, however, read Shakespeare Beyond Science in the context of Sky Gilbert’s controversial blog post from 2018, “I’m Afraid Of Woke People”, addressed to multidisciplinary trans artist, writer, and academic Vivek Shraya, author of the book “I’m Afraid Of Men”. Gilbert’s views were less than modern. 

In the incendiary poem, Gilbert voiced the fear of cultural superannuation, and furthermore, the death of art. Does Gilbert, in empathizing with de Vere, a champion of the human imagination and adherent of an antiquated aesthetic, rail against science disingenuously? Does it echo too closely Gilbert’s fear of the “rigorous scrutiny of social justice”? 

In October 2013, Gilbert shared his ideas about de Vere and euphuism with a small audience at DaPoPo’s Live-In Festival (LIFe) in the now defunct TNS Living Room on Agricola Street. Much has changed since then. Surely there are, as Hamlet has it, “more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Gilbert’s ideas – richly expanded, developed, and generously footnoted – are part of a growing ‘Shakesqearean’ discourse – one that does not, one hopes, shake the spear so much as embrace the intersectionalities and multiplicities of queer identity with radical love, support, and above all, imagination.

There must be room in Shakespeare’s poetic wor(l)ds for all of us.

Shakespeare Beyond Science: When Poetry Was the World, by Sky Gilbert
Guernica Editions: 2020, 157 pages

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