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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare’s Extremes: Wild Man, Monster, Beast by Julián Jiménez Heffernan
  • Scott Maisano (bio)
Julián Jiménez Heffernan. Shakespeare’s Extremes: Wild Man, Monster, Beast. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pp. xi + 234. $90.00.

Early in his introduction, Julián Jiménez Heffernan explains “This book is about the frontier life of three Shakespearean characters: Edgar [in King Lear], Caliban [in The Tempest] and Julius Caesar. By exploring their human limits I hope to prove that, in Shakespeare’s dramatic world, a border human or frontier human remains [emphasis mine], to all intents and purposes, a human” (9). Further on, Heffernan clarifies: “My central claim is that, despite their non-human appearance, these dramatic types remain, on the basis of implicit but discernible rules of ontological comportment organizing Shakespeare’s dramatic world, inescapably human” (18, emphasis mine). I do not know anyone who thinks that Edgar, naked and “unaccommodated” as Poor Tom, ceases to be human. Perhaps because the part of Edgar (as well as those of Caliban and Julius Caesar) was written for—and, to the best of my knowledge, has always been performed by—a human actor, Heffernan’s “central claim,” what he “hope[s] to prove,” has never been disputed or in doubt. But Heffernan, who fashions himself an untimely iconoclast, insists it has: “this Shakespearean sense of inescapability is now being challenged from various academic quarters…. Some people think that their cats are more intelligent than their neighbours and ex-husbands. This is fine—perhaps even true—as long [as] they don’t insist on trying to persuade us that Shakespeare thought the same” (19). Yes, that is a real quote; and this is really the sentence following it: “It is sociologically predictable, perhaps even rejoicing [sic], that some people seek to politically enfranchise and empower their pets, but they should not turn to Shakespeare in search of assistance” (19). Note the use of “some people,” twice. There is no footnote to shed light on who is currently using Shakespeare to enfranchise their pets or from which “academic quarters” they come. Elsewhere in the book, Heffernan uses weasel words to make sweeping claims—new historicist scholars “systematically omitted” the study of King Lear (88); an aspect of Julius Caesar is “seldom noted by critics” (154)—that are hard to substantiate. [End Page 416]

Nonetheless, I would strongly recommend Heffernan’s book to scholars and (graduate) students of Shakespeare. Indeed, despite the two sentences quoted above, the “central claim” Heffernan aims “to prove” is not that “Edgar, the thing itself…; Caliban, the thing of darkness…; and Julius Caesar, the vile thing” (15–16) “remain” human; instead, only by turning “wild man,” “monster,” and “beast,” respectively, do these three characters qua things “become” human. In other words, Heffernan, guided by Alain Badiou, sees the human itself not as a normative state of being but as an “extreme” performance. With frequent appeals to Shakespeare’s European contemporaries (especially but not exclusively Cervantes and Montaigne) as well as continental philosophers (including but not limited to Agamben, Badiou, Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Kojève, and Nietzsche), Heffernan effectively radicalizes the ideas of Harold Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated.

But as the quotations above indicate, Heffernan’s style can be frustrating and problematic: for example, part 8 of his 10-part, 55-page introduction states succinctly, “Shakespeare’s most accurate definition of the human is lodged in his rhymed account of a multi-orgasmic night in Sonnet 129” (48). After quoting in its entirety this “rhymed account” (a sonnet, after all), Heffernan adds “An extreme—this rare term is twice employed—expense of spirit leading men to the heaven-hell of their humanity. Man is, Hegel observed, this night” (48–49, emphasis original). What night? Heffernan is correct when he notes that Shakespeare uses the word “extreme” twice in just fourteen lines, but the word “night” is nowhere to be found Sonnet 129. It appears only in Heffernan’s description of the poem. Hegel’s observation—“Man is this night, this empty Nothingness”—is quoted, forty pages earlier, where it is likened to a different passage from Shakespeare: “Romeo, his father tells us, has made...