Episode 9: Scylla & Charybdis


The ninth episode of the novel, “Scylla & Charybdis,” takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus will deliver his much-anticipated (though sparsely attended) lecture on Shakespeare and Hamlet.  Excepting the second half of “Aeolus,” we have largely been in Bloom’s mind since “Proteus,” so the return to the intellectual density, social tension, and discursive loftiness of Stephen’s thoughts in “Scylla & Charybdis” can be somewhat jarring…perhaps even off-putting.  Some readers may be tempted to quit.  Don’t! 

Like with “Proteus,” my goal is to get you through this episode and on to the rest of the book; indeed, a comprehensive guide to this episode would necessitate literally thousands of explanations and revelations.  Just about every line contains a Shakespearean allusion!  (As a frame of reference, “Scylla & Charybdis” requires 66 pages of annotations in the Gifford vs. the 32 pages glossing “Lestrygonians,” an episode of nearly equal length.  So, this episode is twice as dense as the rest of Ulysses, which is saying something.)  Any devotee of Shakespeare should use the Gifford or some other resource of more scholarly depth to appreciate and enjoy Joyce’s demonstration of mastery of (over?!) Shakespeare, but I am here primarily interested in helping the first-time reader through to the other side of the novel (as the 9th of 18 episodes in the book, “Scylla & Charybdis” is the final chapter of the first half of the book).

So, here we go:

In The Odyssey, Odysseus passes through a treacherous, narrow strait: on one side is Scylla, a murderous, multi-headed monster on the jagged rocks, and on the other is Charybdis, a giant sea-monster who creates a whirlpool to capture its prey.  As Stephen delivers his lecture, he is navigating between various pairs of powerful forces: the ideas of Aristotle and Plato, the impulses of youth and maturity, the relationship between the art and the artist, and the disciplines of dogmatic scholasticism and spiritual mysticism.

The gate to the National Library of Ireland in Dublin.

The gate to the National Library of Ireland in Dublin.

After spending about an hour (and a few shillings) drinking with the newspapermen in Mooney’s Pub et al, Stephen has arrived at the National Library sometime before 2:00 and is speaking in the librarian’s office with members of Dublin’s literary elite, including Lyster (the quaker librarian), John Eglinton (a critic and essayist), and, in the shadows of the office, George Russell (the poet A. E.).  Mr. Best (another librarian) will soon join them, and Mulligan will also eventually enter the conversation – his late arrival and interruption might be retribution for Stephen skipping their planned rendezvous at The Ship.  Eglinton is hostile toward Stephen and appeals to George Russell (unsuccessfully) to join in his mockery of Stephen’s delusions of grandeur.  Stephen, who we have already seen mock himself for these delusions in “Proteus,” resolves to “persist” (9.42) with his follies.

The National Library

The National Library

Worth noting, of course, that Joyce likewise persists with his own subtle yet incredibly bold aspirations to grandeur.  As Eglington suggests that “our young Irish bards have yet to create a figure which the world will set beside Saxon Shakespeare’s Hamlet,” we might perceive Joyce’s unspoken yet obvious promotion of his characters Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom as exactly the figures here called for.  Later in the episode, it is thought that “Our national epic has yet to be written” (9.309).  Joyce was not bashful about the work of genius he had created in Ulysses, and he was quite aware of the place his great book would occupy in the pantheon of literature.  In this episode (and, later, in “Oxen of the Sun”) Joyce is staking his claim to a hitherto empty seat beside Shakespeare and Homer.

But, back to the librarian’s office.

Stephen enters the philosophical fray in defense of Aristotle, and we learn that Haines has visited the library but has just left to purchase a book of Irish poetry.  The conversation returns to Hamlet, and Stephen poses the central question his lecture will answer: “Who is King Hamlet?” (9.131).

In short, Stephen’s theory is biographical in nature: Shakespeare is King Hamlet, husband to an unfaithful wife (Ann Hathaway/Gertrude), cuckolded by his own villainous brother (Richard Shakespeare/Claudius).  Furthermore, Shakespeare has just lost his own father (John Shakespeare), so “being no more a son, he was and felt himself the father of all his race, the father of his own grandfather, the father of his unborn grandson” (9.867-69).  This passage serves to explain (more or less) the paradox promised all the way back in “Telemachus” that Stephen’s Hamlet theory “proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Hamlet’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father” (1.555-57).  Furthermore, it seems reasonable for a person of Shakespeare’s prodigious and prolific talent for creating human life in art, the person who played the primary role in expressing the modern notion of humanity we all share today, to feel himself “the father of all his race”; indeed, “after God Shakespeare has created most” (9.1028-29).

Inside the National Library.

Inside the National Library.

Back in the Librarian’s office, Platonic Russell shakes off Aristotelian Stephen’s effort to make art (the ideal) about the artist (the real), decrying “peeping and prying into greenroom gossip of the day, the poet’s drinking, the poet’s debts.  We have King Lear: and it is immortal” (9.187-88).  Given that Stephen is ever so nearly (but not) an autobiographical figure of James Joyce, this discussion of how deeply we should read into the artist from the art is relevant and interesting.

Then, Stephen’s thoughts echo those of Bloom in the previous episode as he ponders the fluidity of identity (as a possible excuse for not paying a debt): “Wait.  Five months.  Molecules all change. I am other I now.  Other I got pound” (9.205-06).  As he contemplates moments from his own history as past versions of himself, he rather elegantly expresses the conundrum in terms of punctuation: “I, I and I. I.” (9.212).  He continues his lecture, interrupted at turns by his own haunted thoughts of his dead mother, then by Eglinton, and later by Russell’s departure.  As he leaves, Lyster notes that “Mr. Russell, rumour has it, is gathering together a sheaf of our younger poets’ verses” (9.290-91); Stephen is stung to have been excluded from this project.  As Russell departs, Stephen passes along to him the second copy of Deasy’s letter for the Irish Homestead’s consideration. 

The discussion of Hamlet and Shakespeare continues.  Buck Mulligan arrives and receives a convivial welcome from the other men.  Stephen is silent for two pages. 

Mr. Lyster is called away by a library attendant to assist a gentleman from Freeman who has come to the library “to see the files of the Kilkenny People for last year” (9. 586-87); this is Mr. Bloom working on that Keyes ad, and we catch a glimpse of him as “a patient silhouette waited, listening” (9.597) and then as “a bowing dark figure following” (9.602-03).  Buck tells the others the he saw Bloom looking at the statue of Aphrodite – we know from the previous episode that Bloom had planned to examine the statue’s backside to see if it is anatomically accurate.  It seems he was caught in this odd act!

The discussion returns to Shakespeare’s wife, Ann Hathaway, of whom there are only a few mentions in historical documents after her marriage: first, she borrowed money from a shepherd to pay a debt (meanwhile, William Shakespeare was at heights of fame and fortune), and then, in Shakespeare’s will, he left Ann his second best bed.  Both notes may serve as evidence of a broken marriage – why wouldn’t a financially successful husband pay his wife’s debt?  Why not the best bed? 

(n.b., I have read or heard somewhere that, in those days, a person wealthy enough to own two beds would reserve the house’s best bed for guests, so the second best bed would have been the only one Ann would have ever slept in, which renders this gift to Ann more a matter of practicality and less of a slight)

Stephen then gets into the meat of his theory, claiming that Shakespeare is not Hamlet, as most assume, because that would mean his beloved 70-year-old mother is Gertrude, “the lustful queen” (9.833).  Rather, Stephen asserts that Shakespeare was the Ghost of King Hamlet, speaking to his son, Hamnet Shakespeare (who died at 11 years old, perhaps of bubonic plague) about the incestuous adultery of Ann Hathaway with Shakespeare’s brother, Richard. 

Eglinton dismisses the theory and asks if Stephen himself believes it: “No, Stephen said promptly” (9.1065-66).  Mr. Best suggests Stephen write it as a dialogue, and Stephen, ever ungracious and graceless in money matters, says they can “publish this interview” (9.1085) for a guinea (see “Money in Ulysses” under the “Other Resources” tab on this site).  It is noted that Stephen is the only contributor to the literary magazine Dana who asks for compensation for the publication of his work. 

There is further discussion of the literary gathering planned for this evening, and Mulligan is implored to attend; Stephen might be welcome to join, we can assume, but he is not explicitly invited.  Mulligan leaves with Stephen, knowing that Stephen has been paid this morning and will be standing rounds.  Buck is quite within bounds to expect a few drinks at Stephen’s expense; Stephen owes Buck “nine pounds, three pairs of socks, one pair brogues, ties” (2.255).  As they leave, Stephen might catch a glimpse of Emma Cleary in the reading room of the library.

The steps leading out of the National Library.

The steps leading out of the National Library.

Buck reads to Stephen what he wrote in the office: a bawdy play title and character list.  Stephen wants to leave him but doesn’t.  As they depart the library “a man passed out between them, bowing, greeting” (9.1204); this is Mr. Bloom, slipping between Stephen and Mulligan (Odysseus navigating between Scylla and Charybdis), triggering Stephen to recall the dream from the previous night he almost remembered back in “Proteus” which prophesies his encounter with Bloom later that night.  As the book promises, “you will see” (9.1208).

Buck makes a joke that Bloom “looked upon [Stephen] to lust after [him]” (9.1210).  Bloom’s “dark back” leaves before Stephen and Buck with the quiet “step of a pard” (9.1214).  All three characters launch out as wandering rocks in the sea of Dublin’s city streets.