Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare
by Jonathan Bate
Random House, 471 pp., $35.00
—It is this hour of a day in mid June, Stephen said, begging with a swift glance their hearing. The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings.
Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.
—Shakespeare has left the huguenot’s house in Silver street and walks by the swanmews along the riverbank. But he does not stay to feed the pen chivying her game of cygnets towards the rushes. The swan of Avon has other thoughts.
Composition of place. Ignatius Loyola, make haste to help me!
So begins the poet Stephen Daedalus’s celebrated fantasia on the life of Shakespeare in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Stephen asks his listeners to imagine Shakespeare on the way from his rented rooms on Silver Street to the Globe Theatre, situated alongside other places of entertainment by the banks of the Thames. An actor as well as a playwright, Shakespeare is about to perform the part of the Ghost in Hamlet, a part that deeply preoccupies him, for—as Joyce spins out the yarn—it arose from a hidden trauma in his own life. In creating the role of the Ghost, he consciously drew upon this trauma, and in speaking the Ghost’s words onstage to Hamlet, he was covertly addressing his own dead son Hamnet. To his son’s spirit the grieving father disclosed the terrible family scandal: “you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen. Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway.”
With whom did Shakespeare’s wife betray their marriage bed? Given the dark premise of the Hamlet story—Queen Gertrude was evidently having an affair with her brother-in-law—it follows logically, Stephen suggests, that Ann’s adulterous lover must have been one of William Shakespeare’s three brothers, Gilbert, Edmund, or Richard. Of Gilbert, there is no trace in the playwright’s work, but Edmund and Richard are, after all, the names of Shakespearean villains. It must have been one of them. What more proof could anyone need?
There is, it should quickly be said, not a shred of actual evidence that Ann Shakespeare was unfaithful to her husband of thirty-four years, let alone that she committed adultery with one or more of her brothers-in-law. What Stephen Daedalus invokes in place of evidence is the plot of Hamlet and, more generally, the presence of “the theme of the false or the usurping or the adulterous brother or all three in one” in so many of Shakespeare’s plays:
The note of banishment, banishment from the heart, banishment from home, sounds uninterruptedly from The Two Gentlemen of Verona onward till Prospero breaks his staff, buries it certain fathoms in the earth and drowns his book.
This thematic omnipresence, a virtual Shakespearean signature, invites Joyce to weave his biographical speculation into a …