Shakespeare in No Man’s Land

Musée Eugène Delacroix, Paris/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
Eugène Delacroix: The Phantom on the Terrace, from a series of ‘Hamlet’ lithographs, 1843

—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.1 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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.