This episode takes place in Dublin's National Library from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. In this intricate chapter, Stephen further explicates his theory about Shakespeare and Hamlet that Mulligan asked him to explain to Haines in "Telemachus." Stephen's brilliant but difficult exposition is made even more perplexing by the fact that he himself does not truly believe all of his own theories about Shakespeare — or even about Hamlet; in his own words, his arguments to the men in the library are a "performance." Thus, while the chapter does not tell us a great deal about Shakespeare's personal life (despite the many interesting points about the playwright that it does raise), it tells us very much about Stephen himself, particularly his obsession with paternity; this episode explicitly deals with the father-son theme of the novel: at the conclusion of the chapter, for example, Bloom walks between Stephen and Mulligan as the two young men are about to walk down the library steps; he forces them, symbolically, to separate. This act, besides foreshadowing other sunderings in Ulysses, links the older Bloom with youth, and with Stephen in particular.
In Homer's epic, Odysseus was forced to pass between the six-headed monster, Scylla, and the whirlpool, Charybdis. Following the advice of Athena, he hugged the mountain lair of Scylla; Charybdis, he had been told, promised certain disaster, and he sacrificed one of his men for each of Scylla's maws. In Ulysses, the whirlpool is represented mainly by the poet A. E. (George Russell), an exponent of mysticism, Platonism, and emotive Irish nationalism. Stephen is, as it were, Scylla, constantly snapping at the arguments of his opponents; he is possessed of a sharp, cutting, Aristotelian mind and is, as Mulligan called him earlier in jest, Kinch, the knifeblade.
Joyce adds complexity to the Homeric parallel by comparing Stephen to Scylla, an "enemy" of Odysseus-Ulysses (Bloom). In a sense, Stephen, with his carping logic, is an opponent of the more mundane and practical Bloom, and, in the later stages of Ulysses, Joyce portrays the impossibility of the two men's reaching any satisfying or permanent relationship. Also, by placing Stephen in a generally Homeric context, Joyce suggests that Stephen must go through his own odyssey in the novel — that is, he must attempt to reconcile the flesh with the spirit, the mind with the body, and his "deep" and grandiose thoughts with workaday concerns. Finally, it may well be plausible to see the six-headed hydra, Scylla, in the six principals with whom Stephen debates: Lyster, Best, Russell, Eglinton, Mulligan, and Stephen himself in his role as a self-doubting skeptic who does not believe his own theory of Shakespeare or any other "theories," including religious teachings, that he has come across thus far in his life.
The episode opens with Stephen disputing aesthetics, the new Irish writers, and other matters with the Quaker librarian Thomas William Lyster, Director of the National Library; with John Eglinton, an influential Anglo-Irish essayist and editor of the short-lived journal Dana; and with Russell. They are soon joined by Richard I. Best, Assistant Director of the National Library. Russell's leavetaking ends the initial section of "Scylla and Charybdis."
Stephen begins to deliver his Shakespeare thesis, but other thoughts intrude upon his consciousness. He notices, for example, that John Eglinton trumps Stephen's theories with an "elder's gall"; and, to counter Eglinton, Stephen forces himself to smile in the manner of his former confidant Cranly, who figured prominently in Book Five of A Portrait. He then remembers the telegram that he sent to Mulligan at The Ship pub, canceling their luncheon appointment. A mention of Haines causes Stephen to feel guilty: He has smoked Haines's tobacco and, in general, he has treated the Englishman badly. Stephen also remembers the money that Russell lent him for food (which Stephen spent on a prostitute, Georgina Johnson), and he is reminded of Deasy's injunction in "Nestor" that a man's proudest boast should be that, despite all, he "paid his way"; thus, when Stephen muses upon his indebtedness to Russell, it gives rise to the notorious pun "A.E.I.O.U.," after he has thought of another "father figure," Father Conmee, S.J., who saved Stephen from a whipping when he was a boy at Clongowes Wood College (actually an elementary school) in Book One of A Portrait. In this general context of guilt, Stephen is also reminded of his mother's death, and we learn that despite his somewhat priggish refusal to pray at her bedside, he did indeed weep for her: "I wept alone." As Stephen speaks of Anne Hathaway's seduction of young William Shakespeare, a woman several years Shakespeare's senior, Stephen cannot help but muse about his own future and wonder when some buxom wench, some "greyeyed goddess," will "overtip" him in a cornfield: "And my turn? When?"
The pathos of Stephen's situation is clearly portrayed in the callous conversation that attends Russell's leavetaking to return to the office of The Irish Homestead, the farmers' periodical (the "pigs' paper," according to Stephen), that A.E. edits. The principals discuss a gathering of the Dublin literary intelligentsia to be held that evening at the residence of the novelist George Moore. Stephen has not been invited to it, although Mulligan has been and, in fact, Mulligan has been asked by Moore to bring Haines with him. Also, the men discuss a "sheaf of our younger poets' verses" that Russell is editing. Significantly, Stephen has not been asked to contribute to the collection. The sheaf, in actuality, was a 56-page compendium of poetry from such rising Irish Renaissance figures as Padraic Colurn and Seumas O'Sullivan and appeared under the title New Songs in 1904. Padraic Colum's 36-line poem "The Drover" is singled out by the discussants at the library; they hope that The Daily Express (for which Gabriel Conroy writes reviews in Joyce's short story "The Dead") will give the volume a boost.
Using all of this chatter, Joyce intends to demonstrate that Stephen is not considered an equal by the other men; he is as much of an outsider among his fellows as Bloom is among his. Thus, another point of similarity between the two men emerges: With neither Bloom nor Stephen are the protagonists' friends actively hostile; they simply do not feel that Bloom and Stephen are their equals. Russell, in a kindly but certainly patronizing way, promises to publish Deasy's letter, but only after reminding Stephen that "we have so much correspondence."
Again, the exchange surrounding Russell's parting demonstrates Joyce's brilliant alteration of background data to shape an artistic end. New Songs appeared in April of 1904, and Joyce changes the date to portray the publication as an impending one; and Stephen is excluded from New Songs (as was Joyce). Also, although Stephen testily derides Russell's magazine, Joyce did publish three short stories in The Irish Homestead in 1904.
In the first part of "Scylla and Charybdis," then, Stephen is definitely not a part of the Irish Literary Renaissance, a movement that Gaelic proponents hoped would restore Ireland's national image. His views are quite different from those of Douglas Hyde, who, in his Love Songs of Connacht, 1893, found inspiration in the untutored passions and language of the country people of western Ireland. Nor does Stephen overly admire John Millington Synge, even though his play In the Shadow of the Glen, 1903, provoked a great deal of discussion in Ireland because of its portrayal of a loveless Irish marriage, with the wife leaving her husband to follow a tinker.
Given the disparity between Stephen and his interlocutors, it is no wonder that his theories about the enigmatic Shakespeare seem a bit arcane. They certainly differ from Lyster's, as the reader discovers at the opening of the chapter. Lyster, the Quaker librarian, who cites Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, 1796, believes, as did Goethe, that Hamlet's problems stem from ineptitude in his character, from his being an "ineffectual dreamer." Goethe, as the English poet Coleridge was to do some two decades later, believed Hamlet to be a sensitive prince who was too immersed in the subtleties of his own personality to act in a "manly" way. (Of course, both Goethe and Coleridge ignore the fact that during the play, Hamlet does manage to kill several people.) Russell, who constantly stresses the idea that modern exegetes have no right to peer into the biographical data of the Bard, finally appears naive, when compared to the complex Stephen. To Russell, it matters not whether Hamlet is Shakespeare's fictional portrait of Essex or James I. To him, only the "formless spiritual essences" are important, and he objects to "prying into the family life of a great man." But if the portrait of Russell can be explained as mere caricature by Joyce, who felt that the Irish Renaissance was a wasteful illusion, certainly the citation of the French poet Mallarm, sentimentally believing that Hamlet was walking about "reading the book of himself," cannot be so easily dismissed; he alludes to a town poster announcing a performance of Hamlet with the subtitle "Le Distrait," the absentminded or distracted one.
Stephen, obsessed with the ghosts of his own past, including his mother (a parallel with the Odyssey in which Odysseus met his own mother in Hades), believes that Shakespeare himself was very much like King Hamlet of Denmark, who appears as a ghost to his son. And to begin his thesis, Stephen pictures the Globe Theater as it was in Shakespeare's day: "The play begins." Stephen's method is "composition of place," a technique which the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, used in his Spiritual Exercises to help believers summon up a physical picture of the locale of a spiritual mystery. For example, the novice tried to imagine the dress that Mary was wearing when Gabriel appeared to her to announce that even though she was still a virgin, she would be the mother of God, and, in addition, the novice was expected to picture what the angel looked like. Joyce employed this method of artistic detail to describe Hell in Book Three of A Portrait, and Stephen uses the same technique in "Scylla and Charybdis."
In Stephen's scheme of things, then, Shakespeare himself, prepared by a professional acting career, played the part of the ghost during the first performance of his masterpiece. Moreover, Hamnet Shakespeare, the Bard's son, had he lived, would have been the same age as the protagonist. And Hamnet-Hamlet's part is played by the great tragic actor Richard Burbage, spoken to by Shakespeare himself; thus, symbolically, Shakespeare spoke to his "son" about the sexual infidelities of Anne Hathaway Shakespeare (Gertrude).
Perhaps the most important parts of Stephen's theories are his conclusions that he outlines before the appearance of Buck Mulligan and which he develops in detail while Mulligan derogates Stephen's assumptions. One of these conclusions is that Shakespeare never recovered from the emotional wound inflicted by Anne Hathaway, who seduced him and, Stephen insists, later cuckolded him. Thus, before it became fashionable to do so, Joyce maintains (through Stephen) that Hamlet is a psychosexual drama: King Hamlet, first of all, is a betrayed husband and only afterwards a murdered monarch. Because of his father's death, Hamlet the Prince becomes "dispossessed," his loss of a home and kingdom matching the losses of Stephen and Bloom, the two keyless heroes whose positions have been usurped. (Of course, Gertrude as betrayer becomes an analogue for Molly Bloom.) A second conclusion drawn in the opening rounds of the Hamlet debate comes from Stephen's brilliant turning around of the adage that Shakespeare's last plays are about reconciliation: Stephen argues that in order for there to be a reconciliation, there has to have been a sundering, and it is the sunderings in Shakespeare's life — among his family and friends — that Stephen considers, after he recovers from the surprise of Mulligan's entrance into the library.
But the appearances of Mulligan — and of Bloom — do provide much needed comic relief from the intricacies of Stephen's exposition, while the long pages of exposition continue Joyce's major themes. The grand entrance of Buck Mulligan follows Stephen's summary statement about Hamlet, that the "son [is] consubstantial with the father" — that is, Shakespeare is both King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet and, by implication, that Joyce is both Stephen and Bloom in Ulysses. (Stephen is the age of Joyce in 1904-22; and Bloom, the age of Joyce — 38 — when the major sections of Ulysses were being composed.) The term entr'acte refers to a break between the acts, and Mulligan's blasphemous humor (seen before in "Telemachus") resembles the combination of piety and broad farce found in medieval "interludes" and also in the gravediggers' scene in Hamlet.
Mulligan's scorn falls on all alike: on Shakespeare ("I seem to know the name"); on Synge, because of Yeats's elaborate comparison of him to Aeschylus; on Stephen, because of his mystio-biographical interpretation of all reality ("The aunt is going to call on your unsubstantial father," a parody of Stephen's musings about consubstantial fatherhood, which Mulligan overheard as he was entering the discussion room); and even on Bloom — especially on Bloom, who, Mulligan detects, is Jewish. Poor Bloom, the eternal loser, the Irish Charlie Chaplin, has failed once again. In spite of all his elaborate precautions, he has been observed, staring at the anus of a museum goddess! And of all the people in Dublin to discover him, it was Buck Mulligan. Looking at Bloom's name on the card that he fills out to examine the Kilkenny People file (for the Keyes ad), Mulligan ties together several strands in Ulysses as he turns suddenly to Stephen and says, "He knows you. He knows your old fellow [Simon, Stephen's father, a brief reference to the father-son theme]. O, I fear me, he is Greeker than the Greeks [a pederast, but also a reference to the Greek Odysseus]. His pale Galilean eyes [Bloom paralleled with Christ] were upon her mesial groove."
Yet Mulligan, to give him his due, reveals his admirable buoyancy when he praises Stephen's wit in the telegram that informed Mulligan that Stephen would not meet him for lunch. Although Mulligan calls the telegram a "papal bull," emanating from the lapsed Jesuit Stephen, Mulligan thinks that sending it was "wonderful inspiration!" The telegram's quotation about the sentimentalist is a paraphrase of a passage from George Meredith's Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859); it probably refers both to Mulligan's blithe habit of literary borrowing and to his refusal to look seriously at traditions which he ridicules.
Just before the allusion to Meredith and the telegram, however, a much more important passage occurs, one in which Mulligan, significantly, does not take part. This concerns the discussion of Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Mr. W H. (1889), which argues that "Mr. W. H.," the person who Shakespeare said was the inspiration behind his sonnets, was really a boy actor named Willie Hughes. Of course, references to the mysteries behind the sonnets were not new to Joyce, and naturally the discussion does add to the mystifying "Charybdis" tone of the entire episode, but one wonders why Mulligan does not say anything when the theory of the homosexual Wilde is brought up. Mulligan, after all, is the one who humorously suggests that Stephen should be wary of Bloom's sexual preference; this possible homosexuality of Mulligan has tantalized many critics.
Continuing his theory about Shakespeare after the Mulligan entr'acte has ended, Stephen goes on to examine the character of Anne, who was, he feels, scarcely a faithful Penelope who remained in Stratford awaiting the return of her long-absent husband. Dismissing Shakespeare's rumored pederasty and his affairs with London slatterns as symptoms more than causes, Stephen maintains that the great wound of the Bard's life came after his marriage — when Anne betrayed him. His proof of this point, which was implied earlier in the episode, is twofold: Shakespeare never mentions Anne in all 34 years of his marriage to her, and he left her only his second-best bed as a legacy, after excluding her entirely from his first will. Stephen counters the tired arguments that center around the "second-best bed" by chanting in blank verse to the somewhat "blank" John Eglinton and by pointing out that such a bequest would have been an insult to the survivor, coming as it did from such a wealthy playwright, as Shakespeare would (or should) have been.
Nor does Shakespeare himself escape unscathed from Stephen's critical examination. Stephen feels that in many ways Shakespeare was extremely narrow minded. He was parsimonious, and to some extent Shylock and Iago are self-portraits. He capitalized upon popular (and "conservative") causes: anti-Semitism and voyages of discovery to the New World, such as the one to Bermuda that is believed to have inspired The Tempest. Also, Shakespeare transmogrified into art certain hostilities that he felt towards his two "usurping" brothers, Richard and Edmund; the mesomorphic Gilbert doesn't count: "The playhouse sausage filled . . . [his] soul."
Richard Shakespeare, according to Stephen, became in Shakespeare's works the unredeemed villain Richard III, and Edmund became the illegitimate, literally usurping son of Gloucester in King Lear. Stephen draws great significance from the fact that the last four acts of Richard III seem simply grafted on to the courtship of the ugly Richard and Lady Anne in Act I, and the autobiographical reference to Shakespeare is obvious. In King Lear, Stephen maintains, the Edmund subplot really has no relevance to the ancient Celtic myth.
Stephen's view of Shakespeare, then, encompasses many aspects of the human psyche and indeed the soul: the Procession of the members of the Holy Trinity; the relation of the past to the present; the nature of change, which always returns upon itself ("We walk through ourselves. . . ."); and the permanence of love. Basically, however, Stephen's exposition is an elaborate effort to try to identify his own place in life. His mother is dead; his father, though well meaning at times, is separated from him by an abyss of temperament. And, so far, Stephen has not succeeded in living up to the mystical and metaphorical components of his name ("What's in a name?"); he has tried to leave Ireland, to fly from its entanglements like the "hawklike man," Daedalus, but he has been forced to return to earth. He is more like Icarus, whose wings melted when he flew too close to the sun.
After Stephen's intellectual acrobatics, "Scylla and Charybdis" returns to more mundane matters. Stephen is criticized by Eglinton for demanding money for the publication of his ideas in Dana; another reference is made to Moore's upcoming get-together; Lamppost Farrell is sitting in the library's readers' room; Mulligan chides Stephen for his derogatory review of Lady Gregory's Poets and Dreamers in The Daily Express (March 26, 1903); and Mulligan recites his hymn to masturbation, "Everyman His own Wife." It is this last episode that finally convinces Stephen that there are "seas between" him and Mulligan, and coinciding with this distressing insight is Stephen's perception that there is someone behind him, the someone being Bloom, who is also leaving the library.
This linking of events strengthens the importance of the last several lines of this chapter. Stephen remembers that he once stood upon the library steps and interpreted a flock of birds as being an augury of his own destiny (Chapter Five of A Portrait), and the reader wonders if the symbolically rich sundering of Stephen and Mulligan — necessitated by Bloom's passing between them — will augur well for the young protagonist. Stephen's dream of the exotic East and the "creamfruit melon" foreshadows Bloom's kissing his wife's melons (buttocks) in "Ithaca." The allusion to Bloom as the Ancient Mariner places Stephen in the position of the Wedding Guest, one able to learn from the more experienced canvasser. And Mulligan's warning to Stephen to beware of Bloom ("Get thee a breechpad") is much more indicative of Mulligan's own latent homosexuality than of any nefarious intent on Bloom's part. In fact, with the charity that the Dublin Jew lends to Stephen, Bloom emerges in the novel's later chapters as the young man's true "father," the mystical father who, Stephen believes, is related to the son in "a mystical estate" — in contrast to physical paternity, which may be, according to Stephen, "legal fiction."