Excerpt: ‘The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing’ by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster
Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette, Vincent van Gogh, 1886
From Through the Ghost of the Unquiet Father, the Image of the Unliving Son Looks Forth:
Nietzsche’s thought of the vulgarity of familial relations finds its echo in Joyce’s astonishing trumping of all Shakespeare criticism in Ulysses. Joyce’s mode of hyperacceleration seems to outrun the very possibility of interpretation, effortlessly folding the multifarious threads of scholarship into this work. Although Ulysses is a rumination on Hamlet from beginning to end, “Scylla and Charybdis” is the famous chapter set in the National Library where Stephen Dedalus and his cohort debate the scholarship that tries to pinpoint Shakespeare’s identity in relation to his work, with Stephen increasingly collapsing into the figure of Hamlet himself (and Leopold Bloom, who creeps ghostlike into the library at the end of the chapter, folding into Hamlet Senior).
Stephen subsumes the questions that haunt Hamlet into the very question of haunting that accompanies all life, all creation. For Joyce, Hamlet is the Irish play par excellence: full of usurpers, exiles, the dead, the guilty, and the dispossessed. Ulysses forms around a play between Stephen Dedalus— his mother dead, his God dead, his father renounced, whose country has the shape of a vast question mark under the incurious thumbprint of British imperial rule— and Bloom, the cuckold Jew, the exile without a fatherland or a son.
Ulysses is about the impossibility of home rule. Bloom cannot rule his home, and Molly screws other men in his bed. Stephen, “a horrible example of free thought,” is still the cringing servant of two masters, the priest and the king that he has to kill, but cannot. “Home also I cannot go,” he says.
For Stephen, Hamlet is a ghost story, and the morsel of Shakespeare lore that he finds most haunting is the idea that the Bard played the ghost, the murdered father. After the death of his father in 1601 and the death of his son, Hamnet, in 1596, Shakespeare was playing the ghost of a father at the moment that he was no longer a father and no longer a son:
The play begins . . . it is the ghost, the king, a king
and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has
studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were
not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. He
speaks the words to Burbage. . . .
Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit bidding him list.
To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince,
young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet
Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his
namesake may live forever.
What Joyce is doing, however, in using this structure to shape the dramatic action of Ulysses is taking these themes a step further. What is a father? What is a son? These two questions need to be scrutinized before any establishment of the biographical “facts.” Indeed, Joyce is tracing the question of kinship, both physical and metaphysical. Isn’t this really the question of Hamlet?
Joyce is constantly playing with the question of creation, which he turns into the question of the father, of paternity. The question of the father and the latter’s identity or consubstantiality with the son organizes theological debates within early Christianity, as Joyce well knew. Mater semper certa est pater numquam. What leaps must be made in order for a father to become a father as such? And what of the mother’s certainty? Is that not also a curse? It suits Joyce that Anne Hathaway was thought to be a viperous older wife who had ensnared Shakespeare with her pregnancy. As the famous joke goes, “If others have their will Anne hath a way. By cock, she was to blame.” So follows all of Shakespeare’s blather in the sonnets about desire and the dark lady.
Stephen’s friend, Russell— like us— is impatient with all this “prying” into the life of a great man, “the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys” (like the fact that, in Trieste in 1912 to 1913, shortly before beginning to write Ulysses, Joyce gave a series of twelve lectures on Hamlet, the contents of which are now lost). For Russell, such speculation leaves out the place where words touch “formless, spiritual essences.” But Stephen will not be seduced by any such Walter Pater–esque Platonism. What is indeed banal about psychobiography finds its negative dialectical complement in this ridiculous aesthetic romanticism. The question for Stephen is what has been sundered in a life, for only then can we know what might be reconciled. The Scylla and Charybdis of psychobiographical reductionism and romanticism are the twin obstacles:
If you want to know what are the events which cast
their shadow over the hell of time of King Lear,
Othello, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, look to see
when and how the shadow lifts.
He goes back, weary of the creation he has piled up
to hide him from himself, an old dog licking an old
sore. . . . He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by
Elsinore’s rocks or what you will, the sea’s voice, a
voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance
of his shadow, the son consubstantial with the
What is sundered, then, is the relation between father and son, creator and created, for a son’s “growth is his father’s decline, his youth his father’s envy, his friend his father’s enemy.” Perhaps, Stephen ponders, this is the real truth of original sin— a cycle of violence that runs between infanticide to patricide. Only a ghost, a dead father, a spectral fiction, it seems, can be consubstantial with a son— a whisper in a shadow heart.
Paternity, Joyce declares, is a necessary evil, a legal family fiction, as vulgar as Nietzsche imagined. Stephen asks, “Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?” What links father and son in nature is “An instant of blind rut”— no more.
Paternity is not a physical state as much as what Stephen calls a “mystical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to only begotten.” This is the strange truth of Stephen’s Hamlet Doctrine, summarized by Judge Eglinton: that Shakespeare “is the ghost and the prince. He is all in all.” But if paternity is a ghostly fiction for Joyce, if it is nothing and springs from nothing— all is exilic banishment from the heart and the home— then perhaps reconciliation takes on a new sense. Namely, the one that Shakespeare- Hamlet- Joyce gives:
Well: if the father who has not a son be not a father
can the son who has not a father be a son? When
Rutlandbaconsouthhamptonshakespeare or another
poet of the same name in the comedy of errors wrote
Hamlet he was not the father of his own son merely
but, 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 who, by
the same token, never was born for nature.
We are united by this nothing— a king and a beggar but variable service, as Hamlet says— Hamlet père and Hamlet fils buried by gravediggers, all in all. The only universal is in the nothing that binds us together.
We find ourselves on that Joycean knife’s edge between nihilism and creatio ex nihilo, man and God, individual and universal, Nobodaddy and Everyman, writing in the black space between dreams. As Stephen says at the end of his interpretation of Hamlet, “I believe, O Lord, help my unbelief.”
The mystical consubstantiality of Bloom and Dedalus finally transpires after midnight outside the brothels of nighttown after Stephen has been beaten senseless. “JewGreek is greekjew. Extremes meet.” This occasions the rhapsodic, ghostly apparition of Bloom’s dead son—Rudy— and his rather- excessive paternalism toward Stephen. But Stephen refuses this new mystical father and, after urinating together in the garden back at Bloom’s house, he leaves. He does not know where he is going. There will be no reconciliation, no happy ending, no homoerotic union through submission to the fatherprophet. Perhaps, however, this no, this nothing ending, gives itself over to something else. Like Antigone pushing her way past Oedipus and Hamlet, Molly Bloom’s sultry soliloquy— the pure unpunctured and unpunctuated flow of her desire— emerges as a new feminine voice of affirmation. Yes I said Yes I will Yes.
Excerpted from The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, 2013. Republished with permission from the publisher, Verso Books.