This chapter finds Stephen Dedalus at the National Library discussing his theory of Shakespeare with a famous literary critic named John Eglinton, a Quaker librarian, and some other literati named Mr. Best. At some point, Buck Mulligan arrives and participates in the discussion by adding immature, childish, and playful quips poking fun at the serious nature of the discussion. Bloom shows up at the National Library in search of the advertisement for his client that he mentioned in the previous chapters and Buck Mulligan pokes fun at him, using blatant slurs about him being Jewish. During the discussion about Shakespeare, Stephen proffers a heavily biographical theory of Shakespeare, suggesting Shakespeare is the ghost of the father in Hamlet who fears his brother usurping his place and committing adultery with his wife, and implying that the real Shakespeare feared subconsciously his brother seducing his wife. Eglinton eventually asks Stephen if he believes his own theory, and Stephen admits that he doesn’t. After all this heavy intellectual discussion, Stephen goes off with Buck Mulligan to presumably get drunk and have fun in town.
In previous chapters, the slights towards Bloom have been subtle, little snubs here and there, but no one outright directing any type of slurs at him. In this chapter, Mulligan calls Bloom a “sheeny,” which is a disparaging term for someone who is Jewish.
This chapter parallels the Scylla and Charybdis episode in the Odyssey. Each of these was a monster in between which Odysseus had to sail passed in order to get home. These terms are often used to mean being caught between two bad positions. In the beginning of their debate about Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle are both mentioned, in which Stephen sides with Aristotle and the others side with Plato. These two philosophers represent two different positions and a type of intellectual Scylla and Charybdis. Then there is some literary debate about dealing with the work itself in isolation (art for art’s sake) versus dealing with biographical criticism; this also represents two intellectual Scylla and Charybdis. Stephen’s choice between intellectual pursuits and the raucous party-life represented by Buck Mulligan is a more pressing Scylla and Charybdis in which he must navigate and which reappears in this chapter after remaining dormant. These debates, especially the ones that include Plato and Aristotle, also fit into the theme of the past haunting the future. Even today, even as we’ve moved on with new ideas and theories, certain features of Plato and Aristotle’s philosophy still influence contemporary discussions.
Stephen tries to make a case that art is the stuff of our life, which flies in the face of most modern literary criticism, which attempts to analyze art as a hermetic object separate from the artist’s life or as an object which is part of larger cultural-social networks. Part of his theory of art is that literary works are the children of artists. The plays Shakespeare wrote are more his children, more his legacy that will live on and honor his name, than his real flesh-and-blood children. The real children of an artist are his work. It is important to remember that Stephen is a literary stand-in for Joyce himself and this seems to possibly represent Joyce’s own views of art. As the argument progresses, Stephen takes this further and suggests the events of the play are Shakespeare working out psychological issues in his own life, particularly his fear that his brother might sleep with his wife. Joyce seems to be riffing on Freudian psychological theories here. Likewise, this unwittingly points to Bloom’s own situation in which his wife is about to cheat on him with another man and Bloom acts as a kind of father figure to Stephen in the way he occupies the role of Ulysses. It further suggests that Joyce saw himself as a potential successor to Shakespeare. If you ever read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets he performs a gutsy move by suggesting his poetry will last forever and it turns out, at least so far, Shakespeare was right. Well, Joyce is following in that tradition and identifying his own work as something will be read through the ages like Shakespeare. And whether you ultimately like Ulysses or hate it, it has thus far been considered one of the most important novels of the 20th century, so it would also seem Joyce, like Shakespeare, was right!