The Scylla and Charybdis episode marks a turning point in Ulysses: though it once again only teases the reader with the near-miss of Stephen and Bloom, it at last expounds upon Stephen's much-touted theory on Shakespeare, a convoluted, witty explication de texte that would stand as the magnum opus of any critic. However, insecure, self-conscious thoughts nag at him throughout his attempts to convince librarians and intellectuals of his talent, and the chapter ultimately reveals as much about Stephen as anything in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Naturally, Joyce drops us in the thick of it, as Stephen lays on the complexities of his theory on Hamlet and Shakespeare's corpus at large. Sitting in the director's office in the National Public Library, Stephen gives an example of his theory -- the full idea of which we have not heard, by saying that Shakespeare "plays" the ghost father in Hamlet, thus making the titular character the Bard's dead son Hamnet and Gertrude Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway.
But Stephen cannot just come out and say this: tangling the argument are Stephen's thoughts, which transcend the exacting detail of observation demonstrated in previous chapters to dwell purely on calculation. Joyce treats the reader to Stephen arguing with himself as much as he does his condescending audience in the office. Internally, he tells himself to make his already-tangled theory even more complicated to impress the others, but he only particularly wins over one of the librarians, Best, who clearly makes up for his lack of understanding by praising the young man to stay in the conversation.
As deeper, contextualizing tangents flesh out Stephen's theory, the chapter moves further and further into the most esoteric recesses of Shakespeare's canon. Don't even bother reading this chapter if you don't at least know Hamlet (though why or how anyone could read this before a Shakespeare play or two is so strange I can't imagine this being an issue), and a working knowledge of King Lear, Richard III and maybe Macbeth would help too.
Just as important, however, are the various conspiracy theories and specious biographical gossip surrounding Shakespeare's mysterious life. Stephen's incorporation of biographical details into an aesthetic evaluation causes consternation for the others, all the old men stuck in their staid, unoriginal interpretations of the playwright's work. Two men in particular, the critic Eglinton and the poet A.E., stop short of outright disdain for the rebellious new take on the Bard. Throughout the chapter, references are made to other theories and even several conspiracies (such as whether Francis Bacon truly authored Shakespeare's plays and the identity of the W.H. mentioned in the Sonnets). The notion that Hamlet was a woman also comes up.
Stephen himself relies on seedy, unprovable "facts" from the Shakespeare biographies popping up around the time to support his ideas. He bases his interpretation of Hamlet on the dominant, sexist idea that Shakespeare loathed his older wife and even posits that she cuckolded him, possibly with William's brothers, Richard and Edmund (the names of two of Shakespeare's most loathsome villains). Clearly, some of the threads he takes from Shakespeare's life are pure conjecture, and though he does not let on to the others, internally he picks out the weaknesses in his own argument and all the details he omits to make his theory. Amusingly, he can gloss over those failings in his speech, declaring near the end of his spiel that the dominant narrative in Shakespeare's plays is the false or adulterous brother banishing the sibling from home and heart. Stephen maintains this is true not only in the works he cites but "in all the plays which I have not read." No one bats an eye at this.
Joyce packs this chapter with jokes like that, as well as numerous plays on Shakespearean lines and legend. I cannot pretend to have gotten more than a fraction of them, but, like the actual Shakespeare plays, this chapter marks one of the few times I can turn to the explanatory notes and have a joke explained to me and still laugh. Sheer audacity has powered much of the humor to this point, as Joyce's outright scatology surprised even this 21st-century reader. Here, he delves fully into wit, the references to Wilde and Shaw thus serving purposes beyond tying Stephen, however sarcastically, to other Irish talents with theories on Shakespeare. This is Joyce (via Stephen) firmly placing himself among those Irish greats, even setting up the Anglophile idealist Eglinton as a subtle boxing rival.
But he also shows the insecurity and self-doubt behind the ever-adroit, ever-barbed Irish tongue. Stephen displays a clear disdain for these Dubliners, yet he desperately craves their respect. His grandstanding theory culminates in a hysterically blunt punchline that nevertheless reveals Stephen's cynical motivation for spending his time coming up with these ideas: to get noticed and earn the respect of the city's literati. He bites his tongue when Eglinton, a Platonist, insults him but manages to hide retorts by relating an impressive understanding of Plato's ideas (particularly his off-putting view of artists) and the recollection that young Aristotle was once Plato's student before emerging from his shadow. Still, Stephen never feels comfortable around these people, and when Buck Mulligan shows up to trade witticisms but also insults, I began to suspect Stephen might be hallucinating this nightmare of social embarrassment. But that would be too easy, wouldn't it?
Appropriately, the Scylla and Charybdis chapter features numerous dialectics: Stephen's scabrous internal monologues, mocking both self and others, clashes with his polite, obsequious attempts to win over the people he disdains. In a sense, he must navigate between the isolated solipsism of his Scylla and the swirling collective of outdated, circle-jerk criticism forming the word whirlpool of the others' Charybdis. Likewise, he also seeks a middle ground between Eglinton's Platonist idealism, in which he finds the symbolic resonance of Shakespeare's characters and the man himself, and the more pedestrian, realist ideas espoused by the witty but ignorant Mulligan, who literalizes everything Stephen says and thus makes light mockeries of the young artist's points. One can then extrapolate that ideal/real split into the dialectic between art and life, which Stephen (and Joyce) seeks to find.
As a sidenote: I love how Stephen's flecks of outward annoyance take the form of insults aimed over the heads of those present into the ideals they hold. Not only does Stephen let on a subtle but powerful dislike of Plato, he also peppers the conversation with numerous jabs at the Church, broad enough to be recognized but casually dropped so as not to cause offense. My favorite joke was his brief mention of the "plot hole" in the Bible's first passages, of how God somehow made light two days before he made the sun.
Yet Stephen's theories chiefly serve to bring out the pain eating at him since his return to Dublin. His talk of the ghost of Hamlet's father inevitably brings memories of his mother's death, and one senses he would rather deal with his father's ghost than his mother's. He even makes reference to the vast gulf of responsibility and importance between maternity and paternity: paternity is decided by a crucial half-second of sexual congress, while a mother's love is one of life's few constants. Paternity is a "legal fiction," he says, making plainer than ever his need for a guiding father figure. (It also ties back into the jabs at the Church when Stephen notes that Christianity is based on the vague, demanding notion of fatherhood instead of the bond of the Madonna.)
By the end of the chapter, no one may be more sick of analyzing Shakespeare than Stephen himself, who practically collapses from the effort of putting on a show for these people and reliving his recent trauma. He's so spent he even agrees to head out with Mulligan just because they'll end up in a bar where he can get a drink. As they leave, Bloom passes between them, and Mulligan makes a joke about the "wandering Jew's" lustful leer at Stephen, who can only shake his head at the childish homophobia implanted in the man by English schooling. Once again, paths cross but break apart instantly. Having tired himself by digging at his need for a genuine, loving father, Stephen cannot recognize the potential figure before him, though he does tut at Mulligan's boorishness toward the man. Slowly but surely, the pieces are coming together, and it's amazing that seemingly the most throwaway chapter of the book to this point also contains the most insight and emotion.