Gimlet sounded like poetry with Hamlet


15.3654-5:  ZOE

(tragically) Hamlet, I am thy father’s gimlet!

Glossators have passed lightly over Zoe’s reply to Stephen in the nighttown bordello when, to his hotchpotch of Wagneresque elements, she offers her own riff on a national poet. Critics link the spirited rejoinder, intra- and intertextually, with Bloom’s misquotation from Hamlet act 1, scene 5 earlier that day:

Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit
Doomed for a certain time to walk the earth. (U 8.67-8)

and with Stephen’s unknowing repetition of the first of these two lines in the National Library of Ireland later that afternoon (U 9.170).1 Ian MacArthur adds that “[i]n Anglo-Irish slang, a gimlet is a half glass of whiskey”,2 which suggests that Zoe draws on the cognate sense of “spirit” or “spirits” as spirituous liquor - that is, as liquor produced by distillation - to play on a wilful and witty misreading implicit in the ghost’s original speech. Critics of a certain vintage doubt that Zoe could be capable of such humour3 or suggest that burlesque in the mouth of a prostitute is part of a concerted effort on Joyce’s part to degrade Shakespeare,4 but casting a wider intertextual net for this phrase brings in more than the anticipated Joycean–Shakespearean dyad.

     For Zoe’s one-liner is not quite so singular. The phrase is flagged as a late-nineteenth, early-twentieth-century catchphrase in the eighth, posthumous edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1984):

Hamlet, I am thy father’s gimlet. Punning theatrical c[atch] p[hrase], based on the ghost of Hamlet’s father: ca. 1880–1925. (Frank Shaw, 1968.) (p. 524)

     The claim of wider circulation gains independent support from a 1957 letter to the editor of The Listener (10 January):5

The First Time I Played Hamlet

Sir, -- Mr. Gordon Craig’s talk in The Listener of January 3 is as delightful to read as it was to listen to. May I add a note on the last sentence of it. The urchin who remarked "Hamlet, Hamlet, I am thy father’s giblets" was surely improving on an old Victorian joke which replaced the first line of the Ghost’s speech with "Hamlet, Hamlet, I am thy father’s gimlet." I recall this joke as being current in Yorkshire in my childhood early this century.

                                    Yours, etc.,

            London, W. C. 1                        Geoffrey Tillotson

     The Oxford DNB entry for Tillotson (1905–69) records that the future professor of English at Birkbeck College began his schooling at “an elementary school in Glusburn, north Yorkshire (1910–18).”6

     Nevertheless, the two citations are uncomfortably post scriptum Ulixes. For evidence contemporary with the novel—or, better yet, evidence that precedes it - one might start with a January 1896 number of the Niagara Index, the newspaper of Niagara University, New York. Among the heterogeneous entries of an “Index Rerum” or list of commonplaces are the following:


     "A sad state of affairs."
     I am thy father’s gimlet.
     Tarp. excelled in gaming.
     Hog. didn’t wait for breakfast.
     Who swallowed the owl? Booby.


                                    Niagara Index (1896) 1 January, p. 107

     Earlier again, J. J. Wright’s “Mates”, an 1888 short story, contains the earliest citation for the full phrase that assiduous Google Books searching can track down. In the story, two pals, James Rector and Sylvester Martin, are engaged in some youthful playacting:

"'Esmeralda, the Gipsy Girl; or, the Bell-ringer,'" cried Jim, as much like an actor as he could.
"Hamlet, I am thy father’s gimlet," broke out Syl.
"Gimlet?" said Jim, "you mean ghost."
"Oh, it doesn’t matter, you know," cried Syl; "I thought gimlet sounded like poetry with Hamlet. You’re a poet, you know, and ghost isn’t poetry - is it, Jim?"
And they all sat down or leaned against the wall, and had a good laugh about ghosts and gimlets.
"I say, Jim, you’d not be fat enough for the ghost if you were on the stage; you’d do just for the gimlet," said Syl, wanting to make the boys laugh again. (p. 46)

     Roy Gottfried notes that “‘Gimlet’ looks like ‘Hamlet’”,7 and, looking further afield, one discovers that the apparently humorous confusion of “Gimlet” for “Hamlet” has an even longer history than “thy father’s gimlet”:

"Gimlet! Gimlet!" This is the playful rehearsal appellation for Hamlet. 8

- a history that extends to other media. Alan Young writes that Edwin Austin Abbey’s Play Scene in Hamlet, a late oil on canvas, was wickedly parodied in the pages of Punch shortly after its exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1897.9

Left: Edwin Austin Abbey, Play Scene in Hamlet (1897). Right: Edward Tennyson Reed,
“Royal Academy Peeps [detail]” in Punch (1897), 8 May p. 226.10

      Reed’s engraving reproduces Hamlet’s recumbent pose from the Abbey oil alongside Ophelia who is evidently preoccupied with the Mousetrap scene taking place outside of the picture. The cartoon replaces the prince’s gaitered legs with corkscrews, and the caption completes the burlesque for anyone unfamiliar with the Hamlet–Gimlet yoking:

No. 477. Design for a Double Corkscrew: or, Gimlet, Prince of Denmark! E. A. Abbey, A. R. A. (p. 226)

     This sense of “gimlet” as corkscrew or boring tool recurs in “Ithaca” when among Bloom’s “lighter recreations” is listed:

house carpentry with toolbox containing hammer, awl nails, screws, tintacks, gimlet, tweezers, bullnose plane and turnscrew (U 17.1592, 1601-2)

     However, the substitution of “Gimlet” for “Hamlet” goes back to at least the late eighteenth century. In Tobias Smollett’s epistolary novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), Tabitha Bramble, Smollett’s Mrs. Malaprop, is the “she” of the following quotation:

Mr. Gwynn, (said she the other day) I was once vastly entertained with your playing the Ghost of Gimlet at Drury-lane, when you rose up through the stage, with a white face and red eyes, and spoke of quails upon the frightful porcupine - Do, pray, spout a little the Ghost of Gimlet. Madam, (said Quin, with a glance of ineffable disdain) the Ghost of Gimlet is laid, never to rise again - 11

     How much of this precise intertextual network was Joyce familiar with? Despite the Jims and J. J.s of John James Wright’s Merry, Merry Boys, likely very little.12 Rather, what is recovered here is only a sample of the wider circulation enjoyed by the “thy father’s gimlet” catchphrase and deliberate “Hamlet/Gimlet” confusion. If Joyce did not have access to these specific instances, he encountered the former phrase elsewhere in nineteenth- and twentieth-century print and oral culture. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that it was his familiarity with “Hamlet, I am thy father’s gimlet” and its erroneous address that prompted the particular character of Bloom’s and Stephen’s shared misquotation from the play, even if, as a source, the catchphrase was relegated to intra- and intertextual reiteration in one of the novel’s closing episodes. Shakespeare is “in everyone’s mouth,” Joyce writes in an early essay13 - mangled, travestied, and misquoted in forms that themselves repeat and proliferate.

Ronan Crowley

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1 See Matthew Creasy “Shakespeare Burlesque in Ulysses” in Essays in Criticism 55.2 (April 2005), p. 141 and “Manuscripts and Misquotations: Ulysses and Genetic Criticism” in Joyce Studies Annual (2007), p. 50; Don Gifford with Robert J. Seidman, “Ulysses” Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s “Ulysses” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 159, 204, 511; Manuel Almagro Jiménez, “To Be and (or?) Not to Be: Joyce’s Rewriting of Shakespeare” in Papers on Joyce 2 (1996), p. 3; Sam Slote (ed.), “Annotations” in James Joyce, Ulysses (Richmond: Alma Classics, 2012), pp. 622, 642, 801; Weldon Thornton, Allusions in “Ulysses”; An Annotated List (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 132, 163, 411; William B.  Warner, “The Play of Fictions and Succession of Styles in Ulysses” in James Joyce Quarterly 15.1 (Fall 1977), p. 30.
2 Ian MacArthur, “Some Notes for Ulysses” in James Joyce Quarterly 41.3 (Spring 2004), p. 532.
3 William B.  Warner, “The Play of Fictions and Succession of Styles in Ulysses” in James Joyce Quarterly 15.1 (Fall 1977), p. 30.
4 William Peery, “The Hamlet of Stephen Dedalus” in University of Texas Studies in English 31 (1952), p. 114.
5 Geoffrey Tillotson, “The First Time I Played Hamlet” in Listener (1957), 10 January p. 67.
6 Donald Hawes, “Tillotson, Geoffrey (1905–1969)” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, September 2012);, accessed 1 December 2013.
7 Roy Gottfried, Joyce’s Iritis and the Irritated Text: The Dis-Lexic “Ulysses” (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1995), p. 113.
8 John J. Jennings, Theatrical and Circus Life; or, Secrets of the Stage, Green-room and Sawdust Arena (St. Louis: Sun Publishing Co., 1882), p. 232.
9 Alan R. Young, “Punch” and Shakespeare in the Victorian Era (Oxford; New York: Peter Lang, 2007), p. 303; Abbey, Edwin Austin, Play Scene in Hamlet (1897): John Singer Sargent Virtual Gallery (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Conn.); Web (accessed 1 December 2013.
10 Internet Archive (accessed 1 December 2013).
11 Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (Dublin, 1771), vol. 1 pp. 79-80): Eighteenth Century Collections Online (Gale: accessed 1 December 2013).
12 J. J. Wright, “Mates.” Merry, Merry Boys (London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey & Co., 1888), pp. 38–49.
13 James Joyce, “The Study of Languages” in Kevin Barry (ed.) Occasional, Critical and Political Writing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 16.