Gimlet sounded like poetry with Hamlet
U 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:
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):
The claim of wider circulation gains independent support from a 1957 letter to the editor of The Listener (10 January):5
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:
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:
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”:
- 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:
This sense of “gimlet” as corkscrew or boring tool recurs in “Ithaca” when among Bloom’s “lighter recreations” is listed:
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:
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.
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),
Joyce's Allusions >