In Brief

The term that Stephen uses for his "nuncle Richie" probably indicates not just familial familiarity but also ridicule. Reference works identify "nuncle" as an obsolete form of "uncle." There is some reason to suppose that it is still occasionally used in Ireland, but the word's Shakespearean associations suggest that Stephen is using it with disrespectful intent.

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John Banville uses this variant of "uncle" in his first Black novel, Christine Falls (2006), so it may remain idiomatic in parts of Ireland. But Banville is often thinking of Joyce, so who knows? The OED records only one use after the 18th century, and that is in a dictionary of dialectal usage. To find any widely recognized use of the word, one must go to Shakespeare. As Thornton notes, the word appears seventeen times in King Lear and nowhere else in the playwright's works.

Thornton does not draw any inferences from the possible allusion, but every use of the word in Lear is an address of the Fool to the King: "Mark it nuncle," "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?," "Give me an egg, nuncle, and I'll give thee two crowns," "I have used it, nuncle, ever since thou madest thy daughters thy mother," "Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put 'em i' the paste alive." In these exchanges, a whip-smart and bitterly disillusioned jokester is putting the screws to his violently egomaniacal master, telling him that he is much less than he supposes. Given the aggressive air built up around the word in the play, it is reasonable to suppose that Stephen's unspoken form of address may carry a sting in its tail.

Two textual details support this inference. When Stephen speaks aloud to his relative in Proteus, he calls him, simply and irreproachably, "uncle Richie." And when he uses the phrase "nuncle Richie" twice more in Scylla and Charybdis, he is talking about a threatening kinsman, Shakespeare's brother Richard. For every appearance of "nuncle" in Ulysses one could probably substitute the words "crazy old man."

JH 2023
The Fool and King Lear, in a 2009 performance at Wake Forest University. Source:
Alec McCowen as the Fool and Paul Scolfied as Lear in Peter Brook's 1962 stage production for the Royal Shakespeare Company.