Glimpses of the moon

Glimpses of the moon

In Brief

It is hardly surprising that Stephen's thoughts are filled with references to Hamlet—he is giving a talk on Shakespeare at the National Library on June 16, a talk that centers on that play—but Joyce shows that Bloom too is very familiar with it. His knowledge of the play is particularly evident in Hades, where the funereal setting prompts half a dozen allusions, but it first comes up in a couple of jokey references in Lotus Eaters. One of them, "Glimpses of the moon," quotes Shakespeare's language exactly.

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In the street, Bloom's recollection of Edward Vining's theory that the Danish prince was really a woman prompts a zany thought:"Why Ophelia committed suicide." Later, in the church, he stands up and notices that two buttons of his vest are unfastened. That Edwardian standards of propriety were strict even for the top half of the body can be seen in his embarrassed reaction: "Good job it wasn't farther south." "Still," he thinks, women "like you better untidy"; they "enjoy it. Never tell you." Such interactions with the other sex make him think of moments when the situation is reversed and a woman has a piece of fluff on her clothes, "Or their skirt behind, placket unhooked. Glimpses of the moon. Annoyed if you don't. Why didn't you tell me before."

The phrase comes from Hamlet 1.4, when Hamlet asks his father's ghost why it has come back to the land of the living:
                                       What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again, in complete steel,
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.  (51-56)
The moon glimpsed in Bloom's imagination is a woman's arse. "Moon" has been used to refer to buttocks since at least the middle of the 18th century, and the general sense of "mooning" someone by pulling down one's pants may be older still. As a verb, the word was used to mean "to expose to light" in the early 1600s, sometimes possibly in reference to a medieval practice of defying enemies by baring one's bum.

Bloom reinterprets Shakespeare's language in a characteristically playful and juvenile way: one can imagine such a joke being repeated by children on a playground. But it seems remarkable that Joyce has given him enough detailed knowledge of Hamlet to make the joke at all. As a matter of realistic detail, Bloom's familiarity with the play perhaps comes from having seen multiple stage performances. Symbolically, it helps to ally him with Stephen, who recurrently meditates on Hamlet as he tramps about Dublin in black clothes seeking spiritual fatherhood.

JH 2022

Martin van Miële's drawing of a woman mooning a nun, with inscription "Miss Vera Polipyne is going to show us the wind rose (for Louis Morin)," from La Grande Danse Macabre des Vifs (1905). Source: Wikimedia Commons.