Unweeded garden

Unweeded garden

In Brief

Amid all its gloomy meditations on human mortality, Hades includes two passages that reflect on transgressive, violent forms of death. In Bloom's thoughts murder, brought up by the sensational 1898 case of Dubliner Thomas Childs, finds a fictional analogue in the death of Shakespeare's King Hamlet. Suicide, poignant because of the way his own father died,  reminds him of Ophelia. There may be some significance in the fact that both references to Hamlet are accomplished through images of rank vegetative growth: an untended garden and the rushes of a marshy river.

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As the funeral carriage nears its destination, Mr. Powers points out "The last house" before the cemetery grounds: "That is where Childs was murdered." The men in the carriage discuss the 1899 trial and acquittal of Childs's brother Samuel, Martin Cunningham voicing the legal principle that it is better for 99 guilty people to escape justice than for one innocent person to be wrongly condemned:
They looked. Murderer's ground. It passed darkly. Shuttered, tenantless, unweeded garden. Whole place gone to hell. Wrongfully condemned. Murder. The murderer's image in the eye of the murdered. They love reading about it. Man's head found in a garden. Her clothing consisted of. How she met her death. Recent outrage. The weapon used. Murderer is still at large. Clues. A shoelace. The body to be exhumed. Murder will out.
As the third-person narration that begins this passage gives way to interior monologue, Bloom repeats two words from the soliloquy in which Hamlet laments that his entire world has, in Bloom's words, "gone to hell": "Fie on't, ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden / that grows to seed, things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely" (1.2.135-37). Hamlet is brooding on his father's sudden death and his mother's remarriage to the king's brother, a gross specimen of humanity "no more like my father / Than I to Hercules" (152-53). An overgrown garden expresses this decline from Edenic perfection.

The phrase "unweeded garden" is probably no accidental echo (Bloom knows Hamlet, and this is one of its famous lines), but does it allude to the play in any significant way? Bloom is thinking about murder, but Hamlet presumably is not, because he has not yet learned how his father died. When Joyce echoes other texts, however, readers who look for deeper connections are often rewarded. The man accused of murdering Thomas Childs was his younger brother, and before act 1 is over Hamlet learns that his father's younger brother murdered him to seize his patrimony. Hamlet's soliloquy all but predicts this revelation, and when he learns from the ghost that "The serpent that did sting thy father's life / Now wears his crown," he exclaims, "O my prophetic soul!" (1.5.39-40).

The structural analogy of murderous younger brothers lurks beneath the surface of Joyce's text, but various phrases in the text point to it. The newspaper staple "Murderer is still at large" is a five-word encapsulation of the charge that the ghost gives Hamlet. The "unweeded garden" of Childs's house recalls the poisoning that took place while King Hamlet was "Sleeping within my orchard" (1.5.59). An orchard is a garden, as Shakespeare makes clear when Hamlet tells Claudius about the fictional killer of a king in his mousetrap play: "'A poisons him i' th' garden for his estate" (3.2.261). Lurid newspaper details like "Man's head found in a garden" are no more sensational than the horrifying account of bodily dissolution that the ghost imparts to Hamlet. Finally, the old proverb that "Murder will out" may, as Gifford suggests, recall Hamlet's rationale for staging a play within the play: "For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ" (2.2.593-94).

It is hard to say how many, if any, of these analogues to the murder of King Hamlet may actually occur to Bloom, as opposed to simply being thrown in his way by the author, but their cumulative effect is certainly to overlay one murder on another. The allusion to Ophelia is opposite. It occurs in a single, highly uncertain sentence, but one can easily imagine Bloom thinking it, since he has already reflected on Ophelia's suicide in Lotus Eaters. Bloom is grateful when Martin Cunningham tamps down the harsh judgments of suicide from Jack Power and Simon Dedalus:
Sympathetic human man he is. Intelligent. Like Shakespeare's face. Always a good word to say. They have no mercy on that here or infanticide. Refuse christian burial. They used to drive a stake of wood through his heart in the grave. As if it wasn't broken already. Yet sometimes they repent too late. Found in the riverbed clutching rushes.
The image that concludes these sentences seems to derive at least in part from canto 5 of Dante's Purgatorio, in which two people in the circle of the Late Repentant describe how they died at water's edge, one of them "entrapped in reeds / and mire," the other swept downstream by a flood and deposited at the muddy bottom of the Arno. It is not clear why Bloom thinks, "Yet sometimes they repent too late," but this detail applies well to Jaccopo and Buonconte, and not at all to Ophelia. Despite the almost certain presence of Dante in the image, though, it seems that Joyce may also have had Shakespeare in mind, because Ophelia too was "Found in the riverbed" clutching vegetation.

Queen Gertrude tells Laertes that his sister drowned in a "brook." She was weaving "fantastic garlands" out of wildflowers, and as she strained to hang them on the boughs of a willow tree overhanging the river, a branch broke. She fell in still holding her flowers, floated for a while "As one incapable of her own distress," until her waterlogged clothes "Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death" (4.7.166-83).

Gertrude's speech feels like a jewel of ekphrastic verse (it has inspired many paintings), but it can hardly be an honest account. If she watched all these things happening, why did she not intervene to save Ophelia's life? The following scene suggests why Gertrude might have invented a false story. The first gravedigger asks why Ophelia is receiving a Christian burial if she committed suicide, and the second one says that the coroner has made that ruling (5.1.1-5). Later in the same scene, Laertes sees someone being buried with "maimed rites" and infers "The corse they follow did with desp'rate hand / Fordo it own life" (219-21). The priest escorting the body says that "her death was doubtful, / And but that great command o'ersways the order, / She should in ground unsanctified been lodg'd / Till the last trumpet" (227-30).

It appears, then, that the miserable Ophelia threw herself into a stream and met an ugly, "muddy death." Bloom's image of a corpse "Found in the riverbed clutching rushes" is probably a much more accurate account than the picture that Gertrude paints of Ophelia clutching pretty flowers. But the queen's fiction is calculated to spare Laertes' feelings. Like Martin Cunningham she is "Sympathetic." She shows "mercy," finds "a good word to say." Bloom supposes Shakespeare to have been this kind of man, capable of valuing human suffering over religious doctrines.

John Hunt 2022
Jacob Trunk's depiction of the Childs house. Source: thecrackedlookingglass.com.
Illustration of the poisoning of King Hamlet in the garden by H. C. Selous.
Source: simanaitissays.com.
J. M Balliol Salmon's 1905 crayon and chalk drawing of Claudius watching the Mousetrap play while Hamlet watches him, from Otho Stuart's 1905 production at the Adelphi Theatre, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ophelia, John Everett Millais' ca. 1851 oil on canvas painting, held in the Tate Britain, London. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Ophelia Drowning, an 1895 oil on canvas painting by Paul Albert Steck.
Source: pixels.com.