No mistakes

No mistakes

In Brief

Two sentences in Scylla and Charybdis are frequently quoted and no less frequently misunderstood. In the library John Eglinton suggests that Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway was a "mistake," one that the playwright "got out of" as quickly as he could. "— Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." Readers who attend to the context here will see that Stephen is not saying that Shakespeare (or, by implication, Joyce) writes infallibly. He is arguing only that a great artist can make art out of anything in his life, for example a bad marriage.

Read More

The library talk is a meditation on how Shakespeare transformed the matter of one life into art that has significance for millions. The writer himself was no sage, Stephen believes. He imagines him "weary of the creation he has piled up to hide him from himself, an old dog licking an old sore... untaught by the wisdom he has written or by the laws he has revealed." But Will was good with words, and he had what somebody in the library calls "that queer thing genius." Like Joyce, who found a way to make ordinary existence radiant, he started with the facts of his own life.

When the exchange with Eglinton occurs, Stephen has been speculating about Anne's infidelity, and Russell has objected: "Interesting only to the parish clerk. I mean, we have the plays. I mean when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? As for living our servants can do that for us, Villiers de l'Isle has said. Peeping and prying into greenroom gossip of the day, the poet's drinking, the poet's debts. We have King Lear: and it is immortal." Eglinton seconds this view by calling Anne a mistake, but Stephen supposes that Shakespeare did not wash his hands of her. He left her behind in Stratford but also brought her to London in memory. This point is made several sentences later:

     — But Ann Hathaway? Mr Best's quiet voice said forgetfully. Yes, we seem to be forgetting her as Shakespeare himself forgot her....
      — He had a good groatsworth of wit, Stephen said, and no truant memory. He carried a memory in his wallet as he trudged to Romeville whistling The girl I left behind me.

Citing examples from Venus and Adonis, The Taming of the Shrew, and Antony and Cleopatra, Stephen argues that Shakespeare folded this memory into work after work, turning Anne Hathaway into Venus, Kate, Cleopatra, Gertrude, and many other women.

This clearly delineated context must be held in mind as one hears Stephen saying that "A man of genius makes no mistakes." His unmistakable point is that Shakespeare found a portal of discovery even in something that had caused him acute suffering and regret. The troubles of his past were not "mistakes" (things wrongly "taken" up) which could be left behind, but "errors" ("wanderings" from the straight and narrow) which made him who he was and had to be confronted. His errors were "volitional": Shakespeare chose to have sex with Anne and marry her, and later he affirmed her importance by writing about her.

If this is correct, then Stephen is not saying something that a moment's reflection will show to be totally absurd. "A man of genius makes no mistakes" does not mean that a great writer cannot pen a bad line, choose a weak title, get his facts wrong, mix brilliance with mediocrity, slander the innocent, misjudge an audience, or write badly in some other way. No informed person could think this even of the venerable Bard. Eglinton says of Shakespeare, "He puts Bohemia on the seacoast and makes Ulysses quote Aristotle," and Stephen calls the "To be or not to be" soliloquy an "improbable, insignificant and undramatic monologue." Instead of claiming that Shakespeare's writing is perfect, he claims only that his marriage must not have been irrelevant to its composition.

Even the few annotators who have commented on Stephen's sentences have missed this essential distinction. Gifford hears in them echoes of the Socratic idea of getting at truth through falsehoods. If this analogue has any relevance at all, it must be to the genius of the artist and not to Shakespeare's marriage. Slote does not gloss the two sentences in his collections of notes, but in a 2 February 2022 blog (, he too supposes that what Stephen is talking about is the artist's text: "Joyce implies that there are no mistakes in this text, just artistic brilliance that may or may not be properly apprehended."

Joyce could scarcely have believed that "there are no mistakes" in Ulysses, or that errors in its composition would inevitably become "portals of discovery." Getting a Dublin house number wrong was unlikely to open any doors. Falling in lust with Marthe Fleischmann was a very different matter.

JH 2022
2011 photograph by Tony Hisgett of the farmhouse in Shottery, Warwickshire where Anne Hathaway was raised. Source: Wikimedia Commons.