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 MoreThe 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
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.