In Brief

Shakespeare's works dwell obsessively on men's fears that their sexual partners are unfaithful, often deploying a conceit that had wide currency in Elizabethan culture: the fancy that cuckolds, like stags and bulls, grow horns. In some plays this shameful image is charged with tragic intensity. In Scylla and Charybdis Stephen describes Will meditating on his wife's infidelity: "His unremitting intellect is the hornmad Iago ceaselessly willing that the moor in him shall suffer." But some of the comedies also joke about horns, as reflected in Stephen's picture of Shakespeare himself committing adultery "without more ado about nothing." After Sirens, drawing on a different linguistic tradition, associates "horn" with Blazes Boylan's phallus, the horns of cuckoldry become affixed to Bloom's head in Circe.

Read More

Tragic, "hornmad" bitterness characterizes men like Leontes, the jealous husband of The Winter's Tale:

Inch-thick, knee-deep; o’er head and ears a fork’d one.
Go, play, boy, play: thy mother plays, and I
Play too; but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamour
Will be my knell. Go, play, boy, play. There have been,
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in’s absence
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbour, by
Sir Smile, his neighbour.   (1.2.186-96)

Rosalind presents the fear comically in As You Like It when she tells Orlando that she would rather be wooed by a snail, who "brings his destiny with him"––i.e., "horns! which such as you are fain to be beholding to your wives for. But he comes arm'd in his fortune, and prevents the slander of his wife" (4.1.57-62). In the final scene of Much Ado about Nothing, where the two romantic couples come together at last, Claudio lays his fear of infidelity at Benedick's door: "I think he thinks upon the savage bull. / Tush, fear not, man, we'll tip thy horns with gold, / And all Europa shall rejoice at thee, / As once Europa did at lusty Jove, / when he would play the noble beast in love" (5.4.43-47). After both couples plight troth, Benedick proposes a dance "that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives' heels," and he urges Don Pedro too to find a wife: "There is no staff more reverent than one tipp'd with horn" (118-24).

In Scylla and Charybdis Stephen imagines Shakespeare trying to compensate for his humiliation in Stratford by playing the rake in London: "You know Manningham's story of the burgher's wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon's blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III." The thought of Will jumping into a married woman's bed here echoes Much Ado's jokes about cuckoldry as an inevitable side effect of marriage. (It also seems possible that when Stephen imagines him "overhearing" plans for an adulterous liaison he is recalling the eavesdropping that drives the play's tragic subplot.)

Two chapters later, Sirens uses horns in an different but clearly related way. The introductory list of themes sounds the note twice, with "Horn. Hawhorn" and "Have you the?" The OED cites a definition of "horn" in Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue" (1785) as "An erect penis; an erection," and it notes that by 1889 "horny" and "to have (also get) the horn" were being used to mean "lustful, sexually aroused." Green's Dictionary of Slang documents such use of "horny" in an American text of 1826. These expressions were probably suggested by the physical appearance of the erect penis, while the horns of cuckoldry may have been inspired by the competition of male deer for females. But even if the two uses did arise independently, they become strongly linked in Joyce's story of Boylan fucking Bloom's wife.

In Sirens, when Boylan suddenly bounces out of the bar to jump in a cab (it is after 4:00), Lenehan exclaims, "Got the horn or what?" The narrative later picks up on his language, suggestively joining the horn with jingling, heat, and female rumps: "By Bachelor's walk jogjaunty jingled Blazes Boylan, bachelor, in sun in heat, mare's glossy rump atrot, with flick of whip, on bounding tyres: sprawled, warmseated, Boylan impatience, ardentbold. Horn. Have you the? Horn. Have you the? Haw haw horn." "Haw haw" suggests that Bloom's cuckolding is all a great joke, as Lenehan would no doubt say if he knew where Boylan was going. Bloom does know, and he apparently has heard Lenehan's exclamation, because as he writes Martha later in the chapter he thinks, "Write me a long. Do you despise? Jingle, have you the? So excited. Why do you call me naught? You naughty too? O, Mairy lost the pin of her. Bye for today. Yes, yes, will tell you. Want to. To keep it up." Still later he thinks, "Hunter with a horn. Haw. Have you the?" Now the narrator's "Haw haw" too has entered his thoughts.

With horn-as-phallus firmly linked with Bloom, Joyce applies the cuckold's horns to him in Circe. As he steps over the threshold of the whorehouse he sees a man's hat and raincoat hanging on an "antlered rack" in the entrance hall. He hesitates––another man in the house?––and averts his eyes when a customer leaves a room and passes by. Later, in hallucinatory fantasy, this momentary anxiety about entering a house where another man is having sex blossoms into Bloom's fullblown anxiety about Boylan entering the house on Eccles Street. Reenacting Shakespeare's trick of showing up at a willing wife's doorstep, Blazes Boylan is met at the door by Bloom, attired in servant's livery and playing the part of a compliant cuckold: "(He hangs his hat smartly on a peg of Bloom's antlered head.) Show me in. I have a little private business with your wife, you understand?"

After this scabrous fantasy reaches its climax, Joyce brings the focus back to Shakespeare: "Stephen and Bloom gaze in the mirror. The face of William Shakespeare, beardless, appears there, rigid in facial paralysis, crowned by the reflection of the reindeer antlered hatrack in the hall." The Shakespearean theme of adultery is thus mapped onto both Stephen and Bloom, the one perhaps because he has discerned the central organizing principle of the Bard's life and work, the other certainly because he is experiencing the same agonizing marital drama.

John Hunt 2023