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To anyone out there who’s reading this book for the first time, I’d suggest you not spend too much time trying to parse Mulligan’s summary of Stephen’s theory of Shakespeare. I will tell you, however, it is far more concise than Stephen’s own version, which you will read in Episode 9.
When Mulligan says to Stephen “O Shade of Kinch the Elder,” the reference ties back to him saying that Stephen is the ghost of his own father a moment before, but also ties to Hamlet, and the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in the first act.
We don’t know anything yet about Stephen’s father, though we will be meeting him shortly. We do know, however, that the title of this episode is “Telemachus,” and Stephen is Joyce’s Telemachus, another famous son of an absent father. The Odyssey structure prompts us to ask in what way Stephen is looking for a father, and here the discussion comes straight to the point.
The phrase “Japhet in Search of a Father” requires a little more excavation. It’s the title of a novel from 1836 by the once-enormously-popular Capt. Frederick Marryat. And if you’d like to take a few weeks out of your life to read it, thanks to Google Books, now you can.
And of course, there’s more. Japhet is also Japheth, the third son of Noah (after Shem and Ham. Or possibly before. Unclear whether he was oldest or youngest.). According to Biblical legend, Japheth is the ur-ancestor of Europeans.
On the most basic level, though, Mulligan is using Hamlet and the once-familiar title of a once-familiar book to give Stephen a little of the old “Who’s Your Daddy.”
This isn’t the easiest moment in the chapter for all of the references flying, but you can best get at what’ s happening here by just spending a minute thinking generally about what it means to be a father vs. a mother (obvious biology aside), and what it means to be a ghost. These are big questions in Ulysses, especially the uncertainty of paternity (in a pre-DNA age) vs. the certainty of maternity…