The Voice of Esau
“—Come, he said. Let us hear what you have to say of Richard and Edmund. You kept them for the last, didn’t you? —In asking you to remember those two noble kinsmen nuncle Richie and nuncle Edmund, Stephen answered, I feel I am asking too much perhaps. A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella. Lapwing. Where is your brother? Apothecaries’ hall. My whetstone. Him, then Cranly, Mulligan: now these. Speech, speech. But act. Act speech. They mock to try you. Act. Be acted on. Lapwing. I am tired of my voice, the voice of Esau. My kingdom for a drink. On.”
—James Joyce, Ulysses, episode 9, “Scylla and Charybdis”
Joyce’s Ulysses is the only text that rivals the Babylonian Talmud in both its complexity and its stream-of-consciousness–style, jumping from topic to topic. In many ways, Joyce designed his masterpiece to be a Jewish book. Its main character, Leopold Bloom, was modeled on the assimilated Jews who were Joyce’s companions in his exile from Dublin in Paris, Zurich, and Trieste. In the book, Joyce’s characters quote the Bible frequently, sometimes even in Hebrew. In many ways the Jewish tradition is used in Ulysses as a foil, or counterbalance, for the main organizing principle of the work, a modern retelling of the journeys of Odysseus on his way home from Troy.
In this passage, we see Stephen Dedalus holed up in the National Library with more than a few drinks in him. He attempts to explain to various scholars his theory that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based largely on the adultery of Shakespeare’s own wife. His friend Buck Mulligan nudges Stephen to stop the banter and transition to an explanation of his novel theory.
But Stephen can’t find his voice. He can’t speak. And the metaphor he chooses comes directly from this week’s Torah portion: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau” (Gen. 27:18–23). Stephen’s voice is like the voice of Esau. It is absent.