Martello tower, photo by Erik Simpson

O’Shea, Michael J. James Joyce and Heraldry. Albany: SUNY Press, 1986.

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Irish History Transformed

By exploring the depth and breadth of heraldic allusion throughout Joyce's work, particularly in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, O'Shea demonstrates Joyce's visual imagination and his desire to transform existing systems of cultural symbols. The book provides a helpful overview of basic heraldic terms, the history of heraldry, and the tradition of heraldry in literature (6-23). Part of this literary history is the tension between heraldry as a symbol of chivalry and the more modern connotation of heraldry as a symbol of gentility (25-40). O'Shea points to an example of this tension in episode nine of Ulysses, when Stephen contemplates Shakespeare's name being hidden in his coat of arms, which he purchased—rather than inherited—once he became a famous playwright (U 9.921-27).

O'Shea contends that Stephen Dedalus' reference to Shakespeare's "coat and crest" in "Scylla and Charybdis" and the family crest and coat of arms Bloom gains in "Ithaca" confirm that heraldry was on Joyce's mind as he wrote Ulysses (U 9.925; 17.1610). O'Shea also draws on Joyce's letters to his family and a gift to his wife to illustrate that the author was fascinated by his own family crest (49), references to which can be found in "Circe" (U 15.3945-46). James Joyce and Heraldry focuses on several important heraldic themes, including the ongoing conflict between the motifs of green (a symbol of Ireland) and red (a symbol of British royalty), and the stag (Ireland) and fox (a possible allusion to Irish Nationalist John Stewart Parnell) motifs (68-69). Another important heraldic image, according to O'Shea, is the crossed keys of Bloom's House of Keyes ad, which are featured on the official crest of the papacy (U 7.142-51).

O'Shea also argues that both Bloom and Stephen are, at various points in the story, armigers—people worthy of having their own coats of arms. Bloom, for example, is wearing "sable armour" in "Cyclops," and his "cognizance [of] the flower of quiet, margerain gentle" in "Oxen of the Sun" also includes heraldic terms (U 12.215-16; 14.330-31). In "Ithaca," he imagines retiring as a country gentleman with "a family crest and coat of arms" (U 17.1609-12). For O'Shea, Stephen's coat of arms-liness comes from his frequent association with an eagle, which featured prominently on the Joyce family crest (U 15.3944-49).

O'Shea concludes his analysis of Joycean heraldry with a glance at Finnegans Wake, which, he argues, represents the thematic and stylistic progression of Joyce's increasingly complex use of heraldic terms. In this novel, heraldry is part of the encyclopedic depth of Joyce's work that "evoke[s] and break[s] the patterns of civilization" (124). It is also an intensely visual code that contradicts the critical theory that Joyce was not particularly interested in the visual dimension. For O'Shea, the heraldry in this novel, and in Ulysses, represents Joyce's successful transformation of the "relics of human civilization" into an expanded semiotic system.

Citations and Related Sources

Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles. A Complete Guide to Heraldry. London: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1909.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism, 1957.
Nason, Arthur H. Heralds and Heraldry in Ben Jonson’s Plays, Masques and Entertainments. Gordian Press, Incorporated, 1968.
Scott-Giles, C. Wilfrid. Shakespeare’s Heraldry,. London: Heraldry Today, 1971.
Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico: Translated from the Third Edition (1744). Translated by Max Harold Fisch and Thomas Goddard Bergin. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1948.

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