So I was reading the Sunday paper and came across Ron Rosenbaum’s description of the infamous “Salic law speech” at the start of Shakespear’s Henry V and the way in which a director can use it to establish his approach to the whole play. Henry is thinking of invading France and wants the blessing of the Church; he calls in the Archbishop of Canterbury and asks him to explain “Why the Law Salique, that they have in France,/ Or should or should not bar us in our claim.” The Archbishop, doubtless thrilled to have a willing royal ear for the kind of detailed historico-legal exegesis which usually sends his auditors running for the transepts, begins “Then hear me, gracious sovereign, and you peers…” and continues for a mind-numbing (or enthralling, according to taste) sixty lines unraveling the tangled history of the kings of France, full of peppy bits like “In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant” and “Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair.” It can be played as farce or as conspiracy, or even straight. At this point Rosenbaum says:

The fact that those who take the Salic law sequence seriously need blackboards and placards on easels accompanied by illustrations to make sense of it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s nonsense. Read closely, the speech is a kind of spiraling black hole of self-cancellation.

This made me put down the paper and furrow my brow. A spiraling black hole of self-cancellation… what did that remind me of? Ah yes, of course, Finnegans Wake. (This recognition was a result not so much of my fondness for Joyce, extreme though it is, as of my youthful immersion in science fiction, believe it or not—in this instance James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.)
On page 572 of Finnegans Wake Joyce interrupts the stream of dreamtime worldspeech for the one passage of straightforward (not to say clinical) English in the book. It begins:

Honuphrius is a concupiscent exservicemajor who makes dishonest propositions to all. He is considered to have committed, invoking droit d’oreiller, simple infidelities with Felicia, a virgin, and to be practising for unnatural coits with Eugenius and Jeremias, two or three philadelphians…

and continues with a complex explication of the manifold immoral interrelationships among a group of people we have not met before and shall not meet again. At the end comes the simple question, “Has he hegemony and shall she submit?” This parallels nicely the King’s question at the end of the Salic Law speech, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?”
Blish’s protagonist, Father Ruiz-Sanchez, expends much anguish of mind and soul on the first question. The Archbishop, per contra, has a ready answer to the second, which boils down to “Sure!” But he has been bought off by the king’s favorable attitude to the quashing of a parliamentary bill imposing confiscatory tax rates, so we can hardly take his reply as representing an honest resolution of the problem. In fact, the passages that lead up to the questions are both of them spiraling black holes of self-cancellation, and I think it’s fair to say that both cases remain open. Therefore, any readers sending in a detailed analysis of both, with clear and convincing answers to both questions, will receive a certificate proclaiming them Doctor Philosophiae, Divinitatis, et Legis Salicae and a letter authorizing them to resolve any and all of life’s problems, by writ of Languagehat University. Or, if you prefer, you could always propound a fresh Gordian knot, your own case of conscience, and let it inspire plays, novels, or at the very least blog entries.


  1. Oh, my. As someone who is usually quite willing to wade through all those Shakespearian speeches, it’s becoming ever clearer that one of these days I’m going to have to overcome my Joyce-block and read both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. Now, why is it OK with me to have to sort through the annotations to Shakespeare, and not to Joyce? Is it that I think in a modern writer it’s pretentious to write that way on purpose?

  2. John Cowan says:

    My dad, being both legal philosopher and Waker, worked heavily on the Law Lecture passage, which is really two different lectures, one on canon law (from the passage you quote down through “Has he hegemony and shall she submit? Translate a lax, you breed a bradaun”, and the second on civil law, from “In the goods of Cape and Chattertone, deceased” (which is the title) down through “Will you, won’t you, pango with Pepigi? Not for Nancy, how dare you do!” Curiously, the first lecture sounds salacious but isn’t, whereas the second lecture sounds innocent but is loaded with sexual references, hence the “And whew whewwhew whew” at the end. As a small example, the case Hal Kilbride v Una Bellina refers to Henry VIII and his “terrible habit of changing his wife”.

    We have, by the way, heard of these people before under their Latinized disguises: Honuphrius = Humphrey, HCE; Anita = Anna Livia, ALP; Eugenius and Jeremias = Shem and Shaun; Felicia = Izzy: all of them in one family (“consanguineous to the lowest degree”).

  3. Have you been saving up all these comments for a decade, keeping them in a file somewhere against that hoped-for moment when all the doors would swing wide?

  4. No, but I’m on vacation and I’ve been spending a lot of it reading old LH posts. I’ve gone back to mid-2012 and now I’m rereading the ones you opened then for the tenth anniversary to see if I have more to say, now that they aren’t hopelessly cluttered with spam.

  5. Ah, well then I’m glad your vacation coincided with the grand opening! It’s a real delight to revisit these old threads.

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