Friday, December 18, 2009

Is Hamlet's Flesh Solid or Sullied?

Here's a Mindful Pleasures first: an entire post about a single word. The word is 'solid' or 'sullied' or even 'sallied,' and it occurs in Hamlet, act one, scene two, line 129:

O, that this too too {solid/sallied/sullied} flesh would melt...

The First Folio reads 'solid,' which seems straightforward enough, but the early quartos read 'sallied,' a word that doesn't seem to make any sense at all in this context but that editors understand as a variant of 'sullied.' I've always recoiled at the 'sullied' reading. I find it too clever by half (in its too blatant and too early sounding of the note of fleshly corruption that permeates Hamlet's ruminations) and, more importantly, it's an editorial imposition that sullies a reading the First Folio seems to have gotten entirely right. 'Solid' is the only word of the three that fits naturally into the metaphorical texture of the lines:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew...

The flesh, being too solid rather than too sullied, will not easily turn to liquid and annihilate itself in a vaporous dew. Again, this is a very straightforward, self-evident reading, and the imposition of 'sullied' merely introduces further unnecessary complications into the interpretation of the line. By Occam's Razor, the First Folio and Kenneth Branagh are right: it's 'solid.'

And there's also the possibility that solid/sallied/sullied is not a variant at all but a Shakespearean pun variously rendered. Perhaps the words 'solid' and 'sullied,' similar sounding even today, were homophonically close in Elizabethan London. If so, the Shakespearean 'solid' would have carried a double significance akin to that of the truly Finnegans Wake-ish a dew/adieu pun that 'resolves' the sentence. Either way, 'solid' must be the primary signifier, as it's the only logical choice to initiate the figure that undergirds the lines: flesh likened to water in its various states. The 'solid' reading is solid. Don't sully it.


Anonymous said...

Gielgud once said that if the actor says “sullied”, the audience merely thinks that the actor meant to say “solid” but had mispronounced it.

joy pulver said...

I had forgotten this topic for 51 years, when I wrote a not quite scholarly paper on it at age 16. SOLID, I fumed. Thaw, melt, dew! What would sullied have to do with turning solid into liquid? Besides, if you've ever been miserable, you feel like a very solid ton of bricks. The teacher gave me an A even though I didn't express much more than indignation.

Love this funny little blog.