By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Shakespeare’s play, the speech beginning ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ (in some editions, ‘O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt’ while, in some others, ‘O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt’) is one of the most famous speeches in the play, and as with all of Hamlet’s soliloquies, the language requires some unpacking.
‘O, that this too too solid/sullied/sallied flesh would melt’: even the first line of this Shakespeare soliloquy presents a number of interpretive problems. The First Quarto (or ‘Bad Quarto’) printing of Hamlet in 1603 had ‘sallied’, which means ‘attacked’, ‘assailed’, or ‘beguiled’.
However, given that this was a ‘bad’ printing of the play (elsewhere in that version, the celebrated ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy opens instead ‘To be or not to be, I there’s the point’), many editors choose to ‘correct’ the word ‘sallied’ to ‘sullied’, meaning contaminated. Meanwhile, the printing of Hamlet in the First Folio of 1623 has ‘solid’.
There’s a case for all three words in the context: Hamlet may well feel his very being is under attack, given his father’s recent death and his mother’s swift remarriage to Claudius.
Similarly, Hamlet is obsessed with things being diseased or rotten, so ‘sullied’ as ‘contaminated’ would also chime. But given the context, probably the most mainstream interpretation is that ‘solid’ is the right word here, since Hamlet goes on to talk about his very flesh ‘resolving’ (i.e. dissolving from a solid state ‘into a dew’).
Interestingly, in the Arden edition of the play, Hamlet: Revised Edition (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series), the editors Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor write that many critics and editors dislike ‘solid’ because it ‘chimes unhappily for some readers with Gertrude’s later statement that Hamlet is fat’ (see Gertrude’s declaration in V.2 during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, ‘He’s fat and scant of breath’).
In any case, and whichever reading we choose to adopt, the meaning is the same: Hamlet wishes that his own body would just melt away. If only it could just dissolve into a dew, and he could cease to exist, he could leave all the problems of living behind!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!
Since his body is unlikely just to turn itself into a dew, the next option would be to end his own life through suicide, but Hamlet cannot do this because God (‘the Everlasting’) has forbidden suicide (‘canon’ here refers to divine law).
O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
In lines that have become famous, Hamlet expresses despair about the world more widely, beyond himself. Everything seems washed-out and colourless, and ultimately nothing comes of anything anyone does. The whole world is like a garden full of weeds – disgusting and corrupt weeds which have taken over the whole garden.
That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly.
Now, Hamlet focuses in on his own personal situation, and we get an insight into what has prompted this outpouring of despair and frustration with life.
His father has only been dead two months – indeed, not even a full two months yet. He was an excellent king, and to compare him with the new king, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, is like comparing the god Hyperion (the Greek god of the sun from classical mythology) to a satyr, a mythical beast that was depicted by the Romans as goat-like (associating Claudius with base lust).
Indeed, Hamlet’s father was so loving to Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, that he would not permit (‘beteem’) the wind to blow too harshly on her face. (This weather imagery chimes with Hamlet’s idea of his dead father as a sun god.)
Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month –
Let me not think on’t – Frailty, thy name is woman! –
Hamlet expresses his anger towards his mother, who hangs off Claudius as if her desire for him had only increased by being satisfied (by Hamlet’s father). It’s as if Gertrude was loved so well by Old Hamlet that, rather than sit around mourning his death, she needs to get her ‘fix’ from somewhere.
Hamlet blames his mother’s hasty remarriage on her ‘frailty’ as a member of womankind: women are the very embodiment of ‘frailty’, i.e. a lack of constancy in love. Or, to return to the ‘flesh’ image with which Hamlet began this soliloquy, women are too weak when it comes to matters of the flesh, and give in too easily.
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears: – why she, even she –
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer – married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules:
Before Gertrude’s shoes which she wore to Old Hamlet’s funeral were old, she married Hamlet’s uncle, who is about as much like Hamlet’s father as Hamlet is to the musclebound hero of classical legend, Hercules.
Gertrude wept as she walked behind the body of Old Hamlet at his funeral, crying tears just as Niobe, another Greek mythological figure, did when her children were slain; but even ‘beast’ lacking in reason would have mourned for a dead husband longer than Gertrude did.
In the closing lines of the soliloquy, Hamlet refers to the ‘incestuous sheets’ of the bed that Gertrude shares with Claudius. Such an understanding of ‘incest’ – marrying someone who was not a blood-relative but a relative by law – would have doubtless been familiar to many of the original playgoers in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience: the Queen’s own father, King Henry VIII, had justified his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, on Biblical grounds that it was a forbidden act to marry one’s brother’s widow.
‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ concludes with Hamlet having to endure his breaking heart in silence, for at this point in the play, Hamlet’s friend Horatio arrives with news of the sightings of the Ghost on the battlements, and Hamlet is about to learn that there is even more reason to hate Claudius.
Hamlet is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. Indeed, the publicity for Laurence Olivier’s celebrated 1948 film of Hamlet made much of this description of Hamlet’s character. The words that tend to come up when people try to analyse the character or personality of Hamlet are indecisive, delaying, and uncertain, with ‘inaction’ being the key defining feature of what Hamlet actually does during the play.
Certainly, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought Hamlet’s main fault was his indecision: he detected ‘an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it’ – i.e., Hamlet is better at thinking about doing things than actually doing them.
And yet we might argue that Hamlet doesn’t exactly delay, or at least, he does not delay because he is indecisive, but for sound, practical reasons. Hamlet cannot be sure that the Ghost really is the spirit of his dead father, and not some fiend that’s been sent to cause mischief and goad him to murder. So he needs to find out whether Claudius really is guilty of murdering Hamlet Senior, and thus whether the Ghost can be trusted.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.