Marketing Metaphysics with Hamlet © Carol Joan Haney McVey
November 11, 2001. The show goes on.
Wallace Acton as Hamlet for The Washington Shakespeare Company in Washington, D.C.
Program credit, Wayne P. Roche.
“Marketing Metaphysics with Hamlet” is an essay on the solid vs. sullied debate and metaphysics in Hamlet first published March -May 2016. (ISBN- 978-0-99769-20-13)
An aerial shot of a river in Lebanon choking on garbage reveals an image that defies the right of the river to be known as such; an economic deficit that is larger in numerical value than the history of the earth in years; a virus carried by mosquitos that causes microencephaly; a political system of voters poised to draw an iron curtain around our National borders; a global generation of youth that would rather serve as ambassadors of death than protectors of life; and a new law called Rule 41 that could give our intelligence agencies unlimited powers of surveillance. All of these topics are ripe for academic research and discourse in the humanities.
Yet, now literature departments are reluctant to self-reference as “English” departments and are categorizing as “post-human” our academic humanities departments. Formerly identified “English” teachers in universities suffer imminent cultural erasure as collective victims of identity theft. With more emphasis on technology and the hegemony of science over humanities, some professors are resisting categorization altogether or reinventing courses under the guise of “digital” humanities (See Matthew Kirschenbaum, Rita Felski, Alan Liu).
So, now comes this ghost of Shakespeare whispering in my ear as I tap away on the laptop. “Alas! Humanity under Her Majesty survived the plague that decimated one third of the European population before I was a glimmer in my own father’s eye. And don’t forget the horror show of torture and religious tests such as the iron maiden, death by pressing, and witch burnings.” I stop tapping and listen. “And by the way,” chides the ghost, “I managed to turn out writing that still puts a loaf of bread on an actor’s table, a laugh in the belly, and a dream in the brain, so stop whining and get on with the business of life and art before you perish.”
I return to my research on Hamlet to make sense of this huge “humanity” question lurking like an elephant in the room of the supposed “post-human” world.
Harold Bloom wrote a best-selling work of literary criticism titled, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, and his title suggests that our humanity is a gift that evolved at the time of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre Renaissance.
And to think that for years I considered our humanity a gift bestowed during a picnic in Paradise with a snake, a naked couple, a tree of rotten apples. and one spare rib! Yet, Bloom makes a worthy point in this book and in his other book on Hamlet titled Poem Unlimited. He reconstructs Shakespeare’s work of Hamlet as a revisionist exercise of therapeutic writing applied to compensate his many personal losses. Shakespeare’s son Hamnet died at age 11, his theatre burned down, and his trust in humanity nearly disappeared as friends, family, and loved ones betrayed him (See also David Bevington, Adrian Poole, Stephen Greenblatt to name but a few).
So, why spend hour upon hour dredging up some old war of words in a soliloquy that was written and/or performed over 400 years ago? Because, that one word in that one speech still carries weight as if it were a small ball of uranium, atomic number 92, that must be respected for the law of physics that insists its small size is no measure of its weight, value, or gravity. And that word? Its “solid” not sullied, I say. And the argument is still solid gold, or uranium, as the case may be.
First, I will address the Folio and Variorum reading of the line in which the printers chose the word “solid” over “sallied” in 1623, then again in 1877, respectively. I will argue that the word “solid” chosen by the printers or compositors in 1623 was the correct choice, despite the fact that very respectable 20th Century editions favor a change to the word “sullied” to replace “sallied” as J. Dover Wilson initiated in his book titled, What Happens in Hamlet published in 1936.
In act one, scene 2, lines 129-132 (1.2.129) we read the 1623 Folio as reprinted in the 1877-1905 Howard Furnass Variorum edition of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark:
Hamlet. “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt/ Thaw, and resoluve(resolve) it selfe (self)into a Dew: /Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon against Self-slaughter. O God, O God!” (1.2.129-)
The main difference between the 1623 Folio version and the 1877 Variorum version of these lines involves the variant use of punctuation, specifically capitalization, in the 1877 Variorum. The optical focus of the Variorum draws the eye toward the use of capitalization for the words Flesh, Dew, Everlasting, and Self in ‘self-slaughter’ as if to remind the reader that all living beings are “Divine” in every state of existence, and that they are connected to the Creator even after death. The use of a colon suggests a threshold, division, and crossing into the room of the confessional or some ambiguous metaphysical space. Capitalization of the word “Self” as a proper noun when coupled with slaughter gives the word ‘solid’ more weight, more humanity. The choice of wording in the Variorum edition follows precisely the 1623 Folio version of the soliloquy (1.2.129). (See also Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory for more on the “Catholic” nature of this discourse.)
Several decades after the 1905 Variorum Edition of Hamlet was printed, John Dover Wilson took the lead in textual criticism and Shakespearean scholarship when he changed the quarto (Q1 and Q2) readings of “sallied” flesh to “sullied” flesh and ignored other editions that had adopted the Folio reading of “solid flesh.” (Times Literary Supplement,1918).
His rationale for the choice is explained again on page 151 in the notes following the reprinted text of The New Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, edited by Wilson first in 1934 and reprinted several times before the 1971 edition referenced in this essay. However, the gist of his argument can be found in his book What Happens in Hamlet: “Sullied-melt-thaw-dew; the image behind these words is not difficult to guess. Hamlet is thinking of snow begrimed with soot and dirt in time of thaw and is wishing that his ‘sullied’ flesh’ might melt as snow does” (42). Wilson argues the the word ‘sullied’ “strikes the keynote of what follows, not only in the soliloquy, but in everything he says for the rest of the play” (42).
Initially, Wilson’s argument was convincing. John Dover Wilson argued that the word “sullied” should replace the word “sallied” in the Hamlet quarto versions of 1603 and 1604 that were printed while Shakespeare was still alive. (Except he seems to think that Q2 preferred the “solid” reading of the Folio. See What Happens in Hamlet p. 42) However, John Dover Wilson thought that the printers had erred in the transcription of the original manuscript or copy text in all three printings and had mistakenly substituted the word “solid” for “sallied” in 1623. Moreover, he argued that the word “sallied” had been a mistake all along because “sullied” was the word that was spoken by actors in the 17th Century live performances of the play as intended by Shakespeare.
Of course, this means we can only guess that Shakespeare did not read, let alone correct, the printed quartos of Hamlet during his lifetime, and/or we must assume that he had no means to correct the error. However, in his book, Wilson’s argument employs an analytic and historicist approach to textual criticism involving a comparative analysis of other works by Shakespeare and related Medieval and Renaissance literature, and he includes speculation about authorial intent. (A more scientific approach of imagining the influence of the printing process was introduced decades later by Charlton Hinman.)
Wilson claimed that the word ‘sullied’ represents the ‘kindless’ (1.65) incestuous marriage of his mother as a defilement transferred to her son. Further, the critic argued, ‘sullied’ fits the immediate context as “solid” does not. “There is something absurd in associating ‘solid flesh’ with ‘melt’ and ‘thaw’; whereas Shakespeare always uses ‘sully’ or ‘sullied’ elsewhere (Henry IV 2.4.84 ; I Henry V 4.4.6; Merry Wives of Windsor. 2.1. 102 Loves Labour Lost 5.2.352; sonnet 15.12) with the image, implicit or explicit, of dirt upon a surface of pure white; and the surface Hamlet obviously has in mind here is snow, symbolical of the nature he shares with his mother, once pure but now befouled” (Wilson edition of the New Shakespeare Hamlet 151-152).
It is not the purpose of this essay to address the obvious flaw regarding John Dover Wilson’s conflation of ‘white’ or ‘white snow’ with ‘purity’; for the semiotic/semantic analysis of that discussion requires far more attention than I am prepared to offer at this writing. But to be fair to the Bard, there is no mention of snow in the first act, although the guards in the quartos and Folio do have a line reading, “Tis bitter cold.” So I am not certain where Wilson got the idea of inserting snow into the imagery. Yet it could certainly be said that that Shakespeare’s image recalls flesh frozen solid in the constructed ecosystem of the first act of the play.
In truth, one might speculate that the image of frozen flesh, serves as synecdoche for the larger estate of the frozen title of the Crown. And that idea invites yet another essay for another time.
But to be brief, this image of frozen flesh, symbolical of the frozen monarchy, makes sense. It might serve the reader well to explore how the context of events could have influenced Shakespeare’s writing of Hamlet, particularly if we assume that the first quarto printing of Hamlet in 1603 followed the death of Queen Elizabeth I who left no direct blood heir to succeed her, while the state was entrusted to rely on a more distant blood relation to succeed Queen Elizabeth I, in the person of James VI of Scotland. Needless to say, Scotland’s Catholic Mary, the cousin who Elizabeth beheaded for treason, was the royal mother, Queen Mary, of James VI, who ruled very briefly while England submitted once again to Catholic rule after the schism initiated by Martin Luther in Germany and King Henry VIII in England. So, it is not too far fetched to imagine that many Protestant British may have experienced a rather ghostly fear that all the majestic prosperity and freedom enjoyed under the beloved Protestant Queen Elizabeth would soon end when Queen Mary’s son assumed the throne.
Wilson’s textual criticism originated 100 years ago, in 1918. The Times Literary Supplement (May 16, 1918) published an article in which Wilson argued that the word “sallied” of the quartos (1603-1605) was a better choice than the word “solid” of the 1623 Folio. He also argued that the word “sallied” had been a misprint, or accidental variant for “sullied.” In the July 18 issue of that same periodical, W.D. Sargeaunt expressed his opposition to the textual change in an article titled “Hamlet’s Solid Flesh” whilst Wilson defends his argument by referencing G. MacDonald’s prior claim to the same textual argument in 1885. Then, following up with a July 26 argument Wilson persists, claiming that “sally is an intransitive verb” and would not have been used by Shakespeare in the passive sense, reiterating his case for a change to “sullied.” His change is met with more criticism. J.W. Mackail published in the same newspaper an article affirming the folio reading, as does L.J. Potts and M. Hunter in October and November of 1928. Then to top off the roaring twenties with a Renaissance trumpet blast, M. Montgomery and Gavon Bone, publish articles in 1928 and 1929, respectively, arguing against Wilson to insist that the word “sallied” was the Elizabethan phonetic equivalent of “solid.”
Yet the most amusing comment on the textual question appeared in a 1934 issue of The Shakespeare Association Bulletin. The authors of the Association article proclaimed that word in contention was neither “sallied” nor “solid” of the Qqs and Folio, respectively. Nor should the word be emended to read “sullied” as Wilson urged. No indeed. The word that the elite Shakespeare scholars of the depressed 1930s preferred …the proper word as Shakespeare intended…must be “saltie.” So, they seemed to think that Shakespeare wrote, “Oh that this too, too saltie flesh would melt.” I dare not follow the ghost of that speculation to its natural conclusion, so I will let that too, too salty sleeping dog lie.
But for several decades, before and after The Shakespeare Bulletin published this rather interesting variant to solve the textual mystery, Shakespeare scholars clashed over this one dread word coupled with its modifier “too, too.”
Wilson changed the editorial decisions of many Shakespearean scholars and editors who concurred with his choice of the “sullied” reading. In Hamlet in the 1950s: an Annotated Bibliography, edited by Randal Robinson, this textual emendation or insertion is recorded as approved or disapproved by several critics in various scholarly journals.
First among these is Fredson Bowers whose essay titled, “Hamlet’s ‘Sullied’ or ‘Solid’ Flesh: A Bibliographical Case-History” appeared in Shakespeare Survey, no. 9 (1956. 44-48), and tended to concur with Wilson since Bowers contrasts Hamlet’s ‘soiled’ flesh with his mother Gertrude’s defiled second marriage. Charles Jasper Sisson published his dissent about John Dover Wilson’s emendation in his article that appeared in New Readings in Shakespeare. (2 Vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1956. II. 206-209). The Times Literary Supplement (p. 219) published in November of 1958 a recognition that Wilson must be credited for the change permitting the “sullied” variant/emendation (R.W. David cited in Robinson 195-221].
Eventually, more scholars joined the conversation. Samuel Weiss published in an article titled “‘Solid,’ ‘Sullied’ and Mutability: A Study in Imagery” in an edition The Shakespeare Quarterly (1959, no. 10., pp 219-227) to disagree with Wilson and Bowers and refute the idea of Gertrude passing on her contamination to her son. He noted that the theme of mutability in time (as represented by the vaporization of solid to dew) transcends the moral exegesis for the variant line readings of employing either ‘sallied’ or ‘sullied’ to represent Hamlet’s defilement. Weiss also compared “image patterns” in prior plays by Shakespeare and noted that “‘Hamlet, in his awareness of the ephemeral nature of human relationships, would want his ‘solid’ rather than his ‘sullied’ or ‘sallied,’ flesh to melt. It is of solid firmness that he is weary, and ‘solid’ is the only truly meaningful and Shakespearean reading” (qtd in Robinson’s Annotated Bibliography of Hamlet Criticism in the 1950s. p. 221).
As expected in the feuding world of academic discourse, Wilson’s claim regarding the incongruity of melting flesh and the conflation of images in this tragedy met with resistance. My initial comment, to be expanded in the remarks of this essay, is that the conflation of imagery of solid flesh melting does not seem odd because, on a surface level, Hamlet’s caustic wit can accommodate such a flashy and fleshy reading since he is fixated on other aspects of the corruption of flesh just as the ghost of his father speaks of Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, as “preying on garbage” with Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius, in the marriage bed.
Retrospectively, writing well before Wilson on the same topic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that ‘solid’ fits the idea of melting or thawing flesh better than sallied or sullied because it is natural to think of dirty flesh as being in need of cleaning rather than being in need of melting or thawing. So why would Shakespeare write that Hamlet’s dirty flesh needs melting? Good point, that. That comment was brought forth in a 1960s article titled “Modern Bibliography and the Literary Artifacts” by Frederick Bateson, appearing in English Studies Today, (edited by Bonnard, Bern, Verlag. 1961, 67-77). [Cited in Julia Dietrich’s Annotated Bibliography of Hamlet Criticism of the 1960s. pp 451-452].
So, the Samuel Taylor Coleridge citation proves that the textual debate did not start with Wilson and it did not end with Wilson. In addition to the previously referenced article catalogued in Hamlet Criticism in the 1960s: An Annotated Bibliography, other voices join the fracas. Richard Flatter begins the ante-up in 1960 with a vote for ‘solid’ against the movement toward ‘sullied’ in an article appearing in Shakespeare Quarterly no 11. (Dietrich 449). Sidney Warhaft wrote “‘Hamlet’s Solid Flesh Resolved,” published in EHL an interesting comment on textual historicism: “Elizabethan audiences would have recognized in the line a reference to the condition of having too much of the element earth in one’s body and thus to Hamlet’s melancholy. Hamlet’s request is to be restored to health. The desire to melt is clearly an annihilation wish; thus Hamlet is willing to die if that is what it takes to be cured” (Flatter cited in Dietrich 453). Perhaps exhausted by entire conversation, yet another textual scholar, Roy Stokes, added to the debate in 1969 with a pitch to return to ‘sallied’ reading of the earliest Shakespeare’s quartos in his book titled The Function of Bibliography. (Dietrich 465).
Therefore, returning to the 1623 Folio via the Horace Howard Furnass Variorum reading of 1877, the final focus is not on the punctuation so much as the choice to use the word “solid” in the Furnass Variorum that still follows the 1623 Folio, rather than the quarto readings. Also, the repetition of the adjectival modifier “too” changes the meaning of this particular line. While Furnass claimed this repetition can be ascribed to a certain provincialism of Jacobean dialect, he added a lengthy justification in his annotation.
The editor of the Howard Furnass Variorum brought Coleridge into the conversation, noting that Coleridge ascribed this line reading of Hamlet lamenting his “solid flesh” to the imbalance between physical exertion and mental exertion that causes apoplexy: “Where there is a just coincidence of external and internal action, pleasure is always the result; but where the former is deficient, and the mind’s appetency of the ideal is unchecked, realities will seem cold and unmoving” (Coleridge qtd in the Furnass Variorum Hamlet.) So, Coleridge, who wrote “I Have a Smack of Hamlet,” confirmed that “solid” is the better word choice. Furnass also credited Moberly, who claimed that “Hamlet thinks of the body as hiding from the freshness of life, and nobleness of God’s creation” (42).
Without resorting to a form of reductionism that would conclude Hamlet’s problem is one that is brought about by his neglected need for physical exercise as Coleridge suggested, I will concur that Hamlet is lacking a certain kind of directed, focused exercise of will in activity. So, in opposition to John Dover Wilson, I am affirming the Folio line reading and ‘solid’ word choice for a number of reasons.
First of all, by rejecting his “solid flesh” as burdensome, Hamlet is, in essence, rejecting his mortal humanity, and in so doing, inviting his own peril. Yet, it is a certain kind of very physical humanity that I will discuss later as one that Hamlet rejects. However, it is not his intellectual humanity that is rejected; for it is not cogitation, meditation, or cerebral posturing that brings about his demise. Indeed, his short career as a kind of metaphysician, or “scourge and minister,” as the character calls himself, and as the critic Fredson Bowers diagnosed his essential quest, is Hamlet’s best hope for redemption.
It is not inaction, or delay, that becomes his undoing, but it is his specific type of awkward uncoordinated action in mistaking Polonius, his beloved Ophelia’s father, for Claudius behind the curtain and recklessly and unintentionally stabbing the meddling Polonius. This haphazard murder sends Hamlet’s lady, Ophelia, toward her own suicidal doom as a shamed and ruined maid, rather than wife, of the Prince. And Ophelia’s suicide, in turn sends Ophelia’s brother Laertes after Hamlet to avenge Hamlet’s unintentional murder of Laertes’ father, Polonius. This reckless action also gives Claudius, the regicide and false king, a reason to send Hamlet away to England.
Therefore, it is this certain impulsive action that is indicative of dangerous suicidal ideation on the brink of realization that begins the irreversible chain of events. And it is possible to speculate that impulsive action is brought about as an interruption of meditation and prayer rather than the result of Hamlet’s meditation and prayer.
It is not necessarily the mere contemplation of suicide and homicide that proves Hamlet’s undoing. After all, in his later iconic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, his metaphysical ruminations convince him that life in the flesh with all its trials is better than an eternal existence of purgatorial punishment or purely metaphysical existence without embodied flesh when he begins to think, not of dying, but of being dead. This challenge, C.S. Lewis argued in his essay, “The Prince or the Poem” accounts for Shakespeare’s most valiant contribution to the metaphysical quest to validate faith in the afterlife: “To die, to sleep–/To sleep, perchance to dream, aye there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/Must give us pause. There’s the respect/ that makes calamity of so long life.”
Hamlet weighs all the negatives of life: “from the oppressor’s wrong to the pangs of despised love, to the law’s delay..until he finally spits out his great complaint about living in his mortal flesh, and then as if to say, I’ll take this life with all its pain, because the next life could be worse, he confirms his affirmation of life as a kind of default shield against the uncertainty of suffering in the afterlife:
“Who would fardels bear
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all….” (3.1.75-83).
So, his cognitive acceptance of compromise proves that he has resolved the problem of his crisis, and determined that taking the termination of his life into his own hands is NOT the prudent choice. He maintains a semblance of self-determination and the most distinctly human gift of all: free-will. Therefore, it is wrong to conclude that Hamlet’s dilemma is a binary problem of action versus inaction. Yet in the metacognitive realm, Hamlet takes the most dangerous step toward realization of his suicidal ideation in assigning a binary either/or probability favoring the odds of negativity in existence when he elucidates on all of the pains of life: “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as being the ONLY WAY TO EXIST except by the possibility of “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”
Thus, he has cornered himself into an either/or choice of suffering in this life or suffering in the next life and thereby eliminated all possibility for relief or joy. Therefore, his impulsive actions and his binary or dichotomous thinking render him incapable of rational self-defense in body and mind.
Where is Derrida when you most need him? Waiting to be born centuries later, of course. Before the French could claim bragging rights to deconstruction, they claimed bragging rights to existentialism. However, the distinction must be shared with Shakespeare. For it is within the content of his soliloquies that Hamlet theorizes on the various modes of existence that portend suffering as an inescapable experience of mortal life.
Yet, Hamlet’s metacognitive function shows that he recognizes the limits of his own thinking processes. Shakespeare., echoed later by Milton through Hamlet, writes that the mind is capable of making a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven, “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” So why does the hero not explore more optimistic options in his own thoughts and words regarding his free will? Perhaps he feels forced, in recognition of his limitations, and his absolutist resignation to suffering, to rely more heavily on the voice of the ghost, the supernatural, or metaphysical considerations as he metes out the steps of his action.
And this is how Shakespeare builds such a tight mystery. The audience knows he has options so long as he ignores the metaphysical realm, or takes flight, or plans a more strategic battle. In his book titled The Soliloquies in Hamlet, Alex Newell provides a close textual examination of the supernatural principal as the primo agency in the play. “The mysterious metaphysical principle governing events is articulated several times in the play, acquiring dramatic density in the final movement of the action with Hamlet’s various expressions of his intuitive sense of a providential process” (127). With the executive function of his mind, or his free will surrendered, and his tunneled thinking restricting options, the tragic ending unfolds as if ordered by Divine will or providence.
The suspense is built with Shakespeare’s deft use of dramatic irony, since the audience knows what neither Claudius nor Hamlet knows: the specific tactics and intensified determination involving each one’s plot to destroy the other. The prior action Hamlet takes in altering the letter carried by Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to convey their own names rather than Hamlet’s as targets of Claudius’s execution order proves the hero capable of self-defense. For a royal incumbent, that bit of graft becomes necessary since those two spies for Claudius the Usurper would otherwise be the messengers of Hamlet’s execution.
Hamlet must know that his need to “suit the action to the word, and the word to the action,” as the players are instructed to perform, carries a far greater burden and duty to Hamlet as a Prince than it does to those who would commit treason in his realm. And Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, either unwittingly or not, are made the instruments of Hamlet’s aborted assassination by Claudius, and are therefore quilty of treason to the Prince who must avenge his father’s murder by those who would also murder him.
In review, the quarto readings of this passage printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime are as follows:
“Oh that this too much grieved and sallied flesh would melt to nothing, or that the universal globe of heaven would turn all to a chaos.” (Q1 as reprinted by Kliman and Betram).
“Oh that this too too sallied flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve it selfe into a dewe, Or that the euerlasting had not fixt His cannon against self slaughter, O God, God, (Q2 Kliman and Betram)
Why did Wilson not concur with the use of the word, “solid” that was printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death?
One reason, could involve a passionate desire for both authenticity and scientific proof in the 20th Century as scholars continued the ongoing search for that precious manuscript or foul paper that might reveal Shakespeare’s intention. This might not explain Dover’s initial intention, but it could explain the reason for the argument persisting in academic and theatre criticism circles.
The demand for scientific proof became the catalyst of Charlton Hinman’s 20th century theory that disparate compositors working in the Elizabethan and Jacobean print shops showed traces of idiosyncratic transmission errors in the transcription or copying of the playbooks and copy texts that were first used to produce Hamlet on the stage in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
This theory somehow supported Wilson’s insertion of a new word that NEVER appeared in the quartos or the Folios some credence. The new word that Wilson inserted was “sully” to replace the word “sallied” in both quarto versions of the text. He assumed that the printers had made the error after Shakespeare died in 1616 when they changed “sallied” to “solid.” Even though Hinman published his textual criticism after Wilson made the emendation, it built more support for Wilson’s posthumus emendation.
Charlton Hinman of Rockville, Maryland was a student of the renowned Navy commander and Shakespeare Textual Scholar, Fredson Bowers, so it is not surprising that Bowers mentored and inspired his brilliant brand of Textual scholarship, yet it is not clear why Bowers sided with John Dover Wilson on this issue without a closer examination of those documents, articles, and books by Fredson Bowers that focus primarily on this textual dispute.
Finally, a credible reason for interjecting the more psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet’s manifestation of guilt by association in his mother’s sin could be the important influence of Freudian analysis, and especially the Oedipal complex introduced by Freud that was transferred into the field of literary criticism.
Whether due to the strong influence of Freudian criticism that blossomed in the fifties and sixties, or due to Wilson’s own purportedly flamboyant editorial decisions, or the growing interest in more technologically scientific textual criticism, the change that Wilson made did not transfer into professional performances of Shakespearean text. Witness the search results on Utube when the names Laurence Olivier, John Geilgud, Mel Gibson, and Kenneth Branagh are joined with “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.”
While the gap between academic textual scholarship and professional theatrical performance is not the topic of this essay, it is interesting to note that some of the greatest actors in the world have favored the “solid” line reading.
Does it matter? Yes. It matters because one word choice (sullied/sallied) implies that, as he begins his first soliloquy, Hamlet already has donned a guilty conscience and a consciousness of self-contempt by association of his mother’s incestous and hasty marriage before his final avenging act can be completed. Yet, he has not yet tried the imposter King, his Uncle Claudius, in the Murder of Gonzago (mousetrap) scene in his own improvised Royal court, so at the point of the first solilioquy he has no reason to feel the insult as having sullied or defiled his body by means of his mother’s transgression. And the ghost has strictly forbidden Hamlet to harm or blame his mother for the insufferable circumstances brought on by the cruel uncle Claudius. (“The play’s the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the King”).
Of course, one might easily argue that coming home to the marriage that is too closely timed with Hamlet’s father’s funeral is enough to make Hamlet feel ashamed. “That it should come to this/But two months dead, nay not so much/not two/” reports Hamlet in this soliloquy to convey the embarrassing proximity of his father’s death to his mother’s remarriage. So Hamlet might feel a corporeal shame by transference of Gertrude’s supposed complicity in the murder; yet it is not enough to interfere with the avenging quest he feels compelled to fulfill in the course of the drama.
In conclusion, this first speech by the tragic hero sets the stage because it is the beginning of Hamlet’s suicidal and avenging homicidal ideation. It provides the kind of psychological and theological contemplation in the soliloquy form that corresponds to the later “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, AFTER WHICH the hero reaches a climax of metaphysical transcendence or or blessed immanence in concluding that life in the solid flesh with all its pains, obstacles, and challenges is to be preferred over death. He will take his night in the garden of Gethsemane after all.
Yet his personal angst triumphs in his rush toward disaster due to his prior impulsive actions and the consequences that they bring upon him in his losing battle for possible alliances. What if he had stayed longer in prayer and contemplation with his sword at the ready? What if he had built alliances with his lady love and her family? What if he had built relationships rather than quashing them and preferring isolation? What if he had forged diplomatic ties with Fortinbras in Norway before Claudius could engage that former foe of Hamlet’s father in his own alliance? What if he had found extreme forgiveness for his losses and returned to graduate school at Wittenberg in Germany after Claudius’ first assassination attempt on Hamlet’s life? What if he had planned a strategic attack on Claudius or enlisted allies within his own court to jail Claudius rather than acting on impulse?
The point of making one word the focus of this essay is to get a sense of the enormous challenge of textual criticism involving a text that one might say has been overplayed. Yet, the examination of the textual changes as representative of myriad perspectives from around the globe is one that affords infinite possibility. Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, by William Shakespeare has been translated the world over, and therefore invites interesting investigation into all aspects of cultural, linguistic, natural, social, and political sciences.
Dover Wilson ruffled some theatrical and academic ruffs when he became the catalyst for a significant textual change in this play centuries after it was first published. But his change does not detract from the conversation about the textual fluidity of great works. One of Wilson’s contemporaries, G. Wilson Knight, wrote an essay titled “The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet” describing the tragic hero as a most contemptuous character, and the ghost, he opines, is the devil himself (190). He preferred the humanity of Claudius, the sinning and murdering incestuous uncle, for all these faults, according to Knight, are eclipsed by Claudius’ virtues of remorse, authoritative management, and “gentleness” (188). So Knight reversed the roles of antagonist and protagonist when he claimed: “In short he (Claudius) is very human. Hamlet is inhuman. And this inhuman cynicism, however justifiable in this case on the plane of causality and individual responsibility is a deadly and venomous thing.”
Fie, fie on Knight. For he eliminated the essence of supernatural intrigue; he dismissed the religious implications of the inciting incident of the late King’s ghostly revelation: the commandment of obedience and the dictate to honor thy father. The play Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark is first and foremost a ghost story.
In fact, C.S. Lewis, the great Christian theologian and novelist claims that the play is about Hamlet’s need to fulfill “a task given by a ghost” more than it is about the story of man’s need to avenge his father (196). And unlike Knight, he afforded the hero more sympathy and empathy when he wrote his essay titled, “The Prince or the Poem”: “I believe that we read Hamlet’s speeches with interest chiefly because they describe so well a certain spiritual region through which most of us have passed and anyone in his circumstances might be expected to pass rather than because of our concern to understand how and why this particular man entered it” (199). Further, he claims that Hamlet’s poetic nature, as authored by Shakespeare, is inconsequential to the universality of his tragic situation and profound contemplation. And this, summarily concedes that the character of Hamlet represents all of humanity suffering through a most harrowing crisis, and thus he is most human indeed.
Secondly, it is a murder mystery. I suppose, these are improbable truths in reality, but they are accepted improbabilities in the theatrical umwelt; and the critic Wilson G. Knight was unwilling to suspend his disbelief in the veracity of the supernatural. In the THEATRICAL or metaphysical world created by Shakespeare, the supernatural IS THE TRUTH. And truth is Hamlet’s burden.
I ascertain that it is the burden of truth, and discerning this truth, as deduced from all evidence and sensory phenomena revealed through the action and speech of the drama, that becomes Hamlet’s cross to bear. This burden must be distinguished from the “burden of knowledge” that Bennett confers upon Hamlet. Robert Bennett writes of Hamlet’s “Burden of Knowledge” as one that belongs to the metaphysical school of Hamlet criticism along with H.D.F. Kitto and D.J. James. “As a scholar, he is more accountable before God than a person not so educated would be. This complex of doubts and dangers which he fully appreciates because of his scholarly training and aptitude comprises the burden of knowledge which inflicts on Hamlet the torments of uncertainty and delay” (Shakespeare Studies, Vol 15).
However, I would limit the weight of Hamlet’s burden to our innate human connection with the demands of the Kantian categorical imperative, those universally shared non-exceptional metacognitive and metaphysical affordances that compel the human mind to distinguish right from wrong in the natural order of both Divine and human law. And most all systems of Divine, natural, and humane law require punishment for an act of murder. Immanuel Kant, who penned the Metaphysics of Morals, might argue that Hamlet’s education should make no more demands of him in the realm of moral decision making than any other competent adult in the same situation since the capacity for rational and ethical decision making and the acquisition of scholarly, intellectual knowledge (or epistomology) are not identical markers of character and personality. (See also Howard Gardner’s works on theories of multiple intelligences)
Was Shakespeare marketing metaphysics to theatre audiences in the last days of Queen Elizabeth and the first days of King James I of England? In his book titled Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? Gene Fendt (93) entertains the possibility that Shakespeare might have been influenced by the metaphysical realism of Saint Thomas Aquinas. While the existentialist philosophy of Kierkegaard finds roots in Hamlet’s angst, the magnum opus known as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark more closely resembles the morality pageants and heroic suffering of a Christian medieval passion play. Sister Miriam Joseph provides answers to the question in her 1962 article “Hamlet: A Christian Tragedy” appearing in Studies in Philosophy (vol. 59). For she asserts that what distinguishes the Greek Tragedy from the Christian tragedy must concern the heroic moral suffering and Christian significance of the play. Sr. Miriam Joseph claims that Hamlet can be described as a Christian hero because his tragedy is due to a fatal flaw in his Christian character that compels him to commit a hate crime of avarice in preferring damnation over atonement for his Uncle Claudius during his quest for righteous revenge.
So how did the play resonate with the Christian audience and speak to the need for metaphysical persuasion? From the first lines of the play we hear the guards speak of the special protection afforded those during the season of “our savior’s birth.” That protection is extended to the hero, Hamlet, as as he attempts to avenge his father’s murder and to vanquish the corrupt ruler who has committed a vile act of fratricide. What good can come from such a corrupt leader who would kill his own brother and marry that brother’s widow to become King? Gene Fendt records arresting details about the names in the play noting that the name Claudius means “claws” plus “deus.” Perhaps Fendt is hinting that this name must symbolize the pagan roman godlike sexual animus or the Biblical beast with Nero represented in the Book of Revelation by the number 666. For the reign of Claudius in roman history is most closely associated with his heir, Nero.
Yet the mystery becomes more complicated still. The first authorized King James Bible had not yet been printed when the first productions of Hamlet were staged!! Audiences would have been familiar with The Great Bible or Tyndale Bible, but the state-sponsored King James Bible would not have been available in 1603 when the First edition of Hamlet is thought to have been printed in the form of a playbook quarto. Yet the same compositors who worked on the quartos and the first folio might also have worked in the royal Kings Men print shops that printed the first King James Bible . And the need to build a platform and public interest in reading the word of the Holy Bible might have been a strong consideration during the printing of the second quarto in 1604, the same year that the printing of the first King James Bible commenced before its completion in 1611. The 1623 Folio was printed seven years after Shakespeare died and twenty years after Queen Elizabeth died in 1603. What does this mean?
It means that perhaps 1603 quarto, Q1, or the “bad quarto” as Duthie called it, was not so bad after all, nor was it necessarily inaccurate. But it is possible that with the printing presses prepared to build a large public audience for the first authorized Bible for British subjects, so too, did they infuse the second quarto of 1604 that was printed concurrently with the first KJB with a more contemplative tone and supernatural speculation. Finally, the collated texts of Q1 and Q2 are given the “solid” line reading in Hamlet’s soliloquy with the 1623 First Folio of the Complete Works of Shakespeare containing The Tragedy of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark that was published two decades after Queen Elizabeth departed this earth as the most powerful leader of the most powerful nation on earth. And it is also possible that the critical reception of The First King James Bible, published in 1611, significantly influenced the editorial decisions of the the compositors working on the 1623 Folio.
Therefore we cannot know with certainty whether Shakespeare first intended in 1603 that Hamlet wished for his solid flesh, his sullied flesh, or sallied flesh to melt. But we can be certain that in 1623 when King James held the throne, the Folio version printed a line reading revealing that Hamlet wished his “solid flesh” to melt. The iconic “to be, or not to be” soliloquy in the first quarto of 1603 shows significant development in the Q2 text of 1604/05 printed after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Was the influence of King James attempting to comfort the grieving population over the loss of a prosperous past and a beloved queen in order to fix the gaze of the public on the metaphysical prosperity of the world to come? Was the suggestion of a purgatorial metaphysical realm in Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark as printed in the 1623 Folio during the reign of King James I, formerly King James VI of Scotland, an attempt to unify subjects of the royal Kingdom of Great Britain and bind old wounds caused by Catholic and Protestant division? Further investigation into the geopolitics of early 17th Century England and Europe will very likely yield the answers to these questions and many more about this great Shakespearean gift to world literature.
Hamlet is the future king of the Danes, who becomes a King for a few moments after finally thrusting his avenging sword into the body of Claudius. Laertes, son of Polonius, whose poisoned foil would ensure Hamlet’s death, falls victim to his own deadly device when Hamlet exchanges swords with him and kills Laertes with Laertes’ own sword. Before Claudius can die by a wound inflicted by Hamlet with this same sword, Hamlet goads Claudius into drinking from the poisoned chalice after it has killed Gertrude.
Laertes and Hamlet realize that the King had intended the cup of poisoned wine for Hamlet just after Queen Gertrude carelessly drinks from the cup that Claudius had offered Hamlet. She confesses her folly and dies. As the treachery of Claudius is exposed for all to see, Laertes proclaims his forgiveness for Hamlet’s unwitting murder of Polonius, and Hamlet begs Horatio not to drink from the same poisoned cup, but to proclaim Hamlet’s royal duty and avenging mission a fait accompli. His last word to his best friend Horatio speaks of the need to honor his name and identity and to tell his story to preserve his name. He died proving his identity, one might say. It is interesting to note how the villainous uncle Claudius refers to Hamlet as “cousin” when the duel begins. Thus, this voiced erasure of Hamlet’s title as Prince of Denmark must fuel his rage and will to win back his name and title, if nothing else.
Gene Fendt poses a question that lifts the interrogative of “To be or not to be” from the ontological into the theological strata of metaphysics The question that titles Fendt’s book and theosophical heuristic Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? should certainly be answered in the affirmative.
Not only is Hamlet a religious drama, it is specifically a Christian drama with Hamlet playing the unwitting Messiah figure. Ultimately, every life that he takes results from his clumsy actions of self-defense or defense of his mother, father, King, and country. His last words to Horatio speak of his final wish to be remembered in the same way that Jesus asked his closest friends at his last Passover to remember him. Why do they beg remembrance? Because both Hamlet and Christ thought that they had failed, they left the memory of their legacies with select witnesses to complete. The promise of remembrance transfers the obligation of both heroes’ quests to his followers. So the body politic and the body of Christ assume the role of avenging King for Denmark and the Kingdom of Christ, respectively.
Hamlet’s final words to his mother, “Die wretched queen” reveal his utter despair for having been betrayed by his mother, just as Christ’s final words reveal Christ’s abject anguish for having been betrayed by his father. “Abba, Abba, why hast thou forsaken me? It is finished.” “The rest is silence,” the last words of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, recall the death and imminent resurrection of the immortal Savior whose birth is referenced in the beginning of the play. In this way the play is resolved much like a medieval mystery cycle play, as Gene Fendt suggests in his book.
In summary, this is the story of a Prince who is robbed of his father, his king, his future, and his identity upon returning from college; and his kingdom and world rely on the sovereign recognition of that identity. If we cannot acknowledge the weight of this loss in such high office, how can we acknowledge, let alone grieve or resist, identity loss for those not so privileged or “to the manner born” as Hamlet would say?
To return to the first problem of identity in the humanities, I think it is fair to say that Hamlet’s crisis is one that is the most human of all, and understanding his metaphysical reach is the most sublime of human experiences.
“Let the conversation and feuds begin,
And witness how the old is new again.”
That last line of the couplet in colicky iambic pentameter is only half stolen from the Bard, but the first line sparks from my own inspired though far lesser imagination. And the opening paragraph of this essay? It is my own symptom of Hamletitis. The ghost abides.
Notes: all references are cited parenthetically or cited within this website except the following (See the annotated bibliography page for full citation of Fendt and Sr. Miriam Joseph):
Bennett, Robert B. “Hamlet and the Burden of Knowledge” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 15, 1982.
Felski, Rita. “Context Stinks!” New Literary History. Volume 42, Number 4, Autumn 2011, pp. 573-591. Project Muse.
Hoy, Cyrus. Editor. Hamlet by William Shakespeare: A Norton Critical Edition. Second edition 1992, first edition 1963.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is Digital Humanities and Why are They Saying Such Terrible Things About it?” Differences. Duke University Press.
Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death” Wheel of Fire. Methuen & Company, Ltd: London. 1930. Reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet, edited by Cyrus Hoy. 2nd edition. Norton: New York. 1963. 1992.
Lewis, C.S. “Hamlet: the Prince or the Poem” Originally published as “They Asked for a Paper” Curtis Brown, Ltd.: London. 1962. Reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet edited by Cyrus Hoy, 2nd edition. Norton: New York. 1963. 1992.
Liu, Alan. “The Meaning of the Digital Humanities” PMLA 128.2 (2013): 409-23.
Newell, Alex. The Soliloquies in Hamlet: the Structural Design. Associated University Presses: Cranberry, New Jersey. 1991. (The citation is from the chapter titled, “The Mind O’erthrown: Reason Pandering Will”)