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Home :: Archive :: 2008 :: February ::
Solid Flesh
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0078  Sunday, 10 February 2008

From:		Martin Mueller <
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Date:		Friday, 8 Feb 2008 17:01:27 -0600
Subject:	Solid Flesh

What is the property of the flesh that Hamlet would like to melt? The 
Folio says 'solid', the second quarto says 'sallied', and many editors 
emend to 'sullied.'  Does Shakespeare's use of 'solid' in other passage 
help with settling this crux?

In 2 Henry IV, the king, in an unusually reflective and nostalgic moment 
says:

O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea! (2 Henry IV 3.1.45-49)

'Weary', 'solid', and 'melt' occur in the same line. In Hamlet's first 
soliloquy we find

O, that this too too [sallied|solid] flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
(Hamlet 1.2.129-34)

If we follow the Folio, we have 'solid' and 'melt' in the same line and 
'weary' within five lines. As Fluellen might say, "the situations, look 
you, is both alike." (Henry V, 4.7.26)  King Henry is no Hamlet, but if 
he ever is in a Hamlet moment, this would be it. Even something like 
suicide crosses his mind as he contemplates the "happiest youth" and how 
such a youth would respond to a full knowledge of the contingencies of 
the future (2 Henry IV 3.1.54-56).

There are two other occurrences of 'solid' in Shakespeare. In Ulysses' 
speech on degree, water does not quite dissolve the globe but turns it 
into a 'sop':

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
(Troilus 1.3.109-113)

In Othello, Lodovico wonders:

Is this the noble Moor whom our full senate
Call all in all sufficient? Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? whose solid virtue
The shot of accident, nor dart of chance,
Could neither graze nor pierce?
(Othello 4.1.262-266)

There is no water in this passage, but 'solid' is associated with 
dissolution or destruction in an oddly negative way.

There is an unusually high number of lexical echoes between Hamlet and 
Othello, and I believe E. A. Honigman made an argument that the 
composition of those two plays overlapped. If he was right, the 
occurrences of 'solid' in Shakespeare cluster within a space of less 
than five years. At a maximum, they cluster within eight years. But  it 
is the strong resemblances between King Henry at an 
uncharacteristically, and Hamlet at a characteristically, reflective 
moment, supported strongly if not decisively by other occurrences,  that 
makes me wonder whether 'solid' should be considered as the most 
plausible reading in this famous passage.

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