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Word Nerd: Solid Or Sullied?
Language
Act 1,
Scene 2
Lines 129-132

A discussion of text differences in Act 1, Scene 2 of myShakespeare's Hamlet.

myShakespeare | Hamlet 1.2 Solid vs Sullied

Hamlet 

Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! Oh God! God!

Video Transcript

RALPH: In the first line of this soliloquy, Hamlet wishes that his" too too solid flesh would melt" — at least that's how it reads in my copy.

SARAH: But my edition reads, "O that my too too sullied flesh would melt."

RALPH: You're probably thinking: this is one of the most famous plays in the world — how can there be discrepancies like this?

SARAH: First of all, there are three different versions of the play that we refer to as sources — two earlier versions, printed soon after the play was written.

RALPH: These are called the First and Second Quartos.

SARAH: And a later version of the play, printed in an edition of the complete plays of Shakespeare, almost twenty years later.

RALPH: This is called the First Folio. Now, sometimes the differences between these are seemingly small — like this one word here.

SARAH: And sometimes they're quite large — one of Hamlet's famous monologues, in Act IV, Scene 4, appears in one of the early versions, and it doesn't in either of the other versions.

RALPH: So now, let's return to Hamlet's solid ...

SARAH: Or sullied ...

RALPH: ... flesh. It turns out that the later edition has the world "solid" — and this seems the most intuitive from the sense of the passage: if Hamlet's flesh is going to dissolve into a vapor, solid makes a nice, strong contrast.

SARAH: But both the earlier versions have, not sullied, but a third term — sallied, which could mean "assailed, or assaulted." While Shakespeare could have meant this here, most people think it's a variant spelling of the word "sullied" — soiled, dirty, or polluted. This also makes sense in the passage — Hamlet sees his earthly flesh as dirty or polluted, and wishes it would dissolve into a heavenly dew and leave the dirt behind.

RALPH: At any rate, it's impossible to know what Shakespeare "really meant" — in fact, it's possible that he liked one word for a while, then changed it for another.

SARAH: But it's also possible that one of the versions just had a simple printer's error.

RALPH: Well I still think "solid" makes the most sense. But wait a minute, Sarah, you said that the word "sallied" might have been a variant spelling of "sullied" — what does that mean? [To audience]: You must be thinking: I mean, how many ways are there to spell that word? Wouldn't Shakespeare have just looked it up?

SARAH: Looked it up in what? There was no such thing as a dictionary yet! The first book you might call an English dictionary — it only listed 2500 words — wasn't published until a few years after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.

RALPH: That's amazing — Especially if we think about Shakespeare's vocabulary. He uses far more different words in his works than any other writer in the history of the English language — over 17,000 different words — and he's responsible for introducing roughly 3,000 words into English that didn't exist before that. And he didn't even have a dictionary, much less a thesaurus!