8

Oh, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew
(Hamlet, Act I, Scene II)

Why does "too" occur twice? It is one in a series of repetitions which occur in this soliloquy. But what does it mean "too, too sullied"?

Perhaps it is also a reference to "this too", being Claudius and the Queen.

5

I understand it as an intensifying repetition as in 'very very brave', 'long long time ago' but, apparently, there is no full agreement on this fragment even between the specialists (or, at least, in 1877, there wasn't):

too too] Nares pointed out the intensive effect of this reduplication, giving instances from Holinshed and Spenser, and adding that it is common. Halliwell (Sh. Soc. Papers, 1844, i, 39) showed that 'too-too' is a provincial word recognized by Ray, and explained by him as meaning 'very well or good,' and that Watson a few years afterwards says it is 'often used to denote exceeding.' In proof 'that TOO-TOO, as used by our early writers, is one word, denoting "exceedingly," and that it ought to be so printed' Halliwell gives from the poets twelve instances, from Skelton down to Hudibras, and refers to over thirty other passages where the phrase is found, extending from Promos and Cassandra to Young's Night Thoughts. [After all, Halliwell did not so print it in his edition.] Hunter doubts if this reduplication be emphatic. It appears to him to have been in sense neither more nor less than too, and he cites many instances from prose writers. Palsgrave, he adds, has beside to-much, to-little, &c., to to much, to to great, to to little, to to small, answering to par trap trop peu, par trop trop grant, par trop trop petit. The pronunciation was too-toó, as appears by this line of Constable's: 'But I did too-too inestimable wey her.' That the phrase was used with intensifying iteration, White thinks is clear from instances like the present, and from the similar iteration of other adverbs and adjectives in the literature of Shakespeare's day. For instance: 'Thy wit dost use still still more harmes to finde,'—Sidney's Arcadia, ii, p. 225, ed. 1603; 'While he did live far, far was all disorder,'—Ib. v, p. 430; 'your lesson is Far far too long to learne it without booke,'—Astrophel and Stella, St. 56, Ib. p. 537; 'Stop you my mouth with still still kissing me,'—Ib. St. 81, Ib., p. 547; 'Even to thy pure and most most loving breast,'—Sh. Son. 110. In any case the compound epithet must have originated in the frequent iterative use of the word. Staunton thinks that the present instance must be regarded as an exception to Halliwell's rule. Here the repetition of too is not only strikingly beautiful, rhetorically, but it admirably expresses that morbid condition of the mind which makes the unhappy prince deem all the uses of the world but 'weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.' Halliwell notes that his copy of F2 reads 'too-too,' with the hyphen.

Horace Howard Furness, ed. (1877). A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Hamlet, pp. 41–42. Philadelphia: J. P. Lippincott.

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  • Ok nice. Good article. That’s what I was looking for. – apkg Jul 30 at 9:25
5

Since Hamlet was published in several editions during the Jacobethan era, it is worth looking at how these early editions rendered these lines.

The first quarto (Q1), published in 1603, which has sometimes been called a "bad quarto", gives the lines as follows:

O that this too much grieu'd and sallied flesh
Would melt to nothing, or that the vniuersall
Globe of heauen would turne al to a Chaos!

The second quarto (Q2), published in 1604, gives the lines as follows:

Oh, that this too too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

Finally, the First Folio, published in 1623, gives the lines as follows:

Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt,
Thaw, and resolue it selfe into a Dew:

ShakesearesWords.com gives two meanings of "too":

  1. (adverb) very;
  2. (adverb) anyway, in any case.

There are two other meanings recorded in C. T. Onions's A Shakespeare Glossary:

  1. adv.: "and too" And at the same time. "wild, and yet, too, gentle* (The Comedy of Errors 3.1.110).
  2. prep. (var. in F. of) To. "if they come too't" (Hamlet 4.5.60).

Based on this, the most plausible meaning of "too too" is an intensification of "very". So what do modern editions of Hamlet say? The modern editions I have consulted comment on "sallied" versus "solid" but not always on "too too".

Bernard Lott (The New Swan Shakespeare, Advanced Series, Longman, 1968) says,

too too solid: This is how the First Folio reads. Other early editions, the Quartos, give the word sallied instead of solid, which in Shakespeare's English can mean 'troubled'. But solid contrasts with melt, and dew in the following line, and is probably the correct reading. Hamlet is speaking of the flesh of his own body.

T. J. B. Spencer (The New Penguin Shakespeare, 1980) chose "sullied" with the following rationale:

Q2 reads 'sallied' (which could be a spelling of sullied). F reads 'solid', which contrasts well with melt, | Thaw, and resolve itself... and until the twentieth century was generally preferred by editors. But it may have an unpleasantly comic effect, especially if Richard Burbage, the actor who first played Hamlet, were putting on weight (compare He's fat and scant of breath, V.2.281). Sullied fits well into the feeling of contamination expressed by Hamlet; and for sullies (F 'sulleyes') at II.1.39. Q2 has the spelling 'sallies'.

G. R. Hibbard (The Oxford Shakespeare, 1987) glosses "too too":

altogether too, much too. The reduplication of too for emphasis was very common from about 1540 to 1660 (OED 4).

(Hibbard comments on the two lines in an appendix on pages 382-384, which also discusses John Dover Wilson's theory, already mentioned by Spencer, that "solid flesh" would have provoked mirth due to Burbage's girth [I couldn't resist the pun] but without agreeing with it. His choice for "solid" is based on other arguments.)

Hibbard's gloss appears to settle the issue.

One final comment: the difference between the first quarto and the other editions is the type of deviation that once gave rise to theories that this "bad quarto" might have been a pirated text, either by someone in the theatre writing down the playtext in shorthand during a performance or some actors of minor roles restoring the playtext from memory. Such theories no longer enjoy general support among Shakespeare scholars. The more interesting observation is the wording "too much", where the second quarto and the folio have "too too"; this also suggests that the repetition of "too" was intended as an intensifying device and not, as Alexander Sloane's answer claims, that one of these adverbs here means "also".

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3

On top of the answer provided by @tum_ (great answer, btw), in earlier English--particularly in Old English (aka Anglo Saxon) and Middle English, though also in early modern English as in the case with Shakespeare--repeated modifiers were a way to emphasize the point. This was especially true with multiple negatives. Whereas today there is the idea that a double negative = positive, historically that was not the case. To use multiple negatives ("I will not never eat lima beans") was a way to make it extra extra negative (heh...just noticed what I typed there). Professor Michael D.C. Drout discusses this in several of his Modern Scholar courses, most of which are available on Audible. The one I listened to most recently that touched on it was "Way with Words: Writing Rhetoric and the Art of Persuasion."

With regard to "too, too solid" vs. "too, too sullied," that depends upon which Shakespeare text you are looking at. The First Quarto (also known as the "Bad Quarto") actually has the line as "too, too sallied," which--given that sallied means to be attacked or besieged--I would argue doesn't seem to fit the context. Editors often change the word to "sullied," meaning contaminated or made dirty. The First Folio (1623) uses "too, too solid."

My personal opinion (Shakespeare was my secondary focus in grad school, right after medieval English literature) is that "solid" seems to fit the best, given that it is followed by "melt" and "thaw." My opinion is that "melt" and "thaw" work better in opposition to "solid" than they do "sullied." Like I said, just my opinion, though.

Here is a good link that discusses this:

https://interestingliterature.com/2019/08/a-short-analysis-of-hamlets-o-that-this-too-too-solid-flesh-would-melt-soliloquy/

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  • Welcome to the site! I'm actually planning to post a separate question, probably this weekend, about "solid" vs "sullied" vs "sallied", since that issue is worth exploring in detail separately from the "too too" issue that this question is asking about. – Rand al'Thor Jul 30 at 18:59
  • @Randal'Thor Oops, I have already addressed this in my own answer before reading your comment. – Tsundoku Aug 1 at 13:36
  • @Tsundoku and kurt.kincaid: posted. – Rand al'Thor Aug 3 at 12:36

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