While looking up about the passage asked about in this previous question, I noticed that there are different versions of the same line in Hamlet, Act I Scene II, line 333:

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Oh, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,

O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt

Ignoring minor differences like punctuation, which are common in Shakespeare anyway, what's with the solid/sullied/sallied triscrepancy? Why are there three different versions of this line? What is the history behind each one, and the arguments for and against considering each one as the "best" or "correct" version?

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    "Triscrepancy" is too clever by half -- "discrepancy" comes from Latin "dis" (apart), not Greek "di" (two). – nanoman Aug 3 at 23:03
  • 4
    @nanoman Don't you mean "too clever by a third"? ;-) – Moshe Katz Aug 3 at 23:19
  • That would be a false trichotomy (which means something altogether different). – Will Crawford Aug 5 at 3:12

Since Hamlet was published in several editions during the Jacobethan era, it is worth looking at how these early editions rendered these lines, using the old-spelling editions published by Internet Shakespeare Editions.

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:

So originally, we only had the alternatives "sallied" and "solid". In present-day English "sallied" only exists as the past tense and the past participle of the verb sally, which does not make sense in the context of the above lines. Hence, a modern editor needs to decide what to do with "sallied" or "solid" and this decision will be based on several factors and principles:

  • The text's meaning, both at the level of the individual lines and at the level of larger units (scene, act, entire play, especially for imagery and language patterns used beyond the lines or speech under consideration).
  • The approach to modernisation, usually set out by the series editor(s) (e.g. T. J. B. Spencer and Stanley Wells for the New Penguin Shakespeare, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor for the Oxford Shakespeare, etc.).
  • The general principle of giving priority to the First Folio versus the quartos or vice versa. For example, the RSC Shakespeare, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, "uses the Folio as base text wherever possible" ("About the text", Henry VI, Parts I, II and III, Macmillan, 2012, page 13).

For a book-length discussion of these types of issues, I refer the reader to How to Read a Shakespearean Play Text by Eugene Giddens (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

The first quarto of Hamlet (1603) is just over half the length of the second quarto (1604) (2200 lines versus 3800 lines) and many speeches appear "mangled" compared to how modern readers know them. One striking example is the famous "To be or not to be" speech in the first quarto's seventh scene: "To be, or not to be, I there's the point, / To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:/ (...)" The first quartos of Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and Pericles have also been considered "bad quartos". The term was introduced by A. W. Pollard in Shakespeare Folios and Quartos (1909) and has often been challenged.

The concept of "bad quarto" is relevant here because it influences an editor's choice of a base text. Historically, there have been different tendencies in modern Shakespeare scholarship. For a long time, editors created "conflated editions" of plays that were available in both quarto and folio editions. Simply put, the editor looked at both the quarto and folio texts and somehow combined them: lines that appeared in one edition but not in the other might end up in the conflated edition.

Later, editors changed their approach. Currently, what used to be known as "bad quartos" are now treated as legitimate editions in their own right. This has led to editions that just print the quarto text, e.g. The First Quarto of Hamlet edited by Kathleen O. Irace (Cambridge University Press, 1999). There have also been editions that print a/the quarto and the folio edition side by side, e.g. King Lear: Parallel Text Edition, edited by René Weis (Longman, 1993, 2nd edition, 2010). Compared to the earlier approach, in which an editor intervened much more heavily, this has sometimes been called "unediting".

But the choice of a base text does not solve all editorial issues, since editors also need to make decisions that affect readability:

  • Renaissance play texts use a different (and inconsistent) spelling and punctuation;
  • the texts contain words that are no longer in use;
  • they contain words and even lines that are obviously incorrect, even when allowing that Early Modern English used different rules than present-day English.

So even an editor of Hamlet who wants to use the second quarto as a base text (or use only that text because it would have been closest to Shakespeare's manuscript) would need to decide whether to regularise the spelling and punctuation and decide what to do with "sallied". For example, should "sallied" be left in place and glossed as a variant of "sullied" or should it be replaced by "sullied" for the sake of readability? Or when using the Folio as a base text, is it possible to adduce arguments to replace "solid" with the quarto's "sallied" or even "sullied"?

T. J. B. Spencer's edition (New Penguin Shakespeare, 1980) uses the second quarto (Q2) as a base text and uses a number of lines and readings from the Folio (F). As his "Account of the Text" explains:

In this edition, changes made in F are admitted into the text when they seem to represent a genuine amendment of a probable error in Q2. When the changes are merely a 'modernization' of grammar or of the form of a word, the Q2 reading is usually retained. The longer passages contained in F but printed in Q2 are included.

Spencer emends "sallied" to "sullied":

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'.

Harold Jenkins (Arden Shakespeare, 1982) also uses the second quarto as a base text (see "The Editorial Problem and the Present Text" in the introduction). Like Spencer, Jenkins prints "sullied". The decision is discussed in one of the "longer notes" near the end of the volume (pages 436-438), which notes that this "is the most debated reading in the play in recent years." He admits that "solid" would also be apt in this context and cites lines from Henry IV, part two, III.1, as a parallel (emphasis added):

that one might (...)
(...) see (...)
the continent
Weary of solide firmenesse melt it selfe
Into the sea, (...)

Citing S. Warhaft, Jenkins mentions that "solid" also makes sense in the context of the theory of humours. He then goes on to provide arguments in favour of "sullied":

The textual evidence for sullied, ..., cannot be dismissed. For sallied is less likely to be a corruption of solid than the other way about, and though Q2 may have derived it from Q1, this suggests that solid did not occur in Q2's manuscript authority, while Q1 is against it having been familiar in performance (...). Further, the fact that Q2 sallied here and sallies at II.i.40 occur in the work of different compositors argues for a manuscript origin.

G. R. Hibbard's edition (Oxford Shakespeare, 1987) use the First Folio text as a base text and therefore has "solid". This decision is discussed in a long note near the end of the volume (pages 382-384). Until John Dover Wilson's The Manuscript of Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Problems of its Transmission (2 volumes, 1934), editors had usually preferred the Folio's "solid" over the quarto reading. After Wilson's 1934 monograph and his Hamlet edition of the same year, editors began to prefer the Second Quarto's "sallied", which Wilson took for a misprint of "sullied".

Hibbard provides several arguments to favour "solid" over "sallied" or "sullied":

  1. Hibbard had argued in his textual introduction (pages 67-130) that the Folio text of Hamlet was based on Shakespeare's fair copy. Based on this, "solid is either what Shakespeare wrote in his first draft or a revision of what he wrote there".
  2. Q2's "sallied" may come from Q1 and would therefore by suspect.
  3. He rejects Wilson's argument that Hamlet would have been thinking of snow and wished his "sullied flesh" would melt as snow. Hibbard counters that when snow melts, it is dirt that remains and not something as pure as dew.
  4. Hibbard rejects Wilson's theory, also mentioned by Spencer, that "solid flesh" would have provoked mirth due to Burbage's girth: "[Wilson] imports the twentieth-century anxiety about weight into Elizabethan England, and he gives solid overtones which it does not have".

Cyrus Hoy's edition (Norton Critical Editions, W. W. Norton, second edition, 1992) considers the second quarto as the most authoritative version of the play (page 103):

For all its typographical imperfections, the second quarto gives as a text of Hamlet that must be regarded as superior to that of the folio, not only because it is fuller, but because it is closer to a Shakespearean manuscript source.

Hoy prints "sallied" (not "sullied"!) with the following footnote:

"Sallied" is the reading of Q2 (and Q1). F reads "solid". Since Hamlet's primary concern is with the fact of the flesh's impurity, not with its corporeality, the choice between Q and F clearly lies with Q. "Sally" is a legitimate sixteenth-century form of "sully"; it occurs in Dekker's Patient Grissil (I.i.12), printed in 1603, as F. T. Bowers has pointed out (in "Hamlet's 'Sullied' or 'Solid' Flesh. A Bibliographical Case-History", Shakespeare Survey 9 [1956]: p. 44); and it occurs as a noun at II.i.39 of Hamlet.

Based on this non-representative sample of editions, "sallied" seems to have been the most frequently preferred reading since John Dover Wilson's 1934 monograph on and edition of the play. However, Shakespeare scholars appear to have been moving away from the idea that the quartos have greater authority over the folio or vice versa, or that it is possible to establish once and for all which version comes closest to what Shakespeare wrote (especially when considering that Shakespeare may have revised his texts after the quarto publication).

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  • Might these words have been homophones in the English of the time? – mikado Aug 9 at 14:44
  • @mikado None of the editions I consulted mention this possibility. – Tsundoku Aug 9 at 14:55

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