Vol 42 No 3
Hamlet No. I
1,1,70. Marcellus asks—
Good now sit downe, & tell me he that knowes
Why this same strict and most observant Watch,
So nightly toyles the subject of the Land,
And why such dayly Cast of Brazon Cannon
And Forraigne Mart for Implements of warre:
Why such impresse of Shipwrights, whose sore Taske
Do’s not divide the Sunday from the weeke,
What might be toward, that this sweaty hast
Doth make the Night joynt-Labourer with the day:
Who is’t that can informe me?
“The subject of the land” means the people, as in Measure for Measure, III,2,145, “the greater file of the subject held the duke to be wise." In order that the third line shall form the continuation of the second line, in each of my eight editions, the comma the Folio supplies at the end of the second line is omitted. But so far as this combination provides any meaning, it is that all the people toil nightly on the “most observant watch”, whereas it is made clear in the opening lines of the play that special sentries had been appointed; moreover, sentry duty is not “toil” for it entails much standing still, while the ship-wrights (and doubtlessly other tradesmen) worked with “sweaty haste”. From lines 11/12, it appears “most observant watch” refers to the men on duty. A small emendation makes all plain—
Good now, sit down and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch?
Why, nightly, toils the subject of the land?
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war?
Note the antithesis “nightly” and “daily” in the third and fourth lines. It shews those two lines are a pair, and that the second and third are not. There is the same contrast in the penultimate line “Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:” The enquiry regarding that line shews it to be a repetition of “Why nightly toils the subject of the land?”
1,1,117. Horatio says apparitions were seen in Rome just before “the mightiest Julius fell”—
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.
“Demonstrated” means demonstrated in former years. In an endeavour to make sense of the second and third lines, Schmidt (like many editors of the plays) defines “omen” as “a fatal event portended by signs”, but he gets no backing from the New English and other dictionaries, for therein it is defined merely as the portent. Precurse, harbingers and prologue are all synonyms, and fates and coming on (compare the slang term goings-on) variants of fierce events, so the second and third lines are paraphrases of the first line. It is very improbable that Shakespeare would thus have said the same thing three times over, so, probably, the passage is very corrupt. The five lines quoted form part of a passage of eighteen lines that are in the Quarto but not in the Folio: had they appeared in the latter, they would probably have been corrected.
Shakespeare never used the word “omen”, and in this passage it is redundant, as it follows its synonym “prologue”; for these reasons, it should be removed, but metre makes it certain there was another word in the place it occupies in the Folio, and no doubt that word was evil; each word consisting of four letters facilitating the error. So the line should read
And prologue to the evil coming on,
1,2,129. Hamlet starts the first of his soliloquies—
Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt,
Thaw, and resolve it selfe into a Dew.
He then proceeds to condemn his mother’s re-marrying less than two months after his father’s death.
Marshall (the Irving editor), Verity and Professor Dover Wilson all mention the Quarto’s spelling of “solid” as “sallied”. Marshall says the Folio “solid” is right: Verity that sallied is corrupt: Professor Dover Wilson—
“sullied flesh” is the key to the soliloquy—Further, “sullied” fits the immediate context as “solid” does not. There is something absurd in associating “solid flesh” with “melt” and “thaw”—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.
But in the lines quoted, there is no thought of the queen: they are
concerned with the idea that life is not worth living: they proclaim a generality, and Hamlet followed it up in succeeding lines by giving a particular instance of “the uses” (doings) that have led him to his conclusion, viz., his mother’s over-hasty re-marriage. He did not express the view that his own flesh could be “sullied” by his mother’s re-marriage, in fact, he denies, in effect, “the nature he shares with his mother” by saying (IV,4,55) he has “a mother stained”.
Accepting “solid” as authentic, the wish set forth in the first two lines is that he might be annihilated; passing through liquefaction to invisible moisture. Only a solid can melt or thaw, and it was a solid that Hamlet had in mind, for a “surface” cannot do either, as it has no substance: I suggest it may be defined as a boundary. Although “sullied” has interesting points as presented by Professor Dover Wilson, I have shewn that the other editors were right to follow the Folio.
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