The most famous word in Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the one we don’t know, the adjective omitted here:
O, that this too too 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.
Attempts have been made to resurrect the misprinted word as “sullied” and “solid” among others, but what is a beloved brought back to life for one is a Frankenstein to another. Everyone seems to agree though that we are free to speculate until a long lost original manuscript will set the record straight and Shakespeare has his last word. We pledge so strong allegiance to the author that if such a manuscript were ever found, we would debate about its authenticity – not whether there is a right word for Hamlet.
“Solid flesh” would fit nicely with melt, thaw and dew, but solid as an opposite of liquid doesn’t add anything that isn’t already implied. Based on the meaning, “sullied” would be the logical choice as “tarnished flesh” adds to the verse, provides explanation for Hamlet’s desire to commit suicide, and it fits well with “weary” and particularly “stale”.
The “too too” preceding the misprinted word indicates either desperation, emphasis or temporary amnesia. The desperate tone is set at the beginning with the “O”, and it continues through out the passage, so desperation cannot be ignored. If “too too” is also used as an emphasis then boolean “solid” makes hardly sense. “Sullied” on the other hand lends itself to both desperation and emphasis as there can be different degrees of stained. I prefer “sullied” because it ties closely to a reoccurring motif of incest in the play and gives the most freedom of expression to Hamlet. Imagine if a manuscript surfaced and it revealed that it was frustration and amnesia that Shakespeare was aiming at, and there was a blank to begin with. Would we accept his artistic choice when for years we have been in search of the right word?
We are reluctant to correct a mistake, even a blatant one, if it is made by an artist. When a famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed Finlandia Hall, he chose white Mediterranean marble for the exterior walls that proved to be ill-suited for the harsh conditions of Northern winter. The same Carraran marble was used when the music hall was renovated after his death, because it was the architect’s choice. As a proponent of functional design I have no doubt Alvar Aalto would have chosen differently had he known how the constant freezing and thawing affects the marble. His mistake would have been corrected by others had he not been a famous architect. Instead, a decade later, Finlandia Hall is once again in desperate need of a renovation.
I strongly believe we should aim for the integrity of the work instead of the integrity of the author’s final judgement. Sullied solids should not be blindly determined by what we might find in a manuscript or a blueprint if it is in contradiction with the work. People make mistakes. Artists make mistakes. And sometimes those mistakes are what gives the work a more profound meaning; other times they are just what they are – mistakes.