I’m helping to coach an actor who’s doing Hamlet’s first soliloquy in Act I, “O that this too, too, solid flesh.”
The text of the speech
Hamlet. O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month-
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she
(O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle;
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!
Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, lines 332-363.
This is the first time Hamlet really speaks. He’s extremely tight-lipped to Claudius and his mother, and for good reason: he just witnessed his father die under mysterious circumstances, his mother remarried, his school year canceled, and himself proclaimed heir to the throne. All of this happened within a month! It’s very hard to process this kind of massive shift in your life, so Hamlet waits until he is alone.
The speech is full of distrust for his uncle, contempt for his mother, and deep starry-eyed mourning for his father. Hamlet compares his father to Hyperion, the Greek Titan who ruled the Sun- a being who inspired awe and terror. He then contrasts that with Claudius whom he compares to a satyr- an old, half-goat man who is horny in more ways than one. Hamlet clearly doesn’t like or trust his uncle and is disgusted by the notion that he is now Hamlet’s stepfather.
How does Hamlet feel about himself? Well, the text is somewhat ambiguous. The soliloquy’s first line might be saying that Hamlet wants to melt away into air, but it could just as easily apply to the Ghost (who is still on Hamlet’s mind), Claudius (who he hates), or Gertrude (whom he’s disgusted at because she’s sleeping with his uncle). We don’t have a clear picture yet how Hamlet feels about himself in this moment, but we do know that his world is shattered and is no longer as happy as it once was:
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.Act I, Scene ii, Line 336.
As I often say, verse is the heartbeat of a character, and as Hamlet says, his own heart is broken so his verse is very irregular. Ideas spill over into multiple lines instead of tight, 10-syllable lines. In the excellent book, “Speak the Speech”, Rhona Silverbush and Sami Plotkin comb the speech for clues in the verse that suggest Hamlet’s fragile emotional state:
The piece is riddled with starts and stops mid line, sentence fragments, and [self] interruptions, which underscore Hamlet’s extreme agitation.Excerpt from “Speak the Speech” by By Rhona Silverbush, Sami Plotkin · 2002
In the picture below, you can see how Hamlet often inverts his lines from Iambic to Trochaic (emphasis on the odd beats, rather than the even beats):
It’s up to the actor to decide which emotions Hamlet is showing and how this effects his breath, voice, and physicality, but the structure of the verse, the punctuation, and the flow of the thoughts gives him or her clues to play with, as you can see in this video with RSC actor Pappa Essiedu:
Ambiguity and textual choices
Hamlet is a play that is all about the ambiguities that plague us as we go through life and its title character is constantly second-guessing, third-guessing, and fourth-guessing himself. In this speech, there are questions that the actor must decide for him/herself, because Hamlet and Shakespeare leave them open:
- Whose flesh is solid? His father’s? His own? The world? Claudius?
- Is it solid or sullied? There are three different versions of the text and they spell it two different ways: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OM44beLnqTQ&feature=emb_imp_woyt
- What does it mean to “possess it merely?”
- Does Hamlet really believe that his father was so much better than Claudius, or is he lying to himself?
- Why is Hamlet so angry at his mother, as opposed to Claudius?
- Do you believe, (as Freud did), that Hamlet has an Oedipus complex?
- When he says “Break my heart,” is that a command, like Kent in King Lear? Or is it a promise, “My heart will break because I must hold my tongue?”
Interactive website version:
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