Word of the Day: Flesh

May 18, 2012 in Word of the Day
O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

says Hamlet in soliloquy at I.ii, unknowingly anticipating the sight of his dead, and now ghostly, father. As the framework of mortality, ‘flesh‘ in Hamlet is also a primary constraint on freedom and a source of anguish.

For the term not only denotes “the mortal frame” (the means of living), but also the sharing of kinship—as is still the case in Christian marriage customs wherein husband and wife are ‘one flesh’, family. Shakespeare uses “flesh” in this sense almost more often than he uses it to mean the meat of the body. See, for example, The Winter’s Tale:

CLOWN She being none of your flesh and blood, your flesh and blood has not offended the king

“That this too too solid flesh would melt” for Hamlet carries a double burden—not only wishing to die (“self- slaughter”), he also wants to be exempt from the familial bonds with his adulterous mother and murderous father-in-law (now also his “solid [sullied] flesh”). The ghost’s immateriality, its anti-flesh quality (it is the same as a human except in those human qualities which are contingent on flesh-having) changes him entirely into an information-giving device; the ghost is practically shareware. But it also makes him a sort of qualitative opposite to Claudius; for while he has been removed from flesh, Claudius has been added to it: to Gertrude’s and, by extension, to Hamlet’s. And the ghost’s function in the play is, indeed, to provide Hamlet the information that will start the plot and pit him against his mother and father. Whether Hamlet imagines the ghost to justify his already extant disgust for the marriage, is another question. As the ghost says,

But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.–List, list, O, list!–

The merits of a continuing flesh are a matter for debate. Hamlet appears to believe there is no reason of self-interest for remaining in his mortal frame, but finds (in that famous “to be or not to be” speech) that apprehension of “what dreams may come” afterwards “must give us pause”; as much pause, perhaps, as the immaterial ghost?

Contributed by Luke McMullan

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