How we cite our quotes:
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!
We start off with a bang. Or, considering that this is Hamlet we're talking about, maybe more like a whimper: he's moaning about how depressed he is over his father's death and mom's remarriage, and wishing that his "flesh" would "melt"—i.e., that he'd die.
History Snack! Elizabethans believed the human body was made up of four basic elements, called humors: phlegm, blood, yellow bile, and black bile. Hamlet seems to be suffering from what Elizabethans referred to as "melancholy," which was associated with too much "black bile" in the body. This state led to lethargy, irritability, distorted imagination, and so on. Basically, it sounds a lot like what we call "clinical depression" today. But since this is 1600 rather than the 21st century, he can't just take some Abilify; he has to plot (and delay) a murderous revenge.
Textual Note: Some modern editions of the play read "sullied flesh" instead of "solid flesh." This is because the first folio (published 1623) edition of the play (which reads "solid") is slightly different than the first quarto (published 1603) edition, which reads "sallied." Modern editors who prefer the first quarto reading update the word "sallied" to "sullied," as in "stained." Does it matter? Sure it does. Some editors and literary critics prefer "sullied" flesh because it suggests that Hamlet feels that he personally has been soiled, stained, or contaminated by his mother's incestuous relationship with his murderous uncle. Given how he seems to feel about sex, we'd buy that.
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on
After the Ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius has murdered his father, Hamlet begins to plan his next steps. Here, he warns his friends that he will put on an "antic disposition"—i.e., pretend to be a madman. Doesn't this settle it? He says he's going to pretend to be mad; ergo, he isn't actually mad. Maybe. But keep in mind that (1) Hamlet says he's going to pretend to be mad ; (2) Hamlet's already "melancholy" at the beginning of the play ; (3) Elizabethan ideas about "madness" are unstable and they're different than modern notions of mental illness. As we'll see, the play itself offers multiple definitions of madness.
This seems like a good time for a History Snack break. Here's something you might like to know: Shakespeare borrows the idea of feigned madness from one of the play's major sources, the story of "Amleth," a legendary Danish tale that dates back to at least the 9th century. In the source story, Amleth clearly pretends to be mad after his uncle kills his father and marries his mother, Gerutha. (The idea is that if the uncle believes Amleth has lost his mind, he won't suspect that Amleth knows the truth behind the murder. Amleth, then, will be safe from his murderous uncle.)
My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,—he comes before me.
He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go:
And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me. (2.1.1)
Elizabethans thought that love really could make a man sick and mentally ill. They called this state "love melancholy." Check out what a doctor, Bernard Gordon, had to say in Lilium Medicinae:
The illness called heroes is melancholy anguish caused by love for a woman. The cause of this affliction lies in the corruption of the faculty to evaluate… [men forget] all sense of proportion and common sense…it can be defined as melancholy anguish. (source)
Here, Ophelia describes Hamlet as looking and acting just like a guy who's playing the stereotypical role of an unrequited lover. It's a textbook case of lovesickness. In fact, maybe too textbook—almost as if he's read the book, if you know what we mean.