A Sunday Times article by Jonathan Bate explains how he investigated word use for his new edition of Shakespeare:
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: everyone knows the phrase. And most people know where it’s from: “To be, or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles . . .”
What does it actually mean? Something about being buffeted by bad luck and worldly troubles, obviously. But the image is curious. Fortune, who dishes out our luck, is traditionally personified as a woman. If she has arrows, shouldn’t she have a bow rather than a sling? Why didn’t Shakespeare write: “The bow and arrow of outrageous fortune”? Or for that matter, “The slings and stones of outrageous fortune”?
Shakespearian commentators have puzzled over this conundrum for centuries, even going so far as to suggest that the inconsistency of weapon may mean that “slings” is a printer’s error for “stings”. Now, however, we have a solution. Almost every book written in the age of Shakespeare has been made available in digitised form. So you can go to an amazing website from the University of Toronto called Lexicons of Early Modern English and type in the word “sling”. Within a second the search engine will have worked its way through more than 150 dictionaries, glossaries and word lists from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Up pops a citation from Randle Cotgrave’s A Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1611), the first English-French dictionary: “Mangonneau: An old-fashioned sling, or engine, whereout stones, old iron, and great arrows were violently darted.”
So arrows can be fired from a sling. Fortune doesn’t have a puny little hand sling — rather she is firing off a huge catapult, a mighty engine of siege warfare. Hamlet’s image in this line is as strong as that in the next, where the hero imagines battling against an entire sea of troubles.
Unfortunately, it costs $75 a year to subscribe to LEME, but I imagine many of you have access to institutions that have subscriptions. (Thanks for the links, Glyn!)