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!)


  1. Cotgrave is a great book, and was used virtually verbatim in Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais. (Cotgrave marks words from Rabelais with an ‘R’.)

  2. They don’t make this too clear, probably by intent, but things in the menus that aren’t greyed out (including searches using original forms) actually work without logging in. This may have something to do with how it was derived from its predecessor.

  3. I might add that every lexicon seems to have a rich bibliography attached to it–very cool.

  4. Argghhhh! Imagine the immediate and debilitating access of existential vertigo I have just undergone. Tabellion, the deathless and definitive thread for revealing great and immutable truths about the famous soliloquy is locked, because of predation from Visigoths! I do hope it can be re-opened. Why, we’d hardly scratched the surface.
    Anyway, consider the line with which Hamlet turns from his ruminations and addresses Ophelia:
    Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.
    Now, I have a Particular View concerning a certain meaning here. I want to test the “accuracy” of the interpretation in question, since I have never seen it adverted to in any commentary or analysis. May I ask: what do people gather from this line? What more hidden implications might there be?

  5. Siganus Sutor says

    Noetica: Tabellion, the deathless and definitive thread for revealing great and immutable truths about the famous soliloquy is locked, because of predation from Visigoths!
    Taberribile, isn’t it? These vandals have already been cursed though, on the 9th of April. (May it somehow soothe you.)
    I too had other things on my mind for this thread, for times when I would not be so busy with stupid, concrete, material preoccupations (i.e. when I retire maybe). But those hooligans have wrecked the place. A humble request was made to God — aka Mr Hat, LH, Steve and various other cognomens —, supported by the fact that He Himself declared the thread immortal, but in this Age of Noise in which we are bound to live and die He probably didn’t hear the supplication*. However, eternity is on His side (and not on ours, alas) and the rabble have to be patient.
    * Not to be buried on Sete’s beach, but just to be able to carry on playing on the beach, and have some extra rounds on the pedal boat…

  6. Due to overwhelming popular demand (from the Knights of the Tabellionary Order), I have reopened the thread in question. Use it wisely, or at least winsomely.
    May I ask: what do people gather from this line?
    Personally, I take Nymph to be an introductory exclamation parallel to Humph, orisons to be a Renaissance form of Orissi ‘A classical dance style practised in Orissa, a state in eastern India,’ and sins to be a spelling of since (attested from Shakespeare’s day: 1562 Child Marriages 49 The said John Starkie is xiiij yeres of age, and as muche as sins Whitsonday-Monday last past). Therefore, after clearing his throat Hamlet is saying “in your classical dances, may my latterly remembered…”—at which point a clearly distraught Ophelia interrupts him before he can tell us what it is he’s remembered. This bit of nearly Proustian subtlety has been lost by the timid interpreters who have prevailed thus far.

  7. Orisons is meant to allude to arse?
    a la “country matters”.

  8. LH and dearieme:
    O brave new interpretations. (There’s my argument: open up Tabellion.)
    Of course orisons are “sons of the mouth”: words.* So Hamlet is referring to what Ophelia (a name with its cryptonomatopoeic roots in the Greek for “little serpent”; cf. Hydra, by the way) might say. But sins also means “sons”, by areal influence from the nearby Visigothoid Slavs, the bounds of whose domain sometimes beetle o’er into Denmark itself. The implication is this: Hamlet prays that Ophelia put together again (“re-member”) the sons she was possibly to have with Hamlet in a projected marriage, and whom she has prefiguratively “dismembered” (“rejected”, cf. disjecta membra) by hesitating concerning that marriage. Hamlet seeks explicit encouragement from Ophelia that they might still have some prospect of uniting their bodies (“getting it together”; cf. “better laid than never”) and therefore also their future masculoplural engenderments. (Of course there is also the obvious play on “dismemberment” as emasculation by rough hewing of the membrum virile.)
    Obvious when you see it set out like that, I know. But one never sees it made explicit.
    O, and there was another interpretation I had in mind.
    *Words, words, words.

  9. open up Tabellion
    Ye have asked, and it has been done. I expect to see it in Recent Comments when I wake up tomorrow.

  10. Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered. Or: Thanks, in high for rising tabellial* mécène be rendered.
    *Or not tabellial

  11. Actually, I’ve always liked the version of the Great Soliloquy in the Bad Quarto of Hamlet better:
    _Ham._ To be, or not to be, I there’s the point,
    To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
    No, to sleepe, to dreame, I mary there it goes,
    For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
    And borne before an euerlasting Iudge,
    From whence no passenger euer retur’nd,
    The vndiscouered country, at whose sight
    The happy smile, and the accursed damn’d.
    More at the Gutenberg Project

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