In the Folio text of Hamlet, the prince, whose mother will later refer to as being "fat, and scant of breath" (5.2), laments, "Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolue it selfe into a Dew" (1.2). But is that supposed to be "sallied flesh" -- the Q2 reading? And if so, does it mean "salted" (as in French, saler), tear-soaked into preservation? Or should it supposed to be, as some editors would have it, "sullied flesh" -- tainted, contaminated? After all, a few scenes later in Q2, Polonius speaks of "laying these slight sallies on my sonne / As t'were a thing a little soyld with working" (2.1); in the Folio text he refers to "slight sulleyes."
As the means of transmission for original sin, flesh is always sullied in Christian doctrine, and thus in early English literature. Hamlet seems to making a different case, arguing that his flesh is, like Lear (King Lear 3.2), "More sinn'd against than sinning." Still, does it really matter, except to the editor or actor? The speech ends up the same way regardless of the reading chosen, with Hamlet crying "Frailty, thy name is woman!" Woman is all appetite, all sinful flesh. And by extension, all sinful flesh is generally seen as feminine -- the "woman's part" of man.
POSTHUMUS LEONATUS ... Could I find out
The woman's part in me! For there's no motion
That tends to vice in man, but I affirm
It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it,
The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers;
Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers;
Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows.... (Cymbeline 2.5)
But nothing is ever so neat as all that -- not in Shakespeare's world, at least. Posthumus is ranting about a woman who is honest in every sense; in Cymbeline, men, not women, are the sinful problem. In Shakespeare's dramatic corpus, unless otherwise specified, "flesh" is generally masculine. Silence sings in 2 Henry IV 5.3:
... we shall
Do nothing but eat, and make good cheer,
And praise God for the merry year;
When flesh is cheap and females dear,
And lusty lads roam here and there
And ever among so merrily.
This sounds to me like a homoerotic fantasy of unavailable women and lusty lads, but in any case clearly opposes rather than conflates "flesh" and "females."
In early English writing, "flesh" is a common synonym for "meat" -- red meat, as opposed to fish, but also "meat" in the sexual sense. Specifically masculine "meat" is hardly a modern invention: Touchstone in As You Like It says that "to cast away honesty upon a foul slut were to put good meat into an unclean dish" (3.3). Samson in Romeo and Juliet (1.1) jokes about cutting off maidenheads and claims "Me they shall feel while I am able to stand: and 'tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh." Gregory responds, "'Tis well thou art not fish" and compares him to old sallied fish -- dried salt hake — before noticing the approaching Montagues and crying out to Samson, "Draw thy tool!" Failure to draw his own manly tool against the Capulets, its fleshly counterpart being too occupied with Juliet alone, will later cause Romeo to lament, "O sweet Juliet, / Thy beauty hath made me effeminate / And in my temper soften'd valour's steel!" (3.1) The flesh indeed is willing, but the spirit is weak (to sully Matthew 26:41).
To be fully masculine, flesh must perhaps be more fully metaphorical, and thus less assailable. As St Paul saith, "the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh: For these are contrary one to another" (Galations 5.17, in the Douai-Rheims translation). This and other well-known biblical passages enforce an opposition of spirit and flesh in early English culture, even more than they do now. Onto this are mapped other binaries: spirit and letter, good and evil, male and female, Christian and Jew. These get too easily conflated: Jewish men are said to drink Christian blood and to menstruate; they read the letter of scripture but are blind to the spirit, they don't believe that the eucharistic Host is the really the flesh and blood of Christ. Unsurprisingly, then, of all Shakespeare's plays, the one containing the most occurrences of the word "flesh" -- fully 15% of all occurrences in the Complete Works -- is The Merchant of Venice, where the word is explicitly associated with Shylock.
In the works of Chaucer, half of all the occurrences of the word "flesh" (or rather "flessh") and almost all occurences of "fleshly" ("flesshly") show up in the Parson's Tale alone -- a prose treatise on the seven deadly sins. Yet when the Parson rants about lust being incited by the sight of flesh exposed by fashionably tight leggings and short jackets -- a common theme in later morality plays as well — it is clearly masculine flesh that he refers to, although he compares it to female flesh of a sort:
Of hem shewen the boce or hir shap, and the
Horrible swollen membres, that semeth lik the
Maladie of hirnia, in the wrappynge of hir
Hoses; / and eek the buttokes of hem faren as
It were the hyndre part of a she-ape in the fulle
Of the moone. (Canterbury Tales 10.423-424)
Garrett PJ Epp is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair (Graduate Studies) at the University of Alberta's Department of English, although he's not entirely sure how that happened. He enjoys not only discussing and writing about early English theatre, but also doing it, in the flesh. This paper was originally drafted for a department-sponsored "Keywords" panel discussion, which a certain nasty editor attended; Garrett would like to thank both Julie Rak and Kirsten C Uszkalo for forcing him to expose his "flesh" [ah, there it goes, disappearing into discourse again] in these public venues.