The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1364 Tuesday, 23 August 2005
Date: Monday, 22 Aug 2005 08:38:07 EDT
Subject: 16.1346 Old Fat Hamlet?
Comment: Re: SHK 16.1346 Old Fat Hamlet?
I'm not raising the question of whether Shakespeare meant Hamlet to be a
certain age or girth, or whether older or heavier actors are acceptable
in that or other parts. A search of SHAKSPER will show that these issues
have been the subject of several threads in the past. For what it's
worth I don't think Shakespeare felt the need to be consistent about
I did point out a slip in *Shakespeare Miscellany* as to the age (37)
claimed for the "first Hamlet", and further wondered where on earth they
got an exact weight (235 lbs.) for Burbage when he played it.
Concerning the age, it is likely that Burbage (christened 7 July 1568)
first played the part of Hamlet at the age of 25. His company, the Lord
Chamberlain's players, acted what is supposed to be the "ur-Hamlet" at
Newington Butts on 9 June 1594 (see Henlsowe's Diary). Burbage turned 37
in July 1605, but Shakespeare's Hamlet as represented by Q1 (probably
reconstructed from a performance) was entered in the Stationer's
Register in July 1602 and printed in 1603; and Q2 (perhaps printed from
Shakespeare's manuscript) was printed around the end of 1604. So Hamlet
(more or less as we know it) cannot be later than 1602 and may be as
early as 1599, and Burbage first played the part (as written by
Shakespeare) in his early 30s.
But where did the weight of 235 lbs. (or 14 stone) come from? Do we know
the weight of anyone from that time? I suppose we must for someone, but
I've never heard it said exactly how heavy Shakespeare was, or Queen
Elizabeth, or Bacon or Oxford or Marlowe or even big John Lowin. The
only relevant Google hit I found was "Hamlet: A History of Performance"
. There it says:
"The first actor to tackle the role of Hamlet was Shakespeare's own
principal tragedian, Richard Burbage (1567-1619). Nothing is known
about how Burbage played the role, but he was thirty-seven years old at
the earliest performance of the play, which puts our prejudices about
the Prince being played only by a youthful actor in a proper
perspective. Neither was Burbage skinny-one commentator estimates his
weight at this time to have been around 235 pounds; Gertrude's
admonition that Hamlet is "fat and scant of breath" may have been quite
Here we see the incorrect age at premier repeated (and the birth-year
bungled), though the compiler is probably only quoting a source. Who is
the commentator who "estimates his weight"? Here is the list of "Works
Cited" for this performance history:
Gibson, Mel, perf. Hamlet. Dir. Franco Zeffirelli. DVD. Warner,
Hibbard, G. R. Introduction. Hamlet. By William Shakespeare.
Ed. G. R. Hibbard. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987. 1-130.
Barnet, Sylvan. "Hamlet on Stage and Screen." The Tragedy of
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. By William Shakespeare. Ed. Sylvan Barnet.
New York: Penguin, 1998. 239-56.
Seton, Harold. "All Sorts of Hamlets." Theatre Magazine 29.7
Morley, Sheridan. DVD Booklet. Richard Burton's Hamlet. Dir.
John Gielgud. DVD. Image Entertainment, 1995.
Mills, John A. Hamlet on Stage: The Great Tradition. Westport:
I don't have most of these sources to hand. It's not in Hibbard's intro,
which by the way, contradicts the statement "nothing is known about how
Burbage played the role" by citing (p.15) the well-known contemporary
elegy on Burbage: "...young Hamlet... oft have I seen him leap into the
grave,/ suiting the person which he seemed to have/ of a sad lover with
so true an eye/ that there. I would have sworn, he meant to die."
"Young" Hamlet, note.
It appears this performance history was compiled for students of
Missouri Valley College by SHAKSPERean Mark Adderley. If Mark is out
there, can he tell us which commentator estimated Burbage's weight at
the age of 37 (or 32)?
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