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Hamlet's Fat

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.112  Friday, 15 March 2012

 

[1] From:        Bill Lloyd < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 14, 2012 3:16:28 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat

 

[2] From:        Steve Roth < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 14, 2012 4:00:07 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat Hamlet

 

[3] From:        Michael Zito < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 15, 2012 9:17:05 AM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat

 

[4] From:        Paul Barry < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 15, 2012 12:01:04 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat

 

[5] From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         Thursday, March 15, 2012

     Subject:     Commentary on “fat”; Reference to Burbage?

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Bill Lloyd < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 14, 2012 3:16:28 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat

 

Larry Weiss says, “Richard Burbage is said to have weighed 16 or 17 stn.”

 

Said by who? when? Although I’ve seen it variously reported on the Internet, and in one or two books, that Burbage was (variously) 14 or 16 or 17 stone, or 235 lbs, there is no contemporary warrant for this statement. I would be very surprised if it can be traced back farther than the 19th or 20th century, and suspect it’s only an urban legend extrapolated from Gertrude’s calling Hamlet fat.

 

Bill Lloyd

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Steve Roth < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 14, 2012 4:00:07 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat Hamlet

 

Anthony Burton: “confirm that Gertrude’s last ‘explanation’ is as false as all her others”

 

Love it. It supports my current view of Gertrude (much driven by your inheritance pieces in SNL) as perhaps the most consummate Machiavel of the lot—a view that is supported incontrovertibly by the seeming complete lack of evidence supporting that view. ;-) 

 

Looking forward to reading your chapter.

 

Larry Weiss: “Richard Burbage is said to have weighed 16 or 17 stn.”

 

I had hoped that I drove the necessary stake through this one’s heart some years go. (And I note now that you were watching at the time.) Quoting me from 2005, in turn quoting me from 2001:

>At risk of being “self-reflexive” (that odiously redundant but 

>distressingly widespread scholarly usage), I'll quote a snippet 

>from one my own posts from 14 Sep 2001:

>

>>Re: SHK 12.2177 Re: Tyndale Bible and “fat” Hamlet

>>

>>I’ve found this item to be quite curious. I’ve scoured Chambers,

>>Baldwin, Bowers, Schoenbaum, etc. etc. and can’t find any reference to

>>Burbage being fat. I’ve posted this query to this list a couple of

>>times, asking if there are other refs, but no replies.

>>

>>This “fat Burbage” tradition seems to be doubly apocryphal, because

>>there’s not even any apocrypha suggesting that Burbage was fat. 

>>Baldwin, among others, draws the conclusion from this line only. He 

>>may have been fat, of course, or there may be a reference I haven’t 

>>found.

>

>Nobody on this list has ever come up with the supposed contemporary 

>reference to Burbage’s weight. It’s a legend.

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Michael Zito < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 15, 2012 9:17:05 AM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat

 

Jenkins can do no wrong in my account.  I have, however, gone to the Variorum and in doing so, have found Furness offering the following very interesting commentaries, including one that tilts the scale, if you will, towards the remark under question as pertaining to Hamlet’s weight:  

 

Staunton: Does the Queen refer to Ham. or Laer.?

 

Clarke: We believe that this refers not to Burbadge, but to Ham. himself, who, as a sedentary student, a man of contemplative habits, one given to reflection rather than action, might naturally be supposed to be of somewhat plethoric constitution . . . . [he goes on to explain Hamlet’s exercise regimen] . . . the result of sedentary occupation and a too sedulous addiction to scholarly pursuits.

 

Wright: a ‘fine reading’ . . . of faint for ‘fat.’

 

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Paul Barry < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 15, 2012 12:01:04 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Fat

 

This is getting hilarious. Why would any decent fencer take a drink of wine in the middle of a match? Water, maybe, or a chocolate bar, but not wine, for God’s sake.

 

PAUL 

 

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Hardy M. Cook < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         Thursday, March 15, 2012

Subject:     Commentary on “fat”; Reference to Burbage?

 

I became so interested in this thread that I went to Furness’s 1877 Variorum Hamlet, Jenkins’s 1982 Arden 2 Hamlet, and then to Thompson and Taylor’s 2006 Arden 3 Hamlet to study the notes on “fat.”  

 

In reverse order, Thompson and Taylor do not appear to stake out a position: 

 

This word has been much discussed by commentators who do not want it to mean ‘overweight’. Jenkins (LN) argues that, in conjunction with scant of breath, it must mean something like ‘out of condition’; Hibbard sees the line as ‘maternal solicitude’ which ‘becomes all the more evident if Hamlet is neither fat nor scant of breath’. (Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, editors. Hamlet. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006. xxii + 613 pp.)

 

Jenkins discounts that the allusion is a reference to Burbage, arguing that “fat” implies sweating:

 

v. ii. 290. fat] The precise meaning of this word is difficult to establish. But few now see in it an allusion to the actor’s corpulence, any more than in the ‘thirty years’ since Hamlet’s birth (see V. i. 139-57 and LN) a reflection of Burbage’s age. Cf. WHH, p. 284 n. In association with ‘scant of breath’ fat must refer to Hamlet’s state at the moment rather than to a permanent characteristic, and the offer of the ‘napkin’ to wipe his face indicates what his state is. With ll. 291, 298 cf. 2H4 II.iv.207, where Doll says to Falstaff when he has beaten Pistol downstairs, ‘how thou sweat’st! Come, let me wipe thy face!’ The equation of fat with ‘sweating’ is strongly supported by Tilley with evidence for the notion that sweat was produced by the melting of fat (JEGP, xxiv, 315-19), and Shakespearean instances include Hamlet III.iv.92. But no certain and authenticated parallel has been given for fat as an epithet for the condition, rather than the cause, of sweating. A passage cited from Richard Johnson’s Seven Champions of Christendom describes a giant with sweat running into his eyes, who was ‘so extreme fat, he grew blind’ (1608, p. 52); but it is far from clear that fat here describes the giant’s sweating without attributing it to his bulk. It seems likely, however, that an ancient usage was preserved by the farmer’s wife in Wisconsin in 1923 who is reported to have greeted perspiring visitors with ‘How fat you all are!’ (TLS, 1927, p. 375).

 

The alternative interpretation, out of condition, would make fat denote not so much the accompaniment as the cause of being out of breath. Sisson (NR, ii.229) cites a Chancery case of 1578 in which a nag ‘but new taken up from grass’ and so not ready for hard work, was said to be ‘fat and foggy’; and a 19th-century survival of this sense occurs in the Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith, who describes troops as ‘fat and in bad wind’ after a long time on board ship (i. 199). It is not fatal to this interpretation that it does not square with the ‘continual practice’ of l. 207.

Less plausible than either of these is Hotson’s assumption that fat means full (Spectator, 1952, p. 701): supposing that Hamlet has but just dined, he would draw a parallel with his father, killed in his resting-time when ‘full of bread’ (III.iii.80).  (Jenkins Harold, editor. Hamlet. London and New York: Methuen, 1982. xviii + 574 pp.)

 

Furness refers to Collier to establish that Burbage indeed played Hamlet maintaining that the line refers to Burbage’s being fat. Clarke argues, on the other hand, that “fat” refers to the sedentary Hamlet not to the actor Burbage. Wright learned of Wyeth’s reading of faint for ‘fat’ in a letter from Ingleby. Plehwe conjectures that “fat” is used for hot. 

 

fat] Roberts, the player, in his Answer to Pope, 1729, stated that John Lowin acted Henry VIII and Hamlet; it is also known on the authority of Wright, in his Historia Histrionica, 1699, that Lowin acted Falstaff. Hence Steevens conjectured that, if the man who was corpulent enough to act Falstaff and Henry VIII should also appear as Hamlet, this observation was put by Sh. into ‘the mouth of her majesty to apologize for the want of such elegance of person as an audience might expect to meet with in the representative of the youthful Prince of Denmark, whom Oph. speaks of as the “glass of fashion and the mould of form,”’ Malone : Wright and Downes, the prompter, concur in saying that Taylor was the performer of Hamlet. Roberts alone has asserted (and apparently without authority) that Lowin acted this part. But, in truth, I am convinced it was neither Taylor nor Lowin, but probably Burbadge. Taylor apparently was not of the company till late, perhaps after 1615, and Lowin not till after 1603. Collier, in his Memoirs of the Principal Actors in the Plays of Sh., Sh. Soc. Publications, 1846, p. 51, shows conclusively that Burbadge was the original Hamlet, and cites in proof the Elegy upon him, copied from a MS in the possession of Heber, containing an enumeration of the various parts in which Burbadge was distinguished. Shakespeare’s words are there used in reference to the fatness of the actor: ‘No more young Hamlet, though but scant of breath, shall cry “Revenge!” for his dear father’s death.’ Staunton: Does the Queen refer to Ham. or Laer. ? Clarke: We believe that this refers not to Burbadge, but to Ham. himself, who, as a sedentary student, a man of contemplative habits, one given rather to reflection than to action, might naturally be supposed to be of somewhat plethoric constitution. This accords well with his not daring to ‘drink’ while he is heated with the fencing bout; with his being of a ‘complexion’ that makes him feel the weather sultry and hot;’ with his custom of walking ‘four hours together in the lobby;’ with his having a special ‘breathing time of the day;’ and with his telling Hor. that he has ‘been in continual practice’ of fencing,—as though he took set exercise for the purpose of counteracting his constitutional tendency to that full habit of body which is apt to be the result of sedentary occupation and a too sedulous addiction to scholarly pursuits. W. Aldis Wright (N. & Qu., 9 March, 1867, p. 202) states that, in 1864, he received a letter from Dr Ingleby, communicating a ‘fine reading’ proposed by ‘Mr H. Wyeth, of Winchester,’ of faint for ‘fat.’ Plehwe (Hamlet, Prinz von Dänemark, Hamburg, 1862, p. 214) refers to IV, vii, 158, and conjectures that the same word is here used: hot.  (Horace Howard Furness, editor. Hamlet. Philadelphia and London: J. P. Lippincott and Co. 6th edition. Vol. 3.1, 1877. xv + 473 pp.)

 

So what can we conclude from these commentaries. Well, I do not find the matter conclusively settled: whether fat refers to Hamlet or Burbage; whether fat means corpulent or sweating. The sense seems to imply sweating. 

 

Interestingly, however, it appears from Furness that we may have a contemporary reference to Burbage’s being fat in the citation from Collier’s 1846 Memoirs of the Principal Actors in the Plays of Shakespeare Elegy “copied from a MS in the possession of Heber, containing an enumeration of the various parts in which Burbadge was distinguished. Shakespeare’s words are there used in reference to the fatness of the actor: ‘No more young Hamlet, though but scant of breath, shall cry “Revenge!” for his dear father’s death.’” The Elegy for Burbage in Heber’s manuscript would appear to be contemporary with Burbage’s death, suggesting he was a “large” man. I guess the next question would be has anyone ever seen this manuscript?

 

Hardy Cook 

 

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