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The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.136 Thursday, 29 March 2012
Date: March 24, 2012 1:30:32 PM EDT
Subject: Topical Fat
Thanks to Michael Zito for his reflections on my post about Falstaff as the “fat weed” that Hamlet's father’s ghost warned his son not to be. Implicit in his analogy of <<King Hamlet : King Henry IV / Prince Hamlet : Prince Hal>> is the idea of Falstaff as Prince Hal’s alter ego. In 1601 or so, the fat knight probably wasn’t too very far from Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote or revised Hamlet for the next onstage production.
Hardy Cook wrote:
“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.”
Away, good Ned. Falstaff sweats to death,
And lards the lean earth as he walks along:
Were 't not for laughing, I should pity him.
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war
And thus hath so bestirr'd thee in thy sleep,
That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow
Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream;
The courtier’s, scholar’s, soldier’s, eye, tongue, sword,
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form...
Through Polonius, however, we get a different vision of Hamlet’s physical appearance—supposedly due to love-sickness—when the play begins:
And he, repulsed, a short tale to make,
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for.
“Fast”, “weakness”, “lightness”, “declension”: all suggest less rather than more physical presence, a waning rather than waxing of life. Yet later in the play, we know—as readers and scholars—that more time has passed than Shakespeare allows in his given text. We know that Shakespeare sees his Hamlet as an older man. May it be that he also sees him as heavier? The Prince has been back in Denmark for sometime, feeding and drinking with the Danes. Have they fattened him into a moral lethargy, a gross weediness?
But so much was our love
We would not understand what was most fit,
But, like the owner of a foul disease,
To keep it from divulging, let it feed
Even on the pith of life.
Where is he gone?
Given the richness of associations for “fat” and feeding within the play and within Shakespeare’s canon, why look elsewhere for some juicy topical fat? Though Burbage may well have been of a noted corpulence when he played Hamlet, this line is one of the last that Gertrude will speak to her son before he dies. If the play had a value to the author anywhere near to what posterity has since bestowed upon it, he probably had some deep reason for hearing an anxious Gertrude cry out that her son is fat, and scant of breath.
“The Canon contains hundreds of topical allusions, many lost to us, which did not advance the action of the play and arguably had no business being preserved for posterity.”
Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a
hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr and
My tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will
He’s fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows.
The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.
The Queen carouses! Right from the start, we learn that all of Denmark carouses. Carousing is in their blood, a part of their human condition. When Hamlet refuses to carouse, he begins to waste away in his melancholy mourning. Within that mysterious elapsed time, between Hamlet young and Hamlet not-so-young, Shakespeare must have conceived that his hero had begun to eat and drink again, with a good appetite. Maybe he even caroused again. Curiously, “Dane”, “dead”, “drunk” and “sweat” all come together in another play, in the mind of Shakespeare's arch-villain Iago:
Why, he drinks you, with facility, your Dane dead
not to overthrow your Almain; he
the next pottle
If Hamlet hadn’t grown fat—with all the physical and moral implications of the word at that time, as embodied by Falstaff and other Rabelaisian figures—would he have avoided that hit from Laertes’ envenomed point? I wonder if that’s what Shakespeare had in mind.