The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1364  Tuesday, 23 August 2005

From: 		Bill Lloyd <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
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 
such matters.

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 
(1919): 8.

     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: 
Greenwood, 1985.

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)?

Bill Lloyd

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