The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.136  Thursday, 29 March 2012


From:        Marie Merkel <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

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. 

In my view, Shakespeare’s conception of Falstaff, and the cultural and moral implications of Falstaff’s astonishing fatness, offer a pretty good guide to the why behind Gertrude’s surprising exclamation, “He’s fat . . .”


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.”


I agree; sweat is certainly implied, when Gertrude offers to wipe her son’s face.  Of course, the word “fat” itself also implies sweat, since someone who carries more weight, like Falstaff, is more liable to sweat, as Shakespeare has Prince Hal remind us:


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.


It occurred to me that “sweat” might have been considered an indelicate word for a queen to have on her lips, but then I found that Shakespeare sweetens the sense of “sweat” for the use of gentle Lady Percy:


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;


How lovely!  And also, how odd, that those “bubbles in a late-disturbed stream” should foreshadow the death of Ophelia in a different play!  Hmm . .  Could it be that the character of Percy, Prince Hal’s rival or foil, has some connection for Shakespeare with his conception of Laertes, Hamlet’s foil, and brother to Ophelia?   

A treacherous speculation, no doubt.  So back to Gertrude: If Lady Percy can talk of “sweat”, why not Prince Hamlet’s mom?  If Shakespeare had imagined Gertrude as meaning “He sweats”, seems to me he would have written “He sweats”, not “He’s fat”.  Why can’t we take Gertrude at her word?  Or, rather, Shakespeare at his word, a word that he has deemed fit to put in the mouth of a doting mother?  Of course, we have only Shakespeare to blame for our reluctance, given the portrait he paints of young Hamlet, described by Ophelia as:


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?

 After Hamlet murders Polonius, Claudius likens the Prince to a foul disease, that, through the fault of their over-indulgent love, feeds “even on the pith of life”:


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 closest place to look for this reasoning may be within the plays that had most recently appeared onstage, Shakespeare’s as well as plays by his competitors and peers.  As Larry Weiss reminds us:


“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.”


Surely the rotundity of Oldcastle-turned-Falstaff, famous or infamous after someone complained in 1597, would have been the most notable topical allusion for both courtiers and theatergoers in 1601 or 1602, when, just before he dies, Hamlet's own mother cries out “He’s fat”, and then offers to wipe his (obviously sweating) brow. Curiously, the apology that James Shapiro believes Shakespeare offered at court after the Oldcastle commotion, has the fat knight die of a sweat:


Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a
be killed with your 

hard opinions; for Oldcastle died a martyr and
this is not the man. 

My tongue is weary; when my legs are too, I will
bid you good night.


At this point, it might be helpful to recall all three of Gertrude’s lines:


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
drunk; he sweats 

not to overthrow your Almain; he
gives your Hollander a vomit, ere 

the next pottle
can be filled.


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. 


Marie Merkel


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