Is Hamlet Fat?

Isaac Butler has an interesting investigation in Slate of what Shakespeare might have meant by the word “fat.” He begins by saying that we think of Hamlet as “lean and pensive”:

But what if our mental image of Hamlet is wrong? What if the grieving, vengeful prince is actually fat? Just because you’ve never considered the possibility doesn’t mean that Shakespeare scholars haven’t argued about it, just one front in a centuries-old debate about how you determine meaning in Shakespeare’s plays.

The most straightforward way to figure out whether Hamlet is fat is to look at the text itself, in which Hamlet’s own mother calls him fat. During the play’s final sword duel, King Claudius turns to Queen Gertrude and says that Hamlet will win the duel, and Gertrude replies, “He’s fat and scant of breath,” before turning to Hamlet and telling him to “take my napkin, rub thy brows.”
[…]

We can also look at the history of scholarship of Hamlet, as University of Wisconsin–Whitewater professor Elena Levy-Navarro does in this wonderful essay on the subject of Hamlet’s fatness. Levy-Navarro documents how, during the Victorian era—a time of fad diets and fitness crazes where one’s weight was mistaken for an indication of one’s moral fiber—a vocal minority of Shakespeare scholars, following the lead of Goethe, believed Hamlet was fat and that his fatness indicated weakness. A Victorian actor named E. Vale Blake declared in an 1880 article for Popular Science Monthly that Hamlet was “imprisoned in walls of adipose,” which, “essentially weakens and impedes … the will,” leading to his inability to, as Levy-Navarro puts it, “act decisively to avenge his father.”
[…]

I decided to get to the bottom of this with some help from John-Paul Spiro, a Shakespearean scholar who teaches at Villanova. According to Spiro, investigating the meaning of specific words in Shakespeare is particularly fraught because Shakespeare was the Ornette Coleman of language. Beyond inventing more than 1,700 words, Shakespeare was “deliberately coming up with new meanings of words, and opening up new conceptual spaces,” Spiro said. The play Macbeth invents the contemporary definition of the word success, for example, and Shakespeare was the first person to use crown as a verb.

In order to figure out what fat means at this specific moment of Hamlet, then, we must look not only at how Elizabethans understood the term, but how his contemporaries used the term, how Shakespeare uses it in his plays in general, and how Shakespeare uses it in Hamlet. To the Elizabethans, fat could indeed mean sweaty, but “sweaty in the way fatty meat is sweaty when you cook it,” Spiro said. “Even in Elizabethan times, you would never say, ‘I went for a run, and now I’m fat.’”

They go to the concordance, and much discussion ensues. I still am not sure what Shakespeare meant by the word, but I learned things and was entertained.

Comments

  1. Napkin: I never noticed Dutchisms before in Shakespeare. I wonder how prevalent they are.

  2. I firmly believe that Shakespeare, when speaking through the character of Gertrude, meant by fat exactly what we mean: ‘containing a lot of adipose tissue, and heavyweight for his height (whatever that may have been)’. I would call myself fat in exactly the same morally and aesthetically neutral sense.

    Furthermore, I believe that Gertrude is telling the truth about her son: an objective observer in Denmark would agree with her that Hamlet is fat. (Likewise, if you were looking at me, I think you’d agree that I was fat in the same morally and aesthetically neutral sense.) The fact that the actors we employ to play Hamlet are not fat is neither here nor there, being in fact merely bad casting on the part of our producers resulting from a failure to closely read the play. Casting a thin actor to play Hamlet is a mistake, in the sense that (say) casting a dark-skinned actor or American-accented actor to play Hamlet would not be, since Shakespeare has nothing to say about Hamlet’s skin color or accent. (It’s true that most Danes are paleskins, but perhaps Hamlet was an exception.) It’s also true that far more serious mistakes are possible, such as casting a man in his sixties to play Hamlet.

    So far I agree with most of the article. I do, however, strongly disagree with this passage:

    Shakespeare was the Ornette Coleman of language. Beyond inventing more than 1,700 words, Shakespeare was “deliberately coming up with new meanings of words, and opening up new conceptual spaces,” Spiro said. The play Macbeth invents the contemporary definition of the word success, for example, and Shakespeare was the first person to use crown as a verb.

    I do not believe that there exists any evidence that in his plays Shakespeare invented any words, nor gave any novel meanings to existing words. If he had done so, I think his audience would not have understood his plays. What the evidence shows is that certain words appear (as far as our records go) for the first time in the published plays of Shakespeare. Likewise, certain meanings of older words appear (again as far as our records go) for the first time in the published plays of Shakespeare. These statements have nothing to do with Shakespeare’s plays themselves, and are subject to revision if new published works by someone else that contains these words or meanings are ever found.

  3. Obviously, Shakespeare was not the first person in history to use every one of the words he’s alleged to have invented, but it’s quite likely that he was the coiner of a significant number of them. He depended for his livelihood on expressive use of language, and it was the fashion of his era to stretch the meaning of existing words almost beyond recognition and create new ones when the old ones wouldn’t do. Thomas Nashe, for example coined such terms as preludiately, mummianized, gross-brained formallity, purely pacificatory suppliants, assertionate, and oblivionize. I very much doubt that anyone else before him had thought to utter or inscribe the word “preludiately” and am quite ready to credit Nashe completely.

    The difference between him and Shakespeare of course, is that most of Nashe’s words died with him while many of Shakespeare’s are used to this day. Was Shakespeare just better at making up words? Perhaps, or perhaps his status kept his coinages in use.

  4. I remember that my high school textbook version contained a footnote simply saying that it meant sweaty.

  5. marie-lucie says:

    During the play’s final sword duel, King Claudius turns to Queen Gertrude and says that Hamlet will win the duel, and Gertrude replies, “He’s fat and scant of breath,”

    Paying attention to this short line does make a difference in the interpretation of the character. Not only is Hamlet ‘fat”, but he is “scant of breath”, as well as sweaty now from the unaccustomed exertion. Throughout the play we have seen Hamlet reading, reasoning, pondering, confusing others by his witty incoherence as he feigns madness, writing an act in short order for a play which will trick the King into revealing his guilt, all of which demonstrate Hamlet’s superior intellectual ability, but he has hardly ever been physically active (killing Polonius was an accident). Now his own mother worries about his lack of physical fitness, which makes it doubtful that he will win or even survive the duel. (The King’s assurance that Hamlet will win may hide his secret hope that Hamlet will lose). The kingdom needed a fighter like Hamlet’s father: a thinker and dreamer will not save it.

    It’s a long time since I read or saw Hamlet (once on the stage, twice on film, always played by a handsome and athletic-looking actor), but I don’t remember Gertrude’s line – is it often omitted in staging?

  6. marie-lucie says:

    Even if “fat” here means ‘sweaty’, and “scant of breath” is not a general condition but due to the physical exercise, Hamlet is not at his best in the scene.

  7. I totally disagree with any claim that we are to understand that Hamlet is obese. The Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley, in arguing against the case that Hamlet lacked the strength of will to do the deed (i.e. SPOILERS AHEAD Kill king Claudius) lists all the things Hamlet does in the play which does not fit with this picture -inter alia, he breaks free from war-hardened soldiers to follow the ghost, threatening to kill them if they try to stop him, is the first man to board a pirate ship, kills Polonius, at the end of the play, upon realizing that he is poisoned, he drives a sword through the king, then forces him to drink poison, and as he is dying manages to forcibly take the poison cup away from Horatio. A.C. Bradley concludes that any view that Hamlet was too weak-willed to be a hero cannot stand, and the above deeds likewise strike me as utterly incompatible with any view that he was obese.

  8. The claim that Shakespeare ‘invented’ 1,700 words seems wild, and the example given, ‘success’, doesn’t hold up: for the modern sense OED has quotations from 1586 (Sidney) and 1592 (Kyd), and doesn’t have a Macbeth quotation even in the obsolete senses.

    I recently did some OED look-ups on one of the various lists of words and (more commonly) phrases allegedly attributable to Shakespeare (I think it was on The Guardian), and 13 out of 21 were easily shown not to be original to him in any useful sense. The other eight do seem to be first recorded in his work, as far as OED knows. But whether that means he coined them is highly doubtful.

    Sometimes it’s not clear exactly what the claim is: just that he was the first to use the word or phrase in the precise modern form? That rules out some cases straight away: the Guardian (?) list attributes ‘good riddance’ to Shakespeare, but Merchant of Venice actually has ‘gentle riddance’. (And if that counts, then so does the c1525 ‘fayre riddance’ of J. Rastell in Away Mourning.) And where the list seems to be strict about the precise form, the result can be trivial: the exact words “lie low” seem to appear first in Much Ado About Nothing, but other slight variations were around for centuries, and anyway it’s not an instance of the current sense. Macbeth seems to be an early citation for ‘assassination’, assuming it was written between 1599 and 1606, as per WiPe: but the earliest quotation for ‘assassin’ in the extended sense is 1531, and ‘assassinate’ (as a noun), 1596. And there’s a cite for ‘assassination’ itself in 1610 – is it realistic to think that this straightforward derivation entered the vocabulary within ten years just thanks to Macbeth? Or take ‘rant’ (v) – fine, it’s in Hamlet, and ‘ranting’ in Merry Wives of Windsor, both around 1597-1602, but the form ‘rand’ appears in Jonson’s Poetaster in 1602.

    More interesting are cases where he was (or seems to have been) the first user of a phrase in the modern idiomatic sense. Romeo and Juliet (1597) is the earliest cite for ‘wild goose chase’, but it’s in the figurative sense; the earliest cite for the now-obsolete literal sense (a kind of sport involving horses) is just a few years later (1602), but it must have been in common use before Shakespeare’s figurative use. I think it’s fair to award Shakespeare the point on the reasonable assumption that he was the first to use it as a metaphor (which doesn’t appear again until 1627). But “puke” is more doubtful: in reference to vomiting, As You Like It is currently the earliest cite on the supposition that the play was written in 1599 or 1600 (per WiPe). But even apart from the fact that there’s a similar sense from falconry, (1586 Hawking, Hunting & Fishing), ‘pukishness’ meaning queasiness appears in 1586.

    These are the cases where I thought Shakespeare might have a defensible, but not necessarily strong, claim to introducing a common expression: fancy-free, foregone conclusion, for goodness’ sake, what’s done is done, bated breath, too much of a good thing, (figurative) wild goose chase, and ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’ (which a slightly different case, because even if you don’t know the source, it has the flavour of an allusion or quotation rather than an idiom).

  9. “But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
    “Before we have our chat;
    For some of us are out of breath,
    And all of us are fat!”

  10. Both pieces are worth looking at, Levy-Navarro’s especially. “I am dull and fat, like Prince Hamlet. What can I do?” says the narrator in Nabokov’s Tyrants Destroyed. Gilyarovsky writes of a Russian actor who dreamed, ca. 1880, of a Hamlet production that would depict the Elsinor court, including the crown prince, as a bunch of brawny Vikings. The Akimov-Shostakovich 1932 production had a “paunchy” Hamlet played by a comedian (“…the king’s ghost was represented as a fiction cunningly devised by Hamlet, Ophelia was portrayed as intoxicated rather than mad, and her drowning was depicted as the result of a drunken orgy,” according to the Britannica).

  11. Well he did call him HAMlet!
    (Sorry, sorry, but to make things worse…

    Now as is well known Shakespeare originally left Stratford for London hoping to set up a bistro in the City or perhaps in Notting Hill Gate, and it was only after that panned; and he learned that the general opinion was that the only tasty thing in the whole restaurant was the writing on the menu; that he gave up and entered the theatre.
    The end of his career as a restauranteur came when he tried really really hard all day (and half the previous night) to make a grate cheesy, French-derived potato dish (which he intended to serve in the manner of nouvelle cuisine with a garnish of Allium Porrum) only to have it viciously reviewed by Ben Jonson, the highly influential food editor of the First Folio, as having “little gratin and less leek.”–Lives of Great Men All Remind Us

  12. What about his characterization as a melancholic? (We know there are many signs of this in the play). This kind of “temperament”, like the other three, had a particular body figure. Were melancholic men fat?

  13. Etienne, I think your evidence is insufficient. First of all, athletic fat persons are hardly unknown, particularly in a time when the standard of athleticism was by no means what it is today. Second, Hamlet does not need to physically overmaster the soldiers: he is a prince, and without specific superior orders they cannot in fact lay a finger on him and both parties know it. Third, fat people are not necessarily muscularly weak: I might, at Hamlet’s time of life, been able to drive a sword through the much older King, particularly if I were skilled with the sword (as I am not).

    Marie-Lucie: I don’t know if the line is commonly staged, but if I had cast a non-fat Hamlet I would certainly cut it: it would be just the thing to produce an unwanted laugh in a keyed-up audience.

    Breffni: I don’t deny that Shakespeare must have coined many phrases, an act quite different from coining words or meanings of words.

    Julia: You raise an excellent question for which I can find no answer; nobody seems to speak of people of a given physical/mental temperament as being either fat or not.

  14. One more piece of evidence for a physically-fit Hamlet: the lines right before “He’s fat, and scant of breath”. Horatio had warned Hamlet that Laertes is a much better swordsman and the king had offered odds, so that Hamlet needs only to ‘beat the spread’ to (nominally) win. However, when the Queen makes her comment, Hamlet is ahead 2-0 and the King has just said “Our son shall win” – a line that could be read a lot of different ways, with a lot of different expressions: is he surprised? impressed? disappointed? Not just ‘beating the spread’ but actually winning against a famously skilled swordsman doesn’t seem to fit with obesity.

  15. For Shakespeare’s coinages, I read somewhere years ago (probably in the TLS) that the number was undoubtedly exaggerated, partly because no one had ever done a concordance of Lyly’s Euphues – or apparently ever gone through Euphues slowly with a list of Shakespeare’s supposed coinages to see which ones he got from Lyly.

  16. I do not believe that there exists any evidence that in his plays Shakespeare invented any words, nor gave any novel meanings to existing words. If he had done so, I think his audience would not have understood his plays.

    Come, come. I entirely understand your irritation with the meme (which the linked piece perpetuates) that Shakespeare invented much of modern English, presumably spending his time when he wasn’t acting or writing plays sitting around coming up with clever new words and constructions and inserting them into the wordhoard with his magic powers, but let’s not go overboard. As James says, “He depended for his livelihood on expressive use of language, and it was the fashion of his era to stretch the meaning of existing words almost beyond recognition and create new ones when the old ones wouldn’t do.” Elizabethan audiences, like ancient Athenian ones, enjoyed hearing the language stretched and made to do tricks. Don’t swerve so hard to avoid the Scylla of silly bardolatry that you fall into the clutches of the Charybdis of boorish bardophobia.

  17. The only coinage that I personally find to be convincingly tied to Shakespeare is the name “Jessica.” And even there, the evidence is far from air-tight. It’s just a matter of there being no apparent reason why anyone previously would have had an need to form such a quasi-Hebrew name.

  18. I meant single-word coinage, obviously. He surely originated turns of phrase, even if we don’t know precisely which ones.

  19. But why wouldn’t he coin words? Lots of authors do. The fact that it’s hard to tell exactly which he might have coined doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

  20. The idea of Hamlet as a plump and sweaty young man vacillating in the face of danger made me think of his Edwardian counterpart, Billy Bunter.

  21. Not just ‘beating the spread’ but actually winning against a famously skilled swordsman doesn’t seem to fit with obesity.

    Somebody needs more Sammo Hung in their life 🙂

  22. Were melancholic men fat?

    Robert Burton, from what I can find at the moment, seems to think they’re generally “lean”; but he does say this of specifically “phlegmatic” melancholy:

    For example, if it proceed from phlegm (which is seldom and not so frequently as the rest), it stirs up dull symptoms, and a kind of stupidity, or impassionate hurt: they are sleepy, saith Savanarola, dull, slow, cold, blockish, ass-like, Asininam melancholicam, Melancthon calls it, “they are much given to weeping and delight in waters, ponds, pools, rivers, fishing, fowling,” &c. (Arnoldus, breviar. 1. cap. 18.) They are pale of colour, slothful, apt to sleep, heavy; much troubled with head-ache, continual meditation, and muttering to themselves; they dream of waters, that they are in danger of drowning, and fear such things, Rhasis. They are fatter than others that are melancholy, of a muddy complexion, apter to spit, sleep, more troubled with rheum than the rest, and have their eyes still fixed on the ground. Such a patient had Hercules de Saxonia, a widow in Venice, that was fat and very sleepy still; Christophorus a Vega another affected in the same sort. If it be inveterate or violent, the symptoms are more evident, they plainly denote and are ridiculous to others, in all their gestures, actions, speeches; imagining impossibilities, as he in Christophorus a Vega, that thought he was a tun of wine, and that Siennois, that resolved within himself not to piss, for fear he should drown all the town.

    What with the continual meditation, muttering, and imagining impossibilities, there’s enough in this passage for a Hamlet paper, which I’m sure someone has written.

  23. But why wouldn’t he coin words? Lots of authors do.

    Sure. For instance, it is known that Isaac Asimov coined the word robotics, which has been used by himself and many other authors of both fiction and non-fiction since. Likewise, it is known that Ursula Le Guin coined the word ansible in one of her novels and used it in other novels, a variant on the word answerable; it has been used by Orson Scott Card in his novels (and for all I know other novelists in their novels) since then.

    But crucially, neither Asimov nor Le Guin are playwrights. For a playwright to coin and use a word implies that the playwright believes that the audience can and will be able and willing to figure out the meaning of a novel word on the spot. That seems unlikely to me; Shakespeare did not (during his life) have the luxury of an audience that read his plays and could reflect on the meanings of the words in them. His words had to be understood instantly or not at all.

    I should have been less absolute about new meanings. It is not so implausible that a playwright should use an existing word in a novel meaning, expecting the audience to figure out the novel meaning on the spot, particularly when it is a plausible extension of an existing meaning rather than entirely de novo.

  24. A possibly relevant excerpt from the recent New Yorker article, “Why We (Mostly) Stopped Messing With Shakespeare’s Language” by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner:

    “Even the Oxford English Dictionary helped secure Shakespeare’s status as the source of the imperial tongue; one editor instructed researchers to stop looking for earlier instances once they found a word listed in the concordance to Shakespeare.”

  25. marie-lucie says:

    JC, I agree with you. For the audience, figuring out a novel meaning (a clever extension of the usual meaning) for a known word is not the same as deciphering a completely new word. Some of the coinages reported from other authors such as Nashe (cited by James above) are Latinate formations which have not survived, perhaps because they were opaque to too many readers. I agree that a lot of Shakespeare’s alleged coinages must have been either already in use (though not attested in writing) or, especially in the case of phrases, close enough to common spoken usage that they would be readily understood and appreciated.

  26. “But since he is better’d, we have therefore odds,” claims the king, referring to Laertes, so it seems that at some point in the past Laertes and Hamlet were roughly equal in skill. Claudius does not know that Hamlet has been practicing lately as well (“since he went into France, I have been in continual practise: I shall win at the odds”) and may be exaggerating Laertes’ chances. At any rate, Hamlet is not un-athletically fat.

  27. For a playwright to coin and use a word implies that the playwright believes that the audience can and will be able and willing to figure out the meaning of a novel word on the spot.

    Right, so a playwright cannot coin an entirely opaque word and expect it to be understood. But many coinages, like, say, “botheration,” can be confidently expected to be understood. You should focus less on words like “ansible” and more on words like “robotics.”

  28. @languagehat: In my attempting to correct a possibly confusing point in my first comment, I only sowed more confusion. I think it’s likely that some modest number of the words first attested in Shakespeare probably were his own coinages as well, although I also largely agree with John Cowan that it’s not easy for a playwright to create new words.

  29. Completely ignoring the shades of meaning in Shakespeare and the girth of The Prince, why do so many people seem to wish that Hamlet went ahead and killed Claudius in Act I or II? Even considering that Claudius amply deserves it, usually we do not celebrate people getting out and killing somebody. Why such bloodthirstiness? If anything, people should bemoan usual Shakespearean carnage at the end.

  30. I think it’s likely that some modest number of the words first attested in Shakespeare probably were his own coinages as well, although I also largely agree with John Cowan that it’s not easy for a playwright to create new words.

    I agree with both points.

    Why such bloodthirstiness? If anything, people should bemoan usual Shakespearean carnage at the end.

    Because literature is different from life? For a while in the Soviet Union they tried writing “conflictless plays” where nothing bad happened; it didn’t go well.

  31. I don’t think the Elizabethans necessarily set as high a premium on instant intelligibility as we do, especially when this competed with verbal creativity. Shakespeare assumed a fairly literate audience, which might relish the occasional riddle rather than be frustrated by it. Compare the Greek theater: Aristophanes neologized prolifically (most of his coinages are compounds, true, but the Shakespeare’s too are usually formed from familiar elements); the tragedians gloried in recherche language; Pindar (not a playwright but someone whose works were still intended to be heard rather than read) is one of the most opaque poets in the Western tradition. Their audiences seem not to have been stumped or nonplussed, but to have enjoyed the game.

  32. An excellent point.

  33. ə de vivre says:

    Why such bloodthirstiness? If anything, people should bemoan usual Shakespearean carnage at the end.

    That is the line Shakespeare has to walk, no? Hamlet’s flaw has to be recognizable enough that the audience can see it play out over the course of the, uh, play, but not so much a caricature that we stop being invested in him as a person. Maybe stirring up strong feelings of frustrated desire in the audience is exactly the intended effect and if we/they don’t reflect on our reaction then the joke’s on us/them?

    A possibly relevant excerpt from the recent New Yorker article, “Why We (Mostly) Stopped Messing With Shakespeare’s Language” by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

    Interesting article, though I suspect that in a few years comparing Shakespeare to a high alcohol double IPA will not be taken as the compliment James Shapiro intended.

  34. marie-lucie says:

    fat and scant of breath

    I should have googled the words before writing what I did. After reading everyone’s comments I have changed my mind, and before writing I googled the phrase. Quite a few people have discussed it. I found a very nice comment here (by Jim 986, #20):

    http://forum.wordreference.com/threads/hes-fat-and-scant-of-breath.2049530

    Given the place of the phrase in the play, and the conversation between the king and the queen, her comment must refer to Hamlet’s current condition, and “fat” here cannot mean ‘obese’ but more likely “sweaty” since the queen immediately hands Hamlet her handkerchief to wipe his face.

  35. marie-lucie says:

    D.O.: usually we do not celebrate people getting out and killing somebody. Why such bloodthirstiness? If anything, people should bemoan usual Shakespearean carnage at the end.

    Read the history of the period and of previous ages. Murders (including duels), assassinations (stabbings, poisonings), executions, armed rebellions, civil wars to support this or that potential heir to the throne, “religious” wars etc. (I am not saying that our own age has really improved things).

  36. Because literature is different from life? For a while in the Soviet Union they tried writing “conflictless plays” where nothing bad happened; it didn’t go well.
    Well, it’s not like Hamlet is actually dull and a few more well-placed murders would do it much good. To wit, in the course of action Polonius is killed, Ofelia commits suicide, Rosenkrantz and that other guy are killed behind the scene, the whole premise is built on previous murder and even poor Yorick is dead though it happened a long time ago.

    That is the line Shakespeare has to walk, no? Hamlet’s flaw has to be recognizable enough that the audience can see it play out over the course of the, uh, play, but not so much a caricature that we stop being invested in him as a person.
    But that’s exactly my question, why is it a flaw? Why hesitancy to kill someone and the need to mull it over is a defect of character? Since when being Scarface is a norm?

  37. Because Danish society believes that it is Hamlet’s duty to avenge his father’s murder by killing the murderer, Claudius (at least we assume it’s Claudius). The other killings, as well as Ophelia’s suicide, are collateral damage.

  38. La Horde Listener says:

    Sure. He said it himself, lamenting. “O That This Too, Too Solid Flesh Would Melt…” Over the past couple months the detritus had hit the fan in the kingdom, all right. He wished he could more or less dissolve and evaporate and said so, ruefully including a tart reference about his being overweight as well.

  39. ə de vivre says:

    But that’s exactly my question, why is it a flaw? Why hesitancy to kill someone and the need to mull it over is a defect of character? Since when being Scarface is a norm?

    I guess I don’t quite understand your argument then. It sounds like you’re not saying you don’t understand why people root against Claudius so much as you don’t think people should root against him. Which is a perfectly defensible position, but probably has more to do with how people engage with fiction and the limits of ethical violence than with the specific case of Hamlet or Shakespeare.

  40. The variants discussed are in fact used in well-known productions.

    Penny Downie says to Patrick Stewart of David Tennant, “hot.” As did Eileen Herlie to Basil Sydney of Olivier, I’m pretty sure. And, later, on Broadway, to Alfred Drake of Burton, “faint.”

  41. But we are not a Danish society (and in “we” I include 19c critics), we can take a more nuanced approach. That said, Danish society had nothing to do with it — nobody but Hamlet knew about the killing of his father. And I am not rooting for Claudius, I do not mind in the slightest that he perished. I just don’t understand why hesitancy to kill, even if the killing is justified, is a character flaw.

    Let’s see how killings worked out in other great tragedies. In Romeo and Juliet there was no killing on purpose and I didn’t hear anybody suggesting that it’s somebody’s fault; king Lear didn’t kill anybody and no one holds it against him; Othello murdered his wife, but it seems strange to suggest that it was a good thing (what if he played a Hamlet and tried to bring Desdemona into the open by staging a play, would anybody thought worse of him?); Macbeth killed relatively freely, but somehow nobody praises him for that either.

  42. In his translation of Hamlet (the twentieth or twenty-first Russian version at the most conservative count), Boris Pasternak rendered the “solid” of the “solid flesh” as тугая, “taut,” implying a muscular, and/or sinewy, and/or ready-for-action body. In an act of (probably subconscious) phonetic imitation, Pasternak also puts ты (“you, my taut flesh”) in the place of the first “too.” Pasternak’s Russian line impresses itself easily on the Russian ear, but otherwise seems a whimsical interpretation.

  43. Danish society had nothing to do with it — nobody but Hamlet knew about the killing of his father.

    I don’t mean external social pressure (shame), but internal pressure (guilt). Hamlet as a member of his society has internalized the rule “Revenge the murder of your father”, and once he knows that his father was murdered and by whom, he feels pressure to kill Claudius.

  44. I think the case against Hamlet is that by delaying he causes more bloodshed. If he had killed Claudius early on, maybe Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Gertrude et al. would have survived. Of course, the argument in favour of Hamlet delaying is that he has to make sure that the ghost isn’t a lying demon luring him to kill an innocent man.

  45. marie-lucie says:

    A few years ago I read an article, perhaps on the BBC site, by a British writer of detective novels (and a lawyer too, I think). I thought his name (true or de plume) was Michael Inglis, but I can’t find him or even his last name on the internet (there are plenty of others by that name, but none of the references fit). Anyway, his approach was “Who profits from the crime?” Obviously, it is Fortinbras! who “just happens” to stumble on the gory aftermath. Who is the only survivor? Horatio! a traitor who staged the ghostly apparition, knowing how Hamlet would react, and everything flowed from there. Does this ring a bell with anyone?

  46. marie-lucie says:

    Ha, I thought of looking up “British crime writers” and found Michael INNES (the pseudonym of an academic) and many references to his interest in Hamlet. Among other things he wrote his own play “Hamlet, revenge!” in which a murder occurs while an amateur group is preparing to perform the play. But no reference to the article in question.

  47. Hamlet has two excuses for delaying. The more lasting one is (as Sir JCass says) that he has to make sure the Ghost is not actually a demon tempting him to murder an innocent man and thereby earn damnation for himself. He says so himself, and this keeps him from acting until Claudius’ reaction to the play-within-a-play proves his guilt. Not long after that, he has an opportunity to kill Claudius, but decides not to since the king is praying and Hamlet will just be sending a man to Heaven who deserves to go to Hell. I’m not sure whether we are supposed to commend or condemn him for that refusal. After that, there’s no more reason to delay, but I haven’t noticed any other scenes where he could kill Claudius without the royal sentries stopping him. Once he kills Polonius, things seem to spiral out of control, so we can’t necessarily put him down as a hopeless procrastinator because he doesn’t finish the job immediately and takes a side-trip to(wards) England along the way.

    As for his “too, too solid flesh”, there is grave doubt as to what adjective Shakespeare intended. Scholars argue for “solid”, “sullied” (= dirtied = sinful? haunted by guilt? by melancholy? by sloth?), and “sallied” (= assailed, attacked from all sides), and I think most scholars now assume Shakespeare is punning on at least two of the three words, which apparently sounded more like each other then.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    most scholars now assume Shakespeare is punning on at least two of the three words, which apparently sounded more like each other then.

    Are those scholars literary types, or linguists specializing in Early Modern English?

  49. @marie-lucie: There’s this alternative conclusion to the play, which blames Fortinbras: http://faculty.cord.edu/sprunger/e315/hamlet.html

  50. marie-lucie:
    I’m thinking of the writers of the detailed commentaries in the Arden, Oxford, Cambridge, and other series, though I can’t check them right now. (I’m working out of town Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I can only answer difficult questions about Catullus and Seneca’s Moral Epistles right now – tomorrow I’ll be able to answer questions about anyone except those two.)

    The editors wouldn’t probably be Linguistics professors, but they wouldn’t be artsy-fartsy types finding puns where they don’t exist, either. I believe we know quite a lot about how Shakespeare would have been pronounced, not least by looking at what pairs of words are obviously supposed to rhyme in his works that don’t rhyme today.

    I’ve seen a grad-student production of Hamlet which not only omitted Fortinbras entirely – one common way of shortening a 4-hour text – but had Horatio wrestle the poison cup away from Hamlet, drink it down, and die with his friend. What was particularly disturbing about that is that (as far as the audience knows) there’s only one member of the Danish nobility left at the end of the play to take the throne: King Osric the First.

  51. (That last paragraph was more for Brett than marie-lucie.)

  52. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks Michael and Brett. The student production is very ingenious! but a very obvious fake.

  53. Innes’s “The Mysterious Affair at Elsinore” radio show interpreted Hamlet as a murder mystery. Fortinbras is accused of destroying evidence by moving the bodies. Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are illegitimate sons of Claudius. Ophelia is married to Hamlet and pregnant. All potential heirs to the throne and so in need of bumping off. Horatio is Fortinbras’s co-conspirator.

    The same conclusion is reached in even sillier form in “The Undiscovered Hamlet.” In classic Scooby form, the villain is revealed by taking the Ghost’s mask off.

  54. marie-lucie, Russian detective writer Boris Akunin “rewrote” Hamlet in the manner you’ve described. Horatio arranged everything behind the scenes acting as Fortinbras’s agent.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    DO, interesting. I am sure that what I read was by Michael Innes, a few years ago. But he was not rewriting the play, it was an article, a short one, just a page or two. Perhaps Akunin read it, or heard of it and went on from there?

  56. As I recall, Asimov didn’t realize that “robotics” was an innovation when he first used it, so he presumably wouldn’t have done any differently if he had been writing a play. I also can’t help noting that “robotics” derives from a word introduced by Karel Čapek… in a play.

  57. @Michael Hendry: thank you for pointing out the solid-sallied-sullied controversy. Since it’s rather old, going back to the first two editions (“quartos”) of Hamlet, both of which had “sallied,” not “solid,” 20th-century translators should have been aware of it. Yet, of the Russians, only Lozinsky seemed to notice the multiple possibilities and used an unusually (for him) naturalistic, disgusting-sounding “thick clot of flesh/meat,” an attempt to bring the “sullied” facet into the picture.

  58. Let me have men about me that are fat;
    Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights.
    Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
    He thinks too much: such men are dangerous.

  59. It turns out I don’t actually need my own Hamlet books to further the discussion. The ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon works for the latest (3rd edition) Arden Q2 Hamlet: http://www.amazon.com/Hamlet-Arden-Shakespeare-Third-William/dp/1904271332/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445006301&sr=8-1&keywords=Arden+Hamlet. Just search for ‘sallied’ and you’ll get a very thorough note on all three words. Note that ‘solid’ is in the Folio, so two of the three choices are attested in early editions. The editors specifically mention Gertrude’s ‘fat’ as possibly affecting the choice here. I won’t type in any of it, since I assume you can all easily get to it. (There’s another Arden 3rd edition for the Q1 and F Hamlets, but ‘Look inside’ doesn’t work on it.)

  60. P.S. On the other hand, I don’t see anything in the Arden about a pun: must have read that somewhere else. The idea that ‘sallied’, ‘sullied’, and ‘solid’ would have sounded quite similar in Shakespearean English is plausible, though. They’re not all that different today.

    P.P.S. Hitting the road shortly. If anyone wants me to check the other commentaries, I’ll be able to do that in 4 hours or so.

  61. I think the vowels of sullied, solid, sallied would have been something like [ɤ ɔ æ] in Shakespeare’s time. If so, the first two are quite similar, but the third isn’t that close to either.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    Forgive my ignorance, but I don’t know how to gloss “sallied” in reference to a human body.

  63. @marie-lucie: I immediately interpreted it as meaning “put forth into action.” However, that’s after having the homophony pointed out here only following many years of familiarity with Hamlet. I’m not sure what I would have made of it, had I heard it for the first time on the stage.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    Brett: “O That This Too, Too S–l–d Flesh Would Melt…”

    What kind of substance can melt? what is the normal state of a meltable (?) substance? it seems to me that neither “sullied” nor “sallied” fit in there, only “solid”.

  65. Nobody doubts that ‘solid’ is one of the meanings, perhaps even the primary meaning. The question is what other possible meanings there are.

  66. Remember that the adjective does not have to explicate “melt”; if he’d unambiguously written “O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt” it would be perfectly understandable (my flesh has been sullied, I wish it would go away).

  67. marie-lucie says:

    I agree that “sullied” would also make sense (though less so in my opinion), but “sallied”? For one thing, isn’t the verb “to sally” intransitive?

  68. Yes, the two main definitions (‘leap, dance’ and ‘issue suddenly from a place of defense’) are both intransitive. There is a transitive meaning, to bring (a bell) to the ‘sally’ position, but it’s very rare. I’m not sure what that position is, though the sally of a bell-rope is the woolly portion which the bell-ringer grasps to avoid losing control of the bell.

  69. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you for the precise definitions, but I fail to see how they could apply to Hamlet’s description or feeling about his own body.

  70. Yes, I was agreeing with your sentiment that the verb sally couldn’t possibly be relevant.

  71. marie-lucie says:

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. We are agreeing then.

  72. If it’s true that Arthur Golding, the 16th-century translator of John Calvin, spelled “sulliedness” as “solydnesse” in his translation of the theologian’s sermons on the psalms (it is not available online), and if it is true that Shakespeare was an avid reader of at least some of Golding’s Calvin, the wordplay hypothesis becomes particularly tempting. A suggestion of contamination both corporal and linguistic.

  73. Something I don’t recall having been mentioned here is that when Shakespeare alludes to the appearance of a character, there’s often an obvious reference to the actual appearance of the actors in his company, e.g. the short dark boy that played several of the women. On the other hand, if he had a chubby fellow who happened to be a brilliant interpreter of an ironic young prince, I’ve never heard of it.

    Also for consideration: If the actor playing Hamlet was overweight, why would Gertrude need to point the fact out?

  74. marie-lucie says:

    If the actor playing Hamlet was overweight, why would Gertrude need to point the fact out?

    Indeed. And if Hamlet’s mother was concerned about his chances in the duel, because of his poor physical condition, why would she wait until the second pause in the duel to point out the fact?

  75. In the free electronic book SECUNMIR PERSONALITY TEST at en.levi.ru/tests/secunmir/ you may read:
    “Yes, Hamlet struck the decisive blow too late; he turned out “duller than the fat weed that roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf”, as Ghost cautioned him early in the play. In the middle of the play, Hamlet himself says, “Do not spread the compost on the weeds, to make them ranker” and reproaches his mother for her marriage to Claudius, “Could you feed, and batten on this moor?” Further, more of the same imagery: “Whilst rank corruption, mining all within, infects unseen for in the fatness of these pursy times virtue itself of vice must pardon beg the bloat king.”

    The Bible, too, repeatedly uses the “fat” image to mean “immoral”: [The wicked] are waxen fat, they shine: yea, they overpass the deeds of the wicked (Jeremiah 5:28) The proud have forged a lie against me: Their heart is as fat as grease (Psalms 119:69-70)

    After such references, one of Queen’s last phrases about her son does not come as surprise: He’s fat. Indeed, this is how Hamlet is, both inside and outside (Vladimir Nabokov had the reason to call him “dull and fat”). This refutes the argument made by Robert Nye who believes this Shakespeare’s remark to be a late and only insert made by the author to accommodate solid Dick Burbage who performed the part of Hamlet. In Act I, in one of Hamlet’s soliloquies he talks about his “too too solid flesh”. And in a scene towards the end he says to Osric: “methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.”
    This quote is on the end of the part WHAT IS NOBLER? HAMLET AND US. I am waiting for your COMMENTS in the book. It is my pleasure. Thank you. Nelly Den (Feldman)

  76. La Horde Listener says:

    Ah, I just remembered that the screenwriter of “The Madness of King George” had George III constantly referring to his eldest son, the Prince of Wales as “the fat one” contemptuously. Needless to say the Nombah Wahn Sahn actor was bafflingly lean with somewhat sunken cheeks. Wicked and immoral would apply there, from the disturbed king’s perspective.

  77. WP says that George was fat when he ascended the throne at age 57 (after many years as Prince Regent), but the portraits of him as a young man that are shown there don’t suggest obesity. Still later in life, he suffered from shortness of breath. When I was fatter than I am today, I suffered from it only when I bent over, as to tie my shoes: even from a sitting position I couldn’t breathe in that position. Now I have no such trouble.

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