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.