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“He’s fat, and scant of breath”: The Rise of a Modern Fatphobia in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Commentary on Hamlet

Elena Levy-Navarro

August 25, 2014


Abstract: This essay examines the extensive critical commentary on a single line of Hamlet — “He’s fat, and scant of breath” (5.2.287) — in order to trace the emergence of a modern understanding of the fat body. Unremarkable in the eighteenth century, the line becomes the center of debate in the nineteenth century at precisely the period in which fat bodies come to be seen as having an essential nature, assumed to be cowardly, lazy, and undisciplined. Attributed to Goethe and developed by a German Shakespeare tradition, Hamlet’s supposed weakness of character is explained by his fat character. In response, English-speaking Shakespeare critics develop scholarly methods to distance Hamlet from “fat” altogether, initially by offering bibliographical arguments for emending the word and finally by offering etymological arguments that redefine it to mean anything other than corpulent. The final section of this essay considers the extent to which this same understanding of the fat body was employed in responses to Simon Russell Beale’s performance of Hamlet. I suggest, finally, that the inclusion of the line “He’s fat, and scant of breath” in similar productions has the potential to encourage the audience to feel, and finally to interrogate, the dehumanizing implications of our fatphobic constructs.


This essay offers a reading of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century responses to a single line of Hamlet. The line, present in the First Folio, the Second Quarto, and all modern critical editions, has Queen Gertrude, when watching her son, Hamlet, fence with Laertes, cry out with motherly concern, “He’s fat, and scant of breath” (5.2.287).1 Most today find the line incongruous: why, after all, would Gertrude call her son fat? Such a response, I argue, has a history. The line, unremarkable in the eighteenth century, inspired intense scholarly scrutiny in the Victorian period, when understandings of “fat” take on a modern form. Fat is now seen as an outward sign of an inner, essential nature, where the fat person is assumed to be cowardly, lazy, and undisciplined. Only with the emergence of this modern understanding of fat does it become “ludicrous” and “impossible” for most to accept that the heroic Hamlet — “The glass of fashion and the mould of form” (3.1.153) — could be fat. Such an understanding of fat gains central importance in the period in which the play is increasingly seen through the character of Hamlet and his interiority (de Grazia). The modern understanding of fat can explain what comes to be seen as the central problem of the play: namely, what in Hamlet’s character accounts for his failure to act (Dixon, “Line”).2 In an 1887 lecture, James Russell Lowell gives voice to this new modern sentiment when he confidently asserts that “A fat Hamlet is as inconceivable as a lean Falstaff” (189).3

This essay participates in what I term in The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity a “fat history,” a scholarly project to excavate past responses to the fat body in order to better understand and critique our own contemporary understandings of, and widespread stigmatization of, the fat body (Levy-Navarro 1-34). Much like presentism in Shakespeare studies, a fat history does not reject historicism per se, but only a historicism that does not explicitly situate itself in the present historical moment. A fat history acknowledges that, as Hugh Grady argues, “there is no historicism without a latent presentism” (115). In The Culture of Obesity, I focus on early modern moralistic constructions of fat, especially those found in “puritan” narratives. I turn here to Victorian responses to Hamlet in order to examine an understanding of fat even more immediately relevant today. What Frederic Jameson has described as the overdeveloped West is significantly indebted to the essentialist construction of fat that emerges in the Victorian period, albeit interpreted through a moralistic framework that has a much longer legacy (xviii). Joyce L. Huff made this point well over a decade ago (“Horror,” 42).4 I would now add that this modern understanding of fat — whereby the fat person is assumed to have a nature that is weak-willed, unhealthy, and out of control — is even more hegemonic in this post-9/11 world where national and international agencies are involved in what is frequently characterized as a “war against obesity.” In these terms of warfare, the disembodied “obesity” is often described as a detrimental force, whether a “terror within” or a “disease” that threatens to destroy society (Levy-Navarro, Culture 1-19). Those who have the misfortune to be labeled “obese” or “overweight” are increasingly subject to surveillance, whether from their employers, physicians, insurance companies, or, indeed, themselves.5 With this growing cultural panic concerning “obesity,” the constructions surrounding “fat” need more scholarly attention. Precisely because these constructions have become so pervasive, however, it is particularly difficult to see them as anything other than transhistorical and natural conditions.6

Shakespeare criticism has for the most part remained silent on the issue of body size, even as it admirably explores many other aspects of embodiment, including those of gender, sexuality, and race. Because it solicited so much scholarly analysis from the middle of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century, criticism of the line “He’s fat, and scant of breath” offers us a convenient way to document this silence. The year 1951 marks a useful turning point, after which “The rest is silence.” Three articles on the line appeared that year in scholarly journals, but subsequently, the topic went underground, discussed in brief but important editorial footnotes and in more informal academic venues like the academic listserv (Dickson; Stoll; Maxwell).7 This silence does not result from resolution to the ostensible problems the line presents. As editors observe, no evidence has been found to rid us of “fat Hamlet”; nonetheless, we remain convinced that Hamlet must not be fat. I therefore contend that our current silence on the matter results from our own fatphobia, which makes a fat Hamlet increasingly “inconceivable” despite what Gertude plainly says. One sign of the extent to which it is inconceivable is the widespread tendency to omit the line in productions, thereby preserving intact our cultural assumption that Hamlet must be thin.

The lone voices breaking this silence belong, in fact, to the editors, whose sustained attention to the critical debate around the line makes them more likely to recognize some of the assumptions evident in previous criticism. The editors of the Arden 3 Hamlet, Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, note, “This word ['fat'] has been much discussed by commentators who do not want it to mean ‘overweight’” (5.2.269n). Gone from this note are all attempts to argue that the word “fat” is a printer’s error, as well as the obsessive insistence that the character of Hamlet cannot possibly be fat (and thus must presumably be thin). Even those editors who continue in the critical tradition of glossing “fat” as anything other than corpulent acknowledge that there is no real evidence for such a reading. T.J.B. Spencer begins his note by observing that the word “fat” is “incongruous,” only to admit, “There is slight evidence that it could mean ‘sweaty,’ but the usual meaning was the same as today” (5.2.281n). Harold Jenkins, editor of Arden 2, concludes that “no certain and authenticated parallel has been given for fat as an epithet for the condition, rather than the cause of the sweating” (5.2.290LN). The editor of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, Philip Edwards, similarly agrees that the word, “fat” must mean “sweaty” or “out of training,” even as he admits that both interpretations are “not properly attested” (5.2.264n). Outside of these important exceptions, Shakespeare scholars have tended not to take a fat Hamlet seriously, and thus not to reflect on or historicize their own attitudes about body size.

I. Fat Hamlet and the Essential Fat Identity

Before the nineteenth century, the line excited little to no commentary. Eighteenth-century editors showed virtually no interest in the line. Insofar as they discussed it at all, they did so to take up issues concerning the theatrical history of the play, and gradually those concerning theatrical decorum. The line is first singled out for notice by John Roberts in his 1729 Answer to Mr. Pope’s Preface to Shakespear. (The question Roberts raises subsequently enters into the Second Variorum commentary.) Roberts cites the line to support his contention that John Lowin, a fat man, was the “original Hamlet”: “That he was Sizeable to play Henry the Eighth, and yet perform’d the Part of Hamlet is reconciled by observing the Queen says, in the fighting Scene between Him and Laertes, ‘He is FAT and scant of Breath’” (36). Roberts, proudly self-identified on the title page as a “strolling Player,” is interested in the performance history of Shakespeare, having written An Answer to counter Pope’s purely poetic analysis. As an actor with a considerable knowledge of theater history, Roberts understands that actors’ bodies do not always ideally match the audience’s expectations. His use of the word “sizable” is likely to strike the contemporary reader as a euphemism, but notably, the word need not so much signify “large” as suitably or appropriately proportioned (OED “sizeable,” adj.). Although there is apparently some discussion about whether Lowin is less than “sizable” (appropriately sized) for the role of Hamlet, there seems to be no sense in this discussion that fatness indicates of a flawed or cowardly nature.

Variorum editors use the line to answer the same question about the identity of the original Hamlet, first arguing that it was John Lowin (initially suggested by John Roberts), then Joseph Taylor (added to the list of possibilities by George Steevens and supported by Edmund Malone, who explicitly rejects Lowin), and then finally, in Malone and Boswell’s Third Varorium, Richard Burbage.8 Later commentators accept the final verdict that Burbage did, in fact, originate the role (the evidence being further developed by John Payne Collier in 1843), but they begin to focus attention increasingly on the general question of whether, as Steevens notes in his 1778 edition, the “words are employed, with reference to the obesity of the actor” (Johnson-Steevens 408 n.7).9 Editors place increasing attention on theatrical decorum, or the issue of which shapes and sizes of bodies are appropriate to what roles. Even more than Roberts, Steevens focuses on the unsuitability of Lowin for the role, and thus the unsuitability of the fat body for a role such as Hamlet. As he conjectures, Shakespeare added the line to “apologize” for the fatness of the actor:

If he [John Lowin] was adapted, by the corpulence of his figure, to appear with propriety in the two former of these characters [Falstaff and Henry VIII], Shakespeare might have put this observation into the mouth of her majesty, to apologize for the want of such elegance of person as an audience might expect to meet with in the representation of the youthful Prince of Denmark, whom Ophelia speaks of as “the glass of fashion and the mould of form.” (408n.7)

Steevens imagines here an audience who expects certain bodies to play certain roles. A fat actor, then, would ideally play a clown or an older king, but not ideally a young royal, especially one who is seen as a suitor. Such an understanding of body types and sizes is certainly fatphobic: it assumes the fat body has a “want of such elegance.” But this fatphobia is largely based on a certain understanding of theatrical decorum. The idea of a fat Hamlet is not something that is ludicrous, inconceivable, or monstrous, but simply theatrically inconvenient.

A more dangerous form of fatphobia emerges in the nineteenth century, when the fat body comes to be seen as having a certain innate character. Such a modern understanding of fat becomes useful during the period in which, as de Grazia has argued, the play is read through the lens of Hamlet’s (flawed) character. Thus, his supposed failure to act can be linked to his own nature by drawing on the new understanding of fat. Pat Rogers, in his masterful “Fat is a Fictional Issue,” demonstrates how by the second half of the nineteenth century in England, “corporeal codes became easier and easier to read as more of personal identity became lodged in physical shape” (31). Sharrona Pearl argues similarly that artists of all kinds could rely on a widespread popular “physiognomical literacy,” where body shape and size signify certain essential character types.10 So pervasive do these ideas become that artists can use a few words or a few lines to summon up these character types for the audience.

The argument that Hamlet was fat and that his fatness explains his weakness of character was initially ascribed to Goethe through a particular (mis)reading of his influential bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. The importance of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship on the century’s Shakespeare criticism cannot be overestimated. Horace Howard Furness, the American editor of the New Variorum edition of Hamlet (1877), acknowledged the central significance of the commentary: “Goethe’s interpretation, [is] everywhere as widely known as the play itself” (xiii). For English readers, Goethe’s interpretation was known through translation by the great Victorian critic Thomas Carlyle. First published in 1824 and reissued throughout the nineteenth century, Carlyle’s translation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship had, as Russell Jackson notes, “the status Proust’s masterpiece enjoys with us – it was the book everyone hoped you thought they had read – and knowing citation of the Hamlet comments was obligatory” (113).11

Goethe’s text, then, was mediated by Carlyle’s translation, and by a German critical tradition that ascribed to Goethe the genius of having invented “constitutional criticism.”12 An examination of the German criticism lies outside the confines of this study, but ubiquitous in English criticism are references to German critics and to Goethe as the German critic of the first order.13 In Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet (translated in 1882), for instance, Karl Elze draws on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister to argue that “It is a masterly stroke of the poet to bring Hamlet’s indecision and inertness, his melancholy and heartache, into connexion [sic] with his physique, so as to account physiologically for his turn of mind and character” (246n). This German “insight” into Hamlet also introduces into English criticism a connection between fat and what is called variously “nature,” naturelle, “constitution,” or “non-executive or lymphatic temperament.”14 In the 1862 American Civil War, pro-Union, and abolitionist periodical The Continental Monthly, Edward C. agrees with what he takes to be Goethe’s remarks: “if the theory is true, the enigma of Hamlet’s character can be solved through calculations of his pinguitude” (571). The British actor and editor Thomas Wade, in a published lecture on Hamlet, interrupts his train of thought to “reflect upon this singular fact in Hamlet’s physical history” (31).15 That Hamlet had become fat by the time he fenced Laertes is taken as a sign of his degeneration of character – in effect the reverse process of our cultural view of slimming today or Bantingism in the period. In a more recognizably scientific vein, E. Vale Blake, in Popular Science Monthly, argues that Hamlet offers a “celebrated case” of “fatty degeneration” (61). As he writes, “a redundance of adipose matter essentially weakens and impedes the power of the will,” thereby explaining Hamlet’s infamous failure to act decisively to avenge his father (61).

Despite the influence of these German Hamlets, most critics writing in English reject a reading in which the supposed failure of Hamlet’s character is explained through a specific reading of the fat body. Many critics, however, both implicitly and explicitly offer counter-arguments to the reading that is ascribed to the massive figure of Goethe. What critics did not see at the time is that Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship actually offers three very different, competing interpretations of Gertrude’s line – by Wilhelm; Serlo, the actor-manager; and Aurelia, Serlo’s sister – and conceivably any of them could be given the weight of Goethe’s authority. Their interpretations, moreover, are in dialogue with one another, with no single interpretation winning the day. The fact that Wilhelm’s interpretation was taken up by critics as Goethe’s own suggests the degree to which bodies were predisposed to be read as suggestive of character types.

Much like the eighteenth-century Roberts, Serlo considers roles in terms of the exigencies of theater, and thus he understands that roles are played by all types of bodies, even if some of those bodies might be less than ideal for the role. When Wilhelm insists that he is not suitable for the role of Hamlet because “in my whole form and physiognomy, there is not one feature such as Shakespeare meant for Hamlet,” Serlo offers the perfect actor-manager response that surely “the actor fits himself to his part as he can, and the part to him as it must” (Goethe 2:290). Serlo finds Wilhelm’s physiognomic character criticism impertinent insofar as it insists on a singular and stable sense of character that exists independently of any specific theatrical production. Whereas Wilhelm believes in the existence of a character, Hamlet, as Shakespeare intended him, Serlo looks rather to a Hamlet that is a product of particular productions, where actors, actor-managers, and audiences work to co-create character. According to this view, the theatrical company is not constrained to reproduce the so-called authentic Hamlet as Shakespeare intended him.

Even as Serlo rejects Wilhelm’s reading as impertinent, Aurelia rejects it as ugly. Shakespeare’s intention or Hamlet’s character type do not matter to Aurelia; all that matters is what pleasure the play can provide the audience. Regardless as to how compelling a physiognomic interpretation may seem, the players are not so straight-jacketed. Aurelia thus counters Wilhelm’s reading of Hamlet’s character with her own aesthetic criticism:

“In the first place," answered Wilhelm, “he is fair-haired.”

“That I call far-fetched,” observed Aurelia. “How do you infer that?”

“As a Dane, as a Northman, he is fair-haired and blue-eyed by descent.”

“And you think Shakespeare had this in view?”

“I do not find it specially expressed; but, by comparison of passages, I think it incontestable. The fencing tires him; the sweat is running from his brow; and the Queen remarks, He’s fat and scant of breath. Can you conceive him to be otherwise than plump and fair-haired? Brown complexioned people, in their youth, are seldom plump. And does not his wavering melancholy, his soft lamenting, his irresolute activity, accord with such a figure? From a dark-haired young man, you would look for more decision and impetuosity.”

“You are spoiling my imagination,” cried Aurelia: “away with your fat Hamlets! Do not set your well-fed Prince before us! Give us rather a succedaneum that will move us, will delight us. The intention of the author is of less importance to us than our own enjoyment, and we need a charm that is adapted for us.” (2:290)

Aurelia initially seems to concede that Wilhelm’s argument is rationally sound, yet she does so in a manner that critiques his stabilizing approach. The question that Wilhelm insists should be paramount — namely, what physiognomic type did Shakespeare intend? — is irrelevant because what matters is “our” (fatphobic) desires. Aurelia does not argue, as later English-speaking commentators do, that Shakespeare could not have intended a fat Hamlet. Instead, she shifts the ground of the argument entirely away from Shakespeare’s intention to what the contemporary audience — and indeed, she herself — desires. Contemporaries should create Hamlets (and Hamlets) that have a “charm that is adapted for us.” At the same time, Aurelia exposes Wilhelm’s own supposedly rationally sound reading as expressive of his own particular desires and needs. Her exclamation “Away with your fat Hamlets!” underscores the fact that it is, after all, “your” fat Hamlet that is the problem. Both Wilhelm and Aurelia display fatphobic assumptions, but ones that operate by a different understanding of the fat body. Aurelia sees the fat body as ugly and undesirable, but she does not insist, as Wilhelm does, that fat is associated with a certain character type. Her critique of Wilhelm’s remarks is leveled more at his stabilizing, essentialist interpretation, which would insist that the Hamlet we construct (and love) must be limited to the Hamlet Shakespeare intended.

Wilhelm’s remarks wielded quite a bit of authority in English and German criticism simply because they were ascribed to Goethe. Yet they also generated anxiety insofar as they were seen as commenting on the shared racial identity of the “Northman.” In the German critical tradition, Wilhelm’s remarks were used to explain the continual delay in German unification. Most famously, German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, in a poem translated into English, wrote that “Germany is Hamlet.” Focusing on Germany’s inability to act, Freiligrath expands upon Wilhelm’s diagnosis:

It comes from dawdling overmuch —
Lounging and reading, — tired to death, —
Sloth holds him in its iron clutch.
He's grown too ‘fat and scant of breath.’
He spun his learned yarn away,
His best of action was but thinking,
Too long in Wittenberg his stay.
Employed with lectures — or with drinking. (105)

Subsequently, the German critical tradition would see some essential weakness in the character of the Germanic race, a weakness that would apply to the British race as well.

G.G. Gervinus, whose Hamlet criticism appeared in English translation in 1877, offered a simple binary whereby the Northman was characterized by his fat body, the “dark-haired” southerner by his thin one. The fat body brought with it an essential character that was indecisive, irresolute, and thus inactive, whereas the thin body was characterized by “impetuosity” (565). Citing the infamous line, Gervinus sums up this critical tradition with the following remark: Hamlet “lacked, therefore, says Goethe, the external strength of the hero, or we might say, more simply, the strength of a practical and active nature” (561). Hamlet’s fat body is a sign of “faintheartedness,” “anxious-uneasiness and weakness” (561). Gervinus’s criticism of Hamlet’s character is revealed, ultimately, to be a criticism of the “German race,” for as Gervinus later insists, “Hamlet is a type of our German race at the present day” (575).16 Gervinus uses Hamlet for his own political purposes; the two Nordic races, Germany and Britain, are overburdened by their modern existence. Their active natures are made passive, rendered weak by their modernity, and their passive modernity in turn, as Hillel Schwartz elsewhere demonstrates, is associated with obesity ( “Three Body”). Gervinus looks to two opposing body types: the lean body of Prince Hal associated with the active (imperialist) nature, and the fat body of Prince Hamlet associated with the passive one. Referring to Hamlet’s promise to avenge his father, Gervinus explains that “Hamlet, a master in intelligence, can only utter this principle; he cannot carry it out, as that [King] Henry [from Shakespeare’s Henry V] did who is a master in life and action” (573). Hamlet embodies the character of the modern man, who cannot rise to the challenges of the time – an “age in which everything hinges upon physical power and the desire for action” (573). Thus, “our modern sensibility is anticipated, as it were, by two centuries in Hamlet” (574). His “superabundant emotion of his soul” has in the “last century spread like an epidemic in England and Germany” (573).

Unlike Gervinus, most English critics simply assert that Hamlet is not fat, and thus does not have a fat constitution. Why they might be so vociferous in their insistence, however, can be seen if we consider the response to this line of criticism found in the essays of the popular writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. A man involved in the British empire, both in his financial dealings with the Crown Colony of British Columbia and as Secretary of State for the Colonies under the government of Lord Derby (1858-1859), Bulwer-Lytton engages at some length with Wilhelm’s remarks in his essay “On the Moral Effect of Writers.” Bulwer-Lytton accepts that “intricate moral character” is revealed by a “physical clew” such as body shape and size, and he accepts as well that there is a general racial type like Wilhelm’s Northman (120). He only takes issue with the characterization of the Northman as having an innate fat character. In contrast, he insists, the Northmen, especially in their British incarnation, are characterized by a thin body and the concomitant thin character type. As he explains,

The dogmas conveyed in this criticism are neither historically nor physiologically correct. If, as Wilhelm Meister had just before asserted, “Hamlet must be fair-haired and blued-eyed — as a Dane, as a Northman,” certainly, of all the populations of the earth, the Dane, the Northman, has ever been the least characterized by “wavering melancholy” or “soft lamenting.” The old Scandinavian Vikings did not yield to dark-haired warriors “in decision and impetuosity.” To this day, those districts in England, wherein the old Danish race left their descendants — where the blue eyed and the light sandy hair are most frequently seen . . . the superior activity, the practical long-headedness, the ready adaptation of shrewd wit to immediate circumstance — in short, all the attributes most opposed to the character of Hamlet, are proverbially evident. Nor is it true that the fair-haired children of the North are more inclined in youth to be plump than the dark-haired inhabitants of the same climate. The Yorkshireman and Lowlander are generally high cheek-boned and lean. But is it clear that the Queen’s remark is intended to signify that Hamlet is literally fat? (121)

Bulwer-Lytton does not dispute that a “pinguous temperament” brings with it “wavering melancholy” and “soft lamenting,” or that Hamlet is a type of a the Danish race. He argues only that Wilhelm’s conclusion is "neither historically nor physiologically correct." That is, the Northman, especially its English descendents, is not characterized by the fat body and thus not by the fat character type. Historically, Bulwer-Lytton insists, the Northman possessed an “active” nature, that of a warrior; and physiologically, he is characterized by a “lean” body. One sees in his characterization, then, that Bulwer-Lytton accepts a corporeal code that reads innate personality traits in fat and thin bodies: the fat body is associated with an innate cowardliness, the lean body with an active conquering nature. Those committed to the British empire thus had good reasons to reject the German critical tradition, which used Hamlet to argue that the shared Germanic race was characterized by a fat nature.

II. Cutting the Fat, or Scholarly Emendation

Bulwer-Lytton adopts the solution preferred among English-speaking Shakespeareans. Rather than directly engaging with the argument attributed to Goethe, English Shakespeareans seek out a scholarly solution to the ostensible problem posed by Gertrude’s line. Initially, that solution involves a call for a textual emendation, where it is proposed that the word must be a printer’s error. Shakespeare must have written “hot,” “faint,” or “fey.”17 The basis for this argument is simply that it is inconceivable that Shakespeare would have meant to apply the word "fat" to Hamlet. Those who recommend an emendation, then, often prove to be offended by the word. John Bulloch illustrates this point when he recommends the emendation of “fey” because “The idea that Hamlet, the young man, the avenger of his father’s murder could have grown fat, is contrary to all likelihood” (240). Another commentator recommends the emendation of “hot” because “we are quit of the most unsympathetic fat Hamlet” (Leo 108). In 1885, Matthias Mull prefaces his own suggestion that the word “fat” is a printer’s error for “faint” with the following tirade:

The accepted reading, it seems to me, is as gross in the mouth of the Queen as it is repugnant to the situation of the facts. The coarseness of the word fat well befits the stupidity of the mutilation. "The mould of form" corpulent! (lix)

“Fat” becomes a (textual and corporeal) mutilation that must be trimmed; just as the text must be trimmed of the word to restore the true authorial intention, so too must Hamlet’s body be trimmed to its rightful (fighting) form.

The call for such emendations ends by the beginning of the twentieth century when advances in bibliography make the argument untenable: the word “fat” has the witness of the Second Quarto and the First Folio. One of the last published arguments in favor of textual emendation came in 1919, and its author, editor Elmer Edgar Stoll, apologizes: “That is not sound textual criticism, I know; but if ever an emendation seemed imperative it is here” (67n.8). As early as 1866, W.G. Clark, J. Glover and W.A. Wright, editors of the first Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Hamlet, offer the suggested emendations as “conjectural” (5.2.274n).18 The new way to rid the text of the unwanted fat was to offer a reading of the word that would make it mean anything other than corpulent. A number of the most prominent Shakespeare scholars rushed to find parallel texts from the early modern period that would offer some authority for such a reading, but ultimately, as contemporary editors conclude, no such passage was found. The two glosses suggested in the first half of the twentieth century are still assumed today. George Lyman Kittredge offered “out of training” (5.2.298LN), and J. Dover Wilson “sweaty” (5.2.285n).19 Although scholars would search for parallel texts, the arguments were largely designed to appeal to a shared common sense. Both Kittredge and Wilson refer to present-day meanings, as when Kittredge explains that the word “fat” means “out of training,” or “A modern trainer might use the same word, or he might say that Hamlet is ‘rather soft.’ Fat does not here mean ‘corpulent’” (5.2.298LN).

J. Dover Wilson makes a similar argument. In an audacious note, Wilson sets as his goal nothing less than to put down the entire Variorum tradition whereby the word “fat” was ever read as a comment on the corpulence of the original Hamlet. His argument depends less on any scholarly evidence, however, than on a fatphobia he assumes he shares with his readers:

The argument that “fat” refers to the corpulence (entirely hypothetical) of Richard Burbadge [sic], the actor who first played Ham., really cuts the other way; for if Burbadge in 1601 was getting over-stout for the part of a young student, Sh. would hardly deliberately call attention to the fact. (Wilson 5.2.285n)

The idea that the adjective referenced Burbage’s corpulence was of course not illogical to a century of readers from Roberts through Collier. Yet Wilson draws on the reader’s own internalized sense that “fat” is an epithet, and thus a word that genteel company would never apply to their friends, at least “deliberately.”

Even in the subjunctive universe in which Wilson momentarily imagines Burbage to have become fat, he cannot bring himself to apply the word to him. Thus, Wilson performs the very courtesy he imagines Shakespeare would have performed for the fat Burbage by using the euphemism “over-stout.” Given that Wilson is generally quite carefully attentive to the etymology and meaning of words, it is striking that he employs a euphemism more proper to the twentieth century than to the early seventeenth (OED “stout,” adj. and adv., 12a). By using the term “over-stout” as a euphemism for “fat,” Wilson draws on his reader’s shared sense that it is impolite to use the word “fat” as a mere descriptor, especially of one’s friends. Those readers who have internalized this form of fatphobia will feel with Dover, as with other twentieth-century critics, that it is “illogical” that Shakespeare would have used the word in this way (Keyes 90). Such an argument, I want to underscore, does not rely on parallel texts from the early modern period, but on our own sense that there is a transhistorical shame attached to the fat body.

Even the most brilliant Shakespeareans scholars of the early twentieth century proved unable to find early modern examples of the use of “fat” as “an epithet for the condition, rather than the cause of the sweating.” Perhaps they even knew such use never existed, as they began to quote proverbial, folksy Americans for examples of parallel usage. Kittredge asserts, “Nobody who remembers how fat was used by old people in New England sixty years ago will be misled by this adjective” (5.2.298LN). Others turn to the American Midwest, offering various versions of a Midwestern farmwife exclaiming upon seeing perspiring students, “how fat you all are!” (Dunn 375).20

III. Simon Russell Beale's Fat Hamlet

The line "He's fat, and scant of breath" may have been restored to critical editions of the play, but it has yet to be included in most performances. The theatrical tradition from the nineteenth century on has for the most part conformed to Aurelia’s taste of featuring Hamlets that are beautiful, or at least thin. Hamlets have fallen into two recognizable body types: some have had the shorter and muscular frame of Derek Jacobi or Richard Burton, and some have had the taller and leaner frame of a Laurence Olivier or Peter O’Toole. In being confronted with a “fat” Hamlet, these differences seem to fade away into the conviction that the conventional theatrical Hamlet must be thin, or at least not fat. Yet our own perceptions about Hamlet have recently been challenged by an “unconventional” Hamlet: Simon Russell Beale's in the 2000 production mounted by the Royal National Theatre and directed by John Caird. Although the play was almost universally praised, reviewers nonetheless had to remind us that Beale was an unconventional Hamlet because he was too old and too fat.

Responses to Beale’s body underscore the extent to which we labor under a fatphobia informed by essentialist constructions that emerged in the Victorian period. Insofar as the play is still seen as presenting a problem of consciousness, such conceptions of fatness serve for many to explain Hamlet’s presumed limitations. Reviewers focus on Beale’s fat body, even as they refuse to use the word “fat.” He has been variously called “soft,” “chunky,” “stocky,” “plump,” “pudgy,” “portly,” “rounded of figure,” “one of the plumpest Hamlets on record,” or simply “not slim” (Gamerman; Kissel; Gale; Dezell; Taylor; Speirs; Lamb). For some, the fat joke seems irresistible; however, it is often offered delicately by quoting Beale’s own remarks that, in turn, often quote with some distinct irony fatphobic responses to his body. After describing Beale’s body in a somewhat joking manner, one reviewer quotes Beale as making the quip “Tubby or not tubby,” itself a quote from the headline of one of the initial reviews (Lamb). Beale had to go on what seems like an apology tour, in which he repeatedly responded to the fatphobic expectations of the interviewer. One reviewer seems to have called Beale up only (it would seem) to ask him to comment on his unconventional fat body. Beale is quoted, then, as saying the following: “Yes, yes, overweight and too old. . . . Awfully sorry about that” (Gale). Another interview with two unconventional Hamlets — Beale alongside the black British actor Adrian Lester — begins with the same inevitable question about their supposed divergence from the Hamlet of tradition (something that Beale insists is non-existent). Once again, Beale must finally comment on his own fat body: “(Sighs) Tubby or not tubby, which is my dreadlock. Oh, the fat thing. Yes” (Beale).

From the perspective of this article, responses to the fat body seem oddly familiar, if anything having hardened into unexamined doxa. In a review of the American run, the critic of the New York Daily News observes that Beale’s “short and chunky” Hamlet deviates from the conventional Hamlets, characterized by him as “trim, Byronic young men.” He argues that the fatness of Beale’s body is part of the brilliance of the production:

But that may account for why he’s hanging out in a German college town with dolts like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern . . . at the advanced age of 30 instead of staying in Elsinore and taking on the responsibilities of a ruler. It may also account for why he’s so waspish and meditative and, more important, why he’s so reluctant to take on his evil uncle, Claudius. It wouldn’t be such a problem for a prince who’s combat-ready. (Kissel)

All of this is recognizable in that the fat person is seen as innately idle, cowardly, indulgent, whereas the thin person is implicitly seen as more active, responsible, and “combat-ready.” Another American reviewer operates by a similar assumption, now assuring the reader “How right it seems that Hamlet’s depression would leave him pudgy and unkempt. It’s easy to imagine him moping around the palace in a funk, getting up at two in the afternoon and snacking on the medieval Danish equivalent of Doritos all day” (Gammerman). It is so “easy” or “right” to make this set of associations because the ideological associations with the fat body that began in the Victorian period have hardened into an unquestioned truth today.

This production and responses to it have done quite a bit toward promoting the possibilities of a fat Hamlet, and showing some of the usefulness of having a “fat” actor play the role. I want to suggest, however, that the word “fat,” and thus the line “He’s fat, and scant of breath,” needs to be reintroduced into productions of the text. In some ways, our knowing insistence on omitting and ignoring the line underscores our own unwillingness to consider the ramifications of our targeted use of fatphobic constructions. Euphemisms and jokes allow us to draw upon the deleterious associations of these constructions without ever reflecting on their significance. Simon Russell Beale clearly offends many as Hamlet insofar as his body registers as “fat,” and yet somehow we avoid the word. Some think that the most polite response would be to allow that he somehow transcended his body because “the role is not about body type or age but about, to borrow from Spike Lee, how to ‘Do the Right Thing’” (Lamb). The critical tradition examined here suggests that this is far from the case: there has been a concerted effort to distance “Hamlet” from “fat,” one very literally seen in efforts to excise the line “He’s fat, and scant of breath” from the play or to redefine “fat” as meaning anything else but fat.

The offense is not in having a fat man play the role, but in having a fat man who owns his fatness play the role. Those who did not want Beale to play the role do not want the word “fat” associated with their Hamlet. Much like Lowell, they insist that “A fat Hamlet is as inconceivable as a lean Falstaff,” but it is only inconceivable, it would seem, with some hard work in eliminating or explaining away the line “He’s fat, and scant of breath.” No wonder, then, a famed American theater critic and producer dismisses the “portly” Beale and the line simultaneously: “While always clear-spoken and intelligent, Beale is obviously too portly for the role (yes, Gertrude mentions that Hamlet is ‘fat and scant of breath,’ but this is ridiculous)” (Brustein 65-6). His remarks remind us of how easily the line has been omitted in productions — including the production with Simon Russell Beale!

I want to end by imagining a production very much like this one that also included the line “He’s fat, and scant of breath.” One reviewer has argued that the line should have been included, offering the speculation that it was omitted because it might elicit laughter from the audience. As he explains, “Fearing laughter, perhaps, the ‘fat’ word is cut from the National production but they should have had more courage” (Johnstone). I have little doubt that some in the audience would laugh, and others would feel the urge to laugh as well. The courage in such a production would come from allowing for the laughter. Those who laugh, and those who feel the laugh coming on and understand the “instinct,” are subsequently faced with the realities of the sweating, laboring, and finally dying body of Hamlet. Some, at least, will feel something of the meanness of the inhumanity behind the laughter, and the inhumanity of a construction that sees the fat body before it as “ridiculous.” Perhaps Simon Russell Beale has understood part of this, as someone who has had to work through this laughter. In fact, he sees the whole play as coming down to the final scene, and the “Let be” soliloquy: “There’s this rather amazing moment, if you’re lucky enough to play Hamlet, when you realize that people have followed you for three hours through this terrible story, and you just say to them: ‘Look this is me. I’m worth watching, and I’m a human being’” (Beale). Such a moment becomes all the more humanizing if the audience member realizes that just moments before she was laughing at the very same human being. For a moment, the viciousness of the construction is uncovered, and some can come to realize that the limitations lie not in the fat body in and of itself, but in the emaciating constructions we apply to it.


1 This essay cites numerous editions of Hamlet, all of which are attributed to Shakespeare in the Works Cited. Effort has been taken in the text to make sure that references to each particular edition are nonetheless clear. This initial citation of the line in question refers to The Riverside Shakespeare. For the line in the First Folio, see Thompson and Taylor’s Arden edition, 5.2.239. For the line in the Q2, see also their Arden edition, 5.2.269. The inclusion of the comma varies. The First Quarto does not include the line.

2 See also George Rylands’ note to 5.2.279.

3 Lowell’s remark was frequently cited: see, for example, Richard Grant White’s note to 5.2.292.

4 Huff was the first to examine Victorian representations of fat. See also her essays “Fosco’s Fat Drag,” “Freaklore,” and “Corporeal Economies.” For treatments of primarily nineteenth-century American constructions of fat, see Schwartz; Stearns; and Farrell. For broader treatments of fat, see Forth and Carden-Coyne; and Levy-Navarro, Historicizing. The work of Sander Gilman is also important here. For discussion about the theoretical approach of a fat history, see Levy-Navarro, “Fattening”; and Huff, “Fattening.”

5 “Wellness” programs seem to be moving toward penalizing those who fail to meet certain goals or are designated as “overweight” or “obese.” The national drugstore CVS has announced their plan to charge employees who are “overweight” or “obese” (or who simply refuse to disclose their weight) a monthly penalty of $50.00 a month. It should be noted that our culture has an obvious and growing obsession with measuring and recording a variety of biometrics. New apps in smartphones allow the owner to measure every aspect of her body, from the heart-rate to weight lost to steps taken to calories burned. Even before these innovations, surveillance of this sort was made available in diet narratives, as well as in TV shows like The Biggest Loser, each episode of which culminates in the recording of the weight gained or lost by the contestants. For a discussion of this phenomenon, as well as the compulsory nature of these narratives, see Levy-Navarro, “I’m the New Me.”

6 Scholars are not exempt from broader cultural forces. Thus, it should not be surprising that even some academics in the emerging field of fat studies find it difficult to see the various understandings of fat as constructions at all. In the reissue of Fat History, for example, Peter Stearns responded to criticism about his refusal to read fat as desirable and weight loss as undesirable by describing himself as committed to a lifelong struggle to lose weight (Stearns xxv; Levy-Navarro, Culture, 20-1).

7 See Keyes for a descriptive treatment of the criticism of this line.

8 Steevens seems to accept Roberts’ conclusion that Lowin was the original Hamlet, even though he adds the caveat: “This, however, is mere conjecture as Joseph Taylor likewise acted Hamlet during the life of Shakespeare” (408n.7). Malone argues in favor of Taylor, even as he dismisses Roberts’ conclusion: “Roberts the player alone has asserted, (apparently without any authority,) that this part was performed by Lowin” (419n.6). Malone and Boswell add, “But in truth I am convinced that it was neither Taylor nor Lowin, but probably Burbage. Taylor apparently was not of the company till late, perhaps after 1615, and Lowin not till after 1603” (510-11n.4).

9 Citing a manuscript epitaph on Burbage in which he is elegized with the following — “No more young Hamlet, though but scant of breath,/ Shall cry revenge” — Collier concludes, “These lines must have been written very soon after the decease of the subject of them, and they are decisive upon the point that Burbage was the performer who first acted the part of Hamlet” (344n.4). See also Rimbault.

10 Physiognomy has often been taken to be only the science of reading facial features for signs of an inner character. In practice, “most [studies of physiognomy] extended the range of analyses to include expression (more properly called ‘pathognomy’), body types, and eventually, hairstyle, clothing, and self-presentation broadly construed” (Pearl 6).

11 For the influence of German Shakespeare criticism on British criticism, see Poole 206-10. For a discussion of how the Great War effectively ended the influence of German Shakespeare criticism on the British, see Engler.

12 Surveying criticism at the end of the nineteenth century, American critic Hiram Corson observed that the Romantics, and especially the German Romanticis, were fixated on “constitutional criticism” (352). Dismissing a later medicalized form of such criticism as “infinitely ludicrous,” Corson argues that “any explanation of the man Hamlet, which proceeds upon the assumption of the theories of Goethe and Coleridge, must be as wide of the mark as is this, though it may not be so fleshly” (352).

13 On the importance that Shakespeare had on nineteenth-century German criticism generally, see Burwick. Isaacs characterizes the nineteenth century in Germany as the “Hamlet-period” because the “Shakespearian figure becomes a mirror and symbol of the national growing pains” (300). For a discussion of “Germany is Hamlet” and its nationalist and racialist interpretation, see Pfister.

14 For naturelle, see the discussion of German critic Richard Loening in Hulme 499-505. For “constitution,” see Verplanck 76n. For “temperament,” see Hulme 499; and Gervinus 561-65. For the diagnosis that Hamlet has a “non-executive or lymphatic temperament,” see Blake 63.

15 The lecture was originally delivered in 1844 (“What does ‘Hamlet’ mean?"). Its publication date, then, can be no earlier than 1844 and no later than 1871, after which Wade ceased publishing.

16 See also the dedication in Furness’ edition: “To the / ‘German Shakespeare Society’ of Weimar / Representative of a People / Whose Recent History / Has Proved/ Once for All / that ‘Germany is not Hamlet’ / These Volumes are Dedicated with Great Respect by the Editor” (iii).

17 “Hot” was offered as a conjectural reading attributed to a Brady in Clark, Glover, and Wright's edition of Hamlet, 5.2.274n. See also Hudson 335-36 n. to page 312; Stoll, Hamlet 66-67n.8; and Stoll, “Not Fat.” “Faint” was offered as a conjectural reading attributed to Wyeth in Wright’s Cambridge edition, 5.2.274n; see also Dixon, “Line.” On the issue of who originated this last suggestion, see Dixon, “Passage”; and Wright. Those advocating this later emendation include Kennedy; and Mull. The famous Hamlet Beerbohm Tree adopted the emendation in his production of Hamlet (36). For the emendation of “fey,” see Bulloch 240.

18 The editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine, “Sylvanus Urban,” writing at the end of the century, has the tentativeness of the first Cambridge Shakespeare in mind when he rejects all calls for emending the line with the following: “To all this I only answer that ‘fat’ is the reading of all the folios and quartos [not The First Quarto]. The safe and sensible rule at length adopted in Shakespearian criticism is that when a sentence has a distinct and conceivable meaning, it is not to be disturbed by conjecture. ‘Fat’ is intelligible enough, and must be left as it stands. It is, moreover, I venture to think, the very word that Shakespeare intentionally used, and is better and more appropriate than all suggested substitutes” (216). Albert H. Tolman makes a similar point: “This word ‘fat’ has been a stone of stumbling. Although there is no authority for any other word, ‘fat’ has been looked upon either as a misprint for ‘hot’ or ‘faint,’ or as referring to the physical appearance of Burbage, the first actor to play the role” (16).

19 Kittredge did not originate this reading, but offered its most influential formulation. For earlier suggestions, see Hudson’s comments in Hudson and Black's edition of Hamlet, 5.2.277n.; and Chambers’ edition, 5.2.298n.

20 For similar stories, see Ridley 5.2.277LN; and Withington 453. Dunn is cited as an authority in subsequent articles, including Dickson 171-2; and more skeptically, in Maxwell 29-30. See also Jenkins 5.2.290LN.

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Elena Levy-Navarro, Professor of English at University of Wisconsin—Whitewater, is author of numerous works on early modern figures, including Shakespeare. She is author of The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity: Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and editor of the essay collection Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture (Ohio State University Press, 2010). Her current work in progress explores how nineteenth-century conceptions of fat and thin bodies influence their understanding of the early modern period.

Image Credit: Punch 100 (2 Jan. 1891). Caption: "HAMLET AS HE REALLY OUGHT TO BE, ACCORDING TO SHAKSPEARE."

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