The Paunch of Denmark

Gert enjoyed Isaac Butler’s Is Hamlet Fat? in Slate.

This isn’t a new question; in the nineteenth century there was a lot of scholarly argument about the fact that Gertrude says of Hamlet before the duel with Laertes, “He’s fat, and scant of breath”. Apparently it wasn’t in the first edition; maybe, some say, it was put in later because Richard Burbage, who played Hamlet, had got fat; but in the Victoria era there was a view, shared by Goethe, that 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.”

Of course, particularly in this era of fatophobia, we want to think he’s a lean romantic, not a sweaty fatty. But Isaac Butler’s linguistic investigations with the help of a Shakespearean scholar suggest that Gertrude did mean that her son was, well, fat.

Gert has examined the text and come up with more compelling evidence for this:

1. The name Hamlet, a combination of “ham” and “piglet.”
2. His “customary suits of solemn black” – black is slimming as we all know.
3. “Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt.”

This opens up intriguing possibilities for a Hamlet truly of our times. Theatre directors are always looking for new angles – say, Julius Caesar played by performing dogs, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf set in a kindergarten, The Importance of Being Earnest set in the Bronx. Why not, pardon the pun, go the whole hog and have an absolutely mountainous actor playing Hamlet?


18 thoughts on “The Paunch of Denmark

  1. Depardieu? Tried to watch him in Welcome to New York last night but dropped out when a faux orgy scene began w/ a man rubbing ice cream on a woman’s behind and naming (and slapping) one cheek ‘Ben” and the other “jerry.” Oh the humanity!

  2. An intriguing possibility. I don’t watch him on principle these days, he’s such a creep, but I would have to make an exception for his Hamlet. I hear Fassbender isn’t great as Macbeth.\ (not fat enough?) By the way, did you get to see The Lobster?

  3. Falstaff is extremely fat, but endearing. A fat Hamlet might not be weak, impotent, or any of those other things, whereas Depardieu turns adipose tissue into a whole new kind of evil…

    1. A very fat man can be comic or sinister, but otherwise it doesn’t come naturally to see him as a leading man. But I suppose, when you think about it, Hamlet’s no hero. Interesting that he’s become a sort of romantic hero in the general imagination, and maybe that’s more because of the people chosen to play him than anything else.

    2. Hamlet annoys the hell out of me. What a whiner. I can’t see a fat Hamlet because I always see Hamlet as anxious and restless. He couldn’t be fat as I doubt that he sat at the table long enough.

  4. Interesting proposition, Gert, a fat Hamlet. He should be short though becacuse a real Ham would be quite large – and he’s only a Hamlet.

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