steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

Fat Hamlet

I’m not a regular theatre-goer, but I’ve been to quite a few productions of Hamlet over the years. I don’t recall seeing one where the protagonist was noticeably overweight, though. (Kenneth Branagh has the potential but he never quite realises it.) It’s a shame because, the more I read that play, the more convinced I am that Hamlet’s insecurity about his body-image lies at the heart of it.

In the opening act, for example, he’s recently arrived from Wittenberg. He looks distinctly podgy and out of shape, having spent far too much time sitting at his desk reading - with the inevitable accompaniment of wurst and lager - and none at all marching over worthless tracts of land, like Fortinbras (whose name translates as ‘Well-toned Bicep’). And doesn’t he just hate himself for it? ‘Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt!’

Hamlet is out of condition and he knows it. Of course, he makes some desultory attempts to amend the situation, but surely he protests too much. ‘Since he went into France, I have been in continual practise.’ Yeah, right! We were there, Hamlet – remember? Your only ‘practice’ was turning Polonius into a kebab.

His mother isn’t deceived, either. She knows in the last scene that Hamlet is still ‘fat, and scant of breath,’ and even offers him her napkin to wipe away his all-too-obvious sweat. Mothers, eh? Always showing you up.

Crucially, Hamlet projects his disgust outwards as well as inwards. What a downer he has on Danish drinking habits! ‘A custom more honoured in the breach than the observance,’ he says, all niminy-piminy, before rambling on about how a wonderfully noble character (his own, perhaps?) can be brought low by a single bad habit. That degree of prudery is a sure sign of ill-disguised self-loathing. He abuses Ophelia because he cannot believe that anyone would truly love a butterball like him. Surely she must be laughing behind his back.

But the main focus of this disgust is his uncle, with whom he identifies strongly. No, no, it’s nothing to do with Oedipus - it’s because they share the same body type. Yes, the Rhenish-swilling Claudius is clearly the ‘fat king’ in Hamlet’s little homily on worms. When Hamlet looks at Claudius he sees himself in thirty years’ time, and it’s not a pretty sight. Even when he pictures Claudius in bed with his mother, it’s the body-heat and rolls of fat he focuses on (‘the rank sweat of an enseamed bed’), as much as the idea of incest. No wonder he intends to feed the region kites with Claudius’ offal – there’s a lot of it! He wants to hide the evidence by putting him on the slim-fast Prometheus diet.

By contrast, Old Hamlet (like Fortinbras and Laertes, as I see them) was naturally slim and muscular. Hamlet even carries pictures of the two brothers, like the Before and After pictures in a slimming advert – just to torment himself.

Hmm. I wonder if Burton has anything to say about body image and melancholia? There’s a great story in Timothy Bright’s 1586 book on the subject about a man who was morbidly obsessed with the size of his nose, but that’s not quite the same.

Enough of that. But, so, anyway – why have I never seen a porky Hamlet? Or rather, which is the fattest Prince of Denmark ever to grace the stage? And what’s Bacon got to do with it?
Tags: books, hamlet
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