Hamlet Fat ?
By LESLIE HOTSON E'S fat, and scant of breath." We have happily out- lived a dark age when sheepish scholars took this remark as evidence that Hamlet was corpulent, and were forced to invent a round4nd pursy Dick Burbage both to explain the regrettable phenomenon and to exculpate The Bard. We will have none of it. Nothing will persuade us to see the Melancholy Prince as a convex glass of fashion, a plump mould of form, a corpulence observed of. all observers. But what can we put in the place of this detestable interpreta- tion of fat ? The dubious meaning " sweaty," which has been eagerly offered as a substitute, is little better. Even if authen- ticated, the meaning " sweaty " would condemn the Queen (an able sportswoman who elsewhere rates the false Danish dogs for hunting counter) to a very feckless speech.
Let us give Gertrude fair play. Her diagnosis at this point in the fencing match should certainly assign a reason for Hamlet's shortwindedness, not to be a mere feather-brained voicing of what is obvious to all—that he is sweating and panting. Aware of this, G. L. Kittredge suggested that fat might here be taken in the sense of " rather soft," " not quite trained, down "—an attractive proposal, which might be accept- able were it not for the lack of any Elizabethan example of fat in the sense proposed, and the presence of Hamlet's authoritative statement on his condition, that he has been in continual practice.
Curiously enough, we have overlooked the key to the puzzle, another common Elizabethan use of fat, where the term means neither corpulent, sweaty nor rather soft, but full-fed or replete. " He's full, and short of breath " makes excellent sense; and this meaning of fat has plenty of authority behind it. For instance, where the Vulgate (1 Sam. ii. 29) has ut comederetis (i.e., to eat up), the King James Version gives " to make-your- selves fat." And Shakespeare employs the verb in this same sense of " feast full," " satisfy " or " glut " in Titus Andro- nicus: "0 how this villany Doth fat me with the very thought of it ! " Soinetimes it appears in the phrase laugh and be fat, meaning " laugh and be feasted full," of which the plays give us examples: " When shall we sup together, and laugh, and be fat with these good wenches? ha?"—Jonson, Every Man Out of his Humour. " When the next day they'll laugh, be fat and drunk together."—Every Woman in her Humour. " Feed, and be fat, my fair Calipolis " is Pistil's burlesque echo of Muley Mahamet's words (in Peele's Battle of Alcazar), urging his wife Calipolis to recruit her energies with a hearty meal of flesh- " Feed and be fat, that we may meet the foe With strength ...'
Clearly, it is in this sense of " full " that Gertrude means that Hamlet is " fat " at the moment of the match, and we owe her an apology for having hunted counter. When the fencing is unexpectedly proposed, Hamlet had just entered on his " breathing time " of day, and the King properly sends to enquire if he will " take longer time." This indicates recog- nition that now may well be considered too soon after Hamlet's dinner for exercise so violent. (" Rules to be observed in horse Raceing . . . Upon the match day let your horse be empty.") The forewarned Laertes had no doubt merely toyed with his viands. Scorning to demand digestion time, Hamlet however declares himself ready. Yet in the exertion of the bout he sweats, and is noticeably short of breath. Gertrude explains his condition succinctly and correctly by pointing out bat he is fat, that is, still " full of bread."
But there is more here than either a proper understanding of Hamlet's condition .or a bit of fair play for the Queen. Correct understanding of this one word reveals to us Shake- speare's symmetrical pattern in the tragedy. For it is not until we catch the true sense of fat in this connection that we per- ceive to the full the grim parallel which the author drew. Claudius murdered Old Hamlet treacherously by poison; murdered him unsuspecting, in his secure hour, while he was sleeping off his dinner; took him " grossly, full of bread." The black sequence is to be exactly repeated with the son. When the after-dinner fencing-match is suggested, young Hamlet has a premonition of ill which Horatio begs him to heed. But he defies augury, and the deadly pattern takes shape again. We foresee that, like Old Hamlet, he is to be murdered treacherously by poison, unsuspecting, while he is still " fat " after dining, and, again like his father, he is to go to his account. no shriving time allow'd, with all his imperfections on his head. The first murder was to gain for Claudius a crown and a queen. The second, on the same pattern, is to secure them. But in the upshot, by his own foul means, the King finds himself "of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd."
This evidence that Shakespeare designed the main tragic outline in full symmetry is not only illuminating but suggestive. For are we not presented with a similar (though minor) pattern of " part answering part " at the play's close ? In the catas- trophe, the artist seems to implement each particular point of dramatic irony in Claudius's prophetic speech before the match: " If Hamlet giue the first, or second hit, Or quit in answer of the third exchange, . .
The King shall drinke to Hamlet's better breath."
For his prophecy comes true, in ways he does not expect.
Contrary to likelihood, Hamlet gives the first and second hits. Score for the third bout is " nothing neither way ": no hits. But in the fourth—in answer of the third exchange —there are two. Both are deadly, and Hamlet quits Laertes: unwittingly repays his treachery with a return thrust of the unbated and envenomed foil. And at Hamlet's command, " Drink off this potion ! " the dying King is offered the poison tempered by his own hand: The King shall drink to Hamlet's better breath. That better breath is lent to Hamlet's other self. Horatio, to blazon to the yet unknowing world the King's carnal, bloody, and unnatural, acts.