He's fat, and scant of breath

Discussion in 'English Only' started by Ptak, Jan 31, 2011.

  1. Ptak Senior Member

    Moskau
    Rußland
    I'm probably asking a classical question which many people asked before not only on this forum :) But... anyway :)
    In the play "Hamlet", there is a line (said by Gertrude about Hamlet during the duel between him and Laertes):

    He's fat, and scant of breath.

    Could this line (first of all the word "fat") simply mean that Hamlet's face is just covered with sweat? Or does it definitely indicate that Hamlet was a fat person (meaning his bodily constitution)?

    Please, don't answer something like "Hamlet couldn't be fat", "I can't imagine a fat Hamlet", and so on. I am only inerested what this very line itself can mean. Is it ambiguous?
     
  2. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Colorado
    English-US
    I certainly see no reason to believe that Shakespeare used "fat" here to refer to a sweaty face. He seems to have used it to say that Hamlet was out of shape and therefore reduced to gasping for breath.
     
  3. Ptak Senior Member

    Moskau
    Rußland
    I'm afraid I don't understand what concretely you mean by "out of shape". Do you mean that he was fat (obese), or not?
     
  4. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Colorado
    English-US
    That means that he is in poor physical condition. As you specifically asked us not to speculate about Hamlet's appearance, I thought "out of shape" would best convey Shakespeare's probable meaning.
     
  5. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    Scant of breath means short of breath. Hamlet is breathing hard as a result of the exertion. His mother is teasing him for not being in physical condition.
     
  6. Ptak Senior Member

    Moskau
    Rußland
    I am sorry, it's probably something about political correctness which doesn't allow to use words like "fat" and "obese" at all. But I am a dull foreigner whose native language is not English, and I don't understand if "in poor physical condition" and "out of shape" indicate the bodily constitution of a person or not. And I really can't see how on Earth the word "fat" could assume such an evasive meaning as "poor physical condition".

    I specifically asked not to speculate about Hamlet's appearance relying on stereotypes. But I do ask to speculate about his appearance relying on this line.

    If someone can clearly tell me if this line says that Hamlet was a fat person or this line doesn't say it, please tell me.
     
  7. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Colorado
    English-US
    There's no way to know exactly what Shakespeare had in mind. "Fat" can be used to mean "soft" or "well-fed and unaccustomed to hard physical work". We often say that people are "fat and happy" even though they are not obese.

    Shakespeare could have envisioned an obese Hamlet, yet that isn't specifically mentioned in the play. I don't think that "political correctness" was much of a concern for Shakespeare, at least not in the way that we understand that term today.
     
  8. Myridon

    Myridon Senior Member

    Texas
    English - US
    Shakespeare uses fat to mean fat = not lean. Your quote is from Act V, scene ii, but in Act IV, scene iii:
     
  9. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Colorado
    English-US
    Myridon's research here is helpful. You should remember, Ptak, that Shakespeare is a master of figurative language. In Myridon's example, "fat" could well be viewed as a synonym for "wealthy". Shakespeare's mention of maggots sounds a lot like standard ascetic advice: what good does it do you to accumulate things in this world? You'll be food for worms in a very short while.

    Our king certainly wouldn't need to weigh three hundred pounds to look fat in relation to a beggar who's starving to death.
     
  10. Parla Member Emeritus

    New York City
    English - US
    Remember that another character, Gertrude, says this about Hamlet. When a fictional character speaks, we know only that character's point of view, not a dispassionate description. Perhaps Gertrude truly viewed Hamlet as overweight.
     
  11. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    I suppose that Gertrude is using the word fat in the OED's sense A I 1:
    A. adj. 1. Of an animal used for food: Fed up for slaughter, ready to kill, fatted
    in other words, Hamlet is ripe for the butcher.
     
  12. Thomas Tompion Senior Member

    Southern England
    English - England
    I don't think she means more than that he's not in optimal physical condition for fencing, that he's not been practising enough. She doesn't know, as we do, that he's fighting for his life, that Laertes's sword has poison at its end.

    Gertrude is teasing her son.

    Neither of Ptak's original possibilities is correct. She doesn't mean either:

    1. That he's sweating, though her conclusion is drawn from this fact, or
    2. That he's a fat person.

    She means that he's out of condition, that he hasn't fenced or taken physical activity for a while, and that the fact that he's out of breath illustrates that he needs to shed a few pounds.
     
  13. Ptak Senior Member

    Moskau
    Rußland
    Yes, but it's hardly possible that figurative language would be used by Gertrude...
     
  14. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Colorado
    English-US
    That might be true, yet Gertrude's words are really Shakespeare's, of course. :) I think that Thomas Thompion has offered a very convincing explanation for her use of "fat" in this statement. His point is quite similar to the one I made in post #7. "Fat" here means "soft and not in peak physical condition". Hamlet may be a few pounds overweight and therefore in poor shape for a fencing match.
     
  15. Ptak Senior Member

    Moskau
    Rußland
    So, it's rather just "He's too fat [for fencing]"?..
     
  16. owlman5

    owlman5 Senior Member

    Colorado
    English-US
    That sounds like a very good interpretation, Ptak.
     
  17. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
    In the 21st century we are, I think, peculiarly obsessed with correlating fatness with unfitness for sport or military service (and all sorts of other undesirable characteristics). But I suppose that something of the same idea must have existed in Shakespeare's day.

    I still think, though, that we shouldn't completely overlook the correlation fat = ready for slaughter, and similarly scant of breath = unable to go on and therefore about to be defeated in the fight.
     
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2011
  18. djmc Senior Member

    France
    English - United Kingdom
    Earlier in the play Hamlet refers to "This too too solid flesh". This is not normally taken as a reference to his thinking that he is overweight, but taken with the speech by Gertrude could do so. A peculiarity of the play is while he is over thirty (he knew Yorick well who had been dead for thirty years), he has been passed over for the throne in favour of his uncle when it was normal for sons to succeed their fathers to the throne. Is this telling us something about his physique?
     
  19. se16teddy

    se16teddy Senior Member

    London but from Yorkshire
    English - England
  20. Jim986

    Jim986 Senior Member

    Vigo, Spain
    New Zealand English
    If we remember Hamlet's actions throughout the play and the impressions of other characters it is evident that he is not obese in the modern sense. Ophelia describes him in Act III scene 2 as being:
    The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword,
    Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
    The glass of fashion and the mould of form...
    The last line means that he was considered to be not only good-looking and elegant, but also a trend-setter, a David Beckham or Brad Pitt of his time. We see him as physically capable because he handles himself well in all sorts of situations: nimbly following the ghost along the battlements of the castle with their fearful drop to the rocks below, leaping into Ophelia's grave, creeping silently at night into R & G's cabin to swap the fatal letters, taking advantage of a sea fight to change ships, dispatching Polonius with a single accurate stroke, and he tells Horatio that he has been "in continuous practise" since they last met. But most of all he out-scores Laertes (reputedly the best fencer in France) in the duel in Act V. It is precisely the fact that Hamlet is winning this duel that forces Laertes (who has a naked sword against Hamlet's blunted [unbated] point) to resort plan B, the poisoned rapier. It is obvious from the way the contest is going that Hamlet is the "in form "player. So, why does Gertrude comment that Hamlet is "fat and scant of breath"? Firstly, it is a comment on his condition at the moment, at this point in the contest, after two strenuous bouts, not on his general physique. Her full comment is
    He’s fat, and scant of breath.—
    Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows...
    Come, let me wipe thy face.

    Sweaty? certainly. Overweight? A mother always retains the image of her chubby baby who needs her care and protection, failing to see the capable man he has become because she wants him to be dependent on her. And secondly, considering the use of "fat" in other contemporary contexts (the fat of the land and fatted calf in the King James Bible, for instance) it seems to have positive rather than negative connotations.
     
  21. LongPurple

    LongPurple New Member

    English (American)
    Exactly. When seen in context, the sense of "fat" as used by Gertrude's description of Hamlet in this speech is obviously "sweaty", like a piece of suet in warm sunlight. That Shakespeare uses it in the sense of "ready and fit for slaughter" in a different act of the play is not to be taken as his meaning in this act, this scene, this speech. It is however, most significant that Gertrude's observation of Hamlet's "sweaty" condition ironically also describes him as being set up for slaughter by a three-fold plot of an unbated sword, a poisoned drink, and poison on that unbated sword.
     
  22. Linkway Senior Member

    British English
    Ptak, did you find any of the four million results on Google useful if you search for:

    Was Hamlet fat?
     

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