Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Don Juanism by Albert Camus



"There is no noble love but that which recognizes itself to be both short-lived and exceptional.”

- Camus

 "Faust craved worldly goods; the poor man had only to stretch out his hand. It already amounted to selling his soul when he was unable to gladden it.  

As for satiety, Don Juan insists upon it, on the contrary. 

If he leaves a woman it is not absolutely because he has ceased to desire her. 

A beautiful woman is always desirable. 

But he desires another, and no, this is not the same thing.



Don Juanism
If it were sufficient to love, things would be too easy. The more one loves, the stronger the absurd grows. It is not through lack of love that Don Juan goes from woman to woman. It is ridiculous to represent him as a mystic in quest of total love. But it is indeed because he loves them with the same passion and each time with his whole self that he must repeat his gift and his profound quest. Whence each woman hopes to give him what no one has ever given him. Each time they are utterly wrong and merely manage to make him feel the need of that repetition. “At last,” exclaims one of them, “I have given you love.” Can we be surprised that Don Juan laughs at this? “At last? No,” he says, “but once more.” 

Why should it be essential to love rarely in order to love much?
Is Don Juan melancholy? This is not likely. I shall barely have recourse to the legend. That laugh, the conquering insolence, that playfulness and love of the theater are all clear and joyous. Every healthy creature tends to multiply himself. So it is with Don Juan.

But, furthermore, melancholy people have two reasons for being so: they don’t know or they hope. 

Don Juan knows and does not hope. 

He reminds one of those artists who know their limits, never go beyond them, and in that precarious interval in which they take their spiritual stand enjoy all the wonderful ease of masters. And that is indeed genius: the intelligence that knows its frontiers. Up to the frontier of physical death Don Juan is ignorant of melancholy. The moment he knows, his laugh bursts forth and makes one forgive everything. He was melancholy at the time when he hoped. Today, on the mouth of that woman he recognizes the bitter and comforting taste of the only knowledge. Bitter? Barely: that necessary imperfection that makes happiness perceptible!
It is quite false to try to see in Don Juan a man brought up on Ecclesiastes. For nothing is vanity to him except the hope of another life. He proves this because he gambles that other life against heaven itself. Longing for desire killed by satisfaction, that commonplace of the impotent man, does not belong to him. That is all right for Faust, who believed in God enough to sell himself to the devil. For Don Juan the thing is simpler. Molina’s Burlador ever replies to the threats of hell: “What a long respite you give me!” What comes after death is futile, and what a long succession of days for whoever knows how to be alive! 

Faust craved worldly goods; the poor man had only to stretch out his hand. It already amounted to selling his soul when he was unable to gladden it. As for satiety, Don Juan insists upon it, on the contrary. If he leaves a woman it is not absolutely because he has ceased to desire her. A beautiful woman is always desirable. But he desires another, and no, this is not the same thing.
This life gratifies his every wish, and nothing is worse than losing it. This madman is a great wise man. But men who live on hope do not thrive in this universe where kindness yields to generosity, affection to virile silence, and communion to solitary courage. And all hasten to say: “He was a weakling, an idealist or a saint.” One has to disparage the greatness that insults.
***
People are sufficiently annoyed (or that smile of complicity that debases what it admires) by Don Juan’s speeches and by that same remark that he uses on all women. But to anyone who seeks quantity in his joys, the only thing that matters is efficacy. What is the use of complicating the passwords that have stood the test? No one, neither the woman nor the man, listens to them, but rather to the voice that pronounces them. They are the rule, the convention, and the courtesy. After they are spoken the most important still remains to be done. Don Juan is already getting ready for it. Why should he give himself a problem in morality? He is not like Milosz’s Manara, who damns himself through a desire to be a saint. Hell for him is a thing to be provoked. He has but one reply to divine wrath, and that is human honor: “I have honor,” he says to the Commander, “and I am keeping my promise because I am a knight.” But it would be just as great an error to make an immoralist of him. In this regard, he is “like everyone else”: he has the moral code of his likes and dislikes. 

Don Juan can be properly understood only by constant reference to what he commonly symbolizes: the ordinary seducer and the sexual athlete. 

He is an ordinary seducer.[16] Except for the difference that he is conscious, and that is why he is absurd. 

A seducer who has become lucid will not change for all that. Seducing is his condition in life. Only in novels does one change condition or become better. Yet it can be said that at the same time nothing is changed and everything is transformed. What Don Juan realizes in action is an ethic of quantity, whereas the saint, on the contrary, tends toward quality

Not to believe in the profound meaning of things belongs to the absurd man. As for those cordial or wonder-struck faces, he eyes them, stores them up, and does not pause over them. Time keeps up with him. The absurd man is he who is not apart from time. 

Don Juan does not think of “collecting” women. He exhausts their number and with them his chances of life. “Collecting” amounts to being capable of living off one’s past. But he rejects regret, that other form of hope. He is incapable of looking at portraits.
***
Is he selfish for all that? In his way, probably. But here, too, it is essential to understand one another.
There are those who are made for living and those who are made for loving. At least Don Juan would be inclined to say so. But he would do so in a very few words such as he is capable of choosing. 

For the love we are speaking of here is clothed in illusions of the eternal. As all the specialists in passion teach us, there is no eternal love but what is thwarted. There is scarcely any passion without struggle. Such a love culminates only in the ultimate contradiction of death. One must be Werther or nothing. There, too, there are several ways of committing suicide, one of which is the total gift and forget-fulness of self. Don Juan, as well as anyone else, knows that this can be stirring. But he is one of the very few who know that this is not the important thing. He knows just as well that those who turn away from all personal life through a great love enrich themselves perhaps but certainly impoverish those their love has chosen. A mother or a passionate wife necessarily has a closed heart, for it is turned away from the world. A single emotion, a single creature, a single face, but all is devoured. Quite a different love disturbs Don Juan, and this one is liberating. It brings with it all the faces in the world, and its tremor comes from the fact that it knows itself to be mortal. Don Juan has chosen to be nothing.
For him it is a matter of seeing clearly. We call love what binds us to certain creatures only by reference to a collective way of seeing for which books and legends are responsible. But of love I know only that mixture of desire, affection, and intelligence that binds me to this or that creature. That compound is not the same for another person. I do not have the right to cover all these experiences with the same name. This exempts one from conducting them with the same gestures. The absurd man multiplies here again what he cannot unify. Thus he discovers a new way of being which liberates him at least as much as it liberates those who approach him. There is no noble love but that which recognizes itself to be both short-lived and exceptional. All those deaths and all those rebirths gathered together as in a sheaf make up for Don Juan the flowering of his life. It is his way of giving and of vivifying. I let it be decided whether or not one can speak of selfishness.
***
I think at this point of all those who absolutely insist that Don Juan be punished. Not only in another life, but even in this one. I think of all those tales, legends, and laughs about the aged Don Juan. But Don Juan is already ready. To a conscious man old age and what it portends are not a surprise. Indeed, he is conscious only in so far as he does not conceal its horror from himself. There was in Athens a temple dedicated to old age. Children were taken there. As for Don Juan, the more people laugh at him, the more his figure stands out. Thereby he rejects the one the romantics lent him. No one wants to laugh at that tormented, pitiful Don Juan. He is pitied; heaven itself will redeem him? 

But that’s not it. In the universe of which Don Juan has a glimpse, ridicule too is included. He would consider it normal to be chastised. That is the rule of the game. And, indeed, it is typical of his nobility to have accepted all the rules of the game. Yet he knows he is right and that there can be no question of punishment. A fate is not a punishment.
That is his crime, and how easy it is to understand why the men of God call down punishment on his head. He achieves a knowledge without illusions which negates everything they profess. Loving and possessing, conquering and consuming—that is his way of knowing. (There is significance in that favorite Scriptural word that calls the carnal act “knowing.”) He is their worst enemy to the extent that he is ignorant of them. A chronicler relates that the true Burlador died assassinated by Fransciscans who wanted “to put an end to the excesses and blasphemies of Don Juan, whose birth assured him impunity.” Then they proclaimed that heaven had struck him down. No one has proved that strange end. Nor has anyone proved the contrary. But without wondering if it is probable, I can say that it is logical. I want merely to single out at this point the word “birth” and to play on words: it was the fact of living that assured his innocence. It was from death alone that he derived a guilt now become legendary.
What else does that stone Commander signify, that cold statue set in motion to punish the blood and courage that dared to think? All the powers of eternal Reason, of order, of universal morality, all the foreign grandeur of a God open to wrath are summed up in him. That gigantic and soulless stone merely symbolizes the forces that Don Juan negated forever. But the Commander’s mission stops there. The thunder and lightning can return to the imitation heaven whence they were called forth. The real tragedy takes place quite apart from them. No, it was not under a stone hand that Don Juan met his death. I am inclined to believe in the legendary bravado, in that mad laughter of the healthy man provoking a non- existent God. But, above all, I believe that on that evening when Don Juan was waiting at Anna’s the Commander didn’t come, and that after midnight the blasphemer must have felt the dreadful bitterness of those who have been right. I accept even more readily the account of his life that has him eventually burying himself in a monastery. Not that the edifying aspect of the story can he considered probable. What refuge can he go ask of God? But this symbolizes rather the logical outcome of a life completely imbued with the absurd, the grim ending of an existence turned toward short lived joys. At this point sensual pleasure winds up in asceticism. It is essential to realize that they may be, as it were, the two aspects of the same destitution. What more ghastly image can be called up than that of a man betrayed by his body who, simply because he did not die in time, lives out the comedy while awaiting the end, face to face with that God he does not adore, serving him as he served life, kneeling before a void and arms outstretched toward a heaven without eloquence that he knows to he also without depth?
I see Don Juan in a cell of one of those Spanish monasteries lost on a hilltop. And if he contemplates anything at all, it is not the ghosts of past loves, but perhaps, through a narrow slit in the sun- baked wall, some silent Spanish plain, a noble, soulless land in which he recognizes himself. Yes, it is on this melancholy and radiant image that the curtain must be rung down. The ultimate end, awaited but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible.
Drama
“The play’s the thing,” says Hamlet, “wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
“Catch” is indeed the word. For conscience moves swiftly or withdraws within itself. It has to be caught on the wing, at that barely perceptible moment when it glances fleetingly at itself. The everyday man does not enjoy tarrying. Everything, on the contrary, hurries him onward. But at the same time nothing interests him more than himself, especially his potentialities. Whence his interest in the theater, in the show, where so many fates are offered him, where he can accept the poetry without feeling the sorrow. There at least can be recognized the thoughtless man, and he continues to hasten toward some hope or other. The absurd man begins where that one leaves off, where, ceasing to admire the play, the mind wants to enter in. Entering into all these lives, experiencing them in their diversity, amounts to acting them out. I am not saying that actors in general obey that impulse, that they are absurd men, but that their fate is an absurd fate which might charm and attract a lucid heart. It is necessary to establish this in order to grasp without misunderstanding what will follow.
The actor’s realm is that of the fleeting. Of all kinds of fame, it is known, his is the most ephemeral. At least, this is said in conversation. But all kinds of fame are ephemeral. From the point of view of Sirius, Goethe’s works in ten thousand years will be dust and his name forgotten. Perhaps a handful of archaeologists will look for “evidence” as to our era. That idea has always contained a lesson. Seriously meditated upon, it reduces our perturbations to the profound nobility that is found in indifference. Above all, it directs our concerns toward what is most certain— that is, toward the immediate. Of all kinds of fame the least deceptive is the one that is lived.
Hence the actor has chosen multiple fame, the fame that is hallowed and tested. From the fact that everything is to die someday he draws the best conclusion. An actor succeeds or does not succeed. A writer has some hope even if he is not appreciated. He assumes that his works will bear witness to what he was. At best the actor will leave us a photograph, and nothing of what he was himself, his gestures and his silences, his gasping or his panting with love, will come down to us. For him, not to be known is not to act, and not acting is dying a hundred times with all the creatures he would have brought to life or resuscitated.
***
Why should we be surprised to find a fleeting fame built upon the most ephemeral of creations? The actor has three hours to be Iago or Alceste, Phedre or Gloucester. In that short space of time he makes them come to life and die on fifty square yards of boards. Never has the absurd been so well illustrated or at such length. What more revelatory epitome can be imagined than those marvelous lives, those exceptional and total desti—
nies unfolding for a few hours within a stage set? Off the stage, Sigismundo ceases to count. Two hours later he is seen dining out. Then it is, perhaps, that life is a dream. But after Sigismundo comes another. The hero suffering from uncertainty takes the place of the man roaring for his revenge. By thus sweeping over centuries and minds, by miming man as he can be and as he is, the actor has much in common with that other absurd individual, the traveler. Like him, he drains something and is constantly on the move. He is a traveler in time and, for the best, the hunted traveler, pursued by souls. If ever the ethics of quantity could find sustenance, it is indeed on that strange stage. To what degree the actor benefits from the characters is hard to say. But that is not the important thing. It is merely a matter of knowing how far he identifies himself with those irreplaceable lives. It often happens that he carries them with him, that they somewhat overflow the time and place in which they were born. They accompany the actor, who cannot very readily separate himself from what he has been. Occasionally when reaching for his glass he resumes Hamlet’s gesture of raising his cup. No, the distance separating him from the creatures into whom he infuses life is not so great. He abundantly illustrates every month or every day that so suggestive truth that there is no frontier between what a man wants to be and what he is. Always concerned with better representing, he demonstrates to what a degree appearing creates being. For that is his art—to simulate absolutely, to project himself as deeply as possible into lives that are not his own. At the end of his effort his vocation becomes clear: to apply himself wholeheartedly to being nothing or to being several. The narrower the limits allotted him for creating his character, the more necessary his talent. He will die in three hours under the mask he has assumed today. Within three hours he must experience and express a whole exceptional life. That is called losing oneself to find oneself. In those three hours he travels the whole course of the dead-end path that the man in the audience takes a lifetime to cover.
***
A mime of the ephemeral, the actor trains and perfects himself only in appearances. The theatrical convention is that the heart expresses itself and communicates itself only through gestures and in the body—or through the voice, which is as much of the soul as of the body. The rule of that art insists that everything be magnified and translated into flesh. If it were essential on the stage to love as people really love, to employ that irreplaceable voice of the heart, to look as people contemplate in life, our speech would be in code. But here silences must make themselves heard. Love speaks up louder, and immobility itself becomes spectacular. The body is king, Not everyone can be “theatrical,” and this unjustly maligned word covers a whole aesthetic and a whole ethic. Half a man’s life is spent in implying, in turning away, and in keeping silent. Here the actor is the intruder. He breaks the spell chaining that soul, and at last the passions can rush onto their stage. They speak in every gesture; they live only through shouts and cries. Thus the actor creates his characters for display. He outlines or sculptures them and slips into their imaginary form, transfusing his blood into their phantoms. I am of course speaking of great drama, the kind that gives the actor an opportunity to fulfill his wholly physical fate. Take Shakespeare, for instance. In that impulsive drama the physical passions lead the dance. They explain everything. Without them all would collapse. Never would King Lear keep the appointment set by madness without the brutal gesture that exiles Cordelia and condemns Edgar. It is just that the unfolding of that tragedy should thenceforth be dominated by madness. Souls are given over to the demons and their saraband. No fewer than four madmen: one by trade, another by intention, and the last two through suffering—four disordered bodies, four unutterable aspects of a single condition.
The very scale of the human body is inadequate. The mask and the buskin, the make-up that reduces and accentuates the face in its essential elements, the costume that exaggerates and simplifies— that universe sacrifices everything to appearance and is made solely for the eye. Through an absurd miracle, it is the body that also brings knowledge. I should never really understand Iago unless I played his part. It is not enough to hear him, for I grasp him only at the moment when I see him. Of the absurd character the actor consequently has the monotony, that single, oppressive silhouette, simultaneously strange and familiar, that he carries about from hero to hero. There, too, the great dramatic work contributes to this unity of tone.[17] This is where the actor contradicts himself: the same and yet so various, so many souls summed up in a single body. Yet it is the absurd contradiction itself, that individual who wants to achieve everything and live everything, that useless attempt, that ineffectual persistence. What always contradicts itself nevertheless joins in him. He is at that point where body and mind converge, where the mind, tired of its defeats, turns toward its most faithful ally. “And blest are those,” says Hamlet, “whose blood and judgment are so well commingled that they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please.”
How could the Church have failed to condemn such a practice on the part of the actor? She repudiated in that art the heretical multiplication of souls, the emotional debauch, the scandalous presumption of a mind that objects to living but one life and hurls itself into all forms of excess. She proscribed in them that preference for the present and that triumph of Proteus which are the negation of everything she teaches. Eternity is not a game. A mind foolish enough to prefer a comedy to eternity has lost its salvation. Between “everywhere” and “forever” there is no compromise. Whence that much maligned profession can give rise to a tremendous spiritual conflict. “What matters,” said Nietzsche, “is not eternal life but eternal vivacity.” All drama is, in fact, in this choice. Celimene against Elianthe, the whole subject in the absurd consequence of a nature carried to its extreme, and the verse itself, the “bad verse,” barely accented like the monotony of the character’s nature.
Adrienne Lecouvreur on her deathbed was willing to confess and receive communion, but refused to abjure her profession. She thereby lost the benefit of the confession. Did this not amount, in effect, to choosing her absorbing passion in preference to God? And that woman in the death throes refusing in tears to repudiate what she called her art gave evidence of a greatness that she never achieved behind the footlights. This was her finest role and the hardest one to play. Choosing between heaven and a ridiculous fidelity, preferring oneself to eternity or losing oneself in God is the age-old tragedy in which each must play his part.
The actors of the era knew they were excommunicated. Entering the profession amounted to choosing Hell. And the Church discerned in them her worst enemies. A few men of letters protest: “What! Refuse the last rites to Moliere!” But that was just, and especially in one who died onstage and finished under the actor’s make-up a life entirely devoted to dispersion. In his case genius is invoked, which excuses everything. But genius excuses nothing, just because it refuses to do so.
The actor knew at that time what punishment was in store for him. But what significance could such vague threats have compared to the final punishment that life itself was reserving for him? This was the one that he felt in advance and accepted wholly. To the actor as to the absurd man, a premature death is irreparable. Nothing can make up for the sum of faces and centuries he would otherwise have traversed. But in any case, one has to die. For the actor is doubtless everywhere, but time sweeps him along, too, and makes its impression with him.
It requires but a little imagination to feel what an actor’s fate means. It is in time that he makes up and enumerates his characters. It is in time likewise that he learns to dominate them. The greater number of different lives he has lived, the more aloof he can be from them. The time comes when he must die to the stage and for the world. What he has lived faces him. He sees clearly. He feels the harrowing and irreplaceable quality of that adventure. He knows and can now die. There are homes for aged actors.
Conquest
“No,” says the conqueror, “don’t assume that because I love action I have had to forget how to think. On the contrary I can throughly define what I believe. For I believe it firmly and I see it surely and clearly. Beware of those who say: ‘I know this too well to be able to express it.’ For if they cannot do so, this is because they don’t know it or because out of laziness they stopped at the outer crust.
“I have not many opinions. At the end of a life man notices that he has spent years becoming sure of a single truth. But a single truth, if it is obvious, is enough to guide an existence. As for me, I decidedly have something to say about the individual. One must speak of him bluntly and, if need be, with the appropriate contempt.
“A man is more a man through the things he keeps to himself than through those he says. There are many that I shall keep to myself. But I firmly believe that all those who have judged the individual have done so with much less experience than we on which to base their judgment. The intelligence, the stirring intelligence perhaps foresaw what it was essential to note. But the era, its ruins, and its blood overwhelm us with facts. It was possible for ancient nations, and even for more recent ones down to our machine age, to weigh one against the other the virtues of society and of the individual, to try to find out which was to serve the other. To begin with, that was possible by virtue of that stubborn aberration in man’s heart according to which human beings were created to serve or be served. In the second place, it was possible because neither society nor the individual had yet revealed all their ability.
“I have seen bright minds express astonishment at the masterpieces of Dutch painters born at the height of the bloody wars in Flanders, be amazed by the prayers of Silesian mystics brought up during the frightful Thirty Years’ War. Eternal values survive secular turmoils before their astonished eyes. But there has been progress since. The painters of today are deprived of such serenity. Even if they have basically the heart the creator needs—I mean the closed heart—it is of no use; for everyone, including the saint himself, is mobilized. This is perhaps what I have felt most deeply. At every form that miscarries in the trenches, at every outline, metaphor, or prayer crushed under steel, the eternal loses a round. Conscious that I cannot stand aloof from my time, I have decided to be an integral part of it. This is why I esteem the individual only because he strikes me as ridiculous and humiliated. Knowing that there are no victorious causes, I have a liking for lost causes: they require an uncontaminated soul, equal to its defeat as to its temporary victories. For anyone who feels bound up with this world’s fate, the clash of civilizations has something agonizing about it. I have made that anguish mine at the same time that I wanted to join in. Between history and the eternal I have chosen history because I like certainties. Of it, at least, I am certain, and how can I deny this force crushing me?
“There always comes a time when one must choose between contemplation and action. This is called becoming a man. Such wrenches are dreadful. But for a proud heart there can be no compromise. There is God or time, that cross or this sword. This world has a higher meaning that transcends its worries, or nothing is true but those worries. One must live with time and die with it, or else elude it for a greater life. I know that one can compromise and live in the world while believing in the eternal. That is called accepting. But I loathe this term and want all or nothing. If I choose action, don’t think that contemplation is like an unknown country to me. But it cannot give me everything, and, deprived of the eternal, I want to ally myself with time. I do not want to put down to my account either nostalgia or bitterness, and I merely want to see clearly. I tell you, tomorrow you will be mobilized. For you and for me that is a liberation. The individual can do nothing and yet he can do everything. In that wonderful unattached state you understand why I exalt and crush him at one and the same time. It is the world that pulverizes him and I who liberate him. I provide him with all his rights.
“Conquerors know that action is in itself useless. There is but one useful action, that of remaking man and the earth. I shall never remake men. But one must do ’as if.’ For the path of struggle leads me to the flesh. Even humiliated, the flesh is my only certainty. I can live only on it. The creature is my native land. This is why I have chosen this absurd and ineffectual effort. This is why I am on the side of the struggle. The epoch lends itself to this, as I have said. Hitherto the greatness of a conqueror was geographical. It was measured by the extent of the conquered territories. There is a reason why the word has changed in meaning and has ceased to signify the victorious general. The greatness has changed camp. It lies in protest and the blind-alley sacrifice. There, too, it is not through a preference for defeat. Victory would be desirable. But there is but one victory, and it is eternal. That is the one I shall never have. That is where I stumble and cling. A revolution is always accomplished against the gods, beginning with the revolution of Prometheus, the first of modern conquerors. It is man’s demands made against his fate; the demands of the poor are but a pretext. Yet I can seize that spirit only in its historical act, and that is where I make contact with it. Don’t assume, however, that I take pleasure in it: opposite the essential contradiction, I maintain my human contradiction. I establish my lucidity in the midst of what negates it. I exalt man be-fore what crushes him, and my freedom, my revolt, and my passion come together then in that tension, that lucidity, and that vast repetition.
“Yes, man is his own end. And he is his only end. If he aims to be something, it is in this life. Now I know it only too well. Conquerors sometimes talk of vanquishing and overcoming. But it is always ‘overcoming oneself’ that they mean. You are well aware of what that means. Every man has felt himself to be the equal of a god at certain moments. At least, this is the way it is expressed. But this comes from the fact that in a flash he felt the amazing grandeur of the human mind. The conquerors are merely those among men who are conscious enough of their strength to be sure of living constantly on those heights and fully aware of that grandeur. It is a question of arithmetic, of more or less. The conquerors are capable of the more. But they are capable of no more than man himself when he wants. This is why they never leave the human crucible, plunging into the seething soul of revolutions.
“There they find the creature mutilated, but they also encounter there the only values they like and admire, man and his silence. This is both their destitution and their wealth. There is but one luxury for them—that of human relations. How can one fail to realize that in this vulnerable universe everything that is human and solely human assumes a more vivid meaning? Taut faces, threatened fraternity, such strong and chaste friendship among men—these are the true riches because they are transitory. In their midst the mind is most aware of its powers and limitations. That is lucid ones virile and we do not want a strength that is apart from lucidity.”
***
Let me repeat that these images do not propose moral codes and involve no judgments: they are sketches. They merely represent a style of life. The lover, the actor, or the adventurer plays the absurd. But equally well, if he wishes, the chaste man, the civil servant, or the president of the Republic. It is enough to know and to mask nothing. In Italian museums are sometimes found little painted screens that the priest used to hold in front of the face of condemned men to hide the scaffold from them. The leap in all its forms, rushing into the divine or the eternal, surrendering to the illusions of the everyday or of the idea—all these screens hide the absurd. But there are civil servants without screens, and they are the ones of whom I mean to speak. I have chosen the most extreme ones. At this level the absurd gives them a royal power. It is true that those princes are without a kingdom. But they have this advantage over others: they know that all royalties are illusory. They know that is their whole nobility, and it is useless to speak in relation to them of hidden misfortune or the ashes of disillusion. Being deprived of hope is not despairing. The flames of earth are surely worth celestial perfumes. Neither I nor anyone can judge them here. They are not striving to be better; they are attempting to be consistent. If the term “wise man” can be applied to the man who lives on what he has without speculating on what he has not, then they are wise men. One of them, a conqueror but in the realm of mind, a Don Juan but of knowledge, an actor but of the intelligence, knows this better than anyone: “You nowise deserve a privilege on earth and in heaven for having brought to perfection your dear little meek sheep; you nonetheless continue to be at best a ridiculous dear little sheep with horns and nothing more—even supposing that you do not burst with vanity and do not create a scandal by posing as a judge.”
In any case, it was essential to restore to the absurd reasoning more cordial examples. The imagination can add many others, inseparable from time and exile, who likewise know how to live in harmony with a universe without future and without weakness. This absurd, godless world is, then, peopled with men who think clearly and have ceased to hope. And I have not yet spoken of the most absurd character, who is the creator. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

“He’s fat, and scant of breath”

Fat people are not inhuman, they are fat.

"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."


No it doesn't.


Hamlet is fat, unhappy and over-privileged; young, white and 21.


And there is no such word as "fatophobic"

The play is about how Hamlet's Pride and Sense of Entitlement causes him to utterly destroy himself, everyone he loves, his entire birthright bequeathed to him by his late father, the Kingdom of Denmark - after having been given just the tiniest nudge to get it started by The Devil pretending to be the ghost of his dead father, who spins him a tissue of lies which are precisely what he wants to hear. Because he is proud, and immodest.


It's autobiographical.


Of *course* Hamlet is fat - he expects to win this final, epic duel to the death with this man who is not his enemy (Laertes is his foil, not his enemy or his Nemesis), not through skill or athletic ability, but by God's Grace and favour and the Divine Right of Kings.






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

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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.

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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).1Most 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 1729Answer 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.10So 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 Apprenticeshiphad, 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 Apprenticeshipactually 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).16Gervinus 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 Newsobserves 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.