Much has been made of Hamlet’s fatness. Is he or isn’t he? There are those who say “fat” here means “sweaty” or “full.” But, as Isaac Butler pointed out in his essay on this topic a few years ago, given how fat is used in the rest of this play, fat probably means fat. But what I find interesting is an assumption that Gertrude calling Hamlet fat means that Hamlet is fat, as if no mother ever called her son fat, even though he was not. As if no mother ever had body dysmorphia that she projected onto her children.
I’m very happy for Hamlet to have any type of body. In general, I believe all bodies are good bodies and that Hamlet should be able to be played by any one of them – male, sure but also female, trans, non-binary and questioning. He could be fat, thin, muscular, weedy – but also disabled and non-disabled.
So whether or not the character is written to be fat means nothing to me, really. Gertrude calls him fat because sometimes mothers do that sort of thing. Especially in a time that was perhaps not quite as fat phobic as the times we live in now. Even in our own time, there are cultures that find fatness much less taboo – that might call someone fat with affection and/or love. Maybe that’s what Gertrude is doing here. That’s how I played it when I played the part. Who knows if it read – but it helped me to say what I felt was an insult at the time. After a lot of exposure to fat activism, I’d feel less worried about it. It’s fine if Hamlet is fat. It’s fine if his mother calls him so. Even if he’s not.
I have just gone rather a lot deeper into facts on doves than I might have on another day. I’m just trying to work out what’s going on in this simile.
Patience, I get. Female doves are patient nesters apparently – but funnily enough, so are the male doves. They mate for life and take turns on the eggs.
The female dove DOES lay the eggs – usually in pairs – so a couplet makes sense.
And a couplet in a verse play has a lovely sense of doubled-ness. But a dove’s eggs are white, not golden.
And why are the eggs being disclosed?
Doves don’t leave their eggs alone for disclosure. So…is this dove in this analogy abandoning her eggs? And her partner suffers in silence? Or somehow Hamlet is the one whose silence will sit drooping?
Is it that a dove is drooping in silence after revealing her precious eggs? And so will Hamlet?
This is some fuzzy analogizing here from the Queen of Denmark.
The fit that works ON him is rather much better than a lot of the ways our language talks about this now.
The agency is in the fit. The fit is happening to him, it is working on him.
He is not the fit. The fit is on him like a leech that will eventually have taken its fill and leave him.
Now we’d say he’s having a fit. The active element is HE.
We might, if we’re careful, not say fit. We might say “an episode” of some kind. But we’d still say HAVING.
And I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have an uncontrollable brain disease myself, but I don’t so much feel as though I am having a migraine attack so much as the migraine is on me, drinking up my life force until it is through.
The original meaning of mere was pure, true. And Gertrude is probably using it that way – as in, this is real madness. This is pure madness. This is true madness.
Our contemporary sense of mere is almost its opposite. We read a line like this as “This is only madness. This is just madness. This is inconsequential madness.”
I think I said it this way when I played this part. But its original sense makes much more sense.
And apparently both meanings sat side by side for a while before the true, pure sense faded away.
And it seems there was a sort of middle ground meaning as well – or a bridge. Maybe it’s how the word came to mean almost opposite things. Apparently, it also meant glimmering and shimmering, which is easily connected to fairy gold and glamouring. That is, something that appears to be true but isn’t, really.
I love that it’s not entirely clear who Gertrude is talking to or about.
Could be Laertes – like, leave my son alone!
Could be Hamlet – like, Son! Step away!
Could be attendants attempting to break up the fight – like, be careful! Don’t manhandle my son!
This gives directors and fight directors a delightfully open playing field.
I suspect others have punctuated this differently. Some editors probably make this two sentences. It could even be three: O. My son. What theme?
I might go with O, my son. What theme?
But the Queen’s question really is a sensible one, in fact. And she is really listening to him even though he is not making a lot of sense.
I mean, once we know what he means, what the theme is, more or less, then it’s kind of logical – but backwards. As most of us are, really. Logical – but only backwards. What is mysterious in one direction can sometimes add up in the other.
As far as we know, the last time Gertrude saw Hamlet was right after he killed Polonius. She may have feared she’d never see him again. I mean, sea travel was clearly not without peril, as evidenced by the pirates that turn up – and maybe she even has a glimmer of what Claudius was up to with this England thing.
She has had, theoretically, some suggestion of Hamlet’s return via the letters – but we don’t know how much Hamlet has told her. Maybe just “I’m alive.”
Anyway – there’s a lot that she may be feeling at seeing her son again grappling in the grave she just threw flowers in. Does she feel like she called him there by saying his name?
A line like this offers so many possibilities.
Is this bride-bed be-decking an English tradition? Or a Danish one?
I don’t feel like I’ve seen a lot of this in European films – at least among the more Germanic, Scandinavian, English folks.
It’s hard to imagine a queen – like – a very English queen, strewing flowers on her daughter-in-law’s bed.
Like, if the current Queen Elizabeth had gone into her son’s bedroom to decorate it for Lady Diana. It’s just…unlikely.
But in cultures with a more expressive attitude toward sex, I don’t find it quite as hard to imagine. I can imagine a Queen that Isabelle Allende dreamed up doing some bridal bed flower strewing.
Earlier periods were sometimes freer about such things in some ways – and Gertrude and Hamlet are both fairly frank about sex in unexpected moments. Like this one.
I have questions about this. Lots and lots of questions. Because Polonius makes it pretty clear that Ophelia is a prince out of Ophelia’s stars – that he had her return his letters because of this difference in their stations – and when Polonius says all this to Gertrude and Claudius, she does not say, “Now, Polonius, if they’re happy – why can’t we let them do their thing?”
She’s just, like, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s it.”
But WAS she supportive of this relationship at the time?
OR does she retroactively hope this? Like, now that Ophelia’s dead she can hope for it safely – without any danger of them actually getting married. Surely she would have preferred a princess from Austria or something. But maybe she did really hope this.
I’m not sure though.
This is one of those moments wherein the literal meaning of the word does not jive with the circumstances. In order for someone to fare well, to do well, to eat well, to go along just fine, that person would have to be alive. And Ophelia is dead. Now – her spirit, I suppose, in their world view might well continue and one might hope for her to fare well at St. Peter’s Gate or something but she won’t ever eat well again. It is one of the principle bummers of dying.