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In the final scene Hamlet's mother, watching the duel and worried about her son's fortunes, observes that

He's fat and scant of breath.

Editions that bother to explain this or that archaic turn of phrase in Shakespeare take the trouble of pointing out, usually in a footnote, that the author actually meant rusty rather than corpulent.

I wonder whether this is true.

  • Another common Elizabethan use of fat, where the term means neither corpulent, sweaty nor rather soft, but full-fed or replete. " He's full, and short of breath " makes excellent sense; and this meaning of fat has plenty of authority behind it. archive.spectator.co.uk/article/30th-may-1952/9/hamlet-fat- – user66974 Apr 9 '17 at 19:15
  • @Josh You need to reread your source. That sense of fat doesn't mean full in its modern sense of 'no-longer-hungry' or 'just-ate'; it means fatted, as in 'loaded' or 'lined-with-fat'. In other words, exactly the surface meaning of fat. – lly Apr 11 '17 at 1:57
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Good question. The OED doesn't sort that cite into any of its senses, but none of them are remotely "rusty". The original and base sense is fatted, fat used for an animal that is full of fat and ready for slaughter.

By extension for people, variously:

2.a. plump, having fat. b. obese, overly fatted.

...

4.c. juicy [in reference to actor's roles, but not attested til 18th c.]

...

9.d. loaded [in reference to a prisoner's ability to get a good ransom]

...

10.a. rich

...

  1. slow, satisfied, dimwitted [as a fatted animal]

...

  1. plump, rich, &/or dumb in combination

It looks like your Shakespearean scholars are trying to twist sense 11 into something nicer than it is.

At best, Hamlet is being called 'porky' (Sparknotes 'modernizes' it as 'flabby')—which matches his difficulty breathing and I seem to remember fits references elsewhere to his interest in food, although I may be confusing him with Jesus in that regard. At worst, he's literally being called porky—his intellect and movements bestially sluggish and suggestive of an animal ready for slaughter.

At the same time, it's not gospel. She's responding with motherly worry to Claudius's blithe comments about how well Hamlet is doing in a deathmatch. (He's talking up Hamlet since he's about to poison him even if the kid is lucky enough to beat Laërtes.)

If you were really curious... [The Slate article is actually very thorough, even if it does go on too long about sweaty before admitting that sense is not accurate at all.]

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