Shakespeare Funerary Monument.  Trinity Church, Stratford. Cropped from Sicinius [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Consider the photograph here of the half-length statue of Shakespeare on his funerary memorial in Trinity Church, Stratford, with the image of Shakespeare in popular culture, and especially Shakespeare as a young artist and lover in the 1998 blockbuster Shakespeare in Love.  Consider how unrecognizable the Shakespeare in the monument is, as Shakespeare, because Shakespeare is assumed to be youthful and thin. Nineteenth-century responses to the monument help us trace the development of a particularly toxic modern understanding of the fat and thin body, in which the fat body is seen as slow, slow-witted, and eventually prematurely aged, and the thin body is seen as vibrant, quick-witted, and young. As Shakespeare cannot be imagined as “fat,”, so too a fat person today must labor under the pervasive reading of her body as a sign of her slow-wit and de-formed character.

Only two “portraits” can be said to have any claim to represent Shakespeare – the Droeshout etching on the title page of the First Folio and the half-length statue on his memorial in Trinity Church, Straftord. Erected in 1616, the funerary monument was commissioned by his son-in-law and fashioned by Dutch tomb-maker, Gerard Janssen. Recent scholars accept the sculpture as authoritative, even as they acknowledge that its purpose is not to give an accurate representation of Shakespeare as he was in life but to commemorate the dead. However, in the nineteenth century, this sculpture began to trouble Shakespeareans as it began to be read through the emerging negative understanding of fat. Because associations of the fat body came to be seen as inimical to the poetic genius and sensitivity of a Shakespeare, Shakespeareans began to develop techniques to rescue “Shakespeare” from any charge that he was fat.

In what follows, I offer a few snapshots of nineteenth-century responses to the funerary monument half-length sculpture. (Elsewhere, I have told a very similar story concerning Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a fat Hamlet is identified and diagnosed, but just as quickly, he is reduced to a thin figure seen as more felicitous and proper for a tragic hero.)

Snapshot One – Retiring Fat Shakespeare

Our first snapshot is James Boaden’s 1824 An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints, which from the Decease of the Poet to our Own have been offered to the public as portraits, the first published commentary I have found that troubles over the fatness of the monument. Boaden assumes that the “great and admirable poet” must have a body that is thin – or at least, not fat (3). He understands the monument, then, as offering an “authentic” portrait of Shakespeare, but not the Shakespeare associated with his poetic output. In fact, introducing an understanding of the fat body recognizable today, the monument is seen as offering a “fat Shakespeare” relegated to old(er) age and retirement. The youthful Shakespeare is “thin and sharp,” but in “retirement he had gotten in to flesh” (32). The fat Shakespeare offers a cheerful expression, where fat is associated with too much “conviviality”; but it is also seen as a condition that is distanced from his productive years (32). Boaden begins to conceptualize the fat and thin (Shakespearean) body in terms of a before and after, where the fat body is seen as the body that weighs down the true self. Thus, he introduces a technique of reading the monument, as authentic and yet not as representative of Shakespeare, the genius.

Our first snapshot is James Boaden’s 1824 An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Various Pictures and Prints, which from the Decease of the Poet to our Own have been offered to the public as portraits, the first published commentary I have found that troubles over the fatness of the monument. Boaden assumes that the “great and admirable poet” must have a body that is thin – or at least, not fat (3). He understands the monument, then, as offering an “authentic” portrait of Shakespeare, but not the Shakespeare associated with his poetic output. In fact, introducing an understanding of the fat body recognizable today, the monument is seen as offering a “fat Shakespeare” relegated to old(er) age and retirement. The youthful Shakespeare is “thin and sharp,” but in “retirement he had gotten in to flesh” (32). The fat Shakespeare offers a cheerful expression, where fat is associated with too much “conviviality”; but it is also seen as a condition that is distanced from his productive years (32). Boaden begins to conceptualize the fat and thin (Shakespearean) body in terms of a before and after, where the fat body is seen as the body that weighs down the true self. Thus, he introduces a technique of reading the monument, as authentic and yet not as representative of Shakespeare, the genius.

Snapshot Two – Reducing Shakespeare

Under such a technique, the monument must be reduced for the true Shakespeare to appear.  Just 22 years later, James Friswell in Life Portraits of Shakespeare (1864) further develops this method of reading by which the fatness of the monument is reduced and the true Shakespeare uncovered. He is even more horrified by the monument insofar as it is “round,” and he begins to rescue Shakespeare from any association with fat (even in his retirement) by suggesting that the sculpture was the work of a crude artist: 

“The skull of the figure, rudely cut, and heavy, without any feeling, is a mere block; a phrenologist would be puzzled at its smoothness and roundness. It has no individuality or power in it than a boy’s marble. The cheeks are fat and sensual, the neck just rounded out of stone. . .” (11).

Importantly, the 1849 “discovery” of the Shakespeare death-mask in Kesselstadt, Germany, provided a means by which to understand the monument as having wrongly de-formed Shakespeare’s thin, elegant lines. The mask served the purpose of becoming Shakepeare’s “before” – his true form, which was only crudely captured by the funerary monument. Friswell contrasted the gaunt face of the original to the fat one of the tomb-makers’s rendition. 

“The cast differs very widely from the bust said to have been cut from it. The nose is utterly unlike; in the cast it is a fine, thin, aquiline nose. . .  . The face is a sharp oval, that of the bust is a blunt one; the chin is narrow and pointed, that of the bust rounded and rather square, and full of force; the cheeks are thin and drawn in, those of the bust full, fat, and almost coarse.” (18)

Friswell offers the same technique of reading of a “before” and “after” by which the reader comes to see that Shakespeare is not, in fact, fat. He states that “the features alter extremely after death in most persons; and although Shakespeare is said to have died after a very short illness, he may have lost much flesh. The ‘tombe-maker,’ wishing to exhibit him ad vivum, would alter this” (26). The reader learns to read beneath the de-formity of the fat to the true thin Shakespeare much as the dieter is encouraged to see her true self as the thin self she once was.    

Snapshot Three – Universalizing Thin Shakespeare

Now, to snapshot three – John S. Hart’s “The Shakespeare Death Mask,” published just ten years after Friswell’s Life Paintings. Hart drew on phrenology to analyze the death mask and other portraits in order to reduce Shakespeare to his essential character. He read the size and shape of the forehead and cheeks as almost inversely proportionate. Insofar as the one was large, the other was small in comparison. Such a reading led Hart to dismissing the monument as inappropriately representing the cheeks as fat, thereby wrongly representing Shakespeare as having an “earthbound” character, “not overburdened with sense or intellect” (313).

According to Hart’s reading, the sculptor de-formed the face by introducing fat to it. Further developing the story from Friswell, Hart writes,

“Gerhard Johnson [the sculptor] in undertaking to supply the supposed falling off of the flesh, simply over-did the matter, and gave us a rollicking, jolly Englishman, instead of the thoughtful author of ‘Hamlet’” (309). 

By adding the fat to the face, Hart sees Johnson identifying with a particular common English identity. In order to find the true Shakespeare, the reader must learn to reduce the form of the face (and increase the size of the forehead: “Underlying this superabundant fullness of flesh, however, the eye can easily trace all the essential lines of grace and thought to be seen in the mask” (309).   

Fat studies help us consider the emergence of a modern toxic understanding of the (fat) body. It also helps us see how the privileging of the thin body requires first the pathologization of the fat body and finally its erasure. Is it possible to imagine a fat Shakespeare? To ask this question is to ask fat studies to do more than objectively define the problem, but also to offer various forms of intervention. To do that, we need more than a snapshot, more than a monument: we need to represent the fat body in all its complex relational forms.

About the Author

Elena Levy-Navarro

Elena Levy-Navarro

levye@uww.edu

Elena Levy-Navarro, Professor of English at University of Wisconsin—Whitewater, is author of The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity: Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and Skelton (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) and editor of the essay collection Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture (Ohio State University Press, 2010). Her current work in progress explores how nineteenth-century conceptions of fat and thin bodies influence their understanding of the early modern period.

» More articles by Elena Levy-Navarro

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