The assignment in our senior A.P. English class was to write an extended essay on some aspect of Hamlet. The teacher had remarkable faith in our abilities. Earlier she had given an exam requiring us to write an explication de texte of “The Wild Swans at Coole.” How many high-school teachers today respect their students enough to give them such assignments?
I no longer remember what I wrote about Hamlet but have kept an amusing memory of another student’s paper. Jan Harlan was a brilliant, droll fellow who argued that the prince’s problem was obesity: “We fat ourselves,” “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” and so on. He gave it a deadpan reading to the class, and we were howling.
I thought of Jan’s thesis while rewatching Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles’ celebration of Sir John Falstaff. Beyond fat, Welles as Falstaff is built like a Patton tank, bigger even than Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil. I thought of the exchange between the prince and Falstaff in the Boar’s Head Tavern. Hal seldom fails to mention Falstaff’s girth: “Why, thou globe of sinful continents!” and “this huge hill of flesh.” Here is Hal’s finest insult, describing not Falstaff’s bulk but the nature of fat itself:
clay-brained guts, thou knotty-pated fool, thou
whoreson, obscene, grease tallow-catch,—”
That final phrase refers to the pan under roasting meat that catches the dripping fat. Here is the OED’s entry for tallow: “a substance consisting of a somewhat hard animal fat (esp. that obtained from the parts about the kidneys of ruminating animals, now chiefly the sheep and ox), separated by melting and clarifying from the membranes, etc., naturally mixed with it; used for making candles and soap, dressing leather, and other purposes.” Which explains why Hal’s insult is so disturbing. As Dromio of Syracuse says in A Comedy of Errors:
“Marry, sir, she’s the kitchen wench and all grease; and I know not what use to put her to but to make a lamp of her and run from her by her own light. I warrant, her rags and the tallow in them will burn a Poland winter: if she lives till doomsday, she’ll burn a week longer than the whole world.”