Nell’s Obesity

  [S. Dro.]  She, being a very beastly creature, lays claim to me.
  S. Ant.  What is she?
  S. Dro.  A very reverent body; ay, such a one as a man may not speak of without he say 'Sir-reverence.' I have but lean luck in the match, and yet is she a wondrous fat marriage.
  S. Ant.  How dost thou mean a fat marriage? 
  S. Dro.  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. 
  S. Ant.  What complexion is she of? 
  S. Dro.  Swart, like my shoe, but her face nothing half so clean kept: for why, she sweats; a man may go over shoes in the grime of it.
  S. Ant.  That's a fault that water will mend.
  S. Dro.  No, sir, 'tis in grain; Noah's flood could not do it.
  S. Ant.  What's her name?
  S. Dro.  Nell, sir; but her name and three quarters, that's an ell and three quarters, will not measure her from hip to hip.
  S. Ant.  Then she bears some breadth?
  S. Dro.  No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip: she is spherical, like a globe.

The Comedy of Errors, 3.2.87-114

Shakespeare never represented obesity, a physical fact; he represented stigma, a psycho-social event. He dramatized the process through which meaning is made of obesity. In this scene from The Comedy of Errors, for example, stigma stems from the confusion and fear we feel when one whom we do not know, an “other,” knows and lays claim to us. Adriana’s cook, an obese woman named Nell, sees Dromio of Syracuse, mistakes him for her husband, Dromio of Ephesus, and lays claim to him, startling him by identifying the privy marks on his body. Amazed, but also indignant, Dromio uses wit as a way to exercise control over his confusion, transforming his distress regarding Nell’s familiar behavior into a verbal assault on her abnormal body. Together, Dromio and Antipholus mock Nell’s obesity, two normals on stage stigmatizing an other, who (as is often the case with stigma) is not afforded an opportunity to speak for herself. Nell remains off-stage throughout the scene as Dromio comedically configures deformity, villainy, and tragedy all together, calling the obese beastly and saying that her greasy sweat will make her burn in hell (as Falstaff later says of himself). Nell remains off-stage as Dromio delivers a sardonic blazon that commingles the stigma of obesity with that of race, claiming to see ethnicities in her physical features: the bogs of Scotland in her buttocks, the “heirlessness” of France in her baldness, the fire of Spain in her breath, the jewels of the Indies in her nose, but – importantly – no English whiteness in her teeth. Here, physical otherness (obesity) and ethnic otherness (race) are overlain in Dromio’s complaint because stigma works the same whether the stigmatized is physically or racially different. Stigma isn’t about what someone is; it’s about what someone isn’t, namely normal. As such, Dromio’s stigmatizing is colonial, in a manner of speaking, treating the self, white and thin, as normal and good, and the other, swart and fat, as inferior and therefore an object of degradation and ridicule. But, despite its harshness and offensiveness, the scene is one of the biggest laughs in The Comedy of Errors. As often happens, the offensiveness of stigma is covered over in the moment of its articulation by the pleasure its wittiness affords. I am not saying that we should not laugh along with Dromio; I’m simply noting that we do laugh, and that we also (if we are sufficiently attentive to our laughter) feel guilty for doing so, and embarrassed about our guilt, indignant about our embarrassment, ashamed of our indignation, dismissive of our shame, and uncertain about it all, for stigma in Shakespeare and in society alike engenders an infinite regress of tragicomic uneasiness.

Context

Gluttony in Tudor Literature
Obesity in Shakespeare