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How James Ijames's 'Fat Ham' references and differs from Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'

The Pulitzer-winning Fat Ham is a modern, comic update of the classical tragedy.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

The play's the thing — again! Less than a year after James Ijames's Fat Ham debuted (and repeatedly extended) at The Public Theater and won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, audiences will get to feast on this show once more when it makes its Broadway debut at the American Airlines Theatre in March 2023.

Fat Ham is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, this time featuring a queer college student named Juicy and much more barbecued pork. A four-star review of the show on New York Theatre Guide reads: "This slice of life leans hard into comedy, not tragedy, as it ponders big things that matter: personal identity, sexuality, transparency, living out loud."

The bones of the classic play remain the same, though. A young man's uncle kills his (Hamlet/Juicy's) father, who then appears as a ghost and insists his son get revenge. Fat Ham incorporates many details from Hamlet, but Ijames also gives the story his own spice and sends many of Shakespeare's ideas up in smoke.

Learn more about all the major ways Fat Ham references, and differs from, Hamlet, and then get tickets to attend this Bard-becue on Broadway.

Get Fat Ham tickets now.

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Different: Fat Ham has a different setting than Hamlet.

We're far from a castle in Denmark now. Hamlet takes place in the Danish royal court, but Fat Ham couldn't be further from that setting in time and space. Ijames's adaptation is set in the present day, in a backyard in the American South.

All the action of Fat Ham takes place in real time at a barbecue there, which doubles as Juicy's mom and uncle's wedding reception. In contrast, Hamlet is set in multiple locations throughout his castle, over the course of a few days.

Similar: Fat Ham characters are loosely named after Hamlet characters.

"Juicy", surely, does not sound like "Hamlet", but three supporting characters more clearly reference their Hamlet counterparts. The Horatio character's name is shortened to Tio, Laertes becomes Larry, and Ophelia becomes Opal.

Every Fat Ham character, though, has a Hamlet equivalent. In addition to Juicy as Hamlet, his mother, Tedra, stands in for Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. Juicy's uncle Rev is Claudius, and Opal and Laertes's mom, Rabby, is Polonius (Ophelia and Laertes's father in Hamlet).

One other Hamlet name gets a mention in Fat Ham: Yorick. In Shakespeare's play, he's a dead court jester, and Hamlet delivers a monologue to his exhumed skull. In Fat Ham, he's Juicy and Tio's dead classmate; Tio buys Yorick's shoes at a fundraiser for his funeral.

In both plays, Yorick's death reminds the characters they're all destined for the same fate. The key difference is that discovering Yorick's death makes Hamlet want to speed up the process, but it makes Juicy more certain he doesn't want anyone to die prematurely.

Different: Hamlet is a tragedy, but Fat Ham is a comedy.

Hamlet isn't just a tragedy — it's perhaps Shakespeare's most famous tragedy alongside Macbeth. Most of its characters die by the end, and Hamlet spends most of his time alive thinking about death. It's deep, but bleak, stuff.

So for those who want the intrigue of Hamlet without all the sadness, Fat Ham is it. There are poignant and thoughtful moments, but there's mostly near-constant humor. Family members roast each other. They sing and dance without care. One shares wacky thoughts while high. And as for the ending? That we can't spoil.

Similar: Some lines from Hamlet are said verbatim in Fat Ham.

Juicy freely quotes the Bard to his family members (much to their confusion) and the audience. Some of these lines, though, appear in different contexts. Take this famous line from Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech: "Ah, there's the rub!" Hamlet is talking about his reservations about dying. But in Fat Ham, Juicy says it while Rev waxes poetic about how a delicious rub is the key to good barbecue. Juicy punnily tells the audience, "Ah, there's the rub."

Juicy does deliver other Hamlet monologues in full, like the one that begins "What a piece of work is a man!" and another that begins, "I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play have... been struck so to the soul that presently they have proclaimed their malefactions."

Translation: If someone did something awful, and they watch a play in which a character does a similar awful thing, the play might inspire them to confess. Speaking of which...

Similar: Both shows include some kind of play-within-a-play.

The play's the thing in both Fat Ham and Hamlet. In Hamlet, a theatre troupe happens to visit the castle, and Hamlet has them reenact his father's murder in the hopes of spooking Claudius into a confession.

The Fat Ham family are plenty theatrical themselves, busting out the karaoke machine to get the party started. It's a game of charades, though, where Juicy himself acts out the truth about his uncle.

Different: Fat Ham explores sexuality and masculinity through a modern-day lens.

One of the most striking and important differences between Hamlet and Fat Ham is the personality of its main character. Hamlet is a moody, death-obsessed prince who's immediately down to kill his uncle when asked. Juicy is also moody and death-obsessed, but for different reasons. He is all too aware of the stereotypes surrounding Black men and violence, and of the high death rate of Black Americans. Plus, his father and uncle are violent men. Juicy doesn't want to fall into the same trap.

Whether death is the answer to one's problems isn't the main question of Fat Ham like it is in Hamlet. In Fat Ham, the question is what kind of man Juicy wants to be, and whether his father's revenge plot fits into that. As a queer man, he's interested in cultivating his "softness," something his macho dad and uncle discourage.

And that leads to the biggest difference of all between Shakespeare and Ijames's works. If the Hamlet character doesn't kill his uncle, what's the alternative? To find out or not to find out, that is the question — so to find out, get Fat Ham Broadway tickets.

Get Fat Ham tickets now.

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