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Words of Wisdom: The Role of Horatio in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’
By Peter Gillies
In Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy ‘Hamlet’, the eponymous hero is undoubtedly the most compelling character. He is dynamic and complex and, through his introspective soliloquies, we are provided with the bulk of the thematic content in ‘Hamlet’. However, it is not just Hamlet’s soliloquies that develop his character and establish the thematic content; the secondary characters that surround him — and, moreover, his relationships and interactions with them — provide us with just as much to digest as Hamlet’s private meditations. Hamlet and Laertes mirror each other in many important ways, creating complex thematic commentary and establishing a parallel story with interesting implications; Hamlet’s choices concerning his mother, as well as the dialogue that the two of them engage in, constitute a veritable hero-test, demonstrating the strength of Hamlet’s virtue; Hamlet’s actions and words with respect to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent a significant arc for Hamlet, and his eventual plotting to kill them speaks volumes about a crucial part of his character. Perhaps the most important
character to consider when dissecting Hamlet is Hamlet’s chosen confidant and dearest friend Horatio. Hamlet trusts Horatio implicitly; he confides in Horatio and exalts him as “e’en as just a man / As e’er my conversation coped withal” (3.2.50-1).
Understanding the reasons why Hamlet holds Horatio in such high regard provides much insight into Hamlet himself. However, it is not just the illumination of Hamlet that is Horatio’s function: only by virtue of Horatio’s patently unparalleled credibility is the audience persuaded to swallow the many surreal and/or ridiculous occurrences in ‘Hamlet’ and appreciate its power. By examining Horatio’s relationship with Hamlet and the reason for its strength as well as evaluating Hamlet’s choices from Horatio’s perspective, we can learn a great deal about Hamlet as a character and appreciate more fully the tragedy and power of Shakespeare’s classic.
In order to understand’Hamlet’ and its hero through Horatio, one must first explore Horatio’s character and ascertain his function in the play. Horatio is first brought into the plot because of his acumen and his extensive education: the guards call on him, as a scholar, to address the ghost that they have encountered. Immediately upon his introduction, Horatio demonstrates that he is a discerning and intelligent man. By virtue of this, Horatio plays a crucial role in ‘Hamlet’: he acts as the anchor of reason in a plot rife with madness and absurdity, and provides a sound and reasonable perspective; indeed, he could even be described as infallible. Even from the first act, Horatio acts as a barometer of truth for the audience, providing a reference for discerning the authenticity of events in the plot and the quality of choices made by Hamlet. After seeing the ghost for the first time, Horatio makes an astute comment that sets the tone for the rest of the play: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state” (1.1.71). In this proclamation, he assumes the role of “he that knows” (1.1.72), an identity that constitutes an important part
of his relationship with Hamlet and the basis of his importance in Hamlet.
In keeping with his purpose in the play, Horatio makes it clear when Hamlet is making a choice that is ill-advised, and even illuminates the negative implications of the choice. There are two very significant examples of this, both occurring at moments when Hamlet’s choice will have an enormous effect on Hamlet’s fortunes. The first comes in
Act 1 when Hamlet meets the ghost for the first time and the ghost beckons Hamlet to follow it. Horatio immediately protests and asserts himself aggressively, proclaiming to Hamlet “You shall not go” (1.4.81) and repeating it three times for emphasis. This behavior is juxtaposed with the deferential manner in which Horatio has spoken to Hamlet thus far. Upon Hamlet’s inquiry as to why, Horatio argues that the ghost may “tempt [Hamlet] toward the flood” (1.4.69) which “might deprive [his] sovereignty of reason / And draw [him] into madness” (1.4.73-4). Here, Horatio foreshadows Hamlet’s fate: he will lose his reason, toe the line of madness, and be ruled by “passion,” all of which will put “toys of desperation” (1.4.75) (thoughts of suicide) into his mind. If Hamlet would have listened to Horatio, he may have been spared his fate. The second example occurs in the final scene of the play, when Horatio proclaims that Hamlet’s choice to face Laertes is ill-advised and tells Hamlet without prevarication that “[he] will lose” (5.2.181); upon Hamlet’s expression of hesitation, Horatio implores Hamlet, “If your mind dislike anything, obey it” (5.2.189). Again, Horatio foreshadows Hamlet’s fate and, again, if Hamlet had heeded Horatio’s warning, he might have been spared his wrongful death. Given all this, it is no stretch to conclude that Hamlet’s principle mistake is ignoring Horatio’s faithful advice.Horatio’s warnings to Hamlet are rendered even more significant by the strength of their relationship. Of all Hamlet’s friends, it is plain to see that Horatio is the one with which Hamlet has the closest bond. Hamlet chose Horatio — unlike Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and Laertes, all of whom were Hamlet’s childhood friends merely by circumstance. The warmth and familiarity of Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship — allowing Horatio’s deference to Hamlet’s royalty — is immediately established upon their first meeting in the play, as are the specifics of their relationship. We learn that they are good friends when Hamlet — having up until now displayed only a depressed and bitter disposition — greets Horatio with delight, even going so far as to declare that he will“teach [Horatio] for to drink ere [he] depart [Elsinore]” (1.2.175). We also learn from where they know each other: Wittenberg, their mutual place of study. There is important subtext when Hamlet addresses Horatio as “fellow student” in their initial meeting: in the
designation, Hamlet identifies Horatio as someone to whom he can relate and groups Horatio and himself together as men who have still more to learn; the two share an open mind and a world of possibilities, and that binds them together. From this point of view, Hamlet’s refusal to follow Horatio’s advice represents Hamlet turning away from himself; this idea finds more support in the fact that Horatio’s most earnest urging to Hamlet is for Hamlet to heed the hesitations of his own mind.
Hamlet’s choice of Horatio as a confidant and friend, and the reasons for it, is an immeasurably important part of Hamlet’s character. In a vulnerable moment, Hamlet explains:
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
60 And could of men distinguish, her election
Sh’ hath sealed thee for herself, for thou hast been–
As one in suffering that suffers nothing–
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks. And blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of hearts
70 As I do thee.
Hamlet establishes here the reasons why he holds Horatio in such high esteem, and, in doing so, enumerates
most important in a man. Thefirst quality which he identifies in Horatio is his patience and his humility; he comments that Horatio takes both the good and bad dealt by life with equal appreciation. Here,Hamlet reveals that he believes it an honorable quality to endure “the slings and arrows”of fate with grace and acceptance. Clearly, this stands in contrast with the attitudes that
Hamlet has displayed up to this point: he has shown nothing but contempt for the hand that fate has dealt him, and, in praising Horatio for his attitude, Hamlet acknowledges his own weakness in this area. On the other hand, Hamlet also praises Horatio for the efficient and effective nature of the relationship between his emotions and his reason;Hamlet celebrates this as that which enables Horatio to “play his own music,” to extend Shakespeare’s metaphor. On first consideration, these two comments may seem at odds, but they have a common implication which Hamlet expresses in his concluding sentence:that Horatio is not “passion’s slave.” The word “slave” is key here: much of the thematic content of the play centers around the questions of choice and fatalism. Students and scholars alike explore the question: what is Hamlet slave to? His duty to his father? The path he is fated to take? The limits of his knowledge? Human imperfection? Hamlet, however, answers it for us: he is slave to his own tumultuous emotions and is unable to
“distinguish” his mind’s sound judgement from the cloud of “passion.” This is the principle reason for Hamlet’s admiration of Horatio; it is also perhaps the aspect of their relationship that tells us most about Hamlet’s values.
Horatio, in his role as the truth-bearer, serves to validate Hamlet’s place as a hero and to validate the tragic power of the plot. In order to meet the standards of a tragic hero, Hamlet must be worthy of our sympathy and be of a high enough quality and nobility to warrant our admiration and/or respect. Horatio does most to this end when, upon Hamlet’s death, he laments, “Now cracks a noble heart.–Goodnight, sweet prince / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (5.2.335-6). Horatio establishes the power of the tragedy when he casts the events of the plot as those of “wonder” and “woe.” By having Horatio live to mourn Hamlet’s loss, Shakespeare provides himself a mouthpiece through which he can affirm the power of his plot.
Horatio’s role in Hamlet is of great importance to the power of the play and to the fullness of Hamlet’s character. As an extension of the unique and commendable traits that Horatio displays, he functions in a manner essential to the audience’s understanding and appreciation of the basic plot and the complex thematic messages of the play. In many ways, Horatio functions as Shakespeare’s secret weapon in Hamlet: when Shakespeare wants to clearly communicate the truth of the matter or frame an issue from a particular perspective, he employs Horatio’s credibility to do so. Furthermore, Hamlet’s admiration of Horatio reveals to us those facets which Hamlet considers of most important in a man.
It is Horatio who makes Hamlet who he is, and it is Horatio who makes Hamlet into the powerful tragedy it has proven itself to be.