May 14, 2006

Everybody loves Horatio. He's a solid supporter of Hamlet, he makes the occasional wry comment, he never complains, he's brave without being egotistical, and he's clearly an all-around good guy.

His function in the play is twofold. First, and more obviously, he's Hamlet's confidant. He provides opportunities for Hamlet to talk about what's going on; not everything can be covered in soliloquies. He's always a voice of reason and caution, advising Hamlet against following the ghost and even against accepting Laertes' challenge for the duel. Second, more subtly, Horatio is the counterexample to Laertes. As I've said before, Hamlet is unable to take revenge and unable to decide not to take revenge — either would be a form of accepting change. Laertes is a clear example of someone who would choose to take fiery and swift revenge. Hamlet spends 20 lines (just before the play-within-the-play) praising Horatio for being

…A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks…
…that man
That is not passion's slave…

Horatio, put in Hamlet's situation, would presumably be able to accept his father's death and let go of the (sinful) desire for revenge. Hamlet admires him for this. Much as Hamlet admires the Player for his demonstration of passion, so he admires Horatio for his levelheadedness.

The circumstances around Horatio seem somewhat confused. He's friends with the guards — they go to him first after seeing the Ghost. But he's apparently not a native of Denmark, as Hamlet has to explain the local customs. He's a friend of Hamlet's from the University. But he's also familiar enough with Denmark's politics that he explains the situation with Norway to the guards at Elsinore.

I like the idea that Hamlet is not particularly close friends with Horatio at the top of the play — they knew each other a bit from school. This is in sharp contrast to Hamlet's relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who I think are truly close friends with Hamlet since childhood. Over the course of the play, Hamlet's friendship with Horatio grows even as he stops trusting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

In Act Four, Horatio is apparently in discussion with the Queen going into Ophelia's first mad scene — perhaps the two people in Elsinore who know Hamlet's true purposes are comparing notes? Later, the King sends Horatio to take care of Hamlet after Hamlet's explosion at Laertes at the funeral. Horatio has become a recognized member of the court.

In the aftermath of the duel, Horatio announces his intention to commit suicide. Hamlet stops him, and commands Horatio — the only person left alive who knows the full story — to tell the world what really happened to the royal family of Denmark. It is Horatio who is left to deal with the English Ambassador and with Fortinbras.

Like us, Horatio has become friends with Hamlet over the course of the play. Hamlet has shared secrets with Horatio as he has with us — both the audience and Horatio have a kind of privileged status with regards to Hamlet's journey. So Horatio's sorrow for Hamlet at the end of the play provides the audience with an important way in to the tragedy; we see Hamlet's death through Horatio's eyes, and the impact of the tragedy reaches us through its impact on Horatio.


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