His role in the play

Is Horatio only included to give Hamlet a confidant at court, to avoid the audience being subjected to an even greater number of soliloquies?

Closer examination of his role and characterisation may suggest that there is more to Horatio:

  • We meet him first at the very beginning of the play, before we meet any of the more major characters
  • By line 27 of the play, we learn that he is sceptical — a man of sense and sound reason who does Hamlet and Horatio see the Ghostnot believe in apparitions. This then reinforces the audience's impression that it is a ‘real' ghost when it appears, and not some figment of mass hysteria
  • By line 45 we hear that the others see Horatio as ‘a scholar', whose learning may enable him to communicate with the Ghost. The fact that, in spite of all his efforts, it will not respond, suggests to us, and to the three characters on stage, that the Ghost's appearance has some further significance
  • It is Horatio who explains to the others that Young Fortinbras is seeking redress for the lands his father lost in combat — thereby introducing us to the parallels between Young Hamlet and Fortinbras as nephews whose uncles have taken the throne, and to the theme of sons seeking vengeance
  • When Horatio refers to Julius Caesar and the omens surrounding his murder, Shakespeare simultaneously shows Horatio's character as a scholar while touching on broader themes of the play
  • Although generally sceptical about apparitions, Horatio is a man of religious belief, who does not wholly discount Marcellus' story that no evil spirits can harm mankind at Christmas, ‘so hallow'd and so gracious is that time.

Hamlet's true friend

Horatio greets Hamlet in most respectful terms — ‘your lordship', ‘your poor servant'. Hamlet, however, insists that Horatio is a ‘good friend' — a role which he sustains throughout the play — and immediately establishes Horatio as a man of integrity: ‘I know you are no truant'.

We gather that they have been friends for some time, since Horatio says, ‘I knew your father'. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, we learn that they were ‘of so young days brought up with him', yet Hamlet very soon distrusts them. However he never wavers in his trust of Horatio.

Horatio is one of the only two people in Act I scene v (the other is Marcellus, who then disappears from the action) to whom Hamlet reveals his plan to ‘put an antic disposition on'. Horatio is again addressed as ‘scholar', nevertheless Hamlet indicates that there are more mysteries in the universe than reason and scholarship can fathom:

‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'

A reliable sounding board

Having established Horatio as honest and dependable, a good friend, a scholar but perhaps not seeing so far into the nature of things as Hamlet, Shakespeare can use him as a reliable sounding-board for Hamlet.

In Act III scene ii, Shakespeare uses his qualities to allow Hamlet to explain what he values most (though Hamlet may not himself achieve it): a man who can accept whatever life brings him, and strike a balance between reason (‘judgement') and passion (‘blood'):

‘A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement 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 heart,
As I do thee.'
We see this rational, calm approach as opposed to Hamlet's wild exultation after ‘The Mousetrap', and it is this very calmness which makes us feel we must agree with Horatio that Claudius' behaviour has been remarkable; ‘I did very well note him.'

Moral standing

  • In Act V, Horatio provides the staunch friendship which Hamlet needs
  • However Shakespeare suggests a note of disapproval at Hamlet's somewhat careless attitude to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio's line, ‘So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to't,' implies at the least a questioning, if not a rebuke, since Hamlet's response is to justify his action
  • Horatio accepts Hamlet's arguments
  • It is Horatio who is prepared to intervene on his behalf and halt the fencing-match
  • It is Horatio who, having been prevented from dying with his friend, and to whom Hamlet speaks his last words, provides the speech of justification for Hamlet's actions which he declares that he ‘can truly deliver'.

Horatio represents, then, an example of a faithful, clear-sighted and loyal friend, who sustains this character throughout, and remains uncorrupted by the deceit and flattery which surround him at Elsinore.

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