Shakespeare's Hamlet - Hamlet’s Best Friend, Horatio

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Hamlet’s Best Friend, Horatio

    A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy notes a problem involving Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:


When Horatio, at the end of the soliloquy, enters and greets Hamlet, it is evident that he and Hamlet have not recently met at Elsinore. Yet Horatio came to Elsinore for the funeral (I.ii. 176). Now even if the funeral took place some three weeks ago, it seems rather strange that Hamlet, however absorbed in grief and however withdrawn from the Court, has not met Horatio [. . .] . (368)


The closest friend of the hero is a fellow-student from Wittenberg (Granville-Barker 93) -- Horatio. He is an interesting and faithful friend, as this essay will demonstrate.


Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes Horatio’s part in the opening scene of the play:


The story opens in the cold and dark of a winter night in Denmark, while the guard is being changed on the battlements of the royal castle of Elsinore. For two nights in succession, just as the bell strikes the hour of one, a ghost has appeared on the battlements, a figure dressed in complete armor and with a face like that of the dead king of Denmark, Hamlet’s father. A young man named Horatio, who is a school friend of Hamlet, has been told of the apparition and cannot believe it, and one of the officers has brought him there in the night so that he can see it for himself.

The hour comes, and the ghost walks. (35)


Horatio, frightened, futilely confronts the ghost:


What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,

     Together with that fair and warlike form

     In which the majesty of buried Denmark

     Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak! (1.1)


Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” maintains that Horatio’s words to the spirit “are subsequently seen to have reached beyond their contexts. . . (244). So Horatio and Marcellus exit the ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet, who is home from school. Hamlet is dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle less than two months after the funeral of Hamlet’s father (Gordon 128). Soon Horatio and Marcellus make contact with Hamlet with a strange greeting (Bradley 370) and escort him to the ramparts of Elsinore.

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Burton in “Hamlet” comments on the tightness of Horatio’s relationship with the hero:


Horatio is Hamlet’s Rock of Gibraltar throughout the play. He confides in him alone, he submits his suspicions to the cot formation of Horatio’s judgment and finally dies in his arms, or trusting him with the justification of his acts to posterity. The first thing we hear of Horatio is that he is a scholar, and this intellectual bent he shares with Hamlet, but temperamentally they are opposites. Hamlet praises Horatio for the qualities that he himself conspicuously lacks. Horatio is not "passion’s slave;" he has an imperturbability of mind and spirit that nothing can shake. Hamlet, when he is about to test Horatio’s friendship and judgment says:


 Give me that man

 That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him

 In my heart’s core—aye, in my heart of heart,

 As I do thee. . . (Burton)


Those last four words say so much. With the three of them standing on the ramparts, the ghost appears at one a.m.. The  ghost, a former sinner since he is suffering in the afterlife (West 110), reveals to the protagonist the extent of the evil within Elsinore, “the human truth” (Abrams 467). The Ghost says that King Hamlet I was murdered by Claudius, who had a relationship with Gertrude prior to the murder; the ghost requests a “restorative” revenge (Gooch 1) by Hamlet: “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” Hamlet swears to do this; he then swears Horatio and Marcellus to secrecy. Horatio evaluates the prince’s speech as Hamlet talks in an unclear manner following the ghost’s revelations (since he does not wish to reveal the ghost’s revelations): “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.” And Hamlet apologizes to Horatio. From the outset of the drama, the reader/viewer sees the sporadic development of Horatio’s character, into one of complex temperament and motivation, which would render him quite “rounded” (Abrams 33); in other words, he is one of Shakespeare’s “sharply etched characters” (Wilkie and Hurt 2155). Horatio then bows out of the play for quite some time.


Meanwhile the hero puts on an “antic disposition” to disguise his intentions while he seriously works on determining whether the ghost is real or false (Levine 8). Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, is unfortunately the first to experience the prince’s new “madness,” and she is terrorized by his visit. Her father, Polonius, diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern interrogate him on behalf of Claudius and “kindly, slow witted” (Pitt 47) Gertrude. Ophelia agrees to be a decoy to lure the hero so that the king and lord chamberlain can study him. The hero’s words, “Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners,” distress Ophelia greatly.


Hamlet in his “madness” redesigns a standard play, The Murder of Gonzago, into The Mousetrap – a reenactment of Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet I. Horatio is enlisted by the hero in order to observe the king’s reaction, whether guilty or innocent, during the drama:


There is a play to-night before the king;

     One scene of it comes near the circumstance

     Which I have told thee of my father's death:

     I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,

     Even with the very comment of thy soul

     Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt

     Do not itself unkennel in one speech,

     It is a damned ghost that we have seen,

     And my imaginations are as foul

     As Vulcan's stithy. (3.2)


Horatio reacts enthusiastically to Hamlet’s request:


Well, my lord:

     If he steal aught the whilst this play is playing,

     And 'scape detecting, I will pay the theft.


Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder of his brother: “Give me some light: away!”

So Horatio exults with the hero:




     O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a

     thousand pound. Didst perceive?




     Very well, my lord.




     Upon the talk of the poisoning?




     I did very well note him. (3.2)


Consequently Hamlet prepares for revenge. En route to his mother’s room, he passes Claudius kneeling in prayer in the chapel, but refrains from killing him because, “I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven.” In other words, he might go to heaven rather than to the punishing flames of hell (Kliman 155). While conversing with his mother, the very emotionally upset Hamlet detects a spy (Polonius) behind the arras in the room and runs him through with his rapier. The killing of Polonius, along with the suspicion of Claudius that Hamlet knows the king murdered Hamlet I, cause Claudius to send the Prince by ship to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are unsuspecting of the ordered execution for the hero (Madariaga).


 In the meantime, Ophelia loses her sanity because of the rejection by Hamlet and the death of Polonius. Horatio intercedes with Queen Gertrude on behalf of the demented girl: “Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.” When the queen agrees to speak with her, Horatio kindly escorts Ophelia into the king and queen’s presence, where the girl’s madness is definitively established. Claudius asks Horatio to watch Ophelia closely: “Follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you.” Laertes is upset over his sister’s madness and father’s death.  When Hamlet, captured by pirates and now seeking royal assistance so that he can return to Elsinore, he sends letters to Horatio and Claudius and Gertrude notifying them of the situation. Horatio welcomes his friend’s letter and reads it through:


'Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked

     this, give these fellows some means to the king:

     they have letters for him. Ere we were two days old

     at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us

     chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on

     a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded

     them: on the instant they got clear of our ship; so

     I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with

     me like thieves of mercy: but they knew what they

     did; I am to do a good turn for them. Let the king

     have the letters I have sent; and repair thou to me

     with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I

     have words to speak in thine ear will make thee

     dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of

     the matter. These good fellows will bring thee

     where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their

     course for England: of them I have much to tell

     thee. Farewell. (4.6)


Laertes and Claudius prepare for the hero’s return by devising fail-proof plans for killing the prince. Meanwhile Ophelia drowns because of her madness, and Hamlet returns shortly before the time of her burial. He and Horatio enter the cemetery talking animatedly to each other, oblivious to the upcoming burial of Ophelia. Soon the royal court arrives and the emotional interment takes place. Immediately thereafter, Horatio and Hamlet are talking in a hall in the castle when the prince reveals to Horatio the deadly statement of Claudius’ commission to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “That, on the supervise, no leisure bated, / No, not to stay the grinding of the axe, / My head should be struck off.”


With Horatio looking on, Osric delivers the king’s message: “[h]is majesty bade me signify to you that he has laid a great wager on your head. . . .” The proposed contest between the hero and Laertes involves a poisoned rapier and a poisoned cup – both designed to kill Hamlet secretly. Horatio prophetically utters the ominous words: “You will lose this wager, my lord.” When the prince feels misgivings about the proposal, Horatio quickly volunteers to derail the whole thing: “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.” But Hamlet will not hear of it, so the contest proceeds. During the course of the competition, both Laertes and Hamlet are stuck with the poisoned rapier, and the queen imbibes the poisoned drink intended for the hero. Horatio is very concerned about the wound of Hamlet: “They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?” Laertes, in his dying moments, confesses that Claudius schemed the poisonous plan, so Hamlet promptly dispatches the king: “The point!—envenomed too. Then, venom, to thy work.”


With the king, queen and Laertes dead, only Horatio and Hamlet remain alive. Of Horatio the hero makes a last request:


Horatio, I am dead;

     Thou livest; report me and my cause aright

     To the unsatisfied.


     . . . If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart

     Absent thee from felicity awhile,

     And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,

     To tell my story. (5.2)


As Hamlet dies, Horatio utters heartfelt words of prayer: “Good night sweet prince: And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Indeed, Hamlet has chosen the most faithful of friends in the person of Horatio!




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