Friday, November 13, 2015

Horatio -- A Guest Post by Kelda

by Kelda

Shakespeare gives us complex characters, though sometimes he challenges us to work at getting to know them.  Hamlet is the best known of them. Is he mad? Antic? But lost in Hamlet's shadow is his friend Horatio.

"Detective Horatio" by Laura Guzzo.
Prints available here on Etsy.

Scholars and critics usually simply list him as "Hamlet's friend." The role is relatively small, yet one scholar noted that if the role is played uncut and as Shakespeare intended, he is the only character that cannot be doubled. One critic wrote that Horatio's part is to stand around in every room until someone tells him to leave. In a particular scene, he may have no lines but he is present, as a witness to the evolving events. 

(Kenneth Branagh and Nicholas Farrell, 1996)

Where does he come from? Taking his self-described 'antique Roman', and Shakespeare's tendency to refer to other plays within plays -- like the references to Julius Caesar within Hamlet -- and realizing that Hamlet underestimates his 'poor' status (a pauper would not be at Wittenberg), I decided he was from Venice from one of the merchant classes (Merchant of Venice ~smile~) -- from a family of perhaps wine importers, book binders, or glass blowers. 
(Campbell Scott and John Benjamin Hickey, 2000)

What does Shakespeare tell us? Not much. Initially, Horatio joins the soldiers on the battlements. They tell him that an apparition like the late King has appeared to them. He is a scholar, and perhaps it will speak to him. He replies, "Tush, tush, 'twill not appear." This is the first hint of his character. He does not believe in ghosts, and there is reference to his not being a Dane. But when the ghost does appear, Horatio confesses it "harrows me with fear and wonder.... Before my God, I might not this believe without the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes." Later, Hamlet chides him, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Some scholars brush this off as a generalized referral. "Your philosophy" just means "anyone's." That  completely ignores his later expanded description: 

"Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal'd thee for herself. For thou hast been
As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing;
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
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" (III, 2).

This description, together with Horatio's self declaration, "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane," pinpoint his philosophy. He is a Stoic, an early Roman school up through the time of Marcus Aurelius. The English word entered the language in the late 1570's, so Shakespeare may not have had the term for it, but Hamlet's definition is accurate. A Stoic maintains a balanced acceptance of his/her life, and strives to live within the balance of Nature. Being rich may be preferable to being poor... the preference is neither good nor bad. Wealth or power or influence are not things to strive for. One should stand up to what befalls her/him in life. There is an Undivided Universe, and in its totality is the concept of God. This infinite Deity is associated with the element of fire. In great cycles, all corporeal being is destroyed by fire. The fire then lies dormant for eons, and is seen as the seed that generates the next cycle of being. In rare circumstances, suicide is permissible -- specifically in situations that can no longer be lived in balance with Nature. Horatio, reaching that point, prefers suicide, but Hamlet gives him a reason to live. 

A Stoic, and therefore Horatio, is not without humor. It's fun to catch him in his little prods and pokes against his friend. Hamlet tells him, "There's never a villain dwelling in all Denmark but he's an errant knave," and Horatio retorts, "There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this." When Hamlet is romping wildly after the Play within the play, he demands whether he should earn a share in an acting company. Horatio answers, "Half a share," and tells him he "might have rhymed" his improvised lines. He is amused by Hamlet's exchange with Osric. When Hamlet demands to know the meaning of "carriages" with reference to the bet in the duel, Horatio laughs and says, "I knew you must be edified by the margent ere you had done," described in the glossary as 'I knew you would sooner or later have to have text notes in the margin to follow him.'

(Jude Law and Matt Ryan, 2004)

Horatio is honest to a fault. When Hamlet tells him of the fate of R&G, he is troubled, "So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't." When the Prince accepts the duel, Horatio objects: "You will lose  this wager, my lord." Remember Hamlet telling R&G that he has foregone "exercises?" Now he protests that he has been "in continual practice" in Laertes' absence. He does reluctantly admit "all's ill hereabout my heart." Horatio immediately answers, "If your mind dislike anything, do it not. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit." I wish we knew more about his thoughts here. There is no reason to be suspicious of the duel being anything other than a practice, and as Hamlet says, there is nothing to lose but the "odd hits." But Horatio, like Hamlet, feels something ill, and it is far more alarming than a mere fencing encounter.

Spoilers ahead, if you have not finished the play: In almost every production, the final scene is Horatio kneeling, cradling his dying friend in his arms, rocked to the soul by Hamlet's refusal to allow him to commit suicide. A director who mishandles this scene should be fired. We meet Horatio in the first act and leave him here in the last one.

(David Tennant and Peter De Jersey, 2009)

What the kids have to say about it. :^) My kids are annoyed by my obsession with Hamlet. One day, waiting at a Friendly's for our banana splits, they decided that it really wasn't fair that Horatio got to live (or maybe that he had to do so), so they began to come up with an alternate ending. The survivors are at a funeral banquet when they are suddenly visited by a Green Alien Space Monkey that is hungry. Horatio is just finishing the last banana, so the GASM kills him. And now everybody is dead, so stop talking about it!!!


(PS. ~grin~ Ask Hamlette about her GASM.)

(Hamlette's note:  Thanks so much for this wonderful character sketch of Horatio!  You know him better than anyone I've ever encountered, and I'm so privileged to share some of your thoughts here.  Alas, my Green Attack Space Monkey has returned to the mother ship, but here are the rest of the awesome Hamlet clothespin dolls you made me so long ago!)


  1. Great posting! Horatio, we must remember, is the only rational among the irrational in the play. Ponder that provocation. And, BTW, there is nothing wrong with being obsessed with Hamlet and Shakespeare; I've been among the Hamlet OCD crowd for a long, long time. One of my other literary obsessions is Flannery O'Connor, and you can read more about that addiction at my blog:

  2. What a great post! I loved reading this insights into Horatio's character.

  3. (Thank you) for your kind words. Just watch out for that GASM.

  4. Hamlette has written an awesome review of a noir Hamlet, which I hope
    she will link here, if it isn't already here & I'm missing it. Now, FIRST stack up a pile of styrofoam blocks or bricks. :^) At the end,you can throw them at the TV or, lol, mail them to Hamelette.They're light weight.

    1. I hadn't thought of that, but I should link to it at some point! If you mail me styrofoam bricks, should I throw them at my TV, or myself? :-D

    2. You could use them as packing materials in my care packages!~Kelda

    3. What, you're getting tired of all the plastic grocery bags? :-D Speaking of which, did The Box arrive? The one with a certain DVD in it?


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