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Introduction to Horatio in Hamlet

Horatio's role in the play is minor and most critics agree that he is not developed beyond a character foil for the great Prince. However, Horatio serves two purposes central to the drama, and it is through these purposes that we can best discuss those qualities that make Horatio memorable. Horatio is our harbinger of truth. It is through Horatio that the actions taken by Hamlet and other characters gain credibility. He is the outside observer to the madness. Hamlet could soliloquize to no end, but it is his conversations with Horatio that ground the play in reality. Horatio believes Hamlet and thus we have permission to believe. He sees the Ghost and so we can believe that Hamlet has seen the Ghost. If Horatio were not there, Hamlet's sanity would truly be in doubt.

Horatio's second purpose is to be Hamlet's one true confidant. Apart from Hamlet's soliloquies, his conversations with Horatio are the only insight we have into what the Prince is really thinking and feeling. But why Hamlet chooses Horatio to become the sole person on whom he can rely is of primary concern here. From the first scene we see that Horatio is calm, resolute, and rational. Not afraid to confront the Ghost, Horatio demands that it speak if it knows what future awaits Denmark or if it has come to make a confession:

If thou art privy to thy country's fate...
O, speak!
Or if thou hast uphoarded in thy life
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth...
Speak of it, stay and speak! (I.i.133-9)

Hamlet admires Horatio for the qualities that Hamlet himself does not possess. He praises Horatio for his virtue and self-control: "Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man/As e'er my conversation cop'd withal" (III.ii.56-7). Horatio's strength of character is unwavering, and Hamlet longs for the peace of mind that such stoicism must bring to Horatio:

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 suffering 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 judgement are so well commedled
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.ii.63-75)

Thus Horatio has reached an apex that Hamlet recognizes is the freedom from emotional upheaval. Horatio feels deeply; he loves Hamlet with all his heart; but he feels nothing to the extent that it will overrule him. Horatio is not "passion's slave." His stability has made him the posterchild for the classical world and Hamlet, in his deep friendship and admiration of Horatio tries to learn from him. As Cicero writes, surely envisioning someone like Horatio, "There is no one of any nation who, having found a leader, cannot arrive at virtue" (Laws I.30).

When Hamlet lies dying, Horatio is prepared to commit the very passionate act of suicide so that he will not have to live without his beloved friend, but even in this he is resolute and level-headed, acting not out of uncontrollable emotion but a sense of honour and duty. Horatio refers to himself as "more an antique Roman than a Dane" (V.ii.346) (reminiscent of Brutus and Cassius). Horatio's virtue is even more vivid in the light of Macbeth's cowardice response: "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die/On mine own sword?" (V.iii.1-2). In the final analysis, Hamlet does become a little more like his idol Horatio in his acceptance of fate and the evil inherant in all men.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Horatio. Shakespeare Online. 15 Aug. 2008. < > .
Marcus Tullius Cicero. De legibus libri. apud F. Vahlenum. 1883


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Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
- Hamlet (1.1.42), Marcellus

Why is it more fitting that a scholar speak to the Ghost? As a scholar, Horatio would have a firm understanding of Latin, the language in which the exorcising of spirits would have been performed. Marcellus hopes that Horatio will have the proper Latin formulae to rid them of the spirit if it proves evil. Shakespeare uses the idea again in a hilarious scene in Much Ado About Nothing, when Benedick, complaining about Beatrice, laments, "I would to God some scholar would conjure her." (2.1.233)

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