Although Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is most widely renowned for the lines and actions of its central characters and primarily Hamlet himself, the play is rich with minor characters who play crucial roles not only in terms of the plot and thematic development of the play but with regard to the play’s dramatic structure and technical structure. The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, for example, not only help to engineer certain crucial development in the plot of the play, but also give rise to the play’s ironic “coda,” which helps to frame the play in a tight, formal structure.
The formality of “Hamlet’s” technical structure is an important element of the play, thematically, as the play addresses questions of chaos and madness and the deterioration of the inner and outer worlds simultaneously. Structure in the play’s form gives a “vessel” for Shakespeare’s more fragmented and lyrically poetic exploration of themes which are based in fragmentation and chaos.
In this regard, the character of Horatio, who is described as “Friend to Hamlet,” functions as a narrator for the play’s action and helps to present the conflicts and thematic dimensions of the play in a forthright manner with which the audience can clearly identify and understand. Horatio’s role is evident from the opening scene of the play when, upon entering, Horatio remarks to Marcellus’ inquiry “What, is Horatio there? ” Horatio’s answer is “A piece of him.
” This answer could be seen as Horatio’s ironic confession that he functions not as a person in the context of the play, but as a technical device, or at least partially so, and Horatio’s response at any rate is quickly followed by Marcellus’ statement that Horatio “.. says ’tis but our fantasy,/ And will not let belief take hold of him ” (Act I, Scene 1). This observations serves to elevate Horatio’s credibility with the audience who, also, are likely to be initially skeptical of the presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
From the beginning of the play it is clear that Horatio is meant to serve as a psuedo-narrator of the play and his relationship with the audience is established as quickly and as innately as is possible without s direct appeal to the audience. Horatio’s act in confronting the ghost of Hamlet’s father “What are 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? ” is also in keeping with his role as a liason between the play’s themes and actions and the audience’s disbelief or skepticism (Act 1, Scene 1). Is is a testament to Shakespeare’s genius that his instincts as a poet and playwright led him to grant Horatio such an important role in the play, appearing before Hamlet in the play’s actions and establishing a strong bond with the audience.
As soon as Horatio has established himself as psuedo-narrator he begins to speak in pure narrative explication, helping to inform the audience of the “buried” background of the play in order that the audience may more fully participate in and understand the rising action of the play. Horatio’s explication of the play’s deep background culminates in his comparison with the present and past conditions in Denmark with the epic historical events of Rome.
“A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye/In the most high and palmy state of Rome,/ A little ere the mightiest Juluis fell,/ The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted/ Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:/ As, stars with trains of fire and dews of blood/ Disasters in the sun; and the moist star,/ Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands ,/ Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:” (Act 1, Scene 1) These (and other) poetically dense and information-laden lines enable Shakespeare to compress the back-story and epic scope of “Hamlet” in an efficient and suspenseful fashion while evading the dullness which usually accompanies forthright narrative exposition. In fact, Horatio’s extended speeches while heavy on the information side are so brilliantly constructed, poetically, and carry a good deal of verbal and imagistic excitement in them which helps to balance out the “flatness” of the information.
Similarly, the action on stage in Act 1, Scene 1 is dynamic and exciting with the presence of a ghost on the stage and lyrical passages of poetic dialogue and harbingers of epic conflict; however, Act 1, Scene 1 is also one of the most the information-heavy scenes in the play, where Shakespeare has the difficult task of narrating the play’s back-story and historical relevance to the audience without losing their attention. The most crucial element in the “bonding” between the baroque action and back-story on the stage in Act 1, Scene 1 is the character of Horatio, who, as demonstrated in the above examples, plays the role of liason between the play’s action and themes and the audience. Once established, Horatio’s role as narrator continues throughout the entirety of the play, serving multiple, key purpose. A good example of Horatio’s versatility (from a technical point of view) is his role in Hamlet’s “Dram of Eale” speech in Act 1, Scene 4.
Here, Horatio speaks few lines, but helps to give a rhetorical provocation for Hamlet’s intricate and poetically dense speech. He functions as a “target” for Hamlet’s speech which is meant, obviously, to be directed at Claudius and perhaps to Hamlet himself, and to the world…. Not only is Horatio’s role as a narrative device enhanced in this famous scene, but a subtle elevation of his character development is evident in the way Shakespeare tacitly demonstrates Horatio’s friendship with and devotion to Hamlet. Although Horatio’s simple liens may seem as though they play little role in the overall development of the play, they are, in fact, rich with meaning.
By assuring Hamlet that he should not follow the beckoning form of his father’s ghost in the second part of Act 1 Scene 3, Horatio fully expresses his bond with Hamlet, and in doing so, begins to shift the audience-identification and audience sympathy he has established up to that point with the audience to the play’s true protagonist, Hamlet. When Horatio says “You shall not go, my lord” he is informing the audience that Hamlet faces true danger and that he is concerned for him; so, too, should the audience be concerned. Correspondingly, Act 1 , Scene 5 begins the downward spiral of Hamlet’s destiny as he denies Horatio’s pleas and follows the ghost of his father. The change in Hamlet’s character after his conversation with ghost of his father is shown by his subsequent conflict with Horatio in Act 1, Scene 5.
Hamlet brushes of Horatio with his words “And so, without more circumstance at all/ I hold fit that we shake hands and part;? You, as your business and desires shall point you, —/ For every man has business and desire,/Such as it is;— and for my own poor part,/Look you, I’ll go pray. ” Because the change in Hamlet’s personality is intended to be extreme and due to the fact that since Hamlet has not yet been before the audience long enough for them to fully appreciate the change in hamlet’s character after his conversation with the ghost of his father, it is the character of Horatio who assumed the burden of transmitting this change in character to the audience.
Horatio’s reaction to Hamlet’s gruff remarks is “These are but wild and whirling words, my lord. ” The words “wild” and “whirling” put clearly into the audience’s mind that Hamlet has become unstable and that he has changed after his conversation with his dead father’s ghost. This is not only an important development in the play, but it is the key element in the early rising action of the play: that the audience undergo a similar transformation in their relationship to Hamlet as Horatio experiences and that the audience clearly understand that Hamlet is a noble figure of heroic stature who has fallen astray from his nobility and faces a difficult crisis.
The forces of the supernatural are mediated through Horatio’s concrete relationship to Hamlet and the evolution of that friendship throughout the tragic cycle of action depicted in the play. During act 1, Horatio serves as a narrator for the play’s back-story and very nearly as a surrogate protagonist until Hamlet arrives on-stage. As previously discussed, Horatio transfers audience identification and sympathy from himself to Hamlet during the play’s rising action; however, a the “break” between himself and Hamlet in Act 1 Scene 5 is not only meant to convey a drastic change in Hamlet’s character, but a drastic change in the narrative point-of-view of the play.
After Hamlet’s “Dram of Eale” speech and his decision to converse with his father’s ghost despite Horatio’s pleading for him to resist, the dramatic action of the play falls squarely upon Hamlet’s shoulders and the play’s major characters come to dominate more fully the scope and action of the play. The transfer of the narrative weight from Horatio’s to Hamlet’s “shoulders” is not absolute, final, or complete. Rather, the shifting of dramatic action is temporary and the audience is led to understand this not only by their initial bond with Horatio (rather than hamlet) as the play’s central figure, but also with the play’s back-story and supernatural overtones clearly established it is evident, if not obvious, that Hamlet’s crisis will be swift in coming and, although complex, some resolution for it must be reached.
Horatio’s comparison with Denmark to Rome makes it clear for the audience that a tragedy will ensue. Due to the intervening nature of Horatio’s character, it is not necessary for the audience to immediately or solely identify with Hamlet, who is a character steeped in ambiguity and a character who goes against the grain in terms of the classical definition and dramatic scope of an heroic character. In fact, it might be very difficult, if not impossible, for an audience to consider Hamlet as a noble and heroic character without the continued assurances from Horatio that hamlet’s crisis is just that: a crisis which has been brought upon him by his stature and his fate.
This vision of Hamlet is quite in keeping with the classical conception of an heroic character and classical tragedy. In other words, Shakespeare is, in fact, presenting a new, in some ways, radically new, vision of heroic tragedy in Hamlet but in order to avoid the possibility of alienating or confusing his audience, he charges Horatio to paint an heroic and tragic portrait of Hamlet despite whatever the immediate action and situations of the play suggest. In this way, the character of Horatio “anchors” Hamlet in classical form and construction while leaving Shakespeare free to experiment with other elements in the play, such as the “play within a play” scene, Ophelia’s suicide, and the Hamlet’s famous soliloquies.
Horatio plays a diminished role in the middle-section of “Hamlet” due to Shakespeare’s necessarily transferring the weight of the play to his protagonist; however, some of the most important passages and scenes of the play are dependant upon Horatio’s presence. This is true for the famous scene in Act 5 Scene 1 where Hamlet confronts the skulls and speaks his eloquent lines about the ephemeral nature of life. Again, as in the “Dram of Eale” speech, Horatio serves as a target for Hamlet’s lines. Horatio’s statements in this scene serve to bolster Hamlet’s apparently sudden clear-mindedness and rationality in the midst of his personal dissolution and crises. When Hamlet asks “must the inheritor himself have no more, ha? ” Horatio responds “Not a jot more, my lord. “
The essence of the relationship between Horatio and Hamlet is consistently portrayed as a genuine friendship; as contrast to Hamlet’s relationship with Horatio the audience realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however possessed of gentlemanly loyalty to Hamlet are not engaged with him at any deep level of friendship and in fact are party to intrigue against him. Hamlet divulges this knowledge (of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s intrigues) to Horatio which shows that he truly trusts Horatio. This serves to imbue Horatio with even more audience credibility and, again, with every gain in audience credibility that Horatio causes, and ensuing identification with Hamlet through Horatio’s eyes takes place for the audience. Horatio’s loyalty (and capacity as the play’s narrator) finds important distinction just prior to the play’s climax at the end of Act 5 Scene 2.
He cautions Hamlet, again, to avoid his tragic fate: “If your mind dislike anything, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit. ” By now, accustomed to Hamlet’s denial of his friend’s advice, the audience will recall the previous scene when Hamlet, against Horatio’s advice, sought conversation with ghost of his father. They will understand that when Hamlet chooses to disregard the advice of the single character in the play who has demonstrated friendship and loyalty to him, that Hamlet, again, embraces tragic fate. because Horatio is the liason between the audience and the dramatic action of the play, the audience, even before the bloodbath in the plays final moments, anticipates total ruin and tragedy for Hamlet.
In fact, the baroque conclusion to Hamlet, as the baroque opening, is held together by the presence of Horatio, who, as he did in the play’s opening, helps to steer the play to a well-wrought and formal conclusion. Horatio’s words upon Hamlet’s death, reaffirm not only his enduring loyalty to Hamlet (so increasing the tragic scope of Hamlet’s death) but also Ha,let’s heroic stature. As he has been doing all along, Horatio encourages the audience to view Hamlet as an heroic figure, despite his ambivalence, despite his oddness, and his culpability early in the play in the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. Horatio insists “Now cracks a noble heart.
—Good-night sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! ” These words are meant to convince the audience that they have, indeed, witnessed a classical tragedy with all its parts in working order. This assurance is given by Horatio throughout the course of “Hamlet” and it is an important element of the play’s technical construction because in many ways “Hamlet” violates the paradigm of classical tragedy. Knowing better than to confuse or overwhelm his audience, but determined to present a play which expanded the definitions and parameters of tragedy, Shakespeare relied heavily upon the character of Horatio to help frame the play in familiar and explicit terms.
The importance of Horatio as a minor character in “Hamlet’ cannot be easily overstated; however, it is not only the contribution of thematic and dramatic intensity that Horatio lends to the play, but the formality of linear narration that Horatio contributes tot he play on a technical level which ensures the importance of the character of Horatio to the ultimate dramatic impact of “Hamlet. ” That Shakespeare not only realized the necessity of including the character of Horatio from a technical point of view — but implemented this minor character with great skill and literary brilliance — grants the play “Hamlet” a richness and dramatic scope that is at once unique and traditional.