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Horatio's character and importance in Hamlet


Horatio is Hamlet's loyal and trusted friend, known for his rationality and calm demeanor. He provides a grounding presence amidst the chaos of the Danish court. Horatio's importance lies in his role as a confidant to Hamlet and as a witness to the unfolding tragedy, ensuring that Hamlet's story is told accurately after his death.

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Who is Horatio in Hamlet?

Horatio is a character created by Shakespeare for the specific purpose of acting as a friend and confidant of Hamlet. In most plays information is conveyed to the audience through dialogue. Hamlet is in an awkward position because there is nobody he can trust at the Danish court, and so he cannot confide in anybody. That is why the play contains so many of his monologues. Shakespeare must have felt that he could have only so many of these lengthy monologues. At best, monologues and asides are awkward because people do not ordinarily talk to themselves about how they feel, what they are thinking, planning, etc. Besides that, they are not usually very dramatic. With Horatio as his trusted friend, Hamlet can discuss his secrets in a natural manner and thereby convey much essential information to the audience. For example, he can tell Horatio all about how he discovered the King's bellerophonic letter in the possession of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aboard the ship bound for England, what he did about it, how he got captured by the pirate ship, etc. This could hardly have been handled in another monologue.

Not much is revealed about Horatio except that he and Hamlet were fellow-students at Wittenberg and that Horatio does not belong to a wealthy or aristocratic family. He seems very much like Hamlet's alter-ego. He is intelligent and perceptive, like Hamlet. He understands everything quickly. He is entirely in sympathy with Hamlet, probably because of the friendship they established at the university, where some of the best and longest lasting friendships are made between young people. 

Horatio is not only invaluable to Hamlet during all of his friend's tribulations, but he is the only major character to remain alive when the play ends. This is important because the audience must not be left wondering what the other survivors would be thinking about the carnage they had just witnessed. How would the courtiers know, for example, why Hamlet had just murdered King Claudius in such a violent manner? Horatio knows everything. He has either observed events personally, or else he has received explanations from his good friend Hamlet. Shakespeare takes care to avoid leaving any loose ends by having Hamlet tell Horatio in his dying words:

O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
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.                 (Act V, Scene 2)

Shakespeare was not really so much concerned about protecting Hamlet's name as he was about leaving his audience with the assurance that the survivors would be fully informed about the complicated events leading up to the deaths of Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, Gertrude, Claudius, and Hamlet. Only Horatio could explain everything from Claudius' murder of his brother to Hamlet's ultimate revenge-killing of Claudius. It was not necessary, however, for Shakespeare to include a scene in which Horatio explains everything to those who are left alive. This would be somewhat tedious because Shakespeare's audience already knows everything Horatio could say. There was no need for Horatio to explain anything to the audience, but there was a definite need for Horatio to explain everything to the people in the play who were left alive, including Fortinbras, and who would be astonished and perplexed by what they had just seen. Without Horatio, there would be endless conjectures; with Horatio, everything would be wrapped up, and the past could be put behind.

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What is Horatio's role in Hamlet?

The ultimate purpose of Horatio is made clear in Act 5. Hamlet has just been mortally wounded and Horatio is devastated at the thought of losing his good friend and says, "[he] is more antique Roman than a Dane" which implies that he would like to just lay down and die along with his friend, but Hamlet holds him off by reminding them that he must live on in order to "tell the yet unknowning world" what events transpired to bring about such tragic final results. Without Horatio to tell what happened, it would just look like Hamlet went on a rampage! But even before that, Horatio proves to be a loyal confidante to Hamlet; he is literally the only person Hamlet can trust in the entire play.

At the start of the play, Horatio is the one who has confirmation of the ghost's appearance and tells his friend what he has seen. He accompanies Hamlet out that night to help keep on eye on things when Hamlet goes to talk to the ghost. He specifically warns Hamlet that the ghost may just be a devil in disguise and he "may tempt you towards the flood my lord... or to the dreadful summit of a cliff."

In Act 3 Hamlet trusts Horatio enough to solicit his help in watching Claudius during the performance of the play. Hamlet wants to be assured that he sees proof of Claudius's guilt. Hamlet specifically compliments Horatio for his balance of "blood and judgement" in his behavior and thoughts -- not overly emotional; not overly full of thought.

In Act 5, Hamlet confides in Horatio all his thoughts and observations about life and death during the graveyard scene and later reveals all that transpired on the boat to England. Horatio is impressed with Hamlet's determination to do what needed to be done in order to save himself and send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their death in England. He is a good listener to Hamlet's new understanding of the role of fate in his life. Horatio expresses concerns over Hamlet's getting involved in the duel with Laertes, but still lets Hamlet do what he needs to do.

Ultimately, Horatio is the loyal friend that Hamlet so desparately needs in a play that is filled with people who only betray one another.

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Why is Horatio's role essential in Hamlet? Could the play proceed without him?

I would argue that Horatio plays an essential role in Hamlet. Primarily, he exists to ground the action of the drama in truth and reality. This is very important, not least because those two qualities are often in short supply among the members of the Danish court. Everyone's playing their own little game, and in the process creating their own truth, their own reality.

Horatio's moderating presence acts as a necessary counterbalance to all the madness that descends upon Elsinore. Without Horatio, that's all it would be: madness. But thanks to him, we're able to take a step back and gain a broader, more rational perspective on things, a perspective which Hamlet is singularly unable to provide.

Horatio's role as a confidant to his best friend is also important. Hamlet can soliloquize from now until Doomsday and yet we still wouldn't have much insight into what he's really and thinking. It's only through his conversations with Horatio that we get a better idea of what's really going on inside that tortured mind of his. And Hamlet for one is most grateful for this, paying tribute to Horatio for his virtue and self-control, qualities which he himself noticeably lacks:

Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man/As e'er my conversation cop'd withal. (Act III Scene ii).

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What is the role and presentation of Horatio in Hamlet?

Horatio, despite considerable stage time in Hamlet, is a rather unappealing role for actors.  The reason is that nothing happens to him, plotwise, in the play—he has no dramatic arc, as actors call it, no change of situation, no growth or development as a character.  The reason is that he is a dramatic “device,” a sounding board for Hamlet’s outer reactions, a recipient of Hamlet’s utterances.  In a play replete with inner monologues, there must be some speech-acts for Hamlet to utter, and since the play is filled with duplicitous, untrustworthy characters (Polonius, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, etc.), there has to be one character to whom Hamlet can utter the non-ironic truth, a loyal peer who will listen without an agenda (and with whom the audience can identify.)  If you look at his actions in the play, you will see how passive and receptive and nonjudgmental he is.  For example, “Alas, poor Yorick/ I knew him, Horatio…”  elicits no reaction, despite the dramatic strength of the scene itself.  Scholars have invented the term “Horatio character” to discuss this device in other pieces, meaning a character whose function is to allow another to utter speech-acts–accusations, questions, promises, doubts, etc., etc.  Many times the “Horatio character” is a court fool, a best friend, or a wise older person (Juliet's nurse, for example).  Because, by definition, drama is without narrator, the "Horatio character" lets certain information be uttered for the audience to hear. One major function of Horatio in Hamlet is to show that Hamlet is not really mad, but is sometimes feigning madness.

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What is Horatio's importance in the last scene of act 5 in Hamlet?

Horatio is one of the only characters to survive the dramatic ending of Hamlet, and will serve to tell Hamlet's story to the kindgom, and to future generations.  In fact, as Hamlet is dying, he specifically requests of Horatio that he tell his story.  Horatio, throughout the entire play, has been a true and faithful friend to Hamlet, someone that Hamlet can vent to, and share his feelings.  In the end, it is to this very cherished friend that Hamlet turns, pleading that his memory will be remembered.  Horatio is the designated story-bearer.  Also, Hamlet asks him to go to Fortinbras and relate the events of the day, so not only is Horatio tasked with telling Hamlet's tale, but in being a military messenger too.  He is the last standing pillar in the tragic story of Hamlet, and will be the one to forge peace with enemies and friends, and ensure that Hamlet's memory will be remembered.  I hope that helped; good luck!

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What is Horatio's importance in the last scene of act 5 in Hamlet?

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Horatio is the go-to guy throughout the play.  The guards go to him when they see a ghost.  Hamlet confides to him his plans to fake madness.  Hamlet seeks his help with his plan to trap the king during the production of the "play-within-the-play." 

At the conclusion, Horatio is so loyal that he is willing to commit suicide when his friend, Hamlet, is dying.  But Hamlet stops him.  Horatio, always the trusted friend, must stay alive to tell the tale of what really happened in Denmark.

Also, looking at the situation practically, Horatio provides occasions for Hamlet to speak.  In other words, since this is a drama and no narrator exists, dialogue is one of the methods used to reveal plot, characterization, intentions, etc.  Practically speaking,  Horatio is present in the final scene to give Hamlet someone to talk to, to give Hamlet someone to reveal his thoughts to so the audience can hear them.

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