The Dramatic Function of Horatio

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BJU Classic Players 2016 production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, directed by Dr. Paul Radford, concludes on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Photo by Hal Cook

Critics of Hamlet sort roughly into two classes: those who believe there is something rotten in the state of Denmark and those who think there is something perverse in the state of Hamlet. Two tendencies account for the second point of view.

  1. Sociology has fostered a suspicion of the extraordinarily gifted person as eccentric. Today the average is generally taken as the norm.
  2. A discomfort with moral idealism, not so exclusively modern, causes the minds of interpreters to recoil from the moral disgust of the central figure to a more passive, pessimistic view of vice and crime.

Thus audiences and directors today, more than in the past, tend to find their norm in the court of Denmark rather than in the young man who believes himself chosen by heaven to be “their scourge and minister.” A mental and emotional bias has produced a concept of Hamlet as rather too uncompromising in his unwillingness to adjust to a society that is really not so bad after all. Against this predisposition Shakespeare erected a bulwark in the character Horatio.

Horatio is trustworthy.

In the first scene Shakespeare begins to implant in the minds of the audience the confidence that Horatio is a character whose judgment they, like Hamlet, can trust. His intelligent skepticism appears in his disbelief in ghosts—in that which is beyond the realm of his experience—but also in his willingness to make trial. A scrupulous regard for accuracy of detail is evident in his reporting of the phenomenon to Hamlet: it stayed “While one with moderate haste might tell a hundred,” he maintains against the objections of his companions (1.2.238).[1] The beard of the elder Hamlet’s ghost “was, as I have seen it in his life,/ A sable silvered” (1.2.241-2).

Horatio has integrity.

Also, Horatio is a young man of moral integrity. Hamlet will hear no slurs upon the character of Horatio, even from Horatio’s own lips respecting so excusable a vice as truancy.

I would not have your enemy say so,

Nor shall you do mine ear that violence

To make it truster of your own report

Against yourself. I know you are no truant.(1.2.170-3)

Before the play, when Horatio’s testimony will be an important corroboration of Hamlet’s own concerning the guilt of the King, Hamlet extols the virtues of his friend: his lack of worldly ambition and his self-possession under both external and internal stress. Indeed, moral as well as intellectual integrity is a necessary credential of any witness whose testimony is to pass as trustworthy.

As a duly accredited witness, Horatio testifies to several points:

  • The existence and apparent identity of the Ghost
  • The haste of the wedding: “Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon” (1.2.179)
  • The worthiness of Hamlet’s idol, the elder Hamlet: “I saw him once; he was a goodly king” (1.2.186)
  • The sanity of Hamlet: tacitly in their conversations before and after the play
  • The guilt of the King: “I did very well note him” (3.2.297-301)
  • The monstrous conduct of the King: “Why, what a king is this!” (5.2.62)
  • The nobility of Hamlet: “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” (5.2.370-1)

It remains for him to proclaim to the world the justness of Hamlet’s cause.

Shakespeare, expanding greatly on his source,[2] took pains to remove any possible doubt concerning whose side the onlooker ought to side with. Horatio is the audience’s as well as Hamlet’s companion. If we feel indisposed to walk with Hamlet, we can at least walk with Horatio. And Horatio will have led us back to Hamlet by the end.

[1]References to the text are from The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, edited by William Allen Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton, 1942).

[2]In Belleforest’s Histoire’s Tragiques there is mention only of a gentleman, brought up with Hamlet, who through loyalty to the young prince warns him by signs not to betray interest in the woman put in his way but to maintain his disguise of madness.


Dr. Ron Horton was a BJU faculty member for over 58 years. After serving as the chair of the Division of English for more than 30 years, Dr. Horton taught four upper-level philosophy courses.