Hamlet Analysis: Horatio’s role in the play


Hamlet addresses Horatio as ‘Damon’ after Claudius interrupts the Mousetrap Play. Damon refers to the Greek mythological legend of Damon and Pythias who symbolise the Greek ideal of friendship. In the image above, William Worthington plays Damon in the 1914 silent film about Damon and Pythias. See an annotated analysis of Hamlet’s Mousetrap Play here.

Horatio appears as though he is a minor character but Hamlet’s old school friend from Wittenberg plays a much more significant role than it first appears. Throughout the play, Horatio acts as Hamlet’s witness, judge, and speaker.

Horatio is the first character to witness the ghost of Old Hamlet and relate his appearance to Hamlet. Before the staging of his mousetrap play, the prince instructs Horatio to judge Claudius’ reaction. As Hamlet lies dying, he tells Horatio to “report me and my cause aright/To the unsatisfied”. Hamlet’s trust in Horatio is unusual in the context of a play full of deceptive characters. Hamlet himself is one.

Along with being a reliable witness, judge, and speaker for Hamlet, Horatio is characterised as a cool-headed scholar. Marcellus urges him to speak to the ghost (“thou art a scholar, Horatio, speak to it”). Horatio’s skepticism of the ghost’s demands (“but this is wondrous strange!”), contrasts with Hamlet’s recognition of the human condition of doubt and uncertainty (“there are more things on heaven and earth Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”). From both Marcellus and Hamlet’s affirmations of Horatio’s intellectual and moral credentials, we gain an impression of 16th century notions of the scholar, and also of the Renaissance European’s recognition of the boundaries of knowledge.

Horatio is an important character from a dramatic point of view. He appears in the play as an anchor, a figure of consistency and stability, while the other characters move about in various shifting guises: the prince is mad but not mad, Polonius is a two-faced loyal advisor, Claudius has murdered his brother for the throne, and Gertrude may have been his accomplice.

What do you think Horatio’s role in the play is from a dramatic point of view? In other words, how does the character drive the play’s plot forward?