Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship is a cornerstone of Hamlet. From Hamlet’s joy when he first sees his friend returned from Wittenberg to Horatio’s tearrs as he bids his friend “Goodnight, sweet prince”, these two act as a constant and reliable force where all else in the play is falling about them.
Hamlet’s joy at his friend being at Elsinore once more does not come across as entirely apparent, offering only a general “I am glad to see you well”, before realising it is his friend before him: “Horatio, or I do forget myself”, followed by the insistence of Horatio being “his good friend”, not servant (as Horatio refers to himself). While their friendship may be no more explicitly spoken than that in the text, the level of confidance the two share is clear when Hamlet scoffs “I prithee do not mock me, fellow student, / I think it was to see my mother’s wedding”. This is the most honest we see Hamlet speak of these events without being wrapped up in his own soliloquy, which intimates a friendship far closer than that with any of his false friends (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to name a few).
And it is with that weight of friendship that Horatio is able to speak to Hamlet of seeing his father’s Ghost. From anyone else, we might imagine Hamlet’s response to be different; not that he would not be willing to believe it, but that he may more readily believe it coming from Horatio, whom he trusts.
One aspect that is particularly interesting is how the different productions play Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship. In the RSC version, the holding of the hands shows an understanding of Hamlet’s grief that does not need words. This is why studying Shakespeare’s plays is so gloriously open – we are able to infer where Shakespeare leaves us little. The fact that Tennant’s Hamlet returns the gesture with a sad smile tells us all we need to know about this grieving prince and the loss that he feels.
By the time we reach the scene where Hamlet is getting his whole play-within-a-play on, Horatio has already been claimed as Hamlet’s closest friend: “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” (A3S2). It is also Horatio in whom Hamlet confides his performative nature, just before Claudius and the rest of the court walk in: “I must be idle. Get you a place.” It is Horatio again who has the confidence of the young prince to know when he speaks truly, and when he simply speaks the performative madness that is such a key element of his character in this play.
And my personal comedy highlight of the Tennant version is when Hamlet and Horatio deliberately ham it up in front of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, forever stuck between a rock and a hard place, to prove how false this pair are to Hamlet. Here, Hamlet invites Horatio to be part of his performance, showing a united front against all the deceitful faces he sees around him in Elsinore.
Now, while I know that the actions of Horatio here are entirely a directorial decision on the part of the RSC, I can’t help but feel it would be strange to not have Horatio hamming it up with his friend. You know Hamlet is being performative; you know these are false friends come to speak to him. Therefore, you could quite understandably become a mirror, join in with Hamlet’s own behaviours against the world. It would be weirder if, as Hamlet’s closest friend, you didn’t do anything, as your friend pretends as if he’s mad. Much more fun to mock Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with some quality tunes on the recorder!
And before long we are at the emotional ruination that is Act 5 Scene 2. (For the purposes of this blog post, I’m skipping the whole random pirate sub-plot and Ophelia’s death. More on that to come.) The place where “cracks a noble heart”. Horatio must manage his friend’s untimely death; he must explain to Fortinbras what has happened; he must continue his best friend’s legacy even though he has died but moments before.
This is why Horatio is my favourite character in this play (save Hamlet, of course). This is why he deserves all the praise and love and strength. Because actually, while Hamlet has a tragic story – he is, after all, the title character – Horatio’s is perhaps worse in that he survives. He cannot escape events by death, despite his best attempts: “Here’s yet some liquor left”, as Hamlet refuses to let him follow his fated path: “By heaven I’ll ha’it!”. There is a reason Horatio is sobbing at the end, his best friend dying in his arms. This is the crux of the play, the reason that their friendship is, for me, the relationship that holds the play together. And I know, most of the relationships in the play are awful. But those broken relationships could still hold the play together and personally, not one of them holds a candle to Hamlet and Horatio’s friendship.
So good luck. Go forth. Watch the RSC adaptation again. And, if you fancy, follow me over on tumblr where I cathart my Hamlet and Horatio feels on a far more regular basis.