Horatio is Hamlet's fellow university student, and his best friend.
Horatio is young, Hamlet's age (16.) As praised by Hamlet, Horatio has good judgment, mingled with good intuition. He's a good scholar, judging by his speeches in the dialogue. When he speaks in Scene 1 about the possible reason for the military buildup in Denmark, he dots all the I's and crosses all the T's, as one would expect a thorough university scholar to do. Scene 1, the lines beginning at 089.
In social class he's a gentleman, and is correctly addressed as "sir." At the Royal Court his status is that of the Prince's friend; he has no Court status in his own right.
Hamlet speaks of Horatio as "poor" but that isn't to be taken literally. Hamlet is, to a considerable extent, expressing his own feelings when he says that (as Hamlet is so much inclined to do.) Horatio is an international university student, which was a rarity in those days, and it costs money. Horatio may not be from a wealthy aristocratic family, but he can't be outright destitute. We would probably call his family upper middle class. He's "poor" in relative terms, as compared to the vast wealth of the high aristocracy.
- Costume note - By the above, it isn't correct to costume the Horatio actor as a hobo. In modern terms, it would be "polo shirt and khakis," perhaps, or "sport coat and slacks" for him. In period costume, his garb should not be fancy, but of a good appearance.
The indications are, Horatio is bigger than average, and strong. He's the kind of fellow one would not like to fight. That's implied by Hamlet's line 172 in Scene 2, for one. Hamlet's line does imply he would defend Horatio, but can also be read to imply Horatio can do an excellent job of defending himself.
Further, Horatio's acquaintance with the sentinels, as we see in Scene 1, follows directly if Horatio is a big, strong "military" type fellow to whom the sentinels can easily relate. Then, there are the events at the Fencing Match in the last Scene. Hamlet will wound King Claudius with the fencing foil. If Claudius's bodyguards are there, somebody is going to have to stop them, or they will attack Hamlet. (And the bodyguards, the "Swissers," should be there, because Claudius will be paranoid about Hamlet so close to him with a sword in his hand, even if Hamlet's sword is supposed to be bated.) The one who's present to deal with the guards is Horatio. Overall, it combines to imply casting Horatio as taller than average, and strong looking.
In background, this can also explain the origin of Hamlet's friendship with Horatio. We see how Hamlet idolizes his father, who was undoubtedly a big, strong man. Encountering Horatio at the university, as a big, strong fellow, Hamlet would have seen a type like his father, which could have led Hamlet to speak to Horatio initially, which then led to their close friendship. The point being, this casting of Horatio not only works for what the play says, but for background as well. One can never know exactly what Shakespeare had in mind for an ideal Horatio actor, but the consistency of all that is interesting, in pointing toward Horatio as the big, strong type.
In sum, it makes Horatio an unusually judicious young man, a good scholar, middle or upper middle class, and tall and strong: a nearly ideal best friend.
Now, none of this should be taken to imply Horatio is a "perfect person." He is certainly not that. He is capable of mistakes, like everyone else, even serious mistakes. Again like everyone else, his knowledge of events is based on what he sees and hears, as best he can understand.
The name "Horatio" is an historical one, from Roman times. It derives from 'Horatius,' the name of a Roman gens (a Roman paternal clan.) The name 'Horace' is a variant.
"Horatio" is the name, as English speakers know it, of a famous defender of ancient Rome, Publius Horatius Cocles (the Horatio in the legend of "Horatio at the Bridge,") so the name suggests someone who is a staunch ally and defender, which well suits the Horatio character's loyalty to Hamlet. In that way, Shakespeare's use of the name implies strong loyalty. Indeed Horatio is loyal; so much so that in the final Scene, with Hamlet dying, Horatio wants to die, himself, "like an ancient Roman," to paraphrase what he says. That incident in the play is powerful in suggesting Shakespeare was influenced by Roman history to use the name. (References to the Shakespeare play Julius Caesar are explicit in the Hamlet dialogue.)
Further, since 'Horace' is a variant of "Horatio," the use of the name might include acknowledgement of the Roman writer Horace, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, who lived from 65 - 8 BC. The "Satires of Horace" contain significant mentions of, and discussion of, madness. Horace's "Satires," Second Book, Satire III, is especially notable on the subject of madness, in relation to Hamlet. Satire III includes mentions of "pale," luxury, ambition, "fishmonger," "harlot," mice, beard, mantle, sword, folly, fool, madman, distemper, and more, all of which words or ideas appear explicitly in Hamlet. Horace's Satire III is a "proof" that most men are mad. During Shakespeare's lifetime there were translations of Horace done by both Queen Elizabeth I, and Ben Jonson (among others.) It made Horace topical. Thus, it's reasonable to suppose that the character name "Horatio" includes a nod towards Horace.
Shakespeare may have used the character name Horatio because of a combination of classical Roman influences: both the warrior Horatio, and the writer Horace. It further implies that Shakespeare was not dependent on any earlier play for the name Horatio.
Significant lines spoken by Horatio:
- Scene 1#072 He smote the sleaded pollax on the ice. - This line is significant mostly because of the mental contortions Hamlet editors and commentators have gone through in trying to interpret it.
- Scene 1#122 A moth it is to trouble the mind's eye; - This line is significant because it is always misinterpreted, and misprinted with the word "mote." The correct word is the one printed in the Second Quarto, which is moth, as shown.
- Scene 4#096 He waxes desperate with imagion. - The significance of the word imagion has been universally overlooked. It is the correct word in the play, and is a Shakespeare coinage.
Themes and Motifs
Those most immediately pertinent to Horatio:
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