365 Days of Shakespeare

That's right – the Bard in a year.

3. Horatio and the Ghost

with 2 comments

My boyfriend and I spent a long time last night discussing a production of Hamlet we would like to stage someday, in which I would play Horatio (my dream role, ever since I was little). One of the things we went into particular detail about was Horatio’s introduction and first interaction with the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Productions I have seen usually have Horatio struck with fear and wonder upon the very moment he sees the ghost, immediately believing what he sees and trusting his eyes. But is that really how most people would react at that moment?

The play begins with guards at their posts, changing out their shifts, in the middle of the night. Horatio enters with Marcellus, and they all greet each other in a friendly way. Marcellus has filled Horatio in, telling him that there is a ghsot that they have seen twice, but Horatio believes it is all in their heads – ” ’twill not appear.”

But it does appear. The ghost shows up and Horatio says that “it harrows me with fear and wonder.”

Now, what if Horatio is being a little sarcastic here? What if Horatio thinks this is all a big jest that his friends have cooked up, that they have created a ghost story and are not trying to trick him, just for fun? Horatio plays along, speaking to the ghost: “What art thou that usurp’st this time of night/Together with that fair and warlike form/In which the majesty of Denmark/Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!”

By the time Horatio gets to “by heaven I charge thee”, he realizes this might not be a joke after all. Everyone else seems genuinely terrified, and if they had wanted this to be a prank, wouldn’t the ghost be far less ghostly and far more chatty, eager to get a laugh at Horatio’s expense? The ghost is dressed in “the very armor he had on/When he the ambitious Norway combated” and remains grave and silent. It can’t be a prank – this must be for real. That’s when the fear finally kicks in.

I think mosty of us, encountering a ghost among friends, might have a similar reaction. “Oh, yeah, sure guys, yeah, there’s a ghost. Ooooh, spooky. Oh, sure, I’ll talk to it. Right…wait, it’s not talking to me…this isn’t funny…where is it going? How did it just disappear like that? And now I am officially scared.”

Having Horatio interact with the ghost in that way would help start the play on a somewhat lighter note, then have it immediately turn dark – like so many things within the script. Hamlet’s enthusiasm at greeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is soon darkened by their willing betrayal of him. His love affair with Ophelia is darkened by how she is used as a pawn by the other men of the court. The list goes on and on. Horatio perceiving the ghost as a joke and then having that assumption yanked out from under him would set the tone for the rest of the play, warning the audience that in this tragedy, the laughs are incredibly fleeting.

It also helps to set the tone for Horatio’s character. Calmer. More rational. A scholar, as others point out. We see that he will go along with his friends’ plans and follies, but will not dive in headfirst. He will first take the side that makes the most sense, and then feel out the situation as he goes. He’s a bit like Spock in that way, trusting logic first and the supernatural later. But he’s also loyal. He might think that his friends are either tricking him or are a bunch of overexcited, superstitious loons, but he’ll still show up in the middle of the freezing night to investigate this “ghost” they keep talking about.

That’s a pretty classy move, and that’s why he’s such a perfect friend for Hamlet. Maybe Hamlet’s plans aren’t what Horatio would use as his own course of action, but he’ll support his friend and do his best to help.

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Written by Caroline Mincks

October 3, 2009 at 3:57 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 Responses

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  1. I remember someone telling me of a production of Hamlet they saw that took place in an insane asylum… It all took place in the character’s minds. Sounded soooo cool!

    Mariah

    March 28, 2012 at 10:24 PM


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