Lessons in Friendship from Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Hamlet, the protagonist of William Shakespeare's play of the same name, faces a colossal burden with respect to both the physical reality of his father's assassination by his uncle and the mental conflicts entailed in deliberating over an adequate response to this situation. Immersed in such a doubly tumultuous struggle, Hamlet searches for guidance and companionship in another individual. The foremost qualities that Hamlet seeks and finds in the person of Horatio are his clear and independent judgment, his loyalty to the interests and well-being of Hamlet, and, as Hamlet's death draws near, his role as the reliable transmitter of Hamlet's story and legacy. Hamlet's recognition of these attributes of Horatio enables him to maintain a sincere, profound friendship that becomes fortified with the passage of time. Unlike virtually everyone surrounding Hamlet in the royal court of Denmark, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, complete lackeys to the king, Polonius, who flatters Hamlet even for the latter's deliberately mad utterances, and Ophelia, who is easily swayed by her father and Claudius to serve in their ploy to spy on Hamlet, Horatio maintains a persistent autonomy of judgment, expressing his thoughts even when they conflict with Hamlet's, but always constructively. Horatio's willingness to question those of Hamlet's decisions that he considers rash is demonstrated when, upon the arrival of the ghost of Hamlet's father, he seeks to dissuade Hamlet from following it, stating, "What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord?/ Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff/.../And there assume some horrible form/ Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason..." (1.4.77-78,80-81).

Horatio's friendship with Hamlet extends sufficiently far that, in his genuine concern for Hamlet's safety, Horatio is willing to rebuke and point out the possible consequences of what he regards as Hamlet's rasher actions. Hamlet indeed recognizes the value, objectivity, and validity of Horatio's judgment when he calls him "as just a man/ As e'er my conversation coped withal" (3.2.56-57). Shortly after these words of praise, Hamlet selects none other than Horatio to observe Claudius's reactions to the performance before them and act as an independent party verifying the king's guilt in his predecessor's murder on the basis of his response. Indeed, Horatio's confirmation of Hamlet's suspicion is integral for Shakespeare to even convey the certainty of Claudius's guilt to the reader, who might have up to that point questioned the reliability of Hamlet's perceptions and personal conjectures on this subject. Even more importantly, Hamlet himself had beforehand doubted Claudius's culpability, stating, "The spirit I have seen/ May be a devil..." (2.2.627-8) and thereby questioning the validity of the accusation leveled against Claudius by the ghost of Hamlet's father.

However, once Horatio conducts his independent observations, which Hamlet knows to have been formed without an inclination to automatically favor the prince's interpretation, there is no longer any ambiguity in Hamlet's mind on this matter. As the play progresses, Horatio's judgments begin to assume even greater significance. Horatio attempts to dissuade Hamlet from accepting the king's offer for him to duel with Laertes, and perceptively informs the prince, "You will lose, my lord" (5.2.223). Horatio senses that Claudius has laid a trap for Hamlet and urges that the prince's mind overcome the rashness of his passions and rethink his rush into death, stating, "If your mind dislike anything, obey it" (5.2.231). Though Hamlet disobeys Horatio's advice, Shakespeare uses the very presence of these warnings to suggest that Horatio's voice of reason is an element immensely important and friendly to Hamlet's interests. Indeed, had Hamlet heeded Horatio's words of caution, he might have lived.

The purpose toward which Horatio uses his judgment, his staunch personal loyalty to Hamlet's...
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