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As part of the denouement in several of Shakespeare's plays a character will be called upon to reflect or comment on the events the audience has just seen represented or reported on stage. Sometimes the character is a Chorus external to the action (as in Henry V and Pericles), sometimes one of the characters in the play (Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Horatio in Hamlet, Alcibiades in Timon of Athens, the Friar in Romeo and Juliet) or even the main character (as in Othello). There are several instances of retrospective summary: in Pericles, Gower moralizes the events we have just witnessed; in Romeo and Juliet, the Friar takes it upon himself to explain how the deaths of Romeo, Juliet and Paris came about; in the case of Othello, the protagonist seeks to extenuate his treatment of Desdemona. Each of these three synopses produces (partly because of the unavoidable brevity and abridgment, partly because of other factors like lack of objectivity) a constrained and even "strained" relationship between narrator and narration. Despite recent enquiries into the narratological aspects of Hamlet, (1) it is not universally recognized that Horatio's "choric" account (V. ii. 374-388) of events preceding Hamlet's death is also problematic. I propose to examine Horatio's summary in its immediate context in order to show how it sets into sharp relief Horatio's dual but incompatible role as dramatic character-cum-apologist on one hand and narrator-cum-commentator on the other. (2)
Whether or not Ophelia is right in calling Hamlet "as good as a chorus" (III. ii. 249), I doubt that the same claim can be made for Horatio. As critics pointed out long ago, Horatio's narrative status is anomalous from the beginning of the play. (3) For example, he initially dismisses the sentinels' sightings of the ghost as credulous "fantasy" (I. i. 23), but less than a hundred lines later he reports as a matter of historical fact that ghosts walked after Caesar's death; he also cites, in a spirit of unquestioning acceptance, the folk belief that, at cock-crow, "th'extravagant and erring spirit" returns to its "confine" (I. i. 154-155), the truth of which he sees confirmed by the disappearance of the ghost. Although he has apparently just returned to Elsinore from Wittenberg to attend King Hamlet's funeral, he knows more about the reasons for Denmark's frantic preparations for war than do the resident soldiers Barnardo and Marcellus; on the other hand, he appears ignorant about the Danish custom of heavy drinking, on which Hamlet expatiates at some length. But his inconsistent role as semi-qualified expositor changes once he meets Hamlet (the two somehow not having managed to meet during nearly two months at Elsinore). He now becomes Hamlet's confidant, (4) embarking on a career of patient listening--most of his speeches consist of one line or less. "From beginning to end," according to Thomas Kettle, Horatio is "a wandering ineptitude who has never a single suggestion, and whose speech consists mainly of 'Ay, my Lords,' 'That is most certain,' 'Is it possible,' and other helpful phrases." (5)
A major problem concerning Horatio is the extent of the knowledge he possesses or can be assumed to possess. In speaking to Horatio before the play-scene Hamlet indicates that he has told him something about "the circumstance / ... of my father's death" (III. ii. 76-77), but exactly when and how much is neither revealed nor implied. We, the theater audience, know that the ghost has commanded Hamlet to avenge his death (presumably by killing Claudius, though he does not say so in so many words), but it is important to keep in mind that Hamlet has not told him (unless off-stage) about his father's command: very late in the play (V. ii. 53-70) Hamlet offers Horatio several justifications for killing Claudius (V. ii. 63-70), including the conviction that Claudius killed his father, but, oddly, his father's injunction is not mentioned as a supplementary or compelling motive. In any case, justifying revenge is not the same as intending to revenge (and at no point does Hamlet ever communicate to Horatio any specific plan to kill his uncle, since no such plan has been devised by him). Privy to Hamlet's plan to test Claudius by a performance of "The Murder of Gonzago," Horatio is asked for, and promises, his collaboration as attentive observer, and we learn later, by means of Claudius's confessional soliloquy, what Hamlet and Horatio are limited to inferring from the king's reaction in the play-scene, that Claudius is guilty of fratricide. While Hamlet is excitedly, though perhaps illogically, persuaded of the king's guilt, Horatio's response is reticent, almost non-committal, almost as if he does not dare offer a more cautious, skeptical reading. His remark, "Half a share," seems to Graham Bradshaw "an embarrassed joke, prevaricating over the fact that what he has seen has not been enough to convince him of Claudius's guilt." (6)
Though absent for much of the play, and often conspicuously silent when he is on stage, Horatio is, of course, present during the fencing-scene. After Gertrude, Claudius and Laertes have, in turn, met their deaths, the dying Hamlet turns to the assembled court ("mutes or audience to this act") with the words "O, I could tell you--," but breaks off, conceivably from pain and weakness, from telling his own story. Howard Felperin sees an epistemological factor operating here, as Hamlet fluctuates "between a last-gasp impulse to shape and tell his story--'O, I could tell you!'--and his equal and opposite impulse to repudiate self-mythologization altogether and return his play to the status of the most inexplicable dumb-show of all--'The rest is silence."" (7) …