Hamlet's trusted friend Horatio is a gentleman and a scholar, but he is
not of the nobility, since he appears to have no position at court except
in relation to the prince. Hamlet's much-quoted tribute to him before the
Play Scene ("Give me that man / That is not passion's slave")
points up the balanced nature of Horatio's personality, precisely the quality
Hamlet himself lacks. Of course, Horatio is also not forced to undergo any
experience as intense as those that Hamlet suffers through. In his moderation
of temperament, as in his intermediate rank, he represents the Renaissance
version of the ancient classical ideal, the man fortunate enough to live
without either excessive joy or suffering in his life. His vaguely Roman
name and his Roman-style attempt to join Hamlet in death at the end confirm
- ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN
Hamlet's two fellow students from Wittenberg are unmistakably members of
the Danish nobility, and noticeably frivolous students compared to the serious
Horatio. (The life Polonius fears Laertes may be leading in Paris probably
has some similarity to theirs in Wittenberg.) Their names, which mean "wreath
of roses" and "golden star," are authentic touches of local
color, since both belong to aristocratic Danish families still in existence
today. (Tradition, as usual unverifiable, says that two Danish nobles so
named actually were sent on a mission to England in the late sixteenth century.)
They are certainly courtiers skilled at politicking, and we learn enough
from their evasion at their first meeting with Hamlet to justify his being
suspicious of them. Whether they deserve to be put to death, however, is
debatable, since they can have no idea of the king's true motives in employing
them. On the other hand, the fact that they meddle in the business of kings
and princes without questioning motives is a comment on their lack of principle,
and Hamlet, in telling Horatio of their impending deaths, does not hesitate
to draw the moral (Act V, Scene ii, lines 62-68).
The prince of Norway is a conventional, correct, ambitious military man,
yet he is more an image in the play's structure than an individual personality.
Fortinbras' chief role is to remind you, in the sphere of politics and kingship,
of what Hamlet is not, just as Laertes does in the realm of family honor.
Fortinbras figures in the play three times: at the beginning, when Horatio
and, later, Claudius discuss his actions; in the middle, when Hamlet meets
his troops; and at the very end. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is the nephew of
a reigning king, who is physically weak as Hamlet's uncle is morally weak.
The throne of Norway being occupied, he seeks conquests elsewhere, never
questioning their value. When he assumes the throne, he reverses the military
victory that was the great triumph of King Hamlet's life. Fortinbras displays
his inability to understand Hamlet when he orders a military funeral for
him and declares that Hamlet would have made an excellent king. (He couldn't
possibly know this; in any case, it's not likely to be true, at least not
by Fortinbras' own standards.) In short, Fortinbras' soldierlike ability
to ignore the moral complexity of life is a sort of saving grace for him.
He is aptly summed up in his name, French for "strong-of-arm."
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