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Hamlet and Horatio in the Churchyard

Shakespeare’s Humbled Scholar

May 25, 2023


Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

—Ecclesiastes 1:2

Mysticism keeps men sane.

— G.K. Chesterton

High upon the castle’s tower, the night air was chilled, and Elsinore’s stones, wet with the thick fog’s condensate, offered no comfort. About to change guard, two sentinels, Bernardo and Francisco, stamped their feet and, uncharacteristic of their soldier’s mettle, peered anxiously over one another’s shoulders into the midnight murk. Bernardo’s memory still haunted him.

What was that Thing he had seen! A ghost? A demon? A goblin from hell? 

He shuddered.

And then Horatio came. 

Accompanied by Marcellus, another guard who likewise had witnessed the apparition, Horatio was a friend of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. A known figure—a university man with a solid mind—the guards sought out Horatio hoping he could, perhaps, make sense of the nonsensical. 

But Horatio had already passed judgment on the story Marcellus had unfolded to him.

Marcellus: Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us.
Therefore I have entreated him along,
With us to watch the minutes of this night,
That, if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.

Horatio: Tush, tush, ’twill not appear.

Bernardo. Sit down awhile,
And let us once again assail your ears,
That are so fortified against our story,
What we two nights have seen.

But before Bernardo could make progress with his dark rememberings, the ghost appeared. Tall, broad shouldered, and arrayed in the King’s battle gear, the threesome were paralyzed with fright.

Marcellus: Peace! break thee off! Look where it comes again!

Bernardo: In the same figure, like the King that’s dead.

Marcellus: Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.

And that is the line that struck me. 

Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.

Some have reasoned that it was Horatio’s facility with Latin that led the guards to think that he was the best to converse in the language of the dead. But this is probably a reach. Rather, it seems to me that the guards simply felt that, as a scholar, Horatio’s education must have prepared him (better than them) for this supernatural encounter. It is an instinct that confesses, “Look at the diploma on his wall, his fluency with language, his library filled with books. He is a smart one. Surely, he’ll know what to do!”


Now, don’t get me wrong. I like Horatio. He seems to be the one loyal friend without agenda (unlike Hamlet’s opportunistic friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) whom Hamlet trusts to the bitter end. After all, even as Hamlet dies with poison coursing through his veins, he entrusts his story to dear Horatio:

Hamlet: If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

That said, though Horatio doesn’t flaunt it, he exudes the slightest whiff of superiority in rank, station, and education. He embodies a bit of the haughty rational in the midst of the supremely irrational circumstance in which Hamlet finds himself. Shakespeare likes to needle (and, in so doing, humble) the intellectual in his plays. The Bard playfully jostles the foundations of the meritocratic house of cards. Akin to William F. Buckley’s quip preferring to entrust our government to the inhabitants of the Boston phone book before entrusting it to the faculty of Harvard, Shakespeare reminds us that books and degrees don’t hold all of the answers. Not infrequently in life, the natural is upended by the supernatural. Order is displaced by disorder. Logic is conquered by emotion. The smart seem stymied. The sure take pause. This isn’t to say that intellect is not important, but that it is not all. Polonius, the King’s Lord Chamberlain, is equipped with endless adages and ready saws, but his actual navigation of life (from misreading Hamlet’s motivations to using his daughter as bait for danger) is abominable. “God chose the foolish things of this world,” St. Paul tells us, “to put the wise to shame. He chose the weak things of this world to put the powerful to shame” (1 Cor. 1:27). After all, it is not for nothing that, time and again, jesters, charlatans, and madmen serve as founts of wisdom in Shakespeare’s masterpieces. 

In The Choruses from “The Rock,” T.S. Eliot asks, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge.” And G.K. Chesterton observes, “The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.” 

Trembling before the ghost that upends Horatio’s sense of the world, Bernardo scoffs, “How now, Horatio? You tremble and look pale. / Is not this something more than fantasy?” Later, when he encounters the ghost a second time, but this time in the presence of Prince Hamlet, Horatio exclaims:

Horatio: Oh, day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

Hamlet: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. 
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

“Give it welcome,” dear Horatio. Don’t just think (to borrow from Ludwig Wittgenstein), but look! Horatio, to be sure, was a good man and a faithful friend to Hamlet. But wisdom, Horatio would learn through the dark happenings at Elsinore Castle, is intelligence purified through humility and wonder before the unknowable, the unpredictable, and the ineffable.

In the final scene of the tragedy of Hamlet, the Norwegian Prince (and warrior) Fortinbras arrived at the body-strewn scene at Elsinore Castle. Encountering a shocked and mourning Horatio, he whispers, “This quarry cries on havoc.” Horatio, a changed man, would testify to the mysterious inextricability of the sensible and the nonsensical.

Horatio: Give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view,
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. All this can I
Truly deliver.

Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.

And so he did. 

Humbled, chastened, and wise in the end.