Sunday, June 08, 2008


Not so much to be loved, as to love.

In terms of Hamlet’s minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may have been boosted on to centre stage by Stoppard, but it’s the almost invisible Horatio who is the moral and metaphysical centre of the play. Horatio’s simultaneous presence and absence is representative of his solidity, his groundedness, he need not call attention to himself. A part of Horatio’s invisibility resides in his pure outwardness, as opposed to Hamlet’s conspicuous inwardness, his “thinking too scrupulously on the event”. Despite claims to the contrary (ie Bloom) the real prodigy of consciousness, the exemplary figure, is Horatio, who stands in the same relation to Hamlet as Hamlet does to the other characters within the play. It’s Horatio who grounds the audience’s sympathy and credulity, standing as an intermediary figure between Hamlet’s inner world and the audience’s faith. The play’s integrity is guaranteed by Horatio. While we focus on Hamlet’s struggle we forget Horatio completely and yet the entire play is predicated on our belief in him. Linking us and also existing beyond us in an act of benign displacement, both the audience and Hamlet himself depend on Horatio.

The only major character to survive from the first to the last scene, Horatio’s “attitude” is not simply stoicism, it’s not that he is good at suffering uncomplainingly, anchored above all to his duty, but that having passed through an excess of suffering he has been annealed to the restless, unreconciled oscillations of Hamlet’s soul, a man who “having suffered all, suffers nothing”. This is not deadness, an inability to feel, think or act, the “beastliness” against which Hamlet rails: “What is a man/If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed?/ A beast, no more”. Nor has it resulted in bitterness. Horatio is on the other side of a barrier that Hamlet, too gripped by the death drive, can not pass through. He may finally, Romantically, reconcile himself to death ( “the readiness is all”) but can not reconcile himself to life as Horatio has. Hamlet may seem to plumb greater depths than Horatio, may be more attuned to Steven’s “ ghostlier demarcation, keener sounds,” and indeed Horatio observes of the ghost, “This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him”, but understanding such a fact is essentially a part of Horatio’s encompassing of Hamlet and the audience. It’s Horatio’s own humility, his outwardness, his capacity to defer, his understanding of his own simultaneous centrality and contingency in the web of relations that make up the play’s world (and which make up the world) that makes him exemplary. It’s this understanding that provides the fulcrum on which the play turns on both a narrative (Horatio brings Hamlet to the ghost) and diegetic level (without Horatio as his guarantor Hamlet is simply a madman to the spectators’ eyes ).


Horatio’s reconciliation to life allows him to be an actor in all the ways that Hamlet’s reconciliation to death does not. What it does not allow him is the possibility of assuming a tragic role, but Horatio has already passed beyond these trivial satisfactions. Hamlet’s problem is not that he has been decentered, it’s that he hasn’t been decentered enough, he has been shunted to one side within himself but has yet to travel to and breach the limits of that self in the way that Horatio has. Horatio’s blandness, often appearing to be little more than a sounding board for Hamlet's observations nevertheless give way to the famous speech in praise of his classical virtues:

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,
And could of men distinguish her election,
Hath seal'd thee for herself, for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee


Horatio watches over Hamlet, as he does the audience, and his constant reassurances and assents are designed as much to quiet the fighting around Hamlet’s heart, as they are to draw out further expressions and abreactions of that battle. When we consider Hamlet, rather than lionizing the Prince’s depth, his despair, the tragic grandeur of the cardinal insights of a mind too powerful to prevent its own destruction we should instead view it as Horatio views it, he is our proxy (and we his), as the inability of a self to surpass its limits, a self that hovers at the edge of destitution, the true undiscovered country at its feet and then, lacking the force to go on, slides back into suicide. If Horatio is empty in a sense that Hamlet is not, it is simply because he has surpassed lack through agency.


The joy I’ve named, shall not be tamed.

Milan Kundera created a famous if slightly trite distinction between two types of laughter in his novel The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting: the laughter of Angels and the laughter of Devils. The first is a kind of revelling in the sheer wonder of existence, an upsurge or irruption of delight; his example is two lovers racing giddily across a sunlit field. It’s laughter that comes perhaps from a moment of ontological alignment: everything is eclipsed by the fundamental exultation of being. It’s easy to relate this to children’s sheer thrill at their own mysterious embodiedness, the dizzying, seemingly endless supply of energy, the necessary expulsion of which is experienced as delight rather than a labour. Children, for all kinds of chemical and neurological reasons have a superabundance of such energy, adults only rarely experience this kind of joy, and when they do it’s a largely more muted affair, relegated often to an experience of “the sublime.”
Children are also comparatively unencumbered by the social, which is the domain of the laughter of devils, archly ironic it’s the moment at which human hubris and the pretensions of the social order are exposed and the truth of contingency brought into sharp relief, the example here is a hat blowing off a mourner’s head and onto a coffin at a funeral. This is a gleeful, mocking laughter, a laughter that in some ways stands as a repudiation to the incursion of the social into the laughter of angels. This laughter has two orientations, whereas the laughter of angels has, necessarily, just one (or none). It’s inevitably self-directed but a fundamental distinction in ethical quality rests on the acknowledgement of that fact. If the laughter includes the one who laughs as its object, it’s generous, no matter how harsh, recognizing a universal dimension to experience, if not it’s truly devilish, tyrannical, directed at the others, a delight in the mistaken belief in one’s own exemption.


I’m the only one left alive.

If there is a truly fitting figure for the Last Man, the apotheosis of history, the final and highest expression of the possibility of humankind, it’s Dante’s vision of Tiresias in hell. In a life which extended over several natural lifetimes, Tiresius, who has been both man and woman and granted the gift of foresight, is punished by having his head twisted round on his body 180 degrees, condemning him always to regard the past. Tiresius, who in Eliot’s use of him is a kind of meta-archetype in whom all possible human experience has aggregated (and who, in an echo of Horatio, has “foresuffered all”) has been punished by being denied any vision of the future.

All you have now is the past. Generations born looking backwards. And for the man who still perceives the flickering outline of a future, the horror of watching Tiresias stumble round his circuit scooping up souls, with no option but to wait until his vision has dimmed sufficiently for Tiresias to claim him.

1 comment:

emmy hennings said...

Beautiful post, Carl. I agree with you wholeheartedly on Horatio. Back in 1994, as a thirteen year old, I was lucky enough to see an extraordinary production of Hamlet here in Sydney, which made explicit your observations that "both the audience and Hamlet himself depend on Horatio". It was a production at the Belvoir St Theatre directed by Neil Armfield, with a phalanx of Australian actors who've since gone on to various levels of fame in cinema, but who at that time were working in an actors ensemble called Company B. Richard Roxburgh was Hamlet, and Geoffrey Rush was Horatio - a Horatio who remained quietly onstage, or just off, watching from the audience stalls, for almost the entire duration of the play. He hovered, I wouldn't say as an angel, but nevertheless as a figure who had indeed moved beyond those thousand natural shocks. And yet he was still very human, and when he held the dying Hamlet in his arms at the play's end it was extremely moving. You got the sense that it was the one relationship in the play where love remained unpoisoned. Watching that play had a huge impact on me, it was one of the first pieces of theatre I ever saw. Little did I know as a young teenager that it would go down in Australian theatre history as a "landmark" production. I just knew at the time that it was entirely magical and deeply disturbing, an open doorway onto another world.