Trust and Betrayal. The Motive of Friendship in Hamlet

Pre-University Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 14



1 Introduction

2 Shakespeare’s Sources

3 Elizabethan Friendship

4 The Motive of Friendship in Hamlet
4.1 Hamlet’s Trust in Horatio
4.2 Horatio’s Qualities as a Friend
4.3 Equality in Hamlet’s and Horatio’s Friendship
4.4 Hamlet, Horatio and the Ghost
4.5 Hamlet’s and Horatio’s Mentality
4.6 Rosencrantz’ and Guildenstern’s Betrayal

5 Conclusion

6 Bibliography
6.1 Primary Sources
6.2 Secondary Sources
6.3 Webliography
6.4 Illustration Directory

7 Appendix

1 Introduction

A son revenges the murder of his father. This is the briefest description of the plot ofHamlet, one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays. However, the tragedy explores many more ideas than just revenge, including death, love, family, politics, deception, the meaning of life, the impossibility of certainty, the complexity of action, the abilities of drama, misogyny, madness, religion, competing worldviews, loyalty, sex, gender and friendship. Even though friendship is one of the most important parts of everyone’s life, it is often forgotten about when summing up one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. The theme of friendship, with the exception ofTimon of Athens, often seems to be secondary. The first associations withRomeo and Julietare forbidden love and tragic death, withMacbeththey are madness and ambition, withOthellothey are love and prejudices, and withHamletthey are revenge, madness and lies.

However, the theme of friendship must have been somehow essential to William Shakespeare, since he completely invented a friend not only for dramatic purposes but also for moral support for his tragic hero. The origin of the characters Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their roles in the playHamletwill be examined later. Furthermore, this paper aims to put the often-forgotten motive of friendship inHamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play and one of the most powerful and influential works of world literature, in the spotlight. It will give an overview of the Elizabethan understanding of friendship, portray Horatio’s and Hamlet’s friendship, examine the possible reasons for Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s betrayal – both are former friends of Hamlet - and answer the question how similar these friendships are to modern ones.

2 Shakespeare’s Sources

Like most dramatists of his time, Shakespeare did not invent the main plots of his plays but instead adapted them. The story ofHamletderives from the legend of Amleth, preserved by Saxo Grammaticus inAmlethusand retold by François de Belleforest inXVII Histoires Tragiques. Shakespeare may also have used a now lost earlier Elizabethan play known asThe Ur-Hamletby Thomas Kyd.

In Saxo Grammaticus’Amlethus, the character closest to Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend, can be found.A ‘milk brother’ of Amleth (21) appears as his warner and adviser, e.g. when, by seduction by a woman, Amleth is to be tested whether he is crazy or pretends to be (19ff). Since the milk brother’s strange warning, to attach chaff to the tail of a horsefly that flies to Amleth (25), was invented because of an Old Norse pun that Saxo could not recognise anymore (4), it cannot be used for concluding about his character. Since he is mentioned only on this occasion, he does not gain a firm shape, although a certain personal relationship with Amleth is implied. In the Saxo-dependent Hamlet story of theXVII Histoires Tragiquesby Belleforest, this ‘milk brother’ remains even paler and less substantial than inAmlethusand it is unknown if Thomas Kyd’s lost play known asThe Ur-Hamletfeatured a friend of Hamlet. However, in hisSpanish Tragedy, a friend of Andrea called ‘Horatio’ can be found. Considering the way Thomas Kyd portrays their friendship, it becomes clear that Shakespeare only took over the name. Kyd makes Horatio fall in love with Bel-Imperia (see II.2), Andrea’s lover, making every kind of friendship between Horatio and Andrea impossible. It is obvious that Shakespeare found only a little inspiration for his Horatio these sources and, inspired by Orestes and Pylades, made him into an intellectual and moral companion with whom Hamlet can share secrets and discuss philosophy. For Herbert Burre, Horatio is Hamlet’s “mirror of normality” (see 37), for G. F. Bradby, on the other hand, Horatio has “no very marked individuality” (15), and for John Dover Wilson he is “a piece of dramatic structure” (235). However, only because he “give[s] the audience necessary information about the political situation in Denmark” (235) and “is the recipient of information even more necessary for the audience to hear” (235), it does not mean that he can merely be reduced to a structure. Maybe Bradby and Wilson came to those conclusions because Horatio has relatively low speaking shares. With only 265 spoken lines1, he does not appear very impactful. However, what Horatio does and says is essential and the detailed account of his friendship with Hamlet shows that Horatio is not merely a scheme, but a genuine Shakespearean figure.

For the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, an initial version can be found inAmlethusand theXVII Histoires Tragiques. Saxo describes them in a similar way to Belleforest as two followers of Fenge who accompany Amlethus on the journey to England carrying a message ordering the King of England to kill the boy sent to him (see 35). Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they die because Amlethus finds the message and exchanges his name for those of his escorts (see 35). However, Shakespeare fully developed their characters. The two escorts now have Danish aristocratic sixteenth-century names (“Rosenkrantz”, “Gyldenstierne”), a detailed history of their prior friendship with Hamlet, ambitions to serve the new King and the task to bring, due to their duality (see Metzler 42), comic relief to the audience. As a result, the play features more contrasts, parallels and interactions of related plot lines than in Shakespeare's sources.

3 Elizabethan Friendship

Since Hamlet is a play written by an Elizabethan for Elizabethans, one has to consider their ideas of friendship before trying to understand how Shakespeare processed this topic in the play. Will Tosh explains in his article Shakespeare and friendship that Shakespeare used the term ‘friend’ as it is used nowadays when meaning a familiar companion, but also when meaning other kinds of relations, e.g. family members, lovers or neighbours. In the broadest sense, a friend was “one’s fellow subject”. In contrast to this equivocal definition, friendship was seen as something “very much deeper and more significant” than it is today. As Tosh writes: “For some, friendship was a preciously rare union of profound emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical intensity, experienced by a lucky few and impossible to resist”. Friendship being described with such an intensity and vocabulary, which would nowadays be associated with romantic or sexual love, causes a blurring of lines. Some same-sex friendships were intense but platonic, for others the intimacy of same-sex friendship provided a context within which homosexual desire could be explored and expressed, especially in a period when same-sex sexual relationships were disapproved. However, since the latter were concealed, friendship was raised above marriage in people’s minds being free of “the sin of sexuality”. According to Michel de Montaigne, a philosopher of the French Renaissance, the friends’ “souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that they efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found” (9) in the perfect kind of friendship. Then, “each gives himself so entirely to his friend that he has nothing left to share with another” (15). The Roman politician and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero uses in On Living and Dying Well similar metaphors when praising a friend as “another self” (100) and the process of becoming friends as “several souls becom[ing] … one” (104).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Illustration 1: George Wither’s emblem for friendship

Many male writers, e.g. Montaigne and Aristotle, held the male friendship particularly in high esteem, assuming only men were capable of resisting the powerful emotions of friendship (Montaigne 7). Aristotle believed that the perfect friendship could only exist “between good men” (206) and Will Tosh states that even treatises defined friendship “as something that only existed in its ideal form between men of similar intellect, moral courage and ethical firmness”. He sees this misogynistic sense portrayed in George Wither’s emblem for friendship. It shows a pair of clasped hands holding a crowned and flaming heart, circled with linked rings. The Latin words ‘bona fide’ around the engraving mean ‘with good faith’. Although Tosh states the illustration shows “two male hands”, he gives no proof or an explanation why he came to that conclusion. The verses above and below the engraving never mention any gender, but describe friendship as a ‘true-love’ of dependability, mutuality and generosity existing in the time of need. However, Tosh has a point when referring to the Elizabethan education as a reason for the misogyny. Since all of the examples of ideal friends, e.g. Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Pythias, David and Jonathan, Elizabethans were taught to admire, were men.

4 The Motive of Friendship in Hamlet

4.1 Hamlet’s Trust in Horatio

Hamlet, like anybody belonging to a royal family or having a position of extraordinary wealth or power, is facing the problem of having to sort out who is a true friend and who is a flatterer. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet shows his distrust in Horatio and Marcellus fearing they will reveal his secret. After Horatio and Marcellus both swore by heaven they would not, he starts telling them. However, Hamlet interrupts himself and finishes the sentence other than he probably first intended to, with ‘like King Claudius’ and keeps quiet about what the ghost told him.


-There’s never a villain dwelling in all Denmark -
-But he’s an arrant knave. (I.5.123-124)2

According to Wilson, Hamlet already knows he can trust Horatio and wants to tell him all, but first, he has to make sure that the other witness, Marcellus, keeps quiet (Wilson 78f). Horatio’s words show that Hamlet’s behaviour hurts him (I.5.133-135). Since Hamlet does not want to offend the only friend he has, he “takes him aside to tell him something of the truth” (Wilson 79, I.5.136-138). He nearly reveals the secret to Horatio, but when realising Marcellus is still present, he breaks off and instead goes back to addressing them both (I.5.139-141).

Another interpretation would be that Hamlet does precisely what one should do according to Cicero: “judge before loving, not love before judging” (101). Aristotle had a similar view on this topic stating that friends “need time and intimacy” (206) to get to know each other. According to him, a man could not “accept another, or the two become friends, until each has proved to the other that he is worthy of love and so has won his trust” (206). Hamlet gets this proof when Horatio helps him determine the guilt of the King (III.2.88-99). Horatio has the important task of observing Claudius’ reactions during the play within the play, being Hamlet’s accomplice, his second pair of eyes and of seeing everything Hamlet misses.

In IV.6 Hamlet addresses himself in his letter to Horatio as “he that thou knowest thine” (IV.6.30) showing his devotion towards Horatio. However, he does not tell his friend about the conversation with the ghost until V.2. Here, the prince finally tells Horatio the secret (V.2.64-67) he has kept from him for such a long time. Hamlet has difficulty with not knowing whom to trust and whom to ask for advice: Ophelia returned his love letters, the relationship is over. Furthermore, he is disgusted by his mother’s behaviour, he is distressed about his father having been murdered by his uncle, he sees himself surrounded by political corruption, intrigue, and betrayal by his former close friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and he does not know what he is supposed to do about it. But in Horatio he finds a good friend who is the only one on whom he can rely wholeheartedly.


1Of the male protagonists, only Laertes has less spoken lines.

2All following quotes provided with this kind of parenthetical citation refer to the playHamlet.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Trust and Betrayal. The Motive of Friendship in Hamlet
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Friendship
Quote paper
Paulina Pietsch (Author), 2018, Trust and Betrayal. The Motive of Friendship in Hamlet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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