The painter, Vincent Van Gogh, often remarked, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.” Similarly, in every powerful and influential literary work, the minor character plays an important role in the storytelling process. Shakespeare’s work, Hamlet, follows Prince Hamlet as he seeks revenge on his power-thirsty uncle, Claudius, for the murder of his father, King Hamlet.
While the play mainly focuses on Prince Hamlet, the minor characters serve important roles by moving the plot forward and developing the character of Hamlet through their interactions. Many authors, along with Shakespeare, use minor characters as foils to their main character counterparts, in order to further develop the protagonist’s or antagonist’s individual ethos. In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s close friend Horatio, is the most important minor character of the play. While Hamlet’s life-long friend and confidant, Horatio, experiences little character development and plays only a minor role, he acts as an integral part of the play by grounding Hamlet in reality and giving him credibility with the audience.
Shakespeare’s plays have very similar artistic styles. One of his greatest strengths, however, was his ability to use his minor characters in his plays. Shakespeare’s minor characters, while serving important roles and providing character development for the main characters, do not often receive reciprocal development. In Hamlet, Horatio observes the important role of Prince Hamlet’s trustworthy friend, but never reaches a full character development past serving as a foil for Hamlet. In essence, Horatio only exists in the play to help and advise Hamlet, while little to nothing is learned about himself, nor would it matter.
Shakespeare’s use of minor characters serves his ultimate artistic purpose of having everything lead back to the main character. After Horatio and Marcellus see the ghost of King Hamlet in the beginning of the play, Horatio answers Marcellus’s question about the increased observance of guard watch, explaining, “Our valiant Hamlet…did slay this Fortinbras; who, by a seal’d compact, well ratified by law and heraldry, did forfeit, with his life, all those his lands which he stood seiz\’d of, to the conqueror” (I.i.96-101). Horatio’s longest line of the play is used at the beginning, simply to describe and give context to the state of the kingdom for the audience.
Shakespeare uses Horatio and his other minor characters to move the plot forward and provide a medium in which the main characters are able to interact and develop. In almost every interaction with Horatio, he is accompanied by and speaking with Hamlet. This artistic style employed by Shakespeare focuses the audience’s attention on the main characters, and stops them from being distracted by minor characters. The name of the play is Hamlet. It is only fitting that Shakespeare utilizes his artistic style to draw the most attention on the character of Hamlet.
One of the biggest questions raised in the play is the mental sanity of Hamlet. While he claims that his deranged behavior is an act devised to fool Claudius, the audience cannot help but wonder if his erratic behavior actually stems from his own lunacy. However, Prince Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant, Horatio, provides a link between the audience and Hamlet.
Through the clear and sane eyes of Horatio, the audience develops a more credible connection to Hamlet, grounding him in reality. As an educated and wise man, Horatio provides the audience with everything Hamlet does not, such as self-control, restraint, stoicism, and rational thought. Horatio’s first purpose in the play is to confirm the existence of the ghost of King Hamlet. If Horatio did not witness the ghost and the audience learned about the apparition through Hamlet himself, many would have questioned the very existence of the ghost. Horatio provides the credibility behind Hamlet’s thoughts and actions.
Before Hamlet’s suggested production of The Murder of Gonzalo, he enlists Horatio’s help to observe Claudius’s reaction to the poisoning scene. Hamlet, asks Horatio, “Give me that man who is not passion’s slave…Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt do not make him unkennel in one speech, it is a damnèd ghost that we have seen” (III.ii.76-87). Hamlet refers to Horatio as a character who is not “passion’s slave”, signaling his admiration for Horatio’s calm and rational temperament. Because Hamlet does not trust his own judgement completely, he asks Horatio for his help observing Claudius.