Horatio Monologue (Act 1, Scene 2) | Horatio's Speech from Hamlet

Horatio Monologue (Act 1, Scene 2)

Written by on | Monologues Unpacked

Ever had to tell your best friend some unfortunate and unbelievable news? Like you just saw their dead dad as a ghost? You might relate to this speech by Horatio from Hamlet.

Initially, this role feels like exposition because, well, it is… But nobody does exposition better than Shakespeare. As the actor playing Horatio, this speech isn’t about you. It’s all about painting the image for Hamlet; everyone else in the room, including the audience, has seen this unfold already. So focus on telling your friend. Make it clear.

Context 

Hamlet is the son of the late King of Denmark who, after a mysterious death, was succeeded by his brother Claudius. In a Game of Thrones-style turn of events, Claudius has married Hamlet’s mother, solidifying a creepy triumvirate of uncle-father-king. Hamlet is, understandably, miffed.

In the opening of the play, the guards of Castle Elsinore have seen the ghost of the King stalking the battlements. Not thinking anyone will believe them, they get the smartest and most logical person they know, Horatio, to come with them on the third night and see the ghost for himself. When Horatio bears witness, the three of them go to Hamlet to break the news.

After some small talk and some light jokes about the rushed marriage of Hamlet’s uncle to his mother, conversation leads to the topic of Hamlet’s father. Horatio doesn’t beat around the bush and says “I think I saw him Yesternight…” Hamlet rightly is shocked and Horatio tells him to chill for a second and let him explain.

Original Text

HORATIO
Two nights together had these gentlemen,
Marcellus and Barnardo, on their watch
In the dead waste and middle of the night
Been thus encountered: a figure like your father
Armed at point, exactly cap-à-pie,
Appears before them and with solemn march
Goes slow and stately by them; thrice he walked
By their oppressed and fear-surprised eyes
Within his truncheon’s length whilst they, distilled
Almost to jelly with the act of fear,
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me
In dreadful secrecy impart they did,
And I with them the third night kept the watch
Where, as they had delivered, both in time,
Form of the thing, each word made true and good,
The apparition comes. I knew your father,
These hands are not more like.

Unfamiliar words

First step in deciphering the text? As always, make a glossary of any unfamiliar words or phrases contained within. Research and understand them, so that you might unpack all the intended meaning—especially when they contribute to such vivid imagery.

Cap-à-pie— Head to toe.

Truncheon — A weapon, most likely a staff or baton, often used by police or guards.

Solemn — Formal and dignified, but also relating to funerals and mourning.

Apparition — Ghost.

Oppressed — Distressed, troubled, burdened.

Modern Translation

HORATIO
Two nights in a row had these gentleman,
Marcellus and Bernardo, at their posts on duty,
In the middle of the night, the following happened:
A figure like your father dressed from head to toe in his war uniform
appeared before them and walked directly past them quite slowly:
Three times he walked past their terrified faces, so close his weapon
could have touched them, while they, not moving because they were so scared, did nothing and didn’t even make a sound.
They told me this in secret and I went with them to work on the third night, where
just as they had told me, the exact time, the exact shape, the ghost of your father appeared.
I knew your father, this ghost was to him as my hands are to each other: exactly the same.

Annotated text

This speech boils down to four thoughts. Below, I have underlined the last three words at the end of each thought. I do this when I breakdown a script to make sure I drive to the end of them with strength and clarity.

Two nights together had these gentlemen, 10
Marcellus and Barnardo, on their watch 10
In the dead waste and middle of the night 10
Been thus encountered: a figure like your father 11
Armed at point, exactly cap-à-pie, 10
Appears before them and with solemn march 10
Goes slow and stately by them; thrice he walked 10
By their oppressed and fear-surprised eyes 10
Within his truncheon’s length whilst they, distilled 10
Almost to jelly with the act of fear, 10
Stand dumb and speak not to him. This to me 10
In dreadful secrecy impart they did, 10
And I with them the third night kept the watch 10
Where, as they had delivered, both in time, 10
Form of the thing, each word made true and good, 10
The apparition comes. I knew your father, 11
These hands are not more like. 6

The first thought is your introduction: “Okay, Hamlet. Strap in, here’s what happened.”

The second thought is what the watchmen saw.

The third is what you saw: “Hamlet, buddy, I saw it with my own eyes.”

The final thought is your conclusion: “I knew your dad. It was him.”

I like to think with any speech in Shakespeare, at the end of every thought you are asked a question or provoked somehow, and that prompts you to go on. Maybe the questions here are based on what you see in Hamlet’s face. The questions/provocations to these thoughts might be the following:

Been thus encountered; “Will you hurry up and tell me please?!” “I don’t believe you.”

speak not to him.Have you told anyone else this?” “Okay, but where do you come into this?”

The apparition comes “Is this a joke?”

Notes on the Annotated Script

The numbers at the end of the lines are the number of syllables; I’ve included these because they can offer up clues to the character’s state of mind you can use in performance. For example, most lines have the regular amount of ten syllables, suggesting that Horatio is calm and level-headed. Most of Shakespeare’s ‘Best Friend’ roles tend to be—somebody for the main character to bounce ideas off.

But if a regular line of verse has ten, then what does it mean if it goes to eleven? If iambic pentameter is based on a heartbeat (da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM) then is eleven Horatio’s heart rate going up? In both lines of eleven syllables he says the words ‘your father’. Is he nervous to say this to his friend? It’s definitely worth consideration.

The six syllables of the final line are completed by Hamlet’s response “But where was this?” So nothing huge to take away from that.

Do be on the lookout for unusual stress patterns. In the last four lines, the stress is clearly on the first word rather then the second. This style of stress is “trochaic” rather than “iambic”: “DUM-da” as opposed to “da-DUM”. It pushes poetic vese forward with a rhythm rather than heart-beating along. In this context, it suggests that Horatio is driving his point home to Hamlet, who seems to struggle with this news.

Hendiadys: a Fun Shakespeare Literary Device

A Hendiadys is a figure of speech wherein two verbs, separated by a conjunction describe the one noun: “nice and warm”. They show up a lot in Shakespeare, and two examples appear in this very passage: “dead waste and middle of the night” and “slow and stately“.

The poet Ted Hughes thought this was how Shakespeare taught his audience new words, by using a mixture of familiar/unfamiliar to provide context. In addition, they add colour to the storytelling. The trick with hendiadys is to make both descriptions individual and vivid. The dead waste of the night is different to the middle of the night. The ghost didn’t just move slowly or stately, it moved both ways. Imbue each word with its own colour.

Notes on Performance

When playing Horatio, I like to take big breath in and out before this piece begins. It’s huge information you’re dropping on Hamlet. How will you say this? And how might you prepare yourself to drop this bombshell?

This speech is basically a description of the play’s first scene. Shakespeare doesn’t start his plays at the beginning of the plot; we often enter them halfway though and play catch-up. To check the audience is onboard, he employs speeches like this where information (already seen or heard in the play) is repeated. For the actor playing Horatio, they have the chance to flavour the information based on the impact it will have upon the intended recipient (in this case Hamlet.)

It’s also a terrific scene to think about status. While Horatio and Hamlet are friends from university, it’s important to remember they are not socially equal. Horatio is talking to his friend, but also his Prince. How does this modify the way he speaks, or the actions/tactics he might use? Is there a point where he says “Aww the hell with it!” And starts talking to his friend instead of the Prince? (Spoilers below.)

The second and third thoughts are long. You have to keep the ideas in the air; often the sentence is set up, extensively described and then concluded. It’s in the description that you need to keep the ideas vivid and then land that conclusion.

Finally: the last thought. It’s always the most characterful line of the speech for me. Talk to your friend in that line. A lot of this speech is to your Prince, that line is to your friend.

About the Author

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