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The Equanimity of Horatio
The following article was originally published in Shakespeare Diversions: From Dogberry to Hamlet. Francis Jacox. London: Daldy, Isbister & Co., 1877.

That Hamlet needed such an outward monitor and guide as he lost in his majestic father, has been inferred from his choice of calm, cheerful, and independent Horatio for his friend and confidant: they are, in all respects, except common love and reverence, the opposites of each other. Inferior to his princely friend in intellect, observes one critic, Horatio is superior to him in will. "He cannot, indeed, supply the void which death has made, but he can at least serve as an occasional prop to the vacillating temper of Hamlet. He is no broken reed like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; no hope of preferment will turn Horatio into a tool of Claudius or a flatterer of Gertrude." Another commentator on the friendship of Hamlet and Horatio speaks of them as resembling each other in moral purity and manliness of character, while, as regards intellectual constitution and habits of feeling, it is scarcely possible for two men to be more unlike: Hamlet, full of philosophy and poetry, meditative, sensitive to the highest degree, the equipoise of his nature disturbed by what befalls him; Horatio, without "a particle of the poetical [1] or philosophical constitution or temperament," one of the most matter-of-fact persons conseivable, with strong and genuine feelings, but with those feelings imperturbably adjusted and balanced; and it is exactly in this particular that he is pronounced to be the appropriate friend of Hamlet, as Hamlet himself feels. "He takes Horatio as his chosen friend because he finds in his sober-minded judicious character something that makes up for his own infirmity of over-sensitiveness." Horatio, says Professor Reed, is a man not only of strong, but just and well-regulated feelings, and especially in intellectual constitution, possessed of sound, practical common sense, strikingly contrasted with Hamlet's imaginative apprehensiveness--his deep spirit of meditation and overwrought mental activity. Coleridge remarks that Bernardo's inquiry after Horatio, and the repetition of his name and in his own presence, indicates a respect or an eagerness that implies him as one of the persons who are in the foreground; while the skepticism attributed to him--

"Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy;
And will not let belief take hold of him--"

prepares us for Hamlet's after eulogy on him as one whose blood and judgment were happily commingled.

In various parts of his treatise on the Mind and Art of Shakespeare, Professor Dowden glances at the distinctive character of Horatio, whom he finds noteworthy for grave strength, self-government, and well-balanced faculties. A strong nature being what Hamlet needed, all the comfort he ever got in life is ascribed to one who was "more an antique Roman than a Dane;" and the conclusion is drawn that if Hamlet had found one who to Horatio's fortitude, his passive strength, had added ardour and enthusiasm, the prince's melancholy must have vanished away; he would have been lifted up into the light and strength of the good facts of the world, and then he could not have faltered upon his line of action. Attention is called to the touching devotion shown by Hamlet to Horatio in the meeting which follows the scene in the lobby with Ophelia; a devotion which is the overflow of gratitude for the comfort and refuge he finds with his friend after the recent proof of incapacity and want of integrity in the woman he had loved. "Horatio's equanimity, his evenness of temper, is like solid land to Hamlet after the tossings and tumult of his own heart." Does the prince seem to flatter his friend? It is not flattery; it is genuine delight in the sanity, the strength, the constancy of Horatio's character. [2]

"Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal....
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,
And could of men distinguish her election,
She 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
Has ta'en with equal thanks: and bless'd are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
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."

In Horatio, his royal fellow-student at Wittenberg was eager to hail a modern representative of the time-honoured philosophy, "Æquam momento rebus in arduis Servare mentem, non secus in bonis," etc., and one whose treatment and whose estimate of that fickle jade, Fortune, was true to the classical type: laudo manentem, but with entire readiness to resign her gifts at the first flutter of her fleet and fleeting wings. With good Kent in the stocks he would say, "A good man's fortune may grow out at heels," and with Kent, in that case, he would take to whistling. With Shakespeare's Pompey would he say, when told of a change apparent in his looks,

"Well, I know not
What counts harsh fortune casts upon my face;
But in my bosom shall she never come,
To make my heart her vassal."

Or again, with Shakespeare's Antony, in his worthier mood, and when his better self:

"Do not please sharp fate
To grace it with your sorrows: bid that welcome
Which comes to punish us, and we punish it
Seeming to bear it lightly."

But there was nothing about fotune-defying Horatio of that hireling of Macbeth's, whom the vile blows and buffets of the world had so incensed, that he was reckless what he did, to spite the world; or of that other, his well-mated fellow, so "tugged with fortune" that he would set his life on any chance to mend it, or to end it. Quod sors feret, feremus æquo animo, he would be for saying with Terence; nor would he have been disinclined to hold with Syrus, that Fortuna nimium quem fovet, stultum facit. In apostolic phrase, he knew both how to be abased, and how to abound. It is the boast of Ulysses and his comrades in toil and travel, that they ever with a frolic welcome took the thunder and the sunshine, and opposed free hearts, free foreheads. So with Jean Paul's Quintus Fixlein, who, "when Fortune made a wry face at him, was wont, like children in their sport at one another, to laugh at her so long till she herself was obliged to begin smiling." The hero of the laureate's Princess claims to have been (at least at one time) one

"To whom the touch of all mischance but came
As night to him that sitting on a hill
Sees the midsummer, midnight, Norway sun
Set into sunrise."

What Carlyle admires in Jean Paul himself is the "high, cheerful stoicism" that grew up in him: poverty, pain, and all evel he learned to regard, not as what they seemed, but as what they are: he "learned to despise them, nay in kind mockery to sport with them, as with bright spotted wild beasts which he had tamed and harnessed." Sorely pressed on from without, he stood like a rock amid the beating of continual tempests--"a rock crowned with foliage, and in its clefts nourishing flowers of sweetest perfume." Come of it what might, he determined to try issues to the uttermost with Fortune--and even, while fighting like a very Ajax against her, to keep laughing in her face till she too ceased to frown. He went far to realize Ben Jonson's wish for his fast friend Master Colby,

"That Fortune never make thee to complain,
But what she gives, thou dar'st give her again--
That whatsoever face thy fate puts on,
Thou shrink or start not, but be always one."

A calm temper, says Adam Smith, which does not allow its tranquility to be disturbed, either by the small injuries or by the little disasters incident to the usual course of human affairs, but which amidst the natural and moral evils infesting the world, lays its accound, and is contented to suffer a little from both, is a blessing to the man himself, and gives ease and security to all his companions. The faulty excess of such a temperament is perhaps exemplified in the characters in Gil Blas; of whom it has been said, that the simplicity with which they put up with what they cannot help, or suppose themselves to be unable to help, resembles nothing so much as the acquiescence of boys at a great public school in rules of the school which are neither reasonable nor pleasant. It is with types of quite another sort that Mr. Carlyle loves to deal: A Frederick the Great when "like to be overwhelmed"--drenched in misery, but used to his black element, unaffectedly defiant of it, or not at the pains to defy it; occupied only to do his very utmost in it, with or without success, till the end come. [3] Or again, a Scott, that "right brave and strong man, according to his kind," who quietly bore along with him such a load of toil, such a measure of felicity; who with such quiet strength both "worked on this earth, and enjoyed in it; invincible to evil fortune and to good. A most composed invincible man: in difficulty and distress knowing no discouragement," but, Samson-like, carrying off on his strong Samson-shoulders the gates that would imprison him; in danger and menace laughing at the whisper of fear. "Quem res plus nimio delectavere secundæ, Mutatæ quatient,"--but such was not Sir Walter. Xenophon accounted it a more difficult thing to find one who bears prosperity well than one who bears disaster well, but Scott was equal to either fortune. As Hamlet admired this equanimity in Horatio, so Pope in blameless Bethel:

"His equal mind I copy what I can,
And, as I love, would imitate the man.
In South-Sea days not happier when surmised
The lord of thousands, than if now excised;
In forest planted by a father's hand,
Than in five acres now of rented land."

There is one of Mr. Trollope's characters of whom a close student of character has this to say: "No trouble or sorrow would, I think, crush him. But had prosperity come to him, it would have made him odious to all around him." If it should please the gods, writes the author of the Virginians, "to try me with ten thousand a year, I will, of course, meekly submit myself to their decrees, but I will pray them to give me strength enough to bear the trial." A weak mind sinks under prosperity, as well as under adversity, said Julius Hare: "a strong and deep mind has two highest tides--when the moon is at the full, and when there is no moon." Shenstone compares to the oak that displays not its verdure on the sun's first approach, nor drops it on his first departure, the brave man who is not suddenly either elated by prosperity or depressed by adversity. The moral of Arlington's life, as Mr. Lister tells it on the last page, is that of a man who had learnt to observe the "golden mean" of tempered hope and rational pursuit, by which we are rendered less accessible to calamity and best prepared for its reception. "To avoid occasions, and to be above accidents, is one of the greatest masteries of man," wrote Owen Feltham in his Resolves. "How like a naked beggar we see the weak soul skip under the lash of every sudden disaster; while the magnanimous and composed mind, by preparing and forethinking, meets nothing new, to bring him to amazement." Again and again in his letters the elder Humboldt describes himself as especially free from care, not because less exposed to misfortune than others, but because from early youth he had diligently taught himself to be prepared for every change of fortune. "He who cannot bear with firmness want and suffering, can never be free from want and suffering." "I receive Fortune's gifts thankfully, but should be very foolish to depend on their continuance." His strain is often that of Demipho in the Phormio of Terence:

"Quamobrem omnes, cum secundae res sunt maxume, tum maxume
Meditari secum oportet, quo pacto advorsum ærumnam ferant ...
Quicquid præter spem eveniat, omne id deputare esse in lucro."

Scott's Hugo de Lacy, in The Betrothed, having lost all he carried to Palestine, and all which he left at home, is still lord of his own mind; and adversity, he declares, can no more shake him than the breeze which strips the oaks of its leaves can tear up the trunk by the roots. So with El Hakim in Sir Walter's other Tale of the Crusaders: "Fortune may raise up or abuse the ordinary mortal, but the sage and the soldier should have minds beyond her control." And it is as sage and soldier in one that the Saracem Emir of the _Talisman_ has the right so to speak. Old Sir Harry Lee, in Woodstock, shrinks not before his changes of fortune: he will wear coarser clothes, eat homelier food, and be greeted with less reverence, but "what of that?" Shakespeare is his favourite author, and "old Will" has taught him philosophy. Luther's Table-talk might have helped to arm him with the same mind: "If God gives thee to eat, eat; if He causes thee to fast, be thou resigned thereto; gives He thee honours? take them; hurt or shame? endure it; casts He thee into prison? murmur not; will He make thee a king? obey Him; casts He thee down again? heed it not." For, "weet, ye well," as Spenser's knight words it,

"that to a courage great
It is no less beseeming well to bear
The storm of fortune's frown or heaven's threat,
Than in the sunshine of her countenance clear
Timely to joy and carry comely cheer."

Don Quixote himself is in like manner exhorted by his squire: "Great hearts, dear sir," quoth Sancho," should be patient under misfortunes, as well as joyful when all goes well." And in so saying, Sancho Panza can appeal with confidence to his own example; for when he was made a governor, he was blithe and merry, and now that he is a poor squire on foot, he is not sad. He has heard say--and the saying is one he has laid to heart--that she they call Fortune is a light-headed freakish dame, and withal so blind that she does not see what she is about; neither whom she raises nor whom she pulls down. His master admires the philosophy of his man, despite the homeliness of its form of expression; in regard to which his less prosaic disposition would better have relinquished the rhetoric of a later philosopher--that the equanimity which a few rare spirits preserve through the diversities of prosperous and adverse life, resembles the way in which certain aquatic plants spread their tops on the surface of the water, and with wonderful elasticity keep the surface still, whether the water swells or falls.

Mr. Froude's description is a striking one, of the last days of the mother of Mary Queen of Scots, "her body swollen with dropsy, the visible shadow of death fast closing over her," yet to the last going through her daily work with the same cheerful resolution, cool, clear, and dauntless, as became a daughter of the House of Guise. Her position was forlorn and even tragic. "But she came of a race who could bear the goods and ills of fortune with an even pulse." Like a namesak of George Eliot's painting, she had long since had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her perculiar satisfaction, and she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact. Lamartine challenges our admiration of Vergniaud, no longer impelled by illusion or ardour, but preserving "that stoical calmness which surpasses both," which sees the critical moment approach without blenching, and which, struggling without hope, accepts defeat as men accept will." The foremost foes of Theodoretus could not but admire and respect the man who, as he had been peaceful and moderate in prosperity, was so unaffectedly resigned and cheerful in adversity, and who accepted the decree of deposition from his bishopric with so becoming a grace. The Guelf Villani was fain to affirm of Henry of Luxemburg, that he was "never depressed by adversity, never in prosperity elated with pride, or intoxicated with joy." Foxites and Pittites agreed in according to Lord North this meed of praise, that as he never lost his good humour after his defeat and fall, so neither did he show himself less composed and equable when his time of triumph recurred. Of Napoleon, on the other hand, Chateaubriand says that the first touch of adversity chilled his spirit: "The greatness of Napoleon was not of that quality which belongs to the hour of adversity; prosperity alone left him in the entire possession of his faculties--he was not made formisfortune." Contrast with this such a sketch as that drawn by Perthes of Besser, who "bore real trials well, was always ready for serious difficulties, never lost his balance in sorrow, but was easily carried away by joy."Rebus augustis animosus atque fortis.

The elder of the brothers Hunt was characterized by Mr. Fonblanque as a man whose way through the world was a rough one, but whose constancy was even, and whom tribulations left unshaken: he was at arm's length with care throughout the active part of his life, but never mastered by it, for his goodness had a bravery in it which always bore him up. "Fortune's buffets, of which he had a full share, left no bruises on him, and extorted no murmurs." If never heard to repine, seldom, on the other hand, had he occasion to rejoice, and never for long. "He took whatever befell him, calmly, as his portion, and with a manly yet sweet resignation." Leigh might have said of John, in lines from Goethe's Tasso,

"Indeed I might
Esteem my brother, for his constant mind
Still with unswerving temper meets his fate."

Life's a lottery, and man should make up his mind to the blanks, is the sententious utterance of Colman's shipwrecked Peregrine in John Bull. And thus runs the fifth of the eight stanzas designed by Mat Prior for his own monument:

"Now in equipage stately, now humbly on foot,
Both fortunes he tried, but to neither would trust;
And whirl'd in the round, as the wheel turn'd about,
He found riches had wings, and knew man was but dust."

The Careless Content of Dr. John Byrom, of shorthand celebrity, whose Diary forms one of the liveliest issues of the Chetham Society, offers another stanza that may serve our purpose:

"For chance or change of peace or pain,
For Fortune's favour or her frown,
For lack or glut, for loss or gain,
I never dodge, nor up nor down;
But swing what way the ship shall swim,
Or tack about with equal trim."

Back to Hamlet Criticism

  1. But are his speeches in the very first scene of the play so void of poetry as all that?
  2. "Yet all the while Shakespeare compels us to feel that it is Hamlet with his manifold weakness, and ill-commingled blood and judgment, who is the rarer nature of the two; and that Horatio is made to be his helpmate, recognizing in service his highest duty."--Dowden, Shakspere: His Mind and Art, p. 154.
  3. In his meditated suicide he may remind us of Horatio's bit of self-assertion, "I am more an antique Roman than a Dane"--for it is with the design and resolve of instant suicide, in order not to survive Hamlet, that Horatio thus expresses himself. Hamlet has enjoined him, as survivor, to report his cause aright to the unsatisfied; but Horatio exclaims, "Never believe it,"--and, seizing the poisoned cup, "Here's yet some liquor left,"--which the dying prince, however, forces him to leave as it is. "Give me the cup: let go; by Heaven, I'll have it,"--and Horatio is baffled. The Marius of Landor's imaginary conversation tells how the Numantian trumpeter cried, "There is yet room, and there is strength enough yet, both in the element and in me," as he tottered into the civic fire. A closer parallel to Horatio is Libanius, when assured of the death of Julian. At once he cast his eye on his sword; but, adds Gibbon, "he recollected Plato had condemned suicide, and that he must live to compose the panegyric of Julian." He must forego the antique Roman, and live and labour to report the emperor and his cause aright, to the unsatisfied. When Sybil Dacy, in Hawthorne's romance of immortality, after drinking of that strange draught which ought to have been vitalizing elixir, but which is potent poison, dashed the goblet to the ground, "Why hast thou spilt the drink?" said Septimius, bending his dark brows upon her, and frowning over her; "we might have died together." "No; live, Septimius," said the girl, whose face appeared to grow bright and joyous, as if the drink of death exhilirated her like an intoxicating fluid. "I would not let you have it, not one drop." No-way resembling her is the woman in Armadale who "noticed the Purple Flask," and said quietly, "Ah, I had forgotten my best friend--I had forgotten that there is more to pour in yet,"--and poured accordingly, with a steady hand, and calm, attentive face. Another feminine example is Adrienne, who will and does drain the fatal draught of Djalma, in Le Juif errant. Brackenburg, in Goethe's Egmont, is importunate for a share in Clara's phial. "Let me then die with thee! Share it! Oh share it! There is enough to extinguish two lives." But Clara as explicitly forbids him to "partake," (as the penny-a-liners in poisoning paragraphs invariably word it) as Romeo implicitly had forbidden Juliet. "Here's yet some liquor left," could Horatio say, of Hamlet's leavings. But for Juliet there were no leavings.
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