A Hamlet that explores the ennobling nature of true friendship

September 20, 2017

For Seneca, the Roman Stoic, one of the most beautiful qualities of friendship was “to understand and to be understood”.  

We choose our friends for many qualities – their humour, kindness, intellect – but empathy is perhaps the deepest. It is empathy we seek in our darkest moods, when we do not want to be cheered up, or told what to do, but simply to be comforted through silent warm companionship. 

I was drawn to reflect on the nature of true friendship after going to see Robert Icke’s recent production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, starring Andrew Scott – the actor best known for playing Jim Moriarty in the BBC series Sherlock 

So often watching this intense play we are dazzled by Hamlet, or perhaps focus on his disloyal mother Gertrude or his love Ophelia. Yet, in this production, it is Hamlet’s friend Horatio who captures our attention. 

In many ways, Horatio is the unsung hero of the play – an uncomplicated and ever-loving friend who provides vindication for Hamlet’s fears and thoughts. Horatio offers his life for his friend, stands aside from all the machinations and offers testament to the goings on.  

Indeed, in this production, Joshua Higgott as Horatio manages to elevate his character to hero status by creating a moving tribute to the power of friendship. 

Horatio cannot save Hamlet, but he alone can understand him. In return, Hamlet places his trust in Horatio, imploring him, at the end of the play, not to commit suicide. He must stay alive to rebuild the shattered kingdom. 

Robert Icke’s Hamlet shows us that deep understanding and trust lie at the heart of all true friendships. The message is as relevant now as it was in Shakespeare’s age. Friendship remains one of the bedrocks on which we build our spiritual development.  

In the Pali Canon’s Upaddha Sutta, Buddha’s disciple Ananda says: “This is half of the holy life, Lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.” 

But Buddha replies: “Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, and comrades, he can be expected to develop and pursue the noble eightfold path.”  

Building these friendships, Buddha goes on to explain, is itself part of the pathway to enlightenment.  

This is a joyous thought: that our friends, chosen well, can nourish and support us, even as we leave this life. Perhaps this is why Shakespeare has Horatio comfort a dying Hamlet with the soothing thought that “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” 

Horatio’s caring, compassionate loyalty makes him the ideal person to wish Hamlet well as he ascends to the heavens. Their true friendship ennobled them both. 

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation