Tragic Danish Boyfriends: On how we can use the ideas of Renaissance Friendship to read Hamlet as a queer Romeo and Juliet

This post is written by Lauryn Green (University of Sheffield) and adapted from a paper given at ‘Reimagining the Gothic with a Vengeance, vol. 5: Returns, Revenge, Reckonings’ where it was awarded was awarded a prize for best paper.

Oscar Wilde wrote that homosexuality was “the love that dares not speak its name”. The Gothic is, in many ways, about the unspoken, the unshown, the undead. Hamlet encompasses all of those things. Countless productions have cast Hamlet as a homosexual, such as Scott Parkinson’s portrayal at the Writers’ Theatre in 2012. In this essay, I want to explore the homosexual undercurrent that runs throughout the play, and how this only heightens the gothic nature of the text. In the corner of the Internet dedicated to literary blogs, the phenomenon of ‘Tragic Danish Boyfriends’ has been conceived, referring to the tragic trajectory of Hamlet and Horatio’s relationship. The idea of Renaissance Friendship has been applied to many Shakespearean texts, but not widely to Hamlet. This is an idea which speculates that male friendships in Renaissance texts were often covers for homosexual relationships, such as in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and, indeed, Shakespeare. I want to explore the relationship between these two phenomena and how they interact in a play that is beginning to be rebranded as a queer Romeo and Juliet, complete with poisoning and star-crossed lovers.

Renaissance Friendship is vital for understanding the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. Alan Bray explains the importance of closeness and tactile intimacy in male-male friendships in Elizabethan England:

“An illustration of this is the way each required a physical closeness although after four centuries have passed it is perhaps not immediately obvious how crucial this was to the way friendship worked. One striking expression of this is what it meant in Early Modern England to be someone’s ‘bedfellow’. This was a society where most people slept with someone else and where the rooms of a house led casually one into the other and servants mingled with their masters…beds are not only places where people sleep: they are also places where people talk. To be someone’s ‘bedfellow’ suggested that one had influence and could be the making of a fortune.”

Though there’s no implication of their status as ‘bedfellows’, this does highlight that the intimacy we see between the pair is far from unusual, and thus not necessarily remarkable to Hamlet’s immediate family. Thus, the embraces Hamlet and Horatio share, such as in Act 1 Scene 2 when the two are reunited, have a particular meaning. It speaks of intimacy, especially as these shows of affection were not given freely by nobles like Hamlet, and of a relationship based on closeness not only bodily but mentally. Furthermore, though Horatio is far from Hamlet’s servant, they do play with these dynamics in the scene where they meet again, as seen here:

“HORATIO: Hail to your lordship!

HAMLET: I am glad to see you well:

Horatio,–or I do forget myself.

HORATIO : The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.

HAMLET: Sir, my good friend; I’ll change that name with you”

Hamlet does not seem to immediately note who he is speaking to. Though his first reaction of “I am glad to see you well” is completely appropriate, upon realising it is Horatio who speaks to him, his disposition seems to change completely. This exchange follows immediately from a painfully dark soliloquy in which Hamlet laments on the ‘o’er hasty marriage’ between his uncle and mother. He seems completely alone. Dramatically, he is. He is the only character onstage, speaking very personally to the audience, about how he wishes that “this too too solid flesh would melt”. His father has died, and his mother has separated herself completely from him and his confidence. Ophelia is soon to spurn his affections, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been summoned only to try and calm him into submission. He appears completely isolated. When Horatio enters, his whole disposition seems to change.

However, Horatio seems amused by this lack of immediate recognition, returning that he is Hamlet’s “poor servant ever”. As well as a show of deference to Hamlet’s superior status, this seems to be a friendly joke, allowing for Hamlet’s response of “my good friend; I’ll change that name with you”. This seems to show Hamlet raising Horatio up to his societal level, much like Edward does with Gaveston in Marlowe’s Edward II (a play about what is arguably the most explicitly shown homosexual relationship in early modern texts outside of classical allusion). Bray expresses that bedfellows are assumed to have a level of sway, and Horatio certainly seems to be one of the only characters who Hamlet will truly listen to the advice of. For example, when the ghost of Old Hamlet draws Hamlet away with him, the difference in Hamlet’s response to Marcellus’s and Horatio’s pleas for him not to go is striking. Marcellus tells Hamlet that he “shall not go, my Lord”, and grabs him. Horatio, however, speaks to him with logic and concern, saying the following:

“What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.”

Though Hamlet does ultimately go, his response is far gentler than to Marcellus, to whom he demands he “Hold off your hands”. With hindsight, we know as an audience that Horatio’s fears are completely warranted and accurate, showing that Horatio has an insight into Hamlet’s mind that even Hamlet himself might not have. Horatio is aware that, in his vulnerable state, Hamlet is able to be dragged to depths he cannot draw himself out of. He knows how to speak to Hamlet in order to get the prince to listen, and even if Hamlet ultimately goes after the ghost, he holds Horatio’s words to heart, considering that the ghost is a malevolent spirit rather than truly the ghost of his father.

To highlight, however, the impact Hamlet has as a queer story, I turn my attention to Tumblr, a social media platform built around micro-blogs. Though ‘Hamlet’ is a widely-followed tag, this is almost always accompanied by that of ‘Tragic Danish Boyfriends’, the phenomenon online that describes the relationship readers have interpreted between Hamlet and Horatio. This spans not only scholarly ideas about the original text, but artwork and in-jokes, and all the accoutrements one would associate with any fictional pairing. The scene often drawn on for text-based analysis is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Hamlet’s death scene, partially because it is a touching moment of – if not homosexual, then at least homosocial – bonding between the two characters. However, it is further due to the fact that it mirrors the death scene from Romeo and Juliet. I would posit that Hamlet’s iteration of this is arguably more romantic.

A Tumblr user compared the folio editions of both scenes to make this parallel clearer to see, and when placed side by side, the similarities – and indeed the differences – are obvious. In Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says:

“To helpe me after, I will kisse thy lips,

Happlie some poyson yet doth hang on them”

Whereas Horatio says:

“I am more an Antike Roman then a Dane:

Heere’s yet some Liquor left.”

On the surface, these quotes don’t seem all that different, which is telling in itself. Horatio’s affection for Hamlet is placed on the same level as Romeo’s affection for Juliet. A canonical, heterosexual love that is arguably one of the most recognisable romantic pairings to this day is not held up as more than, but equal to, the relationship between Hamlet and Horatio. This latter partnership, by all accounts, should be portrayed pejoratively. However, under the guise of a dedicated friendship, a very powerful relationship is allowed to flourish not just to the heights of great literary friendship, but to the equal height of one of Literature’s greatest and most tragic couple.

The differences are even more striking, in my opinion. After this point, the two stories diverge once again. Romeo drinks the poison, whereas Horatio doesn’t. Though Juliet is unable to intervene the way Hamlet does, the effect is heart-breaking in the latter play.  Hamlet’s response in the following is almost violent in its intensity, even as he slips away from life:

“As thou’rt a man,
Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I’ll have’t.
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.”

It would be easier for Horatio to die with Hamlet – it is his first response to his “sweet prince” dying, and it seems like the less painful option to him – but, on Hamlet’s dying wish, he lives to tell Hamlet’s story, to tell Fortinbras what a noble prince could have stood in his place, the kind of man whose position the Norwegian prince has to take the place of. Names have significance in Shakespeare, and it would be foolish not to see the link between the words ‘orate’ and ‘ratio’ in Horatio’s name (from the Latin ‘to speak’ and ‘to reason’). Ratio clearly links to Horatio’s role as the peacekeeper within the play, calming Hamlet’s temper and trying to dissuade him from acting rashly. However, the ‘orate’ is perhaps more poignant by the end of the play. Horatio is tasked with the duty of keeping Hamlet’s name alive, of telling his story – literally of speaking Hamlet’s truth now Hamlet cannot. Hamlet has spent a majority of the play pretending to be something or someone he isn’t (whether that be mad, or out of love, or not grieving), and he only really gets the chance to be honest with Laertes in his final moments. The responsibility to remove these facades and show the people of Denmark who their prince really was is left to Horatio. He has to be Hamlet’s voice now that Hamlet cannot speak for himself. It can’t be understated how painful a role that is to take on, to keep the wound of your loss open in order to tell the story of someone who has been ripped away from you. To me, that is arguably a deeper act of love than that which is displayed by Romeo and Juliet. Both had the opportunity to tell their lover’s story, and had Romeo made this choice he would have lived to realise Juliet was merely unconscious. Whilst I don’t wish to give into the age-old argument that ‘had Romeo just waited it would have been okay’, it says a lot for Horatio’s character that he obliges by Hamlet’s wish and does stay alive, as hard as that might be. Though he jumps to see if there’s any poison left in the goblet Gertrude drinks from, when Hamlet stays his hand, he makes the choice to stay alive to honour the memory of his friend. That is no small act, and I believe speaks volumes about Horatio’s dedication to Hamlet, and the lengths he will go to in order to show the world just why his dedication did run so deep.

Another Tumblr user highlighted the importance of pronouns in Hamlet’s death scene, saying:

“the most heartbreaking part of hamlet really is the whole “goodnight sweet prince” part because when horatio says “and angels sing thee to thy rest” he is using the intimate form of thou, and it’s the first time he ever does it. hamlet consistently uses the intimate form of thou for horatio (only when they’re in private though, which – if shakespeare intentionally wanted to give their relationship homoerotic subtext, which he totally did – shows that hamlet wants to keep his romantic love for horatio a secret to the greater public) but horatio, being the respectful person he is and also given the fact that if he were to use the intimate form of thou it would pretty much be a romantic confession, never ever uses thou. except when after hamlet dies. when it’s too late.”

Horatio’s change in character in the final scene – in his use of pronouns, and his demeanour in general – is what makes the scene so genuinely heart wrenching. Hamlet tells us that Horatio is not “passion’s slave”, and that it is this stability and measure that Hamlet so admires. Throughout the play, Horatio is the voice of reason. Horatio’s name seems inextricably linked to the Roman lyric poet, and the practise of the Horatian ode. Unlike Pindaric odes, Horatian odes are all about moderation and restraint, “the golden mean” as it was called. Horatio seems to practise his namesake’s ideology towards avoiding hysteria. This is why it is so difficult to watch Horatio lose all composure at the end of the play, when Hamlet dies in his arms. Hiran Abeysekera’s performance in the RSC’s 2016 production comes to mind. To quote from Susannah Clapp’s review of the production:

“As Horatio, Hiran Abeysekera provides an extraordinary moment after Hamlet’s death. He has spoken with exceptional clarity. And then he howls. I have never heard anything like that before in a Hamlet. It is a fine commentary on the play. Words, words, words, followed by inchoate anguish.”

“Howl” truly is the only way to describe it. It is animalistic and uncontrolled and wrought out through tears and a voice that sounds absolutely destroyed. In this production, arguably more than any other I’ve seen, this complete breakdown of the composure and logic Horatio’s character is built on, is obvious. Hamlet, clearly, has an undulating trajectory in his character development, but I think that Horatio’s own arc is so often overlooked. It doesn’t take place over the whole play, but over a scene. It is dramatic and guttural and ugly; it is everything that losing a loved one is. And despite it, he stands by Hamlet’s dying wishes and stays alive to tell his story, to tell Fortinbras what happened, to presumably tell Denmark what a noble man his friend was.

That’s arguably what the modern fans of Hamlet, and the concept of ‘tragic Danish boyfriends’ are doing. When I asked Tumblr users what attracted them to the ship, the answers varied, but one constant came up in every single response; that Horatio is the only character who supports Hamlet through everything and never judges him. If you’d like to read some of the Internet’s responses to my question of why Hamlet and Horatio had caught their attention, there are a few of the responses at the end of this post.

When I proposed my abstract for this festival and began undertaking my research to write this piece to share with you today, I was expecting it to be the usual research I do when I look into queering the classics. However, what I found was that one of the most frequently-adapted Shakespeare plays had found new life on a small corner of the internet – as queer couples often do. Alan Bray’s ideas of Renaissance Male Friendship were a basis to develop my research, but critical work doesn’t do the love for this pairing justice. The scholars and critics, the close readers and analysts, who reside not in institutions or between the pages of a journal, but behind the keyboards on sites like Tumblr can offer more insight, because their passion for it is so entrenched in love. And that’s what this queer reading is about; love.

Lauryn Green is an undergraduate student studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield. She has a particular interest in Renaissance texts, Greek mythology and Classics, Shakespeare, and queer readings of all of the aforementioned areas. When she’s not reading for her degree, she runs the University of Sheffield’s Computer Club and performs at local open mic poetry slams.