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Multaque pars mei vitabit Libitinam: about Horace’s influence in

Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


The complexity of a work is not just attained by the crossed paths of the characters’ lives
or the different plot twists that an author can incorporate into the play. As in many great
works, also Shakespeare creates complex-structured dramas by combining an intricate
and balanced story with a system of references to other literary traditions. This
technique provides depth and meaning beyond the literary limits of the play, that is to
say, the meaning of the play can reach larger and more refined instances of signification
other than the ones founded in the concrete limits of the words written down.
Shakespeare is one of the most influential writers when it comes to the modern idea of
classical Antiquity, his plays about Rome or Greek characters and situation had become
an unconditional part of popular knowledge: “Et tu, Brute?” from the third act of Julius
Caesar or “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” from the fifth act of Richard III are
a clear example of phrases that have become a substantial part of English language
without the need of a refined or specific education in drama studies from the
Elizabethan period.
Known as one of the most important works of Shakespeare, The tragedy of Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark presents a story far away from Roman and Greek mythology but it
includes some elements from the ancient tradition that adds another value to the play’s
plot. The present paper will draw a general panorama about Horace’s influence in
Shakespearean works but specially in the development of the character of Horatio as
related to the roman poet Horace. This paper aims to provide a clear perspective about
the well-thought relation between Horatio the character and the thoughts and ideas
presented by Horace the poet in his works.


The great amount of bibliography regarding Shakespeare’s sources or influences

confirms the value of classical tradition in Shakespearean works. As Lydia Baumbauh
states, “It has been pointed out that the ancient world supplies the setting for one third
of the Shakespearean canon -two of the comedies, both narrative poems, four of the
five romances, and six of the eleven tragedies”.1 There is an special proximity to Plutarch
when we talk about Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus, but it could not
be denied that we can trace also the influence of the greatest poets of the classical
antiquity: Virgil, Ovid and Horace.
It is well known that the concept of originality in the ancient tradition has nothing to do
with the modern idea. Not just to quote an author, but to follow him in a theme was not
a flaw or lack of creativity, originality in the ancient tradition was meant to transform a
well-known story or myth to revitalize it and offer a different perspective of it. This
technique stated not only the educated background of the author but also gave the
poem or text the strong support of the literary tradition.


It is maybe impossible to trace back every source of inspiration of every text. In the case
of Shakespeare, the effort to do such a research is still going on. Sometimes we are sure
about the sources that he used but it is not always that clear. For example, It seems that
Horace has an important role in the writing of Anthony and Cleopatra. Perry Westbrook
even think that, beyond the Lives of Plutarch that were used as a substantial source for

Lydia BAUMBACH, « SHAKESPEARE AND THE CLASSICS », Acta Classica, 1985, vol. 28, p. 77- 86.
the play, for the roll of Cleopatra Shakespeare had another source of inspiration and in
this case, it was Horace who provide the dramatic essence of the character: “Though
Plutarch's Cleopatra is admittedly vivid and fascinating during her days of prosperity,
she falls far below the demands of tragedy when her fortune changes. For the Cleopatra
of the last two acts of his play, Shakespeare had to look elsewhere. It is my belief that
he found what he wanted in Horace's Cleopatra”.2 It seems that the Cleopatra of the
first three acts follows the path and the behavior of the character presented by Plutarch
but for the last two acts, Shakespeare needed some other kind of attitude towards death
and he found the right way to express it by looking at Horace’s Ode about the Egyptian
Queen. Westbrook thinks that “Shakespeare's Cleopatra is of a different stature. At her
death she has thrown off her garment of coquetry and lies. Her suicide is not the result
of dementia, but of her unwillingness to submit to the indignities of a Roman triumph”.3
In this line of thought, Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is closer to the one described by Horace
in the Ode I. 37, specially the last three stanzas:

Quae generosius
perire quaerens nec muliebriter
expavit ensem nec latentis
classe cita reparavit oras,

ausa et iacentem visere regiam

voltu sereno, fortis et asperas
tractare serpentes, ut atrum
corpore conbiberet venenum,

deliberata morte ferocior:

saevis Liburnis scilicet invidens
privata deduci superbo,
non humilis mulier, triumpho.4

Perry D. WESTBROOK, « Horace’s Influence on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra », PMLA, 1947,
vol. 62, no 2, p. 392- 398.
HORACE, T. E PAGE, Augustus S WILKINS et Arthur PALMER, Q. Horati Flacci opera, London; New York,
Macmillan, 2005.
The gravitas towards death had to come from a deeper source than Plutarch’s
biographies where the character of Cleopatra became out of mind and loses all kind
of serenity or honorability.

A more evident example of Horace’s influence in Shakespeare’s works is founded

in Sonnet 55 where Shakespeare follows the model of the Ode III.30. The theme of
the Ode is the eternity reached by way of art, in this case, Horace’s eternity by the
future admiration of his poetry in the centuries to come. The first lines are the
declaration of the poet’s ideal: he has built a “great monument” that can stand
every natural disaster, one that is even greater that every royal building and
specially one that can survive time:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius

regalique situ pyramidum altius,
quod non imber edax, non Aquilo inpotens
possit diruere aut innumerabilis
annorum series et fuga temporum.5

Shakespeare copy almost verbatim this beginning to described how poetry can save the
beauty and prominence of a person through the ages:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments

Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.

In these lines we also find the themes of the royal monuments and specially the victory
against time. Both poems had the eternity as a central subject, the difference is that
Shakespeare talks about eternal love and Horace about the eternal glory, but the two of
them propose that eternity in both ways can be attained through poetry and art. This is
maybe the clearest example of Horace’s influence in Shakespeare, it is almost

undeniable that one poem is the source of inspiration of the other one but, not as a
copy, but as a reformulation of an ancient poetic topos.


Even though some critics think about Horatio’s character to play a minor role in the
tragedy of Hamlet, it is fair to recognize a set of references that suggest a relation with
the roman poet Horace. This thesis was first proposed by Jacob Sider Jost in a short text
published in 20126 and here we will add some other arguments to this point of view.
Once established the poetic relation between Shakespeare and Horace as shown by the
Sonnet 55, there are strong reasons to believe that the character of Horatio has as a
source, the poems of Horace. In first place, Horatio is presented as the closest friend of
Hamlet, the friendship between both of them is unique in relation with any other
character of the play and from the beginning he is presented as a scholar. When in the
first act the spirit of King Hamlet appears to Marcellus and Bernardo, they urged Horatio
to talk to the spirit:

[Enter Ghost]
Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!
In the same figure, like the king that's dead.
Thou art a scholar; speak to it, Horatio.
Looks it not like the king? mark it, Horatio.
Most like: it harrows me with fear and wonder.

J. Sider JOST, « Hamlet’s Horatio as an Allusion to Horace’s Odes », Notes and Queries, vol. 59, p. 76- 77.
It would be spoke to.
Question it, Horatio.
What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? by heaven I charge thee, speak!7

It is clear that Horatio has an intellectual profile and his friendship with Prince Hamlet
will play an important role in the tragedy. Horatio is the closest friend of Hamlet, he is
his confident, the only one that knows his plans and he knows that his madness is merely
a stratagem. If the here proposed allusion is right, we could even think of Horatio as a
tribute to Horace’s poetry. i.e. the value and consideration of Horace’s poetry in
Shakespearean thought. As the plays goes on, we can see the closeness of Horatio to
Hamlet and in the fifth act, while Hamlet dies and Horatio wants to follow him in his
death, he tries to drink the poison left in the glass, as he does that, he says: “I am more
an antique Roman than a Dane”.8
This kind of declarations can make us think that Horatio has a different status between
the characters of the play, but there are two references to the Ode III.30 that absolutely
shows the relation of the characters to Horace’s poetry.
Also, in the first scene from the first Act, as Horatio arrives to greet Bernardo, the answer
given has brought a lot of interpretations:

Holla! Bernardo!
What, is Horatio there?

Hamlet, Act. I. I
Ibid, Act. V, II
A piece of him.
Welcome, Horatio: welcome, good Marcellus.9

“A piece of him”, as stated by Jacob Sider Jost seems to be a direct quote to Horace’s
Ode: “multaque pars mei” (a great part of myself). In one side, Horace’s Ode suggest
that a part of him will live forever in his texts and in this sense Horatio’s response may
have a deeper value if we see the whole panorama of the play. If we accept that this
response can be related to Horace’s Ode, then the response will carry also the sense of
continuity or eternity stated by the roman poet. This is relevant because it will be
Horatio, as required by Hamlet, the one to tell the prince’s story. That is why we found
a second reference, if not explicit, to the first part of the verse in Horace’s Ode: “non
omnis moriar” (I will not completely die), because it is Hamlet itself who stops Horatio
from drinking the poison that could kill him. It seems clear that “a piece of him” works
as anticipation of Horatio’s destiny as future guardian of Hamlet’s memory, that is why
he avoid death in order to tell the story, in other words: “multaque pars mei vitabit
Libitinam” (a great part of me will avoid death) just as Horace’s poetry will live to achieve
his eternity.


The complexity of Shakespeare’s works is not possible to explain in a short amount of

lines. There are important essays that go deeper in the research of this quality. Harold
Bloom’s The Invention of the Human is one example of those efforts to untie the riddle
of Shakespeare’s genius. Of course, the different fields in which we can find some of his
poetic qualities are vast: we can find it in language, the management of emotion and in
this case, the subtle reference to a fundamental poet of the western literary tradition.
As we saw, Horatio, even in his minor role inside the tragedy, carries with him a set of
references to the classical antiquity and his character creates link between the poetry

Ibid. Act. I, I.
of a roman writer from the first century b.C and an English writer from the sixteenth
century a.C.


Lydia BAUMBACH, « SHAKESPEARE AND THE CLASSICS », Acta Classica, 1985, vol. 28, p.
77- 86.

HORACE, T. E PAGE, Augustus S WILKINS et Arthur PALMER, Q. Horati Flacci opera, London;
New York, Macmillan, 2005.

J. Sider JOST, « Hamlet’s Horatio as an Allusion to Horace’s Odes », Notes and Queries,
vol. 59, p. 76- 77.

William SHAKESPEARE, Complete works, New York, Etats-Unis d’Amérique, Modern

Library, 2007.

Perry D. WESTBROOK, « Horace’s Influence on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra »,

PMLA, 1947, vol. 62, no 2, p. 392- 398.