The Importance of Osric

Osric, and why you can’t cut him.

If I say “Osric from Hamlet”, how many people would know who I mean? Some may vaguely remember him as an annoying courtier from scene 5.2 (the last one). But unless you’re prone to analyzing Hamlet very deeply (as I am), you probably haven’t thought much about Osric. After all, he only appears in one scene, and has 25 lines in total. (Which, interestingly, is a lot more lines than Fortinbras—yet most people remember Fortinbras.)

Perhaps such a small character should be cut. After all, all he really does is inform Hamlet of the wager against him in the duel… right?

Not exactly.

There are multiple interpretations of Osric’s character, some which I prefer more than others. In this post I’ll be talking mostly about the one I like the best.

Here is the script of scene 5.2, in case you’d like to refer to it.

First and foremost: Osric is in love with Laertes:

“Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing: indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.”

OK, so Osric has a lot to say about Laertes. One could argue that Claudius set him up to it, to make Laertes seem a more formidable enemy to Hamlet. (After all, Claudius does tell Laertes this in 4.7: “We’ll put on those shall praise your excellence and set a double varnish on the fame the Frenchman gave you.”) However, it doesn’t really seem like Osric is praising Laertes’ fighting skill: he’s simply talking about how nice and polite he is. In a way, it’s kind of out of the blue.

Also, consider this exchange that takes place after Hamlet and Laertes have wounded each other:

They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?
How is’t, Laertes?
Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric;
I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.

Laertes’ line here is incredibly important, for a couple different reasons.

There’s a lot of textual evidence (which I won’t put here, because this post is about Osric) to support the assertion that Horatio loves Hamlet—so it’s very interesting to note the parallel structure between what Horatio says to Hamlet, and what Osric says to Laertes. Also, Laertes responds to Osric’s concerns in a far more personal way than if he were just some random courtier asking if he’s okay.

However… this line is not just personal in that Laertes directly addresses Osric. It’s also interesting to note that this is the only time Laertes actually holds himself responsible for the sharpened/poisoned foil. All other times, he blames Claudius or leaves it indefinite: “It is a poison temper’d by himself.” “The king, the king’s to blame.” “The foul practise hath turn’d itself on me.” I would argue that this line suggests that Laertes and Osric have a closer relationship than assumed. If Laertes is willing to confess to Osric that he’s made a mistake, he certainly must trust him.

(Also… if you scan Laertes’ lines here, they seem to work better in trochaic pentameter than they do in iambic… when a line goes against the regular meter, you know it must be important!)

Right. So if Osric is in love with Laertes… how does that make him an essential character? It all has to do with Claudius’ plot.

As much as I would love to think of Osric as a sweet, innocent, and clueless character, logic would dictate otherwise. Osric is definitely in on the plot to kill Hamlet.

There’s a lot of significance in the fact that Osric gives Hamlet and Laertes the foils before they fight (“Give them the foils, young Osric.”). It’s very unlikely that he would have just happened to hand Laertes the sharpened one.

Also, Laertes says, “I am justly kill’d with mine own treachery.” This is kind of a vague statement, seeming to suggest that Osric knows what this “treachery” is.

But why would Osric agree to be part of the plot anyway? He’s essentially consenting to participate in Hamlet’s murder. The obvious answer is that Osric is fiercely loyal to Laertes—a statement which isn’t untrue. However, I think there’s a little more to it than that.

In the part where Osric talks to Hamlet and Horatio, some people play the exchange as comic relief—Osric is silly and nervous, and Hamlet pokes fun at him. However, Hamlet goes a bit overboard, especially after Osric leaves:

“He did comply with his dug, before he sucked it. Thus has he—and many more of the same bevy that I know the dressy age dotes on—only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yesty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.”

He also says this to Horatio when Osric first enters:

“Thy state is the more gracious; for ’tis a vice to know him. He hath much land, and fertile: let a beast be lord of beasts, and his crib shall stand at the king’s mess: ’tis a chough; but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt.”

If Hamlet were simply teasing Osric, these lines would’ve been a lot shorter. But no—Hamlet takes up whole paragraphs in attacking him. Is there really a good reason for him to be this spiteful? From what we’ve seen, Osric is annoying at most. But then again, Hamlet obviously has met him before.

In any case, Hamlet is a lot ruder in this scene than I think he should be. Also, I suspect that he’s also been mean to Osric in the past. After this dialogue, I imagine Osric is feeling humiliated and miserable. Perhaps it is then that Claudius approaches him, at his most vulnerable, and tells him about the plot against Hamlet’s life. Osric, partly out of loyalty to Laertes and partly out of anger at Hamlet, agrees to help.

There are many other logistic reasons for why Osric can’t be cut. Who will deliver the wager? Who will judge the duel? (An interesting production idea would be to put Horatio in this position, but I’m not sure if it makes as much sense.)

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that even the minor characters are fleshed-out. Even though Osric only appears in one scene, he’s a three-dimensional character with motivations, relationships, and even some backstory. And in my opinion, he’s one of the most interesting characters in the play.


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