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Speaking to the yet unknowing world: Hamlet, Horatio and the problem of imperfect witness
  1. Christine Phillips
  1. Correspondence to Christine Phillips, Medical School, Australian National University, Peter Baume Building (42A), Canberra, ACT 2602, Australia; christine.phillips{at}


Every day doctors bear witness to others about the experiences, needs and feelings of their patients, drawing on what they have learnt from clinical consultations. This paper considers the medical task of bearing honourable and truthful witness through an examination of the role and actions of Horatio in Hamlet. Horatio is simultaneously located among the background machinery of the play, separate from the lives of the protagonists, and in the foreground, where his authoritative witness is repeatedly called upon by the play's characters. Horatio is invited to watch an unfolding disaster, his warnings are not heard, and at its conclusion he stands apart from the drama to give its account. The tensions between engagement and observation, and between partial and impartial accounting echo those faced by doctors in everyday clinical practice. The act of bearing witness, Shakespeare suggests, even for those who are tasked with being objective, is necessarily imperfect, and not dispassionate. Those people, including doctors, who are expected to construct authoritative accounts of the motives and actions of others may find in Hamlet a small lesson on the need to approach their summary narratives about others more humbly, aware of the narrowness and partiality of their perspective.

  • Literature and medicine
  • physician's narratives
  • narrative medicine
  • witness

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  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.