Hamlet in Purgatory

Hamlet in Purgatory

Hamlet in Purgatory

Hamlet in Purgatory


Stephen Greenblatt sets out to explain his longtime fascination with the ghost of Hamlet''s father, and his daring and ultimately gratifying journey takes him through surprising intellectual territory. It yields an extraordinary account of the rise and fall of Purgatory as both a belief and a lucrative institution--as well as a capacious new reading of the power of Hamlet.

In the mid-sixteenth century, English authorities abruptly changed the relationship between the living and dead. Declaring that Purgatory was a false poem, they abolished the institutions and banned the practices that Christians relied on to ease the passage to Heaven for themselves and their dead loved ones. Greenblatt explores the fantastic adventure narratives, ghost stories, pilgrimages, and imagery by which a belief in a grisly prison house of souls had been shaped and reinforced in the Middle Ages. He probes the psychological benefits as well as the high costs of this belief and of its demolition.

With the doctrine of Purgatory and the elaborate practices that grew up around it, the church had provided a powerful method of negotiating with the dead. The Protestant attack on Purgatory destroyed this method for most people in England, but it did not eradicate the longings and fears that Catholic doctrine had for centuries focused and exploited. In his strikingly original interpretation, Greenblatt argues that the human desires to commune with, assist, and be rid of the dead were transformed by Shakespeare--consummate conjurer that he was--into the substance of several of his plays, above all the weirdly powerful Hamlet. Thus, the space of Purgatory became the stage haunted by literature''s most famous ghost.

This book constitutes an extraordinary feat that could have been accomplished by only Stephen Greenblatt. It is at once a deeply satisfying reading of medieval religion, an innovative interpretation of the apparitions that trouble Shakespeare''s tragic heroes, and an exploration of how a culture can be inhabited by its own spectral leftovers.


This is a book about the afterlife of Purgatory, the echoes of its dead name. Specifically, it is about the traces of Purgatory in Hamlet (1601). Thus described, my project seems very tightly focused, but since Purgatory was a creation of Western Christendom as a whole, I found I could not neatly restrict my account, geographically or culturally: Ireland plays an important role, as do France, Italy, and Germany. But my principal concern is with England; to understand what Shakespeare inherited and transformed, we need to understand the way in which Purgatory, the middle space of the realm of the dead, was conceived in English texts of the later Middle Ages and then attacked by English Protestants of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. That attack, as we will see, focused on the imagination: Purgatory, it was charged, was not simply a fraud; it was a piece of poetry. The terms of this attack in turn, I will argue, facilitated Shakespeare's crucial appropriation of Purgatory in Hamlet.

As such sketches often do, this one reverses the order in which this book actually evolved. I began with the notion of writing a book about Shakespeare as a Renaissance conjurer. By the term “conjurer” I simply mean someone who has the power to call forth or make contact through language with those things—voices, faces, bodies, and spirits—that are absent. Shakespeare possessed this power to an extraordinary degree, and I wanted to explore some of its sources. I made starts in several different directions: an essay on Macbeth and Shakespeare's great contemporary, Reginald Scot, who blamed witchcraft persecutions on a misplaced faith in poets' metaphors; an essay on the peculiar absence in Shakespeare's drama, even in a play like King Lear about extreme old age, of what we would term “natural death”; several essays on . . .

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