In Hamlet in Purgatory, renowned literary scholar
Stephen Greenblatt delves into 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 expanded Princeton Classics edition includes a new preface
by the author.
Subjects: Language & Literature
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