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Hamlet in Purgatory (Expanded Edition)

Hamlet in Purgatory (Expanded Edition)

Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 336
  • Book Info
    Hamlet in Purgatory (Expanded Edition)
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4809-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-2)
    Stephen Greenblatt
    (pp. 3-9)

    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...

    (pp. 10-46)

    Early in 1529 a London lawyer, Simon Fish, anonymously published a tract, addressed to Henry VIII, called A Supplication for the Beggars. The tract was modest in length but explosive in content: Fish wrote on behalf of the homeless, desperate English men and women, “needy, impotent, blind, lame and sick” who pleaded for spare change on the streets of every city and town in the realm.¹ These wretches, “on whom scarcely for horror any eye dare look,” have become so numerous that private charity can no longer sustain them, and they are dying of hunger.² Their plight, in Fish’s account,...

    (pp. 47-101)

    What if we take the Protestant charge seriously? Not the charge of papal venality or institutional cynicism or conspiracy to defraud—though of course, given the general wretchedness of human beings and the size of the institution in question, there is some evidence that would support all of these accusations. Rather , what if we take seriously the charge that Purgatory was a vast piece of poetry?

    From an appropriate distance, the same could be said of all conceptions of the afterlife, and, for that matter, of all religions. By the early eighteenth century, the great Neapolitan philosopher of history,...

    (pp. None)
    (pp. 102-150)

    Anyone who has experienced the death of a close friend or relative knows the feeling: not only the pain of sudden, irrevocable loss but also the strange, irrational expectation of recovery. The telephone rings, and you are suddenly certain that your dead friend is on the other end of the line; the elevator door opens, and you expect your dead father to step out into the hallway, brushing the snow from the shoulders of his coat. These are not merely modern feelings; in fact it is startling that we continue to have them so vividly, since everything in the contemporary...

    (pp. 151-204)

    The ghosts who cry out desperately in the pages of More’s Supplication, for fear that they are being forgotten, the ghosts who are consigned to oblivion by skeptics and reassigned to Hell in the writings of the triumphant Protestants, the ghosts who are increasingly labeled as fictions of the mind—these do not altogether vanish in the later sixteenth century. Instead they turn up onstage.

    Not only onstage, of course: reports of hauntings occur from time to time throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as they continue to do in the present. In the late 1570s, for example, Henry Caesar,...

    (pp. 205-257)

    “Adieu, adieu, Hamlet. Remember me” (1.5.91). If Thomas Lodge’s recollection in Wit’s Misery and the World’s Madness (1596) is to be credited, an earlier Elizabethan play about Hamlet—the so-called Ur-Hamlet—featured a pale ghost that cried “like an oyster-wife, ‘Hamlet, revenge.’ ”¹ Presumably, this was the play alluded to in 1589 by Thomas Nashe, complaining about “trivial translators”—rank amateurs who “could scarcely latinize their neck-verse if they should have need”—who read “English Seneca” by candlelight and then come forth with “whole Hamlets, I should say Handfuls of tragical speeches.”² Assuming that this earlier play was not by...

    (pp. 258-262)

    How seriously would Shakespeare have taken the notion of his theater as a cult of the dead?¹ Does he conceive of his characters as something like ghosts, endowed with the power to claim suffrages?² Does he share John Gee’s perception that the stage offers customers inexpensive “Representations and Apparitions from the dead”? There is very little direct evidence of a self-conscious and calculated theatrical appropriation of the old system in which spirits solicit prayers and indulgences confer liberation from pain. But it is intriguing that the Chorus in Henry V asks the audience’s pardon for the “flat unraisèd spirits that...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 263-314)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 315-322)