Hamlet in Purgatory – Stephen Greenblatt

If ever there were a poster boy of literary criticism, Stephen Greenblatt would surely be him.  Renaissance Self Fashioning, his 1980 thesis on constructed identity, is about as close as critical theory has ever come to an international bestselling mega-hit; and his 2005 biography of Shakespeare Will in the World has already established itself as the go-to Bard authority for under- and post-graduates alike.  Yup, all things being equal, hoards of screaming teenage girls would queue for days outside any venue in which Greenblatt was due to make an appearance, tears of convergent joy and despair running down their faces.  But we literati are a restrained bunch, our love and adoration is expressed in quiet coffee shop concord and polite Amazon book reviews.  Nevertheless, Greenblatt is a relatively big cheese, so it’s high-time I jabbered on about one of his books.

Perhaps Greenblatt’s popular eminence as literary celebrity was the provenance for the punchy and institutionally nonstandard title of his new(ish) book Hamlet in Purgatory.  It’s an undeniably glamorous heading that invites question, but it’s nonetheless fundamentally misleading, as any mention of Hamlet or critical analysis of the same is left entirely until the book’s closing chapter – also its shortest.  My initial disappointment with this lack of Hamletty analysis was soon mitigated, however, by Greenblatt’s early mission statement that the majority of this book functions as treatise on ghosts, demons, myth, monsters, the supernatural, pain, doubling, visual art and the unknowable nature of infinity. I don’t think any critical book has pushed so many of my literary buttons in one such swift movement.  Hamlet in Purgatory definitely piqued my interest, and having read it, part of me just wants to yell “Oh my God it’s so cool!” and let that stand for my review.  But I know you readers are a discerning bunch, and I wouldn’t want to let my “professional” (ahem) face slip, so here’s more detail…

As you’d expect from the pioneer of New Historicism, Hamlet in Purgatory reads more like literary history than exegesis.  As Greenblatt wrestles with the nature of purgatory, the text becomes dense with historical reference and description – nowhere more so than in the opening chapter, which describes a kind of contemporary battle of pamphlets between Simon Fish and Sir Thomas More: the former refuting the existence of purgatory, the latter attesting to it.  And this isn’t the minor theological nit-picking it may initially appear.  As I understand it, by the 16th Century the doctrinal legitimacy of purgatory was an explicitly Catholic aspect, and the rejection of it was therefore a strikingly avant-garde and Reformative (read: Protestant) stance; potentially treasonous.  Fish’s salient objection is against the Roman Catholic Church’s proclivity for demanding money in return for prayers for the benefactors’ souls – prayers that would speed the souls’ passage through purgatory and into heaven.  The two-fold challenge is that 1) the Church should be poor and 2) purgatory has no scriptural basis – which Greenblatt himself confirms by demonstrating that the first (extant) textual reference to purgatory dates from the late 12th Century.

Why this fixation with purgatory in a book ostensibly concerned with Hamlet?  Well, in the 16th Century purgatory was inextricably connected with ghost theory, and Old Hamlet’s ghost being the instigator of Hamlet’s entire plot, it’s pretty darn important (Greenblatt contests) to know how ghosts would have been understood by the play’s contemporary audience.  In order to achieve this, a working-knowledge of purgatory, as it were, is required.  Unlike today, where ghosts have a relatively wishy-washy place in the supernatural pantheon, back in the 1500s they had a very specific ontology: they were exclusively the spirits of the inhabitants of purgatory, come to ask something of the living.  All ghosts, it follows, are Catholic; and this Catholicism of the ghost, if you will, is conceived by Greenblatt as a source of major, albeit sub-textual, conflict in Hamlet: Greenblatt reads Hamlet as having a “distinctly Protestant temperament” which struggles hubristically with the Catholic nature of his father’s ghost to create the tension, delay, madness and disharmony rampant in the play.

Put simply, however, the book’s closing analysis of Hamlet is actually less interesting than the perambulatory exploration of the history (both literary and religious) of purgatory itself.  Although a theory of Hamlet offers the way-in or excuse for all this research in the first place, it feels somewhat tacked-on to the end, and the microscopic focus on this individual play is a definite disconnect coming as it does after a long, broad and all-encompassing study of ghosts and purgatory.  It felt to me as if Greenblatt’s examination of Hamlet was an unnecessary excuse to write-up a bunch of cool stuff about Purgatory.  And it really is cool.  One chapter, for instance, details the Discretio Spirituum– a list of questions that a Catholic priest can utilize to determine whether or not a ghost is actually a visiting spirit from purgatory, or a demon sent to torment a bereaved family.  As ghostbusters as it sounds, the Discretio Spirituum was officially sanctioned Catholic practice.

Elsewhere, the tradition of representing purgatory in art is explained, which seems to consist of a strikingly literal visual language.  Purgatory is dominantly depicted as a space literally below the earth, and in many ways synonymous with Hell.  (“Two spaces cannot share the same geographical location” argued one protestant theologian – he’s obviously never read The City and The City).  Here Greenblatt appeals to the modern sensibility of the glamour of the grotesque to lure in the reader: what was once intended to shock now morbidly fascinates. For e.g.: one reproduced illumination shows the Virgin Mary in heaven ‘soothing’ the souls of purgatory below her with comically ludicrous streams of breast milk.  Another exposes the bizarre specificity with which the Catholic Church had accounted for the various souls of Purgatory by depicting the precise punishment of “the wicked but not very”.

Occasionally Greenblatt veers into a critical lexicon and style that takes some decoding (and recourse to a good dictionary of theory), and this is frequently at odds with the otherwise popular and encompassing tone of his prose.  But fundamentally (and I know this is an entirely subjective judgement) Hamlet in Purgatory is relentlessly interesting.  In part I read it as an explanation of the primeval fear-of-monsters that’s such a characteristic of modern horror/supernatural fiction.  Something about the purgatorial ghost plays into deep, irrational fears of pain, unknowable evil, monstrous demons and the long-coming victory after noble suffering.  So many myths or hero sagas could be traced back to historical notions of purgatory as both concept and place, and for this reason Hamlet in Purgatory aligned with my own literary leanings and offered more-than-a-little food for thought.  If you’ve any interest (academic or popular) in the monstrous or supernatural, then you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book, if only to discover the religious progenitor of the modern idea of the haunting.

Greenblatt’s fundamental conclusion that the ghost didn’t disappear in post-Catholic textuality, but was appropriated into the language of theatre as both narrative device and tragic idiom is beautifully explained and entirely convincing.  The Protestant ghost is an act of theatre, simultaneously ridding the concept of its religious significance, while maintaining its capacity to shock and alarm: “The space of Purgatory becomes the space of the stage where old Hamlet’s Ghost is doomed for a certain time to walk the night.”


2 responses to “Hamlet in Purgatory – Stephen Greenblatt

  1. Oh boy, this does sound good. I remember taking somewhat to Greenblatt in the far-off days when I was reading seriously, and Hamlet is obviously pretty irresistible, even it’s only a vehicle for the rest. However, I can’t quite see our local library coming up with a copy, so it may have to wait a little.

    • Hi, many thanks for reading and commenting.
      Yeah, it’s a really, really great book – I stormed through it in a way I’ve never done with a book of critical theory before. But, then again, being a book about ghosts, monsters, madness, purgatory, artwork and Hamlet, it was right-up my literary street, as morbid as that sounds…

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