Cover image for Hamlet in purgatory
Hamlet in purgatory
Greenblatt, Stephen, 1943-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
xii, 322 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 25 cm
Format :


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PR2807 .G69 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Author Notes

Stephen Greenblatt is a literary critic, theorist and scholar.

He is the author of Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley (1965); Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980); Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture (1990); Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies (1992); The Norton Shakespeare (1997); Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (2004); Shakespeare's Freedom (2010); and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011).

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Greenblatt has made a name for himself both as a preeminent Shakespeare scholar and as one of the founders of the "New Historicist" approach to literary criticism. Central to his approach is the notion that not only does history affect literature, but literature itself informs history, a claim its critics have generally either pursued without conviction or nervously sought to evade. Greenblatt's newest work is a fine example of his method's considerable appeal; what could be a narrow treatise on the theme of purgatory in Hamlet rapidly unfolds into an absorbing investigation of religious persecution, spectral haunting and the memory of the dead. Purgatory, Greenblatt contends, occupied the center of theological warfare in Shakespeare's time, derided by Protestants as a cynical source of papal revenue (from pardons and indulgences), a baroque work of the Catholic imagination and a "poet's fable." Pursuing the purgatorial mind-set through its visual and textual incarnations, Greenblatt finds its suppressed traces in the form of medieval and Elizabethan ghost stories, theatrical works and dreams His increasingly occult investigation culminates in a compelling portrait of Shakespeare's Hamlet as a political, psychological, spiritual animal haunted by the ghost of his father and bearing a secret authorial agenda. Greenblatt's fascination with ghostly texts is contagious, and he is virtually unequaled among literary critics as a prose stylist. Though the book occasionally labors under the weight of its own evidence, it greatly succeeds in bringing alive the powerful complex of fear and longing Shakespeare so deftly deployed. Required reading for those who study Shakespeare, this graceful analysis should also give considerable pleasure to those who merely enjoy him. 8 color, 10 b&w illus. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

"The power of Shakespeare's theater," writes Greenblatt (Harvard), "is frequently linked to its appropriation of weakened or damaged institutional structures." In Shakespearean Negotiations (CH, May'88), Greenblatt revealed how in King Lear Shakespeare appropriated the discredited structures of the exorcism ceremony for a Protestant audience, which experienced aesthetic and intellectual delight through the revelation of the theatrical and poetical resources of the exorcism ritual. Here Greenblatt turns to Shakespeare's reinvention in Hamlet of the discredited structures of the myth of purgatory. Following those who have chronicled the relatively recent (c.1270) invention of the idea of purgatory, Greenblatt shows how Shakespeare took what appeared in Catholic culture as a theological and ontological issue and turned it into a functional psychological structure through which he illuminated the immanent division of early modern subjectivity. Whereas Anglicans ridiculed the idea of purgatory and the profitable economics of selling indulgences, Greenblatt reveals how Shakespeare turned the Anglican assault on the idea of purgatory as mere poetry into an indispensable poetic resource. In addition to this decisive repositioning of Hamlet's place in modern culture, Greenblatt provides extraordinary readings of little-known works (e.g., the Middle English prose tract The Gast of Gy and Simon Fish's A Supplication for the Beggars, 1529). A major work of contemporary scholarship. N. Lukacher University of Illinois at Chicago

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Prologuep. 3
Chapter 1 A Poet's Fablep. 10
Chapter 2 Imagining Purgatoryp. 47
Chapter 3 The Rights of Memoryp. 102
Chapter 4 Staging Ghostsp. 151
Chapter 5 Remember Mep. 205
Epiloguep. 258
Notesp. 263
Indexp. 315