Greenblatt in Purgatory



Stephen Greenblatt. 2001. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 322 pp. ISBN 0-691-05873-3. 19.95/$29.95.

  1. Together with the essays exposing Shakespeare's eucharistic theatre in Practising New Historicism (2000), Hamlet in Purgatory (2001) represents the fruition of what may now be recognized as Stephen Greenblatt's long-standing preoccupation with religion. This stretches back through his career from the celebrated reading of King Lear, 'Shakespeare and the Exorcists', to the chapters on More and Tyndale in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980). In his latest book, Greenblatt's view has developed to the point where Christianity is recognized as the beating heart of the cultural poetics of the day before Shakespeare's, and the Bard himself is to be praised for reprising this vital late-medieval religious legacy as something even more rich and strange.

  2. This flowering of religious and of spiritual imagination is perhaps unexpected in the father of new historicism, but Greenblatt has always resisted a programme, and Hamlet in Purgatory is a methodologically restless book whose primary allegiance is to the freedom and responsibility of imagination itself. 'My only goal', writes Greenblatt, 'was to immerse myself in the tragedy's magical intensity'. Yet since, as he puts it, 'nothing comes of nothing, even in Shakespeare', this led him down a more familiarly new-historicist path towards Purgatory and its traditions in order to explain the Ghost. But Greenblatt is also frankly drawn to Hamlet, and the tradition of purgatorial suffering and release, as a way of laying to rest the 'ghost' of his own father. He daringly suggests that the Jews learned prayer for the dead from their Christian neighbours, and that this twenty-first-century, Jewish-American, new-historicist academic superstar is himself able to say kaddish by means of a monograph on an alien theme is evidence of the true catholicity and energy of his own mind. It also evinces a sense of human kinship and solidarity which reaches across the barriers and differences of history and culture more traditionally emphasized by new-historicist scholarship.

  3. Hamlet in Purgatory thus endues Shakespeare criticism at the turn of the millennium with unexpected, and unexpectedly metaphysical, affective force. Its historical value resides in its rediscovery of the play and the traditions of Purgatory as it were from the inside, thus salvaging something of the mind of the past. Greenblatt insists 'that the historical and contextual work that literary critics do succeeds only if it acquires its own compelling imaginative interest, a powerful gravitational pull that makes it feel almost wrenching to turn back to the thing that was the original focus of interest'. It is this 'independent interest' of the purgatorial materials he has unearthed that, he feels, paradoxically 'makes the whole subject worthy of Hamlet'. In this subtly altered perspective, for the literary critic the work of art is the motive for exploring history, which is always to be judged by, and at its best itself incarnates, an aesthetic criterion.

  4. In Marlowe's most celebrated play, Faustus tells Mephistopheles that Hell's a fable, to which the devil responds with bitter wryness, 'Ay, think so still, till experience change thy mind'. In respect of Purgatory, Greenblatt manages to take up both Faustian and Mephistophelean positions at the same time. The middle station of souls is an invented place as, by implication, are the upper and lower chambers of the afterlife. Greenblatt notes that the Latin prose treatise Saint Patrick's Purgatory (Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii), which locates the mouth of Purgatory at Logh Derg in Donegal, was written in the early 1180s considerably in advance of the first pontifical definition of Purgatory in 1254: therefore imagination preceded doctrine. And yet, to the extent that it shaped the life and the selves of Christendom, Purgatory was very real indeed. For the bereaved, by institutionalizing the felt proximity of the dear departed, it met the transhistorical human need to relate to and make peace with them. But this spiritual fiction also had more concrete effects. Greenblatt observes, for instance, that the normally parsimonious Henry VII founded and staffed the magnificent late-Gothic chapel at Westminster to ensure perpetual prayers for his soul, and supplemented these with anniversary masses in cathedrals, and conventual and university churches. He also founded hospitals and an almshouse where presumably grateful beneficiaries would also sue to God on behalf of his spirit. His will commissioned a further 10,000 masses. When in 1545 and 1547 Parliament abolished the whole English institutional connection with Purgatory, Camden recorded that this entailed the liquidation of some 2,374 chantries and free chapels, 110 hospitals and 90 non-university colleges, and modern scholars typically deem it a conservative estimate.

  5. Characteristic of Greenblatt's even-handedness and sophistication as an interpreter is his sympathy for the Protestant opponents of Purgatory even as he admires it as a monumental edifice, acknowledges reasons for believing in it and, in a sense, has resorted there in his own grief. In A Supplication for the Beggars (1529), Simon Fish presented the doctrine to Henry VIII as a shameful scam. Like Luther before him, Fish was exercized by the church's sale of indulgences for the remission of purgatorial pains, and his overall argument is that charity should be diverted from the coffers of the Catholic church to the hungry and homeless. It is also difficult not to share his outrage that the wealthy could purchase spiritual benefits beyond the reach of the poor in spite of Aquinas's ingenious riposte, instanced by Greenblatt, that it is ecclesiastical charity to favour the rich somehow since the poor are so much preferred in Heaven. And when Fish asks why His Holiness the Pope, since he is able to release some souls for money, does not deliver all of them and so abolish Purgatory, it is hard to imagine an acceptable answer.

  6. Nevertheless, within months Sir Thomas More responded to Fish with his own The Supplication of Souls, in which he vividly imagines the denizens of Purgatory crying out for the suffrages of still living kindred who have abandoned them. Fish, of course, had history on his side, and Purgatory disappeared from English religion, and almost from the English imagination as well. But Greenblatt presents this as a historical trauma involving a massive deportation of spirits and a second bereavement for the living, as their dead kin passed utterly beyond the scope of their love and aid as well as their more negative emotions of guilt and anger. Here, and throughout this book, Greenblatt disclaims vulgar cultural materialism; in spite of the abuses exposed by Fish, it would be dismayingly reductive to dismiss Purgatory as mere ideology.

  7. Given the recalcitrant sense of the nearness of the departed to which Greenblatt himself testifies, the deportation from Purgatory inevitably left some stragglers behind to haunt wives, husbands, and churchyards, as well as sons. This and the general dislocation of the dead Are they here? In Purgatory? Beyond? Greenblatt sees as a theatrical opportunity on which Shakespeare alone fully capitalized. He finds the Bard staging ghosts time and again, and there are many highlights in his fast-moving survey of Shakespearean spirits other than the ghost of Hamlet's father. He describes, for instance, 'the remarkable effect of a nebulous infection' in Macbeth, 'a bleeding of the spectral into the secular and the secular into the spectral'. Moreover, though the disestablishment of Purgatory was supposed to have thoroughly tidied away the deceased, Greenblatt finds 'the universe of A Midsummer Night's Dream hyperanimated, especially at night, by restless wanderers'. In The Tempest, he points to Prospero soliciting the 'indulgence' of the audience to waft him away, as though he were a purgatorial soul begging suffrage. The flickering ghostliness of Shakespeare's theatre, with its spectral evocations of human life, has rarely emerged more powerfully. Greenblatt's fascinating new reading of Hamlet unfolds from a recognition of the plain but routinely overlooked fact that the Ghost asks not so much to be revenged as remembered. It has taken the rest of the book to get round to its supposed subject, and this culminating chapter is perhaps also entitled 'Remember Me' in pleasant acknowledgement of Greenblatt's critical method of by indirections finding direction out. Like the valedictory Prospero, the spirit of Hamlet's father is seen in relation to the old supplicating spirits of Catholic England. Noting John Shakespeare's supposed recusancy, Greenblatt even imagines the Bard subjected to the purgatorial pleadings of his deceased parent shades, again, of his felt duty to say kaddish. He presents Shakespeare's tragedy as dramatizing the progressive forgetting of the father, thus particularizing and allegorizing the cultural forgetting of Purgatory which he has narrated already and, perhaps, exorcising his own ghost. In spite of the nominally Catholic theme, to this author Shakespeare is always heterodox and ambiguous. Greenblatt ponders conflicting Catholic and Protestant motifs, as well as the puzzling discrepancy between the Ghost's vivid confessions of the afterlife and Hamlet's subsequent description of death as the 'undiscovered country'. He sees Shakespeare's imagination as 'magnificently opportunistic, appropriative, absorptive, even cannibalistic', but as spiritualizing the secular more than secularizing the spiritual. He evokes the sheer weirdness of Hamlet, as in the odd moment when the Prince says more than once, 'I am dead'.

  8. It will be clear from all this that Greenblatt is primarily interested in Purgatory as a half-way-house between life and death and a threshold of mourning, but it is also the middle place in a topography of judgement, a dimension rather left out of account here and a more forceful spiritual theme than others attended to by Greenblatt. Whereas, for example, The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream lend spiritual form and resonance to the familiar circumstances and energies of this world, the drama of judgement suggests that another, more real world verges on this one, and will dissolve and supplant it.

  9. Greenblatt's treatments of, say, Clarence's dream and Richard III's supernatural forebodings before Bosworth Field, as well as of the apparition of Caesar's ghost to the doomed Brutus and the posthumous appearance of 'blood-boltered Banquo' to Macbeth, are conducted in terms of 'deep psychic disturbance' or 'history's nightmare', 'the poetic or tragic structure of history'. He is fascinated by the way dreams and private horrors overwhelm the world. But Clarence, Richard, Brutus and Macbeth are not just subject to any old fancies and frights: the revenant murder-victims who transpire to each of them are accusing figures of guilt disclosing (to the audience as well as the murderers themselves) an objective moral world thus far pathetically evaded and ignored. This world of responsibility and consequence is decisively established at the respective ends of the plays. It is not so much that the private supplants the public as that the reality of ethics irresistibly invades the fantasy-lives of megalomaniac dreamers, thus partly prophesying, partly effecting the ruination of their tyrannical plans to shape reality to their own desire.

  10. With its strong residual sense of bereavement and the vitality of evil, Macbeth swerves from this paradigm but still wholly depends on it. Hamlet disturbingly alters the pattern because the ghost of the victim appears to the wrong person not bringing the murderer to judgement but provoking a third party to ambiguous revenge. The other ghosts derive their power from their representation of an absolute moral order, but Hamlet's ghost is still caught up in the corruption of this world; hence, partly, the Prince's rightful agony of uncertainty. In this perspective, neither Purgatory nor Hamlet's purgatorial ghost are otherworldly enough. The Ghost raises the issue of judgement as its subject as much as its agent, and Purgatory is not a place of pure judgement. It's more of a place of penance, preparing souls for final stations of judgement in Heaven or in Hell, which may be why it so readily disappeared from Protestant eschatology. The Christian vision of a significant universe depends on an otherworld not subject to the compromises and confusion of this one, and the ambiguity of Purgatory, it could be argued, fatally contaminates this.

  11. Hamlet in Purgatory declines to dwell on the crucial fact that Purgatory defers the main event of judgement, withholding the 'world without end' of final judgement realized. The neglect of Dante facilitates this. And yet, the book is imbued with the spirit of judgement. Greenblatt writes out of wondering admiration for Shakespeare's play, declares persons and works to be 'great', judges crude interpreters adversely. He even pronounces 'the general wretchedness of human beings'. Leaving aside the filial piety of mourning not judging one's father, presumably it is new-historicist relativism that restrains Greenblatt from really engaging with this theme, and the absolute values it entails; but French thinkers such as Emmanual Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion have shown that it can be done in the most contemporary terms, while Hans Jonas argued that what we most need is a new myth of judgement. Jacques Derrida's profound reading of Hamlet in Specters of Marx (1993) unites mourning with eschatological ethics, seeing the Ghost as summoning Hamlet and ourselves to unachievably absolute responsibility.

  12. Hamlet is not in Purgatory, whatever the fate of his father and namesake, who is normally called Old Hamlet to distinguish him from his more significant son; and since Greenblatt nowhere says that the play itself is in Purgatory, the title of this book is slightly misleading. In its deferral of judgement, Hamlet in Purgatory is itself purgatorial. But it makes a serious consideration of judgement in mainstream historical criticism both imperative and inevitable. After Doomsday and Apocalypse, Purgatory will give way to Heaven and Hell, which may prove disconcertingly more than the sublime and consoling fiction that Greenblatt has triumphantly evoked here.

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Contents © Copyright 2002 Ewan Fernie.
Format © Copyright 2002 Renaissance Forum. ISSN 1362-1149. Volume 6, Number 1, Winter 2002.
Technical Editor: Andrew Butler. Updated 31 December 2002.