Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton Classics)
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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.
to be honored later. 25. Cursor Mundi [Northumbrian, fourteenth-century], ed. Richard Morris, 3 vols. Early English Text Society, o.s. (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1877, 1878, 1892), 3:1575: Forthi to man it es grete watch, And vnto preste that schriues bath; For in his boke saint austyn sais, That he the prest that penance layes Be vnwise in his fiting, Or else the synful in his telling, Ather of tham for thaire foly Sall brin in fire of Purgatory, And mak amendes thare
that is, to investigate further the truth of the haunting, but in “the house of Gy” they find no trace of the ghost. They conclude—as the ghost himself had predicted—that Gy’s spirit has ascended to heaven “where comfort is withouten care” (line 2061). The end is a happy one in which the church can claim to have played an important role, but the ghost’s parting words remain a reproach and a warning. 47. Cf. William Henry Schofield, Mythical Bards and the Life of William Wallace, Harvard Studies
from the past, but he also conferred upon those traces his own vital agency. Something of Shakespeare’s life, along with the lives of many others who preceded him, survives in Hamlet. It has been handed down through innumerable texts and performances; it is passing through the present moment in which I am writing; and it is poised to enter an unknown future. In this sense, Hamlet in Purgatory is itself a ghost story. Stephen Greenblatt April 2013 HAMLET IN PURGATORY PROLOGUE THIS IS a book
relevant to his ability to perform the Mass, for unclean thoughts and deadly sins enable fiends to interfere and mar the proper “making” of God’s Body. But this is only to say that the most precious medicine must be well and cleanly made. The discussion of the Mass gives the prior—who, unbeknownst to everyone, has a consecrated Host hidden under his scapular—the occasion to ask one of his most sly prosecutorial questions: since the time that the ghost went “out of this world,” has he ever seen
an odd resonance: these are words that are most appropriately spoken by a ghost. It is as if the spirit of Hamlet’s father has not disappeared; it has been incorporated by his son. DARK HINTS “When the ghost has vanished,” says Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, in what is probably the most influential of all readings of Hamlet, “what do we see standing before us? A young hero thirsting for revenge? A prince by birth, happy to be charged with unseating the usurper of his throne? Not at all!” The tragedy