Hamlet in Purgatory  book by Stephen Greenblatt

Hamlet in Purgatory book by Stephen Greenblatt

For several months after my friend Elizabeth died, when I was sixteen, I would be awakened in the middle of the night by the feeling of a nearby shape. Not Elizabeth herself; but something like the outline of her clothes, or the slope of her shoulders abstracted into parentheses. If I managed to get out of bed and into the hall, the grayness would yield up the same slow-moving points which greet all eyes adjusting to the dark; but all of them now tracing bits of Elizabeth, as if my imagination had molded them into a reminder.

I believed for a while, and still do in a small way, that this experience belongs to a category of things that are closed away or secret. But there is no convincing reason to feel this way: the experience is nearly universal. We all have been through the time, right after a person dies, when the force of collective memory makes him more alive than he ever was. Memory is “green,” as Hamlet has it, and we expect the departed one to call, to show up with the next delivery of mail, to be hovering just offstage. He demands a space. He leaves us with feelings that want no explanation, that ask only for a place to live.

In our time, these more uncanny aspects of grief are afloat, largely lacking in concrete expression. Watching or reading Hamlet, we feel the problem articulated in sublime form. The prince suffers under a double burden: grief at the loss of his father, and his failure to give this grief a place to live. His feelings are displaced and shameful, mingling with the unholy. The uneasy spectator feels these burdens as a fierce sadness winging up from a place below grief. The feeling comes not from our sorrow, but from the homelessness of our sorrow.

It was not always so. For about four hundred years, Stephen Greenblatt tells us inHamlet in Purgatory, grief had a home. If a housewife felt her newly dead husband treading over the floorboards, she could take solace in a particular story: his soul was stuck in Purgatory, struggling upward to Heaven, and his ghost had come back to tell her so. Sometimes he gave her details: descriptions of fire, more intense than any fire on earth; tremendous weights, greater than the weights of cathedrals; angels reaching from above, promising him a lift once he had paid his dues. She could share this story and its topographical details with her family, her priest, her entire town if she chose.

This was not all, of course, for it happened that her concerted financial efforts could get him up to Heaven quite a bit faster. Through prayers and indulgences, she and her friends could give him an upward boost. How would they know that their efforts had been accounted for? Because his visits would cease, the floorboards would quiet. Assurance of her husband’s salvation was thus beautifully linked up with the subsiding of her own intense grief.

Perhaps its brilliance—its way of giving substance to memory, its explanation of the uneasy presence of the dead in our lives, and its precise linking of suffering on earth with suffering in the beyond—best points up the truth: Purgatory is a fraud. This, Greenblatt explains, was the charge leveled by Protestant polemicists just a few years before Shakespeare’s birth: that Purgatory is mentioned nowhere in the Bible, that it is a deceptive fundraiser dreamed up by the Catholic church, and, worst of all, that it is a mere poem.

For this is what poems do, as Theseus tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “as imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen / Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name.” In this case, the forms of things unknown are the terror, anger, fear, and depression caused by the death of a loved one; the poet’s pen belongs to the Catholic church, which gives a local habitation and a name—Purgatory—to airy nothing, to an idea which appears nowhere in Scripture. This it does through the careful, fraudulent manipulation of texts, and through the writing of its own beautiful poems and tracts (including a particularly mournful one by Thomas More). “Such is the notorious folly of your Preacher,” warns one Protestant writer, “that he gathereth a Gospel out of a Poem, and that not written historically, or doctrinally, but in pathetical verse, full of Metaphors, Metonymies, Apostrophes, Prosopopeis, and other as well rhetorical figures.”

If Purgatory was a poem, why did people believe it to be real? How did the Church manage to collect, over four hundred years, as much money and as many prayers as it did on behalf of residents of a highly fictional domain? “The explanation,” Greenblatt tells us, “lies in the way that fables seize hold of the mind, create vast unreal spaces, and people those spaces with imaginary beings and detailed events. The priests’ principal power derives from their hold on the imagination of their flock.” Purgatory, in other words, is great theater.

Not coincidentally, Greenblatt has given us a Shakespearean Purgatory, which can be conceived of and probed in literary terms—a poem, a play, an “airy nothing.” Yet it bears one important difference. “There was nothing gossamer-like about Purgatory…the great imaginary construction had produced highly tangible results.” As Greenblatt relates, this vast creative edifice sustained the church financially, funnelling unimaginable amounts of money into its coffers and producing a web of institutional abuses. By 1547, these “highly tangible results” had led Protestant reformers to demolish the notion of Purgatory altogether, to eliminate all references to it in the liturgy, and to shut down the prayer chantries. Suddenly, the emotion and grief and theatricality which Purgatory had harbored were homeless; they needed “a local habitation and a name.” They needed Hamlet.

Ticking off the sudden, numerous appearances of ghosts in the theater during the fifty years following the Reformation, and arriving in his final chapter at Hamlet, Greenblatt shows how the end of Purgatory freed up an immense body of imaginative materials and emotions for the theater. The institution had met certain needs which did not disappear with the prayer chantries. Early modern mourners now had to deal with two deaths—the death of ones they loved, and the death of the institution that had given them a way of coping.

Hamlet wrestles mightily with both of these tragedies. The prince mourns his father, but has no materials with which to do so. The ghost—with his cryptic command, “Remember me”—will obviously not be pacified with an indulgence. Greenblatt observes that the play is plagued by “the disruption or poisoning of virtually all rituals for managing grief,” from the funeral meats reused at the marriage tables, to the dispute over Ophelia’s burial, to the constant commands from elders that Hamlet cease his mourning. A terrible, empty space stretches beyond Hamlet’s very real grief. “Do you see nothing there?” he demands frantically of his mother, as the ghost disappears. “No,” she tells him, “nothing but ourselves.”

What is so interesting about this argument—that the theater took up and responded to this “nothing” left behind by Protestant reformers—is how it acknowledges the strange constancy underlying culture. Hamlet takes up the burden of our perpetual feelings, the ones which persist through generations and ages. Each age dreams up homes—Purgatory, the theater, the psychiatrist’s office—for them, but the feelings themselves are crystalline, eternal and inescapable. The genius of Hamlet is to seize an historical moment when these feelings are afloat, to distill and to ponder them as if they themselves are works of art.

Greenblatt’s lesson about constancy is particularly important for modern criticism. In the past twenty years especially, scholars of literature and art have suffered from a tendency to put works of art through the meat-grinder of historical contingency. The underlying, persistent power of art gets drowned in a swirl of obnoxious historical details, which obscure the works in question by claiming that they arise from the concrete rules of their particular circumstances. Greenblatt’s interest lies in discovering sympathetic vibrations between Shakespeare’s plays and a particularly vivid and poetic historical phenomenon; it couldn’t be more at odds with the practice of lashing the plays to a set of historical details which “determine” their brilliance.

Ironically, Greenblatt himself is partly and somewhat sheepishly responsible for this crisis. In the 1970s, he initiated the practice of “New Historicism,” whose goal is to understand a text by paying vigorous, creative attention to some piece of its historical context. This practice, when used carefully, and always with attention to the “compelling imaginative interest” that history itself possesses, is useful. But it has led many critics less thoughtful than Greenblatt to crush their texts with an obscuring streamroller of facts and events, which manage to shortchange both the texts and the historical worlds from which they arise.

As if standing back in dismay from what he has spawned, Greenblatt laments in his preface that “my profession has become oddly diffident and even phobic about literary power.” Of course, this “literary power” is what draws us to study great poems and plays in the first place. It is the force to which historical accounts of literature are responsible: they must aspire to the same intensity and complexity as the literature to which they refer. Greenblatt, in this vein, has simply aspired to tell a brilliant story about Hamlet.

In so doing, interestingly enough, he has written an invisible chapter on the homes we give our grief. What if, amidst the supposed bleak cynicism of modern life, criticism aspired to the power of art? What if we could find comfort in vivid, powerful, interesting meditations on the substance of enduring works of literature? Perhaps, then, we would be showing our faithfulness to the very forces which bring us to read Shakespeare in the first place. The possibility is so true as to be trite. In Horatio’s words, “There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this.”