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Describing his new book, Stephen Greenblatt writes that it is “about the afterlife of Purgatory, the echoes of its dead name. Specifically, it is about the traces of Purgatory in Hamlet.” Central to the book is Hamlet’s most famous speech, the one that actors playing the role dread above all since they know some of the audience will be audibly repeating it along with them. This meditation, on the choice between being and not being, leads him to contemplate the afterlife and mankind’s terrified ignorance of what might follow death, the terror that leads us to put up with the ordeal of living:

Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

This, Stephen Greenblatt suggests in his brilliant recent book, is “a spectacular and mysterious act of forgetting.” For the entire action of the play is initiated by the repeated appearances of a ghost, and Hamlet is overwhelmed by his meeting with an apparition that claims to be his father’s spirit returned from the grave. Yet Hamlet makes the straightforward assertion that the journey to and beyond death is a one-way street.

For centuries critics worried about the problem posed by Hamlet’s contradictory position. Coleridge offered a resolution: “no traveller returns to this world, as to his home, or abiding place” (my italics). Whatever kind of return the spirit of Hamlet’s father makes, it is not a complete homecoming. He can enter anywhere in his former home, even his wife’s closet, but he cannot exist again, and is not even seen by his widow. But Coleridge prefaced his elegant solving of the puzzle with a condition: “If it be necessary to remove the apparent contradiction—if it be not rather a great beauty…” Coleridge does not explain what kind of beauty it is that this contradiction offers but Hamlet is a play whose power and attraction is intimately bound up with such contradictions, many of them leading straight back to the ghost as their source.

At its simplest, the problem of the ghost is as much a matter of politics as of philosophy or theology. State Protestantism, the form of religion that Elizabeth I had defined for her people, a religion that supported the power of the monarch as much as it was supported by her, made deliberate disconnections from the fundamental tenets of early modern Catholicism, and among the most crucial of these was the abolition of Purgatory. The attack on Purgatory, Greenblatt writes, “focused on the imagination: Purgatory, it was charged, was not simply a fraud; it was a piece of poetry.”

Yet the ghost in Hamlet is unequivocal about where he has traveled from. He is

Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

He is not in hell for the pains of hell are without limit and are retributive rather than purgative. The ghost is allowed out of his suffering in Purgatory at night as a respite and yet the night wanderings are still a doom, not truly a release. Yet the ghost can be both there and here, both in Purgatory and out of it; indeed, as Hamlet says of the ghost’s rapid movements under the stage, the ghost seems to be “hic et ubique,” here and everywhere, sharing in his troubling way the ability of God and the devil to be everywhere at once.

With characteristically thoughtful and original attention to an often ignored phrase, Greenblatt shows that Hamlet’s Latin tag not only hints at his Wittenberg education but also has “a further theological resonance…specifically relevant to Purgatory,” for one Catholic prayer for God’s mercy on those souls whose bodies rest in the dust “hic et ubique” is directly connected to Purgatory. As a Protestant, Thomas Rogers, mockingly recorded, Pope John XII “hath granted to all persons, which, going through the churchyard, do say the prayer…so many years of pardons as there have been bodies buried since it was a churchyard.”1 Rogers finds the Pope’s indulgence ridiculous. It was another part of what he saw as the papal conspiracy to make money out of Purgatory. For such Protestant reformers, Purgatory was nothing more than a fraud. It was, as William Tyndale, the first great translator of the Bible into English, dubbed it, “a poet’s fable.” The concept had no scriptural basis that Protestants could accept and it was self-evidently a source of vast revenue for the papacy. It was a work of human imagination, not divine instruction, a remarkably efficient means of raising money, not of bringing humans to God. As late as the nineteenth century, Chateaubriand could see the poetic brilliance of the idea—the brilliance that some Protestants deplored: “Purgatory surpasses heaven and hell in poetry, because it represents a future and the others do not.”2

Greenblatt traces both the inception of the concept of Purgatory and the reforming opposition that sought to demonstrate how potent a tool it was in the underpinning of the institution and social power of the Catholic Church. In doing so, he engages with the central human need Purgatory served to answer: What can the living do for the dead? For if the intercessionary prayers by the living on behalf of the dead (known as suffrages) can be seen as a part of our need to memorialize and remember the dead, the idea of Purgatory created a new obligation on the living, bound to do what they could to enable the dead to be bought out of their suffering, to escape the horrific pains they endured, and to make the soul’s last journey, now purified, to heaven. The rich, by leaving money for masses and almsgiving, could abbreviate their torments after death; their inheritors could pay to alleviate their agonies.

Again and again, writing on Purgatory, not least in accounts offered by ghosts questioned about their experiences in the afterlife, dwells in hideous detail on the almost unimaginable extremity of the suffering, as if to reinforce how important the living’s acts could be in remitting the dead’s pain. In doing so, the writers, as Greenblatt shows, “were shaping and colonizing the imagination” by giving the experience of Purgatory “the compelling vividness and solidity of those things that we actually know to exist.”

For Stephen Greenblatt, as for me, one part of the fascination that lies both in the Catholic construction of the concept of Purgatory and in the Protestant dismantling of it results from its sheer alienness to his own religious culture. Greenblatt points out that Judaism, alone of the world’s great religions, is not noticeably concerned with what happens after death. It lacks detailed descriptions either in scripture or commentary. Greenblatt writes:

The overall focus in the Hebrew Scriptures is not on assuring oneself a more favorable location in this melancholy kingdom, but rather on valuing life: “For him that is joined to all the living there is hope,” as Ecclesiastes puts it, “for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

Even more pertinent to the debate over Purgatory—and as alien from Christian theology as its unconcern with life after death—is the nature in Judaism of the specific demand a death places on the living; for the mourner can do nothing for the dead. Instead the period of mourning, most especially of a child for a parent, is marked by the daily repetition of kaddish, the prayer for the dead, a prayer which functions as, above all, an act of memory.

Typically, in this as in so many other aspects of its practice, Judaism defines a community, those who say kaddish, either individually or collectively, uniting all those in the congregation who ever have been mourners. Traditionally the prayer, which figures potently in the liturgy for Shabbat, is not spoken by those whose parents are alive, as if to mark out permanently the obligation mourning confers on some but not yet all. For all its potency as a marker of this kind, the prayer strikingly says nothing whatever about the dead: kaddish is a kind of Jewish (or, rather, Aramaic, the language in which it has been passed down) magnificat, here a glorification of God rather than the Virgin Mary. By refusing to mention the dead for whom it is spoken, kaddish can only function as prayer for the dead implicitly. Its silence about its function dissociates its language from its purpose. To repeat the prayer is both to praise God and to carry out the obligation of remembering the dead, for the words of the prayer accomplish the former while the act of speaking the prayer fulfills the latter.3

I have pursued this oddity about the kaddish not least because of one of the functions that Hamlet in Purgatory most movingly serves. The most famous line in Stephen Greenblatt’s writing to date has probably been the opening words of his book Shakespearean Negotiations4: “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.” That book, a complex and ambitious attempt to explore, as the subtitle sets out, “the circulation of social energy in Renaissance England,” seemed driven by the desire for a very personal conversation with Shakespeare. But if the search for the fulfillment of that desire was both there and in much of the rest of Greenblatt’s work, a desire to speak with Shakespeare, the writer in whom he “found the most satisfying intensity of all,” then the person with whom he desires conversation in Hamlet in Purgatory is his own father.

The book’s prologue is in part an account of Greenblatt’s response to his father’s death, finding himself, “with a lightly ironic piety,” saying kaddish daily for his father. Hamlet, the play which above all others is so intensely concerned with how a son grieves for the loss of his father and with the consequences of finding that that loss is not as absolute as it appears, provides an experience in which Greenblatt can explore his loss. The lines that seem to echo most strongly throughout his book but are never quoted in it are Claudius’s glib and inadequate recognition of the frequency of such loss:

But you must know your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his; and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persever
In obstinate condolement…
…’tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers….


Stephen Greenblatt has been the foremost exponent of the critical school known as New Historicism, but its theory and practice are not the best guide to Hamlet in Purgatory.5 Instead, its explorations of the means by which early modern religious debate worried about the links with the dead both in their spiritual torment and their material decay are a kind of gloss on “The Inevitable Pit,” Stephen Greenblatt’s sharply aware autobiographical essay on immigration and assimilation (and its limits, as he recounts his parents booking a table reservation in the name of “Greene” or in his encounter with vicious anti-Semitism in the administration at Yale).6

  1. 1

    Thomas Rogers, The Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England (1607), quoted by Greenblatt, p. 235.

  2. 2

    Quoted as an epigraph by Jacques Le Goff in his superb account of the creation of the belief, The Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. v.

  3. 3

    Greenblatt rightly refers (p. 9) to Leon Wieseltier’s “often haunting meditation on the kaddish,” Kaddish (Knopf, 1998).

  4. 4

    University of California Press, 1988.

  5. 5

    See Frank Kermode’s discussion of the New Historicism, The New York Review, July 5, 2001.

  6. 6

    The Inevitable Pit,” London Review of Books, September 21, 2000, pp. 8–12.

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