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

The anxiety over the loss of their original culture that his ancestors worried over was its own version of a spiritual torment, another kind of Purgatory in the limbo, transient world of all immigrants. The ghosts of Greenblatt’s past, his parents and grandparents, seem to demand that he locate himself in his family’s history, placing an obligation on him to find out where these people come from in much more than a geographic sense, how they have reached out to him, just as assuredly as the ghost of one Hamlet places a demand on the other Hamlet.

Hamlet in Purgatory has much to say about different kinds of confrontations with ghosts, the tensions between the demands of the past and the necessities of the present. Greenblatt has outlined, he writes,

an inherent contradiction…between the desire of my grandparents to enter the economic mainstream of American life and their desire to retain what we would call their culture, if by that term we mean a relatively stable and well-demarcated set of traditional religious, social and aesthetic practices and values.7

But his interest in Hamlet seems also to be about how certain traditional values survive. Indeed, much of Greenblatt’s recent work has explored Shakespeare as “a Renaissance conjurer…someone who has the power to call forth or make contact through language with those things…that are absent.” The ghost in Hamlet becomes for him both a mark of something that is absent, the missing father, but also a mark of something that survives—both the father’s spirit and the set of beliefs that made such a spirit possible.

For if the concept of Purgatory was, by the time Shakespeare was writing Hamlet and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were first performing it, unequivocally part of an alien, suppressed Cath- olic belief, that did not mean that such beliefs had simply vanished. Sightings of ghosts continued to be made, for all the skepticism of the new state orthodoxy and even though the clergy were more likely to fulminate against belief in them than to encourage it. Yet the place one was most likely to find them was on the stage of a theater. Within the drama, ghosts could be mocked as nothing more than a cheap stage effect. Greenblatt quotes a passage from the discussion between the three genres of drama in the introduction to an anonymous play, A Warning for Fair Women (1599), where Comedy mocks Tragedy’s recurrent device:

Then, too, a filthy whining ghost,
Lapped in some foul sheet or a leather pilch,
Comes screaming like a pig half-sticked,
And cries, “Vindicta! Revenge, Revenge!”
With that a little rosin flasheth forth,
Like smoke out of a tobacco pipe or a boy’s squib.

Most theatrical ghosts seem to have screamed. They may also have been masked. In 1596 Thomas Lodge wrote in Wit’s Misery of someone who “looks as pale as the vizard of the ghost which cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster wife, ‘Hamlet, revenge.'”8 It is just possible that the word “vizard” could also mean “face” in the period, but “mask” was certainly its more common meaning. But the ghost of Hamlet’s father has a face that is plainly recognizable to Horatio, visible through the helmet that the ghost wears as part of his armor. On stage and off ghosts were manifestations of people known to those who were haunted, as in one of the most fully investigated and often recounted of medieval hauntings, the appearance to his widow in their bedroom near Avignon of the ghost of the prosperous bourgeois Gui de Corvo after his death in December 1323, a narrative known in its English versions as The Gast of Gy. That this haunting takes place in a bedroom fits with Greenblatt’s argument about Hamlet’s father’s costume when he appears to Gertrude in Act III.

The costume of the ghost in Hamlet is unusual and significant. He did not appear in the kind of white sheet that many ghosts wore (on stage and off). One of Greenblatt’s rare moments of misreading in Hamlet in Purgatory comes from his attempt to make this ghost fit into his larger scheme, the normal form for visitings from Purgatory. He suggests that the nightgown the ghost wears on his appearance in Gertrude’s closet (at least according to the stage direction in the first published version of the play, the so-called “bad quarto” of 1603, “Enter the Ghost in his night gowne”) lightly echoes “those multiple hauntings in which spirits from Purgatory displayed their progressive purification by a gradual whitening of their robes.” He is assuming that a nightgown is the same as a white nightshirt worn to sleep in—hence perhaps his comment that the ghost is, “in this staging, a figure…of the closet or the bedroom.”

But the term “night gowne” was unknown in this sense until the early nineteenth century (according to the Oxford English Dictionary). The ghost is plainly wearing the kind of gown usually worn over an undershirt and often made of rich fabric. They might be trimmed with fur, made of black velvet, or tied with gold lace. This is not quite the same as a modern American bathrobe or English dressing gown, since the nightgown could be worn in almost any domestic circumstance without embarrassment. The ghost’s outfit is far from the long white shirt in which most ghosts felt obliged to dress themselves (and which we continue to copy for hauntings now). Greenblatt, at this point, seems not to be seeing the term clearly enough. It may be the influence of a much later stage tradition, one es- pecially influenced by Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version of Hamlet, that fully explains the presence of “the bedroom” in Greenblatt’s account; for closets were private rooms but not bedrooms and this one, explicitly Ger- trude’s and not her husband’s, is not the location of the marital bed.

But it may also be that The Gast of Gy has its own haunting presence in Greenblatt’s account, for Gui de Corvo was allowed to haunt his wife in their bedroom solely in order to warn her to repent fully for some sinful act against “the rule of wedding” that they committed there, an act never revealed in the narrative but which is the cause of Gui’s purgatorial sufferings. The bed, that most crucial but also most private of bourgeois spaces, is where sin and its potential expiation begin.

The tendency, after Olivier, has been for productions of Hamlet to take the encounter between son and mother literally out of the closet and into the bedroom, so as to reveal what are assumed to be the Oedipal desires the scene manifests. This may be our own reformulation of the anxiety about the bedroom that The Gast of Gy treats with such delicacy. But Shakespeare’s Gertrude, waiting in her closet, is in a private room like the closet in which Ophelia sat sewing or, since the word was often used of a room devoted to prayer, the place where Claudius tries and fails to pray and Hamlet tries and fails to kill him. Our inability to conceive of a private room that is not a bedroom has perhaps created this metamorphosis.

While some stage ghosts appeared in the dress of the living, like Braciano’s ghost in Webster’s The White Devil (1612), who wore “his leather cassock and breeches,…boots, a cowl,”9 the ghost in Hamlet unusually does much more than this, coming on stage “in his habit as he lived” but also suiting his dress to his location. He is fully armed on the battlements as a warning of the country’s facing an invasion (or so Horatio assumes), and he is fully domesticated when he enters his widow’s room in his nightgown. But he shares the double sense of a trace of the past which all stage ghosts of Shakespeare’s theater had: both a trace of their past life and a trace of a system of belief in which ghosts could walk in and out of Purgatory.

Shakespeare is certainly unusual among the major dramatists of the period in the frequency with which ghosts walk in his plays, but Greenblatt is cautiously resistant to the notion that this tells us anything about Shakespeare’s own beliefs. At a time when the major biographical controversy over Shakespeare is whether he was or was not a Catholic, Greenblatt wisely argues a different case: that Shakespeare’s fascination with ghosts has less to do with their religious status than with their theatrical potency. In his account of other Shakespeare hauntings, they signify falseness or the nightmare of history or “deep psychic disturbance.” From Viola’s tentative anxiety at the end of Twelfth Night on seeing Sebastian (“If spirits can assume both form and suit/You come to fright us”), to the horrors of Clarence’s dream in Richard III, an anticipatory nightmare of his own future history, to the tormented ghost-worlds of Macbeth and his wife (who, I would suggest, becomes her own ghost, haunting and haunted), Greenblatt sure-footedly describes what Shakespeare can make of ghosts. He is less interested in what the dramatist might feel obliged to present as a consequence of a heterodox religious faith. His Shakespeare is, as a result, much more creative than doctrinaire, more intriguing than someone who creates dramatic ghosts simply because he believes in their existence and in the Purgatory from which they come and therefore wishes to use drama to convince others.

Indeed, the later history of Hamlet in performance, a history Greenblatt does not discuss, demonstrates that the potency of the ghost in the theater has little to do with whether the audience shares an orthodox Protestant distrust of such manifestations. In the last forty years productions have presented the ghost as something other than an excuse for showing off the theater’s latest versions of fake lightning. In 1965 Peter Hall (at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon) went so far as to have the ghost played by a statue on wheels ten feet high and, while Hall has more recently condemned the device as a “folly of his youth,”10 this excess is a late flowering of the gauzes, lighting effects, and other trickery normal in nineteenth-century theater, an excess that survives in some films, like the statue coming to life (or, perhaps more accurately, coming to death) in Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film.

Theatrical tradition is itself a narrative of hauntings, one production leaving its ghostly trace on the next, but in the search for both difference from the past and a contemporary meaning, some recent productions have found extreme new versions of the ghost. In 1980 Jonathan Pryce, playing Hamlet in a production directed by Richard Eyre at the Royal Court Theatre in London, spoke the ghost’s lines as well as his own, as if the ghost was a demonic possession speaking through him, a Hamlet in need of an exorcism (a topic that was the subject of one of Greenblatt’s best-known essays11). In other countries the appearance of the ghost can have an edge of danger almost unknown in the West. In Ceaucescu’s Romania, a 1975 production by Chernesku made the ghost explicitly a fake, played, improbably enough, by Horatio, who was plotting against Hamlet in order to secure the succession of Fortinbras.12 Perhaps, in a totalitarian nightmare like Ceaucescu’s state, anything has the potential to turn out to be a political conspiracy and the staging of the ghost (by Horatio as well as the director) had a potency that it rarely has in more normal circumstances.

More remarkably, Chernesku turned the ghost back into the political challenge it had been, for its appearance in Shakespeare’s time could never have been a purely religious statement. Most often now in the West, the ghost is above all the father, a human and rather earthly returning spirit, concerned to recapitulate the kinds of uncomfortable conversations that, we can readily assume, he had with his son while both were living. Like the bed as the sign of the domestic interior, the difficulty of conversation between father and son is our modern reformulation of the difficulty of speaking with the dead and of coping with their demands with which the play originally grappled.

If Hamlet has become for us above all a family tragedy, it can also find other ways of representing the ghostliness of its own existence, a play whose characters are doomed to walk the stage again and again just as tormentedly as the ghost’s description of its presence on earth. John Caird’s production, which recently played at the Royal National Theatre in London (previously seen in New York and Boston), made all the characters, with the exception of Horatio, into ghosts, released from their tombs to play out the drama again, and forced to endure a Purgatory of repetition of their earthly story like characters in Beckett’s Play or Sartre’s Huis Clos. More emphatically religious than any other recent version I have seen, this Hamlet, with its massive back wall regularly fissuring to reveal an immense cross, found profound religious belief residing in a modern version of Purgatory. The difference between this Beckettian Purgatory and that endured by those ghosts and recounted by those Catholic advocates of belief in Purgatory to whom Greenblatt devotes much of Hamlet in Purgatory would show us something of the differences in cultural and religious meaning between 1601 and 2001 in England.

Greenblatt’s mode of analysis has always been to leap the gulf between the early modern past and the present, deliberately unconcerned with the time between or with modern manifestations of the texts he is examining. He encounters the past alone but for the company of fellow explorers; he writes as an immensely informed reader but not a member of an audience. There is nothing wrong with that, but I regret the absence in his work of any attention to a play’s complex and potent afterlife. Hamlet in Purgatory, his finest book in years, is a magnificent extended commentary on the otherness of the world in which Hamlet’s father’s ghost walked on stage. Greenblatt leaves it to us to find the spaces that it now haunts within the family or the world of politics, in the bedroom or on the battlements.

This Issue

April 11, 2002