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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.