Philosophy and Literature 25.2 (2001) 364-367
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Hamlet in Purgatory
Hamlet in Purgatory, by Stephen Greenblatt; xii & 322 pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001, $29.95.
Hamlet in Purgatory is both more and less than literary criticism of Shakespeare's most haunting and most critically belabored play. Greenblatt has captured an evolving culture of belief which informs the play and goes far beyond source studies or the history of ideas. He assays to show how the Medieval doctrine of Purgatory and the rejection of it by Protestant Reformers shaped the structure of Hamlet and the world of Hamlet's spiritual agony.
Central to the argument is the notion that the rejection of Purgatory, and ritual practices associated with the doctrine, threatened to disrupt community and sever the relations between the living and the dead. Thus, the senior Hamlet's plea to "Remember me" takes precedence over his injunction to revenge; traditional preoccupations of Hamlet criticism become secondary to the concern for spiritual community which Reformation doctrine threatened. The exegesis is scholarly and the prose is engaging, yet the book suffers from the new historicist tendency to become absorbed more with context than with criticism and to assume too readily the relevance of the context to the criticism. Put another way, Greenblatt, like other new historicists, is not always rigorous in his inferences.
Greenblatt warns that his book "requires a certain hermeneutical patience, a willingness to suspend direct literary analysis, in order to examine more thoroughly what has been treated as mere background for the canonical work of art" (p. 5). Although the book culminates in a description of the migration of discarded religious ritual into the theater, and a thoughtful commentary on Hamlet, Greenblatt cautions that ". . . for the book to work properly, the reader should understand literary analysis, and specifically the analysis of Hamlet, to be suspended in another sense as well, that is, distributed in tiny, almost invisible particles throughout my account" (p. 5). Amen. The caveats are essential for anyone who might expect an "interpretation" of Hamlet. Rather, Greenblatt has evoked the conflict of enduring beliefs and Reformist critiques which animated Shakespeare's imagination and Hamlet's suffering.
Hermeneutical patience certainly is demanded of the reader, because more than half of the book presents commentaries on the doctrine of Purgatory from the late Middle Ages to the early seventeenth century. Greenblatt begins with Simon Fish's 1529 "Supplication for the Beggars," (p. 15) an anti-purgatorial (and anti-clerical) tract addressed to Henry VIII. Fish argued that the doctrine of Purgatory is at the heart of ecclesiastical corruption and is a danger to the state, because the fear that the doctrine can generate enables the clergy to extort enormous wealth in the form of "suffrages," donations for trentals, anniversary Masses, and other perpetual penitential memorials on behalf of the dead. Fish's argument is double: its theological burden is that Purgatory is a non-scriptural superstition; its rhetoric is that it is an abuse of the [End Page 364] poor and a danger to the economic solvency of the kingdom. Fish invokes both doctrinal error and political danger; this is thus an excellent tract to begin the elucidation of the complexity of Reformist objections to Purgatory in sixteenth-century England. Greenblatt adds that other Reformers saw Purgatory as a poetic creation, a fable, and therefore a vain imagining. John Donne's "Devotions upon Emergent Occasions" is cited to show that post-Catholic divines believed that purgation must be completed in this life.
According to Greenblatt, an unintended consequence for the laity of the rejection of Purgatory is the creation of a radical divide between the living and the dead. If we pray for the dead, they are not as absent from us as if they had passed on to the timeless worlds of Heaven or Hell. Even if Purgatory is expensive or fabulous, its loss destroys a community with the dead that involved a reciprocal and continuing relationship, whereby the living can aid the dead towards Heaven and saved souls can eventually become intercessors in Heaven for the living...