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Reviewed by:
  • Hamlet in Purgatory
  • Elizabeth Freund
Stephen Greenblatt , Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. xii + 322 pp., illustrations.

If the 20-year old New Historicism is experiencing a mid-life crisis and a new generation of critics think it time to move on, the appearance of this masterly book should give pause. Hamlet in Purgatory is a remarkable meditation on the work of mourning and remembrance by the scholar who ushered in the New Historicism a generation ago and famously reported that he began with a desire to speak with the dead. Stephen Greenblatt's absorbing spectral conversation continues with undiminished energy and animation in his latest exploration of the cultural embedment and emotional economy of communication between the living and the dead.

This book "about the afterlife of Purgatory, the trace of its dead name," is yet another compelling instance of the critical practice its author calls cultural poetics, and of his unrivalled style of academic writing. His is a discourse in which intellectual pursuit is propelled by a luminous humane intelligence harnessed to the virtues of old-fashioned story-telling, the kind (celebrated for its affective power in a wellknown essay by Walter Benjamin) which holds us enthralled round the fire; a discourse which conjures an uncanny effect of immediacy and authenticity. His intellectual pursuit, broadly speaking, may be described as a rhetorical analysis of literary history from below. The "thick description" (Clifford Geertz's anthropology is a prevailing influence throughout Greenblatt's oeuvre) in this case focuses on the phenomenon or institution of Purgatory, its enmeshment in a web of interrelated signifying practices, and its traces in Hamlet.

Greenblatt's own rhetorical entry is frequently a personalized, wonder-struck stance of "fascination," both general and also deeply, self-consciously personal. This "fascination," he says elsewhere [Practicing New Historicism, co-authored with Catherine Gallagher] is "with the possibility of treating all of the written and visual traces of a particular culture as a mutually intelligible network of signs." The self-reflexive starting point for Hamlet in Purgatory, he tells us in a prologue, [End Page 151] at once thought-provoking and heart-provoking, was his undertaking to ritually recite the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for a period of one year after the death of his father. I shall return to this point in due course.

Greenblatt's elegant and artfully staged exploration of the realm of the dead, is triggered on the one hand by an intellectual fascination with the Ghost in Hamlet and on the other by a private urge to explore the resonating imaginative investment in a son's rites of mourning. We are taken on a diverting (de)tour of the mediaeval Imaginaire of purgatorial afterlife, through its dissolution in mid-sixteenth century English Protestant culture, and ultimately to the traces of its appropriation and displaced afterlife in the secular institution of public theatre, especially Shakespeare's, which abounds in spectral visitations and ghostly presences. This tour of the intellectual, emotional and physical representation of the contents of Purgatory, across three chapters and through an ample and strategically distributed array of quotations and close readings of a selection of tracts, poems and paintings, culminates in two concluding chapters on Shakespeare's theatre. One of these is on the staging of ghosts (predominantly Shakespearean), and the other is devoted to a scrupulously performed close reading of Hamlet, resonating intertextually with the preceding textual web. God is always in the details, and I leave it to the readers of this book to find him. Here I can only offer a very reductive map of the territory Greenblatt explores.

The doctrine of Purgatory, as the historian Jacques Le Goff has shown, was consolidated between the latter part of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth at a time of profound intellectual and cultural change. Purgatory officially designated the intermediate place or state in the afterlife, the vestibule in which the souls of persons who will achieve beatitude but require preparatory readying and cleansing from the blemish of venial sin, undergo acute physical suffering, chiefly the excruciating torments of fire. Mercifully, discounts on the duration of this torment could...


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