Stephen Greenblatt sets out to explain his longtime fascination with the ghost of Hamlet's father, and his daring and ultimately gratifying journey takes him through surprising intellectual territory. It yields an extraordinary account of the rise and fall of Purgatory as both a belief and a lucrative institution--as well as a capacious new reading of the power of Hamlet.
In the mid-sixteenth century, English authorities abruptly changed the relationship between the living and dead. Declaring that Purgatory was a false "poem," they abolished the institutions and banned the practices that Christians relied on to ease the passage to Heaven for themselves and their dead loved ones. Greenblatt explores the fantastic adventure narratives, ghost stories, pilgrimages, and imagery by which a belief in a grisly "prison house of souls" had been shaped and reinforced in the Middle Ages. He probes the psychological benefits as well as the high costs of this belief and of its demolition.
With the doctrine of Purgatory and the elaborate practices that grew up around it, the church had provided a powerful method of negotiating with the dead. The Protestant attack on Purgatory destroyed this method for most people in England, but it did not eradicate the longings and fears that Catholic doctrine had for centuries focused and exploited. In his strikingly original interpretation, Greenblatt argues that the human desires to commune with, assist, and be rid of the dead were transformed by Shakespeare-consummate conjurer that he was-into the substance of several of his plays, above all the weirdly powerful Hamlet. Thus, the space of Purgatory became the stage haunted by literature's most famous ghost.
This book constitutes an extraordinary feat that could have been accomplished by only Stephen Greenblatt. It is at once a deeply satisfying reading of medieval religion, an innovative interpretation of the apparitions that trouble Shakespeare's tragic heroes, and an exploration of how a culture can be inhabited by its own spectral leftovers.
"Greenblatt's fascination with ghostly texts is contagious, and he is virtually unequaled among literary critics as a prose stylist. . . . [Hamlet in Purgatory] greatly succeeds in bringing alive the powerful complex of fear and longing Shakespeare so deftly deployed. Required reading for those who study Shakespeare, this graceful analysis should also give considerable pleasure to those who merely enjoy him."--Publishers Weekly
"Hamlet in Purgatory neither pretends to solve the mysteries of the play nor indulges in fruitless speculation about Shakespeare's own sectarian allegiances. Instead, it offers masterly accounts first of the history of the idea of Purgatory and its decline, then of the importance of ghosts and related apparitions in the whole range of Shakespeare's plays. . . . Profoundly original."--Jonathan Bate, The Sunday Telegraph
"Greenblatt . . . argues with great elegance and ingenuity . . . [He] offers masterly accounts first of the history of the idea of Purgatory and its decline, then of the importance of ghosts and related apparitions in the whole range of Shakespeare's plays."--Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph
"[A] highly instructive investigation of the role of spirits from the other world in Shakespeare. [Greenblatt's] writing here is poised, precise, and . . . eloquent. . . . Hamlet in Purgatory is an exemplary work of historically informed literary interpretation."--Robert Alter, New York Times Book Review
"A learned and persuasive book."--John Bossy, London Review of Books
"[An] astonishing work of historical reconstruction. . . . [Greenblatt] has taken on the challenge of defamiliarizing the most famous play in Western literature by placing it in its proper theological setting. . . . [W]hile he must definitely rank as the most influential and knowledgeable of all the New Historicists he now shows himself in this book as something more, much more."--Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal
Table of Contents:
List of Illustrations ix
Chapter One: A Poet's Fable 10
Chapter Two: Imagining Purgatory 47
Chapter Three: The Rights of Memory 102
Chapter Four: Staging Ghosts 151
Chapter Five: Remember Me 205
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Another Princeton book authored or coauthored by Stephen Greenblatt: