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Hamlet in Purgatory [Paperback]

Stephen Greenblatt
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 15, 2002 0691102570 978-0691102573

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Greenblatt has made a name for himself both as a preeminent Shakespeare scholar and as one of the founders of the "New Historicist" approach to literary criticism. Central to his approach is the notion that not only does history affect literature, but literature itself informs history, a claim its critics have generally either pursued without conviction or nervously sought to evade. Greenblatt's newest work is a fine example of his method's considerable appeal; what could be a narrow treatise on the theme of purgatory in Hamlet rapidly unfolds into an absorbing investigation of religious persecution, spectral haunting and the memory of the dead. Purgatory, Greenblatt contends, occupied the center of theological warfare in Shakespeare's time, derided by Protestants as a cynical source of papal revenue (from pardons and indulgences), a baroque work of the Catholic imagination and a "poet's fable." Pursuing the purgatorial mind-set through its visual and textual incarnations, Greenblatt finds its suppressed traces in the form of medieval and Elizabethan ghost stories, theatrical works and dreams His increasingly occult investigation culminates in a compelling portrait of Shakespeare's Hamlet as a political, psychological, spiritual animal haunted by the ghost of his father and bearing a secret authorial agenda. Greenblatt's fascination with ghostly texts is contagious, and he is virtually unequaled among literary critics as a prose stylist. Though the book occasionally labors under the weight of its own evidence, it 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. 8 color, 10 b&w illus.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Winner of the 2002 Erasmus Institute Book Prize

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2001

"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

"This is an interesting book on a grave matter . . . We marvel that the author can make so much out of a slender theme, but it is the device of the good academic writer to make small amounts of material yield golden insights."--Peter Ackroyd, The Times of London

"Greenblatt's is not by any means nostalgic reading. The book gains its energy from an ongoing tension between the author's intellectual openness to apparently bizarre religious practices and his sharp skepticism. . . . To have explicated new aspects of a play that has probably been more intensely studied than any other work of literature is a remarkable achievement that triumphantly vindicates the book's method. . . . Enthralling reading. . . . Greenblatt has offered genuinely new insights that make the familiar words seem strange and new, and that will speak powerfully to a new generation uneasy about its own unease with an earlier generation's religious beliefs."--David Norbrook, The New Republic

"Greenblatt reveals how Shakespeare turned the Anglican assault on the idea of purgatory as mere poetry into an indispensable poetic resource. In addition to this decisive repositioning of Hamlet's place in modern culture, Greenblatt provides extraordinary readings of little-know works. . . . A major work of contemporary scholarship."--Choice

"Greenblatt has shown beautifully what compellingly affective, even ethical, 'claims' Shakespeare's imaginary characters can make on modern readers, rewarding us with some of his liveliest and most original critical writing to date."--Katherine Duncan-Jones, Times Literary Supplement

"Greenblatt's mode of analysis has always been to leap the gulf between the early modern past and the present. . . . Hamlet in Purgatory, his finest book in years, is a magnificent extended commentary on the otherness of the work 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."--Peter Holland, New York Review of Books

"A magisterial study containing impeccable scholarship, interesting narratives, incisive analyses of specific passages, cogent generalizations based upon a number of disciplines, seamless utilization of appropriate quotations, and, finally, a compelling sensitivity to the effects of literature on its past and present audiences."--Frank Ardolino, Sixteenth Century Journal

Product Details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (September 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691102570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691102573
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #997,475 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt (Ph.D. Yale) is Cogan University Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University. Also General Editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Eighth Edition, he is the author of nine books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; Hamlet in Purgatory; Practicing New Historicism; Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, and Learning to Curse: Essays in Early Modern Culture. He has edited six collections of criticism, is the co-author (with Charles Mee) of a play, Cardenio, and is a founding coeditor of the journal Representations. He honors include the MLA's James Russell Lowell Prize, for Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England, the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation, the Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California, Berkeley. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Better on Purgatory than on Hamlet June 25, 2001
"Hamlet in Purgatory" is a wonderfully written, thoughtful, and enlightening book. But it is less than I would have hoped for and probably less than most readers will expect.
Greenblatt's exposition of the history and literature surrounding the rise and demise of belief in Purgatory in England from 1,100 AD to 1,500 AD is enthralling. This history and literature highlights the basic human desire to connect with, remember, and perhaps even continue the work of the dead. Hamlet faces just such challenges as he struggles with the demands of his father's ghost. And yet Greenblatt fails to delve into these universal issues. Nor does he provide a context for understanding the ghost's injunction as one of the many profound issues in the play. To approach such fascinating issues without exploring them in full is a disappointment.
"Hamlet in Purgatory" starts with a wonderful Prologue. Greenblatt tells how his own father's passing away made his study of Hamlet and purgatory personally relevant.
The first chapter reviews "A Supplication for the Beggars" by Simon Fish written in 1529. This tract is a letter to then King Henry VIII arguing that the church is using the concept of Purgatory to exploit believers. Greenblatt wonderfully sets the stage, explaining how over the course of the preceding 400 years "Purgatory had achieved both a doctrinal and a social success" (p.14). This tract by Fish was the start of the Protestant effort to challenge the legitimacy of Purgatory, an effort that had succeeded by the end of the sixteenth century. So that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1601 Purgatory was doctrine that was rejected by the Anglican Church.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
I happened to be browsing through books the other day (as I am often wont to do) when the cover of this book caught my eye. It is detail from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch who happens to be one of my favorite painters. Then, when I saw the book was about Shakespeare, Hamlet and the concept of Purgatory, I was sold.
Of course, need I mention the cliche about judging books by their covers and so on? There was no guarantee that I was going to like this book despite my attraction to its superficial accouterments. Still, sometimes you get lucky. This is a wonderful book.
As a Catholic, the concept of Purgatory is an integral part of what I was taught about the afterlife. It was very interesting to see how the Christian view of the nature of Purgatory changed through time and how that view influenced (or, what is more likely, was influenced by) the literature of the Middle Ages. Greenblatt examines a number of ballads and other pieces from as early as the 11th & 12th centuries to show the change of Purgatory from a relatively restful place of waiting into a vicious hell with a time limit.
By Shakespeare's time, of course, the Protestant Reformation had taken issue with the many abuses of the Church with respect to Purgatory (particularly indulgences) and all but eliminated Purgatory as part of the revised dogma. Still, as Greenblatt points out, the concept and the human feelings it addresses with respect to the afterlife cannot be eliminated by religious pronouncement. It finds its way into many of Shakespeare's plays in various guises. The spirits and ghosts that populate many of the plays are an instance as is the mention of chantries and "poor in yearly pay" of Henry V to name but a few.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun... June 28, 2002
By A Customer
Yeah, the reviewer from Santa Monica is on the mark. Good book, plenty of interesting historical tidbits, some connections to mull over, but Greenblatt doesn't really use his historical conclusions to much purpose in his analysis of Hamlet. Some of his literary points are strained ("the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns" means Hamlet has forgotten about the ghost; when Ophelia says that Hamlet looked as though he "had been loosed out of Hell" she of course means Purgatory instead of Hell, the rabble who follow Laetres against Claudius represent Protestants attacking the Catholic Church, etc.) but a couple are interesting, such as the play's disconnect between body and spirit mapped onto Elizabethan views of the Eucharist. But there are a good 150 pages (more than half the book) before we enter this dicey realm. Chapters 1-3 get five stars, and chapters 4-5 get three point five.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb Writing and Scholarship October 5, 2002
This is an excellent book--excellent scholarship. I highly recommend it to anyone generally interested in medieval and Elizabethan accounts on purgatory, or to those who have an interest in Shakepeare studies. Even for those who don't, this is an excellent book, and my interest in it grew with every turn of the page. It is rich and well-written.
Chapter Two: "Imagining Purgatory" discusses various philosophical and medieval connections (via manuscripts) to Shakespeare's texts (also see the classic, "The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy"). Chapter Three: "The Flights of Memory" (oddly enough, also see Derrida's The Gift of Death/U Chicago Press, Staten's Eros in Mourning, Derrida's The Work of Mourning, and E. Scarry's Body in Pain) is highly interesting material on the poetics of pain and suffering. Chapter Five: "Remember Me" is brilliant (also see Derrida/Levinas on the 'adieu' issue--U of Chicago and Stanford UP titles).
Also see: Fish, How Milton Works (Harvard UP); Williams, Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton UP); Staten, Eros in Mourning (Johns Hopkins). I also recommend Robert Bell's dissertation on the harrowing of hell (English/U of Maryland/CSULB Emeritus).
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