Remember Me

John Bossy

  • Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt
    Princeton, 322 pp, £19.95, May 2001, ISBN 0 691 05873 3

Stephen Greenblatt has moved on, or back, and not only from Berkeley to Harvard. He ended Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) with an account of Othello similar in shape to his present account of Hamlet, but pretty unconvincing; Hamlet in Purgatory hits the nail resonantly on the head. As is the way with new historicist interpretation, both expositions proceed by relating a crux in the play to a prominent item in the surrounding or preceding non-literary culture; in these cases, theological and religious culture. In the chapter on Othello the external correlative, or stimulus, is the opinion in moral theology, going back to Augustine, that sexual relations between husband and wife, if pursued enthusiastically and for pleasure only, amount to adultery. Since we are not told much about Othello and Desdemona’s sex-life, the connection may seem gratuitous. Greenblatt linked the two by interpreting a phrase of Iago’s, when he is describing his plot to entrap Othello, to mean that he will appeal to a guilt in Othello about the excess of his erotic feelings for his wife: ‘that he is too familiar’ with her. To the ordinary reader, the ‘he’ will be Cassio, the supposed adulterer; Greenblatt claimed that there was an ambiguity here, and that this ambiguity was ‘the dark essence of Iago’s whole enterprise’.

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