- 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’.
This risky shot illustrated some of Greenblatt’s characteristics as a literary interpreter, beside the relation affirmed between the plot of a play and a piece of buried historical timber: the ear, perhaps over-developed, for ambiguities, the bold connections, the intense adjectives, the air of over-interpretation. All these turn up again in Hamlet in Purgatory, but altogether do more to enlighten than to confuse. Perhaps this is because the intellectual shell which enclosed Renaissance Self-Fashioning has dropped away: the faith in progressive authorities from Marx to Lacan and the Fathers of Past and Present; in the middle class as an explanatory engine for 16th-century history; the (Barthesian) hostility to narrative as a confidence trick. Instead, we have a body of historians much more appropriate to Greenblatt’s intuitions, as well as more representative of the state of 16th-century history: Natalie Zemon Davis, David Cressy, Eamon Duffy. More privately, there is the story he tells us in his prologue about his acceding, if sheepishly, to the unspoken wishes of his dead father by saying Kaddish for him. Which seems a more human response than his refusal, recorded in the epilogue to Renaissance Self-Fashioning, to mime the words ‘I want to die’ so that his neighbour on an airline flight could recognise them if the sick and speechless son he was going to visit in hospital tried to say them to him.
Of the five chapters of Hamlet in Purgatory (the Hamlet in question must be the father, not the son), three expound at a decently easy pace the doctrine and folklore of Purgatory in England as it reached the 16th century from the point in the 12th when it received, not a name, but a local habitation. Greenblatt begins with the hostile polemic of Protestants, notably Simon Fish’s Supplication for the Beggars of 1529, which claimed that charity should be kept for the living, not wasted on the souls of the dead, whose situation in the middle state between Heaven and Hell was fictional. Greenblatt goes along with the allegation of Reformers that Purgatory was a financial ramp designed to put money in the Church’s coffers, but he is more interested in the alternative allegation that it was a ‘poet’s fable’. This is not a reference to Dante, who does not appear in the controversy, but to the generally fabulous character it shares with much other pre-Reformation religion.
There follows, naturally, a chapter on the multiplicity of purgatorial images and stories of the same provenance. Pictorially, the scene is nearly always of naked bodies in a sort of pit suffering the pains of Hell. But where the inhabitants of Hell are guarded by devils and imprisoned for ever in their misery, the souls in Purgatory are watched over by angels, who in due time lift them out of the pit and carry them up to Heaven (‘And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest’). Greenblatt’s nicest representation of this, and a trouvaille from the Doge’s Palace in Venice, is an unusually serene work of Hieronymus Bosch, which shows the angels helping the released souls out of the sulphurous smoke of a furnace, and floating them like aerial swimming instructors up a tube or manhole into dazzling light. The narratives that Greenblatt looks at are mainly versions of the story of Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, situated plausibly enough in the middle of Lough Derg in deepest Ulster, whose penitential horrors might be substituted for purgation after death.
Thence to ghosts. By the 15th century the average ghost was a soul in Purgatory (I think they are always male) coming back to remind his living relatives of duties unfulfilled on his behalf – generally those of prayers and masses to be said or alms to be given for his release from his pains. Greenblatt proceeds from the fairly comic official proforma dealing with how an encounter of this kind ought to be conducted, taking us through a Middle English poem called The Gast of Gy (‘The Ghost of Guy’), in which a dead husband comes to his wife’s bedroom to haunt her – his own pains are largely unrelieved, but he induces in her a terrified anticipation of her penance for a sin against nature they committed in the marriage bed – and coming back to where he began, with The Supplication of Souls, Thomas More’s answer to Simon Fish. More defended the obligation of charity to the souls in Purgatory, especially that of the soul’s kindred, and ended his piece with a ghostly chorus of souls bewailing their condition now that Protestants and ill-wishers had cut off their supply of aid.
Abolished by the Reformers, ghosts returned to haunt the Elizabethan theatre, and usually to cry: ‘Revenge!’ Greenblatt explains that this comes from Seneca and other tragedians and is ‘manifestly classical rather than Catholic’. Ignorantly, I wonder. Maybe there were no indigenous ghosts who could only rest once they were avenged; but the avenging ghost was instantly recognisable to Elizabethan audiences who were not familiar with Seneca. The purgatorial ghost seems a particular case of the general rule that ghosts appear when something has gone wrong in the business of dying, and the obligations of the living to the dead have not been fulfilled. Revenge is a primary obligation in a moral system that has coexisted in Europe with that of Jesus and will probably outlast it: demanded by ghosts, it is an example of the ambivalence of the sacred, such that a mass for the dead may, in despite of authority, be said to procure the death of a living enemy.
There seems to be a reference to this in Macbeth, when he talks to his wife about the dead Banquo ‘whom we to gain our peace have sent to peace’; and Shakespeare’s ghosts, before we get to Hamlet, are versions of this syndrome, where murdered persons reappear to portend destruction to their murderers: Banquo to Macbeth, Caesar to Brutus. Greenblatt adds to these the ghosts who appear in dreams, notably in Richard III; but I think this is a red herring, as is his introduction of the nightmares of German Jews at the coming to power of Hitler – a rare case, here, of the presentism which has been a worry in Greenblatt’s other works.
So to Hamlet, and ‘Remember me.’ Everybody knows that the Ghost in Hamlet requires revenge, and also that he is a soul in Purgatory. What has Greenblatt got to add? He makes several exact observations of verbal points, mostly original and nearly all new to me, which entrench the rendezvous between Hamlet and his father more deeply in the purgatorial tradition he has traced. When Hamlet first sees the Ghost, he comes out with a series of questions (‘Why . . . ? Wherefore? What should we do?’) which virtually repeats a formula in the guide for interrogating a ghost (‘Nomen? Causas? Remedium?’). When the Ghost begins to speak, he describes his situation as being ‘doomed for a certain term’, which explains that he is not in Hell. True, he is doomed ‘to walk the night’ and only spends his days in Purgatory, but that is a version of a common belief. When Horatio and Marcellus find Hamlet after the encounter, and he tells them that ‘it is an honest ghost’, he swears ‘by Saint Patrick’, a bizarre oath for a Dane or an Englishman which, Greenblatt tells us, Shakespeare never otherwise uses: it is evidently a reference to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory.
Perhaps the nicest thing to emerge from Greenblatt’s investigations comes shortly after, when Hamlet (and the Ghost under the stage) requires Horatio and Marcellus to swear in three separate places that they will not reveal what they have seen. There is surely something still to be found out about this triple oath, but Greenblatt has done a lot to help. After the first occasion Hamlet, telling the two to move somewhere else for the second swearing, breaks into Latin: ‘Hic et ubique?’ (Here and everywhere?) The Latin, and the question mark if it is authentic, appeal to something generally understood. Greenblatt has sensibly looked for a liturgical source, and found it in prayers for the souls of those buried in churchyards – part of the considerable effort made in the period just before the Reformation to get the population to pray not just for their own kith and kin but for ‘all the faithful departed’, including those who had no kith or kin to pray for them. These prayers were widespread and well known, and generally contained the phrase ‘hic et ubique’, meaning the souls of all those buried in a specific churchyard, and of those buried anywhere else. We are not yet in a churchyard, though we shall be in Act Five.
There are other indications that Greenblatt has hit the nail on the head. We shall find Ophelia saying a prayer from this corpus: ‘and of all Christian souls, I pray God.’ Greenblatt has also found the ‘hic et ubique’ in another such prayer recorded by a contemporary English Protestant polemist against Purgatory. And, not exactly by the way, there is a liturgical reference, turned up by the Jesuit Christopher Devlin in Hamlet’s Divinity (1963), behind Hamlet’s first exclamation when he sees the Ghost: ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us!’ Devlin had a different liturgical source for ‘hic et ubique’, but I think Greenblatt’s is the more persuasive. Altogether I’ve no doubt that Greenblatt is right to insist that the Ghost is a soul in Purgatory, and that Shakespeare is appealing to his audience’s familiarity with a body of purgatorial lore condemned by the Church of England as erroneous and perverse.
I do not think, and neither does Greenblatt, that this makes Shakespeare a Catholic, which was itself a distinctly fluid description in 1600. It does seem to give him a fairly special acquaintance with purgatorial matter, which one might attribute to his recusant father, who was into indulgences. I should also go a bit further than Greenblatt in interpreting the syndrome of ‘remembrance’ which has passed from the purgatorial complex into Shakespeare’s play. I don’t think I can swallow his claim that the drift of the play is from vengeance to simple remembrance. Remembrance here is more than just ‘calling to mind’: it is a recycling of the term ‘Memento’, which begins the prayer for the dead in the mass and, directed to God, means: ‘Remember some person or event, and do something about it.’ The term is, though not in orthodoxy, as compatible with taking vengeance for your father’s murder as it is with having masses and prayers said for his soul. I may be doing Greenblatt an injustice by suggesting that he has forgotten this, since he mentions it in an earlier chapter, but it does not figure in his final judgment, which is that Shakespeare has taken a theological, and real-life, notion of remembrance and turned it into a metaphor for the more innocent remembrance of things past with which the theatre may provide us. To end up with a philosophy of the theatre strikes me as pandering to his audience: a rare false note in a learned and persuasive book.
One final point. In a passing reference to King Lear, Greenblatt cites Kent’s valediction on the old man as: ‘He hates him/That would upon the rack of this tough world/ Stretch him out longer.’ Tough? It sounds like an absurd American misprint: Lear played by John Wayne. We have been brought up to read ‘rough’. But there it is in the Wells and Taylor Oxford Shakespeare. Can it be right? In the OED I find the first date for tough = ‘hard’ as 1619. Well, I can see that twenty years here or there is no great matter in the history of words; but ‘tough’ still seems ridiculous.