A review of Hamlet in Purgatory, by Stephen Greenblatt

n an essay in the Fall 1993 issue of Academic Questions, I called Stephen Greenblatt “the most influential literary critic of this generation.” I stick by that judgment today. As the principal founder of the movement known as the New Historicism, he has, for good or ill, done more than anyone else to shape the way literary criticism is currently practiced. He directed critics away from studying works of literature as freestanding artistic masterpieces and toward integrating them into broader cultural contexts. And, unlike many of his followers, Greenblatt is himself a literary craftsman, who writes a clear and elegant prose. Thus his books are always worth reading—not just by specialists in the field but also by anyone interested in learning what is happening in literary studies at the moment. 

Thus when words got around that Greenblatt was writing a book-length study of Hamlet, his many admirers and even his detractors looked forward to seeing the results. Hamlet in Purgatory will not disappoint those who have been eagerly awaiting its publication, but it does not quite live up to what Hollywood would call its advance billing. It is not one of Greenblatt’s stronger books, and his earlier works, such as Renaissance Self-Fashioning and Shakespearean Negotiations, would better serve readers looking for an introduction to his distinctive approach. In those books, Greenblatt was able to do in a single chapter roughly what it takes him a whole book do to in Hamlet in Purgatory. Shakespeare’s most famous play did not, unfortunately, inspire Greenblatt to his best work. 

Nevertheless, Hamlet in Purgatory in many respects serves as the culmination of Greenblatt’s long-term project as a cultural historian. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by the way modern artistic forms hollow out traditional cultural institutions and yet carry on their social function. That is the way Greenblatt conceived the relation of Hamlet to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. As Greenblatt tells the story, Shakespeare was dealing in Hamlet with a crisis in religious representation at the end of the 16th century in England, as the Protestant Reformation remade the way the English thought about the afterlife. Greenblatt shows at great length how Purgatory served a vital psychological function for people in the late Middle Ages, helping them to come to terms with the loss of loved ones, especially by leading them to believe that they could do something to relieve the suffering of family and friends in the other world. That “something” usually turned out to involve donations to the Catholic Church, sometimes on a massive scale, and this played into the hands of unscrupulous clerics, who could exploit the fears and hopes raised by the prospect of Purgatory. That, at least, was the accusation made by would-be reformers of the Catholic Church, complaints and charges that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, which, as Greenblatt documents in detail, often focused its attack on Catholicism precisely on the issue of Purgatory. When the newly created Church of England rejected the Catholic idea of Purgatory as a poetic fiction, it eliminated a potential source of ecclesiastical abuse, but at the same time it created a vacuum in the imagination of religious believers, taking away one of their chief sources of consolation in the face of the brute fact of death. 

According to Greenblatt, the Elizabethan theater moved in to fill this vacuum, with its many ghosts and other supernatural apparitions on the stage. In the make-believe world of the theater, playwrights could still conjure with purgatorial images even when they had been forbidden in the pulpit. Greenblatt cites Protestant reformers who actually refer to the migration of traditional beliefs to the stage—for example, Reginald Scot, who in his Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) makes fun of people who claim to be witches: “I for by part have read a number of the conjurations, but never could see any devils of theirs, except it were in a play.”

Hamlet becomes the centerpiece of Greenblatt’s discussion because of the perplexing combination of Protestant and Catholic elements in the play. As Greenblatt argues, Hamlet himself seems to have a Protestant sensibility—especially in his skepticism; he was after all educated in Wittenberg, the city of Martin Luther. And yet the ghost of Hamlet’s father seems Catholic in conception; he comes to his son from beyond the grave, out of a realm that seems to have all the trappings of the traditional Purgatory except the name. Like many before him, Greenblatt puzzles over the tension between the Protestant and Catholic strains in Hamlet and ends up suggesting that the play mirrors the anxieties generated by England’s painful transition from one form of Christianity to another. Greenblatt even raises the possibility that Hamlet helped Shakespeare come to terms with the death of his own father, though here the critic displays a knowledge of the author’s inner life that reduces me to abject envy: “In 1601 the Protestant playwright was haunted by the spirit of his Catholic father pleading for suffrages to relieve his soul from the pains of Purgatory.” In such a brief summary, I cannot do justice to the suggestiveness of Greenblatt’s argument, which, as always in his work, makes us take a fresh look at a familiar classic. But as is also typical of Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory tends to raise more questions than it answers. For all the accumulation of detail, there are some strange gaps in Greenblatt’s picture of Purgatory. The most surprising omission is Greenblatt’s failure to discuss Dante in anything other than an incidental manner. He admits that Dante gives the “highest expression” to the imaginative experience of Purgatory, and yet says nothing substantive about the Divine Comedy, evidently because the Purgatorio does not figure explicitly in the Protestant polemics on which Greenblatt focuses. But this fact is in itself worthy of more scrutiny than Greenblatt gives it, and discussing the Purgatorio—which is after all the most famous representation of Purgatory in literature—would seem essential to Greenblatt’s project. 

Dante manages to combine a richly detailed evocation of Purgatory with attacks on precisely the ecclesiastical abuses that angered later Protestant reformers. His criticism of the papacy and specific Popes was so stinging that it almost landed the Divine Comedy on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books in later years. Greenblatt’s omitting Dante from his picture of Purgatory no doubt simplified his task, but one must wonder whether it resulted in an oversimplification of the doctrinal history he outlines.

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I do not, however, wish to leave the impression that Greenblatt ends up drawing simplistic conclusions about Hamlet. If anything, the problem with this book is Greenblatt’s tendency to overcomplicate and overqualify his claims. In what I like to refer to as the Greenblatt Shuffle, he typically makes a claim with one breath, and then takes it back with another. Consider this characteristic passage:

Does this mean that Shakespeare was participating in a secularization process, one in which the theater offers a disenchanted version of what the cult of Purgatory once offered? Perhaps. But the palpable effect is something like the reverse: Hamlet immeasurably intensifies a sense of the weirdness of the theater, its proximity to certain experiences that has been organized and exploited by religious institutions and rituals.

This passage actually exemplifies what is most attractive in Greenblatt’s prose. He eloquently testifies to the genuine complexity of his subject matter, and surely in the case of Hamlet any critic is entitled to hesitate to give definitive answers and to offer alternate readings of a play that has puzzled critics for centuries. But to anyone who might want to criticize Greenblatt’s claim that Hamlet marks a secularization of Christian beliefs, it is frustrating to find that when he finally offers that thesis at the end of the book, he states it in the form of a question, adds a qualifying “perhaps” with a whole sentence all to itself, and immediately suggests that the opposite may be true—thereby disarming all criticism of what at first appeared to be his central argument.

More generally, much of the intellectual excitement of Hamlet in Purgatory is generated by the fact that Greenblatt revives the old argument that Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic, or what was known as a “recusant” in Elizabethan days (someone who refused to participate in the new Anglican Church). Greenblatt toys with this notion, but when he comes around to stating it, he does so with his usual caginess: “It is conceivable that Shakespeare, with his recusant family background, his education in Stratford by teachers linked to Campion and the Jesuits, his own possible links to Lancashire recusants, felt a covert loyalty to those structures [Catholic institutions] and a dismay that they were being gutted.”

Of course almost anything is conceivable in the absence of real evidence; it is equally conceivable that Shakespeare was a militant Protestant or a freethinker. With his usual rhetorical skill, Greenblatt manages to frame his sentence so that what appears to be conjectural in it is only the matter of whether Shakespeare was dismayed by what happened to Catholicism in 16th-century England. But actually all of the apparent “facts” laid out in this sentence are deeply disputed by Shakespeare scholars. For example, Greenblatt’s claim that Shakespeare’s father was a Catholic recusant largely rests on an extremely questionable document (not discovered until 1757 and mysteriously and conveniently lost soon thereafter before it could be definitively authenticated). Greenblatt is aware of how dubious this document is; if one follows up his citations, one sees how skeptical one of his chief sources, Samuel Schoenbaum, is about this supposed discovery (he points out that the scholar who originally authenticated the document later repudiated it). But in the body of Greenblatt’s text as opposed to the notes, he manages to convey the impression that this document offers more solid evidence than it really does. 

Just as one might be gearing up to challenge Greenblatt’s claims about Shakespeare’s Catholicism, one finds him beginning the very next paragraph: “We do not, however, need to believe that Shakespeare was himself a secret Catholic sympathizer; we need only to recognize how alert he was to the materials that were being made available to him.” There is a kind of admirable intellectual honesty in Greenblatt’s willingness to reverse himself this way, but it also seems to reflect his desire as a critic to have his cake and eat it too. He impresses his readers by seeming to make the strong claim that Shakespeare was a secret Catholic, but to anyone who challenges the evidence for that claim, he can always reply: “I am not claiming that Shakespeare was a Catholic; only that he was aware of the problems Catholics were facing in 16th-century England.” That is a much weaker claim and frankly less exciting, though of course more easily defended. 

I must confess my own frustration at not knowing how seriously to take what appear to be some of Greenblatt’s fundamental claims and thus not really knowing which claims to criticize. Granted, he has illuminated Hamlet from a fresh perspective and anyone studying the play will want to come to terms with what Greenblatt has to say about it. Still, Greenblatt seems content to leave his readers not in Purgatory but in limbo.