Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!
Reviewed by Carol Zaleski

This is a brilliant treatment of the history of Purgatory in England and its survivals and echoes throughout Shakespeare’s plays, above all Hamlet . The Hamlet who is in Purgatory is Hamlet Senior the ghost, not Hamlet Junior the prince; but the Purgatory that is in Hamlet is nothing less than the entire world of pre“Reformation England, and this world appears in a new light thanks to Stephen Greenblatt’s extraordinary powers of synthesis.

Jacket photos rarely merit comment, but the one that accompanies Hamlet in Purgatory is striking: the author stands in a navy“blue polo shirt in front of a signpost for Purgatorio, a roadway in Custonaci, northwestern Sicily, not far from where”as the sixth“century Pope Gregory the Great tells us”one can find volcanic entrances to the nether world emitting trails of steam and sparks of fire. Greenblatt poses at this Purgatory threshold bearing a tense smile that mixes warning and welcome. It’s tempting to try to interpret the smile, and the prologue almost invites us to do so, first by announcing that “this is a book about the afterlife of Purgatory, the echoes of its dead name” and then by revealing that its subject matter came to life for the author when he undertook””with a light ironic piety””to say Kaddish after the death of his father.

The mourner’s Kaddish, Greenblatt reminds us, can be traced to the twelfth“century Ashkenazim of Rhineland, who kept the memory of the dead in Memorbucher and recited the Kaddish prayer in their name, in a manner reminiscent of the Christian practice of praying for the dead. Remarkably, this coincides with the period in which the Catholic picture of Purgatory as a geographic place, and as the focus of an elaborate system of suffrages, began to crystallize. Purgatory “forged a different kind of link between the living and the dead,” Greenblatt writes, “or rather, it enabled the dead to be not completely dead”not as utterly gone, finished, complete as those whose souls resided forever in Hell or Heaven.” From this conception a whole economy arose, resting “on the belief that prayers, fasts, almsgiving, and masses constituted a valuable commodity.” The rise and fall of the Purgatory economy makes up the first half of Greenblatt’s book, and it is rich enough to repay the reader even before Shakespeare and his Hamlet enter the scene.

In The Birth of Purgatory, which Greenblatt cites, Jacques Le Goff (the French historian of medieval “mentalities”) maintains that the localization of Purgatory cannot be established prior to 1170, when one finds the earliest occurrence of purgatorium as a substantive. This same period is the heyday of the visionary journey narrative, typically relating the experience of an ordinary person (monk or knight, nobleman or peasant) who dies, visits the other world, and returns greatly chastened to tell the tale. Drawing upon the burgeoning scholarship on Middle English visions (by Robert Easting and Takami Matsuda, among others) as well as broader studies by Le Goff and Jean“Claude Schmitt, Greenblatt retraces the most influential of these accounts, with special attention to the cave“like entrance to Purgatory miraculously revealed to St. Patrick on an island in Lough Derg, County Donegal, where to this day there is a flourishing pilgrimage.

Greenblatt discusses the wonderful treatise on St. Patrick’s Purgatory composed in the early 1180s by the Anglo“Norman Cistercian monk H. of Sawtry, which relates the adventures of a ne’er“do“well Knight Owein, who visits the cave and only barely survives the ordeal; as Virgil tells us, the descent is easier than the return. Owein is taunted by fiends who claim him as one of them, but protected by prayer he crosses a test“bridge and finally enjoys a glimpse of Paradise so delicious that he resolves upon return to go on pilgrimage and end his days as a monk.

Visionary journey tales thus provided the complete concretization of the Christian topos of conversion, and a powerful incentive to conversion on the part of the audience. Whatever was wanting from such eye“witness accounts would be filled in by ghost stories like The Gast of Gy , in which the torments of Purgatory came increasingly to resemble those of Hell; this was inevitable, according to Greenblatt, for only by eliciting fear and guilt could such tales inspire conviction and action. Yet the terror always combined with comfort, with the consolation that it was not too late to help one’s kin or to save oneself.

Greenblatt’s elegant retelling underscores an impression that medieval Purgatory lore is bound to make: Purgatory is the realm par excellence not only of prayer and penance but also of imagination and dream. It is a stage on which the hopes and fears of humankind are acted out, virtues and vices personified, and the prayers of all souls given concrete form.

If Purgatory was born in 1170, when did it die? That depends on where you look. In Sicily, Malta, Mexico, wherever folk Catholicism survives, Purgatory persists in soul cakes, family picnics by the grave, and days of the dead. In the current Catechism of the Catholic Church as well as the writings of John Paul II and Paul VI, Purgatory endures, and along with it the economy of blessings exchanged between the living and the dead and indulgences drawn from the overflowing treasury of merits of Christ and the saints. The abuses of the indulgence system having been duly noted, it is possible to move on: abusus non tollit usum . Consider this: just two months after signing the joint Lutheran“Catholic declaration on justification at Augsburg on October 31, 1999”on the site of the Augsburg Confessions 482 years to the day from when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door”the Pope opened the holy door of the great millennial Jubilee, and indulgences flowed as freely as champagne.

But Purgatory did die in the lands of the Reformation. It died a particularly violent death in sixteenth“century England under the Catholic king Henry VIII who inadvertently Protestantized the realm, leading to the “stripping of the altars” (Eamon Duffy’s memorable phrase) and the suppression of the monasteries, pilgrimages, relics, images, and devotions through which Purgatory and English Catholic culture had lived. Greenblatt presents the Protestant attack on Purgatory through Simon Fish’s anticlerical tract A Supplication for the Beggars (1529) and similar polemical works which employ every device of irony and invective to portray Purgatory as a “poet’s fable,” lately devised, without scriptural support, by predatory monks and friars bent on filling their coffers and satisfying their corrupt desires.

As successful as the Protestant attack on Purgatory proved to be, it was not possible, Greenblatt points out, simply to drop Purgatory from the map:

When in 1545 and 1547, with zealous Protestantism in the ascendant, the English Parliament acted to dissolve the whole system of intercessory foundations created to offer prayers for souls in Purgatory, the lawmakers and bureaucrats found themselves faced with an immense task. They had to strike at colleges, free chapels, chantries, hospitals, fraternities, brotherhoods, guilds, stipendiary priests, and priests for terms of years, as well as at many smaller funds left to pay for trentals (the cycle of thirty requiem masses), obits (the yearly memorial service), flowers, bells, and candles . . . . It would have been a social catastrophe simply to shut down all institutions that had been created in the attempt to provide prayers for the dead.

A complete reorientation was needed, Greenblatt explains: the other world had to be reimagined, the social world had to be restructured, and the moral world had to be refounded, to provide a new basis for the works of mercy, charity, and spiritual discipline on which human welfare depends.

It is tempting to speculate about the extent to which the dismantling of Purgatory set in motion a wholesale transvaluation of values. After Purgatory, we no longer approve the use of fear as a goad to learning or of corporal punishment as a treatment for the misdemeanors of basically decent folk. We have difficulty appreciating the idea of merits and graces coming to us through the mediation of an ecclesial community. We prefer open“ended and individualized models of personal growth to a moral psychology based upon emblematic lists of virtues and vices.

And ghosts aren’t what they used to be, either. The ghost of pre“Reformation England cuts a vivid figure: he may be a hallucination or a demon in disguise, but if he proves, by the arts of discernment, to be an “honest ghost” like Hamlet’s father, then his character is most definite: he is one of the holy souls on leave from Purgatory, come to warn the living and to beg for intercessory masses, prayers, and good works as suffrages on his behalf. Absent Purgatory, the ghost becomes a more wraith“like thing, subjected to the indignity of being reduced to gauzy ectoplasm and summoned to cozy Victorian séances.

The second part of Hamlet in Purgatory is itself an exercise in discretio spiritum , testing the spirits that haunt Hamlet and several other of Shakespeare’s plays. Greenblatt finds evidence more than sufficient to prove that Hamlet’s father is a Catholic ghost, though undeniably an ambiguous one, who in visiting his Protestant son appeals for vengeance as well as for remembrance and suffrage. Thus “the space of Purgatory becomes the space of the stage where old Hamlet’s Ghost is doomed for a certain term to walk the night.”

Shakespeare composed Hamlet , Greenblatt points out, in the year (1601) when his own Catholic father died. On the question of Shakespeare’s Catholicism, Greenblatt remains noncommittal; his main point is that Shakespeare dramatized the fateful tensions between Protestant and Catholic interests with as much subtlety as he portrayed the battery of doubts, fears, guilt, piety, love, honor, and self“interest that tortured Hamlet’s soul. The two halves of the book cohere, to an effect that is completely enthralling.

Stephen Greenblatt has been a figure of some controversy: founder of the “new historicism” (although he prefers the term “cultural poetics”), he has been accused, along with others associated with the journal Representations , of preferring to work amidst a welter of historical marginalia and curious cultural practices rather than to labor in the heart of the literary traditions for which his training should have made him the reverent custodian. Reading this book, it is difficult to see what all the fuss was about. It’s clear that Greenblatt”surely one of the great stylists among present“day critics”loves Shakespeare more dearly than he loves new historicism or cultural poetics or gender criticism or any other fashionable interpretive school. There is plenty of literary analysis “distributed in tiny, almost invisible particles” throughout the book, and enough pure literary appreciation to please and edify those of us who want nothing more than to sink into Shakespeare’s words.

Only one thing gives me pause: Greenblatt seems to take it as a given that doubt is the natural human condition, and that the promulgators of religious belief must overcome this by appealing to passions”especially fear”strong enough to trump our animal and rational skepticism. At times this leads to a simplistic rendering of the power“interests behind Purgatory, which belies the richness of his own account. Yet Greenblatt portrays the conflicting loyalties and affections in Hamlet so skillfully as to suggest a deeper truth, and a better model of religious origins and motivations. I have a theory about Stephen Greenblatt’s smile: I think he may be trying to reconcile his skepticism with his catholicity”just as, in Hamlet , Shakespeare fuses Senecan fatalism with Christian hope, and Protestant iconoclasm with the persistence of Catholic devotions.

Carol Zaleski is Professor of Religion at Smith College. She is the author of Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near“Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (Oxford University Press) and coeditor with Philip Zaleski of The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times (Oxford University Press).