Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory is more about Purgatory than about Hamlet; the play, though ‘the subtext of this entire book’ (p. 157), is given sustained treatment only in the fifth and final chapter. In the first three (the fourth is on ghosts elsewhere in Shakespeare), Greenblatt focuses on the earliest imaginings and theological foundations of Purgatory and its elimination in Reformation England. He acknowledges the venal system of indulgences that served the material interests of a clerical elite but concentrates on the psychic fears and desires which Purgatory answered to and provoked – anxieties about one’s own afterlife but also, as a ritualized process to maintain connection with others who have died, a remediation for trauma. Purgatory ‘gave mourners something constructive to do with their feelings of grief . . . abandonment and anger’ (pp. 102, 103). Greenblatt’s Hamlet responds to the deprivation that followed the eradication of Purgatory, resituating in the theatre an experience of commemoration and belief – ‘the communal ritual assistance given to the dead by the living’ (p. 246) – no longer accessible in its original theological and ecclesiastical sites.