In his book Hamlet in Purgatory, what conclusions does Stephen Greenblatt come to regarding the Ghost in Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The crux of Stephen Greenblatt's book Hamlet in Purgatory is that William Shakespeare used the Ghost in Hamlet to represent the Catholic concept of Purgatory.

The Medieval Church (the Catholic Church) was quite interested in the concept of a place called Purgatory, a rather nebulous stopping place between death and either heaven or hell. Purgatory is both a beautiful and an awful place, claimed the Church. It was located in Donegal, Ireland, but it was also a place of horrific and rather fantastical tortures which those who have died must endure for as long as two thousand years before finally moving on to their final destinies.

Fortunately for those who were left behind and worrying endlessly about their loved ones, the Church had an answer: what the living relatives and friends must do is pray, do charitable acts, and of course donate money to the church on their loved ones' behalf. Greenblatt does make it clear that the priests were not the only ones whose prayers were considered to be effective in this endeavor; however, he is also clear that most of the building and other projects done by the Medieval Church were funded by these fear-inspired donations to the Church.

Despite the rather materialistic motives of the Church as they exploited and perpetuated the idea of Purgatory, the people did derive some comfort from the thought that they could do something to alleviate their loved ones' pain and suffering. 

Now on to Shakespeare and Hamlet. By the time Shakespeare is writing, says Greenblatt, the teachings of the Catholic Church have been superseded by the Protestant Church after the Reformation, and because the Church of England does not accept the concept of Purgatory, the people are forced to think differently about the afterlife. This void is filled, he says, by ghosts, spirits, and apparitions from another place, so often present on the Elizabethan stage. In other words, the theatre could give the people what the Church could not.

Enter Hamlet's Ghost. He talks to his son about the place where he is trapped:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combinèd locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fearful porpentine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.
Though he does not call his home Purgatory, it is certainly a logical presumption that that is where the Ghost is trapped. 
Greenblatt makes (and then rather denies) the claim that Shakespeare was using the Ghost in this play to appease at least some of his audience's desire to continue in their belief of Purgatory. The author points out that Hamlet is more of a Protestant thinker, having gone to school in Wittenberg, the home of the reformer Martin Luther, while his father is more of a Catholic presence, designed to appeal to the Elizabethan audience's dormant longing for Purgatory--and thus the ability to help their loved ones escape punishment.
Greenblatt is a pillar in the New Historicism movement, espousing the idea that literature should be studied only through the historical context of the time the work was written, which explains his reasoning about the Ghost. 
Read the study guide:
Hamlet in Purgatory

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