Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Hamlet In Purgatory Stephen Greenblatt tells his interesting story in five chapters. “A Poet’s Fable” analyzes A Supplication for Beggars, a tract published in 1529 by Simon Fish, a London lawyer. Fish laments that money that could benefit the poor is going instead to the “bloodsuppers” of the Church, who are bleeding people for alms to shorten the stay of souls in Purgatory. Fish asks why priests cannot give pardons freely, and he urges the king to stamp out the exploitation practiced by the corrupt monks and friars. William Tyndale, another doubter, called Purgatory “a poet’s fable.”

“Imagining Purgatory” summarizes some of the prominent accounts of Purgatory, including the twelfth century Vision of Tondale and the twelfth century Latin prose work Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, by the Anglo-Norman monk H. of Sawtry.

“The Rights of Memory” explicates the Middle English The Gast of Gy, the narrative of a recently widowed French woman who is tormented by her late husband’s evening visits to her bedroom. The story of the haunting survives in a report for Pope John XXII written by a Dominican prior in the form of a debate between himself and the specter, and Greenblatt’s account is one of the high points of his study.

A chapter on “Staging Ghosts” prepares for Greenblatt’s superb insights in “Remember Me” (“Adieu, adieu, Hamlet. Remember me”) into the nature of Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost. It is his father, the senior Hamlet, who is in Purgatory, of course, and Greenberg’s reading of the ghost’s nature and intentions invigorates an old controversy.

Sources for Further Study

London Review of Books, May 24, 2001, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (May 20, 2001): 45.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 19, 2001): 86.