Stephen Greenblatt begins Hamlet in Purgatory with a personal anecdote. The Greenblatt family are Jews, and when his father died at age eighty-seven Greenblatt learned that he had left money to an organization that would say kaddish—the Aramaic prayer for the dead—for him. Since the prayer is usually said by a close family member, Greenbatt surmised his father did not trust either him or his brother with the duty, and this realization determined Greenblatt to recite the prayer after all. The experience taught him much about Judaism’s conception of the afterlife, a belief with only a slight Biblical basis, and he concluded—with evidence from one of John Donne’s sermons—that the Jewish practice of saying prayers for the dead was quite possibly adopted from Christians. Donne himself traced the origins of Purgatory to Plato. Greenblatt also cites New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier’s observation that the practice of saying kaddish began in the thirteenth century at just about the time that Christians began praying for souls in Purgatory, but he scoffs at Wieseltier’s claim of mere coincidence at work, imagining a “long, twisting path that leads back from my father and forefathers [and] passes through the Christianity that seemed to them the very embodiment of otherness.” This is Greenblatt’s “personal starting point” for his book.
In 1529, the London lawyer Simon Fish addressed an anonymous tract to Henry VIII pleading on behalf of the many sick and needy found on the city streets. This courageous work, A Supplication for Beggars, attributed the misery of the poor to the many petty church functionaries, from bishops to pardoners, who sucked from England the wealth that could support those in misery. The monks and friars, tenacious “bloodsuppers,” were “at the center of a vast system of pillaging and sexual corruption [that relied] upon the exploitation of a single core conviction: Purgatory.” Sir Thomas More responded at length to Fish in The Supplication of Souls, emerging as “an anxiously defensive spokesman for the Catholic clerical establishment.”
Greenblatt asks, what if Purgatory was not altogether “papal venality” but was mainly “a vast piece of poetry”? For Purgatory’s advocates, eyewitnesses of the afterlife were all-important. The Venerable Bede relates in his Ecclesiastical History of England the story of Drihthelm, the layman who in 696 experienced a vision of a sort of holding pen where those not quite ready for Heaven awaited their turn. Greenblatt includes beautiful plates taken from several medieval Books of Hours and from Hieronymus Bosch’s stunning Earthly Paradise: An Ascension to the Imperium (c. 1504), but he makes the most of the miniatures created in the fifteenth century by Simon Marmion of Valenciennes to illustrate the twelfth century Vision of Tundale. Written in Latin by an Irish monk in south Germany, The Vision of Tundale tells of the wastrel Tundale’s dream of souls in torment in Hell and also of many people enduring wind and rain in a setting that is obviously Purgatory, although not identified as such. Greenblatt describes it as at best “something like Provençal spring,” at worst “the equivalent of a blustery season in Dublin.” The more usual account of the “intermediate zone” depicts a “nightmarish landscape,” as Greenblatt’s examples attest.
The horror of these descriptions had one purpose, Greenblatt explains: “to undermine psychological security, to prevent any serene contemplation of one’s own death or that of one’s loved ones, to make the stomach churn and the hair stand on end, to provoke fear.” One response to this fear was to seek out suffering in this life in hopes of thus lessening the pains of Purgatory, a teaching that many Protestants railed against as contemptible. Only late in the twelfth century does this realm receive formal designation as Purgatory in the many vernacular accounts of a knight named Owein Miles, all versions of whose ordeal derive from the Latin prose treatise Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii (c. 1180; Saint Patrick’s purgatory). The author of this work was the Anglo-Norman monk H. of Sawtry in Huntingdonshire. To sum up, H. of Sawtry wrote his treatise at the request of the abbot of Sartis, who got the story from another monk, Gilbert, who had been sent to Ireland to found a monastery. Gilbert’s interpreter was Owein, the knight, whose story of descending into Purgatory appears most famously in the Middle English translation Owayne Miles, in which Owayne discovers the entrance to...
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