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Product details

  • Paperback: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; New Ed edition (15 Sept. 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691102570
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691102573
  • Product Dimensions: 23.3 x 15.5 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 769,265 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and is the founder of the school of literary criticism known as New Historicism. As visiting professor and lecturer at universities in England, Australia, the United States and elsewhere throughout the world, he has delivered such distinguished series of lectures as the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford and the University Public Lectures at Princeton. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and has been President of the Modern Language Association. Professor Greenblatt is the author and co-author of nine books and the editor of ten others, including The Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th edition) and The Norton Shakespeare.

Product Description


Winner of the 2002 Erasmus Institute Book Prize
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2001

"Greenblatt's fascination with ghostly texts is contagious, and he is virtually unequaled among literary critics as a prose stylist. . . . [Hamlet in Purgatory] greatly succeeds in bringing alive the powerful complex of fear and longing Shakespeare so deftly deployed. Required reading for those who study Shakespeare, this graceful analysis should also give considerable pleasure to those who merely enjoy him."--Publishers Weekly

"Hamlet in Purgatory neither pretends to solve the mysteries of the play nor indulges in fruitless speculation about Shakespeare's own sectarian allegiances. Instead, it offers masterly accounts first of the history of the idea of Purgatory and its decline, then of the importance of ghosts and related apparitions in the whole range of Shakespeare's plays. . . . Profoundly original."--Jonathan Bate, The Sunday Telegraph

"Greenblatt . . . argues with great elegance and ingenuity . . . [He] offers masterly accounts first of the history of the idea of Purgatory and its decline, then of the importance of ghosts and related apparitions in the whole range of Shakespeare's plays."--Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph

"[A] highly instructive investigation of the role of spirits from the other world in Shakespeare. [Greenblatt's] writing here is poised, precise, and . . . eloquent. . . . Hamlet in Purgatory is an exemplary work of historically informed literary interpretation."--Robert Alter, New York Times Book Review

"A learned and persuasive book."--John Bossy, London Review of Books

"[An] astonishing work of historical reconstruction. . . . [Greenblatt] has taken on the challenge of defamiliarizing the most famous play in Western literature by placing it in its proper theological setting. . . . [W]hile he must definitely rank as the most influential and knowledgeable of all the New Historicists he now shows himself in this book as something more, much more."--Edward T. Oakes, Commonweal

"This is an interesting book on a grave matter . . . We marvel that the author can make so much out of a slender theme, but it is the device of the good academic writer to make small amounts of material yield golden insights."--Peter Ackroyd, The Times of London

"Greenblatt's is not by any means nostalgic reading. The book gains its energy from an ongoing tension between the author's intellectual openness to apparently bizarre religious practices and his sharp skepticism. . . . To have explicated new aspects of a play that has probably been more intensely studied than any other work of literature is a remarkable achievement that triumphantly vindicates the book's method. . . . Enthralling reading. . . . Greenblatt has offered genuinely new insights that make the familiar words seem strange and new, and that will speak powerfully to a new generation uneasy about its own unease with an earlier generation's religious beliefs."--David Norbrook, The New Republic

"Greenblatt reveals how Shakespeare turned the Anglican assault on the idea of purgatory as mere poetry into an indispensable poetic resource. In addition to this decisive repositioning of Hamlet's place in modern culture, Greenblatt provides extraordinary readings of little-know works. . . . A major work of contemporary scholarship."--Choice

"Greenblatt has shown beautifully what compellingly affective, even ethical, 'claims' Shakespeare's imaginary characters can make on modern readers, rewarding us with some of his liveliest and most original critical writing to date."--Katherine Duncan-Jones, Times Literary Supplement

"Greenblatt's mode of analysis has always been to leap the gulf between the early modern past and the present. . . . Hamlet in Purgatory, his finest book in years, is a magnificent extended commentary on the otherness of the work in which Hamlet's father's ghost walked on stage. Greenblatt leaves it to us to find the spaces that it now haunts within the family or the world of politics, in the bedroom or on the battlements."--Peter Holland, New York Review of Books

"A magisterial study containing impeccable scholarship, interesting narratives, incisive analyses of specific passages, cogent generalizations based upon a number of disciplines, seamless utilization of appropriate quotations, and, finally, a compelling sensitivity to the effects of literature on its past and present audiences."--Frank Ardolino, Sixteenth Century Journal

From the Back Cover

"Beyond its brilliant illumination of Hamlet, Stephen Greenblatt's book uses historical evidence to probe the nature of human memory--by nature insistent, contradictory, in every sense haunted--as it copes with the stark, yet mysterious reality of death. With a rare combination of learning, imagination and grace Greenblatt has created an exciting work of scholarship, alert to the ways a great work of art can both resemble and transform other modes of discourse and perception."--Robert Pinsky

"Hamlet in Purgatory is a virtuoso exercise in untangling the interwoven threads of feeling and belief in early-seventeenth-century England . . . In this bold and brilliant book, Greenblatt demonstrates utterly compellingly why Hamlet can still hold our spiritual attention today."--Lisa Jardine

"My understanding of the traditions concerning Purgatory, both learned and popular, has been gratifyingly deepened by the rich detail of Greenblatt's study. . . . The nature of the ghost of Hamlet's father is an old scholarly puzzle, but Greenblatt's book raises the discussion to a new level, and does so without dogmatism, rather with a subtle acceptance of the ambiguities inherent not only in the Ghost but in the great play as a whole. The book will be welcomed by all who care about the subject, and for the insights already known to abound in this scholar's work."--Frank Kermode

"Stephen Greenblatt is a famously beguiling writer. That power of enchantment does not fail him here. His skill as a storyteller is constantly on display. But so too is his no less renowned skill as a skeptically demystifying cultural critic. The result is a book whose remarkable energy derives, as does that of Hamlet itself, from the mutually contradictory impulses it so tellingly expresses."--Richard Helgerson, University of California, Santa Barbara

"This book is a brilliant essay on memory. Although it serves as a learned history of the idea of Purgatory and a subtle reading of Hamlet, it is primarily a book about how a culture faces loss, one that is gracefully, even movingly, written and one which reveals, as always, Greenblatt to be an unusually sensitive critic and thinker."--David Scott Kastan, Columbia University

"A brilliant treatment of the history of Purgatory in England and its survivals and echoes throughout Shakespeare's plays, above all Hamlet."--Carol Zaleski, First Things

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First Sentence
EARLY IN 1529 a London lawyer, Simon Fish, anonymously published a tract, addressed to Henry VIII, called A Supplication for the Beggars. Read the first page
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By TomCat on 21 Aug. 2011
Format: Paperback
'Hamlet in Purgatory' is an undeniably glamorous title, and one that invites question, but it's nonetheless fundamentally misleading, as any mention of Hamlet or critical analysis of the same is left entirely until the book's closing chapter - also its shortest. My initial disappointment with this lack of Hamletty analysis was soon mitigated, however, by Greenblatt's early mission statement that the majority of this book functions as treatise on ghosts, demons, myth, monsters, the supernatural, pain, doubling, visual art and the unknowable nature of infinity. I don't think any critical book has pushed so many of my literary buttons in one such swift movement. Hamlet in Purgatory definitely piqued my interest, and having read it, part of me just wants to yell "Oh my God it's so cool!" and let that stand for my review. But I know you readers are a discerning bunch, and I wouldn't want to let my "professional" (ahem) face slip, so here's more detail...

As you'd expect from the pioneer of New Historicism, Hamlet in Purgatory reads more like literary history than exegesis. As Greenblatt wrestles with the nature of purgatory, the text becomes dense with historical reference and description - nowhere more so than in the opening chapter, which describes a kind of contemporary battle of pamphlets between Simon Fish and Sir Thomas More: the former refuting the existence of purgatory, the latter attesting to it. And this isn't the minor theological nit-picking it may initially appear. As I understand it, by the 16th Century, the doctrinal legitimacy of purgatory was an explicitly Catholic aspect, and the rejection of it was therefore a strikingly avant-garde and Reformative (read: Protestant) stance; potentially treasonous.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Janet on 17 Aug. 2010
Format: Paperback
'I like it' but, didn't the idea for this book stem from Professor Michael Neill's "Issues of Death - Mortality and Identity in English Renaissance Tragedy", (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997: see chapter 6: 'To know my stops': Hamlet and Narrative Abruption) and if indeed so, why isn't this source acknowledged?
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Amazon.com: 7 reviews
59 of 64 people found the following review helpful
Better on Purgatory than on Hamlet 26 Jun. 2001
By Michael Guttentag - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"Hamlet in Purgatory" is a wonderfully written, thoughtful, and enlightening book. But it is less than I would have hoped for and probably less than most readers will expect.
Greenblatt's exposition of the history and literature surrounding the rise and demise of belief in Purgatory in England from 1,100 AD to 1,500 AD is enthralling. This history and literature highlights the basic human desire to connect with, remember, and perhaps even continue the work of the dead. Hamlet faces just such challenges as he struggles with the demands of his father's ghost. And yet Greenblatt fails to delve into these universal issues. Nor does he provide a context for understanding the ghost's injunction as one of the many profound issues in the play. To approach such fascinating issues without exploring them in full is a disappointment.
"Hamlet in Purgatory" starts with a wonderful Prologue. Greenblatt tells how his own father's passing away made his study of Hamlet and purgatory personally relevant.
The first chapter reviews "A Supplication for the Beggars" by Simon Fish written in 1529. This tract is a letter to then King Henry VIII arguing that the church is using the concept of Purgatory to exploit believers. Greenblatt wonderfully sets the stage, explaining how over the course of the preceding 400 years "Purgatory had achieved both a doctrinal and a social success" (p.14). This tract by Fish was the start of the Protestant effort to challenge the legitimacy of Purgatory, an effort that had succeeded by the end of the sixteenth century. So that when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet around 1601 Purgatory was doctrine that was rejected by the Anglican Church.
The second chapter explores Purgatory as an artistic creation, and shows that the "dream" of Purgatory reveals our uncertainties about how to deal with the dead. Greenblatt nicely observes that in the case of Purgatory we can see how a "religious" concept develops. Unlike the concepts of Heaven and Hell, Purgatory was a relatively recent development, and could be seen to meet several needs: it provided a way to Heaven, albeit indirect, for those who were not evil but had not fully cleansed their souls before death, it provided the church a powerful mechanism for garnering continuing support (facilitating the path of those in Purgatory to Heaven), and it provided the living a way to stay connected with their dead.
The third chapter reviews two works preceding Hamlet that dealt with Purgatory. The first is the story of The Gast of Gy, which describes a visitation from a husband to his wife and the dialogue that ghost had with the local prior. Greenblatt next reviews a tract by Sir Thomas More called "The Supplication of Souls." In this tract More argues for Purgatory speaking, he claims, on behalf of "the voices of the dead burning in purgatorial fire" (p. 137).
Chapter four moves to a discussion of the various ways that ghosts were staged in late sixteenth century theater. Most of the playwrights of the time, particularly Marlow and Jonson, showed little interest in using ghosts as characters (p. 154). It is to Greenblatt part of Shakespeare's genius that he saw the dramatic opportunity in the ghost, and Greenblatt goes on to describe the use both of ghosts and of dreams in Shakespeare plays such as Comedy of Errors, Richard III and Macbeth. The breadth of what Greenblatt wants to cover is expanding nicely: "The deep link between ghosts and the power, pleasure, and justification of the theater is the thread that runs through the contradictory materials we have been examining: false surmises, panicky mistakes, psychological projections, fairies, familial spirits, vengeful ghosts, emblems of conscience, agents of redemption" (p.199).
And so we come to the fifth chapter and Hamlet. Greenblatt has touched on some exciting material: the desire to stay in touch with the dead, the commonality between Purgatory and the dream world and the theater. But rather than bringing this material into a robust and balanced treatment of Hamlet, Greenblatt, at least for this reader, backs away. Greenblatt describes the power that Shakespeare creates by shifting the challenge of the ghost to "Remember me" from the "Revenge me" of the source material, and tries to explain the probable basis for this shift. Next, he shows how Shakespeare "went to the edge" in terms of what the censors of the day would allow with respect to placing Old Hamlet in Purgatory.
As far as it goes this is elucidating. But here we are with this profound insight that part of Hamlet's challenge is the challenge of remembering. And what does Greenblatt do with this? Rather than place this in the landscape of our most basic needs, fears and desires, which is to move closer to the fundamental appeal of the play, he brings it back to the discourse between More and Fish about Purgatory in the sixteenth century. While this was likely an influence on Shakespeare, to limit the discussion to these historically specific feuds is to miss the broader issues that Greenblatt comes so close to. Alas, I would recommend other books, perhaps Kitto's, Mack's, or Eissler's treatments of the play, to be exposed to the broad expanse that this drama covers.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Magnificent Look at Shakespeare & the Concept of Purgatory 24 Jun. 2001
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I happened to be browsing through books the other day (as I am often wont to do) when the cover of this book caught my eye. It is detail from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch who happens to be one of my favorite painters. Then, when I saw the book was about Shakespeare, Hamlet and the concept of Purgatory, I was sold.
Of course, need I mention the cliche about judging books by their covers and so on? There was no guarantee that I was going to like this book despite my attraction to its superficial accouterments. Still, sometimes you get lucky. This is a wonderful book.
As a Catholic, the concept of Purgatory is an integral part of what I was taught about the afterlife. It was very interesting to see how the Christian view of the nature of Purgatory changed through time and how that view influenced (or, what is more likely, was influenced by) the literature of the Middle Ages. Greenblatt examines a number of ballads and other pieces from as early as the 11th & 12th centuries to show the change of Purgatory from a relatively restful place of waiting into a vicious hell with a time limit.
By Shakespeare's time, of course, the Protestant Reformation had taken issue with the many abuses of the Church with respect to Purgatory (particularly indulgences) and all but eliminated Purgatory as part of the revised dogma. Still, as Greenblatt points out, the concept and the human feelings it addresses with respect to the afterlife cannot be eliminated by religious pronouncement. It finds its way into many of Shakespeare's plays in various guises. The spirits and ghosts that populate many of the plays are an instance as is the mention of chantries and "poor in yearly pay" of Henry V to name but a few. The clearest and highest development, however, is the appearance of the ghost in Hamlet.
Greenblatt develops his ideas about the ghost in Hamlet in the last chapter of the book but this is just the peak of a wonderfully perceptive analysis of this aspect of influences on English literature. Anyone with any interest in the development of religion, the development of early English literature and/or Shakespeare should definitely take a look at this book.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Fun... 29 Jun. 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Yeah, the reviewer from Santa Monica is on the mark. Good book, plenty of interesting historical tidbits, some connections to mull over, but Greenblatt doesn't really use his historical conclusions to much purpose in his analysis of Hamlet. Some of his literary points are strained ("the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns" means Hamlet has forgotten about the ghost; when Ophelia says that Hamlet looked as though he "had been loosed out of Hell" she of course means Purgatory instead of Hell, the rabble who follow Laetres against Claudius represent Protestants attacking the Catholic Church, etc.) but a couple are interesting, such as the play's disconnect between body and spirit mapped onto Elizabethan views of the Eucharist. But there are a good 150 pages (more than half the book) before we enter this dicey realm. Chapters 1-3 get five stars, and chapters 4-5 get three point five.
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
Superb Writing and Scholarship 5 Oct. 2002
By Flounder - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book--excellent scholarship. I highly recommend it to anyone generally interested in medieval and Elizabethan accounts on purgatory, or to those who have an interest in Shakepeare studies. Even for those who don't, this is an excellent book, and my interest in it grew with every turn of the page. It is rich and well-written.
Chapter Two: "Imagining Purgatory" discusses various philosophical and medieval connections (via manuscripts) to Shakespeare's texts (also see the classic, "The Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy"). Chapter Three: "The Flights of Memory" (oddly enough, also see Derrida's The Gift of Death/U Chicago Press, Staten's Eros in Mourning, Derrida's The Work of Mourning, and E. Scarry's Body in Pain) is highly interesting material on the poetics of pain and suffering. Chapter Five: "Remember Me" is brilliant (also see Derrida/Levinas on the 'adieu' issue--U of Chicago and Stanford UP titles).
Also see: Fish, How Milton Works (Harvard UP); Williams, Truth and Truthfulness (Princeton UP); Staten, Eros in Mourning (Johns Hopkins). I also recommend Robert Bell's dissertation on the harrowing of hell (English/U of Maryland/CSULB Emeritus).
Brilliant study of history of purgatory 15 Jan. 2014
By Regine - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I chose the book because I have loved all books by Greenblatt and I am something of a Shakespeare nerd - especially Hamlet. So I started reading it and I am thrilled...what an exciting topic to look into.
Highly recommendable as everything by Greenblatt, and quite an "easy" read.
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