Monday, November 2, 2015

Shakespeare and At Least One Poor Soul: King Hamlet

You might recall the Ghost's speeches from Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, describes his soul's suffering in Purgatory:

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd 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 combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love--

You may watch the scene from Olivier's film of Hamlet. The Ghost ends his message with the plea: Remember me!

Stephen Greenblatt (author of the unfortunate The Swerve) wrote about Shakespeare's references to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory in England after the Reformation:

In Hamlet in Purgatory, renowned literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt delves into his longtime fascination with the ghost of Hamlet's father, and his daring and ultimately gratifying journey takes him through surprising intellectual territory. It yields an extraordinary account of the rise and fall of Purgatory as both a belief and a lucrative institution--as well as a capacious new reading of the power of Hamlet.

In the mid-sixteenth century, English authorities abruptly changed the relationship between the living and dead. Declaring that Purgatory was a false "poem," they abolished the institutions and banned the practices that Christians relied on to ease the passage to Heaven for themselves and their dead loved ones. Greenblatt explores the fantastic adventure narratives, ghost stories, pilgrimages, and imagery by which a belief in a grisly "prison house of souls" had been shaped and reinforced in the Middle Ages. He probes the psychological benefits as well as the high costs of this belief and of its demolition.

With the doctrine of Purgatory and the elaborate practices that grew up around it, the church had provided a powerful method of negotiating with the dead. The Protestant attack on Purgatory destroyed this method for most people in England, but it did not eradicate the longings and fears that Catholic doctrine had for centuries focused and exploited. In his strikingly original interpretation, Greenblatt argues that the human desires to commune with, assist, and be rid of the dead were transformed by Shakespeare--consummate conjurer that he was--into the substance of several of his plays, above all the weirdly powerful
Hamlet. Thus, the space of Purgatory became the stage haunted by literature's most famous ghost.

This book constitutes an extraordinary feat that could have been accomplished by only Stephen Greenblatt. It is at once a deeply satisfying reading of medieval religion, an innovative interpretation of the apparitions that trouble Shakespeare's tragic heroes, and an exploration of how a culture can be inhabited by its own spectral leftovers.

Greenblatt references St. Thomas More's The Supplication of Souls, More's answer to Simon Fish's A Supplication for Beggars, often throughout Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt must also address the possibility that William Shakespeare was at least secretly or culturally a Catholic, because the playwright brings up Purgatory and prayer for the dead throughout Hamlet after Purgatory and prayer for the dead had long been expunged from English life. Shakespeare remembered the dead; he recalled to his audience the practices of years and years ago--not just in Hamlet. Henry V has prayers said for the soul of Richard II and prays before the battle of Agincourt that his father's fault not interfere with the success of the battle:

O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred anew;
And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a-day their wither'd hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

Remember me, King Hamlet's Ghost implores. Remember us, St. Thomas More's poor souls called out during Henry VIII's reign as attacks on prayer for the Poor Souls in Purgatory began. More reminded his readers that forgetting the Poor Souls was forgetting ourselves: we may one day be such. TCM recently broadcast Young Bess again: it contains Henry VIII's death bed scene in which he asked for prayers for his soul. Edward "Ned" Seymour protests that Henry has abolished Purgatory in England! Henry knows he needs prayers, Masses, and suffrages all the same. Of course, he did not get them.

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