Culture Wars Feature Article

Hamlet and the Ghost of Purgatory:
Forgetting the Dead

by Anthony Low

This article was published in the June, 2000 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Order

Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. "Stop!" cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree."
—Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Milton’s Satan are two pivotal figures born out of the imaginative stirrings in early-modern culture that led to the rise of Enlightenment, Romantic, modernist, and postmodernist individualism–all arguably beads in the chain of a single, sinuous, long-wave development toward liberal autonomy. Great literary inventions, Hamlet and Satan are also grand portents of subsequent cultural change. Moreover, buried deep in the tragedy of Hamlet, as I shall argue in this essay, are intimations of what may be called the transformative event that led to still another essential paradigm of modernity, a necessary adjunct to autonomous individualism, for which a brutally appropriate name has been given: killing the father. With the rise of postmodernism (and as emphasis has shifted further from the war between generations to the war between genders), it is even more evident than it was earlier in this century that the Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, modernist, and postmodernist projects (all of which I include under the umbrella term of modernism) require an attack on patriarchal tradition. As Freud’s writings often suggest, killing the father is not a new idea. But unlike earlier generations, the modernists did not stop at the customary tree.
In one of a number of similar passages, Gertrude Stein writes:

I have been much interested in watching several families here in Belley that have lost their fathers and it is interesting to me because I was not grown when we lost our father. As I say fathers are depressing any father who is a father or any one who is a father and there are far too many fathers now existing. The periods of the world's history that have always been most dismal are the ones where fathers were looming and filling up everything. I had a father, I have told lots about him in Making of Americans but I did not tell about the difference before and after having him. . . . Then our life with out a father began a very pleasant one. (Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography)

Similarly, Virginia Woolf writes in her diary for 28 November 1928: "Father's birthday. He would have been . . . 96, yes, today; & could have been 96, like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;–inconceivable." To bring us into postmodernism, we may quote J. Hillis Miller’s deliberate provocation: "a deconstructionist is not a parasite but a parricide. He is a bad son demolishing beyond hope of repair the machine of Western metaphysics." ("The Critic As Host," in Miller’s Deconstruction and Criticism, p. 251).
The transformative event I have mentioned, which made it possible to repudiate tradition and kill the father in early-modern English and European culture–an event successfully obliterated from modern memory by early, deliberate acts of forgetting and by the decision of Renaissance politicians and gentry to rewrite history–was the abolition of Purgatory. Modernism is largely a process of desecularization–an analysis which discomfits both secularists and Christians, yet which is virtually unavoidable. The secular-minded object to the idea because it makes modernism seem inversely parasitic on religion, and Christians object to it because it seems to deny the continuing vitality of their religion. Christianity still thrives, but at the margins, where it has been put by political leaders and cultural arbiters. If secularization is the weakening of bonds between religion and the dominant culture, not the weakening of religion itself, its existence is difficult to avoid. In this essay I shall argue that crucial, irreversible steps in that direction were taken by the Chantries Act and Royal Injunctions of 1547 and by the Church of England’s declaration, in the Edwardian Prayerbook of 1549, that Purgatory did not exist and consequently that Christians should not mourn or pray for their dead. The issue is far too large to be proven in a single essay or even a book, but I put it forward as a hypothesis, and as a way of making better sense of certain speeches and happenings in Hamlet.
Before the modern autonomous individual can step forth in all his glory, he must first free himself–and increasingly herself–from the past, from tradition, from ancestral piety, and especially from the father and the paternal lineage. We find exactly this gesture of repudiation in several of Shakespeare’s heroes and villains. Coriolanus most explicitly embodies the modernist desire for total autonomy. In the pivotal scene in which Shakespeare has him deny his family and his country in the face of three generations of that family–mother, wife, and son–who beg him not to destroy Rome, he utters these ominous words:
I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself
And knew no other kin. (Coriolanus, 5.3.34-37)

Since the nineteenth century, the word "instinct" has had a particular scientific meaning, but for Coriolanus it means to be bound by an unselfconscious inward stain or tincture to the obligations of family, culture, citizenship, and tradition. Now Coriolanus will throw off all these instinctive restraints. He will become the "author of himself," forget all other ties, and act from unnameable internal principles, which we now recognize as the underlying axioms of autonomous individualism. Even at this tragic stage of extreme pride, since he is a man of his own time or rather of Shakespeare’s, Coriolanus implicitly recognizes that he cannot actually be the "author of himself"; yet he is determined to act "as if" he were the "author of himself." The arc of the action reveals this gesture to be an act of hubris, for which he will be tragically punished. Yet we know that such acts of self-fashioning, although they begin as role-playing, can issue in authentic change, first in the individual, then in the culture.
Similarly Shakespeare’s Edmund in King Lear, that enterprising bastard whom most modern readers and playgoers instinctively admire–because they are themselves the children of modernist egalitarianism and self-assertion–repudiates what he calls "the plague of custom" (Lear, 1.2.3), which in its context is much the same thing as Coriolanus’s "instinct," in favor of a proto-Darwinian version of "Nature"–a Nature virtually "red in tooth and claw," according to whose laws it is every man and every beast for himself. After he comes to this resolve, Edmund determines to displace his brother and betray his natural father, Gloucester, as well as his feudal father, King Lear. Above all, he is determined to stand on his own, to deny the influence of stars, gods, custom, or natural law (Nature in its older sense), to be the arbiter of his own free will. Here again the first prerequisite of self-conscious autonomy is killing the father. The self-declared iron law of Edmund’s brave new world is: "The younger rises when the old doth fall" (Lear, 3.3.26). In the old natural order, sons replaced fathers in the ripeness of time, but in King Lear sons and daughters, who have become "monsters of the deep" (4.2.50), devour their fathers before their time.
As Ulysses tells Agamemnon, in his ironically placed speech on order and degree in Troilus and Cressida, "Take but degree away, untune that string . . . / And the rude son should strike his father dead" (1.3.109, 115). In recent years, postmodern academics have often pilloried E. M. W. Tillyard for interpreting this seminal speech at face value. Yet even if we recognize the dramatic irony with which these words are spoken, Ulysses’ speech still tells us much about how the Elizabethans feared such subversive notions. After all the academic deconstructions, the troubling question still remains: what can possibly prevent the son from striking his father dead–literally, psychologically, or culturally–once the civilizing achievements of the past–what Ulysses calls "degree," Milton and Chapman "discipline," others tradition, custom, ancestry, patrimony–once those achievements, the lineage that bears them, and the culture that provides their matrix, have been destroyed and forgotten?
Buried deeply in Hamlet, in the relationship between the prince and his father, is a source tale, an unspoken acknowledgment that the modernist project of achieving complete autonomy from the past rested (at least for the great majority of Shakespeare’s contemporaries who were still Christian) on the denial and forgetting of Purgatory. Before pursuing this disturbing topic any further, we should first remember that Shakespeare’s personal religious beliefs are notoriously difficult to pin down. For every place in the plays that a critic has identified an outpouring of Protestant nationalism, another has found covert Catholicism, and a third has found skeptical agnosticism. Not coincidentally, these findings tend to chime with the critics’ own beliefs. What we know, however, is that whatever Shakespeare personally believed about religious matters, whether his deepest allegiances were national or universal, Protestant or Catholic, nostalgic or progressive, spiritual or agnostic (all positions for which critics have found at least some evidence) he knew his audience and knew how to play on their expectations. Given the difficulty of extracting "Shakespeare" from his plays, I shall not consider the question of whether he personally believed in the existence of Purgatory or regretted its disappearance from English life not long before he was born. But there is ample, only partly covert, evidence in the play that he understood very well that the abrupt and, to a large degree, forcible dismantling of Purgatory at mid-century, together with its deep psychic resonances among the common people, its elaborate cultural associations, and its extensive institutional supports, had drastic consequences for society and for the individuals who formed and were formed by society. Before the Reformation, few countries had a deeper investment (financial, cultural, and spiritual) in Purgatory and in commemoration of the dead than England. After the Reformation, few countries turned their backs more abruptly on Purgatory and, with it, on their own dead.
The early history of the development of the doctrine of Purgatory is too long and complicated to outline here. An excellent survey (though secular in perspective) is Jacques Le Goff’s The Birth of Purgatory. Most modern readers, even Catholics, if they think about Purgatory at all these days, are likely to think of it in terms of its notorious abuses, publicized and disparaged by Luther and the first Reformers. But Purgatory was not just a hierarchical imposition on the laity, a means of social control, or a way to raise money for the popes’ building projects and art collections. (And the chief interest of medieval English kings in fraternities and similar religious activities was to tax and license them for stiff fees, leading historians to suspect that many went unrecorded.) In England at the eve of the Reformation it was a thriving and popular institution, whose social and material framework was likelier to well up spontaneously from the laity than to be imposed calculatingly downward by the bishops. The chief interest that most people had in Purgatory was concern for their souls and those of their ancestors, together with a strong sense of communal solidarity between the living and the dead. Praying for the dead and provision for one’s own soul after death were central to late medieval religion. Commemoration might be accomplished by individuals: paying for special masses, giving alms to the poor, or praying at shrines. But satisfactory commemoration could more safely and efficiently be accomplished through a variety of institutions, foundations, and voluntary fraternities. A king, a queen, or a rich noble might ensure sufficient prayers for him- or herself and family after death by founding a monastery, whose grateful monks would return the gift by chanting perpetual masses and offices for their souls, or a religious hospital, which might combine prayers, charity, and almsgiving on their behalf. Typically, prayers and masses were supplemented by the sponsoring of works of corporal mercy for the ill and the poor.
People of the middling and poorer sort could band together in voluntary fraternities, confraternities, guilds, burial societies, and the like. Far from taking their instructions from priests, these lay groups customarily hired priests to say masses on their behalf and for their dead, presumptively in Purgatory. Through most of the later middle ages in England there was a surplus of clerics, which, in effect, created a buyer’s market when lay trustees sought to staff a chantry or a chapel. Thus, for example, "the guild of the Virgin in the church of St Giles Cripplegate [later Milton’s parish church] had, by 1388, acquired sufficient lands to employ a perpetual fraternity chaplain to celebrate mass every day. The chaplain was to be chosen by the vicar of the church (if he were a member of the guild), the two wardens and twelve of the best men of the guild. The chaplain was to be provided with a house, he was to be attentive to all brothers and sisters, poor as well as rich, sick and healthy." Although the chaplain could not be dismissed except for cause and with consent of the directors, the guild was financed and controlled by its lay members, gathered in voluntary association. Thus the priest had the faculties provided by ordination to say mass, hear confessions, and absolve from sins, but the laity took the initiative and controlled the funds. In this regard, the governing system was closer to Congregationalism than anything available to ordinary people in the Church of England after the Reformation. Nor could such a dispersal of authority and initiative among the laity flourish in the same way under the Catholic Counter-reformation, which, in its struggle against Protestantism, likewise tightened clerical and hierarchical control.
Corpus Christi fraternities were founded by the laity for the purpose of honoring the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nevertheless, as Miri Rubin remarks, these fraternities too were routinely preoccupied with proper burials and regular prayers for the dead. "Thus, all Corpus Christi fraternities made provisions for commemoration, 32 out of 42 employed a chaplain for regular daily or annual celebration of masses for the dead, and half of the fraternities provided for burial of their poorer members at the gild’s expense." As J. J. Scarisbrick puts it, "What was a fraternity? It was an association of layfolk who, under the patronage of a particular saint, the Trinity, Blessed Virgin Mary, Corpus Christi or similar, undertook to provide the individual member of the brotherhood with a good funeral–as solemn and well-attended a ‘send-off’ as possible–together with regular prayer and mass-saying thereafter for the repose of the dead person’s soul. . . . In their most modest form, therefore, fraternities were simply poor men’s chantries. They were inseparably connected with the doctrine of Purgatory. . . . The humblest village fraternity might aspire to no more than the individual funeral mass for every deceased member, for which all the living members had to subscribe a ‘mass penny’, plus an annual mass and audit. . . . Many guilds undertook to bring back for decent burial a brother’s body from wherever he happened to die."
Wealthier founders of chantries and other institutions connected with Purgatory by no means acted only from self-interest. The usual formula in the Mass was to offer prayers "for n. and n., and for all who suffer the pains of Purgatory." Colin Richmond describes the elaborate and (to the modern sensibility) amazing benefactions that Geoffrey Downes specified in his Last Will and Testament of 1492. Together with Joan Ingoldsthorpe, Downes founded and endowed a chapel in Cheshire, with two priests to say daily masses. In addition, he established a trust for the purchase of a hundred cows, to be "individually rented to the poor of Pott Shrigley," the rent being "‘oonly to pray for the sowle of Jane and Geffrey and for all the sowlles in the paynes of purgatory.’" Downes appointed lay trustees to hire and (if necessary) fire the priests, who are to live devoutly and "not to keep horses, hawks or hounds." They are "to burn candles before the Images of Mary and Jesus on their feast days." In addition, they are to teach local children, tell their beads, say their offices, and run a small lending-library of devotional books, which may be borrowed "for the space of 13 weeks" by members of the fraternity "or any other Gentleman." Downes’s device of endowing a herd of cows to be lent to the poor in return for their prayers is especially ingenious, thus neatly combining as it does alms-giving and prayers, to most efficiently benefit the living and the dead. In the coming age of Reformation, and later of Capital, such ingenuity will be turned in other directions.
Many things were repudiated at the English Reformation, including Transubstantiation, Confession as a sacrament, the monasteries, and the primacy of Peter. But the Church of England retained the Lord’s Supper, claimed apostolic succession for its bishops, and permitted (though it did not encourage) auricular confession before communion and on the deathbed. Few things were ended so absolutely as Purgatory. In The Book of Common Prayer as published under Elizabeth, article 22 reads: "The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God." Also relevant is part of Article 19: "As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." In his fascinating study of the psychic and social effects of the abolition of Purgatory, Theo Brown suggests that when the Anglican Church promulgated its repudiation of "The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory" in the first Book of Common Prayer (1549), the bishops did not intend to dispose of Purgatory altogether, but only to correct well-known abuses. This interpretation of the historical event is unpersuasively sanguine. Just as the English government used particular abuses in some monasteries as excuses to do away with the monastic life, root and branch, and to sell off or confiscate the monastic properties, so it used abuses in the administration of Indulgences to do away with Purgatory, root and branch, and to loot and sell off the chantries, free chapels, and other properties by which that doctrine and associated practices were supported. Even the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge barely escaped, by distancing themselves from the terms of their foundation. Both abolitions took place in the earliest phases of the English Reformation. Moreover, the abolition of Purgatory occurred for most of the same combination of reasons as the abolition of monasteries. Reformist mistrust of Rome and her institutions and zealous indignation against real abuses combined with weariness at paying old spiritual debts inherited from the past but above all with greed to confiscate wealth, which pious ancestral donors had given over the preceding centuries to chantries, free chapels, fraternal endowments, guilds, poorhouses, hospitals, dependent colleges, and many other institutions.
The effect of these events may be read in the wills of ordinary people. In the late middle ages, last wills and testaments were as concerned with ensuring proper prayers for the deceased as for ensuring proper disposal of their goods. Indeed, the obligation to pray for the dead was legally attached to accepting or inheriting property. Beginning in the late 1530s, however, wills began to change. "[M]oney for prayers, masses and anniversaries was entrusted to families or executors in preference to public bodies such as gild or parish, presumably due to fear of confiscation." By the mid 1540’s, "testators requested elaborate funerals and commemoration only ‘if it be lawful.’" By 1547, under Edward VI, "all this was absent from the will and the testator’s personal tastes were marked by opaque phrases ‘at the discretion of myne executors’, ‘according to the laudable custome of the realm.’" Presumably, the writers of these wills did not fear political retribution after death. Rather, they did not venture to ask their heirs to pray for their souls explicitly, because they feared confiscation of any goods associated with memorial purposes, even within the family. Thus, in marked contrast to earlier wills, after 1647 children inherited goods and estates from their parents but inherited no explicit, legal obligation to pray for them. Insofar as these heirs were in tune with the times, they felt no moral obligation either. This does not necessarily imply that children loved their parents less than formerly; but as attitudes changed they no longer thought it useful to pray for them.
Not only dispossessed Catholic layfolk of the common sort, but some of the more conscientious reformers such as Latimer (see his "Sermon of the Plow"), Crowley, and Hutchinson agreed that the peculiar path taken in England by the Reformation "turned the English into a nation of looters." In the course of a generation, the gentry who ran the Church and the state simply decided that it would be convenient to cease remembering their dead. Instead they took the money that their ancestors had left and spent it on themselves. Funds used to endow fraternities and other practices of popular piety, which the Crown had once been content to license and tax, now were confiscated altogether. Those sweeping alterations, in which Reformist zeal competed with greed and guilt, must have had on their perpetrators some of the same combination of effects that Satan mentions in his first soliloquy in Paradise Lost. By ceasing to pray for the dead, to borrow Satan’s words, the first generation of English Protestants "in a moment quit / The debt immense of endless gratitude, / So burdensome still paying, still to owe" (4.51-53). Yet like Satan, one of the original arch-individualists, they were left with a question. What does one do when the past has been erased and forgotten, and with it one’s very origins? Satan’s is the defiant modernist response: "We know no time when we were not as now; / Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d" (5.859-60). With this utterance, Satan shares with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus the novel illusion that the creature can create himself, beget himself, and shape himself as he will, illusions from which Prince Hamlet, though less designedly, is not altogether free.
Much has been written concerning who the Ghost in Hamlet is and where he comes from. Most critics, although recognizing that, as Hamlet’s friends warn him (1.5.69-78), he must be cautious not to be lured to destruction by a demon in disguise, have nonetheless concluded by taking the Ghost at his word. He is the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, come from the next world to tell his son the story of a brother’s treacherous murder and to demand vengeance. Where, then, does he come from? Let the Ghost tell his own story:

I am thy father’s spirit
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d 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. . . . (1.5.9-17)

Clearly this Ghost has not come from Heaven. Nor can he have come from Hell, since he has been "doomed" to remain in his "prison-house" only for a "certain term," after which he will be released from confinement. In Shakespeare’s day, as earlier, all major Churches and denominations agreed that damnation was eternal, and that there was no escape from Hell. The only remaining alternative, as most Shakespeare critics agree, is Purgatory. Also consistent with Purgatory is the Ghost’s mention of "foul crimes" or "imperfections" committed while he was still alive (in his "days of nature"), which are in the process of being "burnt and purg’d away." Deeply as the Ghost regrets these sins, since he has not been condemned to Hell, we may safely conclude that they are venial rather than mortal.
No distinctively Catholic bishops or priests appear in Hamlet (as in many of Shakespeare’s other plays), only the nondescript "Doctor [of Divinity]" who supervises Ophelia’s burial rites. Still it is evident that King Hamlet was a Catholic. The religion of Prince Hamlet and of Denmark at the present time is, as we shall see, much more ambiguous and diminished. Unlike France and Italy, where Shakespeare set other contemporary or near-contemporary plays, Denmark in his time was Lutheran. But Shakespeare obscures the time, so we cannot be sure whether the action of Hamlet takes place before or after the Reformation. The Ghost informs us that he, King Hamlet, was Catholic, but his son’s religion remains ambiguous. In Shakespeare’s sources, Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest, the events take place much earlier. Claudius’s reference to English tribute also puts us somewhere before the Conquest. But an early dating is sharply contradicted by the noise of cannons, instruments of modernity. In any case, Shakespeare often engages with contemporary events and controversies even when, as in the Roman plays, his chosen period is distant and distinct.
Further to establish King Hamlet’s religion, the Ghost tells his son that when Claudius murdered him in his sleep he gave him no chance to prepare himself as a Catholic should for death:
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d,
No reck’ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible! O horrible! most horrible! (1.5.77-80)

In other words, the Ghost was deprived of his chance to receive three of the Sacraments that would have prepared him to face death and individual judgment. The Ghost’s "housel" is an old-fashioned word that suggests the Catholic Eucharist. Thomas Becon, an anti-Catholic polemicist, contrasts Anglican celebration of "the Lordes Supper" with, "as the Papistes terme it, . . . their Hushel." "Unanel’d" refers to oil of Extreme Unction (no longer in use among Anglicans) and "disappointed" refers to missed preparations for Confession and Absolution. We may further speculate that Hamlet Senior would have made use of the Sacraments of Penance and Communion at least once yearly at Eastertide prior to his unexpected death, since that was the accepted late-medieval practice. That would help explain his not having been in a state of mortal sin. Although, as we have remarked, the King must have died in a state of grace, with unconfessed venial rather than mortal sins "on his head"–otherwise he would not be in Purgatory–Claudius had no way of knowing that when he killed him, nor did he evidently care. According to the indignant Ghost, this callousness to a brother’s eternal fate in the next world more than anything else–including fratricide, regicide, possible adultery, and incest–renders his deed triply and superlatively "horrible." Through most of the middle ages, marriage to a brother’s wife was technically incestuous, as Hamlet repeatedly complains. In the Renaissance, dispensation was possible and presumably granted to Claudius and Gertrude. The issue was made familiar by Henry VIII’s "great matter." He had a papal dispensation to marry his dead brother’s wife, Katherine of Aragon. After failing to produce a male heir and wishing to marry Anne Boleyn, he claimed that his conscience told him his marriage was incestuous after all, and sought annulment. The king’s ministers solicited favorable opinions from canon lawyers all over Europe.
Before the Reformation, it was common belief among everyone from theologians to peasants that if ghosts appeared to the living they came from Purgatory, not from Heaven or Hell. In his magisterial Birth of Purgatory, Jacques Le Goff puts the general case clearly: "Purgatory would become the prison in which ghosts were normally incarcerated, though they might be allowed to escape now and then to briefly haunt those of the living whose zeal in their behalf was insufficient." That, of course, is precisely what happens in Hamlet. After the English Reformers dispensed with Purgatory, however, it was no longer clear to anyone where ghosts came from. Educated people were inclined to doubt their existence, or to think that they were demons in disguise. There was, nevertheless, a great popular outburst of superstitious ghost lore among the common people beginning at mid-century. Theo Brown amply documents this outbreak and associates it with the sudden abolition of Purgatory. Instead of doing away with ghosts, the abolition caused them to flourish, at the same time that they became theologically inexplicable, vaguer, more sinister, more demonic and menacing. The result is not altogether surprising, since, as Norman Cohn has argued, the weakening of institutional religion by changes, doubts, and internecine conflicts often results in an increase in superstition, as it did about the same time in the better-known case of witchcraft. Thus a reader or a playgoer familiar with Purgatory would recognize at once where King Hamlet’s Ghost comes from; but Horatio, Marcellus, the guards, and Prince Hamlet have all forgotten, or prefer not to acknowledge, that once-common lore belonging to their fathers’ generation. Horatio, a modern skeptic, has heard tales about ghosts, and does in part believe them–indeed he must believe them on the pragmatic evidence of his own eyes. But for him and his friends ghost lore lingers on obscurely as remembered folktales and superstitions rather than present and authoritative knowledge.
The Ghost calls on Hamlet to avenge him against Claudius for his foul murder. But his last command to Hamlet is significantly broader. It is: "Adieu, adieu, adieu. Remember me" (1.5.91). These words touch Hamlet most deeply and linger longest in his memory:

Remember thee?
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter. . . .
Now to my word.
It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me.’
I have sworn’t. (1.5.95-112).

But Hamlet takes his oath to "remember" with reference only to vengeance. He never remarks that to remember the dead in Purgatory means chiefly to pray for them, especially by offering masses for their souls. The last of his words when the Ghost has departed and Hamlet’s friends approach opens a cryptic possibility: "For every man hath business and desire, / Such as it is–and for my own poor part, / I will go pray" (1.5.136-38). But, as Horatio says, these are "wild and whirling words." Their import is far from clear, perhaps even to their speaker. The editor of the Arden Hamlet speculates on "pray": "Perhaps for strength to carry out his task. But perhaps because ‘it behoveth them which are vexed with spirits, to pray especially.’" If we consider Hamlet’s behavior in this scene and after, the least likely reading of his words is that he firmly intends to pray for his father’s soul. He loves his father, but he recognizes no special obligation to pray for him.
Among the first of the Church Fathers to write more than briefly concerning this obligation was St. Augustine. In the Confessions he remembers his mother Monica, whose last request to her son was that he should remember her in his prayers:

All she wanted was that we should remember her at your altar, where she had been your servant day after day, without fail. . . . [I]nspire those of them who read this book to remember Monica, your servant, at your altar and with her Patricius, her husband, who died before her, by whose bodies you brought me into this life, though how it was I do not know. With pious hearts let them remember those who were not only my parents in this light that fails, but were also my brother and sister, subject to you, our Father, in our Catholic mother the Church, and will be my fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem for which your people sigh throughout their pilgrimage, from the time when they set out until the time when they return to you. So it shall be that the last request that my mother made to me shall be granted in the prayers of the many who read my confessions more fully than in mine alone. (Confessions, 9.13.36-37)

Remembering his mother and father with love and affection, yet regarding them as his sister and brother in religion, Augustine incidentally renders them less threatening than if he had "killed" or "forgotten" them. A dead father can be much more burdensome than a living one, as Donald Barthelme suggests in The Dead Father. And we need not limit the case to fathers. A dead mother is likewise more oppressive than a living one, as D. H. Lawrence finds in Sons and Lovers (not to forget that Paul Morel kills his mother with sedatives). So too Stephen Dedalus’s neglected mother troubles his conscience in Ulysses after death as she never did while she lived. The efflorescence of ghost stories at the abolition of Purgatory manifests similar connections.
Although the doctrine of Purgatory unfolded gradually and was not fully formed until the high middle ages, Augustine already distinguished in many of his works between poenae purgatoriae, tormenta purgatoria, ignis purgatorius, or poenae temporariae (purgatorial punishments, purgatorial torments, purgatorial fires, or temporary punishments) and poenae sempiternae (eternal punishments, that is, the fires of Hell). Much earlier than Augustine, however, "at a very early date," possibly in Apostolic times, Christians were already remembering and praying for their dead. Indeed, to pray for the dead was a distinctively Christian custom from the beginning. According to Le Goff: "This was an innovation, as Solomon Reinach nicely observes: ‘Pagans prayed to the dead, Christians prayed for the dead.’" To represent the contrasting Pagan view, we may think of the Sibyl’s stern rebuke of the recently dead Palinurus, when he begs permission to cross over the Styx in Virgil’s Aeneid: "unde haec, o Palinure, tibi tam dira cupido? . . . desine fata deum flecti sperare precando" (Whence, O Palinurus, this dire longing of yours? . . . Cease to dream that prayer can turn aside the decrees of Fate).
As we are reminded by Augustine’s reaction to the death of his mother, it was especially the duty of family members–husbands, wives, sons, daughters, servants, clients–to remember and to pray for their dead. A son might, like Augustine, also ask others, friends and fellow parishioners, to pray for his dead parents, since he assures us that in the light of eternity all Christians, living and dead, are brothers and sisters "in our one Catholic mother the Church," and that one day they will all be "fellow citizens in the eternal Jerusalem." Like receiving the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Penance, to which the Ghost of Hamlet’s father specifically refers, prayers for the dead were, until the Reformation, related to a sense of family and of the community between the living and the dead. The ancient creedal phrase is "the Communion of Saints."
Notably, when Hamlet’s father asks his son to "remember" him, he asks for something more than vengeance, but couches his request in terms less explicit than to ask him to lighten his burdens through prayer. It is perilous to argue from absence, but the ambiguity in the Ghost’s solemn request may be explained, at least in part, by two considerations. First, Shakespeare may have judged that his mostly Protestant audience would take it amiss if the Ghost were to ask Hamlet explicitly for prayers and masses. It is all very well for a dead king from out of the past to express belief in what most of the audience would take to be Catholic superstitions–confession, absolution, "housel"–but it would be another matter altogether, much more likely to offend, if Prince Hamlet were to be implicated in those superstitions, which are now safely relegated to the dead past, for most of the audience and perhaps for Hamlet as well. Conversely, if Hamlet were to deny an explicit request by the Ghost to pray for him, that would strike a false note too. Second, throughout the play it appears that Hamlet and his friends, as members of the younger generation, simply are not prepared to hear such a request. The Ghost can only ask what Hamlet is ready, psychologically and culturally, perhaps also politically, to hear and respond to. As we have seen, after 1547 English fathers who wished their sons to inherit safely put aside old ritual formulas and prudently evoked no more than the "discretion" of the executors or "the laudable custome of the realm." If the heirs were prepared to understand these hints, so much the better; if not, no harm was done. In the nature of the case, these explanations are speculative. What we can say with greater certainty is that even though the Ghost plainly comes from Purgatory, and says so in terms as explicit as may be, short of an open declaration, neither Hamlet nor any of the younger Danes ever openly reveals that he has heard of such a place as Purgatory. As was the case in England, so in Hamlet’s Denmark. Purgatory is not just abolished but effectively forgotten, as if it never were.
Nowhere in the play does anyone mention Purgatory or pray for the dead. Indeed, although the word "pray" occurs often, it appears mainly as a fossilized part of polite clichés: "I pray you now receive them" (3.1.95), for example. But if there is no mention of Purgatory, in several places there are significant absences, where the word would seem to be appropriate. In one of the play’s most memorable sayings, for example, Hamlet declares: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamed of in your philosophy" (1.5.74-75). Heaven can be taken as synecdochic for everything otherworldly, as in one part of the creedal phrase "visible and invisible." Still the words fall aslant when speaking about a Ghost who brings news from Purgatory. It is still odder when Hamlet says that he is "Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell" (2.2.580), as if he is repressing the real source of his prompting. Similarly, when he refrains from killing Claudius at his prayer (which is not a prayer), he seems not to remember why his father three times condemned his uncle’s deed as "horrible," since he vows to imitate that deed and, worse, deliberately do to his uncle what his outraged father accuses his brother of nearly doing to him by accident, namely, to "trip him that his heels may kick at heaven / And that his soul may be as damn’d and black / As hell, whereto it goes" (3.3.93-95). Hamlet takes no thought of Purgatory; he conceives of two states or places, with nothing in between. Nor does he consider the third place when he answers Claudius’s question, "Where is Polonius?" Hamlet mockingly replies: "In heaven, send thither to see. If your messenger find him not there, seek him i’th’other place yourself" (4.3.32-35). There is no doubt where that "other place" is, or that he thinks Claudius properly belongs there. The best evidence of omission, however, may be Hamlet’s outcry immediately after the ghost vanishes: "O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else? / And shall I couple Hell? O fie! Hold, hold my heart" (1.5.92-93; italics added). As Dover Wilson acutely remarks in What Happens in Hamlet?: "Heaven, earth–and what? Purgatory? He knows nothing of Purgatory." Wilson also calls attention to Hamlet’s curious oath, "by Saint Patrick" (1.5.142). St. Patrick, not known as a patron of English or Danes, was traditionally associated with Purgatory. According to a thirteenth-century account by an English Cistercian who visited Ireland, "St. Patrick’s Purgatory" on Station Island was an opening to that realm. Le Goff reports that the ancient account was reprinted in 1624, but a printed source need not be hypothesized since the place and tale were still notorious. If his oath indicates that Hamlet’s thoughts stray momentarily into territories forbidden by Elizabethan official culture, he does not follow them up.
In the same way, the closest anyone in the play comes to suggesting that it would be good to pray for the dead is negatively, when the Doctor of Divinity declares that there must be no official prayers or rites for Ophelia. "We should profane the service of the dead / To sing sage requiem and such rest to her / As to peace-parted souls" (5.1.229-30). This can be read as a Catholic’s statement that no Requiem Mass may be offered for the soul of a presumed suicide, but a Protestant clergyman would say much the same thing about the service for "The Burial of the Dead." Scholarly opinion has leaned toward identifying the Doctor of Divinity as a Protestant cleric. Another explanation is that King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet belong to different generations and possibly different religions. "Requiem" is not an exclusively Catholic term, as witnessed by Spenser’s complaint in "The Ruines of Time" that no one offers a "Requiem" for the ultra-Protestant Earl of Leicester. Shakespeare neglects an opportunity to make a Catholic priest look villainous to a Protestant audience sympathetic to Ophelia. Instead, he leaves the present state of religion in Denmark ambiguous, as he does everywhere else.
Laertes naturally takes violent exception to the Doctor’s ban. So does Hamlet, as soon as he hears the name "Ophelia" and understands who is being buried. Both leap into her grave together, wrestle and choke each other as they trample on the corpse. Although Shakespeare is reticent, we may guess from the bones thrown up earlier by the grave diggers that Ophelia is buried in a winding-sheet, not a coffin, and that in due course her bones will likewise go to the charnel-house. The rival mourners seek to outboast each other what they would do for their beloved Ophelia. It never occurs to either of them for an instant to do the one thing needful: pray for her soul. Hamlet shouts at Laertes, whose hand is at his throat, words of extreme irony: "Thou pray’st not well." Indeed, neither of them prays at all, unless we count Laertes’ curse, "The devil take thy soul!" or Hamlet’s rejoinder, "I prithee take thy fingers from my throat" (5.1.251-53; italics added). It is hard to think that this cluster of mock prayers appears here accidentally; this is as close as they get to praying. Whatever Laertes offers to do for Ophelia, Hamlet boasts he can do better: "Woo’t weep, woo’t fight, woo’t fast, woo’t tear thyself? / Woo’t drink up eisel, eat a crocodile?" (5.1.270-71). As the list grows more fantastic, an impatient reader might wonder, what about praying for her? The Doctor of Divinity has provoked their struggle in the first place by forbidding their prayers for the wretched Ophelia. His grim stricture is scarcely needed, however, since praying for her soul is the last thing to occur to anyone attending the funeral.
"Remember me," the Ghost pleads. Toward the beginning of the play, Hamlet is the only person at the Court of Denmark who remembers his dead father. His "inky cloak" and "customary suits of solemn black" (1.2.77-78) cause him to stand out dramatically against the colorful costumes worn by everyone else on stage. They have put off black according to the times, to celebrate the royal wedding. If it seems odd that everyone in Denmark has forgotten or cannot speak about Purgatory in just the six months which have passed since the old king’s death, it is surely no odder than that they have forgotten the king, too. At this juncture, at sight of Hamlet’s visual stubbornness, King Claudius gives him good Reformist advice, such as was often heard in sermons preached in England in the latter part of the sixteenth century:

But to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness, ’tis unmanly grief,
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient . . .
Fie, ’tis a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers. . . . (1.2.92-104)

Claudius’s words sound heartless and self-serving to us, but they may have sounded all the more ironic to Shakespeare’s auditors because they parody the rigorist language of sixteenth-century sermons. For example, at the funeral of Martin Bucer in 1551, Matthew Parker, future Archbishop of Canterbury, forbids all mourning: "Moreover, it agreeth not with the rules of faith, for a christian man to bewayle the dead. For, who can deny that to be against faith, which is flatly forbidden by the scriptures? And how can that be sayed to agree with the rule of fayth, whiche the scriptures most evidentlye proove to be done by those that have no hope?" When Claudius scolds Hamlet for displaying excessive and therefore impious grief, implying that further persistence would be a mark of reprobation, he says no more than Parker does. Only "those that have no hope" are guilty of such conduct. At bottom, of course, it is the absence of Purgatory that renders grief and prayers inadmissable. As Augustine recognized, although one may pray for the most wicked sinner while still in life, there is no point in praying for those already in heaven or hell. "And likewise there is the same reason for praying at this time for human beings who are infidel and irreligious, and yet refusing to pray for them when they are departed. For the prayer of the Church itself, or even the prayer of devout individuals, is heard and answered on behalf of some of the departed, but only on behalf of those who have been reborn in Christ and whose life in the body has not been so evil that they are judged unworthy of such mercy, and yet not so good that they are seen to have no need of it" (City of God, 21.24). By this logic, once Purgatory is excluded, commemoration has no purpose.
Yet if Hamlet loves and remembers his father while everyone else forgets him in their eagerness to get on with their lives and to pursue the devouring business of preferment, Hamlet does not really remember why or how he should remember his father. He cannot swallow Claudius’s advice not to mourn the dead, except by concealing his discontent and outwardly deferring to him. Yet, like most English of the late sixteenth century, he has forgotten the old way to pray for the dead, that is, how to "remember" them: memorare and commemorare. The ancient liturgical formula, from the canon of the Mass, is: Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque tuaram [nn.] qui nos praecesserunt cum signo fidei, et dormiunt in somno pacis (Remember, O Lord, thy servants [names] who have gone before us with the sign of faith and sleep in the sleep of peace). In his Comparison of the Lord’s Supper and Mass, Thomas Becon mocks the practice: "for Philip and Cheny, more than a good meany, for the souls of your great grand Sir and of your old beldam Hurre, for the souls of father Princhard and of mother Puddingwright, for the souls of goodman Rinsepitcher and goodwife Pintpot, for the souls of Sir John Husslegoose and Sir Simon Sweetlips, for the souls of your benefactors, founders, patrons, friends and well-willers, which have given you either dirge-groats, confessional-pence, trentals, year-services, dinner or supper, or anything else that may maintain you." Becon gives Sir John Husslegoose much the same contemptuous godspeed that Prince Hal gives old Sir John Falstaff.
When Hamlet’s mother as well as his uncle accuses him of unusual excess in his grief, and therefore of dangerous impiety, he cannot grapple with the theological questions implied. Instead, he is driven inward, into the most famous of all early-modern gestures of radical individualist subjectivity: "But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe" (1.2.85-86). His assertion would not really be to the point, if Hamlet did not so forcefully make it so, turning the discussion momentarily away from Protestant suspicion of excessive mourning to the question of where true authenticity lies. What his plangent words reveal is that his deepest concern is not only for his lost father but for himself and for his innermost identity. So it is not surprising that, as the play progresses, the only way that he–and in response Laertes–can conceive of to "remember" his father is by resorting to vengeance instead of intercessory prayers. Although he cannot respond to his father’s implicit plea to pray for him, he can respond to his call for vengeance and kill for him. As the play ends, Hamlet and Laertes repent and generously forgive each other. That is as close as they come to formal confession and absolution. Nor does Hamlet die asking his friends to pray for his soul, as he follows his father into the next world–perhaps into Purgatory. Rather, his penultimate words reveal his dutiful anxiety to settle the royal succession. His last words preserve, and take to a higher level, Shakespeare’s refusal to define Hamlet’s religion and Hamlet’s earlier uncertainty about what lies beyond death: "the rest is silence" (5.2.363).
In spite of Hamlet’s notable last omissions, the skeptical Horatio, left to do the private honors as Fortinbras enters to make the public arrangements, is prompted to spontaneous words of prayer: "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest" (5.2.341-42). Horatio’s prayer is all the more moving in that it is so clearly spontaneous and heartfelt. As is everywhere the case with the younger generation of Prince Hamlet’s friends, it is also theologically naive. Indeed, it could be nothing else, if we imagine the alternatives. If Horatio had said, "And may the Lord have mercy on your soul," he would have stepped out of character. His oxymoronic combination of "flights of angels"–a flight of fancy which rises to the occasion–with the religiously neutral yet deeply satisfying "rest" (satisfying to Catholics, Protestants, and doubters alike) is precisely right. If he had been still more specific, and said, "And may your stay in Purgat’ry be short," he would probably have provoked a riot, both in Elsinore and at the Globe, followed by an official inquiry.
As becomes more and more apparent, Hamlet and Horatio live in, but are not the makers of, their particular "time" and culture. Circumstances force them to recognize that their "time is out of joint," but they are incapable of knowing how to "set it right." Audiences have always responded strongly to the moment of Horatio’s prayer. Well they might, since it is the first and last time in the play that anyone finally breaks through into even a short, nondenominational prayer, unless it be Hamlet’s notable displaced prayer to Ophelia: "Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remember’d" (3.1.89-90). Claudius, in his notorious closet scene, suffers from a blocked psyche and consequent inability to pray. But all of Denmark–perhaps by implication all of England–suffers from a similar affliction. At least it seems similar, but it is not the same. Because he belongs to the older generation of King Hamlet, Claudius understands that if only he were to consent to give up his ill-gotten gains–his queen and his kingdom–he could repent, confess his sins, and receive absolution. Restitution is the necessary prior condition, and he will not make restitution. In contrast, Hamlet and Horatio, although their spiritual state is not depraved like Claudius’s, have forgotten what even the self-damned Claudius knows but cannot put to use. Perhaps Shakespeare alludes to this strange forgetting in Hamlet’s extreme decision to wipe the slate of his mind clean of everything but vengeance: "all trivial fond records, / All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past / That youth and observation copied there" (1.5.99-101). Unlike Hamlet, Claudius belongs to the older generation, which threw the times out of joint by committing an unnameable deed, involving more than a single act of murder and usurpation. Prince Hamlet belongs to the next generation. He and his friends have forgotten (or dare not name) what went wrong, because their predecessors have taken that knowledge and thrown it down Orwell’s "memory hole."
Hamlet does not kill his father, he avenges him. He does not forget his father, he remembers him–insofar as he is capable. But there are different sorts of memory. The abolished rite was: Memento, Domine, famulorum famularumque tuaram. Unwittingly Hamlet implicates himself, as all the younger generation are unwittingly implicated, in the hidden crime committed by the fathers. That crime, paradoxically, was to kill the fathers: "Sir John Husslegoose and Sir Simon Sweetlips . . . your benefactors, founders, patrons, friends and well-willers, which have given you either dirge-groats, confessional-pence, trentals, year-services, dinner or supper, or anything else that may maintain you," as Becon mocks them. Presumably, the persons responsible were Claudius and his chief ministers–including Polonius. If so, it is ironic that his daughter Ophelia is denied "sage requiem," a peaceful departure, and prayers for her soul.
Probably some of Shakespeare’s audience would have noticed that Claudius has it in common with Henry VIII that he married his dead brother’s wife–as we have remarked, it was a very famous case–although he exceeds Henry by murdering his brother first. Moreover, an overwhelming burden of restitution lies on both kings’ consciences. It would not be unprecedented to find covert political reference in these resemblances, but one cannot press the point too far. Whatever he thought, Shakespeare could not afford to risk drawing an explicit connection. A Catholic in his audience might have imagined that Claudius combines elements of several kings. Henry VII usurped the throne, Henry VIII had marriage troubles and, by confiscating the monasteries and passing the Chantries Act of 1545, showed the way for the stewards of Edward VI to abolish Purgatory altogether, in the Chantries Act of 1547 and the Prayerbook of 1549. The abolition of Purgatory was only one change among many, but it was perhaps the most sweeping and uncompromising of all those changes. It was deeply traumatic at the time, and its effects have lingered long after the event itself has been forgotten. As Virginia Bainbridge sums up these large cultural transformations: "The tearing apart of death and charity, the reciprocity between the living and the dead, and the poor, their substitutes, struck a blow at the very core of medieval concepts of community." The focus turned from community and solidarity, with the dead and the poor, toward self-concern and individual self-sufficiency. If, as Hamlet fears, "the time is out of joint," and according to his lineage he is "born to set it right," unfortunately he cannot know how to do so, because he cannot or will not remember what went wrong in the first place. Instead, his ironic legacy is to add to the original, unspoken crime the powerful seal of his own fall into the depths of interior subjectivity, thus completing, by driving further inward, that earlier self-regarding assertion of progressive, autonomous individualism by his predecessors, who in a moment struck out ruthlessly against the communal past and against the generous benefactions and the crying needs of the dead.


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